Understanding Sanatana Dharma as Foundation for Hindu Religion
(Compilation for a discourse by N.R.Srinivasan, Nashville, TN. USA, September 2016)
Vedic society called their religion Maanava Dharma or the Religion of Man, meaning that it was not exclusive religion of the people who called themselves Aryans or well mannered, but was meant for the whole mankind guided by their philosophy “krinvanto viswamaaryam”—let us ennoble the whole world. Another name given to that was Sanatana Dharma—The Eternal Religion, illustrating their belief that the religion was based on certain eternal truths, true for all times and all people living on earth.
harma is the support of all Universe. All people approach a person devoted to Dharma. Through Dharma a person gets rid of his sin. Everything is established in Dharma. Therefore the pundits say Dharma is the Supreme means of attaining salvation. (Mahanarayana Upanishad)
Dharmo viswasya jagatah pratishthaa loke dharmishtham prajaa upasarpanti dharmena paapamapanudati dharme sarvam pratishthitam tasmaad dharmam paramam vadanti ||
Does this not sound very much like what we describe Brahman or Supreme Principle?
What we value in life to achieve all round peace and happiness is called Dharma. It extends to animal and plant a life too--flora and fauna. The Sanskrit word Dharma means that which it holds everyone and everything together—that which it integrates the personality and unifies society. Hindu scriptures define Dharma as that which leads you to material prosperity by Pravritti Marga here in this world and spiritual realization by Nivritti Marga in this very life about which we have discussed in detail. Dharma is that which gives us both material prosperity and spiritual unfoldment.
Manu Dharama Sastra mentions that there are ten values in life that characterize dharma and this should be followed by all people at all times. These are: Dhriti (fortitude or forbearance), Kshama (forgiveness or ability to endure cheerfully), Dama (control over our organs of action). Aasteya (non-stealing), Saucha (purity), Indriya Nigraha (mastery over the organs of perception), Dhi (Use of faculty of proper discrimination), Vidya (knowledge), Satya (truth- fulness), and Aakrodha (absence of anger). Who in the world do not need these at any time or place? These values are necessary for all people at all times. It is for this reason that these are called Sanatana, eternal and universal. Vedic Society not only practiced these things in every-day life and promoted it also to the entire world. This is what Vivekananda projected as Vedanta, the Religion of the Future to the entire World.
Sanatana Dharma is by its very essence a term that is devoid of sectarian leanings or ideological divisions or a following after any individual. This is evident by the very term itself unlike other religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Muhammadanism etc., named after a Guru or divine personality. Later Muhammadanism changed its name to Islam meaning submission to Allah probably learning from Sanatana dharma submission to the will of the Supreme Being. The wrongly named Hinduism which continues even today is based on River Philosophy which is Sindhu Tattva. All rivers lead to one source the ocean. All religions lead us to Eternal Dharma. That Tattva is Sanatana Dharma the two words found in Rigveda. The two words, Sanatana and Dharma, are from the ancient Sanskrit language. "Sanatana" is a Sanskrit word that denotes that which is Anaadi (beginning-less), Ananta (endless) that does not cease to be, that which is eternal and everlasting. Dharma constitutes the laws governing the individual (Jeeva), the World (Jagat) and the Creator (Easwara) their inter-relationship and the laws etc., by which people can lead a successful worldly life. With its rich connotations, Dharma is not translatable to any other language. (Please go through my discourse “What is Dharma?”) Dharma is from dhri, meaning to hold together, to sustain. Its approximate meaning is "Natural Law," or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe to live and let live in peace and harmony. Thus the term Sanatana Dharma can be roughly translated to mean "the natural, ancient and eternal way." Sanatana Dharma also refers to Brahman (Supreme Principle) that is Anaadi or whose origin is not known. English language coined the word GOD from three English letters G for Generation, O for Operation and D for Dissolution meaning one who is responsible for all these three functions of Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution. Christianity also speaks of Holy Son, Holy Father and Holy Spirit. Holy Son here is equivalent to Devata, Holy Father to Deva or Saguna Brahman and Holy Spirit is Nirguna Brahman that is Supreme Principle. Tamils call Ganesha Pillai-yaar, meaning who is this son? That Son is none other than Brahman says his Ashtottara—Sacchidaanadaaya Namah. Thus all religions and traditions promote the worship of their favorite deities to be focused on Supreme Principle. But in practical worship and celebration of religious festivals this fact is often forgotten.
Mahanarayana Upanishad (MNU) mentions three kinds of Gayatri Mantra that could be employed in breath control according to one’s physical capability. The easiest one for breath control is:
Om tad Brahma | Om tad Vaayuh | Om tad Aatmaa | Om Tat Satyam |Om tat Sarvam | Om tat purornamah ||
Om--that is Brahman. Om--that is Vaayu. Om--that is Self. Om--that is everything. Om --that is primeval cause that existed before creation. So obeisance unto that Pranava.
This Mantra implies that truth that exists in each creation is none other than Om or Parabrahman (Supreme Principle). In earlier mantra it also says the universe was created as before “yathaapoorvam akalpayat”—The Universe was created as before. But when that before is not mentioned. It implies that all that are said in the mantra are Eternal and not limited by time like Brahman, hence Truth is Eternal.
The mantra says Brahman is Satyam and both are primeval cause before creation meaning eternal which was beginning-less. Hence Satya is Eternal. And this Satya is Dharma says another mantra. It therefore confirms Dharma is Eternal or Sanatana identified with Brahman. Dharma is not bound by time or person.
Now let us examine what this Truth is. Here is another Mantra from BAU which says Truth is Dharma:
Yo vai sa dharmah satyam vai tattasmaat-satyam vadantamaahuh dharmam vadateeti dharmam vaa vadantam satyam vadateetyetad-dhyevai-tadubhayam bhavati—
That which is Dharma is verily Satya. Therefore they say about a person speaking truth, “he speaks what is Dharma” or about a person speaking Dharma, “He speaks what is Truth”, for this alone is Truth. (BAU)
We should all be familiar with the customary oath in a court of justice—Truth, Nothing but Truth and the Whole Truth. Manusmriti (4-138) says: "Satyam bruyaat priyam bruyaanna bruyaat satyamapriyam. Priyam cha nanritam bruyadesa dharmah sanatanah." (Translation: "Speak the Truth, speak the truth that is pleasant. Do not speak the truth to manipulate. Do not speak falsely to please or flatter someone. This is the quality of the Eternal Dharma"). Thus there are different kinds of Truths. But Eternal Truth is Eternal Dharma which is synonym with Brahman which is same as knowledge contained in Vedas: “Vedokilam dharmamoolam”, that Vedas are principle source of Dharma. MNU asks us also to meditate on the orb of the sun as three Vedas and as Brahman. Bhagavad Gita which says “Sarvadhamaan Parityajya Mamekam saranam vraja” leaving all other Dharmas surrender to Eternal Dharma that is Brahman is to be properly understood in this context. Krishna was a close associate of Arjuna in several births and having spent time together. Also Krishna says in the end that he has narrated to him and explained to him all that has to be said to convince him to fight this War of Dharma and the choice is left to his discretion. In this context his parting advice was to Arjuna only. Therefore what Bhagavad Gita wants to convey by ‘’sarvadharman” is all kinds of dharma which Arjuna thought as Supreme Principle and not Eternal Dharma. Maamekam here refers to Eternal Brahman which is also Eternal Dharma as explained in Gayatri Mantra above.
BAU says that the Supreme Principle was indeed Brahman. It having created gods (devatas or controllers of Supreme principle 33 in number) --Brahamana (Agni), Kshatriyas (Indra, Varuna, Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, Yama, Mrityu and Isaana); Vaisyas (Vasus, Rudras, Adityas, Visvedevas and Maruts); and Sudra (Pushan), then created also Dharma (as devata like others):
Sah tachchre yo-roopamatyasrijata Dharmam | tadetat-kshatrasya kshatram yaddharmas-tasmaad-dharamaatparam naastyatho abaleeyaan-baleeyaamsam-aasamsate Dharmena, yathaa raajnaivam | Yo vai sa Dharmah Satyam vai tattasmaat-satyam vadantamaahuh dharmam vadateeti Dharmam vaa vadantam Satyam vadateet-yetad-dhyevai-tadhubhayam bhavati || (BAU)
He created that excellent form, Dharma or righteousness (as devata along with other devatas, his 33 controllers). This Dharma is the controller of the Kshatriya. Therefore there is nothing higher than Dharma (meaning Brahman alone). So a man who is weak hopes to defeat a strong man through Dharma as through the support of a king (Indra). That which is Dharma is verily Satya or Truth. Therefore, they say about a person speaking truth, ‘He speaks what is Dharma’, or about a person speaking Dharma, ‘He speaks what is Truth’—for this alone is both.
It may worth recalling here the supplementary prayer to Gayatri Devi found in the longer version of MNU which has not been noticed even by commentators like Bhattabhaskra, Sayana and Rangaramanuja. Rangaramnuja has commented on the shorter version of MNU in which this supplementary Mantra is not found. The mantra refers to Gayatri Devi as “Sarvavarne Mahaadevi Sandhyavidye Sarasvati”. Here “Sarvavarne Mahaadevi” could as well mean Devi who is venerated by all the four Varnas of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisaya and Sudra (who are all bound by Dharma). Each one has his own Dharma called Svadharma. This could make more sense as the Sandhyavandana mantra is applicable to all and not exclusively to those who have undergone Upanayana which is a Samskara later described by scriptures to men born as Brahmins by birth, which was also extended to Kshatriyas and Vaisyas in Puranic days but not to Sudras. Krishna, Rama, Ganesha etc., deities can be seen with holy threads in all temple traditions. In order not to offend Matadhipatis and later scriptures ignoring Manu (janmanaa jayate Sudrah), sarvavarne has been translated as “who is the source of all letters” taking advantage of Akshara to mean Varna. The whole Mantra is translated as: “O Gayatri! Thou who art the source of all letters, O thou great Deity, O thou the object of meditation at twilight, O thou Sarasvati, may thy devotee be liberated from the sin which the devotee commits during the day by the same day and the sin which devotee commits during night by the same night.
Yadahnaakurute paapam tadahnaat pratimuchyate |
Yadraatryaakurute Paapam tadraatryaat pratimuchyate |
Sarvavarne Mahaadevi Sanadhyaavidye Sarasvati ||
Who does not need this expiation Mantra? Why she should be deity to only those who have undergone Upanayana as privileged class? It is for you to judge which of the two meanings of Varna is appropriate to the Mantra! You can also see how Universal Veda Mantras are interpreted often with sectarian outlook by professional Purohits and priests as well as sectarian Mataadhipatis (monks).
Let us look into the sloka “Dharma eva hato hanti / Dharmo rakshati rakshitah” (One who destroys Dharma is destroyed by Dharma/ One who protects Dharma is protected by Dharma) by Manu.
If we try to translate “Dharma protects those who protect Dharma” in Sanskrit then it will be more like “Rakshitam Dharma Rakshati”. Let us break down each word and find out the meaning; the full sloka reads as follows—
Dharma~Eva Hato Hanti, Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah | Tasmat~Dharmo Na Hantavyo, Maa No Dharmo Hato~Vadhit! ||
Dharma=Dharma; eva=used to emphasize (dharmeva=dharma alone or dharma indeed); hato=being killed or destroyed; hanti=kills or destroys; daharmo=from dharma; rakshati=to protect; rakshitaah=the protected one; tasmai=hence or therefore; dharmo=from dharma; na=not; hantyo=to kill or destroy; maa=do not; no=nor; dharmo=from dharma; hato=being killed or destroyed; Vadhit=killed
If we combine all these full meaning of the Sloka will be: Dharma eva hato hanti/ Dharmo rakshati rakshitah--Dharma destroyed, destroys; Dharma protects, the protected.
Dharma does not destroy, nor Dharma can be destroyed. Here Manu is trying to state a fact people experience rather than giving a moral advice. Let us compare this with the natural Law of Gravitational force. If Gravitational Force is destroyed, everything on earth will fall apart; Gravitational Force keeps everything protected on earth. Neither Gravitational Force can be destroyed, nor does Gravitational Force destroy. Manu is just stating the fact that Dharma is an essence of everything. It is neither a philosophy, nor moral obligation, or religious doctrine, or some kind of commandments, or any faith or belief. Dharma is therefore eternal like the natural law of gravitation. It existed; it exists; and it will continue to exist
The mantra in MNU above says Eternal Truth is Eternal Dharma and both are same as Eternal Brahman—Sat Chit-Ananda. Aatman is a part of Paramaatman (Eternal Brahman) and so also Dharma is a part of Eternal Dharma. That is why Gita speaks of “sarvadharmaan parityajya” -many Dharmas like many Aaatmans (all being parts of Brahman or Paramaatman—Mamaivaamso Jeevabhoothah sanatanah).
Why did Supreme principle create Dharma as devata along with four Varnas? It is obvious that Supreme Principle desired all Varnas (its controllers with different characteristics of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra) must submit themselves to Dharma and operate with their Sva-dharmas. It is then logical to conclude there are four kinds of Varna Dharmas –Brahmana, Ksahatriya, Vaisya and Sudra, its divine controllers with specific duties. Purushasookta also talks of several dharmas including yajna dharmas—taani dharmaani prathamaanyaasan, meaning Yajna dharmas became the noblest things in the world. Dharma is addressed in plural as dharmaani here. It implies though dharma was created as single deity it pervaded all things in the world and had its impact that needed consideration (a parallel to 3300 and more deities as devatas). If Eternal Dharma stands for Eternal Truth and Eternal Being how could Krishna say “sarvadharmaan parityjaya”? Evidently, Lord makes a distinction between all Dharmas as Devatas and Sanatana Dharma as Deva similar to the relationship between Aatman and Paramaatman. Gita also says those who worship devatas and upa-devatas go to them and only those who worship Supreme principle go to it. Krishna advised Arjuna to leave these dharmas and to surrender to Eternal Dharma, which is the Supreme Principle. Vedic culture later adapted these various dharmas to human society as Manava Dharma and brought out codes of conduct to society each one to follow his Dharma with the objective to maintain harmony and peace. Later this got abused by making it a birthright and also multiplying the Varnas manifold to be designated as Castes or Jatis not necessarily focused on Dharma.
Trayo dharmaskandha yajno ‘dhyaanam daanamiti Prathamah | tapa eva dwiteeyah \ Brahmchaaryaachaarya kulavasee triteeyo antyanatmaatmmanamaachaarya kule a vasaadayan || Sarva ete punyalokaa bhavantri; brahmasamstho amritatvamerti ||
Chandogya Upanishad says: “There are three aspects of Dharma. Sacrifice (Yajna), study of the Vedas and giving charity form the first aspect. Austerity (tapa) is the second. Wearing out one’s life in household of the Guru practicing continence is the third. All these lead to the attainment of virtuous worlds. One who is steadfast in Brahman attains immortality”.
Upanishads often speak of various aspects of Dharma as singular entity, sum-total of all aspects of Dharma. It is also propitiated as Dhrma devata indicated by the Homa Mantras “Dharmaaya Swaahaa” as well as “Adharmaaya Swaahaa”.
The four Varnnaasrma Dharmas (stages of life) prevalent in Vedic culture which are practiced by orthodoxy even today in Hinduism are summarized by three in the mantra above. Amongst all these Asramas, one who is steadfast in Brahman and who realizes Brahman attains Liberation or Moksha. Those who merely follow the discipline of the Asrama, but do not realize Brahman, attains virtuous worlds. It is not said here that Brahman’s Assembly (Brahma Samstha) exclusively relates to the fourth Aasrama of Sanyaasa. Anyone in any Aasrama can gain knowledge of Brahman and become liberated.
[It is clear here that all Liberated Aatmans reach the assembly (Samstha) of Paramaatman clearly indicating Parmaatman is distinct from Aatmans as visualized in Dvaita and Vishishataadvaita; otherwise why would it speak of Brahmasamstha or Brahmaloka? MNU only says “naakasya prishthamaaruhya gachchedbrahmasalokataam”__ascend to the happy heaven and enjoy equality status with Brahman and not “Aham brahmasmi”—I am Brahman.]
Bhagavad Gita when it speaks of “sarvadharmaan parityajya Maamekam saranam vraja”, speaks only the various aspects of dharma referred often in Upanishads by the word “Sarvadharmaan” and “Mamekam” referring to Brahman the Absolute Truth (Tad Brahma Tat Satyam Tat Sarvam tat Dharmam).
This last intriguing sloka in Gita can also be explained in a different way considering Dharma in all its aspects. If you think about Rama Avatar and Krishna Avatar, Krishna submitted himself to the Law of Karma unlike Rama being killed by an arrow of a hunter. By “Sarvadharmaan parityajya” Lord Krishna conveys to Arjuna the incapability of Jivaatman (Arjuna) to satisfy Dharma with all aspects (Dharma of Jivaatma for attaining Liberation). What should then Jivaatman do in its helpless situation? Here comes Paramaatman to the rescue of Jeevaatman when it surrenders to it. Paramatman is the last hope when one cannot fulfill all aspects of Dharma. One has to exhaust all Karmas for attaining Moksha that includes even Punya (Gunaateeta state mentioned earlier in Gita). Moksha consists of two words Moha+Kshaya, complete elimination of all Mayas. This means even Punya is Maya. Like dharma Maya is also difficult to translate though translated as illusion. That is what is conveyed by “sarva-paapebhyo”. That is the absolute Dharma; that is the totality of Dharma to merge with Eternal Dharma. In such a situation Paramaatman is the only refuge for Jivaatman. With traces of Karmaphala left as Punya Jivaatman can still hope to attain Liberation when it surrenders to Paramaatman. Thus you can see how dharma is complicated to define which considers even Punya as Karma. Parasurama avatar is an example. In Mokshayikshami Moksha means Moha+Kshaya. Lord guarantees only complete eradication of Moha and not exactly Liberation for which individual alone is responsible. This is better explained by Madhva philosophy of Saalokya, Saameepya and Saayujya being different kinds of Liberation attained by Jivaatman.
From the above it is logical to conclude Hindus following Hinduism, as foreign rulers designated it, are but Sanatanists who follow Sanatana Dharma or who are worshippers of Brahman that is addressed as Tadekam (That One) in Vedas. Both the terms Hindu and Hinduism with their historic background are wrong and misleading subjected to constant criticism. It is wrong to conclude that Hindus are worshippers of many deities and idol worshippers. It is not a religion promoted by any individual like Christianity, Buddhism, Muhammedanism etc., but a theology that follows Supreme Principle. All lights shine because of this Light—Yasya bhaasaa sarvam idam vibhaati.
"I call myself a Sanatani Hindu, because I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and all that goes by the name of Hindu scripture, and therefore in Avatars and rebirth; I believe in the in a sense, in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its presently Murti Puja (Murti Puja means Idol Worship) –Young India, June 10, 1921” wrote Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 popularizing the term Sanatana Dharma for Hinduism.
“Truth (Satya) is the Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Tradition. India’s Motto is also adapted from this—Satyameva Jayate. Sanatana Dharma tells us that Dharma or Truth is eternal and universal, the very perennial essence at work in all beings. It aims at providing us with practices that enable to discover us Truth for ourselves, rather than merely telling us what Truth is supposed to be. It tells us Truth is beyond limitation, cannot be possessed by anyone, and is ultimately a matter of direct experience for each individual, which must be unique. Sanatana Dharma is a way of knowledge without limits, yet it does possess unchanging principles. It recognizes the great Laws of Nature and Consciousness, like the Law of Karma—the idea that as we sow so shall we reap, not only in the present but in future lives. It respects the cosmic intelligence working through Nature and seeks to harmonize human life with the universal energy. For this it encourages us to honor and worship the Divine Principles (devatas or Gods) working through the forces of Nature, including respecting Mother Earth, which includes making regular offerings and prayers to these deities” says David Frawley, a Vedic scholar.
Dr. Kartikeyan, a well-read scholar of Hindu Scriptures, has also explained at length about the understanding Sanatana Dharma which has many points in common with my discourse. Please go through the same as presented in the Appendix and sent through courtesy IndiaDivine.org for wider publicity. Please also go through my earlier discourse “Sanatana Dharma is for humanity, not for Hindus alone”.
All this Universe is God. The Self in all beings is God—Mandukya Upanishad.
Hatred never ends by hatred but only by love, that is the Eternal Law (Sanatana Dharma)—Buddha.
Aano bhadrah kratavo Yantu Viswatah --Let the knowledge come to us from every direction (that is how Sanatana Dharma was built up by our ancient sages); they went further; Krinvato viswam aaryam –-Let us ennoble the whole world. That is how they went about spreading the message.
Among the many names of this Eternal Dharma by which it was known over a period of unknown millennia, Sanatana Dharma and Hindu Dharma are presently in use to present the universal wisdom to humanity. Its tenets transcend all sectarian and geographical limits for achieving peace and prosperity. It encompasses the righteous of conduct for the co-existence of humans, not only amongst themselves, but also with other species of the earth.
Kimnu may syaadidam kritvaa kimnu may syaadakurvatah |
Iti karmaani sanchintya kuryaadvaa purushoe na vaa ||
A person should act, or desist from action, only after he has bestowed sufficient thought on what would happen to him if he acted, and what if he did not!
Hindus drawn from various sectarian traditions all over the world must strive to build up Hindu unity on a global level not only to protect Hindu Society from the onslaughts from alien religions, preserve the eternal culture and Vedic heritage and prevent its own members moving away from it mesmerized by Maaya (illusion) of newly acquired relationships through marriage and social contacts, but also to fulfill the mission of the ancient Rishis to enlighten the entire mankind on the universal and eternal values of life called Dharma. This calls for setting our own house in order and understand true meaning and value of Sanatana Dharma.
We often find in Migrant countries like USA one temple for all traditions that has forced the founding fathers to come up with number of minor sanctums besides major sanctum within the complex confusing the minds of the Hindu devotees drawn from many countries with several rituals going on simultaneously to please individual traditions moving away from the concept of focusing on Supreme principle through one main deity. For this we need to focus on deities Jagaanaatha, Venkateswara and Dattatreya. Jagannatha, Venkateshwara and Dattatreya are in essence historically known as well as hailed in Puranas representing Shanmata worship promoted by Sankara as well as represent all the four aspects of Brahman –Srishthi, Sthiti and Laya (creation, sustenance and dissolution) with emphasis on sustenance and Power or Saguna aspect as Sakti. Hindu Temples in America where there is one temple for all traditions should conduct few meaningful rituals and celebrate only significant festivals appealing to all traditions. Rest should be left to individual choices confined to their homes. There is a tendency at each opportune moment to add an additional deity and a sanctum with large donation coming forth, each time making temple a religious museum of deities and artifacts. . In this regard I would like to draw your attention to an amazing revelation and the reform that is taking place even in a village in India where the significant number of followers are illiterates or not well educated and in which country for even small pox there is a deity worshiped as Sheetal Devi! This information I received as comments to one of my E-mails pertaining to the topic by a very religious and learned professor who is also a Hindu American, based on his recent visit to India and personal observations which is an eye-opener and an important subject to focus and seriously think about. Hindu Americans as highly advanced intelligentsia and migrants should seriously consider these changes taking place in India and should not blindly follow India as in the past promoted by sectarian and astrological interests but think of ways means to promote Sanatana Dharma in our religious following not only among Hindus but with the vision to promote Vedic wisdom “krinvanto viswamaaryam” (meaning let us ennoble the whole world) to other cultures we live with for “Vedanta is the Religion of the Future”. We should also be open minded to go by the wisdom: Aa no bhadrah krathavo yanthu vishwathah”-Let knowledge come to us from every direction. Please find below observations of the learned religious Professor:
“I visited my village and nearby areas, Chennai, and Bengaluru from June to August first week. There are hundreds of Shiva temples under Dharmapuram Aadeenam. At Thiruvaiyaru, I went to Shiva temple. All the Navagrahas, 63 Nayanmars, and all the deities except Shiva Lingam, Daskshinamurthy, Murugan, Ganesha and Ambaal Dharmasamvardini were completely removed from temple. Hundreds of deities and hundreds of archakars were all thrown out of temple. One Archakar for Shiva and one Archakar for Ambaal. Just like Vaishnava temples, Shiva temples are also kept with four or five deities. More people are visiting temples now than a few years go. Bengaluru and Chennai are more superior to America with advanced living conditions and comforts. I did not visit other cities. In villages, people have more cars now with concrete houses and roads. Free foods, free books, free uniforms, free shoes, free bicycles, and free laptops are given for all the students. Unfortunately, corruption is high at all of the levels of the government with high prices on everything”.
1) Ananta Rangacharya, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BAU), Bengaluru, India.
2) Swami Vimalananda, Mahanarayana Upanishad (MNU), Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
3) AnantaRangacharya, Principal Upanishads, Vol.1, Bengaluru, India.
4) Swami Tejomayananda, Hindu Culture, Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Chennai, India.
5) Swami Bhaskarananda, Essentials of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
6) Srinivasan, N.R., Word Dharma—what it means, Hindu Reflections, August 2012, Internet.
7) Wikipedia, Internet and other Internet Sources.
8) Chaitanya Bharati, Special Publication 2007, Vishawa Hindu Parishad of America,Inc.
Understanding Sanatana Dharma
By Karthikeyan Sreedharan | Aug 12, 2016 |IndiaDivine.Org
Dharma is a very familiar term in Hindu epics, purāṇas and other literary works that highlight the ideal ways of human life. We find the term in the major Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gīta also, used in varying senses like virtue, righteousness and religious duties. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says in verse 1.4.14 that Dharma is instrumental in making the world flourish; in the beginning, it was created on finding that world was not flourishing through the earlier creations of four Varṇas.
Taittirīya Upaniṣad (1.11.1) insists that Dharma should be strictly observed in life, without fail. In Chāndogya 2.23.1 three types of Dharma (religious duties) are prescribed. Thus scriptures assign great importance to Dharma. Nevertheless, this term is not seen defined anywhere exhaustively. If Dharma exercises so great an influence in human life as indicated, we should definitely find out what it exactly consists of. Let us here make an enquiry for the purpose.
In the first chapter of Gīta on ‘Despondency of Arjuna’ (अर्जुन विषाद योग – Arjuna viṣāda yoga) Arjuna laments about the probable breach of Dharma that he may incur if he kills his close relatives, preceptors and friends in the battle. At the moment of commencing the fight, Arjuna became grief-stricken and confused on seeing his own relatives, Bhīṣma in particular and also Gurus, on the opposite side. The very thought of killing them in battle was excruciating for him. He was ready to forsake anything including his life for their good. He makes his own evaluation on what to do or not to do at the moment, weighing all the options on the touchstone of Dharma.
Arjuna’s thoughts proceeded on these lines: ‘I am not delighted in killing the Sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra since they are my relatives; slaying one’s own people is a sin. Even if they don’t realize what will happen if one’s own clan is ruined, we are well aware of it. When the clan is ruined, its age-old Dharma will decline and Adharma will take its place. Adharma will cause the women of the clan to be immoral, which in turn will result in varṇasaṅkara (mixing of varṇas). As a result, the whole clan will be destined to hell; forefathers will be deprived of the offering of piṇḍa and water and consequently, they also will fall into hell. Varṇasaṅkara will also cause erosion of caste-dharma(s). With all the Dharmas lost in this way, what awaits us is permanent lodging in the hell. It is pity that we have resolved to commit such a great sin by killing our own people, simply for wresting the throne. It would be better for us if the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra kill us when we are not fighting and without arms.’ Deeply moved by these thoughts Arjuna gave up his arms and sat down in the chariot with great sorrow.
Thus, Arjuna’s thoughts are singularly concentrated on Dharma and its possible violation in his actions. But what does he understand about Dharma? To him, killing one’s own kinsmen is not Dharma under any circumstance. He fears that such killing will ruin their clan and it’s Dharma. Varṇasaṅkara will follow, which in turn will result in erosion of caste-dharma(s). Finally, the entire clan will go to hell. In short, he thinks that killing relatives initiates a series of grave violations of Dharma. He also thinks that each clan and each caste have their own well-defined Dharma.
When someone refuses to arrogate material wealth through killing own relatives, he would normally be hailed as an ideal person inspired by the highest sense of Dharma. As such, Arjuna deserves acclaim and encouragement for his concern about Dharma and for his well-matched speech and action. But, on the contrary, Lord Kṛṣṇa condemns him, depicting his despondency as mere weakness; He also indicts Arjuna, charging that his actions are totally unbecoming of a man of his stature in the given context. This denunciation of what apparently is a great act of Dharma indicates that Arjuna’s concept of Dharma is not acceptable. Realizing that what Arjuna apprehends is really the strike of sin allegedly involved in killing relatives, Kṛṣṇa commences a series of detailed instructions on how to do Karma without being smeared by sin. These instructions constitute the revered text of Bhagavad Gīta.
Kṛṣṇa’s chiding of Arjuna’s concept of Dharma and His advice on worry-free performance of Karma give some clues about what Dharma actually is. No action however cruel that may appear to be, can’t be condemned as sin, outright. Similarly, no action, however esteemed it may appear to be, can be prima facie branded as Dharma. The criterion for classifying actions as Dharma or sin is very sophisticated; it depends upon the way of doing the action, the purpose served, the intention of the doer, etc. Yes, the basic scriptural texts of Hindus do not attempt an exhaustive classification of actions into Dharma and Adharma (sin); nor is there any blanket sanction or restriction for any action. Our day-to-day experience vindicates this stand. Killing a person is normally considered a punishable act. But, when a soldier kills the enemy, it is hailed as a brave act. Similarly, to cause a wound on another person’s body is considered objectionable. But, the same act is permissible when a surgeon undertakes it as part of a clinical operation. That means we cannot classify the mere act of killing or wounding as expressly Dharma or Adharma.
In Bhagavad Gīta, while refusing to fight, Arjuna forgot the atrocities and heinous acts of Duryodhana and his cronies inflicted on the Pāṇḍavas in the past. Meek submission to such atrocious acts and injustices would amount to their tacit endorsement. Reluctance to react against Adharma is tantamount to Adharma, as that would abet its repetition and perpetuation. Acts of Adharma is to be fought out by any means; if use of force is required we have to resort to it. Arjuna’s fear of breach of Dharma was therefore out of place. In the current stream of social order also, this notion is already in acceptance. For example, an instance can be cited from our criminal laws. The method of arresting described in Cr.P.C of India provides for use of force if there is no submission to custody by word or touch; if the offence is punishable with death or life imprisonment, arrest is to be made even by resorting to the death of the culprit.
Let us now make an attempt to further unveil the true nature of Dharma through the reverse route of Adharma or Pāpa (sin). What is Pāpa? It is any action that attracts a punishment. Why does it attract punishment? --Because it involves some wrong, done to somebody. What wrong can a person possibly do to somebody?--Many, innumerable. These innumerable numbers can be classified into three categories; first, that affects the right to exist; second, that curtails one’s right to self-expression and third, that obstructs one’s happiness. These three, viz. existence, expression and happiness, are very important. Expression involves knowledge also. For, without knowledge, expression is void and reversely, knowledge inspires expression. Knowledge and expression sustain mutually in an inseparable combination.
All actions of all people of all epochs are motivated, without exception, by the trio of existence, expression and happiness, either jointly or severally. That means, every action is done in furtherance of either existence or expression (+knowledge) or happiness (enjoyment). Therefore, Pāpa is to be understood as any action that impedes existence-expression-happiness trio of others. Ancient Hindu Sages abstracted and understood this trio as SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA (सत्-चित्-आनन्द) and called it Ātmā (आत्मा). They also postulated that Ātmā is the origin and ruler of all. With this understanding about Ātmā, Pāpa can be deduced as that which negates Ātmā. Conversely, Dharma is that which is in conformity with Ātmā. In other words, Dharma represents any action that contributes to the existence-expression-happiness of others. The word ‘others’ include every other being and, vicariously, means the whole.
This concept of whole is very important. For, existence of the whole is a pre-requisite for the existence of the individual members. When the whole is destroyed, individuals will not be there anymore. Therefore, that which serves only a few at the cost of others is not Dharma. This does not mean all are equally served; it is to be ensured that the whole as a whole is protected. In this context, let us recall a prayer in the peace invocation of Sāmavedīya Upanishads, ‘May I never deny Brahma’ (माहं ब्रह्म निराकुर्याम् – māhaṃ brahma nirākuryām). The prayer warns against ‘thinking to be separate or different from Brahma’ when one furthers his interests, which means that he should take care of others’ interests also. This endorses the importance of ‘the whole’ highlighted above.
Before proceeding further, let us now consider how Pāpa attracts punishment as mentioned above. We know that Pāpa represents Karma that is not in conformity with the ultimate principle of existence-expression-happiness. It is a fact that the doer of Pāpa also is ruled by this inner principle. Pāpa occurs when he does not pay heed to the dictates of this ruler within himself. But the ultimate principle is inviolable and indestructible; so it retaliates and intervenes to reassert itself. This creates conflict in his mind and as a result, his peace and tranquility are upset. This in turn takes away his power of judgment that ultimately leads to his total ruin. The re-assertion by the ultimate principle happens naturally, whenever it becomes essential. This process is what is described in Gīta 4.8 as ‘saṃbhavāmi yuge yuge’.
Now that the essence of Dharma is known, what remains to be probed is how it happens to be Sanātana (eternal). We have seen that every action of every being is motivated by the urge for either self-existence or self-expression or self-happiness. We have also seen that while furthering such individual urge, it is to be ensured that the existence-expression-happiness of the whole is not infringed, since individual existence is not possible without the whole. Every individual action for existence-expression-happiness has to maintain a balance with those of the whole. In order to ensure this balancing, which is essential for universal existence, formulation of certain codes of conduct becomes inevitable. Such codes designed for regulating the performance of Karma by individuals are known as ethical laws and they define human virtues, morals, principles and conscience. These laws have been there in every epoch of human history and they constitute the essence of judicial system of the corresponding periods.
Peaceful co-existence is impossible in the absence of such regulatory edicts. In spite of the different forms these laws take in different ages of history, the underlying objective has always been the same, which is nothing but ensuring conformity of Karma with SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA. Because of the presence of this unity of essence beyond spatial and temporal limitations, these laws are called eternal. Hindu scriptures call them the Sanātana Dharma. Some ignorant ones often scoff at the word ‘Sanātana’ (सनातन – eternal) saying that there is nothing eternal in the universe. They are of the opinion that values of each epoch are different from those of the others. But, whatever be these differences, it could be seen in ultimate analysis that all apparently different values of various epochs emanate from the exclusive objective of conformity of Karma with ‘SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA’ and that the differences owe their existence to the level of understanding of the ultimate reality in that epoch.
Even if we know that Dharma is that which is in conformity with ‘SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA’, it may be difficult for us to confine our actions to Dharma. This is because of the inability to discern what exactly conforms to ‘SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA’. Gīta says in 4.16 that even the wise people are confused in choosing the right action. This confusion was the reason for Arjuna’s despondency at the beginning of the war. Naturally, Gīta is all about how Karma can be performed without being smeared by Pāpa. It may be seen that Hinduism totally rejects the idea that God dictates the choice of Karma and the manner of its execution by us. Such determinism is not recognized by the Hindu Philosophy, wherein it is declared that the Ātmā is only a witness; all actions are done because of the Guṇa(s) (Śvetāśvatara 6.11 and Gīta 3.27, 13.29, 14.19 & 18.16).
In this world the only thing in which we have a free will is the choice of our Karma (karmaṇyevādhikaraste – Gīta 2.47). All the remaining things are not ours and we have no right over them (Īśa 1 & 2). Gīta also says that the Lord never assigns any duty upon anybody or grants the results of any action to anybody (5.14). Nor does He recognize any Karma as either virtuous or sinful (5.15). Therefore, our Karma is our own responsibility and we can never absolve of it with any external grace. When the circumstances necessitate the performance of any particular Karma, it is our choice whether to do or not to do it and also how to do it.
In lieu of choosing a Karma, Gīta puts forth two important options, namely, 1. Sacrifice the results of the Karma for the benefit of the whole, which act is known as Yajña (यज्ञ – sacrifice; Yajña is Karma in which results are sacrificed for the benefit of all) (Gīta 3.9); and 2. Give up all attachments and also remain Equanimeous to the outcome of the Karma, be it favorable or otherwise (Gīta 2.48). Both are same ultimately, since, without giving up attachment, sacrificing the results is not possible. The entire preaching in Gīta consists in repeated efforts to inculcate these two options in the mind of Arjuna, together with matters ancillary thereto. At last, winding up the instructions, Kṛṣṇa exhorts Arjuna to expel from his mind all that he considers as Dharma and then concentrate on His teachings only, so that he will be relieved from all Pāpas. Please see below the climaxing advice contained in verse 18.66:
सर्वधर्मान् परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज |
अहं त्वा सर्व पापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः || 18.66 ||
अहं त्वा सर्व पापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः || 18.66 ||
(sarvadharmān parityajya māmekaṃ śaraṇaṃ vraja,
ahaṃ tvā sarva pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ.)
ahaṃ tvā sarva pāpebhyo mokṣayiṣyāmi mā śucaḥ.)
This verse is seen interpreted in different ways by Ācāryas and scholars. Mostly, the interpretations assign the meaning ‘all righteous deeds’ to ‘sarvadharmān’. Ādi Śaṅkara interpreted the phrase ‘sarvadharmān parityajya’ as an advice to give up all Dharma and Adharma together, since, in his opinion, Naiṣkarmya (नैष्कर्म्य) is intended to be taught here. (Naiṣkarmya is a state of mind wherein, due to absence of desire, there is no inner urge to undertake any Karma). But these interpretations do not conform to the message of Gīta, which does not relieve anybody from performing Karma, but only prescribes the ways to stay away from being smeared. Lord Kṛṣṇa says in Gīta 3.22 that He too is always engaged in Karma, though there is nothing to gain personally. This obligation to perform Karma is in full agreement with the instruction in Mantra 2 of Īśa Upaniṣad, which holds that only by doing Karma one should aspire for living a full life.
Moreover, how can Gīta which calls upon us to sacrifice the results of our Karma for the benefit of the whole, make an advice to give up all ‘righteous deeds’? Is it that Karma performed in this way is not a ‘righteous deed’? It cannot be so. Again Gita asserts in verse 3.4 that Naiṣkarmya cannot be attained by simply abstaining from Karma. This utterly disproves the contention of the Ācārya. Such interpretations might be the result of not giving due importance to the contents of chapter 1 of Gīta, wherein Arjuna is presented as deeply worried about what he understands as Dharma. The concluding verse of 18.66 directly connects to the opening topic ‘despondency of Arjuna’ and advises him to set aside all that causes worry, which is precisely his own version of Dharma. Kṛṣṇa disapproves Arjuna’s perceptions about Dharma and therefore asks him to abandon them all.
We may wind up our discussions by concluding thus: Dharma is that which conforms to the ultimate principle of and in order to ensure this conformity in our Karma, we must either sacrifice the results thereof or perform Karma without attachment and without considering whether the result is positive or negative. Dharma is Sanātana as it does not change by the change of time or place; in all epochs and all places, it is invariably Dharma that sustains and supports everything. Hinduism is the religion of Dharma which is Sanātana. The supreme spiritual accomplishment envisaged in Hinduism is attainment to the ultimate principle of SAT-CIT-ĀNANDA (ie. Ātmā) to which Dharma owes its conformity.
Epilogue on Understanding of Dharma and its being Eternal
Our sages say Dharma described in our Smritis and Srutis is the most excellent means of Liberation. The whole World is held together by Dharma and is attracted by it. There is nothing more difficult to practice than Dharma. Therefore Liberation Seekers revel in Dharma. MNU says:
Dharma iti dharmena sarvamidam parigriheetam |
DharmaannatiduscharaM Tasmadddharme ramante ||
Some Liberation seekers consider Dharma is supreme and excellent means of liberation. By Dharma all the world is held. There is nothing more difficult to practice than Dharma or scriptural duty. So they delight in Dharma.
Dharma denotes the regular, occasional and optional duties taught by Srutis and Smritis. Dharma is social service such as construction of wells, tanks and reservoirs, in which kings and ministers are interested. By these works service is done to all creatures. The context does not warrant this restriction of the meaning in special manner. Religious righteousness in general is denoted by the word Dharma. Duties ordained by ancient scriptures, customary practice, exemplary deeds of respected elders, pronouncements of sages, and behavior approved by good people—all these help to eliminate selfish feelings and passions from the mind of man and confirm him to a life in harmony with his fellow beings and incline him to discharge his duties towards God. All these come under the term Dharma. These are not easy for ordinary man to practice. These are told by Srutis and Smritis which are eternal and true for all times and therefore eternal.