Sanatana-Dharma: Its Real Meaning
By Stephen Knapp
When it comes to understanding the meaning of Sanatana-dharma, we have to be aware of its Sanskrit definition. The root of the word dharma comes from dhri, which means to uphold or maintain. The Sanskrit says dharayati iti dharmaha, which translates as dharma is that which upholds. However, not only what is supported is dharma, but that which does the supporting is also dharma, dhriyate iti dharmaha. So dharma consists of both the force that sustains as well as what is sustained. It can also be said that there is the path of dharma as well as its conclusion, the object of dharma, or what we are seeking, the goal of life. So dharma is the means as well as the goal.
Dharma is also said to be the force which maintains the universe. Where there is dharma there is harmony and balance individually, socially, and inter-galactically. So the path of dharma brings about the harmony and contentment that is also another aspect of what we are seeking. In this way, we want harmony inwardly, in our own consciousness, but we also cannot have individual peace unless there is harmony or cooperation socially, amongst the masses. So where there is no dharma, there is disharmony and a state of being that is out of balance. And socially it means that without dharma, there is a lack of cooperation, along with escalating quarrel and fighting. This often manifests as a lack of distribution of resources, whereas some parts of the world may experience abundance of water, food or fuel, yet other parts are starving. Or by dishonest manipulation of supply and demand some necessities become priced so high that they are out of reach for the poor. When we act against the law of dharma, we disrupt the very harmony and cooperation that we want. In other words, we create a life for ourselves in which there is stress, confusion, discontent, and frustration. And when we feel that way, that becomes our contribution to the general social condition. It is the exact opposite of what we wish to attain. Thus, to live a life outside of dharma means to work against ourselves.
Furthermore, if we live on the basis of lust and greed, to accumulate possessions, money, and sensual pleasure by the demands of the mind and senses, it will become most difficult to follow the path of dharma. Of course, when this is the case, we often see that such people become increasingly discontent and out of balance, enamored by the illusory happiness in material existence. Doing what should not be done is called vidharma, which is a type of adharma or nondharmic activity. The conclusion, therefore, is that if we want happiness and peace we must learn how to live according to the path of dharma.
The practice of dharma should be done not out of compulsion but out of love due to the perception of the Supreme in all living beings. With this motivation, dharma can assist in preventing injury to others and treating each other respectfully. Dharma also means righteous conduct. This includes following social laws and proper moral activity and behavior. It encourages truthfulness of thought, word and deed. The point of which is to reach the goal of dharma.
Dharma also means truth. So we follow the path of dharma to free ourselves from illusion and reach the ultimate Truth, which is the topmost reality, the spiritual strata. The Absolute Truth means the final philosophical goal and end of all knowledge, or Vedanta, which is God, the Supreme Being. So when we want to attain liberation from material existence, after realizing the futility of its temporary nature, and wish to reach God, then it becomes much easier to follow the path of dharma and overcome the temptations of the temporary material world. Then we can let go of the illusory objects that are, in fact, hurdles on the path to Truth and God, and happiness in general.
The more we are attracted to the material existence and in accumulating the illusory objects to satisfy our mind and senses, in essence, the more hurdles we are bringing into our life. And we must overcome these obstructions at some point to reach the Absolute Truth. Therefore, life lived according to the law of dharma means the freer we become from false obstacles, from stress, from false hangups and mood swings, and inner conflicts. Thus, the freer we are to experience our real selves as spiritual beings. And the more society chooses to follow the path of dharma, the more easily we can attain an existence of cooperation and harmony instead of one of wars, conflict, terror and killing. So whatever we do, even if it is doing business, making money, politics, etc., it should be done on the basis of dharma. Then things will progress in the proper way. Following dharma will bring both material well-being as well as final liberation from material existence. Thus, one can attain all that this world can offer through the path of dharma.
On a national, ethnic, or racial level, dharma is an instrument of unity, not divisiveness. That which helps unite everyone and develop love and universal brotherhood is dharma. That which causes discord or disharmony or provokes hatred is adharma. That which works against or tries to destroy dharma is adharma. With this understanding we can perceive that certain religions that exist on this planet that encourage divisiveness between those that are “saved” and those that are supposedly going to hell, or which primarily focus on differences between their sect and others, are actually adharmic. Those religions that do not teach that we are all spiritual beings, all children of the same God, all equal in the eyes of God, are adharmic. They may merely be limited in their depth of knowledge and awareness, but until they adopt the dharmic principles they will continue to produce disagreements, restlessness, harsh attitudes and even hatred amongst people in the name of religion. The reason is that they are absent of real transcendental knowledge and deep spiritual insights. Since such religions lack dharma, they will not be able to deliver one to dharma, or to the Absolute Truth. Thus, lack of peace and harmony amongst various religions will be commonplace until this is remedied. In this way, the path of dharma is more than a religion or belief system. It is the means to directly perceive and live according to that higher reality and spiritual unity between us all.
So we can see that the path of dharma is more of a way of life. Some people may say that Vedic dharma, or Hinduism, is another religion. Yet, if we understand this principle of dharma, we can see that it is not merely another religion or “ism”. It is a way of life that is lived with every moment and every breath. It is a matter of raising our consciousness to the highest level possible. It is a matter of understanding and living according to the Universal Spiritual principles that apply to everyone. Thus, we reach our fullest potential, which in the end is on the spiritual platform.
For example, when one comes to the level of dharma, then all of his or her actions are in accordance with the dharma, the path of harmony and balance, in tune with the Divine. For example, in Vedic culture we can find the artful expression of dance. This is just one of many art forms in the Vedic tradition. But on the path of dharma it is an expression of one’s emotional outlet toward God, Ishwara or Krishna. An emotional outlet in this manner means you express yourself to God, you release your love for God, and your thoughts and consciousness become more absorbed in God. So this is also like yoga, a form of dedicated meditation. In this way, the attitude within the dance is unique. It is not merely an emotional release for satisfying one’s own mind, but it is an expression of longing toward becoming united with God. That is yoga. It is dharma. So in this sense, dharma means the freedom to naturally express our inner proclivity, which is to get closer to the Absolute Truth, and worship this Truth, this Ishvara or God.
Therefore, on the path of dharma the dances, the movements, the costumes and jewelry, are all used to either relate the pastimes of God or to enhance our attachment to God. So these are all expressions of dharma, our eternal nature to love God and be loved by God. Thus, dharma is also protected by continuing the tradition. For this reason there needs to be a class of men who are dedicated to protect the dharma. It is only one who has the dharma that can protect it.
Now when we add the word Sanatana to dharma, it expands the meaning and purpose. Sanatana means eternal. So Sanatana-dharma can mean the ancient path that has existed from time immemorial. It is the eternal path which has been given to humanity and comes from beyond the material dimension. Thus, Sanatana-dharma is the inter-dimensional path of progress for all living beings.
It can also be said to be the unceasing and imperishable path of the soul. Sanatana-dharma also means the eternal path and our eternal nature. Dharma means the ultimate nature of the living being, the spirit soul. And the nature or dharma of the soul is to love and be loved, to serve its most lovable object and to receive love. Just like the dharma or nature of sugar is to be sweet, we know that if it is not sweet or if it is salty, then it is not sugar. The dharma of fire is to give light and heat. If it does not do that, then it cannot be fire. So the Sanatana-dharma or eternal nature of the soul is that it is a spiritual being that is naturally connected to God and feels the greatest joy in its constitutional position as a servant of God. The soul needs to love. It cannot do without it. And our nature as human beings reflects the nature of the soul because we are always looking for love. Although when such love is interpreted through the mind and senses, it is often accepted as the satisfaction of the mind and body. This only brings temporary happiness because it is merely a reflection of what we really want and need. So for the soul, the most lovable object is the Lord and the most pleasing things are spiritual relations and exchanges. This is what will give the epitome of bliss that we long for in loving relationships.
So, Sanatana-dharma means both the ultimate spiritual truth and the means to attain it. And that truth is the divine knowledge of the soul. Thus, if there is to be any eternality in our relationships, or any spiritual connection with anything we do, it has to be based on that divine knowledge of the soul, the ultimate reality. That is the path of Sanatana-dharma, to realize our spiritual identity and then know how to act accordingly.
Therefore, the purpose of life is to follow the path of dharma which will bring us to the conclusion of recognizing that everything is the energy of God, Brahman. Following this further, the path of dharma will bring us into union with God. And the highest union is through love and devotion, or bhakti. Thus, bhakti-yoga, the process of loving devotion to the Lord, is the epitome of following Sanatana-dharma. Making this the goal of our life means that we are living a life of dharma. And the ultimate goal of dharma is to reach God.
Sanatana-dharma is also a matter of understanding. It is an awareness that every particle of this universe is an expansion of God’s energies. That it is all an exhibition of the potencies of the Para-Brahman, the Absolute Existence. Dharma is the path to seeing how God is everywhere. Thus, dharma is not only the path to God but is also in God. A truly liberated person does not worry about liberation, or in going home back to God in the spiritual world. He is already aware that he is in God’s energy, whether it is the material or spiritual energy. It is all an exhibition of God’s potencies wherever he goes. Thus, the dharmin, or Dharmist, the follower of dharma who sees God everywhere, is already home. Liberation from material existence will follow such a person like a servant.
If we understand this properly, we can see that Sanatana-dharma is the basis of universal truth. It can be applied to anyone at anytime and anywhere in the universe. Thus, many religions can and should include Sanatana-dharma within their approach and outlook. It does not matter in which religion you may be affiliated, you can still benefit and grow within the fold of Sanatana-dharma to reach a higher awareness and perception of your true potential and genuine spiritual identity. In this way, the whole world could reach a new stage in its social and spiritual development, as well as in harmony and cooperation.