Sanatana Dharma

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Dr. Gururaj Mutalik
Dr. Gururaj MutalikMD, FAMS, Author

Author:  Dr. Gururaj Mutalik, MD FAMS .

Dr. Mutalik is a well-known, senior physician, professor, dean of a medical school in India; he worked as director of health services, medical education, and research in the state of Maharashtra, India. From 1975–1991 he worked in senior positions, and as a director at the World Health Organization’s offices in three continents. He comes from an orthodox family, and is well-educated in Sanskrit, Vedanta, and Ayurveda. Dr. Mutalik is the author of several books including his recent publication on “Integrative Approaches for Health – Biomedical Research, Ayurveda and Yoga (AP / Elsevier Publications)”. He has also written over one hundred research articles in the field of modern medicine, Ayurveda, Yoga, disarmament and development, and medical genetics. He is executive director and principal content editor of Jijnyasa foundation’s Ancient Indian Wisdom web project.

Ancient Indian thought is the product and legacy of a unique civilization that flourished on the banks of the Sindhu (Indus) River, and on the extinct but rediscovered Sarasvati River in Northwest India. The Sarasvati River disappeared due to geo-climatic cataclysms, which are thought to have occurred around 3000 BC. In reference to the river, the word Sarasvati occurs in the earliest of Vedic compositions. Vedic Society, because of the great boons that the river offered, elevated the word Sarasvati to mean a goddess. There is a reference in the great epic Mahabharata about the drying of the Saraswati River, and the sinking of the city of Dwaraka (the city of Yadavas, developed by Sri Krishna). The existence of this sunken city has been established by numerous studies; deep sea photography, and marine exploration bringing out the archaeological evidence of city of Dwaraka. This is corroborated by multiple kinds of evidence: satellite photography, astronomy, and linguistic evidence. All this is leading to a better understanding of the timeline, and doings of the ancient Indian civilization. The native people of this land and civilization were called Aryans.

The history of this great civilization is shrouded in controversy, and multiple viewpoints. This is mainly due to the vicissitudes of Indian history. Conquests and colonization introduced historical distortions and misinterpretations. Colonial era writers of history attempted to rewrite the history of the land, and were motivated to reduce its antiquity to as near the Christian era as they could, and to place Indian civilization in the time frame of the creation of the world according to biblical resources. This distortion of ancient Indian history is dealt with in this website’s section, “History and Timelines”.

This article aims to describe the essential features of Sanatana Dharma—the eternally relevant principles of positive living, that are attributed to the ancient Indian civilization.

There are two words, Sanatana and Dharma. The term, Sanatana Dharma, is used in Shatapatha Brahmana, an integral part of the Shukla-Yajurveda.

Amara kosha, the main lexicon (dictionary of Samskrit language, written in verse, circa 300 AD), defines Sanatana as follows:

shAshvatahstu dhruvo nityasadAtana-sanAtanAH”.

Sanatana means imperishable, firm, primeval, always present, all pervasively present in time and space, and eternal.

Dharma, the second word, is also used extensively in the Vedas. It is more difficult to translate. As a matter of fact, there is no equivalent word for Dharma in English. Most people tend to translate Dharma as religion. This is inaccurate and misleading. Dharma is defined in Samskrit as Dharanaat Dharma ityaahuh, Dharmena vidhrutaah prajaah (धारणात् धर्म इत्याहुः धर्मेण विधृताः प्रजाः). Dharma is what supports society, and strengthens its fabric. The people are held aloft by Dharma. Thus, Dharma is not religion. Religion is defined as[i] an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules ordained to worship god/s. Dharma is a way of life based on a value system, or guidelines, that a group of people share and live. In Dharma, there is no implied structure or authority, such as an institutional church, that dictates or lays down rules. Indeed the very nature of this kind of Dharma has to be eternally relevant and universal to survive.

Based on the evidence available at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro archeological sites, and the earlier descriptions in Vedic literature, the ancient Indian civilization is generally believed to predate the early Harappan period of the Indus Valley Civilization. Many threads of evidence suggest that this civilization flourished and spread at a period no later than 7000 BC onward. As important as its antiquity, is the fact that this it is the only living civilization among all ancient civilizations, Greek, Egyptian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Incan, and Mayan.

Our thesis is that the ancient Indian civilization thrived across time, and still remains in practice in India and elsewhere; this suggests that the teachings upon which this civilization is based, possess qualities that defy time, and are essential for the sustenance, and progress of a society,      It is our endeavor in this article to identify and highlight the essentials of this eternality, and its inherent features.

What does Sanatana Dharma address?

It addresses purposeful and meaningful living for anyone who practices its simple yet profound tenets. It provides guidelines for every phase of life (See web theme: Samskaras): childhood, adolescence, student years, youth, blissful wedded life, and old age. Each milestone is designed to facilitate the growth and development of an individual, to equip one to face the different phases of life with their challenges; as such, Sanatana Dharma is a means of empowerment.  Likewise, the teachings of Sanatana Dharma provide the wisdom for a meaningful life for every class of individuals, whether they subsist on manual labor, commerce, and various arts, crafts, and professions, including martial and military life; this wisdom is also available to dedicated scholars and scientists in inquiring into the nature of reality, natural laws, or the nature of life itself. For believers, Santana Dharma also dwells upon what is beyond earthly life. (See Sadhana in later paragraphs of this article).

In the olden days when Vedic society was not as complex as our current globalized world, the very nature of its universality provided a system of living based on Guna, the natural propensity of mind, and Karma, the duties that fall on a group of persons according to their natural propensity. This was the basis of the much-maligned Chaturvarnya, or fourfold division of human society into manual labor, traders, warriors, and thought leaders (intellectual or spiritual leaders).  These were Shudras, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas, and Brahmanas.

It is important to understand that these categorizations were devoid of any stigma or inferiority; there was no discrimination in the welfare or the scope for seeking enlightenment. In fact, the famous Vedic Purusha Sukta (Rigveda 10-90) says that these four categories were born from the limbs of the Supreme Divine: the feet constituting the Shudras; the thighs constituting the Vaishyas; the arms constituting the warriors, Kshatriyas; and the face constituting the Brahmana, or the thinkers. In any society, present or past, these four classes still remain.

That brings up the second point, that heredity was not the basis of this fourfold social division; but natural propensity was the key factor.

The third point is that there were no real barriers for cross border transition from one category/class to another if a particular person was endowed with different propensities or qualities. There are numerous examples in the sourcebooks where such transitions were glorified. A well-known example is the instance of Vishwamitra: the great warrior had an encounter with a venerable Rishi, Vasishtha, and found the might of his army’s strength was no match for the spiritual powers and wisdom of the sage. So he decided to switch ranks by giving up his kingdom, and to become a rishi. This required him to do long years of penance and meditation. He was tested rigorously, and his penance was interrupted often. Legend recounts that eventually he succeeded, and he was recognized as a Brahmarshi—the highest rank of rishis, which poignantly was conferred upon him by Brahmarshi Vashishta himself!

In more recent times, many of the masters and saints who lived in medieval society such as Tukaram, Kabir, Namadev, Kanakadasa, Meera, and many Alvars and Nayanmars who preached the eseence of Sanatana Dharma to the masses with their unique talents of devotional music (Keertan), were not the birth-privileged Brahmins, but came from the lower orders of the society.

This was also true of women; it was erroneously believed by all that women were barred from the pursuit of divinity through scholarly studies of Vedic texts. In Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishad, the two prime works of Vedanta and part of the respected Vedic works, there is a recounting of a fascinating dialogue on highbrow philosophical and metaphysical doctrines between Yajnavalkya, the super, scholar sage of the Vedas, and two women scholars in their own right, Gargi and Maitreyi (the wife of Yajnavalkya). Sanatana Dharma was equitable in this regard, unbiased by gender, to natural merit and propensity.

It cannot be denied that a breakdown in the system occurred as times changed; and discontinuity resulted as an inevitable, entropic evolution of society leading to distortions and abuse of natural divisions. Often the rigid, unjust, and unfair treatment of so-called lower caste members by upper caste members in society, led to the denial of Vedic education to the former. Likewise, women were denied access to Vedic education based on perceptions, and a prejudicial understanding of their physiological differences. The challenge for today, where faith is fast being replaced by reason, and ancient wisdom is clouded by ritual and superstition, is to cut through the degenerate, historic practices, and bring out the core wisdom of Sanatana Dharma, which will still provide the Dhaarana—holding aloft for modern society.

What are the source works from which the core wisdom of Sanatana Dharma is derived?

The sourcebooks of Sanatana Dharma comprise of:

The Vedas, the Upanishads (Vedanta), Brahma Sutra, Mahapuranas, and Dharma-Shastras. Also included in this group are Bhagawat Gita and Agamas.

Bhagavad-Gita stands out prominently among the group as the very quintessence of Vedic wisdom. This work is a part of the Mahabharata, and takes the form of a dialogue between the warrior prince, Arjuna, and Divine Sri Krishna recounted in Bhagavad-Gita. It spells out the core wisdom of Sanatana Dharma.

For common people, many of the puranas, written in the style of parables and stories, and the literature and songs of later saints provide similar sources for easy understanding.

Among the scriptural texts, another important category is the agamas. In addition to Vedantic philosophy these deal with the conceptualization of the Supreme Being in terms of perceivable, iconic imagery, pratika/pratima (idols for worshipping). Those who follow the bhakti tradition consider agamas in the same class of validity as Shruti’s. Among the agamas, the Pancharatra and Vaikhansa agamas are accorded the highest place of prominence, their authorship being attributed to the Supreme Being, Narayana. They feature prominently in the teachings of two Vedanta Acharya’s: Sri Ramanuja (1017–1137 AD), and Sri Madhvacharya (1238–1317 AD). (See Professor Apte’s article, “Chaturvyuha”).

Smriti’s comprise all other texts, including treatises that elucidate Vedantic law. This list includes some of the texts of Dharma Shastra, such as Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti, and many more.

There are other works classified as Puranas. There are three prime Puranas: Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavatam. Besides this, there are over one hundred Puranas classified according to sectarian belief, such as Vaishnava, Saiva, and Shakta. Puranas are composed in anecdotal format containing fascinating stories, and are meant to help common people understand Vedanta without recourse to more abstract Shruti’s.

The principles of Dharma are stated in the Manusmruti, which Hindus hold as an authentic guide to Sanatana Dharma. Ten tenets are described as Dharama-lakhsana in Manusmruti (6.92). These bear remarkable resemblance to Patanjali’s Asthanga yoga teaching and are also the core philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita.

Dhruti, Kshama, Damostheyam, Shouchamindriyanigrah

Dhih, Vidya Satyam akrodho, Dashkam Dharma Lakshanam II (Manu-6.92)

  1. Dhruti is moral courage or fortitude when facing problems, and challenges in life.
  2. Kshama is the magnanimity of the heart by which you forgive. It is “the quality of mercy that is not strained”.
  3. Damah is self-control. This enables one to conquer temptations, and irrational desires, and the lure of material attractions that drive one toward a money-centered life.
  4. Asteyam is not desiring or acquiring what does not belong to you. This is the immortal teaching of the Isha Upanishad: “Do not covet what does not belong to you”.
  5. Shoucha is purity of thought. This is the backbone of character.
  6. Indriya Nigraham is the ability to control emotions emanating from desires, and temptations from the sense organs. Whether appetite, or carnal desire, or attraction to material goods, or the urge to accumulate wealth— all these arise from sensory perceptions.
  7. Dhih is sagacity, or wisdom that is different from knowledge or learning. Critical thinking, drawing lessons from learning and experience, and exercising sound judgment are a part of human wisdom.
  8. Vidya is knowledge itself. All knowledge is sacred. Hindu thought urges acquirement of knowledge at every living moment, without end.
  9. Satyam is truthfulness. “Satymeva Jayate Nanrutam”. Truth alone triumphs, never the falsehood! Say the Vedas.
  10. Akrodha is the conquest of anger. It is anger that springs from frustration. It is anger that breeds hatred. It is anger that drives violence.

Inculcating these ingredients in our living philosophy is the essence of Sanatana Dharma.

The teachings of Sanatana Dharma

  • Sanatana Dharma is monotheistic in the sense it conceives of One Supreme Being (God) who is the essence of excellence in all respects. Omnipresent, omniscient, immanent, and totally devoid of any negative qualities (Sarvaguna paripoorna). He is Sat, Chit, and Ananda (Embodies truth, super-consciousness, and bliss).
  • As for the common notion that Sanatana Dharma recognizes millions of gods and goddesses, they are to be comprehended in terms of advanced souls assisting the Supreme Being in the maintenance and order of the Universe. These entities are empowered and recognized in forms such as Lakshmi, or Prakruti, as the material cause (Lakshmi is also the symbol of wealth and prosperity) of the Universe; Sarasvati, the entity that governs knowledge; Agni representing energy; Vayu, representing breath. Ganesha, who bears an elephant head, is special as the deity who dispels obstacles in any undertaking. There is also the concept of trinity of the divine in the form of Trimurthy: Brahma Vishnu-Maheswara, charged with the responsibilities of creation, sustenance, and dissolution.
  • Sanatana Dharma recognizes that it over the course of time becomes distorted, and dimmed—losing its spiritual shine. It is then that the Supreme Being manifests in human form in the living world as an incarnation to restore its flow. There have been ten Avatars: Matsya, Kurma, Varah, Narasimha, Wamana, Trivikrama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, and at the end of the age of Kali, there is one more to occur, Kalki. These manifestations primarily occur as the power of good to fight the evil in the universe, and to restore Sanatana Dharma.
  • On a temporal scale, Sanatana Dharma conceives the first eon of time belongs to the eon of Truth (Satya Yuga). Then came the Treta Yuga. It was in Treta Yuga, that the immanence or Avatar of Sri Rama occurred. This was followed by Dwapara Yuga, the age of Sri Krishna Avatar. This further evolved into Kailyuga, after the avatar of Sri Krishna ended, at the time of the Mahabharata Sanatana Dharma conceives that these four Yugas progress with sequential diminution of the essence of Truth, and the least is the spiritual content in the Kaliyuga; during Kaliyuga, there is no conception of God’s Avatara. The task of sustaining good and destroying the evil falls upon the spiritual leaders, in the form of sages and saints. At the end of Kaliyuga, all life in the universe comes to dissolution; this is called Pralaya; a new cycle begins. According to Hindu cosmology, the universe is 4.4 billion years old. That the ancient civilization could conceive of such an enormous time scale is a marvel of their comprehension. Science believes that the age of the universe is double this figure. Many feel instinctively that the two figures in some way may be related, and may represent different perspectives of reckoning.
  • The creation of the universe, after each dissolution (Pralaya), is brought about cyclically. There are several versions, most of them expressing symbolically the actual process of creation. One of the widely known versions is stated in the Nasadiya Sukta (Rigveda Mandala 10 Sukta 129). (In the section, “The Vedic System”,we have reproduced, with the permission of the author Mahamahopadhyaya Professor K. T. Pandurangi, an article on this subject.) This conception of creation bears uncanny insights similar to the conclusions arrived at by science on advances of cosmology. The account of creation almost outlines a theory that resembles the big bang theory. There are references to the creation of space and time, and the existence of singularity.
  • Likewise, Sanatana Dharma offers similar insights into the nature of consciousness and component constituents, cognition, connation, memory, intelligence, and a higher level of awareness termed Saakshii or Superconsciousness. References to creation abound in Vedic literature, each one narrating in graphic, yet symbolic form, the act of creation. Such references occur in Purusha Sukta (Rigveda 10-92), Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and the great scriptures, Bhagavad-Gita, and SrimadBhagavatam.
  • The myriad souls manifest in human, animal, and vegetable kingdoms are all brought into existence from a suspended state of creation—in the beginning. The souls, according to their nature (Trigunas), are ever evolving on an upward or downward pathway. Some (Rajas) are caught in the web of Samsara. They undergo several births until they break out and resume their journey. The upward path leads to the threshold of liberation, and lower path to eternal ignorance and darkness.
  • Jeevas, and the Being are both eternal, and indestructible. Jeevas, however, are dependent for their existence and progress on the Supreme Being. They are compared as Bimba (source of light), and Pratibimba (its image)—immanence, and its reflection.
  • Human life is unique, because it is endowed with an ability to comprehend the nature of life, and divinity through the unique gift of consciousness. However, humans are also subject to the intrinsic and superimposed influence of the Triad of Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. These influence the path that we choose. Sattva is the purer, and tends to travel in the upward path toward the threshold of Divinity. Rajas is attracted by material gains and greed, and thus gets entangled in a cycle of material living, Samsara. The Tamas is shrouded in darkness and ignorance, and acquires negative qualities of greed, violence, and hatred, ego, and thus travels downward away from truth, and the pursuit of self-realization. Six negative qualities: passion or lust, anger, arrogance, delusion, and envy entangle human life, impede progress, and must be overcome for self-realization.
  • All souls have a spark of divinity within them; but are entirely dependent upon the grace of the Supreme Divine. It is their given freedom to be the basis of breaking their bind of Samsara by seeking divine grace. There are three pathways to attain ultimate bliss: Karma, Jnana, and Bhakti. All the three pathways lead to liberation addressing the needs of action, understanding, and spiritual propensity of the devotee. The person attaining ultimate, unified perfection in this path is called Sthita-Prajna, a person with firm and unswerving understanding. The characteristics of such a person are described in the Bhagavad-Gita (2nd chapter, Slokas 54 to 72).
  • Karma Yoga involves doing one’s duty based on Guna, without any consideration of the fruits of duty.
  • Jnana Yoga involves multi-disciplinary understanding of nature and interrelations, the entire scheme of the universe, the nature of reality and self. Sanatana Dharma for Jnana Yogis calls for thorough study to acquire spiritual knowledge (Jnana) and Vidnyana (Scientific Knowledge) to understand the secrets of nature. Ancient Indian Seers had advanced considerably in many branches of science such as Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Cosmology etc. An example of their extraordinary knowledge of Astronomy in an age when there were know telescopes is given below:

During the Hindu marriage rites, there is tradition that has endured thousands of years that is related to the knowledge of Indian Sages of astronomy in an era when telescopes did not exist.
At the conclusion of the wedding ceremony in the evening the bride and the bridegroom are asked to look at the northern sky to focus their eyes on a twin Stars the Vasistha and Arundhati in the Ursa Major constellation (The big Dipper) and live as the stars do. The star named Vasishtha is fairly bright and can be seen by the naked eye. Arundhati is a tiny speck hardly visible and one has to strain the eyes to perceive it clearly. There is an exquisite mystery in the symbolism in this ceremony.

Vasistha and Arundhati are Rishis and are wedded to each other and are an exemplary loving couple. So the first symbolism is for the newlyweds to follow their example. The real poignant mystery is here the nature of the stars. These two unusual stars revolve round each other instead of the usual pattern of one smaller be revolving orbital around the bigger entity. The symbolism of closeness, complementarity, equality, and non-dominance the foundation stones of happy wedded life are suggested here. Finally the greatest mystery is how on the earth (in this case in the heavens) could ancient Indian seers without telescopes of any kind acquired the astronomical configuration of these astral bodies? It defies imagination!

  • This is the essence of a grand design for purposeful living. It is organized in the four phases of life, with clear guidelines for achievement in each phase, in accordance with the evolution of life, and the needs of body and mind.
  • In the first phase, Brahmacharya Ashrama, which is from childhood until one enters the adult phase, one must practice a disciplined celibate life, focusing on acquiring knowledge, and building for oneself a solid character based on value systems such as Truth (Satya), devotion to studies (Swadhyaya), respect for elders (starting with parents and teachers), and cultivate an attitude of inquiry (Jijnyasa).
  • In the next phase, Gruhastha Ashrama, one is directed to embrace a life of family, and living together with commitment, embracing cherished social and cultural norms and family traditions; a lifestyle which supports the continuity of family traditions through generations. The focus is on providing a natural and cultural ambience for living a life of happiness (Sukha), in togetherness (Saha-Chara/Saha-Chari), having children, and contributing to the continuity of the family lineage, and enjoying the company and support of extended relations (Bandhutaa). The mature flowering of love (Prema), and fulfillment (Trupti) in family is to be shared across all family members (Kula). The generational continuity of family in this larger framework, Gruhastha-Ashrama, is also a preparation for robust and meaningful aging, and advancement in life.
  • The next phase is Vanaprashta Ashrama. Here, one has the opportunities to explore the options of deeper, inner contemplation starting with a slow and steady movements away from commitments of family, and living in close harmony with nature, increasing focus on inner contemplation (Adhyatma). In occupying oneself in study, and in contemplating the sourcebooks of wisdom and enlightenment, in meditation, and in seeking learned, elders’ guidance on spiritual practices (Yoga), old age can be as joyful as the other stages.
  • The pinnacle of progression from the previous phase is a total and single-minded pursuit of spiritual path, and practices. This is called Sannyasa Ashrama. This is not for all. This phase is an optional advancement, for those who are sincere and steadfast seekers, who are clear through the previous phases of life. The entry to this phase needs a pre-qualification, and admittance under the discretion of gurus. Embracing this model of living is associated with a stricter and self-committed constraint to follow a disciplined way of life with progressive restraints and commitments, to be learned under their spiritual mentors. This is the final phase of human spiritual practice demanding singular dedication and sincerity.
  • This model of organized lifestyle, appropriate to the needs of life and community, is called the orderly progression of the phases of life—the Varnashram system.
  • Yoga is the practice recommended as an integral part of Sanatana Dharma. The foundational tenets of Yoga practice begin with the practice of ten universal principles of Dharma: Yama’s and Niyama’s (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2-29 and 30).

These principles are practiced in diverse formats:

  • Non-harming(Non Violence) — Ahimsaa (2.35)
  • Truthfulness — Satya (2.36)
  • Non-stealing —Asteya (2.37)
  • Remembering the higher reality — Brahmacharya (2.38)
  • Non-possessiveness — Aparigraha (2.39)
  • Purifying your body and mind — Shoucha (2.40-2.41)
  • Cultivating an attitude of contentment — Santosh (2.42)
  • Training your senses —Tapas (2.43)
  • Inner exploration — Swadhyaya (2.44)
  • Surrendering to your inner divinity — Ishwara Pranidhana (2.45).
  • Karma is an associated with an understanding of Sanatana Dharma. This is a much-maligned word, often mistranslated as fate—which it is not! Karma is action, done after exercise of due diligence to achieve excellence, and taking responsibility for the outcome. Karma holds the key for success. Sanatana Dharma says that one must do their prescribed karma/duty with due diligence, take responsibility for whatever is the outcome, and surrender the fruits of karma to the divine, without any personal attachment lingering around as an expectation of reward.
  • Sanatana Dharma presents its guidance in the larger picture, taking into account life’s continuity through cycles of time, beyond one body frame, and one birth/death cycle. This is called Punarjanma/Janmantara, a progression of life in continuum. The individual, who has a serious intent for breaking out of this binding of cycles of birth and death, is called a seeker of Moksha, the ultimate liberation and freedom. Instructions for such a seeker, the yoga, are of an advanced nature.
  • Life is a journey. According to Bhagavad-Gita, it may be punctuated by a number of births during which one progressively attains increasing enlightenment. The upward path takes one toward self-realization leading to ultimate deliverance. Faith in God, and a sublime life based on purified thinking and living is called Sadhana, which is the means to attain deliverance. The act of Sadhana is also called penance, or Tapas.
  • While Hindus share the collective heritage and legacy of Sanatana Dharma, there is no collective congregational mode of observance of dharma. Each individual has his/her own journey, and pathway based on his /her nature and the extent of his/her spiritual evolution. “Uddharet Atmanaa Atmanam”, or “thou shall deliver thyself”, exhorts the Vedic wisdom.
  • The concept of God in the framework of Sanatana Dharma and God-Worship: Sanatana Dharma is a value system that accepts a Supreme Divinity as One God. A Hindu Temple, or Devaalaya/ Deva-Sthana, is an important community space where people comes together, for socio-religious interactions, and services. The literal meaning of the word Devaalaya/Deva-Sthana is house of God.
  • In the evolution of Vedanta, at some historical phase, the society found it difficult to grasp the abstract conceptualization of the Supreme Divinity as presented in Shrutis. Agamas which came in to being around 3000 BC, facilitated the worship of a Supreme Being and deities through their iconic representations (pratima) as images or idols, both at temples and at This may have been the beginning of the temple tradition, a prominent feature of modern Hindu Society. The earliest temples seem to be a part of Indian society as early as 300 BC.
  • The above understanding of Temple Worship implies that people who build and maintain temples must bear in mind the supreme necessity of taking responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of this space in the ethos of Dharma. The temple must be a place which is sacred, sanctifying, and free from ego-centric practices including money, play, and ethically questionable acts. Likewise, the overt stress on architecture, opulence, and a vulgar display of wealth do not go well with the essence of what the Devaalaya symbolizes. Unlike other faiths, a Hindu temple is not a place of congregational worship. “Pratimayam tu sannidhyam archakasya tapobalat” exhorts Sanatana Dharma. The presence of Divinity in the idol is determined by the spiritual power and dedication of the person who worships. It is tragic to observe that many modern temples ignore this cardinal principle of temple worship. In the temple it is important to preserve an atmosphere conducive to true meditation in the spirit of Yoga.
Rameshwar Temple
Rameshwar Temple
Dwaraka Temple
Dwaraka Temple
  • A Hindu temple has the central theme; a temple is abode of the deity, also serves as a community space, and a socio-cultural interaction place. Unlike a church or a mosque, it is not a central place for collective worship of specific faith/doctrines, and practices or discourse on scriptures by reading scripture-texts. Each Hindu considers their home (or to be more specific, one’s own body) as the abode of Supreme Divinity. There is a prayer corner (pooja-gruha), a place for daily prayers in homes. More than that, each person believes the God is in his/her heart, and living a righteous life itself is an act of worship. This is the essence of all three pathways to deliverance known as Yoga, described above.
  • In modern, diasporic society, as well as in India, newer temples are consecrated with awe-inspiring capital outlay, and grandeur. There is also much talk about shaping our temples as institutions that teach Vedantic doctrines. If this idea has to really come to fruition, it is important to consider the essential prerequisites for a teaching institution. The priest, or his team, have to transcend their ritualistic expertise, and have to have a sound grounding and scholarship in the understanding of scriptural texts. It is a difficult transition from temples to universities—formal or non-formal. The best model would be to link and build a creatively supported, well-staffed guru-kul to work as a part of the temple. Such a setup will be effective in keeping the torch of Vedantic teaching alive for the younger generation.
  • Our earliest temples were built at exotic spots of natural beauty like a mountain top (Badarkashrama or Manas Sarowar Kailas Temple), or deep, subterranean cave, or snow cave (Amarnath), or a seashore (Rameswaram and Dwaraka), or river confluence (Haridwar and Allahabad). These temples were accorded special importance, were to be visited by seekers, and signified as Teertha Kshestra (special places of pilgrimage). Many holy places are identified along the banks of three principal rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, and Sindhu. Benares (Varanasi/Kashi), situated on the bank of river Ganga, in many ways is considered the epicenter of Sanatana Dharma. One can easily perceive the genius of the conception which encourages people to travel, and thus broaden their horizon, and at the same time enjoy the splendor of pristine nature combined with serene meditation. Borne out of this concept is the practice of teertha-yatra (pilgrimage to the holy places), a practice of Sanatana Dharma.

What is the state of the practice of Sanatana Dharma?

The passage of time, the march of human civilization to modernity, and powerful forces such as globalization, with its overt emphasis on material progress, has eroded the practice of Sanatana Dharma, worldwide. Today, human civilization is at crossroads. To a perceptive mind, planet Earth is not a pretty sight. On the one hand, there is incredible progress due to the march of science and technology, and its discoveries and inventions which border on the miraculous. Never before was human comfort the main theme of a civilization. Nature, the environment, and the economy are the first line victims of the endless quest for human comfort. More than half of the original species of animal and vegetable kingdom have already become extinct. Many are added each year to the list of endangered species. Climate change and the rise of sea levels are prime concerns today.

Human population has exploded at an exponential rate [i]since the nineteenth century. In the year 1800, the world population was approximately 800 million. By the dawn of the twentieth century, it doubled to 1.6 billion. By 2000, the turn of the millennia, it was 6 billion. It is projected to reach 10 billion or more by the end of this century.

[i] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

There is a concept that the carrying capacity of the Earth, if crossed over, will result in disastrous consequences for all life on earth. We are thus on the brink of such a disaster. While population explosion is one of the most important factors in today’s world crisis, it is only a part of the picture. The world faces an equally serious crisis—what has been termed a multiple E crisis. These are periodic, economic crises of major magnitudes:

  • Environmental crises, already referred to,
  • Energy crisis, where the world fossil fuels face major depletion without alternative energy sources growing sufficiently in speed or magnitude as alternatives,
  • Educational crisis of a major magnitude, with inequitable opportunities for the worlds’ young students quality education,
  • Ethical crisis, not in the least, where a universal decline in ethical standards is unleashing a culture of might makes right, and where the ends justify the means, instead of the other way around. The result is that intolerance, violence, and hatred abound in our societies.

A peace pledge project report says that since the end of World War II in 1945, there have been over 250 major wars and armed conflicts in which over 50 million people have been killed (mostly civilians), and tens of millions made homeless, and countless people bereaved. In terms of history, the twentieth century stands out as the bloodiest, and most brutal; there have been three times more people killed in wars the last ninety years than in the previous five hundred years. Add to this, a horror of our current century: the destruction unleashed by terrorism, which not only indiscriminately, and wantonly kills innocent victims the world over, but afflicts the world more by its destabilization, and disruption of normal life on earth. That the most fanatic forms of terrorism are based on overzealous religious frenzy adds to its dark and foreboding threat that shakes the foundations of human civilization.

It is not our intention to paint a gloomy picture, to dim our attitude for positive living. The point of this dark and discouraging scenario is to underline that human behavior has transcended a value system that allows for a sustainable and balanced world as defined by Sanatana Dharma. This brings to the crucial point of understanding Sanatana Dharma, not as an exclusive quest in a spiritual life, but to define and focus all on a way of living which leads to peace, progress, and sustainability of life on earth.

On the surface, It is not hard to see how a civilization that delivered the great concept, and laid emphatic stress on the practice of Sanatana Dharma according to the basic principles of equitable and sustainable living that it translates to, eroded in the course of time. To arrive at an understanding of this erosion of an entire way of living, and of the process of degradation of the socio-cultural integrity of the underlying value system that developed in a society that lived it from some nine thousand years ago until our own age, is, to say the least, a complex and nearly impossible task. There are economic, social, technological, geopolitical issues inextricably linked to the sociological and anthropological evolution of the ancient society itself that underlie a process. The difficulties of the analytical process of this entire paradigm, or even to comprehend it in a rational way is mind-boggling.

Population Explosion
Population Explosion
Population Distribution
Population Distribution
Lets save our Planet Earth
Lets save our Planet Earth

If Sanatana Dharma is understood as a way of living that is consistent or conducive to sustainable life on earth, and/or purposeful and meaningful human life, especially, then one can understand why it eroded. The society became more complex, in numbers and quality of living became more competitive. The “live and let live” principle of sustainability was compromised by the survival instinct. This triggered a scary, vicious cycle of degradation of quality of life, due to the prevailing ‘might over right’ practice of exploitation. When dwelling spaces became scarce for a tribal group, the first act was to cut the surrounding trees, and destroy the environment, making space for the inhabitants. This process multiplied on an exponential global scale, led to what we are encountering today: vanishing of the living species and their habitat, impact on climate, and overall depletion of earth’s natural resources. As survival instincts encroached on others’ territories, the conquest and colonization processes were born and grew. Furthermore, ego, greed, and other negative endowments of the human constitution broke the bonds of reasonableness, and landed the society into an uncontrollable and unstable mode of decline.

Perhaps this kind of analysis is simplistic, but one can see that the compromise of indispensable laws of sustenance simply starts an inexorable destructive process that is hard to stop or reverse; it places the society and its members in a predator mode, both internally as well as externally.

The stabilizing forces that keep the society from falling prey to the disintegrating processes lie in the leadership of the society, and the culture of education, including education about natural laws, and in our own human responsibility which is based on an exquisite understanding among us humans, and our role and responsibility in the universe—in mundane living, as well as in spiritual dimensions. Such molding in this role begins in the family, with parents nurturing the child; it includes peers, teachers, and the state itself as the child grows to adulthood, and becomes a responsible citizen, and heads his or her own family.

One therefore has to conclude that the stabilizing forces of the society are subsumed in what we call as Sanatana Dharma, or the quintessential laws that are eternally valid, and effective. Contrary to the narrow meaning that many give to Sanatana Dharma—the tradition and way of living of Hindus in India, or the legacy of an ancient civilization which had a glorious history but has little relevance or application to the complexities or challenges of modern life—the unifying edicts of Sanatana Dharma, considered globally, could act as a panacea to many of our world’s ills. Yoga practices have spread like magic to all parts of the world, and millions worldwide have adopted it as pathway for health and wellness, and as a means of exploring inner tranquility. Centers of medical excellence and top medical institutions have yoga as part of their establishment. Yoga is utilized in diverse medical conditions, for rehabilitation from major illness, for countering pain and suffering, and for restoring from a crippling illness. It is in this perspective that we present the global relevance of Sanatana Dharma.

In portraying an essential glimpse of Sanatana Dharma, we are aware of its many versions and schools of thought, many metaphysical constructs that often seem to contradict each other without violating the basic concept of holism that underlies the perennial wisdom of Sanatana Dharma. We have no sides to take, no dogma to assert, and no arguments to establish the supremacy of one school over the other. We have attempted humbly to produce a basic “satellite view” of Sanatana Dharma as we comprehend it.

One of the teachings of Sanatana Dharma is Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah. If one protects, preserves, and practices Dharma, he or she is protected in turn by Dharma itself! This summarizes the main guideline for understanding the relationship between the seeker and Dharma.

Sanatana Dharma is often used synonymously with Hinduism. While it bears a similar connotation; but the term Hinduism is a historically restrictive term. It has a limitation as well as a negative connotation by the suffix “-ism”[i] to the word Hindu. A better term would be Hindu Dharma.

This then, is the saga of Sanatana Dharma—the truly universal doctrine which is the sublime guideline of living. Sanatana Dharma is relevant, and eternal, and applies to all on planet Earth. It involves no proselytization, no departure from what one practices, and at the same time it provides a creative way of life to preserve, foster, and facilitate purposeful living with basic principles of reverence for all life, mutual respect for all streams of thought, an everlasting quest for knowledge, and a limitless zest and enthusiasm for purposeful living. The genius of Sanatana Dharma lies in its flexibility to suit all cultures, religions, and modes of thought with exquisite sensitivity, and respecting individual’s freedom of choice.

We truly conceive Sanatana Dharma in such a universal framework, and believe that the real challenge of our millennium is to resolve to revisit the source contents of the great civilization of a bygone era summarized in this essay. While pursuing the wonderful fruits of science and technology, the crying need of our global society is to develop a new millennial strategy; to adopt the core wisdom of Santana Dharma, and apply it to the governing principles of the twenty-first century global society for our survival, according to the ethos of each country and community.

Acknowledgements and References

The author expresses his gratitude for the assistance of Dr. B.V.K. Sastry. Dr. Sastry is a well-known scholar in Yoga and Samskrit studies, and is a consultant to Jijnyasa foundation.

[1] (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion  )

[2]   Darshanas, an important section of the philosophical texts of Sanatana Dharma , which are the basics of six systems of Indian philosophy : ( Nyaya Vaisheshika, Yoga-Samkhya, Purva meemaamsaa  and Uttara Vedanta   )  evolved from the minds of the Risihi’s offering  various metaphysical  sciences with varied perspectives on nature and  it’s relation shop of the universe , the living entities and the Supreme Being.   Uttara Mimamsa is identical with Vedic system and it is termed as Vedanta. { * There are also Non-Vedantic systems of belief in Ancient  India. They are Charvaka, Lokayatika, Aikantika, Jaina and Bauddha -which do not accept Vedic authority. Amongst these, Jainism and Buddhism evolved as separate sectarian religions.  The latter prevailed widely in ancient times; but it was ultimately spread outside India without much following in its home land.

[3] YagurVeda

[4]  See under Main theme: Professor K T Pandurangi’s article on Nasadiya Sukta.

[5] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

[6] A distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory; an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ism  )