The Meaning of Sanatana Dharma

The prevalence of Dharma, under a variety of different names, has been demonstrated to exist in almost every pre-Christian civilization and culture in the world. It is thus the common heritage of a large majority of the earth’s inhabitants. As expressed in the specific tradition of “Hinduism” (properly known as “Sanatana Dharma”), the metaphysical concept of Dharma is both a spiritual path, as well as a comprehensive ideology and world-view that directly informs the realms of politics, social theory, economics, culture theory, architecture, medicine, religion, aesthetics, martial warfare, philosophy, ethics, mathematics, and every other aspect of human concern.

Though the concept of Dharma is the earliest concept known to humanity, it is a world-view that is hardly relegated to a hoary and obsolete past. Rather, the positive, life-affirming principles of Dharma have proven themselves to be as relevant today as they have ever been. In the following philosophical exposition and practical manifesto of Dharma, we will explore the meaning of Dharma, and how to maximally utilize the unlimited benefits that Dharma can offer us, our families, and our troubled world today.

The earliest instances of the concept of Dharma in world history are first found in the most ancient literature known to humanity, the Vedic literature of India. The Vedas were first composed in Sanskrit approximately 3800 BC. Previous to even this time, this literature is known to have been preserved orally, and passed down from generation to generation before finally being committed to writing. Thus, no one can accurately date the antiquity of the Vedas and consequently of Dharma. Dharma is one of the most ancient concepts known to humanity. The word “Dharma” is found repeatedly throughout the entire corpus of the Vedic scriptures, from the earliest Rig Veda to the Bhagavad Gita. There is almost no scripture in the entirety of the Vedic literature where one will not come across the word “Dharma” as the preeminent name of the religio-philosophical world-view taught in these ancient, sacred texts. Sometimes the word “Dharma” is used by itself; at other times it is used in conjunction with other qualifying words, such as “Vaidika Dharma” (Vedic Dharma), “Vishva Dharma” (Global Dharma), “Yoga Dharma” (the Dharma of Union), or more frequently as "Sanatana Dharma" (the Eternal Way). The diversity of adjectival emphasis will vary in accordance with the precise context in which the word is used. Of these terms, the name “Sanatana Dharma” has been the most widely used name of the path of Truth, and is used as far back as the Rig Veda, the very earliest scripture of the Indo-European peoples, and the earliest written text known to humanity. It is also the most philosophically profound and conceptually beautiful name for the path of Truth.

While some reading this work have no doubt encountered the term “Sanatana Dharma” (The Eternal Natural Way) before, not everyone is necessarily as familiar with the full philosophical implications of the term’s meaning. Thus it is necessary to explicate the term’s full meaning in depth. The Sanskrit word "sanatana" is the easier of the two words to translate into non-Sanskritic languages. It denotes that which always is, that which has neither beginning nor end, that which is eternal in its very essence. The concept of eternality that the word “sanatana” is trying to convey is a radically different concept than is ordinarily understood in the Western Abrahamic religions. When the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam employ the concept of eternality, what is usually being communicated is that x thing, having come into being, will never come to an end. In other words, “eternal” for the Abrahamic religions, usually refers only to the future. It is a unidirectional concept. A more accurate term for this Abrahamic concept is thus “everlasting”, rather than “eternal” proper.

In Sanatana Dharma, however, the concept of eternality denotes something quite different from the standard Abrahamic notion. The Dharmic idea of eternality is nuanced with a subtlety and sophistication that is not easily copied in the West. For eternality refers in the Dharmic context to both an infinitely non-ending past, as well as future. In this more expansive and bi-directional model of eternality, the concept of sanatana extends not only into the infinite recesses of the future, but into the past as well. By referring to something as “sanatana”, the idea is that an eternal object will not only never come to an end, but that it has also always existed in the past as well. Something that is eternal has necessary existence. That is, it is not possible to even conceive of such a thing not existing. Thus, God (Brahman), the individual self (atman), prime materiality (jagat, or prakriti), Truth (satya), the Veda (Truth rendered into literary form), and Dharma itself all have necessary existence. They always have been - and they always shall be.

Thus, the Dharma that is the subject of this work is necessarily an ever-living Dharma. The focus of this book is living and dynamic Dharma, and not merely a static concept. The term “living Dharma” is of course a double entendre. This work is dedicated to uncovering how: A) Dharma is alive today, and B) How to live Dharma in today’s world.

What is the Concept of Dharma

Unlike the word “sanatana”, the term ''dharma" is a word that can be properly rendered into the English language only with the greatest of difficulty. This is the case because there is no one corresponding English term that fully renders both the denotative and the connotative meanings of the term with maximal sufficiency. When translators (and especially professors of “South Asian Studies”) have attempted to translate the term “dharma” into English, they have often been forced to betray the real essence of the term, and have instead clumsily relied on secondary attributes of the term’s real meaning. Often “dharma” has been inelegantly translated as “righteousness”, “religion”, “law”, “duty”, “the way”, “morality”, etc. While these terms are not incorrect per se, all of these attempts at translation are merely descriptions of the parts of Dharma. But the actual essence of Dharma lies behind them all.

Rather than merely communicating a nominal subject for which there can be an easy word-for-word equivalency, the Sanskrit term “dharma” is an attempt at communicating the elaborate nuances of a metaphysical concept. So, if we wanted to properly translate into the English language what the term “dharma” is actually attempting to communicate, rather than using a single word to do so, we would need to use a paragraph!

The word “dharma” is etymologically derived from the Sanskrit verb root “dhr”, meaning “to sustain”, “to uphold”, “to support”, etc. And it is in these verbal derivative meanings that we can begin to clearly detect the precise idea that the term “dharma” is attempting to communicate.

The denotative meaning of "dharma" straightforwardly designates an essential attribute of x object - an attribute whose absence renders the object devoid of either rational meaning or existential significance. An existent thing’s dharma is that which constitutes the thing’s very essence, without which, the very concept of the thing would be rendered meaningless. In the pre-Abrahamic (and thus Dharmic) Greco-Roman world, the great Pagan philosopher Aristotle wrote about the inherent essentiality of all individual things, and agreed that all things have a primary essential attribute, without which it would be left devoid of meaning. Everything in existence has a dharma (essential attribute), because everything has an essence. Thus, essence ontologically precedes and gives both form and meaning to existence.

To illustrate the full meaning of this term, we can use the following examples: It is the dharma, or essence, of water to be wet. Without the essential attribute (dharma) of wetness, the concept and existential fact of water loses all meaning. It is literally impossible for us to even imagine what it would mean to drink water that wasn’t wet. Likewise, it is the dharma, or essence, of fire to be hot. If we had a fire that didn’t have the property of heat emanating from it, we wouldn’t have fire at all. The fire’s very essence would be missing. Thus, the existent fire would lose its existence due to a lack of essence. The dharma of space is to be expansive, and the dharma of time is to be ever-progressing. An almost infinite number of similar such examples can be given. Thus it is the intrinsic dharma of any particular thing that makes it unique, and that gives its existence sustenance and meaning. Dharma sustains.

This more straightforward, denotative meaning of dharma is easy enough to comprehend. It is, however, when we come to the more important connotative meaning of the term "dharma" that we then leave the more philosophical concerns of microcosmic physics behind, and then enter the realm of the overtly metaphysical. Going from the microcosmic to the more macrocosmic significance of the term “dharma”, we begin to understand the profound power of this concept.

For, according to the ancient Vedic tradition itself, the very empirical cosmos in which we find ourselves currently situated also has its own inherent dharma, its own essential attributive nature, without which the universe and reality around us becomes meaningless. Just as every individual component of the world around us has its own inherent dharma on a microcosmic scale, similarly, the world itself has its own inherent essential nature. In this more macro-cosmological sense, the term dharma is designed to communicate the view that there is an underlying structure of natural law – a natural and intelligent order - that is inherent in the very intrinsic constitution of Being itself. The universe itself has its own dharma.

The currently dominant secular-materialist world-view, the foundations upon which rests many of the most fundamental presuppositions, dogmas and articles of faith of modernity, postulates a world that is devoid of inherent meaning and purpose. In the opinion of post-Enlightenment Era secular-materialism, our world does not have a transcendent basis upon which it depends, but rather our world is a reality that is ethically relativistic, philosophically meaningless, devoid of a Divine intelligence responsible for its otherwise obvious orderly nature, and is thus a reality that is ultimately rendered absurd.

The Vedic world-view, by stark contrast, sees the universe in a very different light. Our world, according to Dharma, is a place that is replete with inherent meaning, value, and an intelligent design underlying its physical principles and laws, as well as a transcendent purpose that, while not necessarily discernable via empirical means, nonetheless forms a very concrete spiritual basis of all empirical reality. The material, according to Dharma, finds its origin and sustaining ground in the spiritual. The spiritual necessarily precedes the material. The world is here for a purpose – and that purpose is God’s purpose.

The Principles of Dharma:

The following is a short list detailing some of the practical Dharmic values and principles to be lived in everyday life. By adopting a Dharma lifestyle, you can ensure a greater degree of happiness and prosperity both personally, and for society as a whole.

1. Reverence for nature, and deep environmentalism
2. God-centeredness
3. Nobility in all thoughts, words, and deeds
4. Cultivating a Life of Ethical Virtues
5. Recognition of the Feminine aspect of the Divine
6. Unity in Diversity
7. Respect for all Living Beings
8. Organic Living
9. Following a Natural and Organic Approach to Health
10. Meditation
11. Veneration and Reverence for our Ancestors
12. Self-Realization and Self-Knowledge
13. Acquiring Wisdom
14. Health: physical, mental, and spiritual
15. Cleanliness in Body, Mind, and Environment
16. Seeking Excellence in all Things
17. Humility
18. Fearlessness
19. Self-Discipline
20. Strong and Healthy Family Units
21. Admiration of Beauty
22. Honesty
23. Loyalty
24. Simplicity
25. Truthfulness

The word “dharma”, in this more important philosophical sense, refers to those underlying natural principles that are inherent in the very structure of reality, ordering our world as the metaphysical backdrop to the drama of everyday phenomenal existence, and that has their origin in the causeless will of God. Dharma is Natural Law. Thus, if we needed to render the entire term “Sanatana Dharma” into English, we can cautiously translate it as "The Eternal Natural Way".

Sanatana Dharma is a spiritual path that is open to all sincere spiritual seekers regardless of their ethnicity or nationality.

About the Author

Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya

Sri Acharyaji has been practicing and teaching Dharma for over 40 years. With a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is the Founder-Acharya of the International Sanatana Dharma Society and the Director of the Center for Dharma Studies.

Sri Acharyaji is currently recognized as one of the world's foremost scholars on the Yoga tradition, Dharma and meditation, as well as being a truly authentic spiritual teacher.

With a very large international following, Sri Acharyaji is especially renowned for his highly authentic approach to spirituality, his authoritative and scholarly method of teaching, and his clear emphasis on serious spiritual practice and direct experience of self-realization. He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.

Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.

Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.

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