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Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers - Addressing the Facts and Myths of Sanatana Dharma

Q. What is the difference between Yoga and Sanatana Dharma?

A. There is no difference between them. These are just two terms for the same spiritual tradition. Sanatana Dharma is the world-view and philosophy. While Yoga is Sanatana Dharma in actual practice.
Sadly, when most people hear the word "Yoga", they tend to think only in terms of the physical disciplines of Yoga. Yoga is much more than just an effective way to become more flexible, healthy and fit. Yoga is a philosophy, a spiritual path, and an ancient world-view. Yoga is a tradition with thousands of years of history, a vast canon of sacred literature, and a lineage of teachers who have guided its development and preserved its teachings for the benefit of modern humanity. Yoga and Sanatana Dharma are one.
In the same way that followers of Yoga are called Yogis, followers of Sanatana Dharma are called Dharmis. If you practice Sanatana Dharma, then you are a Dharmi.

Q. How old is Sanatana Dharma?

A. There are several closely allied opinions on this subject. Scholars of South Asian religions are - at the very least - of the opinion that Sanatana Dharma represents one of the oldest spiritual traditions known to humanity. Most of these scholars go as far as to say that it is probably the oldest spiritual path on earth. Dharmis would certainly agree with this latter view. The oldest writings known to humanity are the Vedas, the revealed scriptures of Sanatana Dharma, which date back to perhaps 3800 B.C.E. This is when they were first put into writing; these sacred scriptures are known, however, to have been transmitted orally from generation to generation for an extensive period of time previous to even this date.
Followers of Sanatana Dharma themselves hold the view that this spiritual tradition, known in the ancient, sacred language of Sanskrit as "Sanatana Dharma," is an eternal and ever-present (even if not ever-visible) way of life. No one actually knows when Sanatana Dharma was first started. Both practitioners of Dharma spirituality, as well as all academicians, agree that there was no one specific time in known history when the path of Dharma was founded. Additionally, there was no one individual - a prophet, saint or priest - who can be claimed as the founder of the religion. As far as followers themselves are concerned, Sanatana Dharma was never actually founded. It is an eternal spiritual phenomenon that is as old as the Earth herself.
Moreover, Dharma (God's Natural Law) is the sustainer of the Earth. This is indicated by the meanings of the two words that constitute the very name of this culture: sanatanameans “eternal” and dharma means “natural law or way."
Sanatana Dharma is thus: The Eternal Natural Way.
Sanatana Dharma is a way of life and world-view that is also trans-geographical. Sanatana Dharma does not pertain only to India. It is not the “religion of India.” Rather, concrete evidence of Sanatana Dharma are to be found in many of the ancient cultures of the world. We see ideas and practices that are very similar to Dharma philosophy, not only in ancient India, but also in Chinese culture, Native American, Celtic, Greco-Roman, Nordic, Egyptian, Mayan, Mesopotamian, and Persian cultures, as well as many others.
The concept of "Dharma", as the natural law inherent in our cosmos, is found in almost all ancient civilizations. In Chinese, Dharma is translated as "Tao". In Ancient Egyptian, it is known as "Ma'at". In Latin it is called "Liga Natura" (Natural Law). In ancient Persian Dharma is known as "Asha". The great Twentieth Century Italian philosopher, Baron Julius Evola, refers to this concept as "Tradition". There is a word for Dharma in almost every ancient language on earth. So when we speak of "Dharma", we are not just referring to some sect, denomination or creed. Rather, we are referring to those eternal spiritual principles that serve as the very foundation of all authentic religious experience.

Q. What’s the difference between being a follower of Sanatana Dharma and being Indian? Are they the same thing?

A. No. Though the two are often unfortunately confused as being the same, being a follower of Sanatana Dharma (a Dharmi) and being Indian have nothing to do with each other. Sanatana Dharma is a religion; being Indian is an ethnicity.
Very simply, just like Catholicism is a religion, while being Irish is a nationality, in the exact same way, Sanatana Dharma is a religious tradition, while being Indian is a nationality. Not every ethnic Indian is necessarily a follower of Sanatana Dharma. In addition to finding Indian Dharmis, one will also find Indians who are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jewish or even atheists. Conversely, not every person who practices Dharma spirituality is necessarily of Indian ancestry. There are American Dharmis, Canadian Dharmis, British Dharmis, Russian Dharmis, Japanese Dharmis, Argentinian Dharmis, Iranian Dharmis, Indonesian Dharmis, etc.
The followers of Sanatana Dharma are represented by almost every race, nationality, language, and ethnic group in the world. Today, there are at least one billion people who identify themselves to one degree or another as followers of Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma is a philosophy, a spiritual culture, a world-view and a way of life that is open to, and welcoming of, all people without discrimination. It is not a race. Regardless of your race, nationality, ethnicity, gender or language, you are welcome to practice Sanatana Dharma.

Q. How many followers of Sanatana Dharma are there in the world?

A. There are close to one billion followers of Sanatana Dharma in the world today. The majority of these Dharmis live in Asia - India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, etc. Approximately 85% of the population of India are followers. However, Dharmis can be found living happily in almost every country on earth. There are about 5 million people currently practicing Sanatana Dharma, for example, living in the U.S.
Interestingly, not every American who practices Sanatana Dharma, however, is necessarily consciously aware of the fact that they are following the ancient tradition of Sanatana Dharma. At least 5 million people in the U.S. do consciously identify themselves as followers of Sanatana Dharma. Of these 5 million American followers, about 1 1/2 million are of Indian descent. The other 3 1/2 million are non-Indian American practitioners.

Q. Do those who practice Dharma spirituality follow a set of scriptures?

A. Absolutely! In fact the very definition of a follower of Sanatana Dharma is one who accepts the teachings and guidance of the revealed scriptures of Sanatana Dharma. The canon of sacred scriptures that guide Sanatana Dharma is known as the Veda. The word “Veda” itself comes from the Sanskrit verb root "vid" and literally means “to know." The Vedic literature is the most ancient writing in world history and is composed of a vast library of beautifully written texts devoted to a wide array of subjects including: philosophy, theology, sacred arts, medicine, architecture, ancient sciences, politics, economics, social science, and sacred stories (divya-katha).
Of all these many ancient and intriguing writings, the most famous in the West is probably the Bhagavad Gita. When J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb, first witnessed the power of the first atomic explosion, in awe he quoted a verse of the famous Bhagavad Gita: "Time am I, the destroyer of all worlds." In addition to theBhagavad Gita, the most important sacred texts in the Dharma tradition include the Yoga Sutras, Narayana Upanishad, Narada Bhakti Sutras, Lakshmi Tantra and Bhagavata Purana, among others. Sincere followers of Sanatana Dharma use the immense wisdom of these sacred texts as guides to successful living.

Myth: Followers of Sanatana Dharma worship cows.

Fact: Actually, Dharmis respect all forms of life. Indeed, one of the major tenets of Sanatana Dharma is known as ahimsa, or non-violence. Rather than just being limited to the human population, the Dharma concept of non-violence extends itself to all the living beings who inhabit God’s creation, whether they are humans or animals. For this reason, Sanatana Dharma teaches the positive lifestyle of vegetarianism and respect for the earth.
Cows serve a highly symbolic function in our tradition. In the same way that a fish symbolizes the highest belief of the Christian faith, or the crescent moon represents Islam, the cow is simply representative of the life-affirming teachings of Dharma. Cows represent the sacredness of motherhood and the abundance of God’s creation. As a sacred symbol, followers of Sanatana Dharma respect cows and try to protect them from harm; we don’t worship cows any more than Christians worship fish, or Muslims worship the moon!

Myth: Followers of Sanatana Dharma are idol worshipers.

Fact: Followers of Sanatana Dharma are not idol worshipers. We do, however, employ sacred imagery in our worship, and as focus points to concentrate on during meditation. These sacred images can be in the form of a statue, a portrait, or a mandala or yantra. A similar use of sacred imagery is found in almost every other religion on earth. This practice is similar to how Catholics venerate statues of saints, Protestants pray at the cross and Muslims pray toward the Ka'aba.
Followers of Sanatana Dharma are certainly intelligent enough to understand that the Unlimited ultimately cannot be fully expressed in a limited statue or image. Simultaneously, however, if God truly is omnipresent and omnipotent, then He certainly has the ability to make Himself present in a sacred image if He so chooses. Moreover, if God is truly merciful and good, then He would want to choose to make Himself as accessible to His devotees as possible. Such is the grace of God.
It is with this understanding in mind that followers of Sanatana Dharma engage in the ancient science of archana-seva, or deity worship. The practice of employing sacred imagery is a very powerful tool for showing our devotion to God, for meditation, and for making spiritual progress. This fact is actually acknowledged and practiced by most of the world’s religions. Followers of Sanatana Dharma are, therefore, not “idol worshipers".

Myth: Sanatana Dharma is a polytheistic spiritual tradition. They worship many gods, not the one supreme God.

Fact: Sanatana Dharma is not in any way a polytheistic spiritual tradition. Rather, Sanatana Dharma teaches a philosophically advanced form of panentheistic monotheism. We believe that God is in essence one (eka) being. God is completely transcendent in relation to God’s creation, yet God is also fully immanent and present in all things perceivable and conceivable. For all followers of Sanatana Dharma, there is only one, ultimate, supreme God. This God is the one Supreme Lord - the ontological source and foundation of all subjective and objective reality. In addition to the one supreme God, Sanatana Dharma also understands that there are a large variety of very powerful being in our cosmos who, while serving as benevolent guides and powers, are all subservient to the one supreme being. Arguably, every religion on earth believes in this concept.
In a similar way that other religions believe in a multitude of lesser divine beings, sometimes known as angels, divinities, demigods, etc., followers of Sanatana Dharma believe that our universe is alive with beneficent beings, called devas (masculine) anddevis (feminine) in the ancient Sanskrit language. These devas, however, are all servants of the one Supreme Lord, and are never to be mistakenly confused with the Supreme Lord. While followers of Sanatana Dharma respect these devas, and even propitiate them in times of need, we also readily acknowledge that these devas, too, have their origin and sustenance in the one Supreme Lord. Their power is very limited; they are mortal (having life-spans ranging from ten-thousand, or 100 thousand, to even billions of years, but still, very mortal); and they are finite souls endeavoring to know God like the rest of us.
God is known as Narayana for followers of Dharma spirituality. The name Narayana means "The Sustainer of All Beings". Followers of Sanatana Dharma are thus panentheistic monotheists, worshipers of one supreme God, in every sense of the word. Sanatana Dharma is not in any way a polytheistic tradition.

Myth: Sanatana Dharma tends to be very “mystical;" it is not a world-view that stresses reason and philosophy.

Fact: Actually, Sanatana Dharma represents a very systematic and deeply rational world-view. Sanatana Dharma is a tradition that is based upon the two complimentary tools of rationality (anumana) and practical experience (pratyaksha). Both reason and personal spiritual experience are necessary to make real spiritual advancement. Without reason and discernment, spirituality becomes fanatical and sentimental; thus leading to the types of fundamentalist violence witnessed in the history of the Abrahamic religions. But, conversely, without practical, vivid experience of the Divine, spirituality can become merely a dry and theoretical academic enterprise.
Dharma spirituality unites intellect and experience in the service of knowing Truth. The long history of Sanatana Dharma includes many vivid examples of the most intellectually challenging philosophers, thinkers and scholars known to humanity. Some of these great philosophers include: Patanjali, Gautama, Jaimini, Nimbarka, Vyasa, Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Jiva Gosvami, Vedanta Deshika, Vijnana Bhikshu, and countless others. Whether speaking of metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, ethics, psychology, literary criticism, poetry, aesthetics, logic, or propositional analysis, there is no idea, concept or world-view of importance that has not been debated and thoroughly explored by traditional Vedic philosophical texts.
Historically, there are seven allied schools of philosophy in the tradition of Sanatana Dharma. These include Nyaya (the school of logic and epistemology), Samkhya (speculative physics), Vedanta (metaphysical ontology), Vaisheshika (phenomenal ontology), Vyakarana (linguistics), Mimamsa (causality and cosmology), and Yoga itself.
Thus, far from an un-intellectual tradition, a proper understanding of Sanatana Dharma is predicated upon reason and discernment.

Myth: Dharmis all sleep on beds of nails.

Fact: Um...no.

Can I become a Dharmi (a follower of Sanatana Dharma)?

You are welcome to join the global Sanatana Dharma community.
Sanatana Dharma welcomes all sincere seekers who wish to adopt Sanatana Dharma as their spiritual path. These are a few things you can do to get started in your practice of a Dharmic lifestyle. By protecting Dharma and supporting your spiritual teacher, you can become a great example for your community.
Step 1. Beginning a Dharmic Lifestyle
There is no formal conversion process for becoming a follower of Dharma. After all, how does a person “convert” to the Way of Nature? In order to be welcomed into the Sanatana Dharma community, you simply need to have a well-informed understanding and personal acceptance of the principles of Dharma, and to then declare yourself a Dharmi (follower of Sanatana Dharma). The following steps will help you with this process.
  1. Consider becoming vegetarian.
  2. Begin reading the Bhagavad-Gita, the most important Dharma scripture.
  3. Learn how to practice spiritual meditation.
  4. Understand and accept the principles of karma/reincarnation.
  5. Join the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a local Sanatana Dharma temple or Satsangha group.
Step 2. Becoming a Practicing Dharmi (follower of Dharma)
After declaring yourself a Dharmi, you may want to then deepen your understanding and practice of Dharma by incorporating a serious spiritual practice into your daily life. The best way to do this is under the guidance of a qualified and knowledgeable guru, or spiritual teacher. The following steps will help you with this deepening of your practice.
  1. Study the philosophy and teachings of Dharma under the guidance of a qualified guru.
  2. Adopt a healthy spiritual lifestyle, including vegetarianism, and following theethical principles of Dharma.
  3. Practice regular spiritual meditation, mantras and puja.
  4. Seek initiation from a qualified guru (spiritual teacher). Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is one of the most highly qualified and authentic guru in the tradition of Sanatana Dharma in the world today. Please contact us if you would like to be considered as a serious candidate for initiation by Sri Acharyaji.
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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