Understanding Sanatana Dharma
THE PHILOSOPHICAL ROOTS OF YOGA
Yoga, and meditation are terms that the vast majority of us are familiar with. What most people are not quite as familiar with, however, are the ancient, rich and profoundly spiritual dimensions of these terms. Yoga and meditation are infinitely more that just a series of calming and effective physical and mental exercises. Rather, Yoga and meditation are an ancient and rich spiritual tradition, philosophy and lifestyle designed to help human beings realize the highest degree of excellence in all they do, and ultimately to know themselves and God.
Sanatana Dharma is another, lesser known, name for the path of Yoga Spirituality. In fact, it can be truthfully said that the practical techniques of Yoga are nothing less than the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma in practice.
Sanatana Dharma is the world’s most ancient culture and the spiritual path of almost one billion of the earth’s inhabitants. Followers of Sanatana Dharma are known as Dharmis (“followers of Dharma”). Though the majority of followers today are Indian (South Asian), Sanatana Dharma is a global spiritual path that has adherents from almost every nationality, race and ethnic group in the world, including an ever-increasing number of Americans. There are approximately 5 million followers in America, of which roughly a third are from India and the majority (3.5 million) are non-Indian Americans (Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, etc.). Statistics aside, Sanatana Dharma represents much more than just a religion in the normative sense of the term; rather, it provides its followers with an entire way of life and with a coherent and rational view of reality.
Sanatana Dharma is by its very essence a term that is devoid of sectarian leanings, denominational prejudices, or ideological divisions. This is evident by the meaning of the very term itself. The two words, “Sanatana Dharma”, come from the ancient Sanskrit language. “Sanatana” is a Sanskrit word that denotes “that which does not cease to be”, “that which is eternal”.
The word “Dharma”, on the other hand, is a term that is only properly rendered into the English language with a bit of difficulty. This is the case because the word “Dharma” is describing, not an object, but rather a profound philosophical concept. Its approximate meaning is “Natural Law,” or “the Natural Way”, or those principles of reality which are inherent in the very nature and design of the universe itself.
Thus the term “Sanatana Dharma” can be roughly translated to mean “The Eternal Natural Way.”
Dharma – Natural Law – is universal. Dharma is eternal. Dharma is nothing less than God’s laws as they are manifest in the natural world around us. Sanatana Dharma is referring to those natural principles and ways of being that are in concert with the Absolute. Being a direct reflection of God’s will in this world, such principles are therefore axiomatic, or unalterable, laws of the cosmos. The term Sanatana Dharma is not referring to something that is open to alteration, speculation or human manipulation. Neither is Sanatana Dharma referring merely to some denominational faith or sectarian belief system. The principles of Dharma are transcendent and eternal laws, and thus applicable to all people for all time.
Sanatana Dharma – the Eternal Natural Way – is the metaphysical basis of all true spirituality.
To give an example of the eternal and natural origin of Dharma, we can compare it to many of the principles of science. The laws of gravity, mathematics or logic, for example are not open to sectarian debate or relative opinion. They transcend sectarian belief, and are true regardless of our belief or disbelief in them.
Gravity, for example, is an inherent law of nature regardless of whether one believes in the law of gravity or not. It’s not that gravity works for Roman Catholics, but it won’t work from Scottish Presbyterians! Rather, anyone who walks off a roof will end up with the same effect: falling to the ground below. Similarly the subtle, metaphysical laws of God known as Dharma transcend all partisan concerns and sectarian affiliation.
Referring to this eternal concept of Dharma by the term “Tradition”, the great Italian philosopher Julius Evola explains Dharma’s universality and eternal nature in this way: “Tradition, in its essence, is something simultaneously meta-historical and dynamic: it is an overall ordering force, in the service of principles that have the chrism of a superior legitimacy (we may even call them ‘principles from above’). This force acts through the generations, in continuity of spirit and inspiration, through institutions, laws, and social orders that may even display a remarkable variety and diversity.” (Julius Evola, Men Among the Ruins, pg.115)
Whether known by the terms Dharma, Tradition, Natural Law, or any other term, the essential nature of Dharma is eternal, universal and axiomatic.
Teachings of Sanatana Dharma
Followers of Dharma Spirituality (Dharmis) believe in one, all-pervasive and all-loving Supreme Being. Though worshiped in different ways, and by different names, in a variety of ways, there is ultimately only one God. God is not Hindu, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. Rather, God is the ultimate inspiration of all sects and religions, and this is the case whether any particular religion acknowledges this truth or not.
Sanatana Dharma teaches panentheistic monotheism – the principle that God is both transcendent and immanent in all things. God is omnipresent in all things. There is no where in which God is not present. God is further away than the furthest star, and closer to you than your own soul. God has unlimited divine names and positive attributes, all of which share fully in God’s transcendent nature.
Every living being is a spiritual being in our deepest-most essence. Our true nature is one of pure spirit (atman). Not all beings, however, may be aware of the fact of their true spiritual nature at present. Thus, we find ourselves presently in a state of illusory separation from God. In reality, of course, we can never be truly separated from God. But we can have the illusion of separation. Our reason for being in existence is to spiritually evolve toward the eventual goal of re-union with God. Dharma teaches that God’s desire is that all living beings will ultimately attain liberation, or moksha.
Personal spiritual development occurs through the closely related processes of karma and reincarnation. The individual soul undergoes the cycle of repeated birth and death – this is known as the wheel of samsara. During each earthly manifestation, an individual’s karma (literally ‘work’ or ‘actions’) determines her future psycho-physical state. Every ethically good act performed by someone results, sooner or later, in happiness and spiritual development; whereas ethically evil actions end only in loss and sorrow. Thus, the principle of karma is an idea that celebrates freedom, since at every moment of our lives, we are all free to create our future states of existence through our present actions and states of consciousness. This philosophical world-view encourages Dharmis to live happily, morally, consciously and humbly, following the path of Eternal Natural Way.
The Dharma way of life has many important facets. Sanatana Dharma is a way of life that is deeply rooted in a sense of ethical concern. Among the many other virtues that Sanatana Dharma seeks to instill in its followers is the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) towards all beings, and compassion for all life. This sense of love and compassion is directed toward animals and the Earth, as well as all of our fellow humans beings. As a result of these highly ethical standards, Dharmis are vegetarians and strongly pro-environment. The personal goal of every follower of Dharma Spirituality is to live life in such a way that she harms none and benefits all whom she encounters.
In addition, it is taught by Sanatana Dharma that the spirit of service and selfless work for others (known in Sanskrit as the principle of seva) bring one’s consciousness closer to that of God. Consequently, it is quite common to witness followers of Dharma Spirituality engaging in a myriad of charitable and educational activities.
For Sanatana Dharma, practical importance is also placed on studying the ancient Vedic scriptures (such as the famous Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras and Narada Bhakti Sutras), temple worship (puja), sacred ritual and personal acts of meaningful spiritual purification.
Yoga and meditation practice are also essential aspects of Sanatana Dharma. The true goal of both being to achieve self-realization and God-consciousness.
The Art of Reason
Perhaps one of the most beautiful aspects of this ancient spiritual path is its tolerance of other people’s cultures, religions, and views. Dharmis believe that “God is one; though sages call Him by many different names” (Rig Veda). Indeed, Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharyaji (one of the most respected and important Dharma teachers alive today) has said that “Sanatana Dharma is the only religion in the world that doesn’t believe that it is the only religion in the world!”
Within the nurturing framework of this path is a tremendous spiritual freedom that encourages and provokes followers of Dharma to think, learn, explore and look inside themselves for the meaning of Sanatana Dharma and of life itself. Dharma encourages us to use both our heads and our hearts in how we make decisions and how we approach God. We must use both our God-given ability to discern Truth from untruth, in addition to using compassion and love in all important decisions. Sanatana Dharma is a path of reason coupled with compassion. There is no room for fanaticism, fundamentalism, or closed-mindedness anywhere in Sanatana Dharma.
How Can I Become a Follower of Dharma Spirituality?
You may actually be one already…and just don’t know it. There are approximately 5 million followers of Sanatana Dharma currently residing in the United States. About 1.5 million of those are of South Asian (Indian) ethnic heritage. The other 3.5 million are non-Indian Americans who accept and practice the teachings of Sanatana Dharma. While most of these 3.5 million non-Indian Americans follow the practices of Sanatana Dharma, believe in many of the most important teachings of Sanatana Dharma, even have gurus (spiritual teachers) or Sanskrit names, despite all these facts, many do not necessarily consciously identify themselves with Sanatana Dharma. Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya has termed these non-Indian Dharmis the “Hidden Hindus” of America.
Here is a test to know if you are already a follower of Sanatana Dharma, and are possibly just not consciously aware of it:
- Do you practice any form of Yoga?
- Are you a vegetarian?
- Do you read the Bhagavad Gita, or other Vedic literature often?
- Do you practice meditation?
- Do you believe in the process of karma and reincarnation?
If your answers to at least four of the above is “Yes”, then you are already following Sanatana Dharma. You are a Dharmi! 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.
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). You may want to then deepen your understanding and practice of Dharma by incorporating a serious spiritual practice into your daily life. The following steps will help you with this deepening of your practice.
- Study the philosophy and teachings of Dharma.
- Adopt a healthy spiritual lifestyle, including vegetarianism, and following the ethical principles of Dharma.
- Practice regular spiritual meditation, mantras and puja.
If you would like to to better understand, appreciate, and consciously practice this wonderful spiritual tradition and how you can practice this path more thoroughly and meaningfully, we hope you will join us on for a class, retreats, or workshop. YogaBoundDeb