“Ramanujacharya has explained the word sanatana as ‘that which has neither beginning nor end,’ so when we speak of sanatana-dharma, we must take it for granted on the authority of Shri Ramanujacharya that it has neither beginning nor end.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, Introduction)Download this episode (right click and save)
“It’s not allowed for you to change religions. You were born into a certain faith. You can’t just decide to switch over to something else. Especially with the faith you are choosing, it can only be adopted through birth. You have to wait until another life for the shift to happen. At least that is what I have heard. For now, better to stick with what your parents kindly gave you.”
Sanatana-dharma is often confused with Hinduism, which is a term born from an outsider’s perspective. To be lumped in with the other major faiths practiced in the world, there is worship of colorful deities, attention to various rituals, and distinctions drawn on the last name, which represents the caste. There are so many deities from which to choose, confusing things even more.
Sanatana-dharma is the more accurate definition, and it is something far beyond the general concept of religion. Vedic literature is comprehensive, illuminating and ever-expanding due precisely to the amazing nature of sanatana-dharma, which stands apart from ordinary religion in many ways.
1. It is not a kind of faith
As the argument from the hypothetical person referenced above says, you shouldn’t change your faith. Religion is equated with faith because at the foundation is a belief in something that can’t be proven; at least visually. Even if God were to appear before us, there is no way to prove the validity of one key property: deathlessness. If God truly lives forever, how can we prove that when eventually we must die?
Sanatana-dharma is not a faith. Taking the Sanskrit definition of the two component terms, it is the essential characteristic of the living being that remains so forever. Sanatana is without a beginning and without an end. Dharma is the essence of something. Sanatana-dharma is the very core of who we are; true for all living entities, not just human beings.
2. It is not tied to the material body
I practice a certain faith while I am in a particular body, namely a human one. The promise is for the afterlife. If I am good, I will go to heaven. Of course the definition of pious behavior is subjective, but as long as I steer clear of egregious acts violating the natural rights of other living beings, then I should be good. Even if I slip up now and then, if I openly declare my allegiance to a particular savior, I am absolved. That person died for my sins.
Sanatana-dharma has nothing to do with the material body. The dharma referenced here is of the spirit soul. Indeed, the foundational teaching to students aspiring to reenter sanatana-dharma is the difference between spirit and matter. The individual travels through different bodies. It is a conditioned soul who travels, remaining the same while the outside continues to change.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
Religion is tied to the ever-changing body, while sanatana-dharma is for the spirit soul. It addresses the travels of the individual and how eternal bliss and happiness can once again be found.
3. It remains the same regardless of time
We have different religions in the world because they were introduced at different times. Even in Vedic culture, which mistakenly goes by the vernacular of “Hinduism,” so many dharmas are included. Dharma in this sense refers to procedures that help to maintain a specific characteristic. For instance, the warrior class has a specific dharma. Following the rules helps them to be true to their temporary identity of administrator/warrior. The priestly class has their own dharma, as do students and householders.
Sanatana-dharma never changes. The essence of the individual is not dependent on outside circumstances. Whether living in an age of truly enlightened beings or suffering through the age of ignorance, quarrel and hypocrisy, the ideal and true engagement of the living being never changes.
4. It is tied to the essence of individuality
As mentioned before, the individual is a spirit soul. This is the essence of individuality. Religion is tailored to the material body, as there is barely a mention of the difference between matter and spirit. Due to time and circumstance, the chosen teacher may not have thought it wise to dig deep into philosophy. A drowning man needs to be rescued first; philosophy will do them little good if they are in peril, in an emergency situation.
Sanatana-dharma is tied to the individual and their essence. It is way beyond the temporary world. Whether in the land of birth and death, mrityu-loka, or the place free of anxieties, Vaikuntha, sanatana-dharma remains the same.
5. The three eternals
Another way to define sanatana-dharma is “the eternal engagement for the eternal living being towards the eternal supreme controller.” Dharma, jiva, and Ishvara. All three are sanatana, or above the influence of time. The jiva is the living entity who has a choice in association, either material or spiritual. Dharma is the way for the jiva to eventually get back to the spiritual while associating with the material. Ishvara is the ultimate beneficiary of dharma. He is the object of service. The real dharma of the individual spirit soul is service, and the only eternal service is that offered to the Supreme Controller, Ishvara. These descriptions have nothing to do with faith, religion, or institution. The truths apply to all living beings.
Like other religions Hinduism one,
Dress and deities, but real differences none.
Opinion of those not in the know,
Sanatana-dharma actual definition so.
Religion commonly equated with faith,
Something to take up, maybe later forsake.
Jiva, dharma and Ishvara terms three,
Eternal all, way for forever happy to be.