By David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri)
Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma
Sanatana Dharma, which means the eternal or universal tradition, is the ancient name for what we today call the Hindu religion. It refers to a dharma, a teaching, law or truth that exists in perpetuity, that is all-encompassing, embracing the full spectrum of human spiritual experience, culminating in the direct realization of the Divine as one’s own true Self.
Through the course of time and human limitations, Hinduism may have taken on various elements which do not reflect this eternal essence of universal truth. However, the power of Sanatana Dharma continues behind the Hindu tradition, particularly in its Yoga and Vedanta spiritual forms, providing it with a depth, breadth and vitality that perhaps no other spiritual tradition on Earth is able to sustain.
One can find in Hinduism all the main religious teachings of the world from nature worship, to theism, to the formless Absolute. One can find practices of devotion, yoga, mantra and meditation in a great plethora of expressions, including the world’s most sophisticated spiritual philosophies of Self-realization. Hinduism is not anchored to any single prophet, book or historical revelation that can tie down the expanse of its vision. It does not subordinate the individual to an outer religious authority, but encourages everyone to discover the Divine within their own awareness.
Indeed, if one were to synthesize all the existing religions of the world, one would end up with a teaching much like Hindu Dharma. Hinduism has the devotional theism of western religions, the karma theory and meditation practices of Buddhism, and the nature worship of native traditions, all unified at a deep philosophical and experiential level into one harmonious fabric. Hinduism appears like the common root from which these various religious expressions have diversified or perhaps, departed.
Global Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism in India
Yet though Hinduism has been its main expression through history, Sanatana Dharma as a universal and eternal tradition cannot be reduced to the forms of Hinduism or to a tradition belonging only to India. Sanatana Dharma has counterparts in other lands and traditions. In fact, one can argue, wherever the higher truth is recognized, that is Sanatana Dharma, regardless of the names, forms or personalities involved.
If we look at the ancient world prior to the predominance of western monotheistic traditions, we find much that resembles Hinduism and Sanatana Dharma, whether among the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Celts, Persians, Chinese or Mayas to name but a few. India is the land in which Sanatana Dharma has taken the deepest root and maintained its best continuity. Hinduism is the religion in which Sanatana Dharma has best survived. But Santana Dharma is relevant to all peoples and must be recognized throughout the world for the planet to achieve its real potential for the unfoldment of consciousness.
One then may ask, “If Hinduism is an expression of Sanatana Dharma, why does it appear to be limited to India like a local ethnic religion, rather than a universal approach?” The first thing to realize in this regard is that a universal approach will always seek to create local forms. For example, a universal approach to diet will encourage people to eat the local food that has the best nutritional content. It will not emphasize the same food items for people in all lands and climates.
Sanatana Dharma will always create a great diversity of local forms, and never aim at uniformity. Uniformity is not a sign if universality, but of artificiality. Dharma is not a set of fixed beliefs or practices but a way of adaptation to the living truth that is always changing in form though one in law and principle. Even in India we see a great deal of local diversity in how Hinduism is presented and expressed in the different parts of the country. This variety that exists within Hinduism is probably greater than the variety found within any other religion. Yet through all of this diversity there remains a clear unity of Hindu thought and culture.
Sanatana Dharma is central to the soul of India as a nation. India’s place in human history is to function as the global guru or spiritual guide rooted in Sanatana Dharma as Sri Aurobindo once eloquently proclaimed. The traditional culture of India is infused with yoga, meditation and experiential spirituality of all types. This means that India cannot flourish as a country without a recognition of Sanatana Dharma and an honoring of its values on all levels of India’s culture.
However, besides its connection to Sanatana Dharma, India has another side, much like many other countries and cultures. There are divisive forces that deny this dharmic cultural unity, whether in the name of political ideologies like Marxism, other religious traditions like Christianity and Islam, or sectarian trends within Hinduism itself. Even in Hindu society, we too frequently see an emphasis on clan, family, and community that overrides any greater national interests or even the greater needs of Hinduism itself. This narrow vision can reduce Hindu Dharma to an Indian tradition only, or it can emphasize one Hindu sect or guru while ignoring the greater background of Sanatana Dharma.
One encounters this problem particularly when non-Indians seek to become Hindus. They are often told that one must be born a Hindu and cannot convert to Hinduism, which is not true historically or Hinduism could have never spread so far as it has. We also see this problem with Hindus who have migrated outside of India. They form their own religious communities, which is admirable, but do not make much of an effort to bring non-Indians into these, even when such individuals may approach them seeking to join Hindu Dharma. This further gives the impression that Hinduism is a religion for a particular ethnic group only, not a universal path. It can turn away westerners who have a genuine receptivity to Sanatana Dharma.
The Revival of Hinduism through Sanatana Dharma
To counter such attempts to limit Hinduism and to bring its teachings out for the benefit of all, we need a revival of Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal or universal tradition, for the entire planet. Such a global projection of Sanatana Dharma does not deny the importance of Hinduism as central to India, its culture, its past and its future. But it emphasizes a global and expansive Hinduism, not one that contracts itself according to geographical or ethnic boundaries.
Such a bold assertion of Sanatana Dharma makes Hinduism relevant to all peoples, all religions and all cultures. It removes Hinduism from being restricted to local forms or controlled by the dictates of any particular group. This expansive Sanatana Dharma will naturally honor India and seek a revival of Hinduism in India. But it will do so with a global vision and a linking up with Hindus and dharmic groups worldwide.
There have already been important movements in this in direction. In fact, one can argue that the global spread of Hindu teachings like Yoga, Vedanta and Ayurveda is a sign of Sanatana Dharma arising at a global level. Gurus from India and their teachings have spread to all countries.
Unfortunately, many modern teachers from India have left the greater portion of Hinduism behind in their attempt to gain a broader recognition, to the extent of denying their Hindu roots and not educating their disciples in the greater Hindu tradition, its importance and its values. Instead of honoring the Hindu connection with Sanatana Dharma, they promote an artificial unity of all religions that puts Hindu views and practices in the background or ignores them altogether.
Such teachers state that people can add the spiritual practices of the Hindu tradition, like Yoga and Vedanta, on to any other cultural or religious foundation. They do not encourage people to study and honor the Hindu tradition itself but rather to stay within their own culture’s religious tradition, even if it is anti-Hindu. They do not emphasize Hinduism’s special connection to Sanatana Dharma, but try to make Hindus feel that all other religions are the same as their own and no real differences exist between them.
In this regard, such teachers of universal spirituality are making a mistake in their understanding of dharma. Sanatana Dharma is not just a spiritual path or what is called a Moksha Dharma, a way of liberation. Sanatana Dharma shows a dharmic way for all aspects of life starting with personal life-style practices, to the family, education, business, intellectual culture and even politics (all the spheres of dharma, artha, kama and moksha).
Unfortunately, the teachers who try to universalize the Moksha Dharma of Hinduism and apply it to all religions leave out the other aspects of Dharma, which includes the dharmic foundation for both social and individual life. A new resurgent global Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma will project all aspects of dharma and not be limited to a Moksha Dharma. It is important that we replace this “radical universalism” of all religions being the same, which is a misinterpretation and diminution of Sanatana Dharma, with a global Hindu and dharmic resurgence that affirms Sanatana Dharma as both a spiritual path and a way of life on all levels.
It is not only Yoga and Vedanta that have universal value, so does the foundation of Hindu Dharma on all levels. This includes Hindu rituals, which are a science of interacting with the cosmic forces, Hindu temples and holy places which are conduits for cosmic energy, Vedic sciences like Ayurveda, Vedic astrology and Vastu, Hindu music and dance and other Hindu art forms. These outer aspects of Hindu or dharmic living can be developed and adapted in different cultural contexts but their basic principles are as enduring as the great truth of Vedanta that there is only one Self in all beings.
On this foundation of dharmic living, both in terms of our outer culture and our inner spiritual practices, people from all lands and cultures can embrace Sanatana Dharma. They can find in Hindu thought a model for an authentic dharmic culture and spirituality that addresses their own individual, social and environmental needs, which they can use to restructure their lives as way of Self-realization. In that dharmic approach, all divisive religious identities will disappear into a greater unity of consciousness, not only with other human beings, but with the entire universe.