Very often we come across the word ‘Sanatan Dharma’ and we connect it with some particular sect or religion but hardly do we take out time to understand the true meaning of ‘Sanatan Dharma’. It is very interesting to understand the true meaning of ‘Sanatan Dharma’. Such understanding if developed with faith and conviction can clear our misconceptions about the various religious systems and raise our consciousness beyond the boundaries of caste, color, creed and nation.
Meaning of Sanatan Dharma
Sanätana-dharma does not refer to any sectarian process of religion. It is the eternal function of the eternal living entities in relationship with the eternal Supreme Lord. Sanätana-dharma refers, as stated previously, to the eternal occupation of the living entity. Sri Rämänujäcärya, a legendry Acharya in the line Bhakti-yoga has explained the word sanätana as “that which has neither beginning nor end,” so when we speak of sanätana-dharma, we must take it for granted on the authority of Sri Rämänujäcärya that it has neither beginning nor end. In other words, Sanatan means eternal and which cannot be restricted within the boundaries of time, space, nation, caste, color or creed.
The word Dharma refers to the intrinsic characteristic of the living being. That means the Dharma of the living being cannot be changed. When we use the word ‘living being or living entity’ we refer to all the spirit souls who are embodied in various species of life. ‘Dharma’ is the characteristic of the soul which is independent of the type of body in which the soul is residing.
Religion vs Dharma
The English world religion is a little different from Sanätana-dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanätana-dharma refers to that activity which cannot be changed. For instance, liquidity cannot be taken from water, nor can heat be taken from fire. To make it clear, we can say that ‘Dharma of sugar is sweetness’.
Similarly, the eternal function of the eternal living entity cannot be taken from the living entity. Sanätana-dharma is eternally integral with the living entity. When we speak of sanätana-dharma, therefore, we must take it for granted on the authority of Sri Rämänujäcärya that it has neither beginning nor end. That which has neither end nor beginning must not be sectarian, for it cannot be limited by any boundaries. Those belonging to some sectarian faith will wrongly consider that sanätana-dharma is also sectarian, but if we go deeply into the matter and consider it in the light of modern science, it is possible for us to see that sanätana-dharma is the business of all the people of the world—nay, of all the living entities of the universe.
Our Original Dharma
Then what is the dharma of the soul? Since the soul is eternal, the original nature or characteristic or dharma of the soul must also be eternal. Somehow or other, the eternal soul is trapped in this temporary material world. In this material world we find that everything is temporary. It comes into being, stays for some time, produces some by-products, dwindles and then vanishes. That is the law of the material world, whether we use as an example this body, or a piece of fruit or anything. When entrapped by the material nature, the soul adopts various artificial dharmas based on his false identification with the body
Someone born in a Hindu family will say, “I am a Hindu,” someone born in a Muslim family will claim, “I am a Muslim,” someone born in a Christian family will claim, “I am a Christian,” and so on. When the man professes to belong to a particular type of faith with reference to particular time and circumstance and thus claims to be a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or an adherent of any other sect. Such designations are non-sanätana-dharma. Non-sanätana religious faith may have some beginning in the annals of human history, but there is no beginning to the history of sanätana-dharma, because it remains eternally with the living entities. As we have already explained, living entity’s real identity is the spirit soul—ahaà brahmäsmi: “I am Brahman. I am a spirit soul.” When we come to that platform of spiritual understanding, our essential characteristic becomes clear. A Hindu may change his faith to become a Muslim, or a Muslim may change his faith to become a Hindu, or a Christian may change his faith and so on. But in all circumstances the change of religious faith does not affect the eternal occupation of rendering service to others. The Hindu, Muslim or Christian in all circumstances is servant of someone. Thus, to profess a particular type of faith is not to profess one’s sanätana-dharma. The rendering of service is sanätana-dharma.
The Sanatan Dharma
When Sanätana Gosvämé asked Çré Caitanya Mahäprabhu about the svarüpa of every living being, the Lord replied that the svarüpa, or constitutional position, of the living being is the rendering of service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
If we analyze this statement of Lord Caitanya’s, we can easily see that every living being is constantly engaged in rendering service to another living being. A living being serves other living beings in various capacities. By doing so, the living entity enjoys life. The lower animals serve human beings as servants serve their master. A serves B master, B serves C master, and C serves D master and so on. Under these circumstances, we can see that one friend serves another friend, the mother serves the son, the wife serves the husband, the husband serves the wife and so on. If we go on searching in this spirit, it will be seen that there is no exception in the society of living beings to the activity of service. The politician presents his manifesto for the public to convince them of his capacity for service. The voters therefore give the politician their valuable votes, thinking that he will render valuable service to society. The shopkeeper serves the customer, and the artisan serves the capitalist. The capitalist serves the family, and the family serves the state in the terms of the eternal capacity of the eternal living being. In this way we can see that no living being is exempt from rendering service to other living beings, and therefore we can safely conclude that service is the constant companion of the living being and that the rendering of service is the eternal religion or Sanatan Dharma of the living being.
Beyond this temporary world there is another world of which we have information. That world consists of another nature, which is sanätana, eternal. Jéva is also described as sanätana, eternal, and the Lord is also described as sanätana in the Eleventh Chapter.
We have an intimate relationship with the Lord, and because we are all qualitatively one—the sanätana-dhäma, or sky, the sanätana Supreme Personality and the sanätana living entities—the whole purpose of Bhagavad-gétä is to revive our sanätana occupation, or sanätana-dharma, which is the eternal occupation of the living entity. It is explained in Srimad Bhagavatam (1.2.6)
sa vai puṁsāṁ paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokṣaje
Translation: The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self
The supreme dharma of the soul is bhakti, devotional service to the Supreme Lord. That is our essential characteristic. Everyone is already a devotee—a devotee of his country, his society, his family, his wife, his children, his senses. No one can say, “I do not serve anyone.” You must serve, because that is your dharma. If a person has no one to serve, he keeps a cat or dog and serves it. So to render loving service to someone else is our essential characteristic. But we are missing the point. We are loving cats and dogs and so many other things, but we are neglecting to love God. Therefore, we are not getting real happiness. When we shall direct our love toward the proper object—Adhokñaja, or Kåñëa—we’ll become happy.
The Lord Incarnates to revive our Original Dharma
The Supreme Lord and His transcendental abode are both sanätana, as are the living entities, and the combined association of the Supreme Lord and the living entities in the sanätana abode is the perfection of human life. The Lord is very kind to the living entities because they are His sons. Lord Kåñëa declares in Bhagavad-gétä, 14.4
mūrtayaḥ sambhavanti yāḥ
tāsāṁ brahma mahad yonir
ahaṁ bīja-pradaḥ pitā
Translation: It should be understood that all species of life, O son of Kuntī, are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father.
Of course there are all types of living entities according to their various karmas, but here the Lord claims that He is the father of all of them. Therefore the Lord descends to reclaim all of these fallen, conditioned souls, to call them back to the sanätana eternal sky so that the sanätana living entities may regain their eternal sanätana positions in eternal association with the Lord. The Lord comes Himself in different incarnations, or He sends His confidential servants as sons or His associates or äcäryas to reclaim the conditioned souls. The Lord establishes the particular mode of spiritual practice for different ages, by which the living entity can regain his constitutional position of rendering transcendental loving devotional service to Lord Krishna.
The Final Chance
The age of Kali is saturated with all bad qualities. People in this age are naturally inclined towards sinful activities. And for such sinful actions they are destined to be annihilated. But being very merciful the Lord has given us a chance to rectify our misconduct and save ourselves from the upcoming horrible fate. Lord Krishna appeared as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu 500 years back and propagated congregational chanting of Holy names of the Lord. This practice of chanting
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
if sincerely done under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master with faith and attention, can reinstate us in our natural blissful position of loving God and that will be the perfection of our existence.