Sanatana Dharma was never used in India as an equivalent of religion as understood in the western context, – for the word is coined in the English language to mean a set of beliefs and certain outer practices and rituals. These beliefs are often rigidly narrow and exclusive, the practices often reinforced through collective convention and social conformity. The religious conception of God is often very narrow and limited, sometimes like an aggrandised human being or a Being imbued with human qualities and virtues who can arbitrarily perform miraculous actions. Very often He is represented as a Judge of sorts who is busy with a set of rewards for the faithful followers and punishment for the detractors, the non-believers and the sinners.
But the Sanatana dharma has very little to do with that. In fact, there is no equivalent of dharma in any language. The word Dharma at once means three things all springing from the root dhr, meaning to hold. Firstly it means the Reality that holds and upholds the entire Existence. This Reality is One and Infinite and can assume a thousand names and forms. It is not exclusive to any one religion nor accessible to a single approach. It is everywhere and in everything including you and me, in the brightest star and. the dust below our feet, in the humblest blade of grass as well as the mightiest of gods. It is universal and eternal and does not vanish or perish with the collapse of creation. Eternal and unchanging it is Sanatan.
The second meaning of the word dharma is those actions and ways that help us, individually and collectively to discover That Ultimate Truth. It is thus that yoga is born. It is not just a belief system but open to discovery in as many ways and through as many approaches as there are individuals. It is not the sole exclusive property of any one religion or even solely of Religions. All the fields of human endeavour can become a means for discovery if directed towards this great discovery. All means, however seemingly trivial and small, – a passing feeling, a fleeting thought, an act inspired by the sense of a sublime sacrifice – can become instruments of His service and means for His worship and discovery. The ultimate aim of all our human endeavour is to become one with Him. Whatever helps or leads to our growing closer to the Ultimate Divine Reality is dharma since it is only on this true basis that life can be lived in a true way. Without this discovery, all our moral ideas, religious and social injunctions are a coarse imitation of something that far transcends any human formula of life.
The third meaning of the word dharma is that our actions must be such as to hold the forward march of humanity together in its great ascending impulsion towards Light and Truth and Beauty and Good. Our outer acts, even gestures and postures should somewhere reflect something of this divinity within. Even a ritual act must be at once a symbol as well as expressive of an inner movement.
This is the Sanatana Dharma as revealed to man through the Vedas, the Upanishads, by Sri Krishna and Sri Aurobindo whose examples we can find in countless stories and legends of India. It has several scriptures and several deities and yet in the end it is nothing if not lived deeply within and its truth not reproduced in our everyday life. I believe that each of the great religions started with its Founder’s effort to discover this Ultimate Truth from his own unique angle of approach. But with the passage of time, its inner truth was forgotten and only the outer shell remained. Later this shell was often occupied by forces of a diabolic order building a rigid powerful institution around the teachings or the personality to satisfy the lust for power. The teachings, not upgraded with time were twisted to justify political ambitions to dominate and control. The Sanatana Dharma, on the other hand, kept reinventing itself without losing its core due to a number of prophets and seers and scriptures and approaches. Most importantly it admitted the evolutionary impulsion in humanity and thereby always remained fresh since its trees were watered with fresh streams of love and sunlight of new revelations built upon the most comprehensive and widest formulas ever given to man encompassed in the great saying ‘sarvakhaluvidam brahmam’ – all this is the Brahman, the Supreme Reality that dwells in all and within whose infinity and by whose Glory the entire creation exists, that there is nothing else but aught and yet, it is greater than the All, transcends all. Such a great and mighty Truth cannot be destroyed. By its very nature, it is not subject to any destruction but it will surely bring out new shoots of discoveries and fresh revelations from the core seed, the Vedas.
Religion as it is understood today, a set or mass of rituals and belief systems, an exclusive Sunday club for the blessed ones born in a certain sect has outlived its purpose and is on the way out. It has done a great service at its own time but must now give way to the expanding spiritual impulsion in mankind which will go beyond every boundary we can conceive and break free from every fence we have erected between Creator and the Creation.