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Sanatana Dharma: Introduction

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The religion based on the Vedas, the Sanatana Dharma, or Vedic Dharma, is the oldest of living religions, and stands unrivalled in the depth and splendor of its philosophy, while it yields to none in the purity of its ethical teachings and in the flexibility and varied adaptation of its rites and ceremonies. “It is like a river, which has shallows that a child may play in, and depths which the strongest diver cannot fathom.” It is thus adapted to every human need, and there is nothing which any religion can supply to add to its rounded perfection. The more it is studied, the more does it illuminate the intellect and satisfy the heart. Those who learn it are laying up for themselves a sure increaser of happiness, a sure consolation in trouble, for the rest of their life.

“That which supports, that which holds together the peoples (of the universe), that is dharma.” Dharma is not merely a set of beliefs having no necessary connection with the daily life of humanity, but is the very principles of a healthy and beneficent life. Therefore to know those principles and act upon them is to be a true aryan–follower of Vedic Dharma–and to tread the sure road to happiness, individual as well as general. (See the Glossary for the correct meaning of “aryan.”) The etymological meaning of “religion” is also the same, “that which binds together.” “Vedic” means “pertaining to the Veda or Perfect Knowledge.” Hence Vedic Dharma means “the Religion of Perfect Knowledge.”

One of the most remarkable things in the Sanatana religion is the way in which it has laid down a complete scheme of knowledge, and has then crowned it with a philosophy composed of six faces (the six darshanas or systems of philosophy), though governed by one idea and leading to one goal. No such comprehensive and orderly view of human knowledge is elsewhere to be found.

The basis of Sanatana Dharma

Besides the Four Vedas (Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda) which are collections of hymns, the fundamental texts of Sanatana Dharma are the twelve Upanishads: Aitareya, Kaushitaki, Taittiriya, Katha, Shvetashvatara, Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Kena, Chandogya, Mandukya, Mundaka and Prashna. These contain the basic philosophy of Sanatana Dharma and were commented on by the founders of the leading schools of Vedanta, or by their early disciples. On these texts the whole fabric of Vedic Dharma, the religion of the Vedas, as it is truly named, is built. Both the Vedas and the Upanishads are called the Shruti: That Which Was Heard in the depths of meditation by the ancient sages, the rishis, who received the revelation and transmitted it by writing it down just as it came to them.

Next in order to the Shruti in authority comes the Smriti, That Which Is Remembered, the teachings of later sages who explained and developed the entire range of Dharma, laying down the laws which regulate aryan national, social, family and individual obligations. They are the text-books of law, and are very numerous.

Thus we see that, as in the case of the Vedas, the rishis with the necessary authority made alterations and adaptations to suit the needs of the time. It was this flexibility, characteristic of the Sanatana Dharma, that preserved it through so many ages, when other ancient religions perished.

Of the authority of the Shruti and Smriti, Manu–the first law-giver, whose code is the foundation of Hindu religious and social conduct–says: “The Veda is known as Shruti, the dharmashastras as Smriti: these should not be doubted (but carefully consulted and considered) in all matters, for from them dharma arose” (Manu Smriti 2:10).

Manu wrote a dharmashastra of 2,685 slokas. The twelfth chapter deals with transmigration and declares that supreme bliss is to be gained by the knowledge of the Atman, on whom “the universe rests.”

[“If you ask whether among all these virtuous actions, performed here below, there be one which has been declared more efficacious than the rest for securing supreme happiness to man, the answer is that the knowledge of the Self is stated to be the most excellent among all of them; for that is the first of all sciences, because immortality is gained through that” (Manu Smriti 12:84-85).

“Let every man, concentrating his mind, fully recognize in the Self all things, both the real and the unreal, for he who recognizes the universe in the Self, does not give his heart to unrighteousness. The Self alone is the multitude of the gods; the universe rests on the Self” (Manu Smriti 12:118-119)

“He who thus recognizes the Self through the Self in all created beings, becomes equal-minded towards all, and enters the highest state: that of Brahman” (Manu Smriti 12:125).]

Next in succession to the Smriti come the Puranas, which, with the Itihasa, the histories, are sometimes said to form the Fifth Veda since they give a knowledge of the Vedas, and are therefore worthy objects of study. There are eighteen Puranas: Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Narada Purana, Markandeya Purana, Agni Purana, Bhavishya Purana, Brahmavaivarta Purana, Linga Purana, Varaha Purana, Skanda Purana, Vamana Purana, Kurma Purana, Matsyav, Suparna or Garuda Purana, and Brahmanda Purana. Certain definite characteristic subjects of a Purana are: creation, secondary creation [some interpret the word as meaning “reabsorption,” “destruction”], genealogy, manvantaras, and history. The sage Vyasa (Krishna Dwaipayana, the son of Parashara) is considered the compiler of the Puranas.

The Puranas contain the history of remote times, when the conditions of existence were quite different from those which prevail in our days; they also describe regions of the universe not visible to the ordinary physical eye. Hence it is unfair to regard the conceptions of the Puranas as being of the same nature as those of modern science. When yoga-siddhis are developed, the puranic pictures of the universe and its past history are seen to be infinitely more correct than those arrived at by the modern scientific use of our physical organs of perception, however much these may be aided by delicate scientific apparatus.

Two other important books considered related to the Puranas are the Vishnu Bhagavata and the Devi Bhagavata. Both are equally valuable and instructive. The Devi Bhagavata is specially fitted for those who are inclined to metaphysics and science, while the Vishnu Bhagavata is most acceptable to the devotional temperament.

The other part of the Fifth Veda is the Itihasa, the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Ramayana has for author Valmiki, and is the history of the family descended from Ikshwaku, in which was born the avatara of Vishnu, Ramachandra, and his three brothers. The whole story gives a vivid picture of Indian life as led towards the close of the Treta Yuga, and is intended to provide, in the life of Ramachandra and his brothers, a model of fraternal affection and mutual service, leading to prosperity and general welfare, that may serve as a lesson and inspiration in true aryan living, and a model of kingship for all aryan rulers.

The Mahabharata was compiled by Vyasa early in the Kali Yuga, but different recensions of it have been made. The story is far more complicated and more modern than that of the Ramayana, and relates the varying fortunes of a family which, rent by jealousies and rivalries, perished by internecine strife. Against this dark background stands out the figure of the avatara, Sri Krishna, dominating the whole, surrounded by the Pandava family, which triumphs by virtue of its righteous cause over the opposing Kurus; while, among the latter, shine forth the heroic Bhishma, Drona, and Karna, the splendid but doomed defenders of wrongful sovereignty. The story fitly opens the Kali Yuga, in which good and evil contend with almost equal forces, and in which ethical problems and the complicated workings of karma baffle and bewilder the mind; in the destruction of the best and wisest of the kshatriya caste it seems to presage the coming invasions of India, and in the gloom of its closing earthly scenes to forecast the darkness that was soon to settle down on Aryavarta. The main thread of the story is constantly broken by interludes, consisting of instructive lessons and stories, among which are the immortal discourse of Bhishma on dharma, and the most famous jewel of aryan literature, the Bhagavad Gita. The whole forms an encyclopedia of history, morals and religion, not surpassed, or even rivaled, by any other epic in the world.

The Science and philosophy of Sanatana Dharma

The science of ancient India was contained in the Shadangani, six limbs, or branches, of the Vedas. Its philosophy was contained in the Shad-Darshanani, the Six Views, or Systems, also called the Shad-Upangani, Six Subsidiary Limbs. They are all designed to lead man to the One Science, the One wisdom, which saw One Self as Real and all else as unreal.

The rishis, realizing the unity of all knowledge, made no distinction between science, philosophy and religion. All alike were based on the Veda; the sciences were the Vedangas, the limbs of the Veda, the philosophies were the Vedopangas, other limbs of the Veda, all culminating in the Vedanta, the end of the Veda. And they were all summed up together as the Lesser Knowledge, the Knowledge of the One being alone supreme and indivisible; even the revealed Veda was included in the former, in virtue of its being revealed, whereas in the latter the atman knows itself. Thus it is written: “Two knowledges are to be known, thus say the knowers of Brahman: the supreme and the lower. The lower: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, the method of study, the method of ritual, grammar, philology, prosody, astrology. The supreme: that whereby The Eternal is reached.”

The six darshanas

The Six Darshanas (Shad-Darshanani) are best understood by being seen in relation to each other rather than in opposition, for they form, in their entirety, one great scheme of philosophic truth. They are arranged in pairs:

  • Nyaya–Vaisheshikam
  • Sankhya–Yoga
  • Mimamsa–Vedanta

The Prasthana Bheda of Madhusudana Saraswati after summarizing the Six Darshanas, lays stress on their unity. “In reality, all the munis who have put forward these theories agree in wishing to prove the existence of the One Supreme Lord without a second…. These munis cannot be in error, considering that they are omniscient: and these different views have only been propounded by them in order to keep off all nihilistic theories, and because they were afraid that human beings, with their inclinations towards the objects of the world, could not be expected at once to know the true goal of man” (Max Muller, Six Systems, pp. 107-108).

As the Shruti says: “Cows are many-colored; but the milk (of all) has but one color. Look on knowledge as the milk, and on the teachers as the cows” (Brahma-bindu Upanishad, 19).

The object of all the Darshanas is the same: to rescue men from suffering. And the way of rescue is the same: the removal of ignorance–which is bandha, bondage–and consequent union with the Supreme. Thus the Nyaya calls ignorance, mithyajnana, false knowledge. The Sankhya calls it avivekah, non-discrimination between the Real and the unreal. And the Vedanta calls it avidya, nescience. Each philosophy aims at its removal by jnana, wisdom, whereupon ananda, bliss, is enjoyed. This ananda is the nature of the Self, and therefore cannot accurately be said to be obtained. The Self is Bliss, and it is only necessary to remove the illusion which causes suffering in order that Bliss may be enjoyed. The Nyaya hence speaks of its object as apavarga, salvation or deliverance, and moksha or mukti, liberation, is the universally accepted goal.


The Sankhya is an account, primarily, of the “how” of creation. There are two primary roots of all we see around us, purusha, spirit, and prakriti, matter. Purusha is many, as appears by the differences in happiness and misery, birth and death, etc., but all are of like essential nature. Purusha thus may be taken to represent a totality, the subjective side of existence, whereas prakriti is the objective side of existence.


Yoga, the system of effort, or of union, accepts the Sankhya as its philosophy, and in adding to it a system of effort which should set the purusha free, it makes one of the means of freedom Ishwarapranidhana: offering the life to God. Patanjali then defines Ishwara as a special purusha who has not been touched by pain, action, consequences of action, and desires, unlimited by time. Yoga is the means of stopping the constant movements of the chitta, the thinking principle, and thus reaching samadhi, the perfectly steady and balanced condition, from which kaivalya, the isolation of the purusha, i.e., the separation from prakriti, can be gained.

The remaining pair of systems is entitled the Mimamsa, for both deal primarily with the leading principles to be adopted in interpreting the text of the Vedas. But the Purva Mimansa generally bears the name, the Uttara Mimansa being usually known as the Vedanta. The Purva, or Earlier, Mimansa is concerned with the Karmakhanda of the Veda, that is with the sacrifices, offerings and ceremonials generally; while the Uttara, or Later, Mimamsa is concerned with the Brahmajnana of the Veda, the knowledge of Brahman. The Uttara Mimamsa, or Vedanta, is the Darshana which may be said to dominate Indian thought in the present day, in its three forms. The Vedanta has three great schools: the Advaita: Non-dualism; the Vishishtadvaita (Qualified Non-dualism): Non-duality with a difference; and the Dvaita: duality.

Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads

The student of the Vedanta is expected to study the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The Bhagavad Gita is the application of the philosophy to life, the explainer and the guide of conduct. The Upanishads contain the philosophy in an intellectual form, and on them the intelligence is exercised. For this reason no man was admitted to the study of the Vedanta until he possessed the Four Qualifications: vairagya, (freedom from selfish attachment to the things of the world), viveka, (a strong sense of the distinction between the permanent and the transient), shatsampatti (the six mental and moral requirements: peacefulness, self-control, resignation, endurance, faith and collectedness) and mumuksha, (the longing for liberation), and was thus fit for its reception.

Dvaita Vedanta

The Dvaita Vedanta insists on the separateness of the jivatman and the Paramatman. It teaches that Vishnu is the Supreme Deity, and who formed the universe out of the already-existing prakriti; Vishnu is the efficient cause of the universe, and matter is the material cause thereof, as the goldsmith and the gold are the double cause of the bracelet. Both Vishnu and prakriti are beginningless and endless, as also is the jiva, the individual soul; but prakriti and jiva are subordinate to, and dependent on, Vishnu. Vishnu is Sat, reality, Jnanam, wisdom, and Anantam, infinite. He enters prakriti–called also jada-prakriti–as Purusha, the animating universal soul, and thereupon follows the evolution of the universe. The jiva is immaterial, different from Vishnu, and each jiva is different from every other. The jiva attains moksha, in which it enjoys bhoga, eternal bliss; this is fourfold and the jiva reaches one or other of the four conditions, according to its deserts. These conditions are: Salokyam, residence in the Divine World; Samipyam, nearness to God; Sarupyam, similarity to the Divine Form; Sayujyam, union with God. This union must not be considered as one of identity of nature.

Vishishtadvaita Vedanta

The Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is for those who, conscious of separation, and longing for union with the Supreme, feel the necessity for an object of worship and devotion, and find it in the conception of the Saguna Brahman, the conditioned Brahman, Ishwara, the Supreme Lord. Brahman is the highest reality, the One, but has attributes inseparable from Himself. From Brahman comes samkarshana, the separated soul, which produces pradyumna, the mind, which produces aniruddha, the “I.” These separated souls are vyakta, manifested, during the period of activity, and when the pralaya approaches they are drawn in, become avyaktam, unmanifested. Brahman is then in the karanavastha, the causal state, in which remain avyakta–both soul and matter. Brahman is the object of worship on whom the soul depends, [yet] the soul being not Brahman, but a part of Brahman, the separation is insisted on but union is sought.

Advaita Vedanta

The Advaita Vedanta is summed up in the words “Thou art That.” Brahman is nirguna, without attributes, and is Real; all else is unreal; jivatman and Paramatman are the same, there is no difference. The idea of difference arises from avidya, nescience, and when the atman transcends nescience, it knows its own nature and is free.

The universe springs from Brahman, as hairs from a man’s head; it is the work of Maya. Cause and effect are one and the same, not two different things, as an aggregate of threads is cloth, and there is no cloth apart from the threads that run lengthways and crossways. The universe, having Reality as it were behind it, has a kind of reality, like a shadow which could not exist without a substance, and this justifies and makes necessary activity of all kinds. Hence there is also an apara vidya, the knowledge of the phenomenal, as well as a paravidya, the knowledge of the noumenon.

Having established the fundamental truth of unity, the Vedanta explains the conditions which surround the atman enveloped in avidya: the upadhi, which makes its illusory separateness, their grouping as the sthula, sukshma and karana shariras–the physical, astral and causal bodies–and the states of consciousness belonging to these. While the atman identifies itself with the upadhis, it is bound; when it knows itself as itself, it is free.

For those who are not yet ready for this effort after self-knowledge, ritual is not only desirable but necessary; but for those who have reached the point where only the atman attracts, jnana is enough, Brahman is the goal.

It must not be supposed from this that the jnani is an abstainer from action. On the contrary, he best understands action, and has the best reason for engaging in it. “Therefore, constantly unattached perform that which is your duty. Indeed by unattached action man attains the Supreme” (Bhagavad Gita 3:19). “As the unwise act, attached to action, so the wise should act, unattached, intending to maintain the welfare of the world” (Bhagavad Gita 3:25). And Shankara himself: “If I had not walked without remission in the path of works, others would not have followed in my steps, O Lord” (Quoted in Max Muller’s Six Systems, p. 217).

The jnani recognizes his duties to all around him–plants, animals, men, gods, Ishwara–and performs them the better, because he acts with opened eyes, and without personal motivations to confuse his judgment. He performs actions as free, and, being without desire, is not bound by them.

The six-fold unity

The Six Darshanas may now be seen as parts of a whole. In the Nyaya and Vaisheshika, a man learns to use his intellectual powers rightly, to detect fallacies and to understand the material constitution of the universe. In the Sankhya he learns the course of evolution, and in the Yoga how to hasten his own growth. In the Mimamsa he is trained to use the invisible world for the helping of the visible, and in the three schools of the Vedanta he learns to climb from the idea of himself as separate from Brahman to the thought that he is a part of Brahman that can unite with Him, and finally that he is and ever has been Brahman veiled from Himself by avidya.

Further, a coherent view of the whole vast school of aryan teachings as an ascending path of evolution for the jivatman may now be gained. The literal meaning of the Veda, with its ritual and daily obligations, developed the manas, the mind, of the aryan, disciplined his kama, his passions and desires, and evolved and directed his emotions. It is said in the Brahma-bindu Upanishad: “Manas is said to be of two kinds, pure and impure: moved by kama it is impure; free of kama, it is pure.”

Manas, joined to kama, was gradually purified by a life led according to Vedic rules. Such a manas, become pure, was further developed in capacity by the study of the angas, was trained and developed, and thus became capable of the exercise of philosophic thought. To a mind thus trained to see and to understand the many, the Veda would unfold its deeper occult meanings such as the intellect could master and apply. The end of all this study was to make possible the evolution of pure reason, buddhi, which cannot unfold unless manas is developed, any more than manas can unfold without the development of the senses. It thus led up to the Darshanas, which develop the pure reason, which sees the One in the many and then realizes its unity with all, which therefore hates and despises none, but loves all. To the buddhi, thus unfolded to see the One, the Veda would unveil its spiritual meaning, its true end, Vedanta, intelligible only to the pure compassionate reason. Then, and then only, is man ready to reach the goal, the paravidya is attained and the atman beholds itself.

Thus utterly rational, orderly and complete is the Sanatana Dharma, the aryan religion.

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About Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Religion

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