Sanatana Dharma

Through the Scriptures

Surrounded by sacred rivers, holy mountains, and vast oceans, is the diamond shaped subcontinent, known as India to the world at large, but still affectionately referred to as Bharat by her inhabitants.  This mystic land may be relatively new as a nation, but its history extends into the far reaches of recorded time.  It is home to one of the most ancient civilizations, so unsurprisingly, it is the place of origin for the flowering of the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism.  The word Hindu was given because of the people’s proximity to the Indus river; however, the spiritual tradition was known to its adherents as Sanatana Dharma or “eternal religion.”  The religion being thought of as eternal is not considered by its practitioners as invented by the minds of men, but rather, it is believed to have been pre-existing and only discovered by the rishis, or seers, who recorded it in the Vedas, the oldest known sacred texts.  The word Veda means knowledge, and this particular knowledge is deemed as shruti or heard.  The implication here is that the Vedas were not obtained through observation or inference or any other means of understanding; it was revealed.  Another type of scripture would follow after the Vedic period, called smriti, or remembered.  This knowledge would encapsulate human understanding, mostly regarding practical matters of daily living.  Additional categories of texts would be introduced, such as sutras, gitas, and shastras, that continued to unfold Sanatana Dharma.  If this religion is truly considered eternal, it is logical that the full revelation could only blossom over long periods of time.  It is with amazing breadth and variety that the Hindu tradition is captured by its scriptures which encompass the whole of human experience, beginning with the Vedas and continuing until this very day.

If the corpus of Hindu scriptures is considered a living, growing tree of knowledge, then the Vedas would no doubt be the seed.  It all begins with the Vedas, and the Vedas are considered the most authoritative works.  Everything that followed them is merely an elaboration.  The Vedas can be broadly divided into two sections or kandas: the karma kanda and the jnana kanda.  The word karma means action, so the karma kanda addresses sacred actions such as the various rituals mostly performed by the Hindu priestly caste, the Brahmins.  The jnana, or knowledge, kanda is the section that deals with the philosophical implications of the earlier karma section.  It is here that the concepts of Brahman, Atman, jiva, karma, and moksha are explicated.  The natural divisions of karma and jnana are seen throughout all Hindu scriptures, for they all express that something is first needed to be done and thereby something is to be known.  This natural progression from action to knowledge is represented within the Vedas themselves.  The karma kanda and the jnana kanda can be further broken down into two types each.  The karma kanda contains the original hymns and rituals, as well as the Brahamanas, which provide a commentary and clarified instructions for those rituals.  The jnana kanda is also made up of two parts, the Aranyakas, or “forrest books”, and the Upanishads.  The Aranyakas form a bridge between the actions of the Brahmins and the philosophical knowledge of the rishis.  That philosophical knowledge is more fully detailed in the Upanishads.  These four types can also be viewed as representing the four ashrams, or stages, of human life which are the celibate student, the householder, the retired forest dweller, and the renunciate seeking moksha or final emancipation from the cycles of karma and rebirth.

A human lifespan can be broadly defined by four different phases, and the Vedas do not ignore a single stage.  In the first ashram, the youth is expected to focus on his or her education.  Careers and courtship are for a future date.  Here is the beginning of learning and performing prayers, pujas, and other religious activities.  The second ashram is the householder stage.  The expectations are marriage, bearing children, and earning a living through the family vocation.  Rituals continue to play a major role during this period of life.  These two phases are placed squarely within the karma kanda section of the Vedas.  Once the obligations of raising children and earning money have been exhausted, a couple would retire to the forest and begin to contemplate the inner meanings of outer religion.  Religious activity was not necessarily abandoned, but it was looked upon as a teacher of more profound truths.  The Aranyakas were forest books tailored especially for these forest dwellers.  Finally, an individual would reach the last remaining ashram of life.  During this time a person would hope to discover the ultimate truth of reality.  The concept of Sat-Chit-Ananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss) was to be transformed from a philosophical description in the Upanishads into a living experience, thus extinguishing the suffering of samsara which is the painful cycle of death and reincarnation.  Thus, the Vedas’ teachings are not confined to a subset of human existence; they are meant to be a guide for the entirety of human life.  Not only are these teaching meant for all phases of a life dedicated to moksha, they are meant for all lives regardless of the individual’s goals.  Even though the Vedas provide a path to salvation, it does not overlook those who desire less than final liberation.  This idea was further developed by sutras, which elaborated on the understanding contained in the Vedas. 

Not unlike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Hinduism recognizes a progression of four human goals in life.  These goals are named artha, kama, dharma, and moksha.  Artha is the desire for wealth or prosperity.  This is the first and most basic need.  Everyone requires food, shelter, and the support of family, and this is what artha provides.  After someone has secured what is necessary, their attention turns to what is pleasing, which is kama.  After adequately experiencing pleasure, the mind begins to ask what is just or right.  That which is deemed proper and ethical is dharma.  Beyond dharma is the pursuit of what is truth, regardless if it is necessary, pleasant, or good.  The seeking after and obtaining ultimate truth is known as moksha.  In Hinduism, each of these goals have one or more accompanying sutras.  Some of these sutras, such as the Kama Sutra, have become quite famous.  It outlines the optimal means for gaining pleasure, especially in relationships with the opposite sex.  For moksha, there are six sutras that form the basis for the six views or darshanas of Hindu philosophy.  These six schools of thought are the predominant interpretations of the Upanishads.

Not everyone shares the same mental disposition, and Hinduism allows for different views of the same underlying truth.  There are six orthodox schools of philosophy based on the Vedas, each expounded by their respective foundational sutra.  Vaisheshika is a naturalist, atomism philosophy and is based on the Vaisheshika Sutra (Mittal and Thursby 52).  Nyaya is another naturalist school, but it is focused on the use of logic, which it has refined to a very high level.  Its primary text is the Nyaya Sutra (Mittal and Thursby 51).  Samkhya is a rationalist school of philosophy that is based on the Samkhya Sutra of Kapila.  It promotes a fundamental dualism of matter and spirit, with matter being delineated into 24 elements.  Although it recognizes a spiritual aspect to the universe, the individual soul or purusha, it is atheistic in outlook.  Related to Samkhya is the philosophy of Yoga based on the Yoga sutras of Patanjali.  It is similar to Samkhya except that Yoga allows for the existence of God.  The Mimamsa school is centered on the textual interpretation, or hermeneutics, of the Vedas, and it is based on the Purva Mimamsa Sutras.  Perhaps the crown jewel of Hindu philosophy is Vedanta, which uses the Brahma Sutra as one of its primary texts.  It possesses the best aspects of the previously mentioned schools.  It adopts the reason and logic from Vaisheshika and Nyaya; it accepts the metaphysics and meditation methods of Samkhya and Yoga, and it uses the hermeneutics of the Purva Mimamsa school.  Vedanta literally means “the end of knowledge,” and it certainly appears to be the culmination of all the preceding philosophies.  These six darsanas and their sourcebooks offer a rich and varied approach to moksha.  The problem that arises here is that not every man and woman have an intellect capable of grasping such highly developed and intricate philosophies.  Hinduism, defying to be constrained, introduced new classes of scriptures, although no less sophisticated, that would be more digestible to the less educated.

Nothing more easily captivates the hearts and minds of men and women than an exhilarating story, fictional or not.  Hinduism is ripe with both epic historical accounts and mythological tales that illustrate the teachings of Vedas.  The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are two popular poems about the history of ancient India, and they are also among the longest in the world.  The Ramayana details the exploits of prince Rama, considered an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and provides an example of a life lived according to dharma.  The Mahabharata, meaning “India the Great”, is a story of two warring families, but its value goes well beyond simply documenting the conflict of two houses.  It teaches all the lessons found within the Vedas for every stage of life and regardless of an individual’s particular goal.  Embedded within the Mahabharata is a smaller work, and arguably Hinduism’s most beloved story, the Bhagavad Gita.  The Bhagavad Gita is a discourse between Arjuna and Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu.  The teachings are so profound and complete that the Gita, as it is often referred to, is sometimes called the fifth Veda.  Krishna declares that he has from the beginning given humanity two paths to realization, the path of action and the path of knowledge.  The same division that was first seen in the Vedas is reflected in Krishna’s words.  In addition to these narratives, there are more allegorical tales known as Puranas.  These stories recount the many adventures of the various gods worshipped in India, mostly centered around Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, but also includes stories about Ganesha, Durga, Saraswati, and Kali, among others.  These myths provide the basis for the more devotional sects of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, and they exhibit great variety in the means and ways in which God can be approached.  Even though God appears in many forms, ultimately the truth is one, as confirmed in the Vedas; everything is, including all manifestations of God, Brahman or the absolute reality.  While these tales continue to be retold to this day, there are still other texts that came to be widely accepted.

As times change new questions arise, and in addressing those questions new scriptures are produced.  These scriptures are commonly referred to as shastras or manuals.  Many of the earlier texts were written as aphorisms and required unpacking from an experienced teacher known as a guru.  Eventually, gurus put those more detailed explanations in print.  These manuals continue to be used by gurus as teaching aids, and students still refer to them in the absence of their guru.  These texts can cover practical aspects of yoga practice, or they can unfold more philosophical ideas.  Here again we see the two sides of karma and jnana.  Because Hinduism is an expression of Sanatana Dharma, it continues to grow and adapt.  The texts that instruct the religion are not considered finished, and no doubt many more contributions will be made into the canon.  Perhaps even modern classics like The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda or The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna will be thought of as scripture by future generations.

Hinduism, like its homeland of India, is characterized by its diversity, and that is especially true of its religious literature.  Because people differ in their temperament, desires, and ability, Hinduism has armed them with a diverse array of scriptures that are useful in all the facets of life.  Regardless if someone is young, old, or in between, there are resource available that can provide guidance.  It does not matter if an individual is interested in success, enjoyment, civil justice, or knowing the mystery of ultimate truth; there are texts accessible to light the way.  This is a vibrant story that is still being written.  While Hinduism has many seemingly unconnected streams, they all flow into the same ocean that the Vedas have been calling Brahman for thousands of years.  Modern poets may give new language to that underlying reality, but it only adds to the richness of its expression.  In the end, all the collected articulations of a single truth, encapsulated in one word, “OM,” is Sanatana Dharam.


Work Cited

Mittal, Sushil and Thursby, Gene.  Religions of South Asia: An Introduction. Routledge, 2006