Hinduism As Santana Dharma, the Eternal Religion

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by Jayaram V

This essay is about the true meaning and significance of Santana Dharma and why Hinduism can rightly be called so from a moral and practical perspective.

Since the earliest times, Dharma has been the generic name given to all faiths or sacred teachings that originated in India. The word religion is foreign to Indian culture. Indian scholars recognized each faith as a Dharma. To distinguish each of them they used the name of the founder, teacher, divinity, school of philosophy or scripture as the qualifying prefix.

Thus, we have Hindu Dharma, Vedic Dharma, Bauddha Dharma, Jaina Dharma, Sikh Dharma, Shaiva Dharma, Vaishnava Dharma and so on. The essential nature of a person or a being or object is also known as Dharma. Thus, there is Manava Dharma (human nature), Prakriti Dharma (Nature's nature), Brahman Dharma, Kshatriya Dharma, Rajya Dharma, Sahaja Dharma (essential nature) and so on.

A person who practices any sacred faith is called a dharmi, the follower of dharma. Dharma also means law. If anyone indulges in immoral, unethical or irreligious acts, he is called adharmi and his action adharma. Dharma thus establishes the social and moral norms of society and regulates their beliefs, conduct and way of life. Frankly, all the Dharmas of Indian origin are aspects or facets of one eternal Dharma. Indeed, in modern times, we have become too divisive and possessive about our respective faiths and their names.

Hinduism in ancient times

Until the medieval period, Hinduism had no particular name. Its various traditions and subsects were known by different names. The Muslim scholars who came to India and the rulers who established their rule in the country called the people of the subcontinent Hindus. The British continued the tradition, in addition to designate their faith as Hinduism. Hinduism of the British period consisted of all faiths that were native to India, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Today, they are recognized as separate faiths and given equal status as Hinduism.

Hinduism is a mixture of several traditions such as Vedism or Brahmanism, Shaivism, Smartaism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism. Each of them has a long history of its own and can be counted as a religion in itself. In addition, people also went by different names according to their faith or the discipline in which they specialized. For example, there were Vaidikas, Kapalikas, Snatakas, Agnihotris, Aghoris, Avadhanis, Somayajis, Parivrajakas, Paurohitas, Sadhus, Sramanas, Somayajis, Siddhas, Ajivaks, Lokayatas, Bauddhas, Jinas, Shaivas, Vaishanvas, Shaktas, Tantrikas, Samkhyas, Kapalikas, Vaisheshikas, Mimansakas, Vratyas, Rishs, Munis, Digambaras, Dharma Mahamatras, and so on.

However, at no point of time in history, until medieval times, no people of any faith in India were called Hindus or used Hinduism or Hindu Dharma to denote any religion. It is because the name Hinduism is a modern invention. It was derived from the word Hindu, which in turn was derived from the word Sindhu, which was the name of the river that still flows in the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. Thus, Hindu was originally a geographical and ethnic name, which acquired religious significance later on due to peculiar circumstances. Until medieval times, for the people who lived outside India, the people of the Indian subcontinent were known as Hindus and their land itself as Hindustan or India.

Sanatana Dharma

Presently, Hinduism also goes by the name Sanatana Dharma. We do not know how it came into usage. It was relatively unknown during India’s independence, but gained popularity in the last few decades. Many Hindus do not know even the name. It is popular mostly among educated Hindus and those who write about it. Some people even question whether the name is appropriate because Buddhism is also known as Sanatana Dharma.

Let us examine, whether there is any justification to use the name and whether it suits Hinduism at all. Sanatana means eternal, evergreen, perpetual, constant, fixed and primeval or ancient. In a broader sense, Dharma means religion or a set of beliefs, practices, teachings, philosophies, laws and moral percepts which are meant to regulate human life upon earth and ensure the liberation of beings. According to this meaning the name Sanatana Dharma suits Hinduism on the following grounds.

1. Hinduism is the oldest, living and continuous religion. In this sense, it is Sanatana, ancient or primeval. Therefore as an ancient religion, Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma.

2. Hinduism derives its knowledge mainly from the Vedas, Agamas and Tantras. Their source is God who is eternal. Since the knowledge upon which it is based is eternal, the teachings or doctrine (dharma) of Hinduism is also eternal.

3. According to the Vedas, Dharma is a set of duties, which are enjoined upon us by God, the Creator. God himself performs them for the order and regularity of the worlds, and in turn delegates some of them to different beings in different worlds. Since Hinduism or Hindu Dharma is about those eternal duties, it is proper to call it Sanatana Dharma.

4. Hinduism is about achieving liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. It has a spiritual aspect, which is essentially meant for the liberation of the souls, who are eternal and indestructible. Since Hinduism shows the eternal way to the beings to achieve liberation and become immortall, it is appropriate to call it an eternal religion or Sanatana Dharma.

5. Hinduism is not only practiced by humans but also by eternal beings such as gods, celestial beings and God himself. The forever eternal souls (nitya muktas) who inhabit the higher echelons of the highest world of Brahman also practice the same Dharma to remain forever absorbed in the blissful state of Brahman. Since Dharma is practiced by eternal beings, it rightly qualifies as Sanatana Dharma.

6. Sanatana is an epithet of Vishnu. Shiva as the Isvara or Lord of the universe is also described in some scriptures as Sanatana. The source of Hinduism is the knowledge of the Vedas. The Vedas are transmitted to us by Brahma, whose source, according to the Puranas, is Isvara, Narayana or Maha Vishnu.

From the above it is clear that the practice of calling Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma is of recent origin, but it is very much justified. It is also justified because it is part of an earnest attempt by Hindu scholars and nationalists to correct the distortions that crept into Hinduism during the British rule and impart to it a clear native identity that truly reflects its essential character. The name Hindu or Hinduism was a foreign name, given by foreigners to identify the people of India and their faith. The name reminds people of centuries of foreign invasions, domination, discrimination, persecutions, imperialism, exploitation and oppression. Therefore, there is a strong justification to identify the native faith by a native name, which truly represents its character and essential doctrine.


Thus, the name Sanatana Dharma is perfectly justifiable for Hinduism. It is truly an eternal religion because its knowledge is derived from an eternal source and its practice is governed by eternal principles. All religions claim God as their source. However, in Hinduism God is not only a revealer but also the revealed and the recipient of the revealed knowledge. He is both God and devotee, teacher and students, and male and female. As creator and the created and as the sacrificer and the sacrificed, he sets the stage, writes the script, plays all roles and watches them too.

Thus, Hinduism presents to us a grand spectacle of divine play, reminding us of our duty as eternal beings to participate in it as well as enjoy it through a series of mortal lives or births and deaths. Therefore, the name Sanatana Dharma is very justified for Hinduism, representing its unique status in the world religions. However, at the same time it is important to remove any misconceptions that may arise from the usage of the new name. In this regard, the following are worth mentioning.

1. Santana Dharma does not mean every aspect of Hinduism is eternal or indestructible. As a religion or as a body of religious knowledge, beliefs and practices, Hinduism is neither eternal nor constant. There is nothing eternal about this world, which is transient and destructible. Hinduism will easily disappear from the face of the earth like many other religions if its people do not practice it, corrupt it, ignore its fundamentals or practice it according to their convenience in total disregard to its core principles. Therefore, from the perspective of destructibility, Hinduism is not an eternal religion.

2. Hinduism is also not a fixed religion. It underwent many changes in its long history. For example, the Hinduism which was practiced a hundred years before was very different from the Hinduism which we practice today. Same is the case with the Hinduism which was practiced in ancient India in many sects and teacher traditions which today form part of Hinduism. Therefore, it is incorrect to believe that Hinduism as a whole remains constant and fixed. That which is eternal will remain unchanged and indestructible whereas Hinduism underwent many changes in the past. Surely, it will keep changing in future. Hence, in this sense it cannot be truly termed as an eternal religion.

3. What is eternal about Hinduism is the set of teachings and duties that directly arise from God. That part of Hinduism which comes to us directly from God is eternal and the rest is subject to decay and decline.  Truly speaking, that eternal aspect of Hinduism qualifies as Hindu Dharma, and undoubtedly it is eternal. What we are expected to follow in Hinduism is God’s own Dharma. We have to practice his duties as our own duties because we are the very personifications of God only. Our scriptures affirm that our primary duty upon earth is to assist God (Brahman) in ensuring the order and regularity of the worlds.

Since God is eternal, the duties which he performs for the sake of the worlds are also eternal. We come to know about those eternal duties (Sanatana Dharma) from the scriptures of Hinduism. When we perform them in our daily lives, we exemplify God and represent his power and glory upon earth. Thus, practising Hinduism is equal to serving God and manifesting his power upon earth. When you neglect them, you become an enemy of Dharma (adharmi) and miss a unique opportunity to serve God and achieve liberation.

Understanding Your true purpose

The duties of God, which are eternal, form the core of Hinduism and Hindu religious duty. It is in this context only that Hinduism justifiably qualifies as an eternal religion of divine duties (Sanatana Dharma). Our obligatory duties upon earth arise from God. As humans, we are expected to follow the example of God and perform them like a true renunciant, which God is. We must uphold his Dharma as our own, with disinterest and detachment and with an attitude of renunciation, without taking credit for our actions or desiring their fruit.

When we truly step into the shoes of God, we surely qualify for liberation. One should not take what truly belong to God. It amounts to Asteya (stealing). Hence, in performing actions to uphold God’s eternal Dharma, one should relinquish all ownership and doership. This is the core message of the Bhagavadgita too. The Isa Upanishad reaffirms the same message. Since everything here belongs to God, you should wish to live here for a hundred years by doing your duty rather than claiming ownership.

Understanding your Dharma

Unless you know the true meaning of Dharma and its subtle message, you will not know the true significance of Hinduism, nor will you be able to practice it truthfully. Santana Dharma is not about the age of a religion or its antiquity. It is about doing your duty and playing your role in the creation of God by sharing with him his duties and obligations and honoring your side of the covenant. Broadly speaking you have five eternal duties, just as God. They are, creation, preservation, concealing, revealing, and destruction. Throughout your life, you perform these five tasks in different ways and circumstances. Whether you exist upon earth or not, these duties are eternal, and they will continue until the end of creation.

If you understand the true meaning of Dharma, you will gain a deeper and truer understanding of Hinduism. Hinduism is a religion of the soul. It teaches you that you are an eternal and infinite being, and there is no significant difference between you in God. When you make God the center of your life, you make him the protector and upholder of it. You let him guide your life and shape it in whatever way he deems fit. With him as the charioteer of your life and destiny, you can see life with greater clarity, wisdom and discernment.

This is the essence of Hinduism and its scriptures. It does not matter, what name you will use to call it. Just as God has a million names, Hinduism can have several names, paths, beliefs and identities. What matters is whether you know its core philosophy and truly reflect it in your daily life. Imagine how God would live upon earth in a human body and radiate his glory. Let that be your goal and ideal. Bring a little of that light into your thinking and behavior and try to grow the divine nature in you by cultivating good qualities (daiva sampatti) and discarding the evil one (asura sampatti). By that, make the practice of Santana Dharma a way of life, with God at the center of it, guiding you and inspiring you.

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