Sanatana Dharma

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Hinduism is considered to be the oldest of the world's living religions. It is known as ‘Sanatana Dharma’ and ‘Vaidika Dharma’. Sanatan Dharma means eternal religion and is expressive of the truth that religion as such knows no age. It is coeval with life. It is the food of the spirit in man. The term Sanatana Dharma also means the religion as taught in the shruti and smriti. The word shruti means what has been heard and the word smriti means what has been memorized or remembered. What the seers (rishis) heard direct from the gods or what was revealed to them is recorded in books which are described as shruti. The Vaidika Dharma means the religion of the Vedas (God Knowledge or God Science). It does not own its origin to any historical patronage or prophet. No definite date can be cited as marking the beginning of Hinduism. Hence it is called Sanatana and Vaidika, ancient and revealed.

Hinduism is sometimes called the eternal doctrine. Its literary tradition goes back to the Rig-Veda- the mankind's oldest book. "Its long history covers about forty centuries from 2000 B.C. to modem times. In broad outline the history of Hinduism can be divided into five periods: the Vedic period from 1500 B.C. to 600 B.C., the Epic period from 600 B.C. to A.D. 200, the Sutra period and the systematic development of the Hindu systems of philosophy beginning from the early Christian era, the scholastic period from A.D. 1200 to the eighteenth century and the modem period beginning from the nineteenth century". (Dr. K. R. Sundararajan, Hinduism, p.1)

In the history of Hinduism one can discern tendencies both towards pantheism (belief that God is everything and everything is God) and polytheism (belief in many gods), monotheism (belief in one God) and monism (the doctrine that ultimate reality is one and indivisible). Modern thinkers such as Sri Rama Krishna, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi have emphasized the universal and unitary character of Hinduism. For a long time, a true Hindu was one who accepted the authority of the Vedas, revered the Brahmin and the cow and performed his caste duties. But the Hindu reformers of modern times have rejected caste distinctions. Yet they remained within the Hindu tradition. For example Mahatma Gandhi ji called him-self sanatani Hindu (orthodox) on his own terms. He wrote- “I call myself a sanatani Hindu because (i) I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures; (ii) I believe in the varnasarmadharma in a sense in my opinion, strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense; (iii) I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular and (iv) I do not disbelieve in idol -worship."

Hinduism embraces many different forms of belief and practice. It is rather a large and hospitable family of diverse doctrines and practices. Yet it is a distinctive way of life. Hindu tradition has produced religious sects and philosophical systems like shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, Arya Samaj, Brahma Samaj etc. Each of these understands Hinduism in its own way. One common link is the acceptance of the authority of the Vedas wh1ch keeps them securely within the Hindu fold. There is a persistent principle of unity in diversities. One important and typical belief of Hinduism is that the goal can be reached by any one of the several roads. There can be more than one ways to the realization of truth. The Rig Veda declares:

‘’ekam sat vipra bahlldha vadanti" i.e. Reality is one. Sages speak of it in different ways. (1. 89.1)

We find in the Bhagavad Gita a spirit of accommodation: “Whosoever men approach me, even so do I accept them, for, on all sides. Whatever path they may choose is mine. (IV. 11)

Vedas: The Scripture of the Hindus

The four Vedas constitute the basic authority for the Hindu doctrines. The truths that are enshrined in these doctrines are held to be eternal because they pertain to the order of spiritual reality.

The term Veda is from the Sanskrit root 'vid,' "to know". Veda primarily signifies 'knowledge', it designates 'sacred lore' as a branch of literature; and is also applied to the book containing the sacred lore. It is thus used in a general sense to denote the whole body of the most ancient Sanskrit literature, but it particularly refers to the four great collections of hymns that contain the divine wisdom2 named: The Rig Veda,The Yajur Veda, The Sama Veda and The Atharva Veda.

The Rig Veda is divided into ten books (mandals) having 1028 hymns (including the 11 supplementary ones) consisting of 10,552 stanzas. The Yajur Veda is divided into 40 chapters, with 1975 stanzas and prose units. The Sama-Veda consisting of 1875 stanzas is divided into two sections. The Atharva-Veda is divided into 20 books having 731 hymns (5987 stanzas and prose units).3 The richas of the Rig Veda are recited in the form of worship (or prayer).

The mantras of Sama-Veda are sung at the time of yajnas (ceremonial and sacrificial rites). The Yajur Veda contains instructions, in prose to perform the rites, and the Atharva-Veda records, besides these, magical formulas and charms.4

Each of the four-Vedas is divided into the following parts- The Mantras, the Brahmanas, the Aranykas and the Upanishads. Mantra means 'instrument of thought, speech, a sacred text or saying, a prayer or song of praise, a Vedic hymn in particular, or a sacrificial formula. The earliest Vedic mantras are indicative of the worship of deities (devtas or gods). The second part of each Veda, the Brahmana, was drawn up for ceremonial instruction of the Brahmans. They are really directions for the priests who used the Vedas in worship. They contain regulations regarding the employment of the mantras, and the celebration of the various rites of sacrifice. 5 Aranykas or the forest treatises represent a shift from the actual performance of sacrifices to the meditation on certain symbols. They formed a bridge between the ritualism of the Brahmanas and the philosophical endeavors of the Upanishads.6

The Upanishads form the concluding portion of the Vedas. They are also called Vedanta, since they come at the end of the Vedas. The term Upanishad seems to denote 'secret instruction' only given to a fully qualified pupil by his teacher, to introduce him to the highest modes of philosophic thought, leading upto that supreme knowledge which ensures liberation from human existence.7 They contain the doctrines of Brahman, the jiva, the origin of phenomenal existence, spiritual emancipation, etc., based on the Vedic mantras.

The Vedas are called 'sruti' or revelation. The term sruti or 'hearing' is that used to ndicate what was directly heard by or was revealed to the holy sages of the yore. The Vedas are the earliest work on our theology bequeathed by the great rishis to whom the world is indebted for the original and earliest conception of God and that recorded in a language (Vedic form of Sanskrit) which still reigns supreme over other classical languages of the world.9

The Vedas have always exercised and do still exercise the highest influence upon the life of the Hindus. Whatever may be the feelings of animosity among the different sects all of them hold Vedas in the highest esteem. We may conclude with the words of Swami Vivekananda "The Hindus have received their religion through the revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end... They mean accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times!”10 (An extract from the speech delivered at the Parliament of Religions).


1. T.M.P Mahadevan, "Metaphysics", Hinduism, p.18

2 A.A. Macdonell, A History of Sanskrit Literature,p. 29

3. K.R. Sundararajan, "Historical Survey", Hinduism, p. 1

4. Jodh Singh, "Review of Ancient Indian Thought", Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought,p. 1.

5. A.C. Clayton, The Rig Veda and Vedic Religion, pp.34-36.

6. Op. cit, K.R. Sundararajan, p. 2

7. Op. cit., A.C. Clayton, p. 36.

8. Op.cit., Jodh Singh, p.1

9. Vedas: The Scripture of the Hindus, p. 1.

10. Ibid, quoted on p.1l-12.


The Upanishads are works of deep philosophy and have a unique place in the religious literature of the world. They play the greatest and the most important role in the history of Indian thought.1 The Upanishads constitute the basic springs of Indian thought and culture. They have inspired not only the six orthodox systems, but some of the views opposed to the Vedas were adopted by Buddhism from the Upanishads.

2 Literal Meaning:

The word 'Upanishad' means the secret or mystical teaching which a pupil imbibes from his teachers.3 The word 'Upanishad' is derived from the roots 'upa' (near),'ni' (down) and 'sad' (to sit) i.e., sitting down near. Groups of pupil sit near the teacher to learn from him the secret doctrines. Shankra derives the word Upanishad as a substantive from the root 'sad' to reach or destroy, with the 'upa' and 'ni' as prefixes. By this derivation, Upanishad means Brahma knowledge, by which ignorance is loosened or destroyed.4 Since the Upanishads are regarded as teaching the highest truth, they could be imparted only to those who were competent to receive and benefit by them; and such competent pupils could be only a few at any given time so the meaning "secret" came to be attached to the term "Upanishad".

The Upanishads are generally reckoned as the concluding portions of the Vedas, hence called the Vedanta.6 The philosophy of the four Vedas was lost in the ritualism of the Brahmans; hence followed the Upanishads which represent the age when Indian philosophy was passing through a transition. Though the Indian philosophic thought had its first seed in the Vedas, yet the ritualistic approach of the Brahman swallowed its real character. Therefore it found suitable outlets in the Upanishads. '

Number: The Upanishads which are extinct today exceed two hundred in number. The Muktika Upanishad gives the names of 108 Unanishads, out of which these thirteen are well known- Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundak, Mandukya, Taittirya, most important.

Period: The Upanishads are neither the compositions of a single author nor do they belong to a particular period. Some of them are earlier or older which belong to the traditions of the first three Vedas. Those that belong to the tradition of the Atharva Veda are more recent. It is believed they may have been composed about 55O-450 B.C. The rest are believed to have been composed between 400 and 100 B.C.9

Origin: The old Upanishads are in continuation of the Vedic tradition. Yet they brought some important new principles and doctrines into Vedic religion.10 It has been suggested by scholars that many doctrines and practices were of non-Brahmanical and pre-Vedic origin. The teachings of the early Upanishads were the result of a mixture of Shramanic (non-Vedic) and Brahmanic (Vedic culture.

Contents: In the Upanishads appeared those lofty principles and profound ideals which in later centuries became the core of the Hindu thought. They are the sources of the Hindu wisdom, Vedanta Philosophy and mysticism. The Upanishads revealed profound spiritual truths. In the Upanishads; the polytheism of the Vedas was replaced by monotheism and non-dualism. Sacrifices were replaced by ethical virtue and mere ritualism by quest for knowledge and mystical revelation. Brahman & Atman: All the thoughts of the Upanishads move around two fundamental ideas man and atman. These two concepts are of great importance in them. The word 'brahman' means the Absolute, the ultimate truth. It means good, the support of all existence. The word 'atman' is used for the individual self or innermost essence of beings. Sometimes these have been referred to as independent but generally they have been correlated with each other and both are regarded as one and the same. In the words of Ravinder G.B. Singh, "this doctrine of unity of the two is the greatest achievement of the Upanishdic thought.

In the Brihadaranyak Upanishad Yajnavalkya is asked by a women sage, Gargi about the support of all things. Yajnavalkya replies that imperishable Brahman is the support of all." Again Uddalaka asks about the inner controller of all things. Yajnaavalkya replies, "He who is dwelling in all things and yet is other than all things, whose body all things are, who controls all things from within... He is your self, the inner ruler, immortal"15 In the Chhandogya Upanishad it has been described that "the body is the support of deathless and the bodyless self.”16 It has also been said here "that which is the finest essence this whole world has that is its soul. That is reality. That is the atman"17 According to the Upanishads, brahma or atman which is the ultimate reality, is of the nature of existence (sat), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ananda)18 It is only one and non-dual ekameva advitiyam).19 Jiva: The Individual soul has been termed as 'jiva'. It has four stages: awaking, dreaming, sleeping, and turia. The Jiva is enveloped in the five sheaths. There are named as Koshas of the Jiva in Taittirya Upanishad as under: annarasmaya, pranmaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya.20 These together constitute the empirical home of the Jiva in the end; the Jiva is liberated through the realization of the Reality. This soul is not born with the body and it does not even die. This unborn, constant, eternal and primeval soul is not slain when the body is slain.21 On death, it migrates from one physical body and enters another, unless it attains release from the cycle of birth and death.

Way to release: The way to release from transmigration consists in renouncing the world, and then to follow the course indicated in the scriptures with the help of a spiritual teacher. Then through the process of shravana (the hearing of the Upanishads explained by a teacher), manana (intellectual conviction in what is heard) and nididhyasana (the practice and meditation to realize the knowledge so obtained), the soul gets the vision of the reality and attains its final release.22 From the above study we can conclude that the goal as well the way has been pointed out to us by the Upanishads. According to Mundak Upanishad- "Know that one atman alone, and give up all other talk. This is the bridge to immortality."23 The Upanishads ask us to desist from our mad search for happiness in the outside world, for the musk deer will never find the source of that fragrance which drives him hither and thither, outside of himself. The well-being of the modern world depends on a proper understanding of the Upanishadic teachings and on their sincere application to the practical problems of our daily life. These will become the solace of our life.


1. Ravinder G.B. Singh, Indian Philosophical Tradition and Guru Nanak, Punjab Publishing House, Patiala-1982, p. 2

2. Jodh Singh, Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought, Punjabi University, Patiala- 1970, p. 3

3. Harbans Singh, An Introduction to Indian Religions, Punjabi University, Patiala- 1973, p. 47 4. Dr. K.R. Sundarajan, "Historical Survey", Hinduism, Punjabi University. Patiala- 1969, p. 16. 5. T.M.P. Mahadevan, "The Upanishads", History of Philosophy Eastern and Western (Vol. 1), ed. S. Radhakrishan, George Allen & Unwin, London-1952, p. 50 6. op, cit., Indian Philosophical Tradition, p. 6.

7. Ibid.

8. op. cit., Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought, pp. 3-4.

9. op.cit. An Introduction to Indian Religions, pp', 47-48.

10. Ibid. 48-49

11. op. cit. Hinduism, p. 16.

12. op. cit., An Introduction to Indian Religions, p. 49.

13. Ibid.

14. op. cit., Indian Philosophical Tradition and Guru Nanak, p. 7.

15. Brihad., III. 7.15

16. Chhand. VIII, II. 1

17. Ibid. VI, 7.7

18. Taitt., II, 1

19. Chhand., VI; 11.1

20. Taitt., II, 1-4

21. Kath., I, 2.18

22. op. cit, Guru Nanak and Indian Religious Thought, pp. 5-6

23, Mun. II, 2.5.

--by Gurvinder Kaur