Dharma? Sanatana Dharma?
Many people have heard of “Dharma,” even the term “Sanatana Dharma” has become quite well known. But exactly what is Dharma? And what is Sanatana Dharma? I will attempt to explain in this post. I have extracted and summarized this from the introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhuapda.
The Sanskrit word sanatana means “eternal” and the word dharma means “occupation.” Therefore the term “Sanatana Dharma” can be taken to mean our eternal occupation.
The Supreme Lord and His transcendental abode are both sanatana, eternal, as are the living entities, and the combined association of the Supreme Lord and the living entities in the sanatana abode (the spiritual world) is the perfection of human life.
Krishna is very kind to the living entities because they are His sons. Krishna declares in the Bhagavad Gita that, “I am the father of all.” There are many different types of living entities according to their different karma, and Krishna declares He is the father of them all. Therefore, time and time again, the Lord descends to this material world to reclaim all of these fallen, conditioned souls to call them back to the sanatana, eternal, sky so that the sanatana living entities may regain their original eternal positions in association with the Lord. Thus Krishna comes himself in different incarnations, or He sends His confidential servants as sons or acaryas to reclaim the conditioned souls.
Therefore sanatana-dharma does not refer to any sectarian process of religion. It is the eternal function of the eternal living entities in relationship with the eternal Supreme Lord. Sanatana-dharama referrs, as stated previously, to the eternal occupation of the living entity.
The English word “religion” is a little different from sanatana-dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana-dharma referrs to that activity which cannot be changed. For instance liquidity can not be taken from water, nor can heat be taken from fire. Similarly the eternal function of the eternal living entity cannot be taken from the living entity. Sanatana-dharma is eternally integral with the living entity. When we speak of sanatana-dharma, then, we must take it forgranted that it has no beginning or end.
That which has neither beginning or end cannot be sectarian, for it cannot be limited by any boundaries. Yet those belonging to some sectarian faith will wrongly consider that sanatana-dharma is also sectarian, but if we go deeply into the matter and consider it in the light of modern science, it is possible for us to see that sanatana-dharma is the business of all people of the world–nay, of all the living entities of the universe.
Non-sanatana religious faith may have some beginning in the annals of human history, but there is no beginning to the history of sanatana-dharma because it remains eternally with the living entities.
The Bhagavad-gita states that the living entity has neither birth nor death, he is eternal and indestructable, and he continues to live after the destruction of his temporary material body.
In reference to the concept of sanatana-dharma, we must try to understand the concept of religion from the Sanskrit root meaning of the word. Dharma referrs to that which is constantly existing with the particular object. We conclude that there is heat and light along with the fire; without heat and light there is no meaning to the word fire. Similarly, we must discover the essential part of the living being, that part which is his constant companion. That constant companian is his eternal quality, and that eternal quality is his eternal religion.