From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Sanatana Dharma is a comprehensive system of life, consisting of religion, spiritual philosophy and knowledge system, social and political setup.


Simply put, the goal of Sanatana Dharma is Moksha, liberation. It aims at mukti for every individual, and all the methods it prescribes are towards that goal. Fulfillment of the purposes of life is the means to it. However, the phenomenal world is diverse, and hence there are diverse means to fulfilling the purpose of life.


According to Sanatana dharma, each being is potentially divine. Realization is about unveiling the divinity. God, who created the universe, is not different from it - He exists unmanifest, but the entire creation is also a part of Him. He exists essentially, in each particle and phenomenon of creation.

Each being, through its cycles of birth and death, is evolving towards the same goal, according to Sanatana Dharma. So the equality and inequality are apparent, and not essential. These differences are because of the diversity in methods, and differences in the stages and phases through which each being is going at any point of time.


However, there are multiple windows to Truth that describe the eternal, its relation to the universe and the concept of liberation. These are called Darsanas. They are six and listed as Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa. They differ in whether there is a "creator-God" different from the eternal, what causes binding and what causes liberation etc, but they all have a common stand, e.g. there is an eternal spirit, indwelling presence (Purusha), who is actually liberated, but appears to be bound by the play of Nature (Prakriti). They are also common in that their goal is liberation. They all advocate righteousness and devotion as means to liberation, though they suggest different methods. They are also common in that they take Veda as the authority.


There are also multiple schools that describe the relation of individual and universal soul, the concept and nature of liberation. These are called schools of spiritual philosophy or Vedanta and they are Advaita, Dwaita, Visistadwaita etc.

Darsanas and schools of Vedanta are often grouped together, for they address some common subjects. They also commonly believe in the concepts like karma and rebirth.


Hinduism is actually a set of religions, all believing in common authority - the Veda. Sanatana Dharma can be broadly called Vedic religion. Each religion has a theology. However they are all not separate theologies, but different interpretations of theologies present in the texts - Veda and the Puranas. They also take relevant sets/portions of rituals, codes prescribed in sruti and in smritis, and from Agamas.

Smarta is the "religion", where any of the major deities is worshipped and there is no specific leaning to any of them. Literally "smarta" means following "smritis". Then there are six major religions, Saiva, Vaishnava, Sakta, Ganapatya, Saura and Kaumara, which treat deities Siva, Vishnu, Sakti-the mother Goddess, Ganapathi, Surya and Kumara Swamy as supreme Godhead respectively.


There are four goals of life to fulfill which one should work - Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. That is, Righteousness, generation of wealth/production, fulfillment of desires and salvation. The first three are means to the last.


There are three paths to salvation. One is of devotion (bhakti) where an individual through devotion for God, attains moksha. This is prescribed for the heart-being. Worship is his method; Devotion the means; bliss and love the goals.

The second is of knowledge (jnana), where one sublimates his lower being through gaining knowledge. This is for the intellect-being. Study/thought is his method; Curiosity his means; Truth the goal.

The third is of works (karma), where one through fulfillment of responsibilities as an individual and then serving fellow beings, attains moksha. This is for the social being. Service is his method; Selflessness his means; infinity and permanence the goal.

Thus truth-beauty-permanence, the three aspects of the eternal, are the goals of these three paths. They are intermixing and overlapping paths, with each of them leading to and merging in the others.


The root of Sanatana Dharma is the Veda. The Veda is said to be classified before the beginning of Kali Yuga (about 3100 BC according to traditional version), by Vyasa, into four - Rig, Yajus, Sama and Atharva. Each Veda has three portions, Samhita (hymns to gods), Brahmana (ritual portion), Aranyaka (philosophy portion).

There are two major streams of literature, which developed from the Veda and base their authority on it. One of them is the smriti literature, where entire literature is classified into 18 abodes or mahasthanas. They are the four Vedas, six Vedangas (sastras to understand the Veda, literally the parts of Veda), four Upangas (consisting of dharma viz codes of conduct etc and logic) and four Upavedas (arts and sciences). Then there are six darsanas or windows to truth. The second stream is the Agama literature, consisting of Mantra, Yantra and Tantra.

However these are not mutually exclusive streams, and there are many aspects like underlying spiritual philosophy, mantras, and some procedures for rituals that are common.

	|----	Vedic and [[Smriti]] literature
	|		|----	[[Vedangas]] (six)
	|		|----	[[Upangas]] (4)
	|		|----	Upavedas (4)
	|		|----	Darsanas (6)
	|----	[[Agama]] literature
			|----	[[Tantra]]

Scope and Definition

What classifies one as belonging to or outside the fold of Sanatana Dharma, is not as straightforward as answering what classifies one as belonging to or outside the fold of any particular community.

Sanatana Dharma, as it implies, is the eternal law - hence anyone by definition is included in it. It does not classify people as followers and non-followers, believers and non-believers and so on. Thus by definition, it is universal and all-inclusive. This is because it talks of the natural and universal order or law, and not of the universe as seen by any particular seer.

However, when seen in a social context there do exist many classifications. The people belonging to the civilization of Bharata share a common cultural and social base; they differ in philosophy and few social aspects. The first such division is Vedic-Unvedic.

Accepting the authority of Veda is the primary criterion, for defining a person as belonging to Veda mata. And this covers all the branches, such as srauta, smarta, Tantric and so on. However, there are further classifications in this: There are schools that hold Atharva vedins as unvedic. There are schools that hold some Tantras as unvedic. And so on. However, with all the philosophical and religious differences, they all share one cultural-social base.

The schools that do not hold Veda as a primary authority are called Unvedic. Bauddha and Jaina, though they believe in salvation (having their own versions of Nirvana and Kaivalya respectively) are thus called Unvedic. They do not however call the Veda false knowledge. Bauddha and Jaina also share the same civilizational and philosophical base and world view as Vedic religion. Hence they are very much parts of the Bharatiya Civilization.

However this should not be understood in the sense that Veda is to be taken as an "authority". Veda is taken as a Pramana or a source and reference for validation of knowledge. And a school that does not accept Veda as pramana, implies that it does not believe in statements other than those that could be validated through other means of knowledge. There are acceptable pramanas under each school, like pratyaksha, anumana, upamana and so on which could be translated as (perception, logic, comparison, etc.). And the knowledge that could not be validated by these, according to Vedic religion, is to be taken as valid, if it finds validation in the Veda. The reasoning given for this by the followers of Vedic religion is that Veda is knowledge of the eternal and contains that knowledge which cannot be validated. So "something that cannot be validated can exist and still be accepted as true" is the premise. And this pramana was not listed first; in fact it was listed after pratyaksha and so on, to imply that you do not need the pramana of Veda for something that can be validated through direct means. According to Unvedic darsanas like Bauddha, only the knowledge that could be validated by pratyaksha and anumana is to be taken as valid. Thus, the difference is purely at a philosophical level, and not really at a religious level. Therefore we could see there are a lot of similarities in the religious practices of all these schools, such as Tantric and other methods. However, high level philosophical differences resulted in social differences, such as accepting the Vedic social order or Varna-Ashrama dharma. Still, they all shared the same cultural-civilizational base. However, it was easy to assimilate them in the social order - for they did not create a new social order, and they were not different socio-cultural systems.

Thus the Vedic-unvedic became a slightly different classification, Astika - Nastika. There are two criteria that make one an Astika or having astikya: believing in Veda's pramanya, and following varna-ashrama dharma. The belief in Veda translating as Astikya borrows sense from the above explanation, of "something that cannot be validated can exist and still be accepted as true".

Accepting God or Iswara has never been a criterion in classifying something as Astika or Vedic or Hindu for that matter. Owing to the differences in approach and diversity in world views, accepting the existence of God has always been a matter of choice and one's philosophy. Diversity in attribution of supremacy to God, religious practices, philosophical traits, none of these matter in classifying something as Vedic-Unvedic.

However, Carvaka differs greatly from all other systems including Bauddha and Jaina - it accepts pratyaksha (sense-perception) as the only pramana. Every other school, Vedic or Unvedic accepts at least two pramanas. And they do not accept akasha as a mahabhuta or a primordial element, which all other schools accept. Akasha is the element which is both the origin of all the other elements and listed as an element (in its unmanifest form). This causes all other differences such as treating body as self, not accepting rebirth and so on. In this, Carvaka comes very close to the western materialistic thought pattern. For this reason, not only did Carvaka have a different philosophical but also an entirely different social style emanating from an entirely alien worldview which is incompatible with all the other schools.

However, all other Bharatiya peoples, including tribal, should be described as sharing the same philosophical base. Either by their practices, or by their goals, their origin rests in the same. Any philosophy that came from outside, or developed independently in Bharata and came in contact with Sanatana Dharma, has been assimilated in its comprehensive, all-inclusive system.

However, the ones that are not assimilated are the exclusivist ideologies like Abrahamic religions. In a way, they are as philosophically and socially incompatible with Sanatana Dharma as Carvaka was at one time.

So any other school is, technically speaking, belonging to or related to Sanatana Dharma. One one hand there are schools like Shanmatas that are part of it, and on the other hand there are schools like Bauddha that have origin in it but are outgrowths from it.

Knowledge System

Hindu knowledge is a continuum, with knowledge of all kinds - religion, philosophy, sciences and arts share one base. The most integrated and well developed structure of knowledge can be found in this system.

In philosophy, truth is seen as multidimensional space, with facts as points in the space. Any domain or area of study is a matrix of such points, which is a set of interrelated facts consistent with each other. Any interdisciplinary study is an overlap/intersection of such sets. However, any such overlap will lose out many points while taking those that are relevant. Also as we keep specializing more the granularity of facts keeps growing. Any general fact can be presented as a set of specific facts, some of which are always ignored mostly because of relevance though occasionally by error. Thus, as facts become more and more specific their completeness comes down, as they no more accurately apply to the bigger domain but only to a part of it. This is one of the "dangers of specialization". The best way to avoid this is to have one single matrix at the highest level from which all the disciplines evolve, and share a base.

This is exactly what is done in the traditional Indian knowledge system. This is the knowledge of the impersonal, universal and eternal, the highest form of truth. This is the base from which all other forms of knowledge, religious or scientific evolve. Thus religious and scientific knowledge share the same philosophical base or worldview, and are therefore non-contradicting. In fact they enhance each other and are complementary. The various layers of knowledge that appeal to various levels and aspects of human consciousness - emotional, intellectual, psychic etc, come from the same origin and convey the similar ideas, thus effecting an integrated and comprehensive system for man's evolution.

Spirit of Sastras

Sastra is a study of the phenomena of the universe through specific means for a specific purpose.

Different kinds of knowledge can be differentiated based on the nature of facts, and the valid modes of explanations in those. For instance in modern science there are four valid explanations: deductive, probabilistic, teleological and genetic. The last two are valid in life sciences, and not in physical sciences. For instance if we say ice floats on water because of anomalous expansion, we can explain it as "anomalous expansion of water between -4 to 4 degrees is the reason", as well as "because of this water is covered with ice in lakes in frozen conditions and this is how water-animals survive. So this is a way of nature to help those beings". The first is valid in physics, and the second being teleological, is valid in life sciences. Such reasoning is often also allowed in philosophy, following theories like nature's intelligence.

For this reason Philosophy and science are two compartments in the modern knowledge system. But traditionally, knowledge is seen as one single continuum. For instance if we look at the smritis - Vedangas, Upavedas and Upangas; Upavedas are exclusively arts and sciences. Of these, gandharvaveda is purely art, dhanurveda is both art and science, and Ayurveda is a science. And specifically Ayurveda goes by all four explanations including genetic and teleological, but Rasa Sastra does not go by the latter ones. So we recognise that there are different types of knowledge and they differ in the explanations. But the differential factor is that we realize that, irrespective of explanations, facts and concepts have to be borrowed across these subjects.

So the sciences are grouped under a different class, but they are in the same hierarchy of knowledge; so we realize that it is the purpose of the branch of knowledge that differentiates, but not the knowledge as such.

If we find a statement in a philosophical text like an Upanishad or a darsana, we are not likely to find its scientific explanation (as relevantly considered valid in a particular branch of science) in that place. Just as we do not find a mathematical, formalistic explanation for Purnamadah in Isa Upanishad. But since we know that our philosophical texts are not detached from, and in fact form both basis and purpose for scientific texts, we are likely to find its scientific application wherever it is relevant. The application of the philosophical concept is the use of zero and infinity in mathematics, which no other civilization could achieve.

Similarly, application of the philosophical concept of holism helped a medicinal theory like Ayurveda.

Application of the philosophical concept of happiness and principle of transcendence helped an economic theory that says "desires are like burning fire, the way is to transcend them and not to multiply or fulfill them" in contrast to a modern economic theory that says "growth of the economy only comes through desires and their multiplication". This has huge social implications, and determines how content, moral and happy the people of a society would be.

At the same time, scientific explanations are found in appropriate places. The explanations used in various subjects depend on the nature and purpose of the knowledge. Zero is not defined or explained in mathematical texts the same way it is in a philosophical text. Eclipses are not explained in a Purana the same way they are explained in an astronomical text. They are explained in relevant ways, with necessary deductions. For instance, Purana says Rahu and Ketu swallow Sun and Moon, while Aryabhatiya says eclipses are caused by the shadows of earth and moon. It may probably be said that Aryabhatiya is too recent a text, but we can find the foundation of the logic in much older Jyotisha which says Rahu and Ketu are chaya grahas (shadows) and do not have behavior of their own.

Sastra- Art and Science

However, the word sastra is representative of both art and science forms. Some sastras are sciences, while some are art-forms. However the art-forms, too, are called sastras, both because their origin is based on sastra and because their pursuit is a well laid path. There is no clear line between art and science. In fact as has been said, the pursuit of science is an art and the pursuit of art is a science. Independent of subject, the pursuit of science and art involve creativity. Though there are differences in the acceptable methods and approaches in each sastra, and though there are differences in the states and levels of consciousness that validate truth, both science and art aim at Truth. Truth is for experimental verification in science and for experiential verification in art. However it is human consciousness that perceives the truth, and the laws of science and art are relative to man's experience of the world and not the world "as it is". This understanding is the basis of sastras, both sciences and arts.

Each art form is a study in consciousness, apart from aesthetics. Natya sastra is a study in mudras and abhinaya. Sangeeta is a study in nada and swara. Sculpture is a study in Iconometry and abhinaya. But all these are studies not only in themselves, they are studies in how each of these leads to happiness. There are two primary aspects in art forms - the experience of the artist, and its expression. A performance or a piece of art is an expression of the artist's experience. And pursuit of art is the means to the experience, as it is founded in a profound study of the way abhinaya or nada are to be pursued in order to attain to the highest experience. Thus any traditional art-form is a comprehensive pursuit of happiness.

Thus, truth and beauty are the aspects that science and art are aiming at. However in the Hindu philosophy truth and beauty are two indivisible aspects of The Permanent - the divine. Thus science and art are simply two approaches, with the same goal, described in two different ways. There is beauty in truth and there is truth in beauty. This is the outlook that makes sciences and art-forms run into each other, aiding each other and advancing each other.


Sabda (sound) is a concept where we can clearly observe the evolution of various sastras from one base. Sabda is the tanmatra of akasa (the sky). In the five elements Akasa represents brahman. Thus Sabda is eternal. The study of eternal word is mantra sastra. Mantra is word. It has multiple aspects, and the study of each aspect evolved as a sastra. The two aspects of word are - sabda (sound-form) and pada (verbal form). The former has two aspects, dhvani (sound) and swara (tone). The latter has four aspects, akshara (alphabet, syllables and their arrangement), artha (meaning semantics), vyakarana (syntax, order and arrangement of words) and chandas (arrangement of syllables). Each of these aspects is a sastra. The sound-energy root is beeja. Its study is mantra. Swara has two aspects again, their study being Siksha (phonetics) and Nada (Sangeeta-music). The word aspect is another study. It involves alphabet. Arrangement of alphabet/syllables is Chandas. Arrangement of alphabet into words and the study of meaning of word is Nirukta. Grammar of the language formed with words is Vyakarana.

        Sabda - Akasa
	|------	[[Dhvani]]
	|	   |----Dhvani (vibration)
	|	   |	   |----  Beeja (Mantra - Energy)
	|	   |
	|	   |----Swara
	|		   |----  Swara (Siksha)
	|		   |----  Nada (Sangeeta)
	|----	Pada
		  |----  Akshara (Alphabet/syllable)
		  |----  Artha (Nirukta)
		  |----  Vyakarana
		  |----  Chandas

Individual and Social Life

There are a set of institutions that drive individual and social life in Sanatana Dharma. They are:

determinant of righteousness or right action
four stages of life through which individual attains fulfillment and serves goals of life
Vivaha Vyavastha 
marriage, the basic building block of society
an abstraction based on various functions performed by men in the society.
an autonomous endogamous cultural unit.

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