Perennial Philosophy of Life: Sanatana Dharma by Father Michael Sherbert

The perennial philosophy, the eternal law and truth of life is Sanatana Dharma.
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Sanatana Dharma refers to “timeless, eternal set of truths” with origins beyond human history, truths divinely revealed (Shruti) in the Vedas – the most ancient of the world's scriptures.

Perennial Philosophy of Life:
Sanatana Dharma

by Father Michael Sherbert

Eternal or Universal Righteousness

Sanatana Dharma,(1) meaning “Eternal or Universal Righteousness” comprises the eternal set of truths, the spiritual laws, which govern the human existence. Sanatana Dharma(2) is to human life what natural laws are to the physical phenomena. Just as the phenomena of gravitation existed before it was discovered, the spiritual laws of life are eternal laws, which existed before they were discovered by the ancient rishis (sages) for the present age during the Vedic period. Sanatana Dharma declares that something cannot come out of nothing and, therefore, the universe itself is the manifestation of the Divine being.

This truth forms the invocation of the Isa Upanishad (a scripture):
Poornam-adah, poornam-idam, poor-nath poornam-udachyate. Poor-nasya poornam-adaya, poornam-eva-va-sishyate.
“That is full; this is full. The full comes out of the full. Taking the full from the full, the full itself remains.”

This verse expresses the mystery of creation. This universe comes forth from the Divine, yet the universe takes nothing from the Divine and adds nothing to It. Divine remains ever the same. Since the universe has come forth from the Divine, all things and beings are sacred and must be treated so in human thought and action. The Divine sleeps in minerals, awakens in plants, walks in animals and thinks in humans.

Sanatana Dharma looks upon a person as a part and parcel of the mighty Whole, but never regards him as “the Measure of all things.” In the West, “person” is a supreme and final value, while Sanatana Dharma regards person as a part of the Whole, having the same vital essence as all other human and sub-human creatures of the universe. This cosmic view of Hinduism transcends the sectarian or group dogmas and paves a way for the coexistence of all creatures under the Vedic principle of Vasudev Kutumbhkam, meaning, “The Universe is One Family.” This principle guides the humankind towards universal harmony through acceptance and tolerance.

Sanatana Dharma recognizes that the Ultimate Reality, which is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization, cannot be limited by any name or concept. The potential for human wholeness (or in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, liberation, transformation, blessedness, nirvana, moksha) is present in every human being. No race or religion is superior and no color or creed is inferior. All humans are spiritually united like the drops of water in an ocean.

Universe is One Family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbhkam)

Everything which exists is a part of an interdependent universe. All living creatures depend on each other for their existence, well-being and development. All human beings are an inseparable part of the nature, on which diverse culture and human civilizations have been built. Life on Earth is abundant and diverse. It is sustained by the unhindered functioning of natural systems which ensure the provision of energy, air, water and nutrients for all living creatures. Every manifestation of life on Earth is unique and essential and must, therefore, be respected and protected without regard to its apparent value to human beings. All human beings are an inseparable part of the human family and depend on each other for their existence, well-being and development. Every human being is a unique expression and manifestation of life and has a unique contribution to make to life on Earth. Each human being has fundamental and inalienable rights and freedoms, without distinction of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status or any other social situation. All human beings have the same basic needs and the same fundamental aspirations to be satisfied. All individuals have the right to development, the purpose of which is to promote attainment of the full potential of each person.

Therefore: Don't enforce one belief, one way of worship or one code of conduct for all. Do not attempt to destroy different forms of worship, claiming your own way to be the only right one. Such enforcement of uniformity would be unnatural and contrary to the Divine Law. It hinders the progress of a human being in his/her journey to the state of divinity. Give importance to sincerity of heart and nobleness of conduct in the field of religion. Do not claim to have obtained from God, exclusive and irrevocable power of attorney to be a dictator and to persecute others on behalf of God, because they do not agree with you. Don't claim to have bound the Boundless God. Do not create inter-religious wars and massacres, forcing your claims and dogmas on others.

Give a person freedom to think, freedom to believe, freedom to disbelieve and freedom to adopt a way of worship, which suits his/her temperament. After all, what is important in worship of God is the sincerity of heart, not the outer form of worship. Don't divide the human race into conflicting armies and camps of Holy believers and Unholy Others.

Harmony of Religions

Ancient sages affirm that there is no one religion that teaches an exclusive road to salvation. All genuine spiritual paths are valid and all great religions are like the branches of a tree; the tree of religion. The Bhagavad Gita declares: “In whatever way they [human beings] love Me [God], in the same way they find My love. Various are the ways for them, but in the end they all come to Me.” (BG 4.11)
Practical significance: This doctrine lays foundation for the ideal of universal harmony. The attitude of religious acceptance is Sanatana Dharma greatest gift to mankind. Ishvara (God)

There is but one Ultimate Reality (Supreme Being), Who is absolute existence, absolute knowledge, and absolute bliss (sat-chidãnanda). The Ultimate Reality is both immanent and transcendent, and both Creator and Unmanifest Reality. There is no duality of God and the world, but only unity. The Ultimate Reality can be worshipped and prayed by any name and in any form. A Sanatana Dharma worships the Ultimate Reality in the form of a chosen deity (Ishta Devatã) in the temples and in home shrines.
Practical significance: Being a God-loving religion and not a God-fearing one, Sanatana Dharma relies upon God Consciousness & realization through union and communion rather than on dogma or blind faith.

Non-Violence (Ahimsã)

Ahimsã means non-violence (in thought, word and deed), non-injury, or non-killing. Sanatana Dharma teaches that all forms of life are different manifestations of Brahman (Ultimate Reality). We must therefore not be indifferent to the sufferings of any of God's creatures.
Practical significance: This doctrine creates love for humans between themselves as well as with other forms of life, and encourages the protection of our environment. “That mode of living which is founded upon a total harmlessness towards all creatures or (in case of actual necessity) upon a minimum of such harm, is the highest morality.”
(Mahãbhãrata Shãntiparva 262.5-6 - a Hindu scripture)

The Doctrine of Dharma

The thought of dharma generates deep confidence in the Sanatana Dharma mind in cosmic justice. This is reflected in the often-quoted maxims:
  • “The righteous side will have the victory.”
  • “Truth only prevails, not falsehood.”
  • “Dharma kills if it is killed; dharma protects if it is protected.”
  • “The entire world rests on dharma.”

Dharma is the law that maintains the cosmic order as well as the individual and social order. Dharma sustains human life in harmony with nature. When we follow dharma, we are in conformity with the law that sustains the universe.
Dharma is of four kinds:
  • Universal dharma (rita)
  • Human dharma (ashram dharma)
  • Social dharma (varana dharma)
  • Individual dharma (svadharma)

All four dharmas together are called sanãtana dharma, the eternal philosophy of life.

Universal dharma includes the natural laws associated with the physical phenomenon of the universe, such as the laws of matter, science, and planetary motions. Human dharma means the human actions, which maintain the individual, social, and environmental order. Social dharma is exemplified in human actions associated with professional, social, community and national duties and responsibilities. Individual dharma consists of individual actions associated with one's individual duties and responsibilities. The doctrine of dharma states that right action must be performed for the sake of righteousness, and good must be done for the sake of goodness, without any expectation of receiving something in return.

The question arises as to what is right? Hindu scriptures include the following guidance that should be used to determine what is right under given circumstances:
Individual actions (svadharma) which are based upon truth, ahimsã, and moral values are considered righteous actions.

Political, social, and community-related activities, which are based upon unselfishness, truth, ahimsã, and moral and ethical values are defined as right actions. Actions that arise as a consequence of one's stage of life (ashram dharma) are considered good. The dharma of a student is to acquire knowledge and skills, whereas the dharma of a householder is to raise the family, and that of a retiree is to advise and guide the younger generations.

Actions that are associated with one's profession (varna dharma) are considered right actions. The duty of a soldier may be to take the life of an enemy, whereas the duty of a doctor is to save the life, including that of an enemy. Actions which ensure adherence to the laws of the land are righteous actions. If the laws are unjust, they must be changed through democratic means and non-violence.

In the event of a conflict between individual and social dharma, the social dharma takes precedence. “He who understands his duty to society truly lives. All others shall be counted among the dead ...,” declares Tirukural, a Hindu scripture. “What you desire for yourself, you should desire for others. What you do not like others to do to you, you should not do to others.” (Mahãbhãrata, Shãntiparva, 258). Practical significance: Dharma provides a rational approach to distinguish right from wrong and good from evil. In this philosophy, the duties and responsibilities are emphasized more than rights and privileges.

Unity of Existence

Science has revealed that what we call matter is essentially energy. Hindu sages have declared that the cosmic energy is a manifestation of the Universal Spirit (Brahman). The entire universe is a play between Brahman, or the cosmic consciousness, and the cosmic energy. Brahman has become all things and beings of the world. Thus, we are all interconnected in subtle ways.
Practical significance: This doctrine encourages universal brotherhood, reverence for all forms of life, and respect for our environment. There is no racial, cultural or religious superiority. There are differences on the surface, but deep down there is perfect unity, as All is in One and One is in all.

Doctrine of Karma

The word karma literally means ‘deed or action,' but implies the entire cycle of cause and its effects. According to the Law of Karma, every human action—in thought, word, or deed—inevitably leads to results, good or bad, depending upon the moral quality of the action. There is no such thing as action without results. “As we sow, so shall we reap,” is the unerring law which governs all deeds. The Law of Karma conserves the moral consequences of all actions, and conditions our future lives accordingly. We ourselves create our future destinies by our own choices each minute. Every child born in this world is born to work out its own past deeds.

The doctrine of karma is the answer provided by Hindus to the questions of why suffering and inequalities exist in the world: “Why should one person be different from another in his looks, abilities, and character? Why is one born a king and another a beggar? A just and merciful God cannot create such inequalities.” The doctrine of karma, a law of actions and their retribution, can be viewed as the law of causation (cause and effect) applied to the moral realm. The law that every action has a reaction works in the scientific world as well as in the moral world. The doctrine of karma is based upon the principle of cause and effect. This doctrine of cause and effect differs from the illogical notion that God punishes the wicked and rewards the virtuous. The underlying basis for this difference is that Hindu religion is a god-loving religion rather than a god-fearing one.

Karma is neither predestination nor fatalism. Fatalism and predestination imply that individuals are bound by circumstances or by some outside power and, as such, cannot free themselves with their own effort. That is exactly opposite of karma. The Law of Karma is actually the law of harmony and equilibrium. It adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause. But it is also the law of opportunity, which allows an individual to change his past for a better future. If we understand karma as the law of order and opportunity, we will become self-reliant and understand that we cannot and should not escape responsibility.

The Four Ends of Human Life

The four ends of human life are dharma, artha, kãma, and moksha. Dharma is the first human goal and forms the foundation for the pursuit of the other three goals. Dharmic actions are those individual, social, political, and professional actions which are based upon the four virtues: truth, ahimsã, morality and ethics. Artha means to earn wealth in accordance with dharma. Kãma is to satisfy one's mental and intellectual desires in accordance with dharma. Moksha denotes spiritual perfection, which is attained automatically when one leads a life that is dedicated to dharma.

Every child born on this earth is required to repay three debts in his (or her) lifetime. These three debts are akin to the three mortgages on one's life:
  1. The first debt is to God and the repayment requires regular prayers and worship, and selfless service to all of God's creatures.
  2. The second debt is to the sages and saints, who have revealed truths in scriptures. The repayment of this debt arises from service to the needy, handicapped, sick and poor, and less fortunate.
  3. The third debt is to one's ancestors, parents and teachers. The repayment of this debt means raising one's family in accordance with the moral and ethical principles of dharma.

To help an individual repay the above three debts, Hindu sages have organized life into four stages: studentship (Brahmachãrya Ãshrama), householder stage (Grhastha Ãshrama), retirement (Vãnaprastha Ãshrama), and renunciation (Sannyãsa Ãshrama).

During studentship one must acquire knowledge and skills necessary to perform duties and responsibilities in adult life, i.e. the householder stage. Retirement means a life of spirituality and gradual withdrawal from active life, to pass on skills to the next generation and begin devoting time to meditation and contemplation. Renunciation is the last stage of life in which one devotes full-time to meditation and contemplation on one's own self.
Practical significance: The concept of the four ends and three debts generates awareness of one's duties and responsibilities, provides moral and ethical direction to life, encourages family values, and helps one to organize life for individual accomplishments. The Hindu concept of the four stages (ãshramas) of life provides a road map for life's journey from the first stage of learning to the final stage where the Divinity alone is the focus and support.

The Divinity of Ãtman (individual spirit)

Each human being, regardless of religion, geographic region, color, or creed is in reality Ãtman clothed in a physical body. An individual is not born a sinner, but becomes a victim of mãyã (cosmic ignorance). Just as darkness quickly disappears upon the appearance of light, an individual's delusion vanishes when he gains self-knowledge.
Practical significance: This doctrine eliminates fear of God, encourages divine love, promotes freedom of thought, and removes fear and guilt which are psychological barriers to human growth.

Religious Discipline

Sanatana Dharma believes that wisdom is not an exclusive possession of any particular race or religion. Since a laborer requires a different kind of religion than a scholar, Sanatana Dharma allows an individual to select a religious discipline in accordance with one's own religious yearning and spiritual competence. Sanatana Dharma religion recommends the guidance of a spiritually awakened master (guru) for attaining perfection in life. If a devotee on the spiritual path is likened to a traveler, then the guru is the traveler's guide who provides the road map and other helpful information needed to reach the destination successfully.
Practical significance: This doctrine minimizes religious manipulation and control and provides everyone with absolute freedom of thought in religious matters. One is free to question any belief and practice until one is convinced of the truth behind it.


The ultimate goal of Sanatana Dharma religious life is to attain spiritual freedom (moksha, i.e. freedom from the cycle of birth and death in the phenomenal world), or union with God. Moksha is the birth right of every individual and is automatically attained when one leads a life dedicated to dharma, artha, and kãma. Moksha is akin to the top of a three-step ladder, and after taking the three steps of dharma, artha, and kãma, one will automatically reach the top.
Practical significance: This doctrine encourages individual effort and understanding for attaining perfection in life. Each soul evolves toward union with God by his own effort. There is no supernatural power that randomly determines our destinies. We are the makers of our own destinies. Self-effort and Divine grace together lead to spiritual perfection.

The Doctrine of Avatãra (Incarnation)

Sanatana Dharma believes that God incarnates Himself on earth (avatãra) to uphold righteousness, whenever there is a loss of virtue. The Bhagavad Gîtã thus declares, “Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and predominance of unrighteousness, I (God)embody Myself. For the protection of the good and for the destruction of the evil-doers and for the re-establishment of righteousness, I am born from age to age.”
(Bhagavad Gîtã 4.6-4.7)
Practical significance: This doctrine encourages righteousness and fosters hope for mankind, since divine intervention eventually destroys evil and restores balance in the world.

Ego throws man in an all-out war with God. Guess who loses. Only if people knew how sweet the joy of God is, they would not trade it for anything in the world. Religion is not what people think it is. True religion is the realization that everything in this world, animate or inanimate, is a part of one Mighty Whole and we are interconnected in subtle ways.

We can find out quickly how fortunate we are if we compare our bad times with worse times of others. We like to value our own things more than those of others. A man was cleaning his shoes with a silk towel. When asked why he was using silk to clean his shoes, he replied, “The shoes are mine and the towel belongs to my father.”

Wisdom does not come from talking, it comes from thinking, and thinking comes from calmness. Wisdom also comes from experience. We learn fast by our own mistakes. Those who use the pronouns I, me, and mine more than we, us, and ours generally get sick more often than others. Selfishness leads to illness. Medical research shows, “the more self-centered people are much more likely to die of heart attack than the less self-centered.”

Do not be so sure of what you see. The sky appears blue, but when you go up there the sky neither exists nor is it blue. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the willingness to set aside greed, anger, and hatred and make room for love, kindness, and compassion. Satisfaction in life is not accidental; it depends upon what you do, when you do, and how you do it.

Being Mindful

See others as they are, not as you think they are. Study, think, and act for success; any deviation will result in failure. Emotion and anger are enemies of understanding. If you lose your sleep for any reason, you could lose yourself for the same reason. Given that all forms of life are unique and essential, that all human beings have the right to development and that both peace and violence are the product of the human mind, it is from the human mind that a sense of responsibility to act and think in a peaceful manner will develop. Through peace oriented awareness, individuals will understand the nature of those conditions which are necessary for their well-being and development.

Being mindful of their sense of responsibility towards the human family and the environment in which they live and to the need to think and act in a peaceful manner, human beings have the obligation to act in a way that is consistent with the observance of and respect for inherent human rights and to ensure that their consumption of resources is in keeping with the satisfaction of the basic needs of all.

When members of the human family recognize that they are responsible to themselves and to present and future generations for the conservation of the planet, as protectors of the natural world and promoters of its continued development, they will be obliged to act in a rational manner in order to ensure sustainable life. Human beings have a continuing responsibility when setting up, taking part in or representing social units, associations and institutions, whether private or public. In addition, all such entities have a responsibility to promote peace and sustainability, and to put into practice the educational goals which are conducive to that end. These goals include the fostering of awareness of the interdependence of human beings among themselves and with nature and the universal responsibility of individuals to solve the problems which they have engendered through their attitudes and actions in a manner that is consistent with the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Sanatana Dharma

Now, sects are those religious associations that deviated from the true Teaching of God. But Teaching of God was brought to us through sayings and writings of Krishna, Lao Tso, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Balaji, Sathya Sai and other Divine Envoys, prophets, great disciples of God and spiritual heroes. (The essence of Their preaching's is summarized in our books [7,10]). One can also find several valuable passages in the Old Testament. But we may notice that in the entire Bible there is no description of God-the-Father — the main object of worship of all believers. How can one lovingly aspire towards Him, of Whom one knows nothing? Is not this the reason why He got almost forgotten in the mass Christian churches?

But Bhagavad Gita provides thorough information about Him and the Path to Him. The only problem is that Bhagavad Gita has been translated by people who did not quite understand it. Only those who put into practice entire Teaching of Krishna could do a reliable translation. Throughout the entire history of humankind God teaches people one and the same thing: the way one should develop oneself, seeking Divine Perfection and aspiring to Merge with Him. This Divine Teaching is called Sanatana Dharma — the “Eternal Law”. God taught and continues to teach this through Avatars and prophets. But every time people gradually forget the essence of the concrete Teaching that was given to them, distort something in it, sometimes to its exact antithesis, and start conflicting with those who perverted the Teaching in a different manner [7].

This is why God needs to incarnate Parts of Himself into human bodies again and again or to speak through new prophets — in an attempt to revive Sanatana Dharma. But people tend to consider His Envoys as enemies of their “true” faith, to taunt at Them and to kill Them. Currently Avatar Sathya Sai preaches this pure Teaching in this way (His Teaching is integrated in books [5,7,10]).

The essence of Sathya Sai's Teaching as well as of the Teachings of all the Other Divine Teachers can be summarized in short as follows:
The Main goal of any man is to Merge himself — as developed consciousness — with the Consciousness of God. In order to realize this one has to study oneself and God as multidimensional phenomena, including cognizing the Abode of the Creator and migrating there with one's consciousness.

In order to accomplish this one has to prepare oneself by spiritual practices — such as pranayama's, techniques of pratyahara and meditative trainings. But no trainings will be of use, if a person lacks steadfast faith and longing for the Creator, or does not have a developed ability to love. Love is a function of the spiritual heart and one should start developing it through interaction with people and other incarnate beings. Basic principles here are compassion for every living being and serving every living being according to karma yoga postulates. Karma yoga is a practical expression of one's love to God and for people; it is the best method of self-development. Faith without active service is dead.

One should also grow Faith in oneself by constant remembering about God. Religious conversations, various rituals and public worships that involve praising the God's name etc. can help one in this. All principles of a person's relationships with people and other creatures are summarized in the short precept of Vyasa: “Help all, (in everything that is good) never offend anyone!” Sathya Sai gives detailed explanation of this precept with reference to a great number of concrete earthly situations [7,10]. He teaches that there are two major landmarks in every person's earthly life: God — as the Goal, and the death of the body — as a reminder of our limited opportunity to improve. Let us remember this, let us cast aside all insignificant and unnecessary and devote ourselves totally to the realization of the meaning of our lives: to development of ourselves as consciousness — first qualitative, and then quantitative, as we have already discussed in this and other books. “Neither cringing, nor irritation, nor profit will be the gates... But free service, heartfelt veneration and conscious ascent will bring one to the Threshold of Light.” [2] (Hierarchy:460).

Let us remember: this is the way to liberation from bonds of karma, from diseases, from the necessity to submerge into the world of sufferings again. This is — the way to Merging forever with our most Beloved!

For Christ has not given the world a new religion or philosophy. But Christ has given and revealed a relationship of life healing and regeneration for all, in all, and through all until all are in all, which is found only Within the Divine Presence of the Father's Eternal Life and Love within the fullness of the Spirit…
The Orthodox Way… Oriental Christian.

-Father Michael Sherbert

Father Michael Sherbert is an Ordained Apostolic Priest of the Holy Wisdom Seminary and a member of the Progressive Episcopal Church. The Progressive Episcopal Church is a community of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, honoring all creation as an original blessing and seeking to integrate the wisdom of diverse spiritual traditions, while remaining firmly rooted in the apostolic tradition of the ancient Christian faith.

(1) Sanatana Dharma (Sanskrit), The eternal law” or the “eternal way”. All aspects of a Hindu life, namely acquiring wealth (artha), fulfillment of desires (kama), and attaining liberation (moksha), are part of dharma, which encapsulates the “right way of living” and eternal harmonious principles in their fulfillment.

(2) Sanatana Dharma refers to “timeless, eternal set of truths” and this is how Hindus view the origins of their religion. It is viewed as those eternal truths and tradition with origins beyond human history, truths divinely revealed (Shruti) in the Vedas – the most ancient of the world's scriptures.

May the light and love of God prevail. Please let us know how we can help.

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