Foundations of Sanatana Dharma - The Nature of the Self


All of us, without any exception, at all times and at all places want to be happy. Happiness is our highest goal. All the sufferings, struggling and pursuits of us are invariably pointing towards the attainment of happiness. Thus, happiness is the one point where all our diverging natures converge. But one may object that the nature of happiness and ways of attaining it may essentially vary from person to person and hence happiness cannot be a conclusive point of convergence. Yes, this objection seems to be very valid. But if we go deeper, we can realize that it has little water in it. Modes of attaining happiness and means to extract it and even the concept of happiness, which is essentially driven by external materials and sense organs, among the lay may differ drastically. Generally food, health, looks, spouse, progeny, dresses, touring, money, position, name, fame, fine arts, etc are considered to be the main source of happiness. Here like one man's food becoming another man's poison, one person's source of happiness may be a source of misery to some other. But the very nature of happiness as the value, is not divergent because our own experience reveals that happiness is a conclusive state of completeness where nothing will be wanting and nothing will be bothering. Such a state of completeness, though lasting for a moment, is essentially one. That is perhaps why Tolstoy opens his novel Anna Karenina with this sentence: “All happy homes are alike. But every unhappy home is unhappy in its own way.” Joy has an absolute form while the opposite of it, sorrow, has many forms and all are eventually false. This statement may mean redundant to many earnest readers. But if we go deep and observe our own experiences, the truth in it can certainly be realized.

Sources of Happiness

All of us agree unanimously that sound sleep is a true state of absolute joy, for nothing is demanding in that situation. All the differences too disappear. Even our maladies connected with the body and the mind cease to exist for that moment. This itself is a proof that joy is innate while sorrow is externally thrust upon us. It is our own over-indulgence with the world that brings sorrow. One may counter this statement by saying that even joy can be a product of external things. Yes, it is at times. But unfortunately any joy gained externally turns out to be sorrow at the end. But no joy realized internally turns out to be so. It is all the more interesting to note that no sorrow can be generated internally, for our true state is always bliss and not agony.

This can be appreciated through an analogy also. Light, like delight, is a positive entity for darkness a negative one "exists" not as an independent entity but as the absence of light. Darkness, like sorrow, by itself has no existence.

Whenever we inquire about the well-being of a person, asking "How are you?", if the answer is "I am fine," there will be no further questions. But if the answer is in the negative, say, "I am not fine", many questions arise from our side with concern. Similarly, if a person knows something which is of our interest too, we generally ask, "How did you know that?" with an intention to know and learn. But perhaps none would ask, "Why do you know?" since such a question is a product of impertinence. Likewise, if a person is happy, none with good intentions questions his happiness. If at all someone does, it would be with an earnest intention to be like him. But if the same person is unhappy, our good intentions obviously question it. Are not these instances revealing some simply obvious but highly profound truth – that existence, awareness and happiness are natural states of every living being? Even in the case of non-living things, the physical and chemical concepts such as equilibrium, valency, steady-state and others reveal similar truths.

However, poor and weak, old and muff, ailing and suffering we may be, but all of us, sincerely without exception, want to live long, nay, becoming immortals and know everything and get anything of our wish. Even the dullest student, if granted, joyfully accepts a rank and longs for it too. Even a dying man wants to have an elixir of life. All these are not mere desires driven by the external forces but it is the nature within that promotes us in the pursuit of life like wisdom and joy. To sum up, everyone's ambition is for his or her eternal existence, eternal awareness and eternal happiness. Added to these, none wants to be subordinate to anything or anybody. In turn, everyone wants to dominate the rest. The desire of absolute freedom and absolute authority accelerates his or her zeal for eternity. In the words of Prof. M. Hiriyanna, an outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century, this is all the quest after perfection.

Sanatana dharma identifies such a desire inbuilt in us as the very nature of our own selves, but in a sublime way. Thus, absolute existence, absolute awareness and absolute bliss independent of external things is the nature of the atman (soul, Self). In Sanskrit, these three terms are called as sat, chit, and ananda. Therefore, the very nature of atman is sacchidananda. Any pursuit in the course of its attainment through external things, i.e., a materialistic path, is a distortion and self-corruption. Those who try to seek absolute existence, absolute awareness and absolute wisdom from outwardly sources and try to establish authority over others and declare their own freedom alone are invariably becoming tyrants and blemishes on mankind.

Sanatana dharma has clearly distinguished these two differences in the attainment of self-supremacy and always advocated the spiritual path which is essentially inwardly and has shunned without sparing anything, the path of materialism which is always outwardly. But while taking such a stringent stand, sanatana dharma has never taken refuge in a Utopian world. It has welcomed that system and has prescribed the same which is materialistic but submits itself to spiritualism.

Speaking in terms of values or purusharthas, materialism is always an instrument; at the most, an instrumental value; it is only a means and never the goal. The materialism of artha and kama – demand and supply, should be sanctified by the global ethic of dharma and work towards the attainment of liberation from all the bondage of desires and inadequacies (i.e., moksha). The beauty of sanatana dharma lies not only in crystallizing the concept of liberation but also in establishing its instantaneous-ness. Unlike many theological schools and religions of the book which are generally prophetic in nature where liberation or salvation is possible only after our death, here in sanatana dharma, liberation is here and now. This is called as jivanmukti (liberated in the very body itself). Liberation according to the Upanishads is not a post-dated cheque; it is a demand draft.

One may not agree with this but a hypothetical acceptance of such a state and working towards its materialization can be extremely rewarding. Such a concept of jivanmukti is especially welcoming in this age of science, technology, rationality and reasoning, for it successfully overcomes the problems connected with heaven, hell, sin, divine judgement, etc. Everything is within us and within our reach. But individual accountability an sincerity are never ignored. In fact, they become much more important. Even the concepts such as punya and papa (loosely 'virtue' and 'sin') can be well-explained with the scientific concept of entropy which is the measure of disorder in the world. Accordingly, that which recklessly contributes to entropy is sin and that which sincerely tries to avid it is virtue. Although, in sanatana dharma, punya and papa have even more greater and deeper dimensions extending into the mental and spiritual worlds, the physical concept of entropy can very easily be accommodated and positively employed to explain a part of it without contradiction.

It is to be noted that in all these discussions, no scriptural evidence or authority of any kind is called in or enforced upon. The reason is simple. Every religion of the book claims its superiority over the rest through its own revelations which are again bookish. Thus the proof and the thing to be proved become one and the same. This cannot be scientific since any book is the product of a mind and any mind is conditioned by its own spatiotemporal limitations. Therefore, one has to transcend all books without disrespecting them and try to realize one underlying spirit in all existence with the universal experience of oneself.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



K B S Ramachandra works in the software industry and has a deep interest in Kannada and Sanskrit literature.