The Sanatana Dharma as we know today has survived many challenges over the many millennia and has withstood the test of time. Every time when its survival or existence was under threat, God himself has manifested as Mahapurushas or Avatarapurushas to restore it. As Bhagawan Krishna says, “yada yada hi dharmasya ghlanir bhavati Bharata, abhyuthaanam adharmasya tadatmaanam srujaamyaham” (whenever there is a decline in Dharma and Adharma is on the rise, I shall myself manifest to restore Dharma and fight against Adharma). This word by Bhagawan to Arjuna is true as we have seen this happening again and again whenever our Sanatana Dharma was attacked or in trouble.
Sanatana Dharma itself is made of two words – Sanatana, meaning eternal, all-pervading and everlasting, and Dharma. Contrary to the misplaced connotations given to it, the term Dharma is actually not religion; in the way, Abrahamic religions are connoted. In fact, there is no clear definition or equivalent word in English to explain Dharma. In the simplest terms, Dharma can be understood as “that which is the true nature of all beings”. As Swami Chinmayananda explained in a lecture, sugar can be described in many ways – by its colour as white, brown, by its shape as cubes, tablets or by its form as crystals, powder and what not. Whatever be its description or form, the one thing about sugar that doesn’t ever change or should not change is its “sweetness”. And that is its basic Dharma, so to say. Likewise, each of the beings – living and non-living follows certain Dharma which is time tested and is everlasting. Our Rishis and saints, over many millennia have meditated upon these and with the blessings of Paramatma have understood these, codified these, and passed it on to us and for the posterity through Srutis (or Vedas and Upanishads), Smritis, Puranas, and Itihasas which collectively as a compendium are referred to as our Sanatana Dharma.
So what is the true nature of us? This question is pursued in great detail through Vedantas or Upanishads and there are elaborate commentaries written on this by many Mahapurushas. Again without going into the details of those esoteric subjects, to simplify for the purpose of this article, let us put it that, the true nature of us is to do the right thing! Every one of us, whether we are young or old, man or woman, learned or not, rich or poor, coming from North or South, a believer or atheist, has an innate understanding of what is right and what is wrong, even when we do what is wrong (either intentionally or unintentionally). And when no one is watching us what inhibits us to do the wrong thing and insists that we follow the right thing, is our true nature. However, we do not always do the right thing for various reasons. So then what can help us to keep ourselves goaded always on the right path and realize our true self? The answer to that is our Sanatana Dharma.
This is why it is essential for us to safeguard it, as it safeguards us from doing the wrong things. “Dharmo rakshati Rakshitah” (Dharma saves those who save it). So to be on the right path, we need to continuously and consciously apply ourselves to what is right, and that is exactly what is shown in our Dharma. Our upbringing is rooted in that. Our Acharyas or preceptors have clearly explained it to us and ingrained this in us. And we should be thankful to those who have saved our Sanatana Dharma from the many threats of its survival and handed it over to us.
Among those Mahapurushas who have made such stellar contributions in restoring and passing on Sanatana Dharma to us, there is none who equals in the stature of Jagadguru Sri Adishankaracharya. Considered as the incarnate of Bhagavan Shiva himself, who took the human form to establish Dharma and defeat the growing Buddhist, Jainist and Charvaka forces that were influencing the people that time to move away from Sanatana Dharma, Shankaracharya in a short span of his life time of 32 years in the 8thcentury AD, travelled along the length and breadth of this country, debated with the thought leaders that time, prevailed upon the intellectuals, and made some of the prominent ones his disciples and established Sanatana Dharma once again. His contributions cannot be ever covered in a single article or even in one book, such was his superhuman ability that Shankaracharya was referred to as “Amaanusha charitra” (literally meaning super human being).
Having defeated the opponents of Sanatana Dharma through epistemological debates, Shankaracharya went on to integrate many followers of different streams of our Sanatana Dharma that were often in conflict with each other due to their limited way of understanding the Vedanta principles and had gone astray from the core principles of the Vedas, back into the mainstream Sanatana Dharma. So whether it was Mimansaks, Shakteyas, or Sankhyas, Shankaracharya ensured that all of them have their rightful place in our Dharma, yet the core principle of Advaita (non-dualistic) philosophy is the one to which all these are aligned. His extensive commentaries on Prasthana trayi (The Upanishads, Brahmsutras, and Bhagavad Gita), and many Prakarana Granthas like Vivekachoodamani, Tatwabodha, Upadesha sahasri et al are some of the peerless work that have helped us understand the true meaning of our Sanatana Dharma as we know it today, and keep us in awe of his intellectual abilities and unmatched articulation of complex subjects to reach it to even the most uninitiated in the subject.
Shankaracharya’s vision for Sanatana Dharma was so far ahead, that he instituted four Amnaaya Peethas in four corners of the nation – Joshimath in North, Puri in East, Dwaraka in West and Sringeri in the South and anointed his four chief disciples as the heads of these Peethas with an instruction to them that they should, in turn, keep this lineage unbroken by appointing qualified successors and keep preserving Dharma so that the hard work done by him lasts forever. The many Acharyas who have succeeded him till date through this unbroken lineage of Gurus, continue to contribute in this direction and over the last 1200 years.
Shankaracharya ’s greatness lies in the fact that, his works not only are limited to the very esoteric and abstruse subjects on higher philosophy but are equally popular among masses through many simple shlokas and verses that even children can understand and relate to. His Atma Shatakam or Nirvana Shatakam is so popular that anyone who is not even formally initiated into Advaita Sidhanta can also relate to and understand. The core principles are given in such lucid and condensed form through such shlokas. Similarly, his Prashnottaramalika or the serialized Questions and Answers give very brief and concise replies to many frequently asked questions by the faithful when they are in doubt. In a beautiful five stanza work called Sadhana Panchakam, Shankaracharya tells us how we should lead our daily lives in Dharmic way. Even very practical suggestions like “dustarkaat viramyataam srutimatastarkonusandhiyatam” (keep away from vain and useless debates, and instead make your arguments in favour of Srutis), a very practical advice that is valid even in this age of Social media! When we as elders or parents wonder how in this age of technology and internet, we should keep our children safe from the perils of it, Acharya’s words and works shine through as a beacon for us showing us the right path.
On this Vaishaka Shukla Panchami day, the Jayanti of Shankaracharya, let us pray at his feet to always be rooted in the regal path of Dharma that he has painstakingly laid it for us and our welfare.
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