Dharma (Part 1): Sanatana-dharma

Dharma is often translated as “duty,” “religion” or “religious duty” and yet its meaning is more profound, defying concise English translation. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit root “dhri,” which means “to sustain.” Another related meaning is “that which is integral to something.” For example, the dharma of sugar is to be sweet and the dharma of fire to be hot. Therefore, a person’s dharma consists of duties that sustain him, according to his innate characteristics. Such characteristics are both material and spiritual, generating two corresponding types of dharma:

(a) Sanatana-dharma – duties which take into account the person’s spiritual (constitutional) identity as atman and are thus the same for everyone.

(b) Varnashrama-dharma – duties performed according to one’s material (conditional) nature and specific to the individual at that particular time (see Varnashrama Dharma).

According to the notion of sanatana-dharma, the eternal and intrinsic inclination of the living entity (atman) is to perform seva (service). Sanatana-dharma, being transcendental, refers to universal and axiomatic laws that are beyond our temporary belief systems. Most adherents prefer to call their tradition Sanatana-dharma rather than using the more recent term, “Hinduism,” which they consider has sectarian connotations. (Sometimes another category is added, called sadharana–dharma, general moral rules for everyone.)

Key points

  • Dharma – duties that sustain us according to our intrinsic nature.
  • Two main types:
    • Sanatana-dharma
    • Varnashrama-dharma
  • Sanatana-dharma refers to “the eternal law” which is universal.
    Basic moral codes are called sadharana-dharma.

Useful Analogy 1

The sun and its various names

The same sun is called by different names in different countries.

The sun is called by different names but remains one no matter how widely we travel. Similarly, God is above such designations as “British” or “Indian,” “Christian” or “Hindu.” The soul also transcends such temporary labels. Real religion, which involves re-establishing and acting in one’s eternal relationship with God, is above worldly and sectarian designations.

Useful Analogy 2

Various universities teach the same subject.

A related metaphor, which endorses the autonomy of the different religious traditions, compares religion to a science. Students may attend different universities – and the autonomy of each is to be respected – but the subjects are universal. For example, mathematical laws remain the same, whether in India or in Britain. Similarly, one may accept a particular authorised religious tradition, but the subject is the same. Many Hindus would therefore also include members of other authorised religious traditions under the banner of Sanatana-dharma, though they may have a natural preference for their own particular “school.”

Related Practices

All types of religious vows, rituals and practices aimed at service to God, sanatana-dharma.

A generally inclusive stance towards other authorised religions. Hindus will often take stories from other traditions and accept and assimilate them into their own. They place relatively little emphasis on expressions of allegiance to a particular creed. This painting (right) on the ceiling of a temple in Leicester shows the founders of various religious traditions, all considered within the fold of sanatana-dharma (duties based on universal truths and values). Some groups, obviously connected with “the Vedic tradition,” are reluctant to call themselves Hindu because of its possibly sectarian connotations (see Modern Hindu Groups).

Related Values/Issues

  • Equality – the notion of sanatana-dharma as a basis for spiritual unity.
  • Interfaith dialogue and inter-religious understanding.
  • The relationship between faith, truth and opinion.

Further Related Topics

Some groups are reluctant to call themselves Hindu, largely because of its misleading and sectarian connotations. Other groups are happy to use the term, while even others use the expression “Hindu dharma.

Personal Reflection

  • In what ways are religions the same and in what ways different? Which differences are desirable and which divisive? Is religion or spirituality the problem, or something else?
  • Why does religion often have a bad name?
  • In what ways does emphasis on expressions of allegiance to a particular creed differ from the notion of sanatana-dharma?
  • In what ways is the dharma of service to God inescapable even though we try to oppose it?


Dharma is sometimes translated as ‘religion’ but that is not exactly the meaning. Dharma actually means ‘that which one cannot give up’ and ‘that which is inseparable from oneself’. The warmth of fire is inseparable from fire; therefore warmth is called the dharma, or nature, of fire. Similarly, sad-dharma means ‘eternal occupation.’ That eternal occupation is engagement in the transcendental loving service of the Lord.”

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

Scriptural Passage

“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord.”

Bhagavat Purana 1.2.6

Meaning and Purpose

  • Is there one truth or many?
  • Is truth relative or absolute?
  • Why do religions appear to differ in answering life’s ultimate questions?

For more information

See Dharma