Eternal Values: Sanāthana Dharma |Hinduism|
It seems almost impossible for anything to be eternal, let alone a set of values or a way of life. Nothing seems to stand still, and change appears to be the only constant in this world. This change can be scary-it can throw us off-balance, but perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that we cannot understand why things change so much-just when we get used to one set of people, they go away; when we get used to one set of circumstances, they alter; our own body undergoes change every moment, everyone who is born has to die. Why is there such relentless change in everything? Is there something eternal at all?
Man has, forever, been struggling with change. It is not necessary that this change be scary, but if one only sees an ever-changing world with no underlying basis or foundation, if one sees change as an end unto itself, then his existence becomes nothing more than a set of reactions to ever-changing people, circumstances and events. The foundation, the basis, the roots of this change has to be stable – then this very change can be a source of joy, happiness, and perhaps, for those who understand the stillness, the stability and the meaning behind this change, it can even be a source of bliss. Without this understanding, one feels like being stranded in the middle of a vast ocean in a small raft, on a stormy day. As far as his vision stretches, all he sees are waves crashing up and down, storms, thunder and lightning - he has no choice but to ride the waves. He is fearful of the raft sinking, of drowning; he has not the slightest understanding of why he is being tossed around, and he is unaware of when a wave will rise, where it will rise, and when it will fall.
What we seek, first, is the awareness that below the surface there exists huge depths; that in these depths there exists stillness, calmness and stability; that no storm, however rough, can disturb the stillness on the ocean floor. When one is aware of this, then he seeks out this stillness – and to experience this stillness, he must know how to dive. We do not even know to swim in this ocean of life. Somebody put us on a raft - we did not ask for it, negotiate for it, create it or find it. The raft does not even belong to us, and yet we associate ourselves with the raft; we think ‘I am the raft, the raft is me’. Any hole or leak in the raft scares us, for we think that we cannot exist without the raft.
In this journey of life, we are all meant to travel from one point to another. If one were to sit in the raft without any compass, without any idea as to where his source or destination is, without any awareness of the stillness beneath him, without any insight into why or in what direction the winds are blowing, without knowing when a wave will toss him up and crash him back, without any control over the raft’s speed or direction, without even knowing which is the right direction to travel, then he will be scared. It is this lack of knowledge, this ignorance that is the root cause of all misery and suffering. Most of us deal with life in this fashion. We go wherever the wind blows, wherever the raft takes us. Change, in itself, then, has neither any value nor does it take us in the right direction – it only brings about fear and misery.
Consider, on the other hand, the scenario wherein one knows where he is headed, and he has a compass. He has no choice in the fact that he is meant to travel from point A to B. Once born, he has been given the raft and he has to cross the ocean. The only worthwhile question is - does he only want to travel on the surface, or dive in and explore the depths of the ocean. Diving alone will not take him anywhere, for he has to cover lateral distance too. It will, however, make him aware of the depth, the stillness and the treasures, the pearls, which lie underneath. Further, one who lies in the depths of the ocean is not even aware of the storms, the thunder or the lightning happening at the surface. All the ferocious ‘change’ exists only on the surface of the ocean.
So we have two ways of traveling in this journey. One, we travel on the surface along with the raft, but every once in a while, we dive down into the depths. We come back to the surface and continue traveling, with the periodic diving in between. We can dive as frequently as our strength & energy allow us to, and as deep as our breath holds up. We are still subject to the storms and the forces on the surface, but occasionally, during those dives, we see and experience the stillness, the beauty of the depths – perhaps even more importantly, we are aware of the stillness and the depths that exist. When one crosses the ocean over to his destination, he has with him the experience and memory of all that he saw and felt in these depths, and he has with him those pearls that he gathered, those pearls that exist only in the depths. Long after his journey ends, these pearls remain with him.
There exists another path - if one happens to be fortunate enough to find a submarine and get on it. The submarine stays and travels in the depths, but it is adequately capable coming up to the surface - it surfaces when it chooses to, out of its own free will, but its nature is to be at the depths. It too will get us to the other side of the ocean, but in it, we experience only the beauty, stillness and treasures of the ocean, not caring for and not bothering about the storms and the thunder on the surface.
In this ocean of life, the stormy weather and the lightning are nature; the raft, our physical body along with the five senses; the exposure to the storms and waves is our exposure to this vishwa (universe). All our interactions with this world - people, circumstances and events included, are stormy, for they have to be. A wave that rises has to fall, in that it has no choice – no wave can exist with merely a rising edge. No person or situation can take us only upwards, for there has to be a falling edge. To think that some person or event will take us high up in the air, out of contact with the ocean and create happiness betrays our shortsightedness; but yet, wave after wave, experience after experience, man somehow deceives himself with such a conviction. The wave might throw something up in the air, and in that short window of time, it might rise high, perhaps even out of contact with the ocean, but come crashing down it will – the stronger the upward force is, the higher the object travels, and the harder it will crash back into the ocean. No wave, no matter when it comes along and how high it rises, cannot take us permanently upwards out of contact with the ocean – the same wave will throw us back to the surface. The same wave that created happiness has to create misery too. It is only man’s illusion and foolishness that leads him to expect only rising edges, only happiness in all his exposure and interaction with this universe. So what then is the way out of this paradox? Is there a way out?
The stillness, the calmness, and the beauty at the depths of the ocean are what we refer to as Sanāthana dharma; it has to be. The surface is ever-changing, never constant – there can be many types and intensities of storms. All the waves, the storms, the thunder, the lightning are constantly changing for they are transient in nature, but they all exist on the same stillness. No matter what storm is raging on the surface, no matter how many waves are rising and falling, there exists the same stillness beneath. Without these depths, without this stability, these storms and waves cannot even exist. Beneath the ever-changing, never constant surface is the never-changing, ever constant stillness and calmness – a stillness that is a way of life, a stillness that is eternal, a stillness that encompasses the values of life, a stillness that is eternal values, Sanāthana dharma.
Man’s goal in life then, should be to seek to dive so that he can at least momentarily experience these depths, or better still, travel along the depths, occasionally surfacing when he chooses to. One can learn to dive and thus begin to explore the depths within him, by temporarily shutting off the senses – our medium to the outside world, so that his exposure to the world his severely limited, if not completely eliminated. One can temporarily enter a meditative state and delve into his depths, unaware of the storms of the external world. This is the equivalent of diving occasionally – he has to come back to the surface when he runs out of breath, and has to experience the storms and the waves. In this way, one can occasionally experience the stillness and the beauty of his depths that exists beneath the raging of his mind - the storms and the lightning are part of the outside world, but the waves are the product of his own mind, the product of the interaction of his mind with this universe. This activity of the mind cannot exist without the stillness underneath, just like the waves of the ocean cannot exist without the depths below – one may not be aware of it, but it does indeed exist.
What we call Sanāthana dharma is different, for our rishis figured out the means to travel by a submarine. It is not that one travels on the surface, diving beneath when he can; Sanāthana dharma is a way of life where one travels in the depths, surfacing when he chooses to.
Where is this submarine? How can we see it if it is underneath the surface? How do we know who owns the submarine, and whether there exists the possibility of us being allowed in it? How do we know whether the submarine is headed towards our destination? How do we know when we can come up to the surface? Our rishis figured out all these answers. They mapped the path of all submarines. A collection of the science of this super-system is our shaastras. The desire to get on the submarine, however intense or desperate, cannot be sufficient to get us inside a submarine. Even the shaastras cannot teach us the method to actually get inside a submarine – it cannot be found in books, or in speeches, or in thinking, for this knowledge cannot be expressed with words. Words convey only information, not knowledge. If words were indeed sufficient, then all of us would have easily found and traveled in submarines – this knowledge can only be passed on by those who know, to those who they think are worthy of it.
Somebody has to tell us where to find a submarine, where it is headed for, how to get on it, and so on. That person is your guru. The submarine exists, whether one is aware of it or not. It will travel, whether one gets in it or not. But without the guru telling him how and where to get on it, and the price that has to be paid, the existence of the submarine is worthless information. Similarly, bhagavantha (God) exists, whether one is aware of Him or not, whether one knows where He is or not. God’s existence is worthless to him who is not told where bhagavantha will take him, what price has to be paid, and how to get on His submarine – for it belongs to Him. We can never be the owners; we are not even owners of the raft. We are always on His property. Both the raft and the submarine are His property – only with His grace will we be able to cross the ocean. Without His grace, we might be lying on the beach, with no means to even attempt to cross the ocean. The raft was given to us without our knowledge, and we unfortunately believe in the illusion that we own the raft.
It is imperative, then, that one needs a guide who thoroughly understands the intricacies of how things operate at this depth, and that is only possible when he has traveled in the submarine himself. Without such a person, all we have is mere words – all we have is mere information, not knowledge.
Knowing the science behind how the submarine works is not necessary to get on it – a person who is on the submarine will travel in it irrespective of whether he knows the science of it. He will reach his destination without having to constantly deal with the waves and the storms. The goal, then, is to get on the submarine – the knowledge of its working is a good thing to possess, but is definitely not a prerequisite. This science of its working is contained in our shaastras. Hence, for one to experience the wisdom of Sanāthana dharma, knowledge of the shaastras is not a prerequisite. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, widely acknowledged and accepted as one of the greatest modern exponents of sanaathana dharma, was an illiterate who could not read. He never had any formal education of the scriptures.
What value do the shaastras hold? One might travel in the submarine, yet not knowing where he is headed, not knowing the value of the stillness, not knowing that treasures exist in those depths, not even being able to recognize pearls when he sees them. For him to understand the intricacies of the depths, learning the shaastras is imperative. We must, however, distinguish between the two – the shaastras help us to understand the science behind the submarine, which is entirely different from the knowledge required to actually get on a submarine. The ideal situation would be when one learns the shaastras to understand the science, and then gets on a submarine through the direction given by his guru. A guru might teach the science behind it too, but it is more important that he teaches his student how to get on a submarine. The grace of a guru – gurukaaranya, is the key to make the journey towards God. For without a guru, one can perfect the science of the entire system, but he will still be afloat on the raft, experiencing all the storms and the waves, and never get on the submarine. It is for this reason that our shaastras say that love and respect for your guru is love and respect for God.
This stillness, this dharma, is eternal: it is true for all times for all people. What is it that makes it eternal? In this ever-changing world, what is truly eternal? The only thing that can be eternal is something beyond this ever-changing world – something whose existence is not connected or dependent on this. There exist only two possibilities, then: bhagavantha, and the individual soul (not the body or the mind, but the soul). The individual soul may be eternal, but its form is subject to change, for it comes in contact with the outside world, the storms and the waves, through its body and the senses, the raft. The only entity who is truly eternal, whose form is immutable, is bhagavantha.
How can we simply accept that His form never changes? The ocean has to be held by something. The storms and the waves on the surface cannot play their role if the ocean is not held by something constant beneath – whether we are aware of it or not.
In the same way that the ocean is held by eternal stillness and calmness, this entire universe is held by an eternal entity, God.
Besides, if we can accept that this entire universe was not created by an astonishingly coincidental sequence of random events, then we have to assume a creator, God. This implies that God existed before all creation. So if God existed before all creation, then He Himself could not have been subject to creation – if He exists, and He was never created, then He has to be eternal!
Can one reach God? Well, is he capable of diving deep enough to reach the ocean floor? He may not be strong enough, at that particular time, to be able to reach the floor, but every inch traveled below the surface is one inch closer to god, one morsel more of the stillness compared to what was above it. The eventual goal is to reach the ocean floor.
This eternal dharma is nothing but bhagavantha himself; any value that takes us closer to God is Sanāthana dharma, and any value that takes us away from him is not. The question arises, then, how can we recognize what takes us closer to God?
Someone who has experienced the stillness of the depths will never ask “How do I know that there exists stillness at the depths?” A person who has tried Sanāthana dharma will never ask this question, for such a question does not exist for him. Only the person who has never tried to dive, only when he has always stayed at the surface, will such a question arise – the question has meaning only for those whose lives have been meaningless. The solution: do not stay at the surface and ask, but learn to dive, or find a diving instructor.
We have spoken about one way to experience Sanāthana dharma – to dive into the depths of one’s own self, to learn where the floor of the ocean lies, to experience the beauty and the stillness that exists. This is what a yogi does, diving deep within himself, impervious to the storms and the waves on the surface – unaware of the happenings and his own exposure to the external world. This is the reason the vedas say that bhagavantha is antharyaami – for he exists in those depths, in that stillness.
One can look at the external world too – the brahmanda. The point of contact between the external world and man are the five senses – the surface of the ocean in our analogy. One can look at the waves, the storms, the lightning, the wind, and learn the science behind them. One can understand the causes behind these occurrences in the outside world – one can understand how the outside world operates. We can learn, for example, that if there are dark clouds, then it is likely to rain; that if it is a full moon day, the waves are likely to be high. By learning to anticipate, by learning the causes behind those storms, and thus being prepared, our fear vanishes. This, too, is Sanāthana dharma, for beyond the atmosphere, high up in the sky, there exists the same stillness that exists in the depths of the ocean. One has to learn to look beyond the storms, beyond the atmosphere – he has to go beyond what he can see, touch and hear with his senses, beyond his sensory perceptions, and he will see the same stillness, the same stability, the same beauty. This is why the vedas also call God Vishnu – one who pervades this vishwa, the universe. God is both antharyaami, and Vishnu.
This stillness, this dharma, has infinite aspects, infinite treasures. We cannot possibly experience all aspects, collect all treasures, for that is possible only by the Creator Himself. We can experience one aspect, or perhaps multiple aspects of this stillness, but must never mistake it for having experienced all of the stillness.
This, then, is Sanāthana dharma. It is contained in the vedas, recorded as words. We can spend an entire lifetime memorizing, and even understanding those words, but that is all they will remain – words. Its true meaning is understood only when experienced, only when internalized. Only those who deserve to know, only those who are eligible to know (an adhikari) will be granted this. We must begin by becoming the kind of person who is eligible, who qualifies for the true meaning of Sanāthana dharma; to become an adhikari. Once we do that, we will never ask the question “what are eternal values?”, for we will know. These values cannot be communicated or expressed with words – one has to know it. There is the danger of not actually knowing it, but thinking that we know it. Only a guru can differentiate this aspect – he can tell his student what he knows, and what he thinks he knows. We must weed out all those things we think we know and whatever little is left, that we accept as things we know – that is the true character of an adhikari. One becomes a true adhikari when he really knows that he knows nothing – not one who thinks he knows nothing, but one who knows and feels that he knows nothing. Only then, does there exist the possibility of experiencing the infinite, of experiencing absolute bliss.
Life cannot be lived by rules; one cannot go closer to God living by a set of rules. We cannot have blinders on, like horses, and be led to pastures. We have to think, learn, explore and find those pastures ourselves. Sanāthana Dharma is the eternal guidepost for us to find those pastures, to make that progress towards God, towards bliss. We cannot force our way towards Him, we can only work towards becoming the kind of person deserving of Him – after learning to dive, after many failed attempts, and perhaps several diving experiences, when the time is ripe, the grace of a guru can put us on a submarine. The attempt is invaluable, like with all other things - without trying, there can be no chance of success.
It can be a remarkably fulfilling and rewarding journey – there are no ups and downs in the depths, there is only movement towards God. The beauty and the stillness of those depths give us only bliss; there is no concept of misery in this realm. The storms on the surface become immaterial. In the end, it matters not how many storms we weathered, how many waves we rode, or how well we maintained our raft; the only things that we take with us beyond this journey are those pearls, those treasures we gathered from the depths, and those experiences of the stillness and calmness that exists as bhagavantha in the depths of every one of us. May the Lord of Udupi be pleased.
‘Eternal values’ is an inadequate translation of Sanāthana Dharma. The word ‘Dharma’ means so much more than ‘values’, ‘Sanāthana’ means much more that ‘eternal’; but in this particular context, this translation is the best we can perhaps come up with.
Bhagavantha means God. The two words have been interchangeably used in this article – they convey the same meaning.