"Religion" versus Sanatan-dharma
—there's a big difference between the two.
Someone asked me, “Are you a Hindu?”
I:Do you have some time?
He: Why do you ask?
I:If you are in a hurry I will say I am a Hindu. But if you have some time, then I will say I am not a Hindu.
He: You are trying to confuse me.
I:You see, my friend, there is no religion called the Hindu religion. But what the majority of the people of India believe in is called Hinduism by people of other faiths. In reality, we in India do not have any concept of religion. There is no word in our vocabulary for religion.
He: Then what do you believe in?
I:We believe in the concept of dharma. Dharma refers to the principles that uphold the universe and therefore apply to everyone. Those principles are the same for everyone, regardless of religion or faith. They exist whether we have discovered them or not. For example, gravity existed before Newton discovered it.
The ultimate principles are called sanatana, or “eternal,” because they will exist forever, even if we forget them. So sanatana-dharma refers to the eternal principles that uphold the universe.
He: Please go on and explain everything clearly.
I:You see, both of us believe in God. By God we mean the one who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. There is no place where God is not. God is in everything. He permeates every cell of your body and mine. He is present in every atom of the universe. So the nature of everything is divine. You and I are both part of the Divine.
He: What you say does make a lot of sense to me.
I:You see, we are all divine, but still there is a big difference between us and the divine incarnations like Rama and Krishna. What is the difference?
He: I’m not sure.
I:The answer is quite simple. Divine incarnations are infinitely great, so They are aware of Their divinity at every moment, whereas you and I are eternally small, so we forget our divine nature. We think of ourselves as the material body rather than as part of the Divine.
Our life here on earth is meant to develop the knowledge of our true nature by conscious effort toward perfection.
He: Do you believe in salvation?
I:Yes. We would call that concept nirvana, or liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. An individual soul is born again and again for thousands or millions of lifetimes until it achieves nirvana.
He: Millions of lifetimes?
I:My friend, we can have instantaneous nirvana in this lifetime if we can develop mastery over our own self. But for this we must give up all our desires and serve Lord Krishna without any expectations of return.
He: You’ve given me a lot to think about.