Principal Doctrines of Sanatana Dharma

lthough there are numerous doctrines in Hindu scriptures, the following are considered the principal doctrine of Sanatana Dharma:

Harmony of Religions

Ancient sages affirm that there is no one religion that teaches an exclusive road to salvation.  All genuine spiritual paths are valid and all great religions are like the branches of a treeľthe tree of religion.  The Bhagavad Gîtă declares, “In whatever way they [human beings] love Me [God], in the same way they find My love.  Various are the ways for them, but in the end they all come to Me.”    (BG 4.11)

Practical significance:  This doctrine lays foundation for the ideal of universal harmony.  The attitude of religious acceptance is Hinduism's greatest gift to mankind.

Ishvara (God)

There is but one Ultimate Reality (Supreme Being), Who is absolute existence, absolute knowledge, and absolute bliss (sat-chidănanda).  The Ultimate Reality is both immanent and transcendent, and both Creator and Unmanifest Reality.  There is no duality of God and the world, but only unity. The Ultimate Reality can be worshipped and prayed by any name and in any form.  A Hindu worships the Ultimate Reality in the form of a chosen deity (Ishta Devată) in the temples and in home shrines.  

Practical significance:  Being a God-loving religion and not a God-fearing one, Hinduism relies upon self-knowledge through yoga and meditation rather than on dogma or blind faith.

Non-Violence (Ahimsă)

Ahimsă means non-violence (in thought, word and deed), non-injury, or non-killing.  Sanatana Dharma teaches that all forms of life are different manifestations of Brahman (Ultimate Reality).  We must therefore not be indifferent to the sufferings of any of God’s creatures.

Practical significance: This doctrine creates love for humans between themselves as well as with other forms of life, and encourages the protection of our environment.  “That mode of living which is founded upon a total harmlessness towards all creatures or (in case of actual necessity) upon a minimum of such harm, is the highest morality.”  
(Mahăbhărata Shăntiparva 262.5-6 - a Hindu scripture)

The Doctrine of Dharma

The thought of dharma generates deep confidence in the Hindu mind in cosmic justice.  This is reflected in the often-quoted maxims: “The righteous side will have the victory.”  “Truth only prevails, not falsehood.”  “Dharma kills if it is killed; dharma protects if it is protected.”  “The entire world rests on dharma.”

Dharma is the law that maintains the cosmic order as well as the individual and social order.  Dharma sustains human life in harmony with nature.  When we follow dharma, we are in conformity with the law that sustains the universe.  Dharma is of four kinds:  universal dharma (rita), human dharma (ashram dharma), social dharma (varana dharma), and individual dharma (svadharma).  All four dharmas together are called sanătana dharma, the eternal philosophy of life.    

Universal dharma includes the natural laws associated with the physical phenomenon of the universe, such as the laws of matter, science, and planetary motions.  Human dharma means the human actions which maintain the individual, social, and environmental order.  Social dharma is exemplified in human actions associated with professional, social, community and national duties and responsibilities.  Individual dharma consists of individual actions associated with one’s individual duties and responsibilities.

The doctrine of dharma states that right action must be performed for the sake of righteousness, and good must be done for the sake of goodness, without any expectation of receiving something in return.  The question arises as to what is right?  Hindu scriptures include the following guidance that should be used to determine what is right under given circumstances:

  • Individual actions (svadharma) which are based upon truth, ahimsă, and moral values are considered righteous actions.

  • Political, social, and community-related activities, which are based upon unselfishness, truth, ahimsă, and moral and ethical values are defined as right actions.

  • Actions that arise as a consequence of one’s stage of life (ashram dharma) are considered good.  The dharma of a student is to acquire knowledge and skills, whereas the dharma of a householder is to raise the family, and that of a retiree is to advise and guide the younger generations.

  • Actions that are associated with one’s profession (varna dharma) are considered right actions.  The duty of a soldier may be to take the life of an enemy, whereas the duty of a doctor is to save the life, including that of an enemy.

  • Actions which ensure adherence to the laws of the land are righteous actions.  If the laws are unjust, they must be changed through democratic means and non-violence.

  • In the event of a conflict between individual and social dharma, the social dharma takes precedence.  “He who understands his duty to society truly lives.  All others shall be counted among the dead,” declares Tirukural, a Hindu scripture.

  • “What you desire for yourself, you should desire for others.  What you do not like others to do to you, you should not do to others.”  (Mahăbhărata, Shăntiparva, 258)

Practical significance:  Dharma provides a rational approach to distinguish right from wrong and good from evil.  In this philosophy, the duties and responsibilities are emphasized more than rights and privileges.

Unity of Existence

Science has revealed that what we call matter is essentially energy.  Hindu sages have declared that the cosmic energy is a manifestation of the Universal Spirit (Brahman).  The entire universe is a play between Brahman, or the cosmic consciousness, and the cosmic energy.  Brahman has become all things and beings of the world.  Thus we are all interconnected in subtle ways.

Practical significance:  This doctrine encourages universal brotherhood, reverence for all forms of life, and respect for our environment.  There is no racial, cultural or religious superiority.  There are differences on the surface, but deep down there is perfect unity, as All is in One and One is in all.

Doctrine of Karma

The word karma literally means ‘deed or action,’ but implies the entire cycle of cause and its effects.  According to the Law of Karma, every human action—in thought, word, or deed—inevitably leads to results, good or bad, depending upon the moral quality of the action.  There is no such thing as action without results.  “As we sow, so shall we reap,” is the unerring law which governs all deeds.  The Law of Karma conserves the moral consequences of all actions, and conditions our future lives accordingly.  We ourselves create our future destinies by our own choices each minute.  Every child born in this world is born to work out its own past deeds.

The doctrine of karma is the answer provided by Hindus to the questions of why suffering and inequalities exist in the world:  “Why should one person be different from another in his looks, abilities, and character?  Why is one born a king and another a beggar?  A just and merciful God cannot create such inequalities.”  The doctrine of karma, a law of actions and their retribution, can be viewed as the law of causation (cause and effect) applied to the moral realm.  The law that every action has a reaction works in the scientific world as well as in the moral world.

The doctrine of karma is based upon the principle of cause and effect.  This doctrine of cause and effect differs from the illogical notion that God punishes the wicked and rewards the virtuous.  The underlying basis for this difference is that Hindu religion is a god-loving religion rather than a god-fearing one.

Karma is neither predestination nor fatalism.  Fatalism and predestination imply that individuals are bound by circumstances or by some outside power and, as such, cannot free themselves with their own effort.  That is exactly opposite of karma.  The Law of Karma is actually the law of harmony and equilibrium.  It adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause.  But, it is also the law of opportunity, which allows an individual to change his past for a better future.  If we understand karma as the law of order and opportunity, we will become self-reliant and understand that we cannot and should not escape responsibility.

 The Four Ends of Human Life

The four ends of human life are dharma, artha, kăma, and moksha.  Dharma is the first human goal and forms the foundation for the pursuit of the other three goals.  Dharmic actions are those individual, social, political, and professional actions which are based upon the four virtuesľtruth, ahimsă, morality and ethics.  Artha means to earn wealth in accordance with dharma.  Kăma is to satisfy one’s mental and intellectual desires in accordance with dharma.  Moksha denotes spiritual perfection, which is attained automatically when one leads a life that is dedicated to dharma.

Every child born on this earth is required to repay three debts in his (or her) lifetime.  These three debts are akin to the three mortgages on one’s life.  The first debt is to God and the repayment requires regular prayers and worship, and selfless service to all of God’s creatures.

The second debt is to the sages and saints, who have revealed truths in scriptures.  The repayment of this debt arises from service to the needy, handicapped, sick and poor, and less fortunate.  The third debt is to one’s ancestors, parents and teachers.  The repayment of this debt means raising one’s family in accordance with the moral and ethical principles of dharma.  To help an individual repay the above three debts, Hindu sages have organized life into four stages:  studentship (Brahmachărya Ăshrama), householder stage (Grhastha Ăshrama), retirement (Vănaprastha Ăshrama), and renunciation (Sannyăsa Ăshrama).

During studentship one must acquire knowledge and skills necessary to perform duties and responsibilities in adult life, i.e. the householder stage.  Retirement means a life of spirituality and gradual withdrawal from active life, to pass on skills to the next generation and begin devoting time to meditation and contemplation.  Renunciation is the last stage of life in which one devotes full-time to meditation and contemplation on one’s own self.

Practical significance: The concept of the four ends and three debts generates awareness of one’s duties and responsibilities, provides moral and ethical direction to life, encourages family values, and helps one to organize life for individual accomplishments.  The Hindu concept of the four stages (ăshramas) of life provides a road map for life’s journey from the first stage of learning to the final stage where the Divinity alone is the focus and support.

The Divinity of Ătman (individual spirit)

Each human being, regardless of religion, geographic region, color, or creed is in reality Ătman clothed in a physical body.  An individual is not born a sinner, but becomes a victim of măyă (cosmic ignorance).  Just as darkness quickly disappears upon the appearance of light, an individual’s delusion vanishes when he gains self-knowledge.

Practical significance: This doctrine eliminates fear of God, encourages divine love, promotes freedom of thought, and removes fear and guilt which are psychological barriers to human growth. 

Religious Discipline

Hindus believe that wisdom is not an exclusive possession of any particular race or religion.  Since a laborer requires a different kind of religion than a scholar, Hinduism allows an individual to select a religious discipline in accordance with one’s own religious yearning and spiritual competence.  Hindu religion recommends the guidance of a spiritually awakened master (guru) for attaining perfection in life.  If a devotee on the spiritual path is likened to a traveler, then the guru is the traveler’s guide who provides the road map and other helpful information needed to reach the destination successfully.

Practical significance:  This doctrine minimizes religious manipulation and control and provides everyone with absolute freedom of thought in religious matters.  One is free to question any belief and practice until one is convinced of the truth behind it.


The ultimate goal of Hindu religious life is to attain spiritual freedom (moksha, i.e. freedom from the cycle of birth and death in the phenomenal world), or union with God.  Moksha is the birth right of every individual and is automatically attained when one leads a life dedicated to dharma, artha, and kăma.  Moksha is akin to the top of a three-step ladder, and after taking the three steps of dharma, artha, and kăma, one will automatically reach the top.

Practical significance:  This doctrine encourages individual effort and understanding for attaining perfection in life. Each soul evolves toward union with God by his own effort.  No savior can achieve this for him.  There is no supernatural power that randomly determines our destinies.  We are the makers of our own destinies.  Self-effort and Divine grace together lead to spiritual perfection.

The Doctrine of Avatăra (Incarnation)

Hindus believe that God incarnates Himself on earth (avatăra) to uphold righteousness, whenever there is a loss of virtue.  The Bhagavad Gîtă thus declares, “Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and predominance of unrighteousness, I (God) embody Myself.  For the protection of the good and for the destruction of the evil-doers and for the re-establishment of righteousness, I am born from age to age.”    (Bhagavad Gîtă 4.6-4.7) 

Practical significance:  This doctrine encourages  righteousness and fosters hope for mankind, since divine intervention eventually destroys evil and  restores  balance in the world.

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