In my previous pieces, I discussed the definition of Sanatana Dharma offered by Savitri to Yama in the story related in Book 3 of the Mahabharata. For Savitri Sanatana Dharma has three main pillars, an absence of malice or aggression towards any living being with thought, word, or deed; acts of kindness and compassion; and the giving of charity. This, she says, is the Sanatana Dharma followed by righteous persons.
Some may feel that the definition of Sanatana Dharma presented by Savitri is far too narrow. It ignores the more spiritual features of Hindu religious belief and practice; she makes no mention of God, religious doctrine, devotion, worship, ritual, or the quest for enlightenment and liberation from rebirth. Surely these are the very essence of Sanatana Dharma and what Savitri is presenting is no more than a form of mundane morality.
In responding to such objections, one needs to think deeply about the basis on which persons live a morally perfect life, showing compassion for all beings, constantly striving to help those in need, and being willing to give up their time, wealth, and possessions in order to alleviate the suffering that is so prevalent in the world. To fully adhere to the ideas Savitri expresses one needs a wholesale transformation of consciousness. It is not just about doing a ‘good deed’, it is about becoming the person who instinctively shows compassion and responds to the distress of others by offering help, kindness and comfort. This instinctive tendency towards gentility is a reflection of our state of consciousness, and this state of consciousness is directly related to any form of spiritual awakening.
As Swami Vivekananda repeatedly tells us, it is easy enough to talk glibly about the philosophy of Vedanta, or to perform elaborate rituals, but it is only when we commit ourselves to uplifting the conditions in which the poor and downtrodden must live that the true consciousness of Vedanta has awakened. Otherwise it is just a show that might win reputation and renown, but is far removed from true spiritual awakening.
Not only is this compassionate heart the mark of enlightenment, it is also the means by which that enlightenment can be awakened within us. More than ritual, worship, or even meditation, it is acts of compassion towards others that are the means by which our hearts become softened and we move closer to divine nature that is within us all. It is the process the Svetasvatara Upanishad indicates by which the heart is cleansed and our true nature shines forth, just like a mirror that is cleansed of dust. So compassion is the goal of all spiritual endeavours, because compassion indicates an elevation of consciousness, and compassion is the means by which that goal is achieved. In Shaivite teachings it is said that because Shiva is the whole of this existence the best form of Shiva worship is to devote oneself to the welfare of all. It is for this reason that Savitri defines Sanatana Dharma in the way she does; it is for this reason also that when Neem Karoli Baba was asked, ‘How can I know God?’, he replied ‘Serve people’. He was then asked, ‘How can I get enlightened?’ and to this he replied, ‘Feed people’. Then another person asked, ‘How can I raise the kundalini?’ and this time the reply was, ‘Serve and feed people’.
Hence the conclusion is that Savitri is not offering us merely some ‘mundane morality’ as an explanation of Sanatana Dharma, but rather a way of life that is both righteous and deeply spiritual. Without compassion, kindness, charity, and goodwill to all, religion loses its meaning and there can be no genuine awakening in the soul.