The word sanatan means eternal, and dharma means Tao, the law, the ultimate law. Aes dhammo sanantano, Buddha repeats it again and again: This is the eternal law of life. But by sanatan dharma the shankaracharya means Hindu religion. Hindus think that their religion is the eternal religion: that is sheer nonsense.
Religiousness is eternal, but no religion is eternal. Every religion is born and dies in its own time. No religion is beginningless and no religion is endless. Everything that is born in time is bound to die sooner or later, and it is good that it dies because it creates space for something new to arise. sanatan dharma – eternal religion – cannot be identified with any religion in particular.
Jainas believe that their religion is far older than the religion of the Hindus, and it may be far older because their first tirthankara, Adinatha, is remembered in the Rig Veda, the first Hindu scripture, with great respect. That shows two things: that Adinatha must have been already an established, accepted spiritual leader; he must have preceded the Rig Veda, and the Rig Veda is the ancientmost scripture of the Hindus. Jainas say their religion is far older, but older does not mean eternal.
Thousands of religions have existed on the earth and have died, and when they were alive they had millions of followers, but now they have completely disappeared. The followers have disappeared, the priests have disappeared, their gods have disappeared. When they were alive they also used to think they were eternal. But whatsoever happens in time always dies; nothing can be eternal in time.
My meaning of sanatan dharma, eternal religion, is that religiousness is eternal. For example, life is eternal – people come and go. We were not here a few years before and after a few years we will not be here, but people were here and people will be here. Life will continue, the forms will go on disappearing and appearing, but that which appears and disappears, that which becomes sometimes manifest and sometimes unmanifest, is eternal. It is religiousness.
Jesus becomes Christ through that religiousness. Buddha becomes Buddha – enlightened – through that religiousness. It cannot be identified with Hinduism.
The shankaracharya is right: if sanatan dharma means Hinduism, then I cannot conform with its ideas. But if sanatan dharma means eternal religiousness then there is no question of conforming – I am living it, I am it. And my whole effort here is to help you to be religious – neither Hindus nor Christians nor Mohammedans nor Jainas.
Now this may be the only place in the whole world where all religions are meeting and merging into a new kind of religiousness, a totally different quality. Nobody bothers here whether you are a Christian or a Parsi, whether you are a Taoist or a Buddhist, because we have found the source. And once you know the source it does not matter from what shore you drink, in what kind of bucket you draw the water from the source. The bucket is nonessential, the water is essential. We have found the eternal religion: it can only be a religiousness, a quality, a fragrance.