This is loose translation of late puri shakracharya sri bharati krsna tirthji’s explanation
‘Sanatana’ means ‘nitya’ or Eternal. For Bharat, dharma is ‘Sanatana’, eternal. In any other language, there is no word to represent Dharma. In English, there is word ‘Religion’ but it cannot substitute word ‘Dharma’ fully. Word ‘Religion’ is so limited and narrow-minded translation that eternal gist of ‘Sanatana’ is lost when it is used as synonym. Sanatana Dharma is so unfathomable that it not only covers subjects related to this life but a continuous time-immemorial living.
In scriptures, ‘Dharma’ is described as ‘धारणात् धर्म’ (There are many interpretations but essence remains same). धर्म is that which sustains the society, protects the society from decadence, downfall and destruction. Whereas ‘Religion’ is strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. Religion may lead to superstitions, delusions and tunnel vision but Dharma cannot. For example, Veda does not mere prescribed अध्यात्मिक/spirituals discourses but they also suggest ways to prosper in material worlds.
Let us try to understand word ‘सनातन धर्म’ by different yardsticks.
1) In Sanskrit grammar, word ‘सनातन धर्म’ is having षष्ठी-तत्पुरुषसमास i.e. ‘सनातस्य धर्म इति सनातनधर्मं’. Like how Christ is part of Christianity, Buddha is part of Buddhism, सनातन is part of सनातन धर्म i.e. सनातन धर्म is being governed by the सनातन i.e. नित्य तत्व/परमात्मा. It is not man-made, man-prescribed dharma but God-made, God-governed, God-prescribed, eternal dharma. Since Dharma has closest meaning in ‘Religion’, it is natural tendency to compare ‘Dharma’ with ‘Religion.
Take any religion of the world. It can be classified in two categories 1) Those who were there in ancient times and not practiced currently 2) Those that were not there in ancient times but are being practiced in present times. सनातन does not fall in this category for very reason that it carry i.e. नित्य or eternal. It was there in ancient times and it is here right now, very reason why life still prevails in turmoil times.
2) ‘सनातन धर्म’ is eternal not only because it is created and prescribed by almighty but also because it remains eternal from formation of universe to destruction of universe and beyond. If we understand word ‘सनातन धर्म’ by कर्मधारायः समास, it means ‘सनातनश्चासौ धर्मश्च’ or dharma which stays forever.
This does not mean ‘Religion’ equivalents of ‘Dharma’ are fraud or false. Since they are influenced by one or another person, and controlled by sects, they die out.
3) Another way to interpret ‘सनातन धर्म’ is (again कर्मधारायः समास )
सनाःसदा भव सनातनः सनातनं करोतीति सनातनयति । सनातनयतीति सनातनः सनातनश्चासौ धर्म सनातनधर्मः ।
This means, ‘सनातन धर्म’ is eternal, not only because it was prescribed eternal almighty or it is eternal but also because those who follow सनातन धर्म, also become सनातन or अमर or immortal.
To understand this, we will have to look for comparative analysis of civilizations and Nations of the past. Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia and many such nations were powerful and having hold on Earth but they all are vanished with time. Mighty military, abundant wealth and mass – they had everything but not a power to make people Sanatana. Despite turmoil of many millenniums, it is this land, land of Bharata, that has sustained life and the credit goes to people’s varied but steadfast belief in following eternal dharma principles.
4) To understand meaning of 3rd point (Dharma that makes followers immortal), we need to understand meaning of word सनातनयति.
सनातनयति – सनातनं परमात्मस्वरूपं प्रापयति इति or Dharma which helps followers to attain God.
This is the nature of सनातन धर्म. The one prescribed by eternal nature, is eternal and helps followers to become eternal by realizing existence of the eternal almighty. To understand and implement सनातन धर्म in life, scriptures are written by ऋषि-द्रष्टा in their deep communion with eternal. They are torchbearers. Whenever, they are not followed, society invites destruction, sooner or later.
य: शास्त्रविधिमुत्सृज्य वर्तते कामकारत: । न स सिद्धिमवाप्नोति न सुखं न परां गतिम् ।।23।।
तस्माच्छास्त्रं प्रमाणं ते कार्याकार्यव्यवस्थितौ । ज्ञात्वा शास्त्रविधानोक्तं कर्म कर्तुमिहार्हसि ।।24।।
Having cast aside the injunctions of the scriptures, he who acts in an arbitrary way according to his own sweet will neither attains perfection nor the supreme goal nor even happiness.(23) Therefore, the s
cripture alone is your guide in determining what should be done and what should not be done. Knowing this, you ought to perform only such action as is ordained by the scriptures. (24)
– Bhagwad Gita
||धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः||
Dharma destroyed, destroys; Dharma protects, the protected.
अहं च त्वं च राजेन्द्र लोकनाथौ उभावपि | बहुव्रीहिरहं राजन् षष्ठीतत्पुरूषो भवान ||
A beggar says to the King, “O King! Both of us are Lokanathas. However, if I’m BahuvrIhi compound, you are ShaShthi TatpuruSha!” laaoknaaqa: can be analysed into a Bahuvrihi compound as laaok: naaqa: yasya sa: – he whose patrons are the people, a beggar. The same compound, analysed into Shashthi tatpurusha, would be laaoksya naaqa: – the Lord of the people, the King.