Why do we need religion? Why do we listen to a religious teacher? We do so hoping to have our problems solved and our faults corrected. We do not seek a preceptor when we are not in trouble or when we feel that there is nothing lacking in us. The more we are besieged by troubles the more often we go to worship in temples or seek the darshan and advice of great men.
We approach great men, saintly persons, hoping to find a remedy for our suffering and to have our doubts cleared. When we are harassed by difficulties, we try to find solace in books or in listening to the advice of men of wisdom and virtue. Or we go on pilgrimage and bathe in sacred ponds or rivers. Thus we hope to find mental peace by and by. Those who know utter tranquillity remain in bliss. It does not matter to them in the least whether they are stabbed or injured otherwise, whether they are honoured or maligned.
Great men arise in all jatis, great men who experience inner peace. What is religion? It is that which shows the way to santhi, the peace that passeth understanding. Religion is known as "mata" or "dharma". Dharma is the means to attain the ultimate good that is liberation -- and it is the same as "mata".
The pursuit of dharma is first meant for happiness and well-being in this world. When it is practised, without desiring happiness here, it will lead to liberation. Yes, this is dharma; this is mata.
"Dharma" which is the term used by the sastras for religion denotes all the moral and religious principles that constitute the means to obtain fullness of life. We have many a work that teaches us this dharma, but we remain ignorant of them. Since they deal with matters that are the very basis of dharma, they are called "dharma-pramanas". "Pramana" is that which establishes the truth or rightness of a thing (or belief). We have fourteen basic sastras that pertain to dharma, that is canonical texts that deal with what has come to be known as Hinduism and what has been handed down to us from the time of the primordial Vedas. These treatises tell us about the doctrines and practices of dharma.
Angani Vedascatvaro mimamsa-nyayavistharah
Puranam dharmasastram ca vidya hyetascaturdas
Vedah sthanani vidyanam dharmasya ca caturdasa
The term "caturdasa" occurs in both verses. It means "fourteen". We learn from these two stanzas that we have fourteen authoritative works on dharma embracing all aspects of our religion.
"Vid" means "to know". From it is derived "vidya" which means a work that imparts knowledge, that sheds light on the truths of religion. That there are fourteen treatises on vidya is mentioned in the above two stanzas: "vidya hyetascaturdasa" and "vidyanam dharmasya ca caturdasa". The fourteen are not only sastras that impart knowledge but also treatises on normal principles. That is why they are called "vidyasthanas" and "dharmasthanas" : "sthanani vidyanam dharmasya ca caturdasa". Though "vid" means to know, the word does not connote every type of knowledge. The "vid" in "vidya" means knowledge of truth. The English words "wit" and "wisdom" are derived from this root. And it is from the same root that we have "Veda", which term may be said to mean literally the "Book of Knowledge". As sources of knowledge the fourteen sastras are called "vidyasthanas", that is they are "abodes of knowledge or learning". The dharmasthanas("abodes of dharma") are also the abodes of vidya.
For a general background, please see here