Evolution of Dharma (3 0f 3)

06 Sep

Dharma in Mimamsa and Vaisheshika systems

Dharma in the Purva Mimamsa is used in a rather restricted sense;”Codana-lakshnortho dharmaha”. Dharma is the desired goal as per scriptures. Purva Mimamsa (1.1.2) speaks of Dharma as Vedic rituals leading to happiness and heaven; and saves one from degradation and suffering. It also talks in terms of Apurva, which means the subtle effect of actions performed in accordance with the scriptures.

Jaimini defines Dharma as that which is enjoined by the Vedas and which does not lead to suffering.

Kanaada in his Vaisheshika Sutra (1.2) defines Dharma as” Yato bhyudayanih- sreyasa siddhih sa dharmah“, that which leads to the attainment of prosperity (in this life) and eternal bliss (beyond life).Dharma here mean actions approved by the scriptures, religious practices and rituals, unseen results of such actions or the very fabric of ones life.

Compare this with what Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: Sacrifices will not lead to heaven if the desire for heaven is the sole motive of such rituals. Sacrifices are effective only when conducted with a sense of duty.

Dharma in Dharma Shastras

Dharma Shastras are made up of a vast number of texts produced over the centuries. There are literally hundreds of Dharma Shastra texts and a far greater number of related commentaries and digests. The principle Dharma Shastra texts include four Dharma Sutras of Aapasthamba, Gautama, Bahudayana and Vashista. Four important Smritis of Manu, Yajnavalkhya, Shanka and Parashara follow them. There are of course innumerable commentaries and digests on these texts. The modern Hindu Law relies on treatment of certain subjects by these texts; of course with suitable modifications and necessary revisions.

Dharma Shastras claim they derive their authority from the Vedas, but hardly any of their contents can be linked to Veda texts. They do, however, accept the authority of the Vedas and stress that moksha, liberation, is the ultimate goal of human life. They also recognize the need for reflective morality. ”The Vedas, Smritis, usages of good men , what is agreeable to one’s self and desire born of deliberation-these are traditionally recognized as the source of Dharma”(Yajnavalkya Smriti-1.7). However, the Vedas enunciated abstract principles and contained little concrete discussions on duties. The smritis were mainly digests of the prevailing practices. Therefore, for all practical purposes custom defined as “what is in vogue and is long standing” was the dominant source of the Dharma.

Dharma Shastras categorized under Smritis, the secondary texts, are commonly described as Law Books. They are however not in the form of the law books that we know. They are not codified substantive laws or legal norms. They are more in the nature of a body jurisprudence, a collection of numerous treaties produced by sages on various subjects such as daily rituals to be observed in each of the four stages life; duties of four varnas, customs, rights and obligations; rules and procedures for resolving doubts and disputes on issues of Dharma; and rules for punishment and penances for violations of the rules of Dharma etc..

Dharma Shastras made extensive use of Mimasa methods to reconcile conflicting texts of equal authority by applying its various rules for interpretation of words, phrases and sentenses.It adopted the Mimamsa style of argumentation. The other disciplines, on which Dharma Shastras relied heavily, were the grammar (Vyakarana) and logic (Nyaya).

Dharma Shastras are an impulsive mix of religion, morality and points of law. It is not easy to separate the one from the other. These texts derived their importance as the sources of religious law describing the life of an ideal householder; and as summations of knowledge about religion, law, ethics etc. It is perhaps because of their heavy religious content and reliance on religion, these texts came to be known as Dharma Shastras.

There is a world of difference between the Dharma of the Rig Veda, Upanishads and the epics on one hand, and the Dharma of the Shastras on the other. Dharma of the Shastras is not the Atman or the sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains our existence, as the Rig Vedic Rishis envisioned. It is also not the universal principle of law, order and harmony as envisaged in the Upanishads. Nor is it the ordained duties or the Sathya, the pristine Truth as in Ramayana. Dharma here is not the one that which upholds the world, as in Mahabharata. Dharma here does not refer to the duties as ordained by the scriptures or even to Atma jnana as propounded in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad-Gita viewed moral and spiritual merits as duties of the Brahmanas. The Dharma Shastras construed them as a means of livelihood for the Brahmanas. The old spiritual interpretations of those merits were smudged into dogmatic rules . Imparting instructions , officiating at the sacrifices , receiving gifts , became the special occupation of the Brahmanas.The distinction between spiritual obligations to the society and an occupation for earning a living was lost.

The Dharma these Shastra speak about is not universal. It is not applicable to entire creation or to all human beings. It is not even applicable to all segments and classes that compose the society. Its prescriptions are not valid for all times to come, either. The Dharma of these Shastras has very limited jurisdiction and authority. Their application is very specific and circumscribed by the limitations of Desha (region), Kaala (times) and Achara (valid practices of a region or of a class of people).

The texts viewed the society not as a collection of individuals but as a community of communities. It was articulated into specific castes, each with its economic functions and a place in the social hierarchy. An individuals Dharma was derived from the caste of his birth. One of the purposes of the texts seemed to be to keep the members of the society within their assigned roles.

Dharma Shastras are principally concerned with the rights and privileges of upper castes, consecratory rights (samskaras), stages of life, rules of eating, duties of the kings, legal procedures, eighteen titles of law, categories of sin, expiations and penances, funeray and ancestral rites(antyesti and shraddha) and atonement rites(Prayaschitta) etc. They are thus mainly occupied with the religious rites of a certain class of people and to an extent with the personal laws of marriage, inheritance etc; and they generally aim to induce ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings.

Let me quote from Patrick Olivelle ‘ book on Dharmasastra :.

Dharma includes all aspects of proper individual and social behavior as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status, and order of life. The term dharma may be translated as “Law” if we dp not limit ourselves to its narrow modern definition as civil and criminal statutes but take it to include all the rules of behavior, including moral and religious behavior, that a community recognizes as binding on its members.

In short, these unique documents give us a glimpse if not into how people actually lived their lives in ancient India, at least into how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society.”

The subject-matter of the Dharmasutras, therefore, includes education of the young and their rites of passage; ritual procedures and religious ceremonies; marriage and marital rights and obligations; dietary restrictions and food transactions; the right professions for, and the proper interaction between, different social groups; sins and their expiations; institutions for the pursuit of holiness; king and the administration of justice; crimes and punishments; death and ancestral rites.

Many concepts of the Dharma Shastras might look, today, rather grotesque and outdated; and are therefore not acceptable in their entirety. That is not surprising at all; since those texts were addressed to a people of a particular time who lived their life in the context of their times. Those laws were also not meant to cater to the needs of all people at all times. The texts themselves emphasized the need to revise their prescriptions to keep in tune with the changing needs and demands of the individuals and the society. It is to the credit of the self-balancing genius of Hinduism that it has discarded the inconsistencies and anachronisms of the Dharma Shastras, in a dignified way and tried to retain the best the texts have to offer; while at the same time assimilating new currents of thought and transforming itself into an evolving and an expanding religious tradition.

Dharma Shastras are not of much practical significance today, as its secular aspects dealing with marriage, right to property, inheritance etc. have since walked into the modern Hindu Law, through an indirect route. How that happened is rather interesting. The early British in India tried to dispense law according to local customs.The process was hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774. For the benifit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit , ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property( Vyvahara) were translated into English. The one text that received greater attention in that context was Jagannatha Pandita’s Nibhanda on Vyvahara. Its translation was completed during 1794. Thereafter the English scholars attempted to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Their attempts were not successful and an agreed – on authoritative chronology could not be established. However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. This completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law. What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges decisions- as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and it is left to the skills of the judges and lawyers to find the precedent and to make the law. Those precedents are again those that were set up by the English judges. What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians -just what Indians would have wanted to avoid.

Further , the case-law was compiled without understanding the basic fact that in the Sutra the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ aspects of Hindu -life are not strictly seperate; but, they are closely interwoven in the Hindu motives and actions. In the ancient Indian criminal-law too the  religious and secular punishments were intermixed. An offence was treated both as a sin and as a crime.

In addition , by the time the British took to applying the ancient Dharmasastras to the Hindus of the 18-19th century , the Indian society had moved much further away from the society of the Sutras. For instance, the Sutras viewd human life as one continuous span stretching from the womb to death and even beyond to the next birth. There was much emphasis laid on purification cermonies  (shuddhi) and on sacraments (samskaras). But , by the time the British took to administering  civil and criminal laws , the Indian socity had passed through Muslim rule. Many of the old beleifs and rituals had vanished and a certian amout seceptisim and ‘irreligious’ attitudes had crept in. The ancient Sutra injunctions were no longer relevant in most cases.

These limitations and lack of proper understandin of the Indian context  have led to narrow and restrictive interpretations of codified statues, especially in matters relating to family law and law relating to religious endowments. The rulings at times fail to serve the cause of Dharma or of justice. Therefore, the Hindu law, as we have today cries out for a re- look. However, unfortunately in the present socio-political environment in India, reform of religious law is a contentious swamp that legislators generally try to avoid. Further, the study of Hindu law is neglected due to the combination of declining knowledge of its classical foundations; and the pressures of modern political correctness. Studying Hindu law is often looked down as a regressive activity, threatening the minorities in particular, and the women.

In any case, in the present context, the secular functions of the Dharma Shastras have to find their survival in the personal law and civil law books. There is no other way.

Coming back to the connotation of the term, Dharma in the Dharma Shastras broadly meant ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings in a given context. The term also had religious and caste overtones. With the metamorphosis of Dharma Shastras into Hindu Law, the elements of caste and gender have largely disappeared. In order to ensure fair and equitable dispensation of justice,Dharma now needs to be interpreted in terms of universal non-hierarchical norms for right conduct.

A question that is often asked is, whether Dharma is relevant today. The answer is; yes, it is.

Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including inaction, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. One has to therefore look within oneself, judge the situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. That which guides us along the right path and elevates us is, in reality, the Dharma.

One of the strengths of Dharma is that it is preventive rather than punitive. It prevents us from going down the path of degradation and decay. It safeguards the values of life, the quality of living and the wellbeing of us and of our coming generations. Dharma is therefore relevant at all times.

The Rig Vedic concept of Dharma as Atman or as an all-pervading cosmic order is sublime; but is ethereal and beyond the ken of a common person. Similar is the Upanishad view of Dharma as a universal principle of law and harmony. That is also not easy to grasp. If one has to appreciate a concept, one necessarily has to relate it to ones experiences in life. One can relate to the trials, tribulations and dilemmas faced by the men and women of Ramayana and Mahabharata .That is the reason for the immense popularity and adulation for the heroes of those epics. Generations of Indians in their quest for right answers to their problems , moral dilemmas and to a meaning for their life, have sought guidance and inspiration from the illustrations of Dharma as demonstrated in Ramayana and Mahabharata. They have grown up in amazement, reverence and appreciation for the equanimity, fair dealing and dignity, displayed by the epic heroes in their hours of distress. It also helped to strengthen their faith that right means will eventually lead to the right end.

The Dharma of Ramayana teaches honouring ones ordained duty, in the context; and adherence to Truth amidst temptations. That is relevant today too.

The Dharma of Mahabharata asks you to see through the evil and devise appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Dharma and to perpetuate a living Dharma, at any cost. That is still relevant. Its call to put Dharma into practice and to experience it in life is also relevant.

The message of the Bhagavad-Gita to discover you true potential, to explore it with skill and diligence; and to live an authentic life, is relevant forever .Its emphasis on commitment to work, ethics and detachment is very relevant in today’s world.

Dharma Shastras’ concern for an orderly, peaceful and harmonious living of a person with his family, his society and the world, is relevant today too. Its statement that Dharma as a source of law and consciousness should influences the functioning of the State in its day-to-day governance is also relevant.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept; but it is a living experience. It is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. At each stage of its unfolding, it acquired a newer interpretation in the context of the life and events of that period while retaining all its other interpretations accumulated over the ages. What was amazing was that each one of its interpretations was as valid as the rest of them. Dharma is a many splendored thing. It is ever fresh and inventing itself all the time. That is because, Dharma is fundamentally related to life and its essence is in living it, practicing it and experiencing it. Dharma, in whatever form, will be relevant at all times.



1 Comment

Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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One response to “Evolution of Dharma (3 0f 3)

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 7:19 am

    thanks a lot you have cleared a lot of my apprehensions of course new ones arise. infact i have refered to arthashastra only in relevance to natyashastra again where we talk of the 4 purusharthas. i do not have the confidence of reading the text, anyway.
    i just went through your profile and i find you have addressed a lot of topics that are really vibrant.
    thanks once again

    Sharmila p n


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