A fundamental Question abt Dharmic question

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue Dec 4 23:11:56 CST 2001

On Wed, 21 Nov 2001, vidya S Jayaraman wrote:

> I read a translation of the dharma sutras, manu smriti
> and yagnavalkya smriti.
> And I have some other related basic questions :
> 1.What exactly is this dharma ie according to the
> smritis.If so Why do they contradict each other so
> much.One case in point is Manu's statement about the
> difference in age between a husband and a wife.
> Who decides which one holds good amongst the million
> laws and bylaws.

Sorry if I have not been posting regularly these days.  Saturday before
last, my wife gave birth to our first child, a girl we've named Shailaja.

To understand how Dharma works, an important clue is the name of our
Sampradaya.  Unlike Shaivas, or Jains etc.  we are not named after some
God or guru but called Smartas -- followers of Smrti.  what does Smrti

Imagine one day you are walking along and suddenly notice a wallet full of
money at your feet.  What would you do?  You would pick it up and look at
it, see what's in it and if you can find any information about the owner.
You might ask passers by if they saw who dropped it.  A crowd might form
and (especially if this is in India :-) they might start giving you advice
about whether you should give it to the police, keep it or any number of
other things.

The root of dharma is in the Vedas.  They are apaurusheya (not created by
any being) and not written but "seen" (arsha) or "heard" (shruta from
which we get the alternate name, shruti) by various people known as Rshis.
We have a popular image of the Rshi as a Yogi living in the forest but in
fact we can't really infer anything about their moral or spiritual state.
Most were men but there were some women and some not human at all.  Some
were married, some were ascetics.  They came from all different castes and
walks of life.  The only thing they have in common is they directly
experienced the revelation of the Vedic mantras.  from the internal
evidence of the Vedas themselves, we know this process took place over
several generations.  Indeed traditionally it Maharshi Veda Vyasa who
systematically organized all the mantras into the four Vedas as we have
them today at the beginning of the Kali Yuga.

Like a person who finds a wallet, the Rshis begn pondering this mysterious
gift that had been given to them. Different Rshis had different views so
the question of what terms meant, how to compare them, ground rules of
debate etc. came up.  This was the beginining of the various darshans such
as nyaya, mimamsa etc.  Also the various vedangas sch as shiksha,
vyakarana etc.  began to be devloped in order to safeguard the text and
meaning of the Vedas.  If we look at any of the sutras or foundational
texts of the darshans and Vedangas we see that they are not the beginning
but the culmination of a long process of refinement.  For instance Panini
is the "founder" of vyakarana but he quotes older grammarians like
Shakalya too.  In some cases older authorities views are accepted, in
other cases they are rejected.  Or in the Mimamsa sutras Jaimini is the
accepted authority, but in the Brahmasutras sometimes his views are
rejected.  The model in all those shastras is the samvada or
back and forth conversation between a teacher and his student or opponent.
"Smrti" as books, is only the crystallized memories of that samvada.

In the case of Dharmashastras we also see differences of opinion.  Some
views are rejected.  some are offered as options.  For instance Paraskara
Grhyasutra says a Brahmana should get upanayana at age 8, a kshatriya at
11 and a Vaishya at 12.  It also notes that some count the pregnancy as
one year making the ages 7, 10, and 11.  Or "yatha mangalam sarvesham" or
all of them can do it when it is auspicious.  The commentators have
interpreted this to mean if the family customs or circumstances is to do
it at a particular time (which may or may not fall during a "standard"
time) that is ok too.

The point I'm trying to make with this lengthy exposition is:

1.  It is futile to search for "the one true way" because throughout our
history there have been a plurality of views on Dharma.  In certain cases
two options may be equally right.  Or something may be correct for some
people but not others.  (For example Bengali Brahmanas eat fish but the
pancha Dravidas are strictly vegetarians.)

2.  But there have also been limits.  so we shouldn't also go to the other
extreme, that anything goes and Dharma is just a matter of convenience or
whatever "feels good."

3.  To understand Dharma one must take part in the samvada.  Shishtachara
(the conduct of the learned and wise of each generation) is as important a
pillar of Dharma as Shruti and Smrti.  One must understand the texts, and
the history and traditions all together.

> 2.As far as the terms "brahmana" or "kshatriya" is
> concerned How many would qualify as per the definition
> of the smritis.
> All it can mean now is the people who are offsprings
> of some who were brahmanas several hundred years back.

In every era some have adhered to their dharma rigourously and some have
not due to their circumstances, or ignorance or just plain laziness.  What
else is new?  The question we should be asking ourselves is are we willing
to live upto the standards of Dharma?  If we are, then it doesn't matter
if other people do or do not.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>
It's a girl! See the pictures - http://www.braincells.com/shailaja/

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