How we can transform society with Hindu dharma
Far from being retrogressive, the tradition is dynamic, all too ready to adapt and change with times.
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Articles about the dharmaśāstras invariably focus on Manu and come in a highly polemic form. You are likely to see listings of verses from Manu which are deleterious, for instance, to the status of women, or you might see an exclusive focus on verses from Manu extolling women. So I was understandably and pleasantly surprised to see this blogpost by @vAsukeya, which focused on not only the ability, but also the requirement of dharma texts to adapt to the need of the times - a little known and much ignored characteristic of dharma literature. I hope to persuade you with this article that the alleviation of social ills blamed on the dharma tradition can be solved most effectively through the tradition itself.
The fundamental basis of this column is to show why we need to “bother with” Sanskrit. Studying the nature of dharma texts directly, rather than depending on polemics is most certainly an example.
Dharmaśāstras are normative and considered binding on members of the Ārya community. A lesser known fact is that they reveal intense disputes and divergent views on a variety of topics1.
This nuance that is lost unless we study and understand the texts ourselves rather than depend on bowdlerisers and narrative builders. Not only do individual dharma texts differ from each other, one can find contradictory rules within the same text (as we see in Manu with regard to women). In addition, and more germane to our discussion, dharma literature far from being set in stone, has repeatedly shown its ability to respond to socio-economic, cultural and political change.
Take, for example, the inclusion in Manu of a systematised rājadharma detailing the duties and responsibilities of a king. In the dharmasūtras that predate Manu2, references to statecraft, the king, judicial and royal procedures are scattered and scarce.
Scholars posit that the advent of large kingdoms and empires (such as Mauryan) made the need to present rājadharma systematically imperative. Another fundamental change in the dharma texts is the accommodation of bhakti and the concept of an iṣṭa deva/devī.
Prayaścitta (expiation) in the early dharmasūtra were limited mostly to recitation of Vedic hymns, fasts, and other austerities. Later texts like the Parāśarasmṛti (PS) include the worship of gods (as we know them today) to atone for transgressions. PS 6.7 states that a killer of certain birds can purify himself by showing reverence to Śiva (Śivapūjyaviśudhyati). The bali offering to Nārāyaṇa in the Vaiṣṇava Vaikhānasasmārtasūtram (10.9-10) again is evidence of how the worship of an iṣṭa god had become the norm.
Manu sits at the watershed of the Vedic and the Purāṇic modes of worship. While tradition sees continuity rather than rupture between these two, there is no denying that modes of worship and expiation were changing. So Manu displays the decreasing importance of early prayaścitta like the aśvamedhayajña in statements like “A man who abstains from meat and a man who offers the horse sacrifice every year for a hundred years, the reward for their meritorious acts is the same.” (M 5.53) Yet, in Manu, the killing of a cow is a lower order transgression (upapātaka), the prayaścitta for which is the same as if the perpetrator were to give instructions as, or receive instructions from a paid teacher, or cut down trees for firewood. (M 11.60-67. For the prayaścitta, see M 11.109-118) Compare Manu’s stance to an entire chapter in Parāśarasmṛti (Ch 9 gosevopadeśavarṇanam) on how to care for cows/cattle. It has detailed prayaścitta for every conceivable harm - unwitting or deliberate - that might come to them. PS 9.52 states clearly that Manu was wanting in this area. This reflects the heightened importance of cows in Hinduism, as was practised in that era.
Let’s look at another example – that of the “purification” of women. Vasiṣṭhadharmasūtra (VD) has this to say about women: “A woman is not polluted by a lover (28.1) … whether she has strayed on her own or she has been expelled, whether she has been raped forcibly or abducted by robbers, a wife who has been defiled should not be forsaken. There is no law permitting the forsaking of a wife. One should wait for her to menstruate; she is purified by her menstrual period (28.2-3)”
Compare this leniency with Manu (8.371) who mandates that an unfaithful woman should be “devoured by dogs in a public square frequented by many.” Yet, at 11.171, Manu says “The husband should keep an adulterous wife confined in a single room and make her perform the observance prescribed for a man who has sex with another man’s wife.”
Reflecting the leniency of Vasiṣṭhadharmasūtra, the 10th century Devalasmṛti, written in Sind [now dealing with the changed scenario of contact with and abductions by foreign invaders (mlecchaiḥ)] mandates that women taken by force are purified by abstaining from sexual intercourse and food for three nights. Even if they become pregnant and bear a child from the said abduction, they were as pure as gold after their menses resumed after the birth of the child.
@vAsukeya’s path breaking blog quotes Manu, Yāgñavalkya, and renowned commentary Mitākṣara from PV Kane’s magisterial study of the dharma texts. He says practices which are lokavikṛṣṭa (distanced from) or lokavidviṣṭa (odious) should be discontinued. So, not only does the dharma tradition absorb new practices, it is required to expel old ones which have become distasteful. Manu Chapter 5 on rules for food allows the eating of meat if it is part of the Vedic sacrifice.
If a dvija refuses to eat ritually consecrated meat, “after death he will become an animal for twenty one life times.” (M 5.35-36) Yet at 5.56, he says that abstaining (from meat) brings greater rewards. This ambivalence reflects the debate on meat eating that was raging at the time, as a reading of an un-edited version of the contemporaneous Mahābhārata shows. In forbidden foods, Manu does not mention beef even once. The only cow related product to be eschewed is colostrum (gavyam ca pīyūṣam at 5.6). By contrast, the later Parāśara is unequivocal. If the brahmin consumes beef, he must perform a severe penance to atone. (P 11.1)
With these contradictions, how are we to determine which is the correct rule and which isn’t? Well, the famous and infamous Manu is in no doubt. “When there are two contradictory scriptural provisions on some issue… tradition takes them both to be the law… for they have both been pronounced to be the law by wise men (manīṣibhiḥ) (M 2.14). And what happens when specific laws have not been laid down? Then a pariṣad, a legal assembly of learned people can be formed. Depending on their qualifications, this could consist of ten people, or five or four or three. Parāśara concurs at 8.7 and 11. However M 12.113 categorically states, “When even a single brahmin who knows the veda determines something as the law, it should be recognised as the highest law…”
What does this all too brief excursion of dharma texts tell us? Well it tells me that far from being static, fossilised and retrogressive, the dharma tradition is a dynamic, fluid one, all too ready to adapt and change with times. For instance, Āpastamba outlines what noble conduct is in the gambling hall (Ā 2.25.12-14)
Manu, however, feels the need to suppress it with violence, including execution for gamblers. (M 9.221-228) Parāśarasmṛti explains it best when it proclaims itself to be a dharma text for this yuga (kali). It specifies at P 11.50 that there are different dharmas prescribed for different ages, and that the good brahmin must not be censured for following the yuga-dharma. As the age is, so should the brahmin be.
This brings me to purpose of undertaking this study. I believe that our dharma tradition is flexible, practical and humane. Undoubtedly, ancient texts have rules and beliefs that are abhorrent to our modern, liberal sensitivities, and in no way am I suggesting that we follow ancient practices to the detriment of any section of society. Rather I’m proposing that ten or five, or four, or even three learned manīṣīs form a pariṣad and write a fresh dharma text or texts. They have never stopped being written.
As recently as the 17th century, Trayambakayajvan wrote the very conservative Strīdharmapaddhati, and a hundred years later Bālam Bhaṭṭi by Bālakṛṣṇa gave wide latitude to women in property matters and other rights. All it takes is one learned brahmin who knows the veda to change what we define as dharma. This has phenomenal implications for the uplift of the oppressed and underprivileged members of Hindu society. For us to come comprehensively into the 21st century, all we need is an age appropriate dharmaśāstra.
And if your reaction is to scoff, remember, when Manu was written, it was a new text.
1 Olivelle, P, 1999, Dharmasūtras, OUP, pg xxi
2 While absolute dating is impossible, a relative chronology is accepted widely. The Dharmasūtras are believed to pre-date Manu, while other key dharmaśāstras postdate him. Please see Kane, P.V, History of Dharmaśāstras. Approximate dates: Dharmasūtras 600 – 200 BCE; Manu 200 BCE – 100 CE; Parāśara 500 CE.