Dharma Shastras: Ancient texts that define a practical and intelligent way of living



By Gaurav Sharma

Smriti or “that which is remembered”, is a vast corpus of diverse Vedic literature which is authored by an individual and is not considered divine per se.

The Smritis comprise of a genre of Sanskrit texts referred to as Dharma-Shastra. These texts form an integral part of the Indic branch of learning and pertain to right conduct (Dharma), religion, and legal duty.

In the modern age, a lot of criticism is levied on the Dharma-Shastras, mainly due to the flawed way in which they are interpreted.

Most of the scholarly analysis of the Dharma-Shastras undertaken by the western researchers focuses on the literal interpretation of words, rather than their stated intent. It is no surprise, then, that under such a narrow purview, the Dharma-Shastras are castigated as ‘backward, illiberal and oppressive’.

For understanding any system propounded by an ancient text, it is essential that one focuses on the spirit rather than the letter of the law.

The Shastras are not a set of rigid blanket injunctions meant to be applied and followed at all times and in all places. They talk about Sat or truth while defining rules that are applicable for a particular time period and a defined region.

In contrast, the Constitution which is an amalgamation of Euro-centric views, espouses the idea that the state or religious authority should define rules for all times to come. One can argue for the flexibility of the Constitution by pointing towards the provision for amendments. However, such provisions carry with them a written down presumption that changing or for that matter, tweaking the legal sections will be anything but a walk in the park.

Dharma or right conduct, as laid by the Shastras implicitly entails the application of one’s own mind, according to the situation at a particular point of time. For example, the activities of Ram which were considered as right action in Tretayuga, might be viewed as anything but sacrosanct in the post-modern world.

The doctrine that the application of laws should be based on the character (right conduct) of an individual, as put forth by the Shastras, is a very liberal concept.

Fast forward to the present age and the world is still struggling hard to define the notions of liberalism and pluralism. In fact, the ideas of freedom have become so abstract so as to say that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In other words, what may be morally right  for one person may be wrong for someone else.

Such a concept of liberty inherently advocates moral relativism as the only practical way to live. Values are denounced and their existential basis becomes philosophically questionable.

The Dharma-Shastras, on the other hand, are clear in the declaration that no liberalism can amount to unfettered behavior. Even while being bound to the law, there is freedom to formulate a new legislation.

Another factor that makes the ancient ideology of life as superior to the present society is the emphasis on non-consumerism and non-individualism.

The classical vision, as expounded by the epic of Mahabharata is: Tasyeta Ekam Kulasyarthe, which means giving up self-interest for a higher interest.

This maxim forms a ladder with a series of progressive rungs; Giving up interest of the self for the interest of the family, ceding the interest of the family for the welfare of the village, rejecting the interest of the village for the betterment of the nation and ultimately sacrificing the attachment to the nation for the benefit of the Atma or soul.

Such a hierarchical system of working ensured that every unit of society, from the microcosm of the individual soul to the macrocosm of the nation was happy and peaceful.

In the here and now, such a method of functioning will be completely against the fundamental right to freedom. Most of the educated people in India have been ingrained with such a heavy dosage of romantic individualism by the Western education system, that such a practical way of living is visualized as untenable and highly illogical.

A deeper scrutiny of the Westernized-individualism will reveal to us that such an indoctrination is a shrewd strategy to run the wheels of the global capitalist economy.

In the consumerist model, a mechanism called ‘branding’ is put to efficient use to enslave people. The brands are utilized as tools to create a virtual relationship with consumers that is pure fiction.

This relation engenders a trust relationship between the consumers and the brand that necessarily bypasses the company.

Such a master-plan is premised upon inventing and selling the myth that the consumer makes his economic decisions purely out of his own self-interest, that everyone engages in such a behavior and that society is better off as a result.

A direct consequence of the popularization of such a world-view is the crass consumerism under whose lashing waves we are deluging not just ourselves, but also the environment which sustains us.

The sacrifice of self-interest for the sake of something higher is an ideal that much more practical sense, than the warped logic of individual freedom as extolled by the west.

Another reason why the Shastras are looked down upon and derided as relics of a bygone era is because of the fundamental proposition of the Varna-Ashram Dharma.

Such criticism again arises out of fuzzy and faulty understanding of the both  orders of social organization.

While the Varna system segregates the social population into four castes: Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, the Ashram apparatus divides life into four stages: Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha, and Sannyasa.

The Ashrama Dharma is a very practical way of defining living. The initial years are spent in accumulating knowledge and education. After reaching adulthood, marriage and generation of wealth assume importance. Then, after a certain time, one hands over all his wealth and retreats into the forest in search of spiritual knowledge. Finally, one embraces the renounced order of life fin order to establish his/her relationship with higher self.

In the modern age, the youth is only subjected to knowledge which is beneficial in churning out wealth. Consequently, there is hardly an impetus on discovering the spiritual aspect of life.

Retirement life, as it is viewed by the Vedic civilization, has also undergone a sea change. As one progresses towards retirement age, he becomes more consumerist than ever before, courtesy the accumulation of retirement benefits, fund stockings etc.

This is primarily a Euro-centric idea, which India has happily adopted even as it isolates itself from the values enshrined in its own spiritual books. Life, whose goal previously was self-realization, has morphed into an incessant money-generating machine.

While, such a system does create a kind of material evolution, it inevitably transmutes into a spiritual devolution.

Another means of social organization, the Varna or caste system has also been abolished now. The reason cited for quashing such a successful model of social harmony is the oppression of Shudras or men engaged in menial jobs by the higher class or the Brahmanas.

Again, such arguments against the Vedic mode of functioning are based on a narrow understanding of the system.

First of all, the caste system was never entirely based on birth.  Factors such qualities and the profession of a person assumed paramount importance in defining ones caste. Birth was never the final judgment in defining the life of an individual.

Secondly, such a hierarchical social order was not a special feature of only the Indic civilization. Greek philosopher Plato, for example, prescribes a system which is completely oppressive in its nature. In Europe, the entire population was divided into masters and slaves. In China and in Japan, the situation was no better.

It was only in India, that a flourishing and prosperous middle class existed. Prima-facie, this was due to the strength and the flexibility of the Varna system.

Thirdly, the perception that all Shudras were untouchables and were lived outside the town is wrong. Most of them were involved in the daily economic activities. Some of them even became kings when they acquired power. For example, the Shudras enjoyed their own kingdom, a fact mentioned in the Mahabharata.

In hindsight, the guilt that is endowed upon the Varna-ashram system is a needless and thoughtless guilt. It was a system which worked(and works) much better than other models of social organization, both in the pre-technological as well as the post-modern age.

It would be pertinent and at same time, ironical to know that the sophistication and practicality of the Shastras was a quality much appreciated by the European scholars themselves.

Freidrich Neitzsche, a philosopher who stood against organized religion of any kind, while reading Louis Jaclliot’s translation of Laws of Manu is known to have said: “Close the Bible and open the Manu Smriti. It has an affirmation of life, a triumphing agreeable sensation in life and that to draw up a lawbook such as Manu means to permit oneself to get the upper hand, to become perfection, to be ambitious of the highest art of living.”

Perhaps it is time that our misdirected civilization takes note and acts on the prescription of their philosophical idol.