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Dharmasastra and Indian secularism – musings of an uninitiated Hindu

December 31, 2010

Aadi se anant tak’ – that is the refrain that we hear from seers and elders whenever there was a talk about Sanatan Dharma in general and Dharmasastra in particular. The phrase refers to the belief of Hindus that Dharmasastra has been there from times immemorial and shall remain forever or till the end of ‘srishti’ (the universe). Remarkably, Hindus too believe that there will be an end to this world when there will be ‘pralaya’ (doomsday). The philosophy that what has begun must end is perhaps at the core of this belief.

Dharmasastra is the huge body of knowledge that is fundamental to the Hindu way of life or Hindu philosophy. I am no scholar of Sanskrit nor am I one who has studied these philosophical treatises and yet I venture on this subject for the simple reason that I am curious as to why we Hindus look at life the way we do and what shapes our inherent accommodative nature that is at the core of Indian secularism. The answer invariably veers back to the fundamentals of Hindu thought process that is shaped by the philosophy that embodies Dharmasastra.

Hinduism was no religion – it was a way of life. Dharmasastra is so old that the earliest texts like the Rig Veda are hard to place in any particular era. What is known for sure is that it was thousands of years before Christ. One can imagine how ancient these texts are from the fact that the Sanskrit used in Rig Veda is hard to comprehend and is almost like symbol language used by cavemen. Yet Sanskrit had evolved enough for the wise men of those ancient times to put to letter philosophy of life as they saw it.

The other fact is that Hindus looked at life through nature’s prism. There is another adage that we hear very often ‘kan kan mein hain Bhagwan’ (God is present in every speck around us). Hindus were nature appreciators and later worshippers of nature. We still are. Form was given to nature at a later date. Indra, is the rain God, Surya, the Sun God, Vayu, the wind God (Hanuman, the monkey God is son of Vayu or Pawan, as per Puranic stories) and so on. One can brush these aside as fears of man. Yet there was philosophy around this and the importance of each to human beings was emphasized. Even today a cyclone, a torrential rain or a dry spell can cause disaster. Ask all those stranded at airports on Christmas eve! Hindus realized early on that we are a part of a whole and a part of the cycle of life on this planet and not the chosen one. Hindus appreciated the fact that each species had a role to play and we humans are just a cog in the wheel. A Hindu typically begins his meal by setting aside a portion for the cow, the crow, the dog and so on.

Being as old as it is, the philosophy in the ancient Hindu texts is remarkable. While acara, pratihara and prayashchitta are at the core of Dharmasastra it is the ancient texts that form the basis of the Hindu way of life. The epitome of Hindu philosophy is the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda. The more than hundred Upanishads constitute those gems of wisdom that are unparalleled anywhere. Often called the fountainhead of Indian philosophy they offer a thought process that imparts wisdom and knowledge that is unparalleled. Some of these precious sources of wisdom have been lost in time (scholars are trying to retrieve them through secondary sources). And then the Bhagwata Gita where Krishna gives sermons to a recalcitrant Arjun unable to pick up his bow and arrow against his own cousins and his gurus maybe a part of the epic Mahabharata but is the essence of Hindu philosophy and Hindus in a court of law are made to swear on the Bhagwata like the Christians on the Bible and Muslims on the Quran.

Patanjali’s Yoga, Ayurveda, Vedic surgery by Sushruta, Vatsyayan’s Kamasutra, Tantra and Karma kanda are all found in the various texts in the Dharmasastra. Each is a universe in itself. Taken together they are a source of knowledge and culture that is unique. But the essence of Dharmasastra is the philosophical treatises that abound. Various scholars have understood the philosophy differently and commentators have understood and written derivatives that are nuggets of wisdom by themselves.

Hinduism is more about getting a perspective on life than setting norms, as it were. For example, while the Muslims believe that Holy Quran was revealed and is therefore ‘aasmani kitab’ (one that came from above) no Hindu believes that the Vedas were revealed. There were seers who wrote these philosophical and religious treatises but it is not known who they were. Perhaps they were happy with their anonymity. Perhaps they believed it would be vain on their part to mention themselves. Yet what appear forces the reader to look at life differently and to ponder over the world around us. There are norms suggested, for example the ideal age for marriage for both men and women is suggested. The four ashramas or the stages of life are also enshrined but it is not so strict as to throw a person out of the order were one to defy any of these suggested steps. The fundamental nuance of the Hindu way of life is to encourage discourse. The ultimate aim is nirvana or moksha, or to be one with the Creator so as to get out of the cycle of birth and rebirth. Each individual has the liberty to find his own way so as to achieve the ultimate aim – that of nirvana. One can be an atheist and yet be a Hindu. One can believe in one God and not another and that is perfectly acceptable. In the Hindu pantheon there are innumerable Gods and Goddesses! Yet the Hindu trinity of the creator, Bramha, the sustainer, Vishnu and the destroyer, Shiva is at the heart of Hindu philosophy. It is believed that if Shiva is in a state of discomfort or anger and starts his tandava (an aggressive dance form), there is upheaval on earth. This is a manifestation of the importance of living a life on the fundamentals of Dharma – what is right, the truth, the one Godly way.

Women have a special place in the Hindu way of life. Goddesses abound. From Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge to Kali, the destroyer of evil women have been revered. An Indian household typically revolves around the woman of the house. Erudition among women was not uncommon in times past. Pannini, the great Sanskrit scholar gave the grammar for the language which is famous as Pannini’s Ashtdhyaya. Women rubbed shoulders with men in ancient Indian universities like Taxila and Nalanda.

The fundamental plurality and the timelessness of the Hindu thought are at the heart of the accommodation among Hindus. Since Hinduism is from times immemorial there was no other way. There was no threat and no absolutism propounded. One stream of Hindus, like the Vaishnavas fighting the Shaivites may have happened but this was not so fundamental and so extreme as to exterminate the other school. Besides a Shaivite could be a Vaishnavite another day and sometimes just for intellectual exchanges (shastratha). Absolutism was anathema to Hindus and more a position of ignorance than enlightenment. Even Siddhartha or Buddha never propounded ‘the one right way’, though he did emphasize on the eight fold path, but never did he suggest that what he said was above or beyond the Dharmasastra. I think any such suggestion would have been laughed away by Gautama.

Even today, Hindus not out of vanity or talking from a higher pedestal but as a fact of life see other religious texts as a part, albeit a small part of the Dharmasastra. They do not therefore feel threatened by the Bible or the Quran or the Torah. They see these as nuggets from the all encompassing thought process that is the Dharmasastra. They are also sanguine in that they see life as a journey towards Truth and philosophy and elevation of the thought process as the one best way to achieve that state of bliss that only such knowledge can bestow. That sense of insecurity therefore is just not there among Hindus. I have seen pictures of Jesus and the Kaaba on the walls outside some Hindu temples and no Hindu ever suggested that they be removed.  You your way and me mine comes naturally to Hindus. The philosophy of Vasudevakutumbakam (whole humanity as one family) is another fundamental thought process that encourages accommodation.

Yet accommodation and the ability to accept divergent viewpoint does not mean passivity. Dharma must be protected and that is as important as accepting divergence. Inaction in the face of Adharma is as serious a breach as divergence from Dharma. The philosophy of ‘war for peace’ is also at the heart of the Hindu way of life. What Hinduism has given is a world–view that is unparalleled – the philosophy such that gives intellectual and moral sustenance. The flexibility of a way of life that can be accepted only if one has a thinking that is not parochial and myopic. The other so called monotheistic absolutist ways of life a spec on a canvas so vast as to encompass the universe and beyond.

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