Nithin Sridhar recently said that the Shastra is Guru in itself. “Only when one engages with the text deeply and with Shraddha, is one able to unravel the fullness of its teachings.” Author of several books, including an upcoming one – Chatuh Shloki Manusmriti: An English Commentary on the Manusmriti, one is left in no doubt that the Chief Curator of Advaita Academy will offer several insights in his upcoming course on the Dharamashastras. In this interview he talks about the work that course leaders do in order to open doors for new sadhakas.
How has your study and work in Indica Moksha (Advaita Academy) shaped your value system?
Curating Indica Moksha has been a blessing for me for it provides a very easy means for Satsangha. I am always in touch with various Sannyasins and Acharyas discussing various things and get an oppurtunity to listen to their teachings on Vedanta and other Hindu Shastras. Adi Shankaracharya says in Vivekachudamani that there are three things which are rare and difficult to get in this world. They are मनुष्यत्वं मुमुक्षुत्वं महापुरुषसंश्रयः – being born as a human, having an Adhyatmika orientation characterized by a desire for moksha, and care and nearness to great spiritual masters. I have been lucky and grateful that through my work I have been able to come in contact with many great Acharyas and Swamijis.
How does doing a course differ from reading texts, interpretations/commentaries in the modern context where not only is time a constraint but also a suffusion of sources being available, at times confusing a seeker.
I think one can answer this from multiple perspectives. At a very transactional level, it is obvious that many people have desire for knowledge, but they lack time and opportunity to pursue them due to personal and professional pressures in life. To such people online course are definitely a boon, since they will be able to set aside a short duration once or twice a week for learning despite busy schedule. Further, not every person seeks to attain deeper knowledge and engagement with a subject, many merely want to familiarize themselves with the basic landscape. In all such cases, doing courses are helpful.
At a deeper level, when it comes to studying Shastriya subject, the position of tradition is that you must learn it ‘Guru-Mukhena’- from the mouth of the Guru for it to fructify in complete sense. Though we cannot say that courses such as the ones I will be teaching are anything like studying in a traditional manner under a Guru, nevertheless studying through these course will provide some basis, some foundation which can later be reinforced and broadened through self-study. For anyone to teach any course, they have to put in a lot of effort, research, and articulate the same in the best possible manner. The student is the direct beneficiary of the entire process.
Can you explain the role of dharma in different dharmashastras and how it evolves across texts?
Dharmashastra as the name itself denotes are treatises which systematically presents to us the subject-matter of Dharma. What is this Dharma? There is no one English word which can capture the comprehensive nature of the term. It could stand for innate nature, law, code of conduct, ritual action, duty, values, ethics, principles of governance, cosmic world order, and much more depending on context. However, more than anything, in the human context, Dharma refers to actions, specifically actions which can lead to overall wellbeing which would include material wellbeing as well as spiritual wellbeing in the form of attainment of Svarga and Moksha.
As far as the question of how Dharma evolves across texts, I believe the question itself is phrased problematically. The question assumes that a. There is always a linear uni-directional evolution of ideas. b. Dharma is one such evolving idea. c. Dharma is a human idea. All three assumptions are problematic because they do not reflect the Hindu understanding of Dharma. First, to the Hindu, the world is not uni-directional progression, but a cycle of emergence, sustenance, and submergence, that keeps on happening again and again and again. Therefore, any discussion of evolution in a linear sense must be used with a lot of caveats and can only be used in a very limited sense. Second, the Hindu understanding of knowledge is that it is eternal.
The Veda which literally means knowledge is eternal and self-existing. It manifests at the beginning of each cycle and withdraws itself at the end of the cycle only to remanifest at the beginning of the next cycle. In a similar manner, within a particular cycle itself, knowledge manifests and withdraws itself at different points in time, a point hinted by Bhagavan Krishna when he said to Arjuna that what he is imparting to Arjuna was what he had imparted at an earlier time to Vivaswan, deity of the sun who had then imparted it to Manu. Therefore, the idea of uni-directional evolution of knowledge, especially of subject-matters which are non-transactional, beyond human perception, and eternal in nature, is incongruint with the Hindu worldview. Third, in the Hindu scheme of things, Dharma is neither an evolving idea, nor a human idea. Dharma is the foundational principle of the universe through which Ishvara controls and runs the universe. It is a special manifestation of Ishvara Himself. As such Dharma is eternal. The essential principles of Dharma are always existing and ever-relevant. Dharma is thus not a subject of human imagination or evolution of human idea. Humans come to receive them through Veda, Smriti, and other Shastras through which the Divine Dharma Principle reveals itself to Rishis who could perceive them directly through the eye of Yoga and who inturn have taught them to us. Therefore, it is important to never lose sight of the fact that Dharma in its essence is eternal and as such Dharmashastra texts which impart knowledge about Dharma are always relevant and never become outdated.
So, the correct question to ask is, if Dharma is eternal, how then do we find diversity in the teachings of the Dharmashastras. The answer to this is pretty straightforward: while Dharma in its essence is eternal and its ideals unchanging, the universe and the society in which we live is itself constantly undergoing change. As such, the contextualization of the Dharmic teachings to cater to different situations creates diversity and differentiation in the practical teaching of Dharmic principles and the related practices on the ground. Different Dharmashastra texts have been composed by different authors of Dharmashastra tradition with the dual purpose of safeguarding the essential and eternal principles of Dharma as is and to contextualize these teachings to address situations that would have arisen at the time of those authors.
The core of these compositions, namely Smritis, are given by Rishis and elevated sages who could perceive the past, present, and future, and gave instructions catering to different ages and persons. All these considerations create diversity in practical aspects of Dharmic teachings. To illustrate, the practice of Niyoga was permissible in previous Yugas but is to be discarded in Kaliyuga. This is not because there was an evolution of the idea of dharma with changing yuga, rather, it was because of the fact that the change in yuga caused human strength, both physical and mental, to diminish to a great extent and as a result, humans in general are no longer capable to perform Niyoga as it is prescribed to be practiced and instead may misuse it to fulfill their lustful desires. This is what I mean by contextualization of Dharmic teachings changes with context, but the essential principle itself remains eternal.
What is the significance of the Manusmriti in the context of dharmashastras? How have you researched this?
Manusmriti is the foremost of the Dharmashastra texts that is held in great esteem by not only other authors of Dharmashastra tradition, but also by great Acharyas of different Sampradayas. Mahabharata, for example, often involves Svayambhuva Manu as authority on Dharmic matters, and many times cites either in words or in meaning, content on Manusmriti. Adi Shankaracharya in his commentaries extensively cites Manusmriti and holds Manu and Vyasa as being authoritative source on Dharma. Dharmashastra commentators extensively cite from Manu. The tradition even holds that in case of conflict between Manusmriti and any other Smriti (or other sources such as Itihasa-Puranas) on any matter, then Manusmriti’s position must be taken as final as it has greater weightage.
The highest number of Sanskrit commentaries numbering nine are present on Manusmriti and even the earliest commentators quotes from those who were earlier to them but whose work has not survived. This shows that Manusmrti has always enjoyed an exalted position in the Hindu scheme of things and its exalted position is not a British creation as some want people to believe.
I have been engaging with the text in one way or the other for the last few years. It first began as an engagement related to particular themes, then I focussed on the place and relevance of Dharmashastras as a whole. Recently, I have been contemplating undertaking a more careful study of the text. In between, I had also studied portions of the text under a traditional teacher, Vidwan Venkataramana Hegde.
You are bringing out a book on Manusmriti next year. Can you share more about the book?
Yes. The book will be titled “Chatuh Shloki Manusmriti: An English Commentary“. It is in the form of a commentary on the opening four verses of Manusmriti which constitute the ‘AnubandhaChatushtaya’ or the four aspects of a text—namely, the subject-matter of a text, the fruit or utility of studying the text, the intended audience of the text, and the inter-relationship between the three. The aim is to provide a detailed and a systematic introduction to the study of Dharmashastras and clarify many prevalent misconceptions. Towards this end, the book also contains three Introductory chapters which examine the origination, transmission, contemporary relevance and the correct method of approach for studying the Dharmashastras. In addition to this, there are two chapters in Appendix which examines the question of Varna.
How do dharmashastras provide guidance on individual conduct and responsibilities? Does your book on Samanya Dharma delve into this? In what ways did dharmashastras influence social, legal and moral frameworks in Hindu society? Could you discuss the relevance of dharmashastras in contemporary times and their impact on modern ethical perspectives?
As mentioned earlier, Dharma refers to human actions that constitute the means for human wellbeing both at individual level and at social level. Further, this wellbeing is both material and spiritual. More importantly Dharma is the only means for happiness, be it in this world, or hereafter. Practice of Dharma both at individual and at social level, thus constitutes the mechanism to control our present and the future. Pursuit of Artha and Kama in isolation can at best impart resource richness and transient sensory pleasure at best, but often they are accompanied by frustration, anger, disappointment, loneliness, and many such negative traits. Be it an individual, or a society, the entity that pursues Artha-Kama alone, will soon experience loss of meaning and a great sense of emptiness. It is to avoid this that our great ancestors not only imparted the teachings of Dharma to individuals, but also ordered the society in such a way that it becomes Dharma and Moksha oriented in its outlook. This conception of ritualistic social order is what the Shastras call as Varna-Ashrama Dharma.
The Dharmashastras at once provides ethical guidelines in the form of enunciation of Samanya Dharma (which as you rightly noted is elaborated in my book by the same name), guidelines for specialized ritualized functions in society (Varna-Ashrama Dharma), and a guidelines on jurisprudence and governance (Raja-dharma and Vyavahara). All these formed the backbone of how Hindu society functioned in the past and they are very much vital today if we desire to create a Hindu Drishti- a Hindu approach to socio-cultural-religious-legal issues in society.
Currently we function in a system borrowed and deeply influenced by western modernity characterized by secularism and enlightenment theology. However, this is slowly but surely leading us towards our own intellectual annihilation. If we want to rectify the situation, it is not enough to put the phrase ‘Hindu’ or ‘Dharmic’ in front of every contemporary idea, rather, we must revive Hindu epistemology, ontology, and ethics, to create a discourse based on our own worldview. Dharmashastra is very much vital for this process.
At an individual level, Dharma is always relevant and as such our actions will fructify its results , good or bad, irrespective of whether we believe in Dharma or not. Hence, understanding and living life according to Dharma is most beneficial to us as it is the sole means for true happiness and wellbeing.
What are the criticisms or controversies surrounding the interpretation and application of dharmashastras?
In contemporary times Dharmashastras have become no-go zone. They are the favorite punching bag for both the political left and the right and everyone in between. They have been burned, demonized, severely abused, or plainly ignored and sidelined. Very rarely have people engaged with them in a serious and open-minded manner without preconceived bias. Much of the controversies and criticisms owe to this preconceived bias which has prevented honest engagement with the text. More importantly, the contemporary society has willingly moved away from Hindu traditions and worldview and adopted modernity and enlightenment values as the way of life. This has resulted in further controversies and misrepresentations of the Dharmashastric worldview, be it with regard to its treatment of women, or its conception of varna based society.
Can you provide examples of specific cases or scenarios where dharmashastras offer guidance on moral dilemmas or ethical issues from which students could learn to apply knowledge.
Take any socio-cultural issue, Dharmashastras will have something to offer on the subject. Many of my work including those on menstruation, abortion, adultery, and homosexual unions, have focussed on what Dharmashastra brings to the table on these important socio-cultural issues. Then, the ethical part is of course obvious. Dharmashastra provides important advice on how to live ethical life and provides an ethical framework for evaluating human actions in general.
Do tell us about your upcoming course on Dharmashastras. What is the aim of your course? Who is your target audience?
The course seeks to address some of the problematic issues in the contemporary approach to Dharmashastra texts that we discussed above and facilitate a better understanding and appreciation of Dharmashastras and their relevance to contemporary world by highlighting certain important aspects of their textual landscape and the worldview that informs them. Notably, the course approaches Dharmashastra texts not as artefacts of the past which needs to be studied for historical information, but as Shastra Pramana that reveals eternal principles of Dharma relevant to us here and now and how its teachings can benfit us today. Towards this end, the course will provide a systematic introduction to Dharmashastra texts, its place in Hindu scheme of things, and its subject-matter. As far as the target audience is concerned, anybody who is interested in understanding Sanatana Dharma and Dharmashastras can take the course.