RTL: Baudháyana’s Dharmashástra

In the ancient Hindu framework life was to be governed by codes that included canonically prescribed thoughts, words, and deeds. The goal was to guide people to lead righteous lives with the ultimate goal of inner peace, societal harmony and spiritual liberation. The principles of right living are collectively known as dharma. Classical texts embodying them, often as pithy aphorisms, are known as dharma shástras (200-500 BCE). Once there were many of these, scholars tell us,  not all concurring in all issues. Only a few have survived. One, attributed to  Baudháyana, begins with the following:

adbhish shudhyanti gátráNi

buddhir jñánena shudhyati

ahimsayá ca bhútátmá

manas satyena shudhyati

The outer body is purified by water,

Intellect is purified by knowledge,

The inner soul by non-hurting of others (ahimsá),

And the mind by Truth.

In the Hindu worldview, spiritual liberation (moksha, nirváNa) consists in apprehending satya (Reality, Brahman). This involves erasing mistaken views, ignorance, misperceptions, etc. This is somewhat like sweeping the floor of the dust and dirt that cover it.  That is why, in Hindu metaphor, purity and purification are important notions.

We are made up of a physical body, an inquiring intellect, an inner spirit, and the capacity for awareness that is associated with the mind. This verse explains that just as the physical body is cleansed by water, intellect is freed of its impurity (ignorance) by knowledge, and the spirit attains a higher level of purity by non-engagement in words and actions that hurt fellow-beings. Purity in awareness, i.e. awareness of the nature of all existence, is attained when we have grasped satya or Truth (nature of Ultimate Reality).

In olden times, these were meant only for the upper castes, mainly for bráhmins. One may interpret this to mean that these principles are essential for the intellectual, moral, and spirituals leaders of society.  However that may have been, it would certainly be a great progress for the tradition if  religious and secular leaders in our own times recognize that in the modern world this framework should be extended to everyone, men and women, Hindu and Non-Hindu alike, for the era of privileged nations, classes, castes, and religions is slowly being pushed into the past. An increasing number of  awakened Hindus, lay and religious, like their counterparts in other nations and cultures,  are trying to do  just that, but in the process tensions and clashes inevitably arise. This has been so  all through history, religious and otherwise: the shift from long-held views and practices to new ones is often more than a shift: It is emancipation from the fetters of an old order which only reluctantly yields place to new.

13 January 2011

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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