Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra
The noble characters who figure in the Puranas serve as an ideal for all
us to follow. When we read their stories we are inspired by their
and we ask ourselves why we cannot be like them ourselves, why we
should not share their qualities. But, even if we wanted to emulate
lives, would we be able to live like them without deviating at any time
from the high principles that they upheld?
Man by nature is always unstill: he cannot keep his mind quiescent even
for a moment. Bhagavan says in the Gita: "Not for a moment can a man
remain still, without doing work". So one must know the right path for
work. One must make one's mind pure, acquire the highest of qualities
and, finally, transcending these very qualities, realise the Brahman.
How can we live according to the tenets of our religion? How can we
wash away our sins and cleanse our Self? And what must we do to attain
everlasting happiness? Is not our present birth a consequence of the
we committed in our past lives? We have to free ourselves from them
and be careful not to sin afresh. We must elevate ourselves, our mind
character, so that we are not embroiled in sin again. The purpose of
religion is this, to ennoble us and turn us away from sin. But how? How
do we live according to the teachings of our religion? We do not know
In our present condition, what do we claim to know? Perhaps a little bit
of Ramayana, the Bhagavata and other Puranas. We learn about the
religious life lived by the characters portrayed in these works. But
the Puranas nor the epics deal with the rights in a codified form, nor
they contain directions for their proper performance.
The Puranas and the epics give a dominant place to devotion. Is it
possible to be engaged in devotion all the time, or to keep singing the
glory of the Lord day and night? Or, for that matter, to be similarly
engaged in a puja and meditation throughout? No. We have a family to
look after. We have to bath and eat and we have so much other work to
do - all this takes time. The remaining hours cannot be set apart for
It would all be tiresome and we have, besides, to do other good works.
How do we get such information?
From the Dharmasastra.
Of the fourteen branches of learning (caturdasa-vidya) Dharmasastra
comes last. Puranic characters, who represent our ideal, show us the
goal. The path to attain that goal starts with the performance of karma,
works. The Dharmasastra contain practical instructions in our duties, in
the rites to be performed by us. In the Vedas these duties are mentioned
here and there. The Dharmasastra is an Upanga that deals with them in
detail and in a codified form.
There is an orderly way of doing things, a proper way, with regard to
household and personal matters including even bathing and eating. The
ordinances of Vedas cover all aspects of life and to conduct ourselves
according to them is to ennoble our Self. Whatever we do must be done
in the right manner - how we lie down, how we dress, how we build our
house. The idea is that all this helps our being. Life is not
compartmentalised into the secular, worldly and the religious. The Vedic
dharma is such that in it even mundane affairs are inspired by the
religious spirit. Whatever work is done is done with the chanting of
mantras and thus becomes a mean of Atmic progress. Just as worldly life
and religious life are integrated, harmonised, so are the goals of
individual liberation and common welfare kept together.
The devotion we imbibe from the Puranas is part of the Vedas also. But
with it is associated a good deal of karma. When devotion takes the form
of rite called puja there are certain rules to be observed. Apart from
there are sacrifices and rites like sraddha and tarpana as important
elements of the Vedic dharma. But these are not codified in the Vedas
nor is any procedure laid down for each of them.
"Vedo khilo dharmamulam,” says Manu (The Vedas are the root of all
dharma. ) The work that the Vedas bid us perform for our inner wellbeing
also serve the purpose of bringing good to the world. What is called
dharma is that which fosters both individual and social welfare. The
Vedas are the root of this dharma, its fountainhead.
But the rites and duties are not given in an orderly form in the Vedas,
is the procedure for works laid down in detail. Of the Vedas that are
infinite we have obtained only a very small part. And we do not
comprehend fully the meaning of many of the passages even of this small
As we have seen the sixth Vedanga, Kalpa, contains the Dharmasutras,
Grhyasutras and Srautasutras, relating to rites based on the Vedas. But
the sutras are brief and do not constitute a detailed guide. The
dharmasastras elaborate upon them without leaving any room for doubt.
The Dharmasutras (by Apastamba, Gautama and others) are terse
statements and are so according to the very definition of the term
"sutras". The dharmasastras (by Manu, Yagnavalkya, Parasara and others)
are called Smrtis and are in verse and detail in treatment. Their basis,
however, is constituted by the Vedas. The function of Dharmasastra is to
analyse and explicate the sutras of Kalpa which have to some extent
systematised the Vedic rules and injunctions. If Kalpa gives
about the constructions of the Vedic altar, of houses, etc, Dharmasastra
provides a code of conduct embracing all human activities.
We want to perform a ritual, but how do we go about it? We do not know
where the propriety or otherwise of performing it is mentioned in the
Vedas. Nor do we know where instructions are given about it. What are
we to do then? We do not know anyone who has mastered all the Vedas.
Extracting information from them about the rite we want to perform is
impossible because they are like the expanse of a vast ocean. If the
bid us "Do like this, " we do so. But since we do not know their
ordinances well enough, what are we to do? The answers to this
questions are given by Manu: "The sages who had mastered the Vedas
composed the Smrtis. Find out what they have to say. "What we call
Smrtis make up Dharmasastra.
"Vedo'khilo dharmamulam Smrtisile ca tadvidam".
"Smrti" is what is remembered. "Vismrti" is insanity. Manu
observes:"There is Smrti for the Vedas in the form of notes. The sages
who had a profound understanding of the Vedas have brought together
the duties and rites (dharma and karma) mentioned in them in the form
of notes and they constitute the Smrtis. They are written in a language
that we can easily understand. Read them. They tell you about your in
detail, the do's and don'ts, and how the rites are to be performed. "
We have seen that the sixth Vedanga, Kalpa, contains instructions about
the Vedic works. The Grhyasastras, Dharmasastras and Srautasastras of
Kalpa deal with sacrifices and other rites. The Smrtis elaborate on them
and contain detailed instructions with regard to the rite one has to
perform through one's entire life. Actually, there are rituals to be
conducted from the time of conception until death. The Smrtis also lay
down the daily routine to be followed by all of us.