If religion helps a man to rise from the human level to the divine level, dharma (righteousness, a universal value- system) elevates him from the brute level to the human level. It helps him to live a socially useful life and, consequently, achieve happiness and peace in his personal life too.
Realising this, our rsis of yore who discovered this dharma, not only practised it in their own life but also vigorously propagated it. When Dadhici gave up his life to help the gods against the demons or when Vibhisana gave up his all to join Rama, they were showing that no sacrifice was too great in defense of dharma. When his brahmadanda quietly devoured all the missiles discharged by Vivamitra, Vasistha was actually exhibiting the tremendous power of dharma against adharma.
Starting with a skeletal concept in the Rgveda, dharma has grown into a gigantic structure with numerous branches and sub-branches, in the dharmasastra literature. This was not only necessary but also inevitable in the evolution of a dynamic social structure. While the ‘ãcãra’ part of it took care to concentrate on the development of a strong personal character in the individual, the ‘vyavahara’ part contributed much to social stability, by subordinating the individual’s freedom to social security and welfare. The ‘prayascitta’ part provided the remedial measures for transgressions.
All these were done quietly and unostentatiously by the authors of the dharmasastras who lived a life of austerity, but acquired and spread knowledge profusely. It goes to their credit that, even against many odds (including great risks to their own lives) they laboured hard and succeeded in keeping the Hindu society intact, preventing it from disintegration and chaos.
Thanks to the so-called ‘modern’ education (which is actually antiquated and obsolete from the standpoint of dharma, the eternal value of life) many in our country are totally ignorant of the great contribution of these pioneers and propagators of dharma in all its aspects. Nor do they have even an elementary idea of the necessity of, or, the importance of dharma in one’s life. This has resulted in the completely wrong notion that dharma has no place in a Secular State though it is the denominational or dogmatic religions that should be kept out of the general socio-political set-up!
Again, there is no need to rail against any of the books of the dharmasastras or vent one’s anger against them in public, since none of their authors has claimed absolute or eternal or universal jurisdiction for their rules! They have openly admitted that a society is always free to accept, to amend or even totally reject their views. When a civilised society prepares and promulgates a new constitution for itself, it does not tear off or burn the old constitution! It may perhaps keep it as a negative reference book so that the old mistakes are not repeated!
This booklet on the dharmasastras is aimed at giving a panoramic view of the concept and development of dharma as applied to individual and social life over the centuries. If it can be looked upon as a useful addition to our continuing education in Hinduism, the writer will feel rewarded.
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