Besides the Shruti, which is the primary source of authority for everything in Hinduism, there is a secondary set of scriptures collectively called the smRti - the word meaning 'that which is remembered and transmitted'. The smRtis contain all the rules and regulations for the individual in relation to the family, society, the ancestors and the gods, compiled and collected by great sages of the past. Almost all the daily practices in Hinduism can be traced to these secondary scriptures. But whenever any doubt arises as to the credentials of a rite, rule, stipulation, or concept, it is the voice of the vedas (Shruti) that prevails. The smrtis may change from time to time, from place to place, but Shruti is eternally valid.
The smRtis have their immediate authority in the kalpas, which are one of the six limbs of the vedas, known as vedAngas. These six limbs are: ShikshA (science which teaches proper articulation and pronunciation of vedic texts), vyAkaraNa (Grammar), chandas (Metrical Science), nirukta (Etymology), jyotisha (Astrology), and kalpa (Rules and Regulations). The kalpa-sUtras are the most complete of the six Vedangas. They prescribe the rituals and give rules for ceremonial and sacrificial acts. They are written in the form of aphorisms (sUtras) and present a consolidated list of duties to be performed by people in their various stations of life, at various times of the day, according to their varNa. All aspects of human activity are dealt with in these sUtras. The gRhya-sUtras describe domestic rites. The Srauta-sUtras are concerned with the big sacrifices for which there are elaborate catalogues of mantras in the vedas. The dharma-sUtras of (Apastambha, Gautama and others) describe the personal and social duties of people.
Almost all the traditional prescriptions of Hinduism are intended to help the mind rid itself of all its load so that in that pure mind God will reflect Himself. The numberless impurities of the mind act like an indelible coating on the mind and hide the presence of the divinity within. All the rules and regulations that these SmRtis prescribe for one’s daily life are programmed to inculcate a habit in us which would be consistent with the ultimate requirement of cleansing our mind from all its dirt. In Hindu metaphysics an object is said to have dirt when it has in it something other than itself. So a dirtless mind is a mind which does not contain anything other than the mind! That mind is the crystalline mind in which God will reflect Himself. All the religious habits enjoined by the SmRtis are designed such that, when the time comes for us to look Godward instead of outward, we shall not have to unlearn any of our habits. Since the mind is a storehouse of everything that has gone into it (for several lives, though now present only in a subtle manner in the form of VAsanAs) and this storehouse cannot be emptied by the pressing of a single button, the only way the mind can be purified and made ‘dirtless’ is by diluting its contents through a constant input of noble, elevated thoughts and those thinking processes which are concordant with the upward path to divine perfection. This is the ultimate purpose of all rituals, ceremonies, observances and penances.
Eighteen great sages have by their insight of the vedas grasped the intentions of the vedas and given us compilations in verse form (i.e., Shloka form). This is how each smRti has been born. Each smRti is known by the sage who compiled it. Examples are: Manu smRti, Yajnavalkya smRti, Parasara smRti, Gautama smRti, etc.
Question: Why does Hinduism extol the action of Rama in implicitly obeying his father and step-mother to go to the forest? How do we tell this to modern children who are not able to appreciate the logic behind this?
This question actually arose from an NRI, in one of my expositions on the Ramayana. The reply (given by me then and reproduced below from my book 'Hinduism for the next generation'), will perhaps shake up some ultra-modern young minds. Since it leans heavily on Manu smRti and brings out very well the hold that the smRtis have on believers in sanAtana dharma, it is taken up here.
The entire scriptural literature with all its PurANas, legends and stories are one on this point that a father's word is law for the son. In ancient times this was so much of a truism that nobody even wanted a justification for this. Indeed when Bharata and all his elders and courtiers went to the Chitrakuta hermitage to bring back Rama to Ayodhya, (See 3.3 if you need help on the story). And when there was a long plea by Bharata to Rama that the latter should simply come back, because every one wants him back and Bharata would even substitute for him in the forest, Rama begins by saying only one sentence which seals the conversation for the day, even though all the great ministers, counsellors and rishis were present there. This one sentence is a half verse in V.R. and runs thus (V.R.: 2-104-22, Southern Recension.)
mAtA-pitRbhyAm-ukto'ham katham-anyat samAcare?
This means: When I have been told so by my mother and father, how can I do otherwise? Nobody had any reply to this powerful statement. They all dispersed for the day. The conversation resumed the next morning with Bharata opening up new angles of approach. Well, the story goes on!
For our purpose we should only note here how electrical the effect of that single statement was on that august assemblage of scholars, elders and experts. In order to tell our present day kids why every one in the Hindu cultural milieu considers this obedience to father and mother so important, let us go to Manu smRti for the relevant portion which stipulates and justifies this universal requirement of Hindu dharma. If there is anything in Hindu scriptures which may be considered to be as powerful and as emphatic and precise as the Ten Commandments of Christendom, it is this portion of the Manu smRti. We quote just six Shlokas:
yam mAtA pitarau kleSaM sahete sambhave nRNAM /
na tasya nishkRtis-ShakyA kartuM varsha-Shatair-api //
tayor-nityaM priyaM kuryAt AcAryasya ca sarvadA /
teshveva trishu tushTeshu tapas-sarvaM samApyate ///
teshAM trayANAM ShuSrUshA paramaM tapa ucyate /
na tair-abhyananujnAto dharmam-anyaM samAcaret //
ta eva hi trayo lokA ta eva traya ASramAH/
ta eva hi trayo vedAH ta evoktAs-trayo-guNAH //
yAvat-trayaste jIveyuH tAvan-nAnyaM samAcaret /
teshveva nityaM s shuSrUshAM kuryAt priya-hite rataH //
trish-vetesh-viti kRtyaM hi purushasya samApyate/
esha dharmaH paras-sAkshAt upa-dharmo'nya ucyate//
(Manu SmRti, Ch.2: 227 to230, 235, 237):
‘There is nothing in the three worlds which can compensate for the pains and sufferings that the parents, mother and father, have gone through in bringing up the son both at the time of birth and after. Even in one hundred years one cannot repay the debt which one owes them. To the two of them and to the guru, one should always do what is pleasing to them. If these three are satisfied, all dharma, penances and obligations stand fulfilled. The service to these three is the summum bonum of all penances. Without their permission no other dharma should be observed. They are the three worlds (bhur, bhuvaH, suvaH); they are the three ASramas (brahmacarya, gRhasta, vAna-prastha); they are the three vedas (Rg, Yajur, Sama); and they are the three sacred Fires of the Vedic tradition. As long as these three are living one should not have to observe any other dharma or penance. Anyone who is interested in his well being should serve daily these three most sincerely. A man's entire obligation for life is fulfilled if these three are taken care of. This is the supreme-most dharma. Everything else is only a secondary dharma.’
Because of the abundance of smRtis, and all of them are man-made, differences that may exist between them need to be reconciled. These have been done from time to time according to the age in which we live. The people in Maharashtra follow the 'dharma sindhu' by Kasi Nath Upadhyaya. In South India the book 'Vaidyanatha dIkshitIyam' authored by Vaidyanatha Dikshidar is followed. Both the books have been there for more than two centuries. These two compilers have boldly reconciled all the seeming contradictions in the various smRtis. And finally they always say: Wherever there appears to be an unresolved contradiction, follow the tradition of elders in your family. It is this culture of importance to family tradition that is one of the roots of the universal respect given to age and to elders in the Hindu milieu.
Very often a crisis of intellect expresses itself in an orthodox setting. It is that of a dogmatic pursuit of a ritual or what one holds to be a dharmic principle. Since external exhibitions or expressions of dharma change from age to age, a dogmatic pursuit of such an exposition beyond the times for which it was valid can ultimately lead to a situation where the primary dharma of compassion and non-violence is jeopardized. The classic response of Vyasa, when asked to summarize the limitless scriptures that he had produced was:
paropakAraH puNyAya pApAya para-pIDanaM.
‘Merit (puNya) is what helps others and sin (pApa) is what hurts others’.
It is in this breed of arrogant upholding of the so-called dharma that practices like sati perhaps got generated without an eyebrow being raised. While it is true that Manu smRti talks of woman having no independent status because, 'in her childhood she is dependent on the father, in her youth and middle ages she is dependent on the husband and in her old age she is dependent on the son' - the same Manu smRti insists very emphatically that every man should act in such a way that not a single tear rolls down the cheek of a woman, for, if it does so, continues the smRti, 'the person who caused that tear-drop will be destroyed with his whole clan'!. If the followers of Manu smRti had only taken this seriously, women in Hindu society would have been put on the highest pedestal -- which is what perhaps is indicated in the Indian habit of addressing or greeting every unrelated woman as 'Mother' or 'Sister' . But custom and tradition forced themselves away from the spirit of ancient times. They thrust humiliating and unfair norms on the woman of the household, particularly when she lost her husband, just as, at the social level, a caste-ridden arrogance created and sustained the practice of untouchability.
The touchstone of Hindu dharma is therefore the attitude with which one acts. One has to analyze oneself constantly. Whether it is a question of interpretation of caste rules, or a question of the meaning of the partnership between husband and wife, father and son, teacher and disciple, elder and younger -- whatever it may be, the choice between what is dharma and what is adharma should be made only on the basis of absence or presence of an internal selfishness, (and of the presence or absence of a deep devotion to the Lord, as great religious masters like Ramanuja would say) irrespective of what the secondary scriptures, like Manu smRti have to say. Even if there is an iota of selfishness in what one is doing or saying, then there is the contamination of adharma in it.
Selfishness may be of two kinds: one, which ultimately aims at a personal benefit of mundane return, or psychological satisfaction; and the other, of sense Gratification. Only those actions, words and thoughts which are completely free of either type of selfishness are dharmic. Pursuit of a dharmic principle as a dogma (for instance, irrespective of its social consequences) may ultimately end in nothing but self-gratification that one is upholding dharma. Any time the thought comes to you that you are the upholder of dharma and you are indispensable for the dharma to be nurtured, you may rest assured that egoism has set in and you have strayed from dharma. dharma is a very subtle concept. Even a divine incarnation like Rama who had every right to flaunt his observance of dharma, did not do so; he did not have the slightest egoistic pride that could lead him to proclaim that he was making the greatest sacrifice (of renouncing his right to be coronated as the prince of Ayodhya) for the sake of upholding dharma. His humility even prevented him from going beyond the simple statement, even in intense debates about the dilemma of right and wrong, that, 'Having been told by my mother and father to do what I am doing, how could I have done otherwise?'
Those Hindus who have gone to Gaya (in Bihar) on pilgrimage to perform the rites due to their deceased ancestors would recall how much of an importance is given to the concept 'Mother' during the ceremonies there. At the end of all the rites, there is the rite of offering piNDas (balls of cooked rice ritually offered to such ancestors) at the foot of the ageless banyan tree there, called akshaya-vaTa. All the ancestors, other relatives, elders, other kith and kin and well-wishers who are not alive, are each offered just one piNDa. But the (deceased) mother, mother alone, is offered 16 piNDas. For each of these sixteen, a statement in the form of a Shloka is recited, paying gratitude to the mother for all that she did. For instance, the Shlokas go somewhat like this:
You bore me with great pain for ten months; this piNDa is in gratitude for that. You suffered kicks by me in your womb; this piNDa is in gratitude for that. You controlled your appetite for spicy and difficult-to-digest stuff because you did not want me in your womb to be hurt; this piNDa is for that. You suffered untold pangs of labour pain when I was born; this is the piNDa for that. After I was born you breast-fed me at the proper times, amidst all your busy schedule. This piNDa is for that. You suffered the pain of my biting into you, when my teeth began to grow; this piNDa is for that. You were on all sorts of restricted diet in order to save me from illness; this one is for that. You woke up at all odd times of nights to feed me; this one is for that.
It goes on like this sixteen times, mentioning everything that the mother must have done, and offering a piNDa in gratitude. You think of anything that you do to your children as a mother; it is listed there. When one hears these sixteen statements and the offering of the piNDas at the akshaya-vaTa, one will almost go into tears.