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Sources Of Hindu Dharma – Part II

In the previous article, we examined different sources of dharma like Shruti, Smriti, Sadāchāra or Shishtāchāra, Ātmapriya or Ātmatushti, noble resolve and traditions. Now, let us look a bit more into comparative priority of these different sources of Dharma and other related issues.

Order of Priority of Different Sources Of Dharma

Shruti is considered the most authoritative source of Dharma, followed by Smriti, then Sadāchāra and finally one’s own liking or disposition.

Why is the Shruti the gold standard for Dharma?

The reason for Shruti being the most authoritative source of Dharma is that it is of Divine origin, and it is transmitted by very spiritually realized Saints known as Rishis, who have themselves realized the truths first hand. Since God is perfect, the source of all good and truth, all-wise, all-knowing and since he has created us, it is obvious that his knowledge contained in the Vedas will be free of error and bias. If two Shrutis appear conflicting, then both are considered acceptable alternatives, and either or both can be followed[1].

Why are Smritis less authoritative than the Shruti?

The same Rishis who revealed the Shrutis were also in a lot of cases the authors of Smritis. Or in other cases, the authors of these Smritis, such as Shankha, Parāshara and so on were great Munis and Rishis in their own right. These two sources, the Shruti and the Smriti, are therefore considered the two most important sources of Dharma[2].

Shruti and Smriti are the two eyes of Brahmins. He who is bereft of one is one eyed, and if bereft of both, is completely blind – thus it is said.” Vādhūla Smriti, verse 197

However, even then, the Smriti is still considered less authoritative than the Shruti.

If a Smriti is directly in conflict with a Shruti, the former should be rejected. If a Smriti teaching cannot be traced back to a corresponding Shruti teaching directly, it is assumed that the former is inferred from some Shruti teaching. Purva Mimamsa Sutra 1.3.3

Where there is a conflict between Shruti, Smriti and Purāņa, there the Vedic commands alone carry authority. And where there is a conflict between Smriti and Purāņa, there the teaching of Smriti is stronger of the two. Vyāsa Smriti 1.4

One of the reasons given for this disparity is that some statements in the Smritis have appeared due to selfish or other low mundane motives of various interested groups[3]. For example, it is claimed that some greedy people invented different ceremonies so that priests can earn more money, and then they inserted these passages in the Smritis of ancient Rishis. The second reason given is that even Rishis can sometimes have flaws in their character, and this can have a negative effect in the Smritis that they write. Whereas, the Shruti being of Divine origin cannot have any flaws because Bhagavān is always perfect. Therefore, once again, the Vedas are the final or the golden standard against which the Smritis should be compared for accuracy.

Why is Sadāchāra not the best source of Dharma?

As for Shishtas, we notice sometimes that great Sages and Saints had also committed sins although they knew the Vedas very well. For e.g., Sage Vashishtha tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Beas river (in the state of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh in India) when his sons were killed by a demon[4] even though committing suicide is considered a sin in general. In fact, in the Upanishads, the teachers of Vedas themselves tell their students that the latter should follow them only in matters of Dharma, and not when the teachers do wrong deeds:

Whatever deeds are blameless, they are to be practiced, not others (i.e., bad deeds). Whatever good practices there are among us, they are to be adopted by you, not others. Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.2

Hindu scriptures clarify that in such cases where the conduct of Sages is clearly wrong or contrary to the command of Dharma, we should ignore their sinful deeds and adopt only that which is consistent with Dharma. These Saints and Sages of ancient times got saved despite committing some sins because of their spiritual achievements, but ordinary human beings like us cannot repeat these sins and hope that we will not go to hell.[5] This again underscores the fact that the Vedas are the primary source of Dharma, or the golden yardstick against which all other sources should be compared for accuracy and correctness.

Transgression of Dharma, and indulgence in violence is seen in the behavior of great men in the past. They however should not be considered as models for good conduct by men of current times, because of the weakness of men in our times. Gautama Dharmasutra 1.3 (see also Apastamba Dharmasutra

Sadāchāra is also considered less authoritative than Smriti because the latter were written in ancient times and are time tested, and their authors were Sages who were spiritually enlightened in addition to being scholars of the Vedas. In contrast, Shishtas are not necessarily spiritually enlightened (although they might be morally upright and also scholars of the Vedas) and because we can sometimes see such people committing acts that are contrary to the Shruti and the Smriti.

Why is Atmatushti not considered very authoritative?

In modern times, people believe that one’s conscience is the strongest guide of what is wrong and what is right. However, such a view is not supported by Hindu scriptures or even by modern sciences. One’s conscience is somewhat molded from the social and family environment in which we are born and reared. The conscience of someone born in a tribal community would be very different from another person born within a society that follows a major world religion very diligently. Some people suffer from mental problems as a result of which they do not experience any feelings of guilt while doing acts that are normally considered immoral. For example, a kleptomaniac does not feel guilty while stealing other people’s things. Likewise, a pyromaniac finds glee in setting other’s homes to fire and so on. Therefore, the scriptures, the examples of holy men, society’s traditions and other sources of Dharma serve as an external check to verify whether one’s actions are correct or not.

The other reason why this is not an authoritative source of Dharma is that it is highly subjective and is valid only for the person who uses his conscience. No one has the right to impose his conscience on others.

Limitations of Kulāchāra, Deshāchāra etc.:

As regards the customs prevalent in our society – these can be good or bad. For example, the extreme preference for a male child over a female one in the Hindu society is a bad thing for several reasons, even though it appears to be a long standing custom.

The Dharmas of countries, castes and families which are not opposed to the Vedic scriptures are authoritative and binding. Gautama Dharmasutra 11.20

According to several eminent Hindu scholars, only those customs and traditions should be followed that are ancient, are not opposed to direct statements made in the Vedas or in Smritis, are considered obligatory by the shishtas, are not immoral and do not have a discernible selfish motive behind them[6]. It is quite apparent that these local or family customs have a lesser authority than Sadāchāra which is more universal in nature.

There are instances however where the government tries to stamp out evil local customs and has to face strong protests and opposition as a result. For example, western countries are trying to fight the custom of child-brides in the middle-east but are facing a lot of opposition because it is considered a very acceptable practice in that region. Rishis therefore advise that one should consider abolition of anti-Shruti-Smriti practices from one more perspective – i.e., whether they will lead to violent protests from the masses. If an evil practice is strongly entrenched in the society, the government should first convince the masses of its harms before banning and outlawing it to prevent the outbreak of violence.

Fourteen Guides to Knowledge of Dharma (Vidyāsthāna)

While Shruti, Smriti, Sadāchāra and Atmatushti are sources of Dharma directly, there are other sciences in addition to these from which we can understand Dharma better, even though they are not the sources of Dharma as such. These 18 sciences or branches of learning are (Gautama Dharmasutra 11.19):

  • The four Vedas,
  • six Vedangas (supplementary sciences that help in understand the Vedas),
  • Nyaya Shastra
  • Mimamsa shastra
  • Purāṇas, Dharmashastra
  • four Upavedas, totaling eighteen in all.

In most enumerations, the Upavedas are excluded, giving fourteen (14) branches of learning that should be studied to understand Dharma better[7].

Purāṇas, Nyāya, Mimamsa, Dharmashastras, the six Vedangas and the four Vedas together with these constitute the fourteen abodes of knowledge and Dharma. Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.3

It can be clearly seen that in this list, two of the sources of Dharma (Vedas and Dharmashastra) are included again. Sadāchāra and Atmapriya are excluded because these are not ‘branches of learning’ as such in the formal sense.

The Guru in Hindu Tradition: Living Embodiment of Dharma and Jnāna

Once, a skeptic who made one of all spiritual teachers went to Swami Chinmayananda and said, “Swamiji, what is the need to approach Gurus for knowledge? Everything that they can teach is already contained in books. Anyone can study it directly from there!” Swami Chinmayananda smiled and responded, “Why don’t you ask this question to a book?”

Meaning of the word ‘Guru’

The word ‘Guru’ means ‘weighty’, and perhaps this signifies his importance (‘weight’) in opening our eyes of knowledge and wisdom. The word ‘Guru’ also means ‘remover of darkness and ignorance’. The Hindu tradition gives much more importance to personal instruction than to books. The Hindu revelation, the Vedas, itself is called ‘Shruti’ or that which is heard (from God and from teacher). We Hindus do not believe that God inscribed his commandments in writing for us and handed them over to us. Rather, inspired Sages and Saints heard His Voice within their hearts, and then narrated it to others. And the recitation of Vedas continues to this day, through an unbroken chain of teachers and students. Therefore, God is called the first Guru of human beings in the Hindu traditions, and all traditional Guru-Disciple lineages are eventually traced all the way back to Him.

Importance of a Guru

Hindus believe that through his example, personal insight, original thinking and experience, the Guru infuses the teaching or instruction with a life. The teaching or knowledge becomes alive only through the Guru, and mere bookish knowledge is not as useful as a teacher’s instruction. In particular, in all schools of Hindu spirituality, the role of one’s Guru is considered indispensable to achieving the final goal. He is a role model for his students, the very embodiment of wisdom and knowledge. Hindu scriptures therefore emphasize that we should approach a teacher for acquiring knowledge instead of just picking up a book. Therefore, the Upanishads say:

Only knowledge received directly from the Guru does one learn that Truth that causes the highest good. Chhaandogya Upanishad 4.4.3

The knowledge that one learns from a teacher helps one best to reach his goal. Chhaandogya Upanishad 4.9.3

We (devatas) can give you the knowledge, but only your teacher can really show you the way. Chhaandogya Upanishad 4.14.1

Swami Shivananda narrates the following parable to explain the importance of a Guru:

“A man was frantically searching for something in a dark room. He was weeping and shouting. He was making a mess of the things kept in the room. He broke some and tumbled on others. Yet, what he was searching for he could not get.

A friend came to the threshold and asked for the reason of the man’s misery. He replied: “O my friend, I have lost my wrist watch. It is gone.

The friend said: “How can it go away from here. But, what a fool you are to search for it in the darkness! I have brought the light. Now calm yourself. Think deeply and try to remember where it ought to be. You will soon discover it.”

The man did so, and got the wrist-watch. The friend explained: “The watch was not lost, nor have you gained it now. It was there all the time. But because of the darkness that prevailed in the room, and because you were searching for it where it was not, you did not get it. You were ignorant of its whereabouts. Now that the ignorance is removed, you think you have got it. It was ever yours and was never lost.”

Similarly, within the deepest recess of man’s heart is the Self, full of bliss and peace. But blinded by the darkness of ignorance man is unable to see it and experience the bliss and the peace. Searching for happiness and peace, he wanders about among the objects of this world, makes a mess to himself and the things of the world, causes misery to others and to himself, weeps and shouts. But the objects of his quest is not found. At last, the Guru appears with the lamp of wisdom in his hand. He says to the man: “Remove the darkness of your ignorance with this lamp of wisdom; calm yourself; restrain all mental modifications. Then analyze all experience and meditate on the result. You will discover the Self. You had not lost it before; nor have you gained it now. It has always been there. Only you were ignorant of it. Now that in your pure heart and calm mind, the Self shines, self-luminous, you feel that you have regained it. In fact you had never lost it.””[8]

Swami Tejomayananda has also summarized the importance of the Guru in the following words:

“But how do we understand the meaning of Vedanta Shastra? To unlock that wealth of knowledge, somebody has to give us the key. Some locks have numbers or combinations, but if we don’t know the right combinations, we will not be able to open them! Even a standard lock requires the right key. To unlock and gain the right meaning of the Shastra, we need a Guru. Further, the body of scriptures, with its countless statements, is like an endless forest. We would get completely lost in a forest without the help of a native of that place who can lead us out. Similarly, in a maze we won’t know the techniques to get out, until a guide helps us. In the same way, a Guru is required!”[9]

To summarize in the words of Swami Tejomayananda himself, “For a beginner in the spiritual path, a Guru is necessary. To light a candle, you need a burning candle. An illumined soul alone can enlighten another soul.”


[1] Manusmriti 2.14

[2] Manusmriti 2.9-11

[3] Purva Mimamsa Sutra 1.3.4

[4] Mahabharata 1.167.1-6

[5] Apastamba Dharmasutra

[6] Mimamsa Kaustubha of Khandadeva on Purva Mimamsa Sutra 1.3.7

[7] E.g, Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.3

[8] Swami Sivananda

[9] Swami Tejomayananda, page 4, in “Guru: The Journey and the Goal.”

References and Works Consulted

Original texts of Vedas, Upanishads, Dharmashastras, Mahabharata etc. with their standard translations

Additionally, the following secondary works were also utilized.

Altekar, A. S. 1952. Sources of Hindu Dharma in its Socio-Religious Aspects. Institute of Public Administration: Sholapur (India)

Badrinath Chaturvedi. 2007. The Mahabharata, an Enquiry in the Human Condition. Orient Longman

Davis, Donald. 2010. The Spirit of Hindu Law. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (UK)

Georg Buhler. 1965. The Sacred Laws of the Aryans, vol. I. Motilal Banarsidass. New Delhi

Hazra, R C. The Sources of Dharma (Part IV), pp. 87-102 in Our Heritage. Vol 5-6 (1957-1958)

Jha, Ganganatha. 1992. Studies in Hindu Law. Sampurnananda Sanskrit University: Varanasi

Joel D Mlcecko. The Guru in Hindu TraditionNumen, vol XXIX, Fasc. 1, pp. 33-61

Klostermaeir, Klaus. 2000. The Wisdom of Hinduism. OneWorld: Oxford (England)

Kane, P. V, 1993. History of Dharmasastra, Vol. III (3rd Ed.). Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Pune

Morales, Frank. The Role of Guru in Santana Dharma. Accessed online on <19 October 2013> at

Olivelle, Patrick. 2000. Dharmasutras. Motilal Banarsidass. New Delhi

Shastri, Pandit Hargovind. Manusmriti. Haridas Sanskrit Series, vol. 226. Chaukhamba Sanskrit Series. Varanasi

Speziale, Arturo. 1987. The Ethical and Religious Values of Ancient India. Sujan: Calcutta

Swami Bhaskarananda. 2002. The Essentials of Hinduism. Viveka Press: Seattle

Swami Sivananda. 2004. Parables of Swami Sivananda. The Divine Life Society. Tehri-Garhwal (Uttaranchal), India

Swami Tejomayanada. Guru, the Journey and the Goal. 2009. Guru, the Guiding Light (The Mananam Series). Chinmaya Mission West: Piercy (California)

Tripathi, Pandit Sundarlal. 2002. Ashtadasha Smriti. Khemaraj Shrikrishnadas Prakashan. Mumbai

Featured Image: Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat (Wikipedia)

(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2017)

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