While it is true that the foundation of sanatana dharma is built on the infallibility and universal applicability of shrutis, it is equally true that the shrutis themselves offer great flexibility in how it is interpreted and applied based on various factors.
This truth is reflected in the various smritis and shastras which draw completely from the shrutis (and therefore serve as valid pramanas for dharma nirnaya).
Unlike the abrahamic faiths which mandate that their core texts are interpretable only one way, and therefore must be adhered to IN LETTER, irrespective of the time, place or occasion, our shastra has allowed a great amount of flexibility in this area.
Thus, various smritis touch upon the topic of *applicability* and give clear guidelines on what constitutes dharma. Let us look at the two aspects of this – viz applicability from a desha (region) point of view and kala (time) point of view i.e. desha dharma and kala dharma.
The unequivocal and clear message from our smritis is that the the place, its culture and law play an important role in determining what is dharma. A blind interpretation or application of any rule is disallowed.
brihaspati smriti says:
देशजातिकुलानां च ये धर्मास्तत् प्रवर्तिताः |
तथैव ते पालनीयाः प्रजा प्रक्षुभ्यतेsन्यथा ||
“desha dharma, kala dharma and jaati dharma are different at different places. these dharmas must be adhered to, and practised, as is. If done otherwise (imposing other dharma), there shall be great kshobha (deprivation)”
devala smriti explains this further:
येषु देशेषु ये वेदाः येषु देशेषु ये द्विजाः |
येषु देशेषु यत् तोयं या च तत्रैव मृत्तिका ||
येषु स्थानेषु यच्छौचं धर्माचारश्च यादृशः |
तत्र तान् नावमन्येत धर्मस्तत्रैव तादृशः ||
यस्मिन् देशे पुरे ग्रामे त्रैविद्ये नगरेsपि वा |
या यत्र विहितो धर्मस्थं धर्मं न विचालयेत् ||
“In every (different) place, whatever is the knowledge, whoever are the knowledgeable, whatever is the appropriate water and soil, whatever constitutes cleanliness, whatever constitutes the right practice – these must never be rejected. They alone are dharma in those places. Whatever is acceptable as dharma to the knowledgeable (of that place), those alone must be practised as dharma – be it a country, town or a village”
Not just in smritis but even in our ancient works on astrology, a similar approach has been indicated with respect to applicability of dharma.
mihiracharya has this to say:
देशाचारस्तावदादौ विचिन्त्यो देशे देशे या स्थिथिः सैव कार्या |
लोकद्विष्टं पण्डिता वर्जयन्ति दैवज्ञोsतो लोकमार्गेण ||
“One must examine the ways of the land very deeply. After that, whatever is the most appropriate dharma to follow, those must be adhered to. The knowledgeable, and indeed the daivajnas (astrologers), always stay away from that which is against the dharma of the land”
Thus, we can see that our scriptures give us great flexibility, and practical outlook, towards appropriateness of a practice, ritual or rule in a particular place.
This same line of thinking has been conveyed by our rishis with regard to applicability of dharma shastra from a temporal point of view. Thus, even though the smritis were composed as books of law, the rishis made it clear in those works themselves, that applicability was subject to the yuga (or generation).
parashara smriti says this:
कृते तु मानवा धर्माः त्रेतायां गौतमाः स्मृताः |
द्वापरे शङ्खलिखिताः कलौ पाराशराः स्मृताः ||
“In the kruta (satya) yuga, it is manu smriti that is applicable while gautama smriti is the one for treta yuga. In the dvapara yuga, shankhalikhita smriti must be adhered to, while the parashara smriti is the book for kali yuga”
The definition of sin itself was subject to kala dharma. Knowing fully well that kali yuga propagates evil, our shastras have been kind enough to provide the proverbial long-rope to sinners in this age.
parashara smriti says this about what constitutes sin:
कृते सम्भाषणादेव त्रेतायां स्पर्शनेन च |
द्वापरे त्वन्नमादाय कलौ पतति कर्मणा ||
“In the kruta yuga, one acquires sin merely by talking to a sinner. In the treta yuga, coming in contact with a sinner accrues sin. In the dvapara yuga, one accumulates sin by eating the food of a fallen while in the kali yuga sin accrues only by the actual act (of killing, hurting, etc)”
The Mahabharata provides beautiful guidance on this topic. It describes how the nature of various objects themselves vary over time and hence how they must be kept in mind while deciding on dharma.
In the aranya parva, it is said:
भूमिर्नद्यो नगाः शैलाः सिद्धा देवर्षयस्थथा |
कालं समनुवर्तन्ते तथा भावा युगे युगे ||
“Be it the soil, rivers, trees, hills, the siddhas, devatas or rishis – all of them are according to kala. Their dharma and nature varies according to time”
Thus, we see how our most knowledgeable rishis have foreseen the varying guNa of all matter, and lives, according to desha and kala and recommended that these factors be fully accomodated before deciding what is right or wrong or appropriate. Of course, it goes without saying that the decision of what is right or wrong MUST BE taken by knowledgeable people who have both scriptural and practical *jnAna*.
The flexibility our shastra offers, as highlighted above, is also one of the important reasons why sanatana dharma has survived from time immemorial.
- smriti muktAvali – by shrI krishnAchArya, shishya of shrI guru rAghavEndra swAmiji
- Various smritis.