Statements in our shastras

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed Mar 5 15:33:16 CST 2003

On Tue, 4 Mar 2003, Sanjay Verma wrote:

> While "Shastras" hold a high place in Hindu
> scripture, let us not forget that they are composed by fallible human
> beings (i.e., part of the smriti canon of literature). What is written
> in the various shastras should be taken with a grain of salt -- composed
> with perhaps good intention, but subject to the cultural and political
> biases of the time.

There are several problems with such a view.

1.  What are the "times"?  For many shastras we don't exactly when they
were composed or in what millieu.  How do we know "the times" have
changed?  For instance I live in America where most people eat meat.
Should I start eating meat too becuase that is what everyone else does?
Or convert to Christianity becuase my minority religion is just a cultural

2.  You say Shruti should be considered infallible.  What will you do if
objectionable statements are found there?  Maharshi Yajnavalkyas'
teachings are mentioned in the Upanishads.  There is also a popular and
influential dharmashastra called Yajnavalkyasmrti.  Why should some of his
words be considered infallible and others fallible?  Actually Hinduism
doesn't have the concept of infallibility of scripture as some other
religions do.

3.  How do you take a grain of salt?  Is there some method to determine
the appropriate interpretation or does everyone get to pick and choose?

> Whenever there is conflict, the sruti texts always
> supercede the smriti texts. Therefore, debates about the "morality" or
> spiritual wisdom of ostensibly prejudiced and inhumane statements (e.g.,
> chopping off the penis of a shudra who has sex with an aryan woman, as
> quoted below)... debates on these topics are in my opinion a waste of
> our mental and spiritual energy.

As was mentioned in the last series of posts, this particular case is moot
because nothing like that actually happened.  Nevertheless it is
worthwhile for us to think about the foundations of Dharma if we want to
see it carried on into new situations.

> Going back to the purpose of this list
> serve (Vedanta as taught by Shankaracharya), I believe there is a story
> about Adi Shankaracharya who encountered an untouchable.

Yes this was mentioned last time.

> Thus, women and low-caste memebers being excluded from spiritual
> teachings is absurd.

Ah but the issue is whether they are allowed to learn the Vedas.  The
Vedas are only part of the spiritual teachings of Advaita Vedanta so it
does not follow that exclusion from the Vedas is exclusion altogether.
But even if it were the case, from the Advaita point of view it would not
matter at all.  Brahman pervade all.  A rock or tree is also Brahman but
it cannot know it because it has no power of self-reflection.  People on
the other hand even people who have never studied the Vedas do have that

>From that viewpoint Shankaracharyas mistake wasn't that he treated an
worthy person as an inferior but that _he_treated_him_as_different_at_all_.
It would have been just as much a sin if the chandala had been ignorant.

> I
> believe on this website, it states that all commentators on Advaita
> Vedanta make their name by commenting on some canonical works (e.g.,
> Bhagavad Gita, BrahmaSutra, etc.).

But note of those three, the Gita (part of the Mahabharata) and
Brahmasutras are the product of "fallible" human authors. :)

> So, here I refer to BG 5:18, and I
> quote from Adi Shankaracharya's commentary "Bhagavadgita Bhasya": "The
> sages perceive the same truth in the Brahmana, rich in knowledge and
> culture, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eating outcaste." BG 5:18
> Shankara's commentary: "In the saatvika brahmana, endowed with knowledge
> ad culture, who has the best latent imporession of life's experiences,
> inanintermediate being like the cow that is rajasic without such
> impression, and in the low merely tamasic beings like anelephant etc,
> the sages are trained to perceive the same, single, and immutable
> Brahman, wholly unaffected by constituents like the sattva and by the
> latent impression they generate." Furthermore, Shankaracharya
> anticipates the objection: "Now, is not the food offered by such tained
> indivuduals forbidden? Vide, the smriti: 'The food should not be
> accepted from him who invidiously treats equals as unequals and unequals
> as eqals' GDS. Answer: 'No, the are not tainted. How?' " [going on to BG
> 5:19 for further explanation] Furthermore, in BG 18:30-32, Sri Krishna
> says that that intellect is rajasic [not as pure as sattvic] which
> erroneously understands righteousness and unreighteousness, duty and
> non-dute. Adi Shankaracharya explains in his commentary that the
> righteousness here refers to those actions enjoined by the shastras and
> unrighteousness referes to those actions forbidden by the shastras.
> Clearly, the lesson here is to rise above such shastric morals and focus
> more on the universal, all-pervading divinity.

The message here as Shankaracharya intends it is to take sannyasa.  Only
the one who has renounced the world can rise above Shastric morals.  Those
of us in this world however are the type who have non-duties and duties
etc.  It is illegitimate for such people to use Vedantic notions as an
excuse to shirk the dictates of the shastras.

> Near the end of the BG
> (18:67-71), Sri Krishna says that "this" (i.e, BG) should not be taught
> to a non-ascetic, a non-devotee, a person who does not seek it, or a
> person who reviles Him. Note, that there is no mention of caste or
> gender. Sri Krishna states that A N Y O N E who teaches the BG (to
> devotees), or who studies this righteous dialogue, or who listens to it,
> will have offered Him the knowledge sacrifice, which earlier He states
> is among the highest of sacrifices.

And this is the key to the dilemna.  Those who are barred from the Vedas
can still know the way to liberation through the Gita and other Smrtis
which deal with adhyatmic topics.  And their goal if they reach it will be
the same as one who has mastered all four Vedas.

> I do hope that we can focus more on the spirit of the all-pervasive
> Brahman and how to achieve that realization... the ritualistic practices
> enjoined by the Shastras often times serve to be more divisive rather
> than cultivating universal love.

Now I am about to say something that might sound quite cynical but here
goes:  universal love is a stupid idea.

Take Osama bin Laden.  Quite frankly I hate him for what he almost did to
my family.  Thankfully so do many other people so we may soon be rid of
him but do you really think it would be a good idea to love him?  You can
argue that the present course of action being taken against him is not the
best or that hating him should not lead to hating all Muslims and these
are valid points but are still not the same as universal love.  I wrote
earlier about the contradictions in civilization and this is a big one.
People for the most part are uncomfortable with extremes of inequality yet
they also want to feel special and unique.  A successful civilization is
one that can juggle these mutually incompatible goals.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a girl! See the pictures -

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