[Advaita-l] Question: Swadharma

Ramesh Krishnamurthy rkmurthy at gmail.com
Tue Jan 31 04:38:04 CST 2006


On 28/01/06, Ram Garib <garib_ram at yahoo.co.in> wrote:
> Shankara has defined "caste" and "station' in the
> strict sense of words as they are understood. i.e.
> caste by birth and station by samskaara. Your doubt is
> well placed since nowadays one does not (and very
> often cannot) take up the duties enjoined by caste and
> station. What does "swadharma" mean in such a fluid
> situation is an open question.

That statement is a bit unfair in the sense that it leaves too many
things unsaid. Adi Shankara's focus was on the 4th purushaartha i.e.
moksha, and not on dharma. He was a sannyaasi, a person to whom
jaati/varna duties do not apply. Strictly speaking, even the study of
Advaita Vedanta is meant for sannyaasi-s only. In fact, a strict
separation between dharma & moksha, the former involving karma and the
latter involving the giving-up of karma, is a hallmark of Advaita
It would be better to say that on matters of dharma, Shankara merely
accepts the prevailing views as a given. He does not devote much
energy to matters of dharma. His focus, and the focus of Advaita
Vedanta, is on moksha.
Dharma can vary quite a bit depending on factors like region, family
tradition, gender, age, etc. But as Brahman is beyond any
distinctions, brahmavidya, and hence moksha, is not subject to
limitations of jaati etc. The performance of dharmic duties leads to
chitta-shuddhi, which can prepare one for sannyasa (and hence for the
study of Shankara's teachings).

But trying to learn dharma per se from Shankara's teachings is
somewhat like trying to learn mathematics from a book on physics. One
might learn a little mathematics from a physics book, but the purpose
of the book is something else, and one can easily get confused.

To put it in a nutshell - Doing your dharmic duties will take you to a
stage when you'll become capable of following Shankara's teachings.
But to learn what your dharmic duties are, you must look elsewhere.

Traditionally, people looked to their family elders for guidance on
matters of dharma. Hence the importance of shistaachaara, which
Jaldhar mentioned.

Of course, shistaachaara is a notoriously fickle thing, especially in
today's fast-changing world where lifestyles and worldviews can differ
vastly even within the same family. It is somewhat easier to look at
shishtaachaara when it comes to things like wedding ceremonies which
Jaldhar mentions. But beyond that there are no easy solutions.

>This will make "dharma" simply a perpetuation of "tradition" - good,
bad or ugly. Dharma >is a living entity and ought to be more than
traditions. Continuing all inheritance from >ancestors will only land
us into 12th century. If I look on my own history, I will only be
>allowed shoe-making as my occupation because that is what my father
and grandfather >did. However, I do not think I will find it
fulfilling materially or spiritually nor can it benefit >the society
in terms of productivity. Our world has expanded unimaginably and
there are >bound to be discontinuities from traditions. How does
looking to past help here?

I agree with Shri Ram Garib here. Dharma is a lot more than
traditions. Traditions are important in their own right but dharma is
applicable to every moment of our lives. And there is also the
question of what is to be included within the definition of tradition
and what is not. Is shoe-making a tradition? One might be tempted to
say no but the fact remains that shoe-making would have been the
defining feature of Shri Ram Garib's family lineage. Is shoe-making a
sustainable activity for his family today? No. Can one say that he
should practise shoe-making for "30 minutes every morning" like a
Nitya Karma? Sounds almost laughable.

And what about people born out of inter-jaati marriages? In a few
years' time we'll have plenty of children whose parents were
themselves born out inter-jaati marriages. They'll have 3 or more
jaati-s in their ancestry. Delving deep into their own history, as
Jaldhar suggests, will not provide them with any definitive traditions
to follow. One can take a view against inter-jaati marriages saying
that people who value their own family traditions will/should not
marry those whose traditions are very different. But once such a
marriage happens, real people are born and they'll need to know their
swadharma too. No easy answers again.

[Jaldhar wrote:]
>But who is a qualified teacher on the subject of Dharma?  I think now that
>Indian society is more literate than in generations past (at all levels)
>we focus unnecessarily on "books" and ignore that which, along with shruti
>and smrti, is the third pillar of Dharma, shishtachara.

You are somewhat misinformed about Indian society. The unfortunate
ground reality in India is that inspite of literacy, nobody reads
anything pertaining to dharma. We have more shaastra-s than all the
other religions of the world put together, but nobody reads anything.
Among the few who do are historians, sociologists, missionaries, etc
who will read them like legal documents and then proceed to criticize
& malign Hindu dharma for this or that.

Shishtachara is something that is intuitive and natural. People learn
by observing their parents, elders, etc. So even if you dont know that
there is something called shishtachara and that it is the 3rd pillar
of dharma, you'll still learn something by observation. But what do
today's children observe? They see parents who spend their days
working to earn money and their evenings watching TV. Traditional
activities at the level of the family are becoming rarer and rarer.
Even the family shrine is little more than a formality in many homes.

That is the reason why public festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi or Durga
Puja are becoming more and more popular. These are the main avenues
through which some kind of tradition comes into our people's lives.

>Last summer I had the occasion to perform a wedding in the Patel
>community.  This Gujarati caste is prosperous and has a high social
>position but it is not dvija

Well, the Patels may not be dvija but they do not have the emotional
baggage of being "oppressed", unlike many other non-dvija communities.
For communities that do have such a baggage, delving into their
history often leads to anger and hatred. The issue is serious enough
to be a major threat to the survival of our culture. One needs to be
sensitive towards such matters and that is the reason why most
present-day commentators do not give much importance to jaati as a
basis for swadharma. Even in the past, jaati has only been the
dominant, but by no means unquestioned, basis for swadharma.

Hari Om

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