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A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 8: The Smritis or Codes of Ethics

General Characteristics

Though the Smritis, especially the smriti of Manu, may, from the point of view of chronology, the mode of treatment of religion and ethics, and the general attitude to life, be considered to be older than the Epics and Puranas, the subject treated in the Smritis is being taken up after the discussion on the Epics and Puranas, for the reason that the religious spirit which reached its acme in the Veda-Samhitas and Upanishads found its greatest expression in the latter, and the aspirations of the minds of the large present-day population of India are articulated the most in them, and not so much in the Smritis which are more in the form of legalistic texts on social conduct than direct incentives to a fulfilment of the higher reaches of human nature. Further, the contents of the Smritis are elaborated in a more appealing manner in the Epic and Purana literature, so that one may safely confine oneself to the study of this great religious lore without missing anything that is of importance in the Smritis. The Mahabharata itself is regarded as a great smriti, as it almost exhausts the teachings on dharma. The Kalpa-Sutras, Agamas and Tantras are another body of rules on ancient Indian rituals and ethics. The present exposition is a comprehensive interpretation of this large body of teachings in their essence.

The Smritis, which are held to be an elaboration of the Srutis or Vedas, are the principal codes of social law. Among Smritis, those of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara are the most authoritative and renowned. The Vedas, says Manu, are the principal sources of dharma, and next to them come the Smritis of those who know and practise this dharma. The Smritis supplement and explain the sociological and ritualistic injunctions of the Vedas, called Vidhi, and are thus also called dharma-sastras (scriptures on dharma). They lay down the laws which regulate national, communal, family and individual obligations in general (samanya) as well as in particular (visesha). They specialise in details on the dharmas pertaining to the four castes, viz., Brahmanas or those forming the philosophical and spiritual strata of society, Kshatriyas, or kings and warriors or the military class in general, Vaisyas or the trading class which constitutes the economic side of social life, and Sudras or the servant class of society. The Smritis also deal with the dharmas of Brahmacharins or students leading a life of continence and study under a preceptor or Guru, Grihasthas or householders who form the active, functional and professional aspect of the society, Vanaprasthas or recluses and hermits who have retired from active life as a preparation for the pursuit of spiritual realisation, and Sannyasins or monks who have renounced the world of activity and social contact for complete dedication to the ideal of the realisation of the Absolute. Thus the Smritis are a sort of general guideBooks to social living under different circumstances and in different times.

The Manu-smriti is the foremost among such codes or dharma-Sastras. According to Manu, dharma is to be known through the Vedas, Smritis, conduct of saints, and finally one's own purified conscience. By following dharma, one attains perfection. Manu goes into details on the duties of a student, householder, hermit, monk and king, as also the principles of political administration and the vows and observances to be followed as expiation for the commission of certain sins. Summing up his instructions, he says that, of all Dharmas, the knowledge of the Self is supreme, for thereby one attains immortality. By seeing the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self, and practising thus equality of vision, one attains absolute suzerainty or Self-realisation. One is born alone and one dies alone. One also enjoys the fruits of one's deeds, alone. Father, mother, wife, children and friends will not come to one's help in the other world. It is dharma alone that comes to one's aid in the end.

Neither should one cling to life nor court death, but live a life of non-attachment, doing one's duty properly. The essence of dharma consists in the practice of fortitude (dhriti), forbearance (kshama), sense-control (dama), non-appropriation of what does not belong to oneself (asteya), purity in thought, word and deed (saucha), restraint of mind (indriyanigraha), clarified understanding (dhi), knowledge of Truth (vidya), truthfulness (satya) and freedom from anger (akrodha). One should not be under the impression that one can do wrong or evil in secret, without the knowledge of others, for the very sky, earth, water, sun, moon, fire, wind, day and night, and one's own heart, will stand witness to one's action in due time. Restraining one's mind in a state of equilibrium of thought, one should visualise both the good and the bad as appearances of the Self. By this method one puts an end to all inclination to unrighteousness. The Self alone is all the gods and everything is contained in the Self. That is to be known as the Supreme Purusha which is the ordainer of all things, subtler than the subtle and realisable by sharp understanding. One who thus sees the Self in all beings attains equality with everything and realises the state of Brahman. The method of meditation prescribed in the Manu-smriti is that of the recession of effects into their causes, viz., the earth element merging in the water element, water in fire, fire in air, air in ether and ether in Supreme Being. The ordinances of Manu are considered to be as efficacious as the prescriptions of a physician (Yad vai manur avadat tad bheshajam).

The Meaning of Ritual

Its Purpose and Method: The karma-Kanda forms the ritualistic portion of the religion of India and has its origin in the injunctions of the Brahmana section of the Vedas. The ritual of the Vedas received a powerful accentuation from the Purva-Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini, which, with the famous commentary of Sabara on them, became the classical text of Brahmanical ritualism of the Vedic type. But the ritual of the Hindus today does not restrict itself merely to the ancient Vedic form of sacrifice. Hindu ritual has a many-sided shape, and is expanded in the Smritis, Kalpa-Sutras, Agamas and Tantras.

Ritual is religion demonstrated in an external act. It facilitates the human mind to observe religion outwardly, in daily life, and thus remember the aims of religion. Ritual, in a sense, is like the base, or the feet of religion, which in no way means that ritual is a non-essential part of religion, even as the feet are not a non-essential part of one's body, for on the feet the body is supported. Ritual is the outer form and not the essence of religion and, hence, when its spirit is missed, religion is seen to stagnate at this level and not rise above to its higher meaning. This would be a travesty of the purpose of ritual, but it does not thereby diminish its value in religion. An outside observer of a religion has his first impressions of it through its rituals and manifested practices in society. This is a social form of religion by which it enters into public relations with people. It is this form of religion which unites the society and nation into a single whole in which the parts are cemented together with a bond of affinity of feeling and purpose. This social element present in religion has the beneficial effect of unifying people by congregation and a fraternity of mutual appreciation, introducing a sort of strength to society. The aspect of pilgrimage (Tirtha-Yatra) in this form of religion brings also the advantage of historical renovation and respect for the ancient traditions of different places and rousing in people's minds a cultural and social relationship even from distance, by way of regard for places other than the location of one's own community. Without such injunctions people would lose association with others, especially those who are far away, and the nation would be deprived of that vital part which is necessary for uniting its diversified limbs into a single character, called culture and common aim.

Ritual as a symbol of the faiths and beliefs of people enables them to visualise their own hearts in daily life and thus respect their own feelings in outer society. By this, the social bond is strengthened further, especially when the beliefs are common with those of others. One's longings are externalised in ritual, and by investing the outer form of life with the inner yearnings of the mind, life is made to look bright and worth living. It is a truth of psychology that every observer of things in the world colours them with his own views and attitudes towards them and the objects of the world are not seen as they really are in themselves. The bifurcation of thought into the contemplation of the desirable and the undesirable in the world is due to the compulsion of thought to invest things-in-themselves with its own relative appraisals of them, simultaneously with an inability on its part to develop an impartial attitude towards all things. This fact was noticed by the wise sages who instituted the system of rituals and prevented the mind from projecting within itself any unhealthy reactions towards the world outside, by providing thereby an avenue for the visualisation of sublime ideals in external objects. Ritual symbolises the higher aims of the human mind in the form of the outer acts of religious service and ceremony.

Ritual also acts as a corrective to the psychological tensions of the human mind which, when they are not properly handled, are likely to create complexes and a general condition of mental ill health. Ritual provides an ample opportunity to voice forth one's emotions and see them, in one's presence, as it were, getting released from the heart, being freed from unnatural conditions caused by unfulfilled desires. The joys and sorrows of the mind are demonstrated before the deity of one's adoration, for example, in an act of elaborate worship (Puja) or sacrifice (yajna) which has the advantage of displaying one's mental condition before a congregation of other people during the ritual, in addition to producing a satisfaction in oneself that the deity has been pleased and the grace desired has been invoked. The mind comes out of its limitation and feels an expansion of its content and existence in the act of religious ritual.

Ritualism in the form of temple-worship has resulted in elaborate structures of architectural grandeur and sculptural beauty. Ritual in India has not been merely a system of mechanised acts and routines of worship and prayer but has been associated also with art as an aspect of religious practice. Religion has been not merely a science of formalistic practice of set doctrines but an interesting and attractive representation of the needs of the soul in social life. The great temples in the various important shrines in India have been a permanent source of inspiration on account of the dignity of their form and the artistic perfection of their build. The lofty and massive structures often scraping the sky through their spires raise one's thoughts to a height of mystical magnificence felt deeply within the heart of the observer. The famous temples have been patrons of architectural art and sources of elevated feelings free from the trammels of day-to-day life not only in the minds of devotees but even impartial connoisseurs of the significance of art in general. Great temples are built in the pattern or symbol of the Virat-Purusha or the Cosmic Person sung in the Vedas and Upanishads. From the entrance to the innermost 'holy of holies' the making of the temple involves by stages the representation of the limbs of the Virat, thus giving a touch of the highest aim of religion as God-realisation to the art of temple-construction and the ritual of temple-worship.

Ritual plays a great role in the institution of moral values in society. Self-restraint which is the essential content of morality forms a necessary part of the practice of religion. Ritual as a stage in religion requires a person to follow several disciplines and vows (vratas) as well as observances which tend to the inhibition of the lower urges of human nature. Daily and timely bath, fast, vigil and the partaking of consecrated food which is prepared in a clean and holy atmosphere are some of the aspects of the conduct of the ritual in its several forms. During the performance of the ritual one endeavours to keep oneself aloof from contact with unholy things, in body, speech and mind, which, in their totality, produce an effect of physical health, sublimity of thought and a feeling of the spiritual presence.

The greatest impact of ritual on the mind of man is in the form of rousing the spiritual consciousness within him. Ritual is not an end in itself, but a pointer to the attainment of the religious consciousness which is different from the forms of religion. The purpose of ritual is to rouse this consciousness within, and it misses its aim when it fails to achieve this end. The system of ritual is instituted in such a way that its performance stirs the mind to a process of unfoldment of its potentialities. Just as a treasure is unravelled through the use of proper implements, the wealth of the Divine Presence hidden beneath the mind is gradually revealed by shaking off from the mind the dross covering it by means of the equipment of ritual which acts as both a restraining and an entertaining factor to the mind of the individual. In the ritual of worship, for example, the mellow light of the lamps lighted in front of the sacred image of the deity in which the devotee sees the presence of God vibrating and radiating an atmosphere of holiness and grace, and the calm effect of the fragrance of incense placed beside it, stimulate the sensory and mental texture into a condition of receptivity to the inflow of the ideas of unification, integration and freedom from distracting multiplicity. All ritual, in this way, is a variety of the techniques to bring about a consciousness of the presence of the Divine Being. The elaborate parts of a sacrifice induce not only a sense of seriousness and a feeling of reality in the performance of the rite but also a state of concentration of mind to the exclusion of extraneous thoughts by the very fact of having to fix the mind in its widespread processes.

The performance of ritual is not the same in its forms for all people and for all times. It varies with the stage of life in which one is, the class of society to which one belongs, the circumstances under which the ritual is performed, the place, time and the purpose of the ritual, etc., so that ritual is a relative and not the absolute truth of religion. The details of all these aspects are laid down in the Smritis, Itihasas and Puranas.

Puja or Worship: One of the important rituals is the performance of worship (Puja). This is a procedure of invoking God in an image, a diagram or any other suitable symbol for the purpose of adoration and contemplation. God in the ritual of worship is treated as an honoured guest, mostly as a king, requiring solemn hospitality and reverence. The adoration of God in such worship may be either external or internal. External worship is the ceremony which we usually see being performed in temples and consecrated parts of houses. The process of invocation is an invitation to God for condescending to reveal himself in the symbol or the place of worship. The manner of invocation and the subsequent entertainment of the Divine guest have many stages, but the prominent ones are considered to be sixteen in number. The first stage is contemplation (dhyana) on the form of the deity, in the mind. The second is invocation (avahana) or mentally investing the symbol of worship with the glorious Presence. The third is offering of an elevated seat (asana) to the deity and enthroning it therein. The fourth is washing of the feet of the deity (padya), as is the custom in India when receiving a guest. The fifth is offering of special hospitality by way of respectful libations and glorification (arghya). The sixth is arrangement for ablutions (snana). The seventh is presentation of dress or clothing (vastra). The eighth is investiture of the deity with the sacred thread (yajnopavita) or such other requirement. The ninth is offering of perfumes or sandal paste (Gandha). The tenth is offering of flowers (pushpa). The eleventh is burning of incense (dhupa). The twelfth is waving of lamps (Dipa). The thirteenth is offering of food (naivedya). The fourteenth is offering of betel leaves (tambula). The fifteenth is burning of camphor before the deity (nirajana). The sixteenth is offering of gift, especially in gold-ornament (suvarnapushpa). These are the sixteen forms of hospitable treatment (shodasopachara) with which the deity is honoured. In the end, the deity is given leave to withdraw from the image (visarjana). All these processes are attended with chanting of the respective mantras or formulae meant to indicate the different stages of the performance. In big temples, the deity is permanently invoked in the image and the temple forms a perpetual shrine for the divine manifestation and becomes a place of pilgrimage to devotees. In such temples the deity during worship is entertained also with the performance of dance and music, both vocal and instrumental. The deity is ceremonially roused in the early morning and taken to bed in the night after the day's ritual. God present in the images of temples as the great King of kings is taken in grand processions during special festive occasions (utsava). In worship, the devotee makes special gestures of the hands, called Mudras. By these gestures the worshipper indicates his feeling and intention in worship. Just as in a dance performance suggestive gestures are called Abhinayas, the gestures in worship are called Mudras, which convey the inner significance and purpose of worship. As an aid in the attuning of oneself to the form of the deity, the devotee performs the ritual of placing (Nyasa) of the different limbs of the deity in the corresponding parts of his own body. This is also a symbol of the adjustment of the macrocosm with the microcosm, as a process of one's graduated endeavour to attain universality in the realisation of the Divine Existence.

Internal worship is a mental ritual of the adoration of God along the same lines as the external worship described above. Mental worship does not require material offerings but includes all the psychological processes of external worship. We hear of one of the Saiva saints, called Pusalar Nayanar, constructing a temple to the Lord, with mental bricks and mortar, performing a mental installation therein, and obtaining thereby the same results as through the external ceremony. The Mahabharata recites the mental sacrifice performed by sage Agastya without material components, working a wonder which stunned even the celestials. In higher forms of mental worship the process need not include such details as the sixteen limbs or an effort to collect articles of worship and arrange them in the pattern of the external ritual. It is a simpler but more concentrated act of the collecting of thought in an inward surrender of oneself by meditation (Dhyana), which is the consummation of internal worship.

The recitation (japa) of the divine Name or sacred formula is mostly a mental ritual, though in the initial stages it may be a verbal process coupled with thinking thereon. The divine Name or formula is called a mantra, which is a compact sound-symbol of the deity as the object of worship or contemplation. In addition to the deity (devata), the mantra has also a seer (rishi) and a metre (chhandas), which have to be mentally or verbally recited before the recitation of the mantra is commenced. The remembrance of these three essentials of the mantra forms a subtle invocation of the power of the deity, the sage to whom the mantra was revealed and the force of the constitution of the letters of which it is composed. This triple power (sakti), thus invoked mentally, becomes a helpful factor in the achievement of success in the practice (Sadhana), in addition to the inner effort put forth by the devotee himself. The mantra is a specific type of formula consisting of letters which are juxtaposed in such a manner or order as to produce a particular type of effect. A correct pronunciation or chanting of the mantra causes a form to be projected outwardly in space and inwardly in the mind, which is the contour of the deity of the mantra. A mantra may consist of several letters or even a single letter which is called a bija-mantra (seed-formula). It is believed that the shorter the mantra the greater is its effect, perhaps due to the greater concentration of force in it and the facility one has in directing thought in relation to it. The highest mantra is the pranava which consists of a single sound-component formed of three constituents (A-U-M). This is regarded as the symbol of the Absolute in the realm of sound. The chanting of the pranava is recommended to bring about a system and harmony in the flow of energy through the nervous system and of ideas in the mind. This equilibrated condition of the personality frees the mind from distraction (rajas) and settles it in the condition of transparent rhythm (sattva). It is in this state of conscious equilibrium that the light of the Supreme Being, which is present everywhere, is revealed, as it is in the limpid, undisturbed surface of a lake that we can see a clear reflection of the sun shining in the sky.

Prayer: There is a little difference between the recitation of a mantra in japa and the offering of prayer (prarthana). While japa is always a fixed form of utterance of words or formulae, as in a mantra, prayer can be an expression of one's feelings in any language and in any manner one would like. Prayer is primarily a supplication to God for his grace. In ordinary forms of prayer, it can be directed to an ulterior end, such as acquisition of material objects, recovery from illness, and the like. But the truly spiritual form of prayer asks for nothing from God; it asks for God alone. Though prayer may be expressed in words, phrases or sentences, it need not always be so; for prayer can also be mental and the devotee can inwardly solicit the grace of God by an act of deep concentration of mind and a feeling of union with him in love and adoration. The scriptures abound in prayers of various kinds addressed to the various gods of the pantheon, but often directly to the Supreme Being. Usually, it is the practice to regard one's chosen deity (Ishta-Devata) as the highest divinity and exalt it to the state of the Absolute, so that the devotee has no idea in his mind other than that of his deity. This is indicative of the truth that there is ultimately one God whose forms are all the deities adored in worship. Prayer can draw in grace by a spiritual attunement of one's being in the intensity of feeling, which is the motive power behind prayer. Feelings that rise from the deepest recesses of one's heart can produce immediate results, because of their proximity to reality. Japa and prayer are regarded as the best forms of worship (Puja) and sacrifice (yajna) as they do not involve dependence on external objects or circumstances. The purpose of this special rite is to grow into the likeness of the deity, whether by attunement of personality through mantra-japa or self-surrender by prayer.

Larger prayer-meetings held in congregation are nowadays called Satsangas, in which worship and discourses may also be included, in addition to prayer.

Ceremonies: The ritualistic part of religion includes a set of functions and ceremonies which may be grouped under what are called Samskaras (purificatory rites), Kriyas (holy acts) and Vratas (vows). These ceremonies may be classified as those bearing relation to the (1) stages of life, (2) seasons of the year, and (3) special occasions. The periods of life of a person are those of a student (Brahmacharin), householder (Grihastha), hermit (Vanaprastha) and monk (Sannyasin). The prominent ceremonies relating to one's early life are those that are performed when (1) the child is born (Jatakarma), (2) the newly born child is named for the first time (Namakarana), (3) the child is given solid food for the first time (Annaprasana), (4) the child is initiated into the first step in education by being taught the letters of the alphabet (Vidyarambha), and (5) the grown-up child is performed the investiture of sacred thread and introduced into the holy Gayatri mantra of the Veda and thus led into the first stage in spiritual life (Upanayana). The life of the Brahmacharin commences at this stage, when he is admitted into the protection and care of a teacher (Guru) for study of the sacred lore and other branches of learning that may be regarded as necessary to him from the point of view of the class of society to which he belongs. When the student returns home after completion of his education, (6) the ceremony of returning (Samavartana) is performed. This particular ceremony has lost much of its meaning at the present time since the traditional form of student-period under the preceptor is nowadays not passed through, and the formality of this ceremony is undergone only at the time of marriage. Usually, on the completion of the period of studentship, one settles down at home after undergoing (7) the ceremony of marriage (Vivaha). Though the student is generally expected to go through the stage of the householder - and this is regarded as the most normal course to adopt in the majority of cases - scripture also makes a special provision that exceptional types of students who, due to a predominance of the spiritual urge in them, would not prefer to lead the life of the world (Pravritti) but wish to dedicate themselves to a life of pure spiritual pursuits (Nivritti), may pass directly from the stage of the student to that of a whole-timed spiritual seeker, either adhering to the vow of utter continence (Naishthika-Brahmacharya) and service to the preceptor till the end of his life, or as a monk (Sannyasin).

The householder, when he reaches a ripe old age, is expected to retire from active life and live as a recluse (Vanaprastha) leading a life of austerity, free from contact with his relatives. This is a period of preparation for the last stage of life which is the severing of oneself from all ties of worldly life (Sannyasa) and the devoting of all time to divine contemplation or acts which are conducive to this sublime aim. The goal of the life of a human being is the realisation of God, and all the stages through which one passes are preparatory processes for this final attainment. The whole of one's life is thus regarded as a continuous process of education for God-realisation, a journey which has its destination in the reaching of perfection.

The periods of life as a student and householder are full with special injunctions on the performance of ceremonies of different kinds. The prayer called Sandhyavandana to be performed thrice a day is obligatory on both the student and the householder. This is primarily a ritual of prayer to the Sun, in whom the brilliant face of God is visualised and worshipped. Daily worship of one's chosen deity is an additional duty of the householder. This worship is performed by him irrespective of whether he is at home or is on tour for any reason. This daily item of worship by the householder is, however, not so elaborate as the one performed in big temples, but is a shortened form of it, though retaining the essentials of the process.

A very important part of the daily functions of the householder consists of a set of fivefold duties called Pancha-Mahayajnas (five great sacrifices). The first of these is Brahma-Yajna or the sacrifice dedicated to the Vedas and their seers (Rishis) in the form of regular study (svadhyaya) of the holy scripture and the teaching of it to deserving students (adhyapana). The second is Deva-Yajna or the sacrifice offered to the celestials in the form of oblations poured into the sacred fire. The third is Pitri-Yajna or libations, etc. offered to the ancestors. The fourth is Manushya-Yajna or the feeding of uninvited guests (atithi). The fifth is Bhuta-Yajna or the feeding of animals, especially cows and birds. These five functions are imperatives on every householder and they are rightly regarded as great sacrifices (Maha-Yajnas).

In addition to these daily rites, the householder has also to perform certain monthly ceremonies such as offering libations to the ancestors on the new-moon day and the observance of the vow of Ekadasi or fast on the eleventh day of every lunar fortnight. The annual functions are those rites which are performed during such occasions as the birthdays of incarnations like Rama and Krishna, called Rama-Navami and Krishna-Jayanti respectively; the day sacred to Ganesa, called Ganesa-Chaturthi; the nine-day worship of Devi, called Navaratri-Puja; the festival of lights, called Dipavali, when special worship is offered to the goddess Lakshmi; the day when Skanda destroyed the opponent of the gods, called Skanda-Shashthi; the junctions of time when the sun moves towards the North, called Makara-Sankranti and Ratha-Saptami; the time when the new harvest in spring is reaped, called Vasanta-Panchami; the night most sacred to Siva, called Siva-Ratri; the day when Siva is said to have destroyed Cupid, called Kamadahana or Holi; and several other ceremonies like the annual offering of worship to the ancestors called the Mahalaya-Sraddha, and the days sacred to various incarnations of Vishnu, as also occasions when some one or other of the manifestations of holiness and piety in life is to be recognised and adored.

The ceremonies in the names of the dead have also great details, commencing with the rite of cremation and ending in the rites connected with the exaltation of the departed soul to the state of Divine Attainment. These rituals are all complicated in their nature and cannot be understood or performed by those who are not specially trained in their techniques.

The Laws of the Stages of Life

The Purusharthas: Life has been always regarded in India as a process of progressive self-transcendence from the realm of matter (Annamaya-Jivatva) to the realisation of supreme spiritual bliss (Parama-Ananda). Human values and ends in life have been classified into the scheme of the fourfold pursuit (Purushartha) of existence, viz., the practice of righteousness and goodness (dharma), the effort towards earning of the necessary material values (artha), the fulfilment of permissible desires through honest means (kama) and the endeavour for the final salvation of the soul (moksha). This analysis is based on a broad understanding of the different levels of individuals in relation to the Universe.

The principle of dharma is summed up in the Mahabharata as the attitude of not meting out to others what one would not expect others to mete out to oneself. What is contrary to the welfare of one's own self should not be discharged or done in regard to others (Atmanah pratikulani paresham na samacharet). Another definition of dharma is that it is the conduct which conduces to prosperity here (abhyudaya) and spiritual blessedness hereafter (nihsreyasa). That charitable disposition by which one regards others in the world as ends in themselves and not mere means to one's satisfaction may be regarded as dharma. The practice of dharma in this sense is more than ritual or ceremony. Morality is superior to external rites. A moral act presupposes a moral condition of the mind within and the distinction between moral feeling and moral action is the same as that which obtains between character and conduct. The moral perspective is based on a general view of the world as consisting of a larger family than the one with which we are usually familiar. Our existence is wound up with great mysteries and is more complicated in structure than is apparent from a surface-view of things. The world-view which reaches its logical limits sees all beings as constituting a single unit of a universal cooperative life and the recognition of this fact in the smaller circle of individual and social life is dharma or righteousness. A violation of this principle is Adharma or unrighteousness. dharma sustains the organic structure of the cosmos, like the force of gravity which maintains the solidity of a body of matter. Adharma tends towards a rupture of the organism and brings about a condition of what may be called universal ill health. If dharma is health, Adharma is disease. dharma, thus, is eternal law and not the custom or religion of a country or people. All minor Dharmas which go by the names of goodness and religion receive the stamp of meaningfulness only when they are in consonance with this dharma of the Universe. The pursuit of material prosperity (artha), the fulfilment of one's desire (kama) and even attainment of salvation (moksha) are all based on dharma which is the rock-foundation of all practical life. None of these efforts can be successful if it is not rooted in the primary acceptance of the truth that the individual is co-extensive with the Universe.

The Ashramas: The grouping of life into the pursuit of the four Purusharthas is the basis of the ancient ethics of India. Every act of the human being pertains to one or the other of these aims. The ethical system in India is connected with the mode of life to be lived by one as a Brahmacharin, Grihastha, Vanaprastha or Sannyasin, which are the four orders (Ashramas) or stages of life. It is the injunction of the scripture that a person cannot remain in a stage which is none of these four strata of society.

Brahmacharya is the first stage of life, which is lived in the observance of the vow of perfect continence and celibacy under the guidance of a preceptor and dedicated especially to the study of the Vedas and other scriptures. The Kshatriya students may also have to be trained in the art of using weapons and administration in general. It is a life of probation and strict discipline. The Brahmacharin is an adherent to the principle of non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), self-restraint (brahmacharya), non-covetousness (asteya), non-acceptance of gifts (aparigraha), purity and cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapas), sacred study (svadhyaya) and service of the preceptor (guru-seva). These are the constituent factors in the life of a Brahmacharin. He shines with spiritual splendour (brahmavarchas), which he earns by way of self-control, and on account of this glowing nature of his personality he is termed a fire-lad (agni-manavaka).

While the stage of the Brahmacharin is particularly devoted to the accumulation of dharma, the life of the householder is for the preservation of dharma, the earning of artha and the fulfilment of kama. He puts into practice the knowledge gained during the period of Brahmacharya. artha and kama should be directed by dharma. This rule is a great scientific prescription for sublimation of desire, as different from its repression, regression or substitution. The householder is regarded as the hub of the wheel of life, round whom the welfare of the society revolves. His is a life of a balance of forces - social duty, personal desire and spiritual aspiration. His duties in the form of the Pancha-Mahayajnas have already been explained. This is the general rule for a householder belonging to the Brahmana class in society. The Kshatriya has the special duty of subscribing to the administration of the country by military service and the governmental system. The Vaisyas or the trading community, and the Sudras or the serving class, have their duties of providing for the economic harmony and needs of the country and the labour that is required for the sustenance of society. The classification of society into the four castes is not to be taken in the sense of a rigid mechanical isolation of groups by virtue of birth and heredity alone, as it has tended to be viewed in later times, but a logically developed cooperative system of living instituted for the preservation and prosperity of the whole society through division of labour based on the quality of persons and the proportion of the contribution that people can make for its solidarity in accordance with their aptitude, knowledge and capacity. Svabhava (one's inherent nature) determines Svadharma (one's duty as an individual in society).

The third stage of life is of the Vanaprastha and is devoted to the duty of disentangling oneself from the attractions of the world. Artha and kama do not any more interest the mind which seeks only the final blossoming of dharma into the flower of moksha. The duties of life which meant a great value to the householder are relative to the phenomenal view of things and, while they are valid for sensory perceptions and mental cognition in the spatio-temporal realm, they do not reveal the Absolute which the soul hankers after and which alone can bring final satisfaction to it. The Vanaprastha girds up his loins to strive for this attainment through austerity (tapas) and inward worship (Manasika-Upasana). The Aranyakas and some portions of the Upanishads throw much light on the nature of the contemplations which the one dedicated to a life of spiritual discipline practises. While the Samhitas may be said to be relevant to the Brahmacharin and the Brahmanas to the Grihastha, the Aranyakas pertain to the life of the Vanaprastha. The consummation of this discipline is in Sannyasa or complete renunciation of worldly duty and desire, and living a life devoted to the highest meditations on the Absolute described in the Upanishads.

Though, originally, the order of Sannyasa as envisaged in the Manu-smriti and the Mahabharata constituted a purely spiritual condition into which the Vanaprastha entered, and it had no linkage with any social tradition, the order of the monk gradually developed into a system (sampradaya) by which the renunciates were related to one another, in different groups, by the allegiance they owed to their own particular orders, and thus formed a section of society devoted to a voluntary discharge of the obligation of the dissemination of knowledge, in addition to the individual duty of spiritual meditation. This compromise with social life arose not only due to the peculiar circumstances of a changing society in the passage of time, on account of which the minds of people in general may be said to have found a life of total isolation impracticable, but also due to the withdrawal of support from society in the way in which it used to be given in earlier days when the monks could sustain themselves on alms received without making their existence felt by people.

In its true spirit, Sannyasa is a spiritual state, and not a social classification, in which established one learns the art of depending on the Supreme Being, by withdrawal of interest from the particular sources of support in the world. This condition is, however, not suddenly reached, and four stages even in the order of Sannyasa are recognised. In the first three stages, called the Kutichaka, Bahudaka and Hamsa, the Sannyasin lives in fixed residences, but in an increasing degree of freedom from the need for comfort, and the stages are distinguished by the increasing intensity of restrictions, in an ascending order, which the Sannyasin imposes on himself. The fourth stage is of the Paramahamsa, who is absolutely free from all the wants of a personal life and lives mostly a life of absolute self-dependence devoted to pure meditation. There are said to be two other stages, called the Turiyatita and Avadhuta, wherein fixed one does not pay attention to creature comforts and is satisfied with anything that comes to him of its own accord and remains mostly in a state of consciousness lifted above the body and its surroundings.

Sannyasa is also said to originate from four causes. A Vairagya-Sannyasin is one who enters the order being prompted by the latent impressions (Samskaras) which direct him to take such a step. A Jnana-Sannyasin is one who takes to the order due to his grasp of the import of the scriptures, after a deep study of them, and being convinced thereby of the existence of the spiritual ideal. A Jnana-Vairagya-Sannyasin is one who resorts to Sannyasa after deep learning and also having seen the normal enjoyments of life. A karma-Sannyasin is one who embraces the order having passed through the stages of the Brahmacharin, Grihastha and Vanaprastha, gradually. But he who takes to Sannyasa directly from the stage of Brahmacharya is called a Vairagya-Sannyasin. One who takes to it for acquiring spiritual knowledge is a Vividisha-Sannysin. One who enters it after having acquired this knowledge is a Vidvat-Sannyasin. One who embraces Sannyasa being compelled by impending death is an Atura-Sannyasin. One who takes to Sannyasa with a feeling that there is nothing except the Absolute is an Animitta-Sannyasin.

But Sannyasa is, in the end, as observed above, not one of the modes or orders of social life but a condition of consciousness in which it realises its spiritual absoluteness. Here ethics and spirituality coalesce in the attunement of the individual to the structure of the cosmos. Man becomes one with creation, being freed from the bondage of attachment, convention and anxiety. The soul fixes itself in the Infinite and knows nothing other than It. The duties of the Brahmacharin, Grihastha and Vanaprastha are progressive stages of self-sublimation and self-transcendence which reach their fulfilment in Sannyasa. The three basic cravings, called Eshanas in the Upanishads, which correspond to the psychological complexes in the form of desire for wealth, fame (with power) and sex, are overcome in the graduated educational process constituted by the stages of life.

The plan of life arranged into the four stages is a systematic endeavour for the conservation and transformation of the vital, intellectual, moral and spiritual aspects of human nature towards the purpose of the attainment of moksha or liberation in the Absolute. In this fourfold scheme, society is preserved and transfigured for an insight into the reality which underlies it. It is a remedy for the problems and ills of life born of the separation of society into selfish individualities. It is the process of integration not only of the individual but of the family, community, nation and the world at large, through the expression of the great preservative force tending to universal solidarity - dharma. The great hymn of the Veda, the Purusha-Sukta, makes the four aspects of the caste system limbs of the Supreme Being, thus teaching the organic structure of society knit into a single fabric with the threads of diversified personalities. Here is the philosophical background of the ethics of cooperation by which the Universe is maintained. The four Varnas (castes) and the four Ashramas (orders) are classifications based on the three properties (Gunas) of Prakriti - Sattva (equilibrium), Rajas (distraction) and Tamas (inertia) in their different permutations and combinations. The four Ashramas are the stages of the progressive overcoming of matter by spirit, externality by universality.

Karma, Bondage and Liberation

The liberation of the individual in the Universal is the central aim of the ethics of India. The need for the soul's salvation arises from the recognition of the transitoriness of life. Not only this; life in the world is seen to be complicated by the operation of the law of action and reaction, called karma. Though karma, etymologically, means action, its extended meaning implies the force by which every action produces an effect, and, later on, it came to be identified with this effect itself. Profound thinkers discovered that the bondage of karma due to the reaction which every action produces is explained by the fact of the unitary structure of the cosmos of which individuals are inseparable parts, and karma arises only when this inseparable connection of the individual with the cosmos is forgotten and the individual indulges in actions with the false notion that it is an independent actor or doer, inviting thereby the nemesis of reaction. This nemesis is the bondage of the individual (Jiva), and it can break through this bondage only when the sense of individual doership is given up and a feeling of at-one-ment with the cosmos is developed.

An action is an effort towards the achievement of an objective. Man does not simply exist. He ever tends to become something else. The impulse for action is ingrained in the constitution of one's individuality. Action, thus, is an expression of the very make-up of the individual, and so one's entire life is action. Life and action have come to mean one and the same thing. The desire to possess and develop relations with external phenomena is the vital spring of all actions. The desiring individual is not always clear about the nature of the objects of desire. This confusion in the mind ends in the commission of unwise deeds in relation to the objects outside. Actions are one-sided in their motive, for the doer of the action has generally a constricted vision, which alone is allowed by any particular course of action. This course is taken without the knowledge of all the consequences of the action, which are wound up with the structure of the universe as a whole. Just as a good physician, while prescribing medicine for a disease, is cautious also of the reactions that the medicine may produce in addition to its healing effect on the disease in question, an expert handling of situations in life requires the engagement of oneself in actions with a knowledge of the different reactions they produce in addition to achieving the temporal desired objective, for usually one is oblivious of these side-effects when the mind is concentrated on the empirical result in view. The individual, when craving to fulfil a desire, has a rough idea of the nature of the effort required to fulfil the desire, but does not know that the source of action may disturb several other aspects of life and bring as a reaction suffering and grief in the end, though it may, for the time being, cause an enchantment into the belief that the desire is fulfilled. This is why the world is filled both with pleasure and pain - with foreseen effects of desires as well as their unforeseen results. An individual is born in a particular environment either because of a past wish cherished to live in such a condition or of an unknown consequence of desires. The miseries of the world are the forms of the reactions of deluded actions performed previously by its inhabitants. The world is a name given to the situation or manner in which individuals experience the fruits of their own desires and actions. The Universe is the shadow cast by the wishes of its contents and it is what these wishes are and what they sweep away from pure existence with the winds of the forces moving towards their fulfilment. We are asked to perform action without regard for fruits, because the fruits are not in our hands; they are determined by the general law of the Universe, which we, as individual sources of action, can neither understand nor follow. The accumulated and cumulative effects of actions done in all the past lives of individuals are packed into a concentrated residual of potentiality in their subtlest and innermost layer, constituting the causal world. The aggregate of all actions of the past, deposited thus in a latent form in each one's individual capacity, is called Sanchita-karma (accumulated action). This potential aggregate is carried by the Jiva in all its incarnations and it never gets destroyed until the attainment of moksha by the Jiva. The determining factor of every incarnation of the Jiva is the characteristic of that portion of Sanchita-karma, which is separated out as a specific allotment to be worked out in a given type of environment. This allotted portion of Sanchita-karma is called Prarabdha-karma (karma that has begun to produce effect). The Jiva, after being born in an incarnation by the force of Prarabdha-karma, performs further actions in its new life, called Agami-karma, the results of which are added on to the unspent portion of Sanchita-karma. This implies that the Sanchita cannot be exhausted and, consequently, the series of rebirths not ended until the Jiva ceases from adding new Karmas to the old Sanchita. The technique of performing actions without producing reactionary effects is called karma yoga. The doctrine of karma yoga, especially as propounded in the Bhagavadgita, is a commentary on the principle of universal action and reaction, and the way to one's redemption from its laws.

The resultant force of action has the future determined by it. Patanjali says, in his Yoga-Sutras, that the class of society into which one is born, the length of life which one is to live and the nature of the experiences through which one has to pass are all determined by the residual potency of past Karmas. These potencies become active in this life itself or in a life to come. A famous verse proclaims, 'One's life, action, wealth, education and death are all determined even when one is in the womb of the mother.' The doctrine of karma, therefore, is not a belief in fatalism as is often wrongly supposed, but the enunciation of a scientific law that operates inexorably and impartially everywhere in the Universe, like the principle of gravitation.

Samsara or the bondage of worldly existence is the outcome of karma. When a soul is born in samsara it comes invested with certain sheaths (kosas). The innermost and subtlest of the sheaths is the causal one, called also the bliss-sheath or Anandamaya-Kosa. The second is the intellectual sheath or Vijnanamaya-Kosa, the third mental sheath or Manomaya-Kosa, the fourth vital sheath or Pranamaya-Kosa and the fifth physical sheath or Annamaya-Kosa. Every preceding sheath is subtler than and pervades the succeeding one. The five sheaths are nothing but the Karmas of the soul manifest in a graded density of externalisation. In the various planes of the Universe, the soul may be born with one, two, three, four or five sheaths, as the case may be, in accordance with the intensity of the Karmas to be fructified in any particular plane. In death, the sheaths are withdrawn in their ascending order of subtlety, only to be manifest again into action after rebirth. The process of samsara continues till the salvation of the soul - moksha.

The ultimate freedom which the soul attains in moksha is the cessation of transmigratory life and the experience of the bliss of the Absolute. The Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita declare that the soul, having attained liberation, does not return to samsara. As rivers enter the ocean, losing their names and forms, souls enter the Absolute, having been freed from spatio-temporal limitations in the form of the five sheaths and worldly relations. By restraint of the mind from indulgence in the temptations of samsara, by devotion to the creator and by the knowledge that one's essential being is identical with the Universal Substance, the soul attains moksha. The condition wherein this experience of spiritual freedom arises in the consciousness even before the shuffling of the physical body, in certain cases, is called Jivanmukti or liberation-while-living and the attainment of this freedom after the leaving of the body is called Videhamukti or disembodied salvation.