My wife and I were taking a leisurely walk one evening recently along with our friend Swami Vasishthanandaji who was our guest then. We were discussing languages as we walked, a subject of common interest to all of us.
One of the saintliest of monks I have known, Vasishthanandaji is the grand nephew of the legendary Marxist leader and twice Kerala Chief Minister EMS Namboodiripad. Swamiji and I have been friends since our days together in Chinmaya Mission’s ashram in Powai – the friendship is now almost half a century old.
It was when we were staying in Rishikesh and studying under our guru Swami Dayanandaji that he went and met Swami Vishnudevanandaji in Shivananda Ashram there, taking me with him. Sometime later he joined Swami Vishnuji, the flying swami who got his name when he distributed peace pamphlets over the battlefield flying by a helicopter during the six-day Arab-Israel war in 1967.
Swami Vasishthaji has been all over the world – the US, Canada, Russia, Europe, name it, he has been there. One of the places he has visited several times is Lithuania. He has a special interest in the Lithuanian language, which he finds very close to Sanskrit. As is well known, Lithuanian is officially recognized as the oldest surviving Indo-European language [Sanskrit, with which both Swami ji and I work all the time, is officially a dead language!] and has preserved, more than any other European language the phonetics and morphology of the proto language from which all European languages have come.
He was comparing some aspects of the Lithuanian language and culture with Sanskrit and Indian customs when a young man passing by on a scooter saw us some five minutes distance from our house and stopped. He recognized my wife who is a nationally known wirier and active in the city’s literary, cultural and academic circles. He listened to us for a moment and then, within a minute, started talking about his mother tongue. That was fine with us, we were all interested in what he had to say, though we were all taken aback by the aggression in the young man’s speech. He did all the talking, silencing all of us, not allowing any of us to put in even one word in between. When I tried to say something in the middle of his talk to us, he silenced me by ‘politely’ asking me in a loud voice not to interrupt him.
Soon he was talking about one of his ancestral customs, one that modern societies would find embarrassing but not he. The young man was inordinately proud of the custom and continued talking about it in his loud, aggressive voice. After listening to him for about five minutes, we took leave of him as politely as we could, so that we did not offend him. The aftertaste of his talk, though, remained in our minds for a long time.
We were silent as we continued our walk. And in that silence I asked myself: Should we be proud of all that our ancestors did just because they were our ancestors? Should we continue their ways, just because they were our forefathers? As culture and civilization advance, shouldn’t we keep what is good in the ways of our forefathers and discard what is not?
There is a Sanskrit verse that tells us: puranam ity-eva na sadhu sarvam, na navam ity-anindyam: just because a practice is old, it does not become right; nor does a practice become blameless just because it is new. Ancient ways can be right or wrong; just as modern ways can be right or wrong, says the wisdom of the seers.
Our ancient thinkers recognized a long time ago that a lot of things should change with the times. What was once practiced should not be continued even when times and circumstances change. The wisdom the Mahabharata says:
bhavatyadharmo dharmo hi dharmaadharmau ubhaavapi
kaaranaat deshakaalasya . . . MB Shanti 78.32
Dharma [right] becomes adharma [wrong] and adharma becomes dharma depending on the place and the time.
The custom of sati is an example for something heartless practiced for long in our country being subsequently abandoned in the light of better wisdom and so are child marriage and niyoga.
Niyoga is an ancient custom which finds place in the Mahabharata several times. It is kind of an apad-dharma, something reluctantly done when there is no other way out of a crisis, apad. Thus Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura were conceived through this custom, and so are the five Pandava brothers. The founders of the countries of Anga, Vanga, Kalinga and Paundra were also born through niyoga, says the epic. It is a custom women hated and had to be pressurized into – both Ambika and Ambalika had to be pressurized and even when they agreed to it, they psychologically rejected it. King Bali’s queen Sudeshana sent her maid in her place to the blind rishi Deerghatmas and that is how the four nation-founders were born. This custom was subsequently rejected by our tradition and our scriptures. The Brahma Vaivarta Purana expressly forbids niyoga for our changed age.
A custom that was extremely rare once becoming increasingly common in India now is that of widow remarriage.
These are welcome changes and speak of our sanatana dharma’s ability to change with the times. The Mahabharata which proclaims loudly that what is in it can be found elsewhere, but what is not in it will not be found anywhere, has an entire parva in it called apad-dharma parva that says what is right and wrong is not universal, but depends on times and circumstances.
Incidentally, the word sanatana does not exactly mean eternal or beginningless and deathless as is widely understood. Sanatana actually means, according to tradition, sadaa nootana – ever new, ever fresh. It is this ability to reinvent itself, to recreate itself constantly, to be constantly reborn, to take new avatars as and when required, that makes Hinduism sanatana. In this sense sanatana dharma is like the snake that discards its old slough and is reborn in a fresh slough every time there is a need.
Bhagavan Buddha is a brilliant example for teaching this need for customs and practices to change with changing times, while eternal truths remain the same.
Someone told the Buddha:
“The things you teach, Bhante, are not there in the scriptures.”
“Then put them there,” said the Buddha.
After some confused, short silence the man added, “May I suggest, Bhante, that some of the things you teach actually go against the scriptures?”
“Then the scriptures need amending,” said Buddha.
Here is a beautiful story narrated by Rev. Anthony de Mello, SJ., which I’m quoting verbatim for its beauty.
In a desert country trees were scarce and fruits were hard to come by. It was said that God wanted to make sure there was enough for everyone, so He appeared to a prophet and said, “This is my commandment to the whole people for now and for future generations: no one shall eat more than one fruit a day. Record this in the Holy Book. Anyone who transgresses this law will be considered to have sinned against God and against humanity.”
The law was faithfully observed for centuries until scientists discovered a means for turning the desert into green land. The country became rich in grain and livestock. And the trees bent down with the weight of unplucked fruit. But the fruit law continued to be enforced by the civil and religious authorities of the land.
Anyone who pointed to the sin against humanity involved in allowing fruit to rot on the ground was dubbed a blasphemer and an enemy of morality. These people, who questioned the wisdom of God’s Holy Word, were being guided by the proud spirit of reason, it was said, and lacked the spirit of faith and submission whereby alone the Truth can be received.
In churches sermons were frequently delivered in which those who broke the law were shown to have come to a bad end. Never once was mention made of the equal number of those who came to a bad end even though they had faithfully kept the law or of the vast number of those who prospered even though they broke it.
Nothing could be done to change the law because the prophet who had claimed to have received it from God was long since dead. He might have had the courage and the sense to change the law as circumstances changed for he had taken God’s Word, not as something to be revered, but as something to be used for the welfare of the people.
As a result, some people openly scoffed at the law and at God and religion. Others broke it secretly and always with a sense of wrongdoing. The vast majority adhered rigorously to it and came to think of themselves as holy merely because they held on to a senseless and outdated custom they were too frightened to jettison.
The story takes us back to the question we began with: Should we revere everything our ancestors did?
One way of dividing our scriptures is into shrutis and smritis. The shrutis are the Vedas and the Upanishads and they speak of the highest, unalterable, eternal, universal truths whereas the smritis are books that speak of the dharma for a particular period, situation, person and so on, with yugadharma as a common title for all these. As times and circumstances change, the dharma for such times and circumstances also change. Yugadharma is thus different for different times, different circumstances and different people. And they must remain so.
Old ways should be given up, however close they are to our heart, if the times demand it. Particularly so if those ways do not make any sense under changed circumstances. Certain things should be said good bye to with gratitude. Carrying on our back the boat that helped us cross the river after we have crossed the it is not wisdom.