Status of the holy books in Hindu traditions : Updated opinion May 2015

Status of the holy books

  • Hindus have sacred books (aka shAstra-s –  Veda-s, epics including itihAsa-s, purANa-s, dharma-shAstra-s).
    • Some injunctions of the shAstra-s are seriously (even fanatically) followed by the orthodox members of communities to whom they apply.
      • Examples include: In case of brAhmaNa-s: Vegetarianism in non-sacrificial contexts. Not crossing the seas. Performing twilight salutations (sandhyA-vandanam) daily. etc..
      • The motivation can either be ultimate liberation or lesser goals (comfort in this life or the next etc..)
        • Holy books are considered extremely useful guides for beginner and intermediate spiritual practitioners.
          • Partly for this reason, they are considered worthy of preservation with great care. This despite the many stories of sages throwing away or destroying their personal copies when they found them useless for further spiritual progress.
    • Yet, plenty of people do transgress these injunctions without too much guilt, despite some censure.
  • But, these holy books are not absolute; and their injunctions are not binding regardless of context.
    • Hindu traditions do not have the moral “ought” -rather they intend the word “should” – a statement of opinion that may require discussion and justification.
      • (The distinction is explained in this article by a follower of shrI-bAlagangAdhara.) Summary: (a) ” You should not play with fire if you do not want to get burnt.” vs (b) “You ought not to torture fellow-human beings (if you want to remain a moral human being).” : Regarding (a): Is the statement valid if I wear a fire-proof suit, or I use a long non-conductive stick, or move a robot to do that using remote control? Of course not.
    • From the point of view of an individual and the society, the idea that an injuction in a given shAstra (even if it is put in the mouth of a respected deity) is just one opinion is solidly established. One can espouse and follow whatever opinion one sees fit to a very large extant. Whence is this the case?
      • Injunctions and practices of various Hindu traditions have contradicted each other without major conflicts. (Eg: rejection and acceptance of the 4-varNa-system, vedic sacrifices, appropriate rituals at life occasions such as birth, paths to spiritual liberation, the correct way of pronouncing the vedas, grammatical correctness etc..) This geographic and temporal variation is expressly allowed by several commentators.
        • Hindu legal system is not at all static. To quote from shrI-MT’s survey on Hindu legal authorities of middle ages: “This brief survey shows that Hindu law was not static as is commonly painted in Leftist and secularist history-writing on India. While the legal issues were based on the earlier legal tradition comprising of dharma sUtras followed by the smRtis or the dharma shAstra, they typically diverged from their precedents. The divergence allowed discussion of new legal issues uncovered by the earlier legal sources and importantly account for the changing times. .. However, it should be kept in mind that many of the issues are mainly relevant to the Arya varNas and their pre-occupations.”
      • Moral dilemmas (dharma-sankaTa) and controversies are rife in the Hindu epics (eg: arjuna’s dilemma over whether to fight the war, vAli questioning rAma-s decision to kill him, rAvaNa deciding whether the messenger Hanuman should be killed or mutilated).
      • Several are sayings that denounce blithe reliance on “holy” texts:
        • युक्तियुक्तं वचो ग्राह्यं बालादपि शुकादपि। युक्तिहीनं वचस्त्याज्यं वृद्धादपि शुकादपि॥
        • “अश्व: शस्त्रं शास्त्रं वीणा वाणी नरश्च नारी च । पुरुषविशेषं प्राप्ता भवन्त्ययोग्याश्च योग्याश्च ।।” पञ्चतन्त्रे मित्रभेदे ।
    • Subjugation to the “ultimate reality”, and those that supposedly understand and experience it.
      • Hindu texts themselves say that they are not the ultimate authority, and that a truly wise person should ultimately *transcend* (ie not be bound by) texts and adapt a worldview that is cognizant of the ultimate reality. So, guru-s can come along and abrogate the “holy” texts and the injunctions, adding their own voice to the pre-existing pool of opinions. So, Sanatana dharma is trans-textual in that sense. नमश् शास्त्रनिर्बन्धनिष्कासकेभ्यश् शास्त्रप्रेरितेभ्यः। Examples:
        • “न च वचनं वस्तुनः सामर्थ्यजनकम्। ज्ञापकं हि शास्त्रं न कारकमिति स्थितिः” – इति शङ्करः बृहदारण्यकोपनिषद्-भाष्ये।
        • ऋचो अक्षरे परमे व्योमन् (wikiquote, श्वेताश्वतरोपनिषत् ४-८, Rig Veda:1.164.39। सायणभाष्यम् अत्र। गणेशः अत्र।)
        • अविज्ञाते परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला। विज्ञातेऽपि परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला ॥ 59​​ इति शङ्कराचार्यो विवेकचूडामण्याम्।
        • “अत्र वेदा अवेदाः।” – बृहदारण्यकोपनिषत्तः जनकयाज्ञवल्क्यसंवादात् शङ्करेण उद्धृतं वाक्यम् छान्दोग्योपनिषद्भाष्ये (गणेशः)।
        • The “knowing indra” text from chapter 3 of kaushitaki-upaniShad.
    • Contrast with the Abrahamisms
      • “Holy” books such as Bible, Torah and Quran are the ultimate arbiters of morality and conduct for Christians, Jews and Muslims respectively. In addition to this, Christians and Muslims consider the actions of Jesus and Muhammad respectively to varying degrees. As such, these religions are highly text-centric and rely on exclusive divine revelation – they call themselves “religions of THE book”, and consider themselves to be “true religions”.
      • If the Abrahamic Holy Book is lost, the corresponding religion and its exclusive claims are lost. This being the case, congruence with the scripture becomes an existential/ identity issue with Abrahamists. Hence, for them, transcending the texts becomes tougher than it is in the case of hindu-s who may blithely switch traditions or abandon beliefs. In the former case, one needs to say “I am not a Christian/ Muslim anymore.” In the case of Hindus and many Jews, one doesn’t need to say that. (And in the case of Jews, the ethnic identity remains despite loss of faith.)
      • Given the history of conflict that does not tolerate divergent beliefs, traditional/ orthodox versions of these religions are, by default, hostile to other traditions. This is attenuated to some extant by the concept of “secularism” that arose as a result of internal strife in European Christendom, and due to the renaissance.
      • Unlike Hinduism, it is extremely hard for Christian and Muslim religious leaders to crop up and change the scriptures finalized by Jesus and Mohammed respectively. They just don’t have the theological provision for a pre-apocalyptic personality with authority to match these characters.
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