Diaspora Dharma

As a student of learning many aspects of Hinduism, I have read about ‘popular Hinduism’, ‘Rural Hinduism’, ‘philosophical Hinduism’, ‘elitist Hinduism’, ‘Neo-Hinduism,’ etc.  But now there came into existent another kind of Hinduism because of the diaspora Hindus.  I am so happy to read, hear and learn from them about the way they keep their head above in their alien environment to have some meaning and purpose in their life as a ‘Hindu’.  In this process, they have more challenges to face as the reality of the (everyday) life often clash with their (Hindu) values and views within their (western or any other) diasporic society.  However they have to pay some (or heavy) price for it, yet many came out successfully and established a strong ‘Hindu’ identity in their diasporic atmosphere.

Living away from their home situation, which is more shaped by a particular family and community tradition, these diaspora Hindus have to sought and depend upon the scriptural source for their entire claim to have their Hindu values and views.  In their home situation back in India, the scriptural authority and sanction only remain as a normative point of reference in their ‘elitist’ discourse (or dialogues).  In most cases here in our home situation our (here I mean Hindu) except the so called popular scriptures (mostly related to devotional aspect and need like ‘Hanuman Chalisa’, ‘Dhurga Sostram’; ‘Kanda Shashti Kavasam [in Tamil], rest of the main line scriptures (both sruti and smrti) only receive a lip service when it comes to their authority and sanction.  But in their diasporic situation, though only these popular devotional scriptures play a crucial role when it comes to their bhakti to their various deities, yet in their ‘identity’ they have to claim only to the main line Hindu scriptures—however poor their knowledge and understanding about them.

Nothing wrong in such (selective) approach to the scripture—which always served the need of every kind of people (both the so called ‘popular’ and ‘philosophical’) when we sought their authority and sanction that will serve our purpose.  This one can trace from the long history of ‘mimamsic’ (exegetical) tradition among the philosophical Hindus and the origin and growth of various kinds of ‘popular devotional scriptures’ (beginning from Alvars, Nayanmars and Siddhas in Tamil and Kabir, Sur, Meera, Nanak, etc. in North).  But when some diasporic Hindus suddenly try to create some kind of a  ‘Normative Hinduism’ with  ‘Universal scope’ that too based on their selective interpretation of the Scriptures and try to measure the bhakti/faith of Hindus everywhere—particularly back in home needs to be questioned.

And in the recent past ‘Veda’ in its totality served that purpose to create a ‘Normative-universal’ Hinduism.  But as it was challenged by other Hindu communities who don’t need the authority or sanction of Vedas for their Hindu identity, now another Indian concept (note not exclusively Hindu concept) ‘dharma’s’ help is sought to create this ‘Normative-Universal’ Hinduism.  And the interesting fact in it is that giving their own interpretation to ‘dharma’ that too tracing its origin and sanction only in Veda they try to ‘UNIVERSALIZE’ ‘dharma’ among all kinds of Hindus (living anywhere in the world) but also make it an ‘EXCLUSIVE’ product of Hinduism that too based only on Veda.

No doubt in it that traditionally ‘dharma’ is claimed (or assumed) to have its origin and claim only in Veda. But this too is based on the ‘mimamsa’ tradition of Hinduism which heavily depends upon the commentaries (bashyas) and digests (nibandas) by various acharyas in their attempt to establish their own philosophical tradition.  This we can trace even back from Purvamimamsa tradition which later was carried by Uttaramimamsa tradition.  But according to my limited understanding of Hinduism (still as a student learning) the concept of dharma in its various forms (law, order, custom, tradition etc.) never originated only from the Veda.  It existed independently in more a localized form among various communities—not only among Indians but everywhere among the people in the entire world using different terms.  I would rather say that instead of ‘dharma’ having its origin in Veda, the Veda (or the authors of the Veda) used that concept by coining the terms ‘dharma’ which will serve anybody’s purpose.1 And suddenly some diasporic Hindus try to hijack this ‘dharmic concept’ because of the word ‘dharma’ is superimposed on it as if exclusively a property of Hinduism—that too based on Veda and try to challenge and deny others contribution to this ‘universal’ concept from their particular worldviews like cultural, social and religious.

Though bit log, yet the scholarly presentation of Olivelle will help me to communicate my views:

The tradition of Vedic exegesis and hermeneutics known as Mimamsa exerted a strong influence on the Dharmasastric tradition, and gradually that influence led to the dominance of the Veda as the principal if not the single source of dharma within the theological understanding of the term….if we place the origin of Dharmasastra within the context of a Brahmanical response to the “democratic” ethics and religion preached by Buddhism and the new ascetic religions, we can better appreciate both the sociological context of the rise of this genre of literature and the significant role it played in the new Brahmanical religiosity and soteriology. (p.32)

…The Mimamsa tradition of Vedic exegesis, which exerted a strong influence on the Dharmasastric tradition from its very inception, began to interpret the multiple source of dharma as having their origin in a single source, the Veda.  This is stated explicitly by Manu (MDh2.7): “Whatever dharma Manu has proclaimed with respect to anyone, all that has been taught in the Veda, for it contains all knowledge.”  Veda contains all knowledge and thus, a priori, should contain all dharma.  This position is already hinted at in the above statement of Gautama {GDhS 1.1-2 : “The source [or root] of dharma is the Veda, as well as the tradition and practice of those who know it [the Veda],” } when he specifies that only the tradition and practice “of those who know the Veda” are authoritative.  The authority of tradition and practice are here implicitly connected with the Veda.  Apastamba (ApDhS 1.12.10-12) provides the earliest evidence of the hermeneutical argument for the position when he claims that all rules were originally found in the brahmanas; but some sections of these were lost over time, and they can be recovered by observing actual   practice: “All rules are described in the brahmanas.  The lost brahmana passages relating to some of them are inferred from usage.”  Here we have the Mimamsa concept of anumitasruti, that is, Vedic passages that are inferred to have existed on the basis of either smrti or practice.  The “lost Veda” argument will be used by the later authors to underpin the authority of other sources of dharma within the theological fiction that the Veda is the sole source of dharma.  The Mimamsa view of dharma, then, is that the Veda is the sole means of knowing it; when a specific Vedic text is wanting with regard to a particular aspect of ritual or behaviour, one can then use supplementary sources, such as smrti and normative conduct, on the basis of which one can infer the existence of a Vedic text.—Patric Olivelle, ‘Dharmasastra: a textual history’, in Timothy Lubin, Donald R. Davis, Jr;, and Jayanth K. Krishnan,(eds.),  Hinduism and Law: An Introduction,  New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 1010, pp.32-33

And let me give only local example from Tamilnadu.  There is a nomadic (now partly settled) community in Tamilnadu known as ‘vedar’ (hunters).  The same community is called by other names in other parts of Tamilnadu and in other neighbouring states in South India (having their own localized ‘dharma’ in their life).  In their community the concept of ‘widowhood’ is absent.  When the life partner dies or separated, immediately they will have another one.  To say in other words in their community they don’t have the ‘dharma’ of ‘single’ or ‘widow’.  Even when a woman is pregnant and if her husband dies or separated she will have (in most cases immediately) another person as her husband and the new husband, though is not the biological father to the child (in the womb) is ‘morally’ the father of that child—though the modern concept of ‘legal’ has not much useful in their community.  For me this is the ‘dharma’ of their social order, though they never heard or use this term for it. In fact they never even try to ‘conceptualize’ that ‘dharma’ either to articulate or to communicate it to others. This is their social order from time in memorial and they continue to live accordingly.  According to the larger Hindu community and also as per the constitution they too are Hindus in every respect.

But what kind of Vedic origin—sanction-authority they need to carry or trace this ‘dharma’ among them?  And based on the argument the ‘absence’ of their dharma in main line Hindu communities points out its origin and sanction in that part of Veda which now we have lost?

Some may reject this by saying that they are outside ‘varna’ system and so not to be used to decide about the dharmic origin in Veda within Varna system.  This further proves the fact that the dharma is not an exclusive property of Vedic Hinduism but universal one.

What is true to these ‘vedas’ (or irular, kallar) is true to every community in the entire world.  The Jeravas and Sentinalis—the primitive societies living in Andaman-Nicobar Islands, still living nakedly, have their own ‘dharma’ to live their life.  They may not know and need not know and use this term.  This is true with others communities living everywhere in the world having different faiths.  But just coining one word ‘dharma’ and tracing its origin and sanction only in our Vedas2 nobody has right to deny its universal scope by making it as an exclusive property of an ‘elitist diasporic Hinduism’.

Db. Gurukulam.

May 13,2013

  1. …To claim that during the Vedic period “dharma was par excellence the sacrificial act which maintains and even conditions the cosmic order (Lingat, Robert. The Classical Law of India, trans. J. Duncan M. Derrett.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,  1973:3) simply ignores the facts and projects later Mimamsa views onto the Vedic discourse….

The hypothesis I want to propose is that once dharma had become a central concept in the religious discourse of Buddhism and once it had penetrated the general vocabulary of ethics especially through its adoption by the Maurya emperors, certainly by Asoka and possibly also by his predecessors, in developing an imperial theology, Brahmanical theologians had little choice but to define their own religion, ethics, and way of life in terms of dharma….— Dharmasastra: a textual history.  Patrick Olivelle  in Hinduism and Law: An Introduction, Timothy Lubin, Donald R. Davis, Jr;, and Jayanth K. Krishnan,(eds.),  Hinduism and Law: An Introduction,  New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 1010, p.31

2.. …the scrutiny of the early meaning of dharma within its Dharmasastric use suggests that it was not the Veda but the “community standards” prevalent in different regions and communities that were taken to constitute dharma. The early texts on dharma speak of desadharma, jatidharma, kuladharma—the dharma of regions, castes, and families/lineages.  Clearly, these texts regard dharma as multiple and varied; each of these kinds of dharma can hardly be expected to be based on the Veda. (p. 32)

This theological claim camouflages the historical sources of dharma … the theological imperative that to be based on the Veda means to transcend time and historical context and change.

The historical reality is very different from this theological position.  The dharma taught in the dharmasastras has little to do with the Veda but reflects the actual practices of local groups; the dharmasastras themselves are nothing but the textualization of such practice, along with a theoretical reflection on it that can be called jurisprudence.  Evidence from texts belonging roughly to the last three centuries before the common era indicates that this is not merely a historical conclusion of modern scholarship; it appears to have been the view of at least three major authors belonging to the early period of Dharmasastric textual production: the grammarians Katyayana and Patanjali, and Apastamba, the author of both a grhyasutra and a dharmasutra.—ibid. p. 34