If You Think That The Shastras Prohibit Innovation, You Are Wrong
At no time in early and medieval India was there an absolute, thoughtless, acceptance of tradition
This essay is penned due to the request of Rajiv Malhotra to scholars of Sanskrit in his engaging book “The Battle for Sanskrit” which critically analyses the views of Sheldon Pollock; the ones that are based on the opinion that Sanskrit is political and oppressive. The book, at first, presents Sheldon Pollock’s view that the Shastras are incapable of innovation as they strongly believe that the Vedas are the highest authority. This is critically viewed by Rajiv Malhotra in a detailed way. I too wish to give my own views here.
Sheldon Pollock, according to the book, quotes from the Gita which instructs to follow the Shastras regarding dos and don’ts and therefore concludes that the Gita discourages innovation and originality.
It is beyond doubt that Krishna has a deep respect to Shastras and Vedas. But Pollock missed to notice that in the same Gita, Krishna instructs Arjuna to go beyond the Vishayas dealt in the Vedas for the actualization of self, without getting struck with those who do not go beyond bookish knowledge and rituals.
As we find in the Gita, generally all Shastras and Kavyas of Sanatana Dharma have two streams of thoughts.
1. Considering the Vedas among the scriptures as the highest authority. 2. Going beyond the Vedas and actualizing and deriving the principles originally from the depth of the heart.
Let us see few other examples. In Ramayana, while dealing with Rama’s qualities, the author says, “Rama is the knower of Shastra, its meaning and its principles. He is a deep thinker and a man of memory. He is innovative in his thought.” Here I translate the word ‘Pratibha’ as innovative thought which is its dictionary meaning.
While there is a discussion regarding Dharma, Valmiki says while Rama starts to deliver his discourse, “The righteous Rama who contains whatever he listened from his Gurus, delivers these words that are in his Atman.” I see this as a synthesis of his scholarship of Shastras and his originality. In another context, in a discussion related to Dharma, Rama considers Atman, residing in the hearts of all beings as the Pramana (instrument of knowledge) of Dharma. It is beyond doubt that the Ramayana considers the Vedas to be the divine imprints. But the same Ramayana insists on the principles like Pratibha and Atman.
In the same way, Manusmriti, even after proclaiming the Vedas and Smritis as Pramanas to Dharma, emphasizes on working accordance to Hridaya (heart that directly reflects Atman or pure consciousness). Manusmriti insists one to have the permission of his Hridaya, after getting the guidance from the Vedas and Smritis to perform Dharma.
In the context of self realization, though Shankara emphasizes on Shastra, in several places he gives importance to both logic and experience. “Atman can be got through logic too” proclaims Shankara. “Atman has to be determined through Shastra, logic and experience” says Shankara. “Vedanta ends in experience” says Shankara. “Even hundred words of Shastras cannot make fire, cool”, he says. “If Shastra says that fire is cool, we cannot accept. We cannot accept anything which is illogical, even if it is found in Shastra” says Shankara. These are but a few samples.
By this we understand that though the Shastras and the followers of Shastras were strongly based on the Vedas they had a vital place for logic, intuition, insight and originality.
Moreover in the Mimamsa Shastra which emphasizes heavily on the Vedas, there is a concept called ‘Apurva’ which means the principle which was not told before. Only with this novel principle any discourse or writing becomes complete.
Thus only when one understands the Shastras as having the two streams of thoughts (one which considers the Vedas among the scriptures as the highest authority and one which derives the principles originally from the depth of the heart), one gets the holistic vision of Shastras.
Now comes a question. How did the Shastras got this concept of two streams? The answer is that they got this from the very Veda itself.
The Vedas themselves proclaim that those who just get struck with Vedic verses are covered with darkness. Thus the Vedas are not contended with themselves. They proclaim themselves only as a ladder to reach the highest truth. Swami Vivekananda considers this to be the unique feature of the Vedas among religious scriptures. “Riks (Vedic verses) are in the immutable supreme space. What one can do with Riks without knowing that immutable supreme space?” What is this supreme space? It is clear in the Vedas in several places that the supreme space is pure consciousness. The above verse is further elaborated by Mundaka Upanishad. It talks about two kinds of knowledge- inferior and superior. It brings all Vedas and Shastras under the category of inferior knowledge and the knowledge through which directly the immutable is actualized as superior knowledge. Here the immutable is further explained as the fundamental principle beyond senses. Definitely Atman is spoken here. The same Atman is the purport of the supreme space in the Rig Vedic context also, as the Rig Veda is verily aware of such a kind of Atman.
There are more than thousands of research papers published in indexed journals revealing how by calming the thoughts and through the experience of internal space of consciousness the creativity and innovation grow. In its third chapter, Yoga sutra also talks about the new insights on nature that can be achieved through controlling the thoughts and calming the mind, being in one’s own self with sustained attention on an object. In fact the whole of the third chapter is dedicated for that, though some supernatural elements are spoken in few Sutras here.
The main objective of the Vedic rituals is to calm the mind and make the being stay in its purity from which creativity dawns. The Rig Veda talks on purifying, calming and restraining the mind in the Vedic rituals. Punyahavachana is a Vedic ritual which is a must in many of the other Vedic rituals. It starts with the statement, “Be calm. Be alert. Be pleasant. ”Sandhyopasana is prescribed by Manusmriti only for the purification of mind. The Ramayana describes how Rama, Sita and Lakshmana remain devoid of dirt in mind after performing morning Vedic rituals. The same epic talks on the people shedding their mental dirt after performing Tarpana (ritual to offer homage to their ancestors). There are passages in scriptures which ridicule those ritualists who do rituals without having the intention of purifying or calming their minds.
In the same way, Shastras insist on a life style filled with several disciplines practicing which one can attain internal calmness. According to Shastras, the rituals and meditation become more effective only with the disciplined life style. There are research papers in the indexed journals which reveal the growth of internal calmness through the practices of the several disciplines and life style. Pollock seems to be unaware of these things stating that the monotonous rituals and disciplined life style proclaimed by Shastras marred the innovation, creativity and originality of Hindus.
“Dharma is by definition rule boundedness” says Pollock as per Rajiv Malhotra. But another definition of Dharma too has to be considered here- “Dharma is that from which Abhyudaya and Nishreyasa can be accomplished.” Nishreyasa includes austerities and sense control aspiring everlasting peace. Implementing universal well being in a step by step practical way is Abhyudaya which includes serving and contributing to the welfare of family, society, nation and the whole world. Dharma in the Vedas has several meanings- nature, the laws of nature, the practices that sustain laws of nature and welfare to the beings. Dharma in Ramayana means the righteousness which includes right speech, right action, right thought and right practice and which also includes the ethics, morality and values. In a nutshell Dharma in Ramayana means what should be done. Dharma is that which recognized by the internal self. Dharma in Ramayana also denotes nature and humanitarian consideration. Thus the rule boundedness is not the only explanation for Dharma.
Pollock, according to Rajiv Malhotra, views Shastras as merely restating from what is already in the Vedas. In his view Shastra is nothing but a blind reproduction of Vedic constraints. I agree that certainly the Shastras are based on the Vedas. But we cannot say that they are mere reproduction. e.g. Ayurveda’s fundamental principle is to deal with the cause and core of disease. This is already found in the Rig Veda. I mean that the Rig Veda talks about healing the cause, core and essence of disease and not mere disease. Thus the Rig Veda is the foundation of Ayurveda. But the several medicines, diets and life style prescribed in Ayurveda cannot be found in the Vedas. Therefore major portion of Ayurveda cannot be found in the Veda, though its foundation is the Veda. Thus Ayurveda is not mere restating of the Vedas.
In all the Vedic traditions starting from Taittiriya Brahmanam, Pratyaksha (sense perception) and Anumana (assumption) are also accepted in general as the Pramanas (instruments of knowledge) apart from the scriptural knowledge. In fact Pratyaksha and Anumana become vital Pramanas regarding that which can not only be found through scriptural knowledge. There is no prohibition of new discoveries both in Shastras and Vedas. Moreover, the Rig Veda has all positive words about something new- new seers,58 new deliberations and new thought Indra is extolled as the one who adores something new. He is praised as the representative of novelty. These are only very few examples from the Rig Veda in the appreciation of something new. The Rig Veda is magnanimous while praying, “May noble thoughts come to us from all corners.” Then what can stop the ancient Indians or Shastra makers to be innovative?
I wish to conclude this essay with the words of George Cardona: ‘At no time in early and medieval India was there an absolute, thoughtless, acceptance of tradition, even by different followers of a single tradition. Nor are grammatical, exegetical or logical systems made solely as maidservants to Vedic tradition.’
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