The Transmission of Dharma
Ultimately, a civilization rests on its ability to transmit its values, goals and aims, priorities, practices, rituals, art, science and knowledge systems, spirituality, festivals and food habits, and indeed all that may be deemed to constitute its culture, with as much fidelity as possible from one generation to another. A unique distinguishing characteristic of Sanatana Dharma is the primacy that it has accorded “Oral Transmission”. In contrast to a Script based transmission, which relies on the centrality of a book or a set of books, the varied modes of transmission of Hindu Dharma that makes it Sanatana are embedded in its innumerable Oral traditions. While a book can be placed in a library, seemingly available democratically to all people, Oral traditions require families and communities, that preserve these traditions, and transmit them carefully to future generations. It is not that Sanatana Dharma does not have its texts – but they are embedded in the oral traditions that assume a precedence over the texts themselves. Which is why the Veda is Shruti i.e. that which is “heard” from the parents, teachers and elders, and not so much read. Adi Shankara says:
Asampradayavid, Sarva-Sastravid Api, Murkhavad Eva Upekshaniya
Adi Shankara, Gita Bhashyam, 13.2
A Teacher who does not know the Sampradaya (Asampradayavid), even though well-versed in many disciplines of knowledge (Sarva-Sastravid Api), is merely foolish (Murkhavad Eva) and therefore unworthy of regard (Upekshaniya). This is one of the clearest statements of primacy accorded to the oral tradition (Sampradaya) over the Text (Sastra). Of course, this presumes that the Oral traditions have been or must be preserved across the great eons of time, which brings us to our present difficulty. But first, let us look at some of these traditions.
Shruti – Bhashya traditions – Intellectually oriented, these traditions focus on the texts and their interpretations, treatises, commentaries and glosses and include such categories as Vedanta, Upanisad, Sutra, Smriti, Shastra, Nibandha, Vritti, Tikha, Vartika etc. Engagement with these texts, is generally considered to be Jnana Yoga, and systematically leads to profound cognitive shifts and personal transformation, leading eventually to Jnana and Moksha.
Yoga – Dhyana traditions – Emphasizing meditation and the practice of inwardness and silence, these traditions focus on the mind and consciousness, and provide methods of systematic self-cultivation through Sadhana, Japa, Asana, Pranayama, Mantra, Abhyasa, Kriya etc. Engagement with these practices can be generally considered to be Raja Yoga and leads to inner transformations, re-prioritizing one’s goals and objectives, ultimately leading to Samadhi.
Katha – Pravachan traditions – Story-telling as a way of transmission, these traditions, recreate the Itihasa, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Purana, Kavya literature in ritualized formats such as Upanyasam, Saptaham, Katha Kalkshepam etc. It is a popular method of transmission that combines Jnana and Bhakti Yoga and includes in many cases a re-enactment of these ancient stories, which both entertain and educate. The emphasis of these traditions may be centered on Dharma, but nevertheless, they also prepare the Jiva for Moksha.
Yagna – Puja traditions – Ritual Performance based traditions, that emphasize meticulously detailed and choreographed sequences of actions, loaded with symbolism and ceremony. They involve the repeated performance both in private and in collective settings, and include such categories as Homa, Abhisheka, Sanskara, Sandhyavandana, Arati, Nigama, Agama. When performed with the Bhavana of Bhakti, in shared spaces such as Mandirs and Ashrams, these traditions can also lead to deep inner awakenings and transformation. More importantly, these traditions create a vitally important shared “ritual space” which represents an important mode of cultural sharing and transmission.
Sangeetha – Natya traditions – Centered on Classical Music and Dance, on Rasa and Ananda, these traditions include very complex and elaborate modes of teaching, training, and practice. Performative in nature, they are imbued with Bhakti Bhavana, and require a decade or more of disciplined engagement for the practitioners to attain competence in their art forms. The storylines invoked by the Music and Dance often are drawn from the Katha Purana tradition, and further align the practitioner with a form of Yoga and Sadhana.
Bhajan – Kirtan traditions – Music that is easy on the practitioner and enables engagement by a wider community of people not quite trained in classical disciplines, nevertheless create an opportunity for deep sharing and absorption. Combining elements of Bhakti and Yoga, these traditions create shared community spaces for participation and performance. When skilled musicians participate, the results can entertain and elevate both the listeners and the singers, into a form of shared Sadhana.
Tirtha – Yatra traditions – Centered on travel to remote places of pilgrimage, visits to sites deemed to be sacred by our ancestors, these traditions enable cross-cultural learning and linkages between one’s own tradition and the great many sibling traditions aka Sampradayas that constitute the varied branches of the vast Santana Dharma. These Yatras are a form of Karma Yoga integrated with Bhakti Yoga, linking the past with the present and infuse a sense of wonder at what our ancestors and the great many Sampradayas were concerned about, enabling a turn of the mind towards the ‘Para’ Vidya from the ‘Apara’ world, which distracts our minds constantly.
Utsava – Mela traditions – Celebratory in nature, focused on Ananda these ritual shared expressions, connect and bind the community, mark the vast cycles of time, enable us to remember key events in our Ithihasa and Purana, commemorate the seasons and their bounties, and rejoice at the opportunity of being alive. Once again, the key emphasis of these traditions is on community building and creating shared expressions, memories and bonds. The transmission across the generations is quiet and non-verbal, performative and action oriented.
Guru – Sishya traditions – Knitting together all the above, is the central building block of the process of transmission – the relationship between a Guru and his or her Shishyas. Settled in the setting of an Ashram or Gurukulam, and primarily of an oral nature, the space of quiet conversation and dialog between a Teacher i.e. A Guru, Acharya, Rishi or Yogi and the body of students, who are attracted to that teacher, is the Satsangha, the community that part-takes in the acceleration of learning, transmission and transformation.
Varna – Jati traditions – Further differentiation of these traditions into the scales of Varna and localization into the varied Jatis of India, placed the primary responsibility of transmission of the Dharma with the communities and families themselves. Each Varna and Jati, Kula and Grama, developed its own unique expression of Dharma, finely tuning and differentiating its own traditions and practices, and their unique modes of transmission of the Dharma across the generations. The very formation of Jati as a Hindu phenomenon is inter-twined with the oral traditions that were embedded, preserved and constituted those Jatis.
Taken together, the great many strands of transmission, and the vastly numerous traditions and Sampradayas that result from their interplay, distributes the agency of transmission so widely, that despite the violent onslaught of Islam and Christianity, and despite the numerous victories of conversion won by these religions, despite the burning down of many libraries in many universities, many strands of Hindu Dharma have survived. A contest between monolithic religions can be won decisively and entire territories converted en masse, as has been the case around the world, but a contest between a monolithic religion and a widely distributed and vast family of traditions is not won so easily. One strand of transmission may be killed off and destroyed permanently, but others live on. One community may be converted totally, but other communities live on. Coupled with the phenomenon of the re-emergence in every generation, a new Guru or Acharya, a new Teacher, Rishi or Yogi, of great renown and charisma, who inspires a new generation freshly and newly, and sometimes even recovers some of the seemingly lost strands of the transmission, Santana Dharma is still surviving and sustaining.
At least it has done so till today. The most recent assault on Hindu Dharma comes from a different place i.e. the Secular, Liberal and Progressive place. Their arguments are academically generated, rationally presented, offer themselves as scientific and objective truth, and often camouflaged as being in service of democracy, social justice and human rights, do have the power of persuasion, and many Hindus who are intellectually inclined are easily swayed by these arguments. Central to their thesis, is that Hindu Dharma, whatever its value at one time, has long ago been rendered obsolete, by the march of rational and scientific progress, and if it is somehow not yet obsolete, it ought to become so soon. Sadly, the logic of linear progressivism cannot encapsulate the timeless realities explored in the Vedas. The Hindu response to this challenge must also come from an intellectual space, and be rational, reasonable and well presented. It calls for nothing less than the rejuvenation and re-vitalization of the spiritual-intellectual traditions of Hindu Dharma, which have suffered the worst damage during the Islamic and Colonial eras.
It requires the creation of new Centers of Excellence for the study and teaching of Hindu Dharma, within the modern academia and the generation of an emerging community of scholars, academicians and writers, who can engage the world from a place of deep learning, knowledge and reason. We need a new Samvada for new Jnana to arise, for after all when error is not distinguished as error, it tends to masquerade as knowledge.