He who, having cast aside the ordinance of the scriptures, acts under the impulse of desire, attains neither perfection nor happiness nor the supreme goal.
Therefore, let the scriptures be thy sole authority in determining what ought to be done or what ought not to be done. Having known what is said in the ordinances of the scriptures, thou shouldst act here.
(GITA XVI-23 & 24)
Reason cannot be the authority in the matter of Dharma. Undeveloped persons cannot think for themselves.
In the matter of Dharma, the scriptures are the only authority. You cannot know the truth about Dharma through any source of knowledge other than the scriptures.
The Sruti and the Smriti are the two authoritative sources of Hinduism. Sruti literally means “what is heard” and Smriti means “what is remembered”. Sruti is revelation. Smriti is tradition. What is revealed is Sruti. The Upanishad is a Sruti. What is remembered is Smriti. The Bhagavad Gita is a Smriti.
Sruti is direct experience. Great Rishis heard the eternal truths of religion and left a record of them for the benefit of posterity. These records constitute the Vedas. Hence the Sruti is the primary authority. The Smriti is a recollection of that experience. Hence it is a secondary authority. The Smritis or Dharma Shastras also are books written by sages, but they are not the final authority. If there is anything in a Smriti which contradicts the Sruti, the Smriti is to be rejected. The Bhagavad Gita also is a Smriti. So is the Mahabharata also.
The Smritis or secondary scriptures are the ancient, sacred law-codes of the Hindus dealing with the Sanatana Varnashrama Dharma. They supplement and explain the ritualistic injunctions called Vidhis in the Vedas. The Smriti or Dharma Shastra is founded on the Sruti. The Smritis are based on the teachings of the Vedas. The Smriti stands next in authority to the Sruti. It explains and develops Dharma. It lays down the laws which regulate the national, social, family and individual obligations of the Hindus.
The words which are expressly called Smritis are the law books, the Dharma Shastras. Smriti, in a broader sense, covers all Hindu Shastras save the Vedas.
The laws for regulating Hindu society are from time to time codified in the Smritis. The Smritis have laid down definite rules and laws to guide the individuals and communities in their daily conduct and to regulate their manners and customs. The Smritis have given detailed instructions, according to the conditions of the time, to all classes of men regarding their duties in life.
From these Smritis the Hindu learns how to spend his whole life. The duties of Varnashrama and all ceremonies are clearly given in these books. The Smritis prescribe certain acts and prohibit some others for a Hindu, according to his birth and stage of life. The object of the Smritis is to purify the heart of man and make him perfect and free.
These Smritis have varied from time to time. The injunctions and prohibitions of the Smritis are related to particular social surroundings. As these surroundings and essential conditions of the Hindu society changed from time to time, new Smritis had to be compiled by the sages of different ages and different parts of India.
From time to time, a great law-giver would take his birth. He would codify the existing laws and remove those which had become obsolete. He would make some alterations, adaptations, readjustments, additions and deletions, to suit the needs of the time and see that the way of living of the people would be in accordance with the teachings of the Vedas. Of such law-givers, Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara were the most celebrated persons. Hindu society is founded upon and governed by the laws made by these three great sages. The Smritis are named after them. We have the Manu Smriti or the “Laws of Manu” or the “Institutes of Manu”; the Yajnavalkya Smriti and the Parasara Smriti. Manu was the great law-giver of the race. He was the oldest law-giver as well. The Yajnavalkya Smriti follows the same general lines as the Manu Smriti and is next in importance to it. The Manu Smriti and the Yajnavalkya Smriti are universally accepted at the present time as authoritative works all over India. The Yajnavalkya Smriti is chiefly consulted in all matters of Hindu law. Even the Government of India is applying some of these laws.
There are eighteen main Smritis or Dharma Shastras. The most important are those of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara. The other fifteen are those of Vishnu, Daksha, Apastamba, Samvarta, Vyasa, Harita, Satatapa, Vasishtha, Yama, Gautama, Devala, Sankha-Likhita, Usana, Atri and Saunaka.
The laws of Manu were intended for the Satya Yuga; those of Yajnavalkya were for the Treta Yuga; those of Sankha-Likhita were for the Dwapara Yuga; and those of Parasara are for the present Kali Yuga.
The rules and laws which are based entirely upon our social position, time and clime, must change with changes in society and the changing conditions of time and clime. Then only can the progress of Hindu society be ensured.
It is not possible to follow some of the laws of Manu at the present time. We can follow their spirit and not the letter. Society is advancing. When it advances, it outgrows certain laws which were valid and helpful at a particular stage of its growth. Many new conditions which were not thought out by the old law-givers have come into existence now. It is no use asking people to follow now those old laws which have become obsolete.
Our present society has changed considerably. A new Smriti to suit the requirements of this age is very necessary. Another sage must place before the Hindus of our days a new, suitable code of laws. The time is ripe for a new Smriti. Cordial greetings to this sage.
I shall speak a word on conscience. Some people say, “We can find out good and evil, right and wrong, by consulting our conscience only.” No individual will be able to do this by consulting his conscience only. It may give some clue and help, but in difficult and trying conditions, it will not help one. Conscience is not an infallible guide. The conscience of a man changes according to the experiences and education he has had. Conscience is one’s intellectual conviction only. The conscience of the individual speaks in accordance with his own tendencies, proclivities, inclinations, education, habits and passions. The conscience of a savage speaks a language that is entirely different from that of a civilised European.
The conscience of an African Negro speaks a language that is vastly different from that of an ethically developed Yogi of India. Ask a clerk at the collectorate, “What are your duties?” He will say, “I must earn money and support my family and parents. I must not injure others. I must read the Ramayana.” He has not the least idea of the laws of Nature. If you ask him, “What are your duties to the country and humanity? What are right and wrong? What are good and evil?” he will simply blink. Ask any vehicle driver, “What is your duty?” He will say, “I must anyhow earn Rs. 20 daily. I have to purchase ten gallons of fuel, tyres, tubes and crude oil. The tyres are very costly. I have six daughters and five sons. I have to take care of them.” If you ask him anything about God, about moral virtues, liberation, bondage and freedom, about right and wrong, he will be bewildered.
Why is there so much divergence between the promptings of conscience of two persons of the same caste, religion and creed? Why do we find ten different convictions among ten persons of the same district and the same community? The voice of conscience alone is not sufficient to guide man in understanding the law of God, about right and wrong, good and evil and other duties of life. The Shastras and realised persons only can truly guide a man in the discharge of his duties in an efficient manner.
Dear friend, do your duties in a satisfactory manner. Consult the Shastras and the Mahatmas whenever you are in doubt. As you have not the ability or the time to think of the moral principles and rules given in the scriptures, you can get the moral precepts or instructions from the sages and saints and follow them to the very letter. Evolve. Expand. Grow. Develop and realise the Satchidananda Atma.
(pgs. 24-28, “Kingly Science, Kingly Secret”)