When we analyze the personal discipline and religious observances (anushtaanam) prescribed in the Vedic religion, we find that no other religion contains such rigid regulations. At the same time, apart from the good sense of the people, there is no special sanction for enforcing these religious practices. This paradoxical situation has led people to regulate their life as they liked. When there was a strong village community life, there were elders in society who pointed out if any deviation occurred from the time-honored practices and their personal influence and authority helped society to keep itself within bounds. Even if people did not do what should be done, they at least abstained from doing what ought not to be done, for fear of incurring the displeasure of the elders in society. The disintegration of village life and the migration of people to cities and towns, and, even to far off places, have resulted in the gradual disappearance of many wholesome observances. In political life one is bound by party discipline; but in religious life even that amount of discipline has ceased to exist.
As I explained on another occasion, I am of the view that at one time Vedic religion prevailed all over the world and people everywhere observed the same practices. With the rise of Christianity and Islam, religious life came to be understood to consist chiefly in offering prayer to the Supreme Being on a specified day in the week. So far as Buddhism and Jainism are concerned, except in the conception of the ultimate goal, there is not much difference between them and the Hindu religion. But, we, Hindus, are so steeped in religious traditions that we often feel that we should keep up certain observances, though we are not able to give effect to this feeling always, either on account of circumstances beyond our control, or on account of the general laxity that has come to prevail in such matters. In the circumstances, it is worth pondering why our Vedas and Sastras prescribed so many strict codes of personal conduct and religious ceremonies.
Let us take the institution of marriage. No other religion has insisted on post-puberty marriage as Hinduism. Even when custom did not insist on post puberty marriage, there is restriction in the freedom of the movement of unmarried girls, who have attained puberty. There was the practice of women immolating themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Rajput ladies threw themselves into the fire when they found that the fortune of war was favoring the foreign enemies. Sita preserved her life in captivity; but ordered a fire to be lit for immolating herself when she found that Sri Rama would not accept her as a result of her captivity. Even in the present times, when Sati has been abolished statutorily, we read in the newspapers stray cases of Sati occurring in North India. Why should there be all these restrictions and hardships in the name of religion? The answer is that to the extent we make sacrifices in performing acts which we sincerely believe to be good, to that extent will our soul or atma get elevated. Even acts done in ignorance, but with faith, will produce spiritual reward. The moment we begin to question why a particular religious practice should be observed, the moment we are beginning to lose faith or bhakti.
In other religions, marriage is a contract by which the contracting parties pledge to be faithful to each other during the period of the contract. Both parties are free to obtain divorce. A widow is also free to marry again. Thus, marriage in such societies is an institution to get over social complications and also to keep sex life within bounds. In Hinduism, on the other hand, marriage is a sacrament intended for the elevation of the soul. So far as men are concerned, marriage is intended to restrict and regulate their physical desires. For their spiritual realization, man must seek and obtain a preceptor (guru). But so far as women are concerned marriage is both a regulator of physical desires and a means for spiritual elevation. By the sacred ties of marriage, a woman surrenders herself completely to her husband and in serving him she serves God. In fact, she regards her husband as God. There are numerous stories to illustrate this principle. As novels reflect the spirit of the times, these puranic stories reflect the ideals behind the social and religious practices of our ancients. A woman who has dedicated her body completely to her husband in the firm faith that he is God, finds no use for it at the death of her husband. That is the principle behind the practice of sati. Marriage is the upaakarma, initiation into spiritual life, for a girl. For widows who cannot sacrifice themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands, because they have certain duties to discharge, like the care and bringing up of young children, certain codes, known as Vidhava Dharma, have been prescribed.
We tie up a cow which is prone to graze in other people’s fields. This is done to save the crop of the neighbors and also to save the cow itself from coming to grief by getting beaten for trespassing into fields. Similarly we have also to bind ourselves with certain cords voluntarily, so that we may not go wrong, goaded by passions like kaama (desire) and krodha (anger), and so that our atma may get elevated higher and higher. A cowherd knows when to untie a cow. Similarly, Isvara, who is called Pasupati (literally cowherd), knows when to release us from bondage. When a bale is tightened with iron loops in a press, the rope with which it was tied before it was placed in the press, becomes loose and slips down. Similarly, if we bind ourselves tightly with the rope of jnana (true knowledge), we get rid of the shackles of kaama (desire), krodha (anger), and other passions, which bind us to earthy pleasures and which are the causes of births and deaths. Yajna, daana, tapas and karma lead to jnana. When we perform with faith the prescribed karmas and anushtaanas, and dedicate them to God, as taught by the Vedas, we attain jnana, which clears the way for God-realization. Let us bind ourselves with punya,accruing through making sacrifices inherentin the adherence to our anushtaanas, so that we may be released from the lesser bond of sins, and thus be enabled to transcend birth and death by realizing the Supreme Being.
December 30, 1957