Before we go deeper into the guidelines laid down by Rishi Parashar, perhaps it makes sense to first establish his antecedents. Parashar is neither one of the popular sages from Hindu scriptures like Brahmarishis Vishwamitra or Vasishth nor a notorious one like Narad or Durvasa, but he does play an important role in the Mahabharata. He appears in the Mahabharata for a brief duration but is extremely critical to the flow of the narrative as he is the father of Ved-Vyas, another accomplished sage who composed the Mahabharata. One can only wonder what would have happened to India’s greatest epic if Vyas hadn’t been born, for he is not just its composer but also a participant in the events through his sons – Dhritrashtra, Pandu and Vidur!
According to the Puranic genealogy, Parashar Rishi is actually the grandson of Brahmarishi Vasishth and therefore, a great-grandson of the Creator-god Brahma. He is also the first sage to have written down a Puran (Vishnu Puran) while the others were penned by his son, Vyas. Now that we have established his credentials, let us see what his law book ordains for us.
The Parashar Smriti begins as a conversation between Vyas and other sages regarding the laws relevant to the changing times. It is believed that the era changed when Krishna left the earth, thirty-six years after the Great War of Mahabharat. Vyas, himself desirous of knowing how the change in epoch would affect the rules and regulations, in turn, takes them to the Ashram of his father (Parashar), located in the mountains around Badrinath.
Starting the conversation, the learned sage tells his father that he has already heard the Laws of Manu, Vasishth, Kashyap, Garg, Gautam, Ushanas, Atri, Samvarta, Daksh, Angiras, Shatatapa, Harit, Yajnavalkya, Katyayan, Prachetas, Apastambh and the laws of Shankh and Likhit. But now, he wished to know the laws that were applicable in the Kali Era. This is when Parashar, in Chapter 1, Verse 22 clearly states:
In conformity to the character of the age,
The rules of law differ from age to age.
The rules for the Krita differ from those of Treta,
Dvapar laws are not identical with the Kali rules.
Traditional timelines consider Kaliyug to have begun in 3102 BCE as per the calculations of Aryabhatta. This implies that the guidelines of Parashar were propounded more than five thousand years ago when most of the people in other parts of the world were living as nomads. The learned sage goes on to explain to his son and his companions how the circumstances change in each successive era:
In the Krita (the donor himself) comes to (the receiver) and makes the gift;
In succeeding Treta age, (the receiver) is invited and the gift is made;
In the Dvapar, the gift is made to one who asks for it;
In the Kali, however, gifts are made in exchange for service done.
– Verse 1.28
Quite remarkable, considering that perhaps the biggest dent in our pockets today comes from services. There are various other descriptions of how times have changed in Kaliyug but the important point from our perspective is the repeated instruction that laws need to change with each successive era –
(To atone for an offense) in Krita, one should quit a country itself;
One should quit the village in the Treta;
In the Dvapara (one should leave) the family;
But in the Kali, one should shun the perpetrator alone.
– Verse 1.25
Once he has established the change in the scenario, he comes down to business, starting with the guidelines for proper conduct. Judging from the kind of guidelines mentioned in the book, the Vedic people seem to be majorly concerned with propriety and the love for a fellow being. Unlike what the Aryan Invasion Theory proponents claim, these laws appear to be meant for a society that is clearly well settled and not a nomadic one. Let me give an example of how an unexpected guest or ‘A-tithi’ was supposed to be taken care of:
(A guest) should not be asked his family or his clan (gotra);
He should not be questioned as to learning or knowledge.
[But the host] should take him to be a god himself,
For, in him are united all the gods.
– Verse 1. 48
Whether it be a robber, or a Chandal, or an enemy, or a parricide,
— Any one arrived at the time of the rite for the Visvadevam,
Is to be welcomed as a guest,
Who is like a bridge for crossing over to the seats of bliss.
– Verse 1.62
The famous injunction of Atithi Devo Bhava is highlighted in the above verses. This makes us believe that the rules are more for householders or those in the Grihasth Ashram. Of course, it would make sense to lay down the guidelines for those who were an active part of the society rather than the Brahmachari students who lived in Gurukuls, or Sanyasis who had renounced the world.
Parashar further issues directives for people of the different Varnas or professions living in the society. This is a society that has a clear division of labor but that should not be misunderstood as one that was based on a birth-based caste system. A number of verses tell how the Brahmins or the scholars and the Kshatriya warriors and Vaishya traders should live.
Ablution and prayer, inaudible recitation (of sacred words),
burnt- offerings, the worship of gods, hospitality to guests unexpectedly come,
and offerings made in the name of the Visvadevam,
— these are the six duties to be performed every day (for a Brahmin)
– Verse 1.39
A king of the Kshatriya caste should arm himself, and have his troops.
(He) should protect his people,
Should overcome the forces of a hostile king,
And rule the State in the way prescribed by law.
– Verse 1. 61
A Kshatriya, likewise, may practice tillage, honoring the gods and the Brahmins
Vaishya or Shoodra should always take to agriculture, practice arts, and follow trade.
– Verse 2.13
The Shudras are an integral part of the running economy and Verse 1.65 allows them to sell the following items – Salt, honey and oil, curded milk, whey, and milk. Besides informing what work is allowed for each of the Varnas, the rules, quite understandably, also put some amount of censure on what shouldn’t be followed by each of the professions. For example, there are certain riders on the kind of occupation a Shudra can take and any indulgence in flesh trade of either kind could turn him into an outcaste:
By selling Wine and meat, by consuming prohibited foods,
Cohabiting with prostitutes, a shoodra falls from his caste.
– Verse 1. 66
Before someone jumps to the conclusion that the text is unduly harsh to the lower castes, let me mention that there are some very strict statements against the Brahmins who falter from their duties. In fact, Verse 1.60 mentions that the king must punish the village where Brahmins take alms without doing austerities and Vedic study, as it is similar to a theft. A Brahmin who turns away from righteousness, whichever Varna he belongs to, is deemed to become an outcaste:
He who sets his face against righteousness,
Is but a Chandal by his acts.
He gains nothing by being a mendicant,
Or by worshipping the household fire.
– Verse 4.21
There are also explicit instructions to Brahmins to not discriminate against Shudras who are true to their own varna dharma, faithfully carrying out their societal duties:
A Brahmin should never shun such Shudras,
As are employed in the service of regenerate men,
Abstinent of spirit and flesh meat,
And duly employed in their own occupation.
– Verse 11.15
While most of the injunctions deal with societal duties, the responsibility towards animals is not forgotten:
An ox that is hungry, or thirsty, or fatigued,
Should not be harnessed (to a plough).
A bull wanting in a limb, or diseased, or impotent,
Should not, by a Brahmin, be made to work.
– Verse 2.3
A hunter who makes his living by killing beasts,
One who lives by ensnaring them; a fisherman and a fowler;
As also an agriculturist who makes no gifts (of paddy)—
All these five incur the same identical sin.
– Verse 2.6
The second verse quoted above (2.6) clearly shows that hurting animals, and even plants, is counted as a wrong, though a farmer is allowed to atone for his misdeeds by gifting the surplus of his crop to other needy people. This is an interesting verse – it builds on the ancient realization Jeevo Jeevasya Bhojanam – meaning all living beings survive on other living beings, and hence there is some amount of harm that all of us inadvertently cause, whether we are vegetarian or meat eaters. Still, as there is no escape from this situation and some life form will have to lose its life to feed someone else’s stomach, the person harming a lower life form takes on a lesser karmic burden than one killing more advanced life forms for food.
As expected from a Law Book, there are several transgressions narrated in the text which might paint a picture of an authoritarian society, but that is a false alarm. A full reading of the text makes it clear that while there are different types of offense mentioned, the innovative ways of atonement recommended for each of these, points to a society that was ready to forgive and move on! Evidently, no one was to be shunned forever and each person, belonging to any caste or gender, had the right to return to the fold of the society after performing the prescribed penance.
Verse 8.9 declares:
As water deposited on a piece of stone is dried up by the sun and the wind;
So sin generated by evil deeds comes to an end,
When a council has declared what the atonement is.
Glancing through the atonements meant for women having liquor or running away with men of different castes, you cannot help but wonder how frequently these incidents were taking place. Unlike some 21st-century traditionalists who justify excommunication and even honor killings, there was hope for the ancient people in the laws laid down by Parashar. Strangely, though not surprisingly, these are conveniently ignored in contemporary political discourse, obsessed with the need to demonize the past. A question worth pondering over is how a social order that was lenient and accommodating turned exceedingly rigid over the centuries?
While that is a debate for another time, let me also deal with another kind of social ostracism – that of a woman who has lost her husband. The condition of widows in certain periods of India’s history, more so in specific subcultures, was appalling and these women had to go through great agony in the name of tradition. It turns out that the association of widowhood with inauspiciousness, thereby condemning them to a lonely oppressive existence, is a much more recent construct than it is made out to be, as is apparent from the following verse from the Parashar smriti:
When her husband is missing, or is dead,
Or has renounced the world, or is impotent,
Or has been degraded by sin,
— on any of the said five calamities befalling a woman,
law has ordained another husband for her.
– Verse 4.30
While most of these verses point to a fairly emancipated society, some of the verses do sound ambivalent if we look at these five-thousand-year-old rules wearing twenty-first-century glasses. However, the need for flexibility was enshrined in Parashar Smriti with the provision of creating new rules as per the demands of changing times. The chapter titled Dharma-Acharan gives the eligibility criteria for the formation of a council of learned men who are fit for creating such laws:
One skilled in each of the four Vedas,
One who knows what a religious duty is and what is the expiation for its breach,
One who is competent to expound the Law,
One versed in the branches of the Veda,
One who has studied the institutes of law,
And the three, who are in any of the higher stages of life —
These ten persons are the best fitted to form a council.
– Verse 27
However, to ensure that these people do not become a law unto themselves, it is mentioned in the very next verse that the penance should not be prescribed independently, without the due approval of the king. It also lays down the ‘exclusion’ criteria for people who are Brahmins but only in name and lack real knowledge.
Brahmans who know not the religious rites, nor the mantras,
— Who make their living solely on the merit of their caste —
Even though gathered by thousands,
Cannot constitute a council (for expounding the law).
– Verse 8.4
As demonstrated in the case mentioned in the beginning of the article, enforcement of the law is critical to the welfare of people. But a law cannot be set in stone, for it must respond to ever new challenges that confront a society in its evolutionary journey. What may have been accepted as a self-evident truth some decades back could very well be considered problematic in the present day but we must remember that the corollary is equally valid. What is incomprehensible to us today may have been an inescapable choice to maintain order in the past. Therefore, it must be reiterated that it is a self-defeating endeavour to judge the social norms of the past through the sensibilities of the present and vice-versa.
With the above principle in mind, reading the Parashar Smriti does fill one with awe of the universality of its ideas and the wisdom of its dictums. In Parashar, we find a sage who could clearly see the decadence of Kali-yuga and prescribed guidelines according to the same. To our astonishment, we find that not only are the verses relevant but are in fact, deeply perceptive of the collective malaise of this day and age. A traditional reading of the same, one that is based on shraddha or respect, can offer our lawmakers a good template to think about policy and legislation. May Rishi Parashar bless our republic!