Some general comments on Indian culture Part 3

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Some general comments on Indian culture Part 3

Post  Guest on Thu Oct 04, 2012 12:57 pm

Let me now discuss the influence of South India on North Indian culture. I quote from an article on the Mitakshara which became the standard Hindu law in most of modern India:

As is well known, the Mitakshara prevailed all over India except in Bengal and Assam where the Dayabhaga prevailed. The Mitakshara is a commentary on only one Smriti called Yajnavalkya Smriti, whereas Dayabhaga is a digest of all the Smritis. Although Hindu law is regarded as having emanated from the Vedas (Shruti) the truth is that there is scarcely any law in the Veda (Shruti) and the Hindu law that has really emanated from the Smritis. There were large number of Smritis of which the surviving ones are of Manu, Yajnavalkya, Vishnu, Narada, Apastamba, Gautam, Parasara, Vashist, Katyayana, etc.

As I have mentioned, the Mitakshara is a commentary only on the Yajnavalkya Smriti. The question therefore which arises is as to why Vijnaneshwara chose only the Yajnavalkya Smriti for his commentary. There was Manu Smriti which was held in even greater respect than Yajnavalkya Smriti, but Vijnaneshwara preferred to write his commentary on the Yajnavalkya Smriti rather than on Manu Smriti. We can get the answer to this question if we compare Manu Smriti with Yajnavalkya Smriti. Manu Smriti is not a systematic treatise. It does not have a clear-cut division between religion and law, as in Yajnavalkya Smriti. If we read the Manu Smriti, we will find that there is one shloka on religion, the next shloka on law, third on morality, etc. Everything is jumbled up.

On the other hand the Yajnavalkya Smriti is divided into three chapters. The first chapter is called Achara which deals with religion, the second chapter is called Vyavahara which deals with law, and the third chapter is called Prayaschit which deals with penance. Thus, there is a clear demarcation between law and religion in Yajnavalkya Smriti, which is not to be found in the Manu Smriti. This demarcation between law and religion itself is a great advance over the Manu Smriti. Thus, the Yajnavalkya Smriti marks a tremendous advance in law over the Manu Smriti. Law is now clearly separated from religion.

This is analogous to the Roman law or to the positivist jurisprudence in the 19th century of Bentham and Austin. Also, the Yajnavalkya Smriti is shorter and more liberal, particularly towards women than the Manu Smriti. It was perhaps for this reason that Vijnaneshwara preferred the Yajnavalkya Smriti to the Manu Smriti for writing his commentary.

As is well known, the Mitakshara was written by Vijnaneshwara during the reign of Vikramarka, a Chalukya ruler of the 11th century A.D. Although, the Mitakshara was written by a South Indian, its remarkable feature is that its authority spread all over India except Bengal and Assam (where too it has great respect) and it was accepted as the authoritative text on Hindu law even in North India. Mitakshara was certainly not a law made by Parliament. In fact, in those days there was no Parliament and the law consisted of treatises of learned jurists.

The Mitakshara was accepted as an authoritative text on Hindu law not due to promulgation by any sovereign authority such as the King or Parliament, but due to its tremendous scholarship, logical analysis and the sheer force of intellect of its author. The importance of the Mitakshara therefore is that it teaches us to have respect for intellect and learning wherever it may come from. As the Rig Veda says, "Let noble thoughts come to us from every side." or as it is said..."A king is worshipped only in his own country, but a learned man is worshipped everywhere." This is the lesson which the Mitakshara teaches us in the 21st century. If India has to rise as a nation we must not be sectarian or chauvinists but all must feel like Indians living like a united family and must respect each other, whether we come from North or South, East or West.

The second importance of Vijnaneshwara's Mitakshara in India in the 21st century is the great progress it made in traditional Hindu law by making it secular. In this connection it may be mentioned that in ancient India there was not only great development in Philosophy, Mathematics and Science, but there was also great advancement in the field of law. Until the Mitakshara of Vijnaneshwara came into existence, Smritis and commentaries were largely religious and not secular. It was the Mitakshara which was the first to make the laws of property and inheritance secular.

The above discussion shows that Vijnaneshwara struck a totally new note in the development of Hindu law and made it secular. This has great importance for the 21st century when secularism is absolutely essential for the unity and progress of the nation. India is a country with tremendous diversity, innumerable religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups, cultures, etc. Hence only secularism and respect for everybody can keep the country together and make it progress. That is also the mandate of the Constitution, vide Articles 25 to 30 of the Constitution. Apart from the above, the Mitakshara of Vijnaneshwara liberalised the law with regard to women. He provided for maintenance not only of the chaste wife but also the unchaste wife and unchaste widow. Also, while earlier writers circumscribed women's property within the narrow limits prescribed by Manu, Vijnaneshwara included all property however acquired within the definition. In this connection his liberal views evoked protests from conservative scholars, one writer going so far as to say that a particular rule was evolved by Vijnaneshwara out of his brain and hence deserved no consideration. However, ultimately all scholars recognised and accepted his views. Due to his progressive views women became entitled to hold and inherit property. Hence, even though the Mitakshara may not be in vogue today except in matters of Hindu coparcenary property, yet the path it has shown is the path which India should pursue for its progress and prosperity.


Vijnaneshwara is either a Telugu or Kannadiga. As the author rightly says, it is a remarkable fact that his Mitakshara was accepted all over India (with the exception of Assam and Bengal where Dayabhaga prevailed, but even here the Mitakshara was respected). The acceptance of the Mitakshara as Hindu law by even North Indians, even though it was composed by a South Indian, is an excellent example of South Indians shaping not just South Indian culture but also North Indian culture. The example of the Mitakshara also shows that there are certain aspects of Indian culture which are of a composite nature: they are like threads which bind together all regional Indian sub-cultures.

(to be continued)


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