The noble characters who figure in the Puranas serve as an ideal for all of us to follow. When we read their stories we are inspired by their example and we ask ourselves why we cannot be like them ourselves, why we should not share their qualities. But, even if we wanted to emulate their lives, would we be able to live like them without deviating at any time from the high principles that they upheld?
Man by nature is always unstill: he cannot keep his mind quiescent even for a moment. Bhagavan says in the Gita : "Not for a moment can a man remain still, without doing work". So one must know the right path for work. One must make one's mind pure, acquire the highest of qualities and, finally, transcending these very qualities, realise the Brahman.
How can we live according to the tenets of our religion? How can we wash away our sins and cleanse our Self? And what must we do to attain everlasting happiness? Is not our present birth a consequence of the sins we committed in our past lives? We have to free ourselves from them and be careful not to sin afresh. We must elevate ourselves, our mind and character, so that we are not embroiled in sin again. The purpose of religion is this, to ennoble us and turn us away from sin. But how? How do we live according to the teachings of our religion? We do not know how.
In our present condition, what do we claim to know? Perhaps a little bit of Ramayana, the Bhagavata and other Puranas. We learn about the religious life lived by the characters portrayed in these works. But neither the Puranas nor the epics deal with the rights in a codified form, nor do they contain directions for their proper performance.
The Puranas and the epics give a dominant place to devotion. Is it possible to be engaged in devotion all the time, or to keep singing the glory of the Lord day and night? Or, for that matter, to be similarly engaged in a puja and meditation throughout? No. We have a family to look after. We have to bath and eat and we have so much other work to do - all this takes time. The remaining hours cannot be set apart for puja. It would all be tiresome and we have, besides, to do other good works. How do we get such information?
From the Dharmasastra.
Of the fourteen branches of learning (caturdasa-vidya) Dharmasastra comes last. Puranic characters, who represent our ideal, show us the goal. The path to attain that goal starts with the performance of karma, works. The Dharmasastra contain practical instructions in our duties, in the rites to be performed by us. In the Vedas these duties are mentioned here and there. The Dharmasastra is an Upanga that deals with them in detail and in a codified form.
There is an orderly way of doing things, a proper way, with regard to household and personal matters including even bathing and eating. The ordinances of Vedas cover all aspects of life and to conduct ourselves according to them is to ennoble our Self. Whatever we do must be done in the right manner - how we lie down, how we dress, how we build our house. The idea is that all this helps our being. Life is not compartmentalised into the secular, worldly and the religious. The Vedic dharma is such that in it even mundane affairs are inspired by the religious spirit. Whatever work is done is done with the chanting of mantras and thus becomes a mean of Atmic progress. Just as worldly life and religious life are integrated, harmonised, so are the goals of individual liberation and common welfare kept together.
The devotion we imbibe from the Puranas is part of the Vedas also. But with it is associated a good deal of karma. When devotion takes the form of rite called puja there are certain rules to be observed. Apart from puja there are sacrifices and rites like sraddha and tarpana as important elements of the Vedic dharma. But these are not codified in the Vedas nor is any procedure laid down for each of them.
"Vedo khilo dharmamulam, " says Manu (The Vedas are the root of all dharma. ) The work that the Vedas bid us perform for our inner well-being also serve the purpose of bringing good to the world. What is called dharma is that which fosters both individual and social welfare. The Vedas are the root of this dharma, its fountainhead.
But the rites and duties are not given in an orderly form in the Vedas, nor is the procedure for works laid down in detail. Of the Vedas that are infinite we have obtained only a very small part. And we do not comprehend fully the meaning of many of the passages even of this small part.
As we have seen the sixth Vedanga, Kalpa, contains the Dharmasutras, Grhyasutras and Srautasutras, relating to rites based on the Vedas. But the sutras are brief and do not constitute a detailed guide. The dharmasastras elaborate upon them without leaving any room for doubt.
The Dharmasutras (by Apastamba, Gautama and others) are terse statements and are so according to the very definition of the term "sutras". The dharmasastras (by Manu, Yagnavalkya, Parasara and others) are called Smrtis and are in verse and detail in treatment. Their basis, however, is constituted by the Vedas. The function of Dharmasastra is to analyse and explicate the sutras of Kalpa which have to some extent systematised the Vedic rules and injunctions. If Kalpa gives instructions about the constructions of the Vedic altar, of houses, etc, Dharmasastra provides a code of conduct embracing all human activities.
We want to perform a ritual, but how do we go about it? We do not know where the propriety or otherwise of performing it is mentioned in the Vedas. Nor do we know where instructions are given about it. What are we to do then? We do not know anyone who has mastered all the Vedas. Extracting information from them about the rite we want to perform is impossible because they are like the expanse of a vast ocean. If the Vedas bid us "Do like this, " we do so. But since we do not know their ordinances well enough, what are we to do? The answers to this questions are given by Manu: "The sages who had mastered the Vedas composed the Smrtis. Find out what they have to say. "What we call Smrtis make up Dharmasastra.
"Vedo'khilo dharmamulam / Smrtisile ca tadvidam".
"Smrti" is what is remembered. "Vismrti" is insanity. Manu observes :"There is Smrti for the Vedas in the form of notes. The sages who had a profound understanding of the Vedas have brought together the duties and rites (dharma and karma) mentioned in them in the form of notes and they constitute the Smrtis. They are written in a language that we can easily understand. Read them. They tell you about your in detail, the do's and don'ts, and how the rites are to be performed. "
We have seen that the sixth Vedanga, Kalpa, contains instructions about the Vedic works. The Grhyasastras, Dharmasastras and Srautasastras of Kalpa deal with sacrifices and other rites. The Smrtis elaborate on them and contain detailed instructions with regard to the rite one has to perform through one's entire life. Actually, there are rituals to be conducted from the time of conception until death. The Smrtis also lay down the daily routine to be followed by all of us.
For a general background, please see here