Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Do Hindus have a system of religious law?

Surely the single most important Hindu religious concept is that of dharma. As a universal notion dharma is the cosmic “law” that binds all things together. Each individual person also has his or her dharma, the fundamental religious requirements and ethical expectations associated with each person’s station in life. Classical Hindu sources also use the term dharma in reference to countless specific moral duties and ritual rubrics. Treatises called shastras are the principal repositories of the Hindu legal and ethical materials. They belong to the larger category of sacred literature called smriti (“remembered”), revered as of divine origin, but subordinate in authority to shruti (“heard”) scriptures. The Dharma Shastras, and related texts like the Grihya Sutras that include detailed information on every facet of “householder” life, derive ultimately from a text generally known as the Laws of Manu (dated variously from 600 B.C.E.-100 C.E.). The ancient law books have retained their authority well into modern times. Only recently have India’s legislative bodies introduced serious and sweeping reforms. But the antiquity of tradition and inherent cultural resistance to change have kept many practices alive in spite of official attempts to adapt the classics to contemporary needs.


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