‘Sanatana Dharma', the name by which Hinduism was known in the past, implies a code of human conduct, a set of tenets that has been handed down from time immemorial. This book presents select material from the Kanchi Paramacharya's wide-ranging discourses, and the topics covered include: religion in general; the sastras and modern life; the Vedas, their content and purport; the samskaras (purificatory ceremonies); dharma common to all; and the duties specifically enjoined on people in the four stages of human life.
Like the word ‘yoga' occurring in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘dharma' defies precise definition. It could mean one's duties linked to one's class and stage in life. Or it may refer to different areas of general human conduct, as for instance discipline, manners, management, and law. That one has to follow the ‘dharma' prescribed for him and it is hazardous to tread on what is ordained for another is stressed in the Gita in two places.
The Sage of Kanchi's extraordinary ability to present even highly intricate and abstruse concepts and ideas clearly and in a way even a lay person can easily understand comes across strikingly throughout. And so does his deftness in tackling controversial issues and apparently conflicting/contradicting interpretations in Hindu religion.
That he was an exemplar of what goes to make a true Acharya emerges clearly from this publication. According to the Sastras, a preceptor is one who, apart from delving deep into the scriptures and assimilating them, makes his wards adhere to the tenets of ‘dharma' and shows them the way by setting an example himself. Issues related to ‘tradition' versus ‘modernity' have also been handled convincingly.
To cite a few examples: questions affecting the various ‘classes' in society; the seeming incongruity between the ‘karma kanda' and the ‘jnana kanda' of the Vedas; and the non-prescription of rituals and ritualistic purification for women. These differences, the Paramacharya explains, should not be construed in terms of superiority or inferiority, but seen in the wider context of creation, where such variations had their own purposes. They are in a way sui generis of creation.
Michael Oren Fitzgerald has done a commendable job as the editor of this publication, sifting through 6,500 pages of material of the Paramacharya's discourses, which have been recorded, transcribed and translated into English. In his scholarly introduction,
Arvind Sharma draws interesting parallels between Paramacharya and Mahatma Gandhi. He also highlights portions from the book where questions frequently raised about ‘dharma' are dealt with. The publication, which has a number of photographs of the savant — many of them rarely seen — is of the kind that has an enduring value, to be preserved and read repeatedly for guidance and contemplation.