Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

On Atmatusti as a Source of Dharma

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

On Atmatusti as a Source of Dharma

Article excerpt

The sources of Hindu dharma have been discussed in places too numerous to mention exhaustively (see, e.g., Jolly 1928: 1-4; Kane 1962-75: 1.6-7; Lingat 1973: 3-17). Three sources or "roots" (mula) are most commonly mentioned in the standard Sanskrit texts on religious law: 1) sruti, or the Vedas, i.e., unassailable revelation, 2) smrti, the recorded "memory" of great sages, and 3) acara, the standards or "customary laws" of communities. The nature of an occasionally mentioned fourth source, atmatusti, (1) "what pleases oneself," has sometimes been cited as an inner source of morality, an appeal to conscience, and so forth. (2) In this interpretation atmatusti is described as opening a door to the internal world of moral choice in Hindu thought in which a highly relativized or personal sense of right and wrong is deemed valuable by a tolerant and inclusive Hinduism. This understanding is part of the "neo-Hindu" elevation of personal experience, intuition, and "mystical empiricism" over scriptural authority promoted by thinkers such as Debendranath Tagore and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (Halbfass 1988: 381, 396). (3) The modern subordination of Hindu sacred texts to the "inspirations of the heart" radically inverted the classical Hindu theology on dharma.

Recently some scholars of Hindu law have appropriated this modern Hindu perspective without due consideration of its differences from the classical position. Perhaps the most ambitious interpretation in this direction is Menski's recent attempt to describe the Hindu law tradition as a system of "self-controlled ordering" that "is the first and foremost method of 'finding' dharma, i.e., ascertaining the relevant Hindu law. This method, which results primarily in the invisible process of internal self-examination of one's conscience, may well settle nearly all disputes or situations of insecurity" (2003: 126). (4) Following Menski, though with greater attention to the relevant texts, Francavilla has gone so far as to claim that atmatusti is "the ultimate criterion to judge the appropriateness of a behavior" (2006: 175). Though no direct link is made, these reinterpretations of atmatusti echo "neo-Hindu" efforts to universalize, moralize, and centralize personal experience as the final authority of religious understanding. (5)

In this article, I reexamine the classical Hindu legal texts on atmatusti and argue against easy characterizations of it as inner morality or conscience, by presenting an extensive, though not exhaustive, series of the commentarial discussions of the concept of atmatusti from the Sanskrit Dharmasastra texts, principally Manava-Dharmasastra (MDh) 2.6 and Yajnavalkya-Smrti (YS) 1.7. I have not included in full the important discussion of atmatusti from the Purva-Mimamsa tradition in Kumarila's Tantravarttika on PMS 1.3.7 (translated in Jha 1924: 188-89), but I have incorporated relevant passages from it to supplement my main focus on Dharmasastra. Kumarila clearly influenced Medhatithi's commentary on MDh, which is largely a summary of Kumarila, and he is cited by Mitra Misra as well.

The parameters of atmatusti were described by Lingat in a way that anticipates the basic conclusions of this article:

  ... it is only when all the other sources are silent that the rule of
  dharma may be sought in the approval of one's conscience. The
  commentators on Manu add the hypothesis that where one has a choice
  between two ways of acting conscience will show which is to be
  preferred. They believe, moreover, that the approval of conscience,
  as a rule of life, is not to be admitted except in the cases of
  individuals of great virtue. ... When the Mimamsa method came to be
  applied to the texts of the smrti it left very little room for atma-
  tusti. (1973: 6)

Modifying Lingat's order slightly, atmatusti is severely restricted in the texts 1) to situations of technical option (vikalpa), i.e., to situations in which the texts give contradictory rules about either ritual or legal action; (6) 2) to situations not covered by any of the other three sources of dharma; and 3) to persons of impeccable character, meaning that they have deep training in and knowledge of the Vedas. …

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