Dharmashastras vs. Constitution – The Vision of Dr. P. V. Kane

P V Kane was one of those rare scholars who functioned as the much-needed bridge between the two sides of the gap. He knew Hindu scriptures deeply and was well versed not just in English, but in the modern Western traditions of logic and argumentation as well. He interpreted the Dharmashastras of Hindus to modern India, in accessible and readable language.

By Dr. Pankaj Saxena, Director of Rashtram’s Centre for Cultural Leadership, Associate Professor 

Pandurang Vaman Kane, (P V Kane) was one of the greatest Sanskrit scholars of the 20th century. He was not only deeply immersed in his own tradition but was also thoroughly aware of the Western tradition. Without discounting a possibility of reform in Hinduism, he was a traditionalist scholar who maintained that civilisational and cultural continuity is more fundamental to the flourishing of Indian civilisation. 

Born in the Ratnagiri district of the Konkan region, he became one of the most influential scholars not just of Maharashtra, but of entire India, working mainly from Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune and the Asiatic Society, Mumbai. The singular focus of his literary career was to make the ancient knowledge tradition of India more accessible to modern Hindus.

One of his most fundamental contributions to India is his History of Dharmashastra. Divided into five volumes and eight books, it is the most encyclopedic and comprehensive study of the Dharmashastras in modern times in the English language. He also wrote a History of Alamkarashastra, compiling all the aesthetic guides in one place. Working at the confluence of two different eras, he possessed a unique ability to make his own tradition accessible to his fellow Hindus who had lost touch with it. 

The era in which he worked was an era of massive intellectual disruption. The British had destroyed the educational system of India, leading to the disruption of knowledge traditions like it never had been since the era of the Delhi Sultanate. Before this disruption, most Hindus had managed to remain in touch with the essence of Hindu darshana and culture. But during the destruction of Hindu institutions in the Muslim and the British era, these institutions collapsed and a gap came between the carriers and the receivers of the knowledge. 

With the loss of Sanskrit as the lingua franca, and the destruction of India’s traditional educational institutions, those individuals and communities which carried forward the knowledge tradition of India were isolated from both the masses of India and also the modern institutions. Even after diligently documenting and carrying forward the knowledge tradition, they lost the ability to convey it to the masses. 

The masses too lost the ability to understand their own culture and civilization through their sacred symbols. A gap came between the two sides. The masses knew modern Indian languages and English but had no inkling of Sanskrit or the knowledge tradition. And the traditional scholars carried forward the knowledge tradition but had no means to convey it to modern Hindus in modern languages and metaphors. 

P V Kane was one of those rare scholars who functioned as the much-needed bridge between the two sides of the gap. He knew Hindu scriptures deeply and was well versed not just in English, but in the modern Western traditions of logic and argumentation as well. He interpreted the Dharmashastras of Hindus to modern India in accessible and readable language. 

His most important contribution to modern Hindu consciousness is however the doubt that he raised about the faith of modern Hindus in the Constitution of India. He rightly said that the Constitution of India is the greatest break in India’s civilizational continuity. It was not just different from the worldview of Dharmashastras, but was such a complete break from it that it espoused a diametrically opposite value system. 

Kane had his reasons to say so. He said that while the primary focus of the Dharmashastras is to illustrate the duties of individuals and communities, the Constitution based itself primarily on rights. While the Dharmashastras reflected a traditional value system in which people were driven by a sense of responsibility and duty, the Constitution recommended and pushed a value system where most individuals were driven by a sense of grievance of not having their rights and a narrative of victimhood. 

In 21st century, the warnings of Dr. P. V. Kane sound too real. What he feared has happened. The value system ingrained by the Constitution has taken root in the society after three successive generations were brought up on it and the results are everywhere to be seen. Individuals and communities are increasingly getting in friction with each other over severely contested rights. Instead of bringing different communities together in harmony, the narrative of rights is just making the faultlines deeper and deeper, between genders, castes, communities and regions. 

The much-maligned Dharmashastras depict a completely different worldview and society. In a society governed by a Dharmashastric worldview, individuals and communities are driven by a sense of responsibility for society. Conflicts when arise have a readymade mechanism of getting resolved. Faultlines are never encouraged. 

Today, on the birth anniversary of P V Kane, we should remember his warning of how a constitutional India is a complete break from India’s glorious tradition, and how a Dharmashastric point of view is capable of reconnecting modern Hindus to the continuity of Indic civilization and culture. 

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