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Achara – Conduct In Hinduism

In Hinduism, Achara (conduct) is the third source of law (dharma) next only to Vedas and Smritis. Some customs were incorporated into formal law, though this incorporation was not uniform. Customary rules were modified to suit the needs and the philosophy of the times. This is called Kalachara.

At the lower level of judicial adjudication, disputes were mostly decided on the basis of custom. In modern law, before a custom is enforced by a court, it is necessary to prove the existence of that custom. And, for a custom to receive recognition, it is necessary that it should be ancient and invariable. It should also be established by unambiguous evidence, and be continuous, certain and reasonable.

Customs came to be regarded equal in authority to Shruti (Vedas, which in earliest times were retained by oral tradition only) itself, and sometimes even of great authority. It is said that the customs of a country should receive the first consideration.

It is necessary to note here that any shastric code, if infringed, would amount to sin and attract corresponding atonement.

The very purpose of observing traditional customs is to inculcate and sustain discipline and orderliness in society. Smritis such as Manusmriti, Yajnavalkyasmriti, and Parasarasmriti as well as Dharmashastras have codified many of the achara or practices in vogue in society. The also direct people to follow these codes. Grihyasutras such as those of Bodhayana, Ashvalayana, Paraskara and others are exclusive treatises dealing in detail with the customary practices.

Smritis deal with such practices under the three categories of achara, vyavahara and prayaschita. While vyavahara stands for law, and prayascchita speaks of purification as well as atonements, achara relates samskaras. The primary aim of achara is to refine and regulate man in his long journey of life. It attaches a lot of significance to every rite, be it naming, tonsuring, feeding and so on. As in the case of language, which is not a mere sound, but which needs to be perfected and polished, so does human life require to be refined and polished through domestic rites and practices. These are pre-natal sacraments, educational customs, marriage rituals and obsequial ceremonies. At every sate of a man’s life, as an infant, a child, student, married man, householder, retired person and an old man, there are appropriate customs which guide and mold him towards the ultimate goal of life.

It is said that even Vedas cannot purify such a person who does not follow the achara. Vishnusahasranama declares that God is the Lord of Dharma and dharma itself emerges out of achara. The customs which are practiced by generations of shishtakas or righteous men are looked upon as authoritative. They are known as Shishtachara. Even if no prescription is found in the extant Smriti and Dharmashastra texts, their activities can be emulated.

Smriti texts themselves sanction the freedom of following regional and local customs which have more authority that the general injunctions. Besides the religious connotation, the word achara refers to even social practices which have no religious implication. For instance, a door-keeper in a royal place holds a cane staff, merely as a custom.

Customs are broadly divided into three groups. The first group consists of customs prevalent only in certain regions, deshachara. The second group includes family customs called kulachara. The third group consists of customs current in specific caste called varnachara.