Talking About Smartas

[Wives of the brahmanas offering food]“Being advanced by thinking of Krishna constantly, they were performing the greatest form of mystic meditation. All the wives then became very busily engaged in filling up different pots with nice foodstuff. Due to the performance of the sacrifice, the various food was all very palatable. After collecting a feast, they prepared to go to Krishna, their most lovable object, exactly in the way rivers flow to the sea.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 23)

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Friend-One: I hear a lot of talk about smarta-brahmanas.

Friend-Two: And?

F1: One: I’m not really sure what the term means. Two: the tone seems to be pretty negative.

F2: Along the lines of “the smartas do this and the smartas do that.”

F1: Yeah, and that we shouldn’t be like the smartas. From the context of the statements, I have some sort of understanding, I think.

F2: Care to share?

[double yellow line on the road]F1: The smartas are those who follow the rituals and rules strictly. Whatever the guidelines may be, the smartas do not deviate from them. It’s sort of like the rule in driving about not crossing the double yellow line. Sometimes you have to, though, like if there is a car in front blocking your way.

F2: That’s a pretty good understanding of it. Smarta comes from the word smriti, which means “that which is remembered.”

F1: Shruti is the corresponding term, right?

F2: Shruti is that which is heard. The Vedas are known as the shrutis, since they are passed down originally in an oral tradition. Books are helpful, but they are not required. The people living on earth in the early portion of the creation are so pure that they can remember things after hearing them only a single time.

F1: Wow, that’s pretty cool. So the smritis would be things that are not as easily remembered, things you need to write down?

F2: Yeah, observances and the like. Think of it like succeeding in something after a difficult journey and then writing down your experiences. If, after the fact, you made up rules based on your experiences, then those become a kind of smriti.

F1: And shruti comes directly from the highest authority, like the Supreme Lord?

F2: Yeah, exactly. Anyway, so a smarta is someone who follows smriti very strictly.

F1: Oh, okay. My understanding was pretty accurate, then. That being the case, I have some questions about smartas, especially as it relates to bhakti-yoga.

F2: Bhakti-yoga is the eternal occupation of the spirit soul. It can never be bound by law codes, things that need to be remembered, or someone’s system of life developed off personal experiences.

[Lord Rama]F1: I understand that. The first issue I see is that Lord Ramachandra seemed to be a smarta. Though He is God Himself in an incarnation form, He followed Vedic teachings strictly. Why shouldn’t we follow Him? Why shouldn’t we be just as strict?

F2: It’s a different time and circumstance. Even so, Shri Rama sometimes broke the rules. He is the Supreme Lord, so He is never bound by anything. Sita and Lakshmana also showed this. They left home to follow Rama into the forest. They disobeyed Rama’s direct request. Rama was their superior, which would make them violators of the smarta system.

F1: I’ll accept that. Here’s a tougher issue to resolve. In the bhakti-yoga tradition, especially the one descending from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, I see so many rules and regulations. In fact, there are too many to keep track of. My head starts spinning when I think of them.

F2: There’s the four regulative principles: no meat eating, no gambling, no intoxication and no illicit sex. There’s the chanting sixteen rounds daily of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. There’s the no offending of other devotees. There’s the no standing with your back to the deities. There’s the no putting the demigods on an equal footing with Narayana, who is the same Rama and Krishna.

[Hari-bhakti-vilasa book]F1: So you obviously know what I mean. There’s that book, the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, I think it’s called. It’s got tons of rules. The Upadeshamrita of Rupa Gosvami seems similar. On the one side there’s criticism of the smarta-brahmanas and how their path is wrong. Then on the other side you get all these rules in bhakti-yoga. Seems like a contradiction to me.

F2: With all these rules you’re essentially creating a rival smarta system.

F1: Yeah. So how do you resolve the issue?

F2: Anytime there’s a rule, there’s a goal. The rule is to help achieve the goal.

F1: Okay.

F2: So in the smarta system, the highest goal you can achieve is the liberation of merging into the Brahman effulgence. That is difficult to get, so the more attainable goal is residence in the heavenly planetary system.

F1: And that’s really no different than where we currently live. The enjoyment is a little more, and the time spent there is greater too, but otherwise no difference.

F2: Exactly. In following the rules of bhakti-yoga, the goal is love for God. This is the highest goal of an existence; one rarely seen but still having the most value. Obviously love is never dependent on outside factors. You can follow all the rules you want, but it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get love. But the rules do help.

F1: I see. I guess the example of the yajna-brahmanas in Vrindavana would be appropriate to mention here. They followed the smritis so strictly that they refused to break from their rituals to feed God Himself. Krishna asked for food through His friends and these brahmanas said “no.” They were preoccupied.

[Krishna and Balarama fed by the wives of the brahmanas]F2: And the wives of the brahmanas said “yes.” They were devotees. They were in bhakti-yoga, even though they weren’t smartas. They cast aside the rules to serve God. That is a great example.

In Closing:

Smartas getting criticized so much,

Since bhakti’s path won’t dare to touch.


But Vaishnavas also with rules strict,

So from criticism not to contradict?


The highest goal of each just see,

Love never from rules only to be.


Smarta brahmanas to feed Krishna refused,

But their wives different, with bhakti infused.

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