The Dharma Sastras

The Dharma Sastras are texts in Hinduism that are concerned with the legal precedent or law that is in relation to dharma (Rodrigues, 535). Dharma as it relates to the Dharma Sastra’s acts as a guide to what a Hindu must do in their life to fulfil their dharmic duty. In relation to religious texts for Hindu’s the Dharma Sastras are considered smrti [all texts containing traditions] not sruti [divinely heard or from the gods] an example of these are the Vedas (Banerji, 1). As the Dharma Sastras are smrti which are of human authorship they are not as revered as are the main sruti texts of the Hindu religion.

The exact origin of the Dharma Sastras is not known but it is believed that the Dharma Sastras can be traced back to Vedic times. The Dharma Sastras were believed to be written because the Dharma Sutras[texts that contained dharmic law and were the basis for the Dharma Sastras] were antiquated and a new text was needed to address the increasingly complex needs of society. Therefore, the Dharma Sastras were needed to explain the more complex matters that were arising in this new era (Banerji, 4-5).

Just as the Dharma Sutras contains many works, the Dharma Sastras do as well, with the main works being of Manu, Yajnvalka, Parasara, Katyayana, and Narada, [these are all different Dharma Sastra writers however Manu was most extensive and all had similar teachings]; however, these are just a few of the works that are considered Dharma Sastras, and there are many more examples. This paper will mention the main two Dharma Sastras, which are regarded highly as important smrti writings and legal codices of ancient India. The two works are the works of Manu and Yajnavalka. Where Manu`s works contains information on acara, prayascitta, vyavahara, and rajadharma. Where the Yajnavalka only comments on three of these which are the acara, prayascitta, and, vyavahara (Banerji 30-35)

The Manu Smrti is a name used for the Laws of Manu. It is considered the most important of the Dharma Sastras [the composition of Manu Smrti according to B. C. Kane to fall somewhere in between second century BC and second century AD](Banerji, 31). The Laws of Manu are composed of a manuscript which is divided into twelve adhyayas [lessons or chapters]. According to Patrick Olivelle these twelve adhyayas is an “old version” as all of the commentaries on it Manu’s works follow that there is the twelve adhyayas. However, Olivelle suggests that it is not the original breakup of the adhyayas of the Laws of Manu, and further suggests that there was a possibility of more at one time before the commentaries were written (Olivelle, 7). This version is also considered to contain two thousand six hundred ninety four verses. However, it is not known who composed the work; there are several different opinions concerning authorship, such as those who believe that Manu was a mythical being; others believe that it arose from a school propounded by a sage named Manu (Banerji, 31). In P. V. Kane’s History of the Dharmasastras, he states that myth says Manu is possibly the father of the human race and a semi-divine sage that received the laws and regulations from God (Kane, 307 vol. 1). This causes confusion as to who was the actual author of the work. However, the work itself says “Brahma formulated this sastra, and taught it to Manu. (Banerji, 31) ” This Dharma Sastra has some contradicting statements such as allowing brahmins to take a sudra wife in one adhyaya and forbidding it in another adhyaya. This brings forth an assumption that this Dharma Sastra was possibly brought through three different stages of its development in its writing. While, this is thought because of the contradictions may indicate the works could have been written by more than one hand.  Some scholars disagree that this is the case.  It is said that the Laws of Manu is to the most commented on of all the smrti literature composed (Banerji, 30-34). It is also considered to be the most authoritative work of all the Dharma Sastras and is commented in the Yajnavalka by saying “that smrti which runs counter to Manu is not commended (Banerji, 33)” and “whatever Manu said is medicine. (Banerji, 33)” Showing that this Dharma Sastra is the most influential work, it is even stated in other versions of the Dharma Sastras as other authors of the Dharma Sastras recognize it as the most .

The Yajnavalka Smrti [the second most important Dharma Sastra] which was composed by Yajnavalka himself is also very important version of the Dharma Sastra. It is believed to have been written between first century BCE and third century CE.  This version is important because it brings order to three of the subjects that are touched in the Laws of Manu. The three topics that Yajnavalka brings order to is acara, vyavahara, and prayascitta. Yajnavalka lays these out in an order so that they are to be easily understood. The most famous portion of this Dharma Sastra is its section on the vyavahana which concerns itself with secular law. A subsection in the vyavahana has actually given rise to two different schools of law, the Mitaksara which is law in all of India except Bengal, and the Dayabhaga which is the law in Bengal. There have been a few changes made to the Yajnavalka, between eight hundred and eleven hundred CE and other then these few changes the text is believed to be intact since seven hundred CE (Banerji, 34-35)

I will now touch on the subjects that are talked about in the Dharma Sastras, these topics being acara, vyavahara, prayascitta, and rajadharma. Acara [customary laws] in the Dharma Sastras is concerned with the practice of dharma in the everyday life of a Hindu and the ways in which they must live in order to be a dharmic Hindu (Davis, 814). This meaning that acara was concerned with ensuring that you could have a good dharmic life. To ensure that a person has a good dharmic life they must follow the samskaras [life cycle rites that Hindus participate in(Rodrigues, 562)] . This is mostly for brahmins who are to lead a life devoted to the dharma. These samskaras are there to help these brahmins remove their taint and sin that they inherit from their parents. In the acara concerning samskaras there are certain rituals that are only reserved for the twice-born castes brahmin, ksatriya, and vaisyas. Within the twice-born casts, only the males are allowed to have Vedic mantras said, however, in the case of marriage Vedic mantras are uttered for the females of twice-born families. Sudras are only allowed to perform samskaras not reserved for the twice-born. However it is now thought that most of the samskaras are now considered obsolete. Marriage it is not seen as much as a samskara but more of a contract (banerji, 77-81). An example of acara is its provisions in the Laws of Manu regarding bride’s price, selection of a bride, and types of marriage, just to name a few that are concerned with the acara.

Vyavahara [civil and criminal law] is concerned with disputes of law in the sense that western society thinks of law. It contains both civil and criminal law that we in the western world (Banerji, 157). According to the Laws of Manu there are eighteen different disputes. To name a few there is: rnadana which is non-repayment of debt, strisamgrahana which is the molestation and unlawful sexual union of women, and samahvaya which is animal-betting. This is showing that vyavahara concerns itself with the actual laws of the Hindu society which is part of their dharmic responsibility. For a person to follow dharma they must follow these laws because if you break these laws you are not fulfilling your dharmic duty and therefore not fulfilling your responsibilities to dharma. When you look at Hindu laws it is shown that  a similar code covers similar topics as our own laws such as judicial proceedings, evidence, possession and ownership, and crime and punishment (Banerji, 157-167). The Laws of Manu shows examples of what to do with criminal code such as theft and thieves in chapter eight which includes others crimes such as violence and the code also includes how the justice system is to function and a range of different criminal charges (Olivelle, 167-189).

Prayascitta [penance or washing away ones sins] is concerned with the penance of a sinner. It is the washing off of their sin where they make amends for their crimes against dharma. Prayascitta is meant to be used to avert the sinners fall into hell and allows for the sinner to be acceptable for social interaction in that he can partake in social activities within the society. However, prayascitta only makes the sinner acceptable for social interaction within society if they did not intentionally sin. If the person intentionally commits a sinful deed they can avert from falling into hell but cannot gain back their right for social interaction within regular society (Banerji, 90-92). The prayascitta is the way that a Hindu is punished for their wrongdoing. Just as someone in western society is given a jail sentence for a crime to pay penance for his/her wrongdoing; prayascitta to a Hindu is in a sense there “jail sentence” to make amends for their wrongdoing as the jail sentence is to the westerner. Examples of this would be punishments for people who breach Hindu law such as punishments for thieves that is found in chapter eight of Manu’s code of law (Olivelle, 184)

In regards to the last section of Laws of Manu; the section raja dharma concerns itself with the kingly dharma. It is concerned with how a King must live and it contains information on where a king must live and how he must protect himself. It also includes information on how he is to receive council from his ministers; who to have as ambassadors, political expedients’, and other topics that are needed for a king to do their duty (Banerji, 92-100).

These four topics are what make up most of the Dharma Sastras. These are guides for the Hindus to follow in their life. Especially brahmins as they are expected to lead a dharmic life. With these codes they are able to sustain a society that is prosperous and cohesive.

The Dharma Sastras discusses issues from how to live dharmically to what will happen if the codes of your dharma are not followed. It teaches the Hindus about how they must live in their everyday life and shows what are expected of them in their life. It is seen that the Dharma Sastras are also connected to other aspects of the Hindu’s life such as the Arthasastras as they are related in what they teach regarding one’s life duties (Banerji, 6-7). We also see that the Dharma Sastras are related to the epics, in that the epics are seen as the “sources of dharma (Banerji, 7).” The Mahabharata contains many matters that are in the Dharma Sastras so one could think that it is a possibility that the epics are a way of teaching the Hindu’s on how to live there life in an easily understandable way through the narrative. The Dharma Sastras are books that help with everyday life for every Hindu and are needed to ensure that there dharmic duties are fulfilled. These texts are needed for Hindus culture because they make up what a Hindu is and what a Hindu does, showing them how in their lives they can attain their ultimate dharmic goal eventually through living a life of dharma and attaining moksa [liberation from the worldly state].

References and Further Readings

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the eBook an Online introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics online Books.

Olivelle, Patrick (2005) Manu’s Code of Law A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Banerji, S.C.(1999) A Brief History of Dharmasastra.New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kane, Pandurang (1968) History of Dharmasatras vol.1, 4. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Davis, Donald R. (2004) Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32:5-6:p.813-830

Related Topics:

  • Dharma Sutras
  • Laws of Manu
  • Yajnavalka Smrti
  • Mahabharata
  • Acara
  • Prayascitta
  • Vyabahara
  • Rajadharma
  • Artha Sastras

Related websites:

Article written by: Tony Slezina (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

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