ॐ Hindu Of Universe ॐ
“God’s light is within you, It never leaves you.”

The Dharma Shastras

The Dharma Shastras include the law codes of Hinduism, both secular and religious (since both were very much inseparable).They deal with three main subjects: codes of conduct, civil and criminal law, and punishment and atonement.

Most important is the Manu Smriti (or Manu Samhita), still consulted in Indian law. It was written by Manu, an administrative demigod (the “ruler of mankind”) and the first law-giver. The word “man” is said to derive from Manu. There are fourteen Manus during each creation of the world. The Manu Smriti contains 2,700 verses divided into twelve chapters. Most scholars claim that it was written between 300 and 600 BCE. Other important dharma texts were written by Yajnavalkya, Parashara, and Narada.

The Manu Smriti establishes the Hindu way of life. It specifically outlines the duties of the four varnas and four ashramas. It extols the virtues of the brahmanas, but clearly states that the varna divisions are based on individual merit and capacity rather than birthright. The text also deals with rules of inheritance and adoption, and with law and the science of government.

An illustration of the “blue jackal” from a popular version of the Panchatantra.

Closely related is the Artha Shastra, a text that discusses the science of acquiring wealth and power. One such popular work is the Artha Shastra of Chanakya (also known as Kauntila), who was the prime minister of King Chandra Gupta, reputed to have defeated Alexander the Great.

Chanakya also studied many scriptures and compiled an anthology of popular wisdom in the form of proverbs. It is part of the Niti-shastra, which also includes the famous animal fables of the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha.

Scriptural Passages

“A man should not associate with a woman in a solitary place, not even with his mother; sister, or daughter, for the senses are so strong that they lead astray even a person advanced in knowledge.”

Manu Smriti 2.215

Personal Reflection

  • How does the quote from Manu (above) relate to popular opinion today? Is it out of date, or could it be relevant?
  • Do any of the proverbs relate to our experience?
  • Are there any similar proverbs from our own background?
  • What do they really mean?

Related Values and Issues

  • Citizenship
  • Crime and punishment
  • Capital punishment
  • Morality
  • Rights and responsibilities
  • Classless society/equal opportunity
  • Righteous war/chivalry

Verses From Chanakya

  • A pigeon today is better than a peacock tomorrow.
  • The union of even small people can become irresistible. The elephant is tied up with rope made of grass.
  • As the gardener plucks each flower without destroying its root, so should the ruler collect revenue without harming its source.
  • Excessive courtesy should never be trusted.
  • Flies go after open wounds, bees after flowers, good people after good qualities, mean people after faults

Hindu Dharma: Dharmasastra
The chapters that exist in “Dharmasastra” are listed in this page.

To go to another part in “Hindu Dharma”, please either go back or see the bottom of this page.

Dharma Shastra
Dharma Shastra or Dharmaśāstra (Sanskrit: धर्मशास्त्र, “Religious law book.”) — a term referring to all or any of numerous codes of Hindu civil and social law composed by various authors. The best known and most respected are those by Manu and Yajnavalkya. The Dharma Shastras are part of the Smriti literature, included in the Kalpa Vedanga, and are widely available today in many languages.

The Dharma Shastras, along with the Artha Shastras, are the codes of Hindu law, parallel to the Muslim Sharia, the Jewish Talmud, each of which provides guidelines for kings, ministers, judicial systems and law enforcement agencies. These spiritual-parliamentary codes differ from British and American law, which separate religion from politics. (Contemporary British law is influenced by Anglican Christian thought, just as American democracy was, and is, profoundly affected by the philosophy of its non-Christian, Deistic founders.) The Dharma Shastras also speak of much more, including creation, initiation, the stages of life, daily rites, duties of husband and wife, varnasrama, Vedic study, penances and transmigration.

Written after the Dharmasūtras, these texts use a metered verse and are much more elaborate in their scope. Scholars have postulated that these texts are actually compilations of common gnomic verses of the times, known by the śiṣṭas. Such verses were regularly cited as legitimation for legal judgments and advice. At some point these verses were gathered together into complete texts under the name of particular sages. These texts are said to have been edited and updated with additions of verses which had not previously been included.[48] However, there is an ongoing debate amongst scholars regarding this matter. Other scholars refute the multiple authorship idea, claiming that the major texts were written by a single author at a particular time in history and remained relatively unedited as time went by. [49] Regardless, by attributing their authorship to that of well known sages like Nārada, the text takes on a superior authority. The most influential texts are listed below, along with their approximate dates:

The Manusmṛti is the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism.
The Yājñavalkya Smṛti has been called the “best composed” and “most homogeneous” text of the Dharmaśāstra tradition, with its superior vocabulary and level of sophistication.
The Nāradasmṛti has been called the “juridical text par excellence” and represents the only Dharmaśāstra text which deals solely with juridical matters and ignoring those of righteous conduct and penance.
The Viṣṇusmṛti is one of the latest books of the Dharmaśāstra tradition in Hinduism and also the only one which does not deal directly with the means of knowing dharma, focusing instead on the bhakti tradition.
The Bṛhaspatismṛti is a modern reconstruction of a text that has not yet been found and may never have been recorded in written form. The attempt to author this lost Dharmaśāstra has been made based on a gathering of all verses attributed to the sage Bṛhaspati but pays full tribute to Manu as the ultimate authority on dharma.
The Kātyāyanasmṛti is another modern reconstruction similar to that of Bṛhaspatismṛti, specializing in vyavahāra.
All Dharmaśāstra derives its authority with reference to the Vedas, though few, if any, of the contents of most Dharmaśāstra texts can be directly linked with extant Vedic texts. Traditionally, Dharmaśāstra has, since the time of the Yājñvalkyasmṛti, been divided into three major topics: 1) ācāra, rules pertaining to daily rituals, life-cycle rites, and other duties of four castes or varṇas, 2) vyavahāra, rules pertaining to the procedures for resolving doubts about dharma and rules of substantive law categorized according the standard eighteen titles of Hindu law, and 3) prāyaścitta, rules about expiations and penances for violations of the rules of dharma.

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
Artha Sastras

Smritis (Dharma Shastra)
a) Law Code Books

  1. Manu samhita or smriti
  2. Yagyavalkya
  3. Parashar
  4. Narad
  5. Brihaspati
  6. Katyayan
    And many more.
    b) Bhagvada Gita
    c) Dharma Sutras

The Dharmashastras were written because:
(i) Social life became more complex as new towns emerged. People tended to travel long distances for trade and other purposes.
(ii) The Brahmans felt threatened and retaliated by laying down norms or codes of social conduct to be followed by different social groups existed in society.
(iii) The norms were compiled in Sanskrit of Dharmashastras, Dharmasutras and the Manusmriti.
(iv) The Brahmans claimed what they wrote to be obeyed by everyone. Evidences were contrary as all norms were not followed. The regional diversity which existed in the subcontinent and difficulties of communication could not make that possible.

Dharmasastra Book: What is the History of Dharmasastras?
Dharmasastras are social laws that include codes of conduct for individuals to observe throughout their life. Most Hindu traditional households teach at least some basic principles of Dharmasastras. The Dharmasastra books have over 5000 titles, divided into three categories of sutras, smritis, Nibandas, and Vrittis. Besides this, the Nibandas and Vrittas are juridical work meant for legal advisors to apply in their practice. As a result, Dharmasastras became influential when the early British administration started considering it as the rule of the land. In this excerpt, we will understand the summary and history of dharmasastras in brief.

Manu’s dharmasastra, known as Manusmriti, is the primary dharmasastra books that apply to the entire Manvantara, which is until the appearance of the next Manu. Manusmriti forms the basis of Hindu Law. Additionally, the 18 specific dharma-sastras are applicable at different points in time.

Types of Dharmasastras
Moreover, the 18 dharmasastras take after their authors: –

Dharmasastra books are about the right course of conduct. It talks about the legal administration but also about the procedures and the correct way to do it. Hindus know some basic principles of the Dharmasastra book. These include the proposition that duties are more significant than rights, that women are under perpetual guardianship of their closest male relatives, and that the king (i.e., the state) must protect the subjects from all harm, moral as well as material.

The techniques of Dharmashastra are mainly to state the ancient text, maxim, or stanza; to explain its meaning. Also, to reconcile divergent traditions, if necessary by use of the traditional science of interpretation (Mimamsa). However, Dharmashastra books provide only the basic principles of the law. The actual administration of law, the equivalent of case law, was historically carried out by local councils of elders called Panchayats.

Definition – What does Dharmasastra mean?
The Dharmasastra is a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts which give the codes of conduct and moral principles (dharma) for Hindus. The concept of dharma is important in both Hinduism and yoga, which also share roots with Hinduism.

There are estimated to be between 18 and 100 texts among the collection of Dharmasastra. It is believed that these originated in the Dharmasutra texts, which emerged during the Vedic era. The Dharmasastra offers commentaries on responsibilities, duties and ethics for an individual’s behavior toward oneself, one’s family and one’s community. As well as forming the roots of many modern Hindu practices, these texts are enlightening historical documents which give considerable information about ancient Indian society.

Yogapedia explains Dharmasastra
The Dharmasastra texts were written in poetic verses. Unlike the Vedas, they are not considered to be the direct outcome of revelations from the Divine and, as such, are not regarded as perfect. They are smriti, not shruti.

Some scholars advise that there are many aspects of the Dharmasastra texts that seem incongruous and undesirable in a modern egalitarian society; for instance, details about maintaining the caste system. They attempt to provide a framework for human conduct and an outline for how to live a moral life.

The main texts that comprise the Dharmasastra include the following:

The “Manusmriti” (from about the 2nd to 3rd century C.E.) is the text most often studied from the Dharmasastra by Hindus. It has particular influence on medieval Buddhism and Hinduism in Cambodia and Indonesia.
The “Yajnavalkya Smriti” (from about the 4th to 5th century C.E.) is considered the best crafted text of the Dharmasastra tradition
The “Naradasmriti” (from about the 5th to 6th century C.E.) is a juridical text as opposed to a text about righteous conduct
The “Visnusmriti” (from about the 7th century C.E.) details the bhakti tradition rather than dharma directly

Place of Dharmashastras in Hindu Worldview

Introduction: Current Situation

Shastras play a central role in Hindu tradition and society. However, due to the effects of colonialism, Hindus have become deracinated and have lost touch with this core aspect of our civilization.

The deracination is so deep that while detractors of Hinduism with ideological agendas continue to use Hindu Shastras as a tool to undermine Hinduism, the response from the Hindu side has been clumsy, disoriented, and one that involves denouncement of our Shastras as not relevant and outdated.

A good example of this is how texts in the Dharmashastra tradition, especially the Manu-dharmashastra (popularly called Manusmriti) is often blamed by the detractors of Hinduism as the root cause of every ill they can find in current society. There are many such examples.

This narrative against Hindu Shastras is one which has been carefully cultivated and promoted in academia, media, and popular culture. However, unfortunately, the typical Hindu response to this intellectual attack on Hindu Shastras is that these texts are outdated and we as a society have moved forward by reforming ourselves!

We can routinely find in the social media as well as in opinion pieces on media platforms following assertions about Hindu Shastras in general, about Dharmashastras in particular:

Hinduism is a way of life. It is not a book-based religion like the Abrahamic religions.
Hindus are not bound to any texts, real Dharma is in following tolerance and compassion. All religions teach these.
We must be flexible and forward looking and not bound to any tradition or texts as they lead to dogmatism and orthodoxy. Texts like Manusmriti has no place in a civilized and cultured society.
Manu & others Dharmashastra texts are Smritis which are based on time and place and hence are outdated today and no longer relevant. Instead, our constitution is the Smriti of today.
Smritis are not central to Hinduism. Instead, it is the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita which are central to Hinduism. Therefore, what Smritis say does not matter.
Most Hindus today keep Bhagavad Gita at home and not Dharmashastra texts like Manusmriti. Therefore what Dharmashastras say has no relevance today. A Hindu intellectual had apparently done a Twitter poll to ‘prove’ this.
All problematic assertions in Smritis are later day interpolations done by some wily Brahmanas who deserve choicest of abuses and hence, these texts are not worth considering.
Manu was never held in high esteem, nor was his text ever important. It was the British who brought Manusmriti on the central stage and did great distortions to it as part of colonial agenda.
There is a great need to sanitize and purify our texts by removing all such interpolations by wily Brahmins, the British etc. For example: a book titled ‘Vishuddha Manusmriti’ was brought out a few years ago as part of such sanitization project.
The root cause of such clumsy & disoriented response from the Hindu side that often involves denouncement of our Shastras as not relevant and outdated is the ignorance and confusion regarding the place and role of Shastras in Hindu Dharma, in particular the role and function of texts like Manusmriti, Yajnavalkyasmriti etc. which are a genre of texts collectively called as ‘Dharmashastras’.

This essay seeks to understand the place of Dharmashastra texts in Hindu scheme of things.

Dharmashastra: A Definition

The term Dharmashastra contains two words: Dharma and Shastra.

The term ‘dharma’ can be variously understood to mean ethics, morality, law, justice, duty, righteousness etc. depending upon the context of its usage. In the context of an individual, dharma refers to the duties and the righteousness of actions. In the context of a society, dharma refers to social harmony and morality. In the context of governance, dharma refers to law and justice and in the cosmic context, dharma refers to cosmic order and balance.

Literally, dharma means that which upholds. Mahanarayana Upanishad (79.7) states that dharma supports the whole cosmos and removes all sins. Similarly, Lord Krishna in Mahabharata ((Karna Parva 69.58)) says that dharma is that which upholds all created beings.

A more practical definition of Dharma that explicitly explains what this ‘upholding’ means is found in Vaishishika Sutra 1.1.2, which says: “That (i.e. those actions) which yields abhyudaya and nihshreyasa (of all) is dharma”. Here, ‘Abhyudaya’ means ‘material wellbeing’ and ‘nihshreyasa’ means ‘spiritual emancipation’. Therefore, in the context of an individual all those actions which lead to one’s overall wellbeing is Dharma and the opposite, those that lead to fall, bondage, and sorrow of the individual is Adharma.

The term ‘Shastra’ also has multiple meanings. According to major Sanskrit dictionaries:

It can refer to an order, command, precept, or a rule.
It can refer to teaching, instruction, direction, advice, or good counsel.
It can refer to any instrument of teaching, any manual or compendium of rules, any book or treatise, any religious or scientific treatise.
Dr. Bharat Gupt in few of his talks defines Shastra as Shastram iti shasanopayam – a Shastra is an instrument to create Shasana or order within an area of human concern. That is, the purpose of the Shastra is to create order and systematically present different aspects of a particular field of knowledge. Shastra is thus, a scientific or a technical treatise which enumerates the fundamental principles governing a particular field, defines what success is, how to measure the same and how one can succeed that field. Every Shastra is written with a prayojana (purpose) in mind, for a kala or vidhya. It investigates a continuous process of achievement in its chosen field. They are written for the practitioner with the purpose of making prayoga (practice) reliable.

In Short, a ‘Shastra’ can be understood as a reference to ‘a body of teaching, scripture, science’. Ex. bhautikashastra “physics”, jīvashāstra “biology“, arthashastra “science of politics and economics”. It is a body of work, which imparts knowledge about a field of study through the medium of words and sentences.

Combining Dharma and Shastra, we get Dharmashastra: a technical treatise on Dharma i.e. a treatise which reveals what actions are Dharma and hence beneficial to us and what actions are Adharma and hence not beneficial. They tell us what actions lead to happiness and what leads to sorrow. Any text which fulfills this criteria can be called a Dharmashastra. This view is in alignment with Bhagavan Krishna’s instruction in Gita 16.24, where he says that the Shastras are the basis which determines what actions should be performed and what actions should be avoided.

Hindu tradition recognizes 18 Vidyas (fields of knowledge) and 64 Kalas (fields of arts/skills) and Dharmashastra finds an explicit mention in the list. For example, Vishnu Purana 3.6.28-29 says:

अङ्गानि वेदाश्चत्वारो मीमांसा न्यायविस्तरः। पुराणं धर्मशास्त्रं च विद्या ह्येताश्चतुर्दश। आयुर्वेदो धनुर्वेदो गान्धर्वश्चेति ते त्रयः। अर्थशास्त्रं चतुर्थं तु विद्या ह्यष्टादशैव तु।।

The 18 Vidyas are: four Vedas, six Vedangas (Shiksha, Chhandas, Kalpa, Jyotisha, Vyakarana, Nirukta), Mimamsa, Nyaya, Dharmashastras, Puranas, Ayurveda, Dhanurveda, Gandharva-veda, and Arthashastra.

If all texts that impart Dharma can be called as Dharmashastras, what are the principal texts that come under it?

Manusmriti in verse 2.6 calls Veda as the very root of dharma and further in 2.10 says: “The Veda should be known as the Sruti and the Dharmaśāstra as the Smritis; in all matters, these two do not deserve to be criticised, as it is out of these that Dharma shone forth. That is, Sruti and Smriti are the primary texts that constitutes Dharmashastras. The term Smriti includes the six Vedangas as well as other Smriti texts like those of Manu, Yajnavalkya, etc. To the list given by Manu, Yajnavalkya Smriti (1.3) further includes Puranas (including Itihasas), Nyaya and Mimamsa texts.

Therefore, all these texts constitute source of knowledge for understanding Dharma. To fully understand and appreciate the function of Dharmashastra in understanding about Dharma, we must first understand Hindu epistemology or Hindu Theory of Knowledge about how Knowledge about any object arises.

Hindu Epistemology or Theory of Knowledge

Epistemology i.e. the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge is a vast topic, but central to understanding any philosophical and theological school of thought. Hindu tradition has six Astika Darshanas (viz. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa, and Vedanta) with each having its own theories of knowledge. While a detailed study of them is beyond the scope of this essay, understanding some basic principles that define Hindu epistemology is necessary for understanding the purpose and function of Shastras in Hindu scheme of things.

The fundamental questions that epistemology deals include:

What is knowledge?

How is the knowledge produced?

Whether the acquired knowledge is reliable or not?

And what determines the validity or otherwise of the acquired knowledge?

In Hindu epistemology, when it is said that we have acquired knowledge/cognized an object, there are four elements involved in the process: The subject/Knower called Pramata who perceives the cognitions. The object of knowledge called as Prameya. The method or means through which the knowledge was acquired called ‘Pramana’. And finally the knowledge itself. This knowledge is called ‘Prama’ or valid knowledge/valid cognition if it is a correct knowledge and ‘Aprama’ if it is invalid or erroneous knowledge.

The definition of Prama or valid knowledge is given in different ways in different Darshanas. Nyaya Darshana for example defines Prama as true presentational knowledge (yathartha-anubhava) which is definite and assured (asamdigdha). Vaisheshika Darshana adds ‘memory’ to this definition given by Nyaya as well. Samkhya Darshana defines Prama as the reflection of the self in the intellect as modified into the form of the object. In Bhatta Mimamsa, Prama is defined as primary and original knowledge (anadhigata). Prabhakara Mimamsa defines Prama as immediate experience (anubhuti). Vedanta (Advaita) defines Prama as knowledge that is original and uncontradicted by other means (anadhigata-abhadita). Simply put, Prama is knowledge of objects gained from a Pramana which is not contradicted by Pramanas. The Mimamsa & Vedanta definition are especially relevant as they are directly related to Veda. Nyaya definition is also likewise relevant as it forms the logical basis of all Vidyas.

Hindu Darshanas broadly accepted six Pramanas or sources of knowledge. Pramana can be defined as unique operative cause of Prama or valid knowledge. It is unique because, though for generation of Prama all the three, namely, Pramata, Prameya, and Pramana are required, existence of Pramata or Prameya in itself will not lead to Prama. However, existence of Pramana invariably will be accompanied by generation of Prama. Further, Pramana is the immediate antecedent from which knowledge flows. Therefore, Pramana is the special operating cause that gives rise to Prama or valid knowledge as against general conditions that facilitate this.

The six Pramanas identified in Hindu tradition are: Pratyakṣa (perception), Anumāṇa (inference), Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances), Anupalabdhi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) and Śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts). Of these, Nyaya Darshana accepts only Pratyaksha, Anumana, Upamana, and Shabda. Vaiseshika Darshana accepts only two: Pratyaksha and Anumana. Samkhya Darshana accepts three: Pratyaksha, Anumana, and Shabda. Prabhakara Mimamsa accepts five Pramanas: Pratyaksha, Anumana, Upamana, Arthapatti and Shabda. Only Bhatta Mimamsa and Advaita Vedanta accept all the six Pramanas.

However, what is common to all the Astika Darshanas irrespective of how they define Prama is their acceptance of Shabda, especially what is available to us as Veda as a Pramana that reveals true knowledge. Even Vaisheshika Darshana which accepts only two Pramana accepts Shabda as valid but as part of Anumana itself.

Shabda Pramana: The Source of Knowledge in the Form of Words

Shabda literally means ‘Verbal Knowledge’. It is the knowledge of objects derived from words and sentences. However, all verbal knowledge are not valid. Therefore, Nyaya Darshana defines Shabda as ‘Valid verbal knowledge’.

Nyayasutras of Akshapada Gautama 1.1.7 defines Word or the valid verbal knowledge as the instructive assertion of an ‘Apta’. A trustworthy person is called as ‘Apta’ and Vatsyayana in his commentary on the above verse defines Apta as one who has fully realized the tenets of Dharma and who is willing to communicate these tenets in the exact way that he has realized. Vatsyayana further says that the term ‘Apti’ refers to realization of the essence of Dharma and one who is endowed with ‘Apti’ is called an ‘Apta’. Nyaya Darshana further notes that it is not the perception of the words which impart knowledge of the objects, but it is the understanding of the meaning of those words and sentences which leads to knowledge of the objects. Therefore, ‘Prama’ or valid knowledge arises when the correct meaning of the statements of the Apta are understood.

Mimamsa Darshana on the other hand defines Shabda Pramana as that which provides true knowledge of the objects derived from an understanding of the sentences. They classify Shabda Pramana into two divisions: Paurusheya & Apaurusheya. Paususheya consists in words of trustworthy persons and Apaurusheya consists of words of the Veda.

Vedanta Darshana accepts Shabdha Pramana as a statement of an Apta and posit it as knowledge derived from an understanding of the sentences or propositions which assert a certain relation between things and is not contradicted in any way. Samkhya Darshana likewise accepts Shabda Pramana as being constituted by statements of trustworthy sources, and gives the knowledge of objects which cannot be known by perception and inference. For them, Shabda Pramana specifically refers to Veda.

In short, Shabda Pramana is a source of knowledge in the form of words and sentences wherein Prama or valid knowledge of objects arises from a correct understanding of the meanings of words and sentences subject to fulfilment of conditions like the verbal testimony being uttered by an Apta or trustworthy person, has its source in the Veda, is logically sound and relevant, and the listener is competent.

Nyaya Darshana classifies Shabda Pramana into ‘Drshtartha’ and ‘Adrshtartha’ on the one hand and into ‘Vaidika’ and ‘Laukika’ on the other hand. The former classification is adopted enunciated in Nyayasutra 1.1.8 and is adopted by early Naiyayikas, whereas the latter classification is adopted by later naiyayikas.

Drshtartha refers to knowledge regarding perceptible objects. Example: If a person describes about Himalayas, or about how good a book is, it is Drshtartha. It can be verified or falsified by empirical means. Adrshtartha refers to knowledge about imperceptible objects. Example: The Veda says, if one does a particular Yajna, it results in the performer attaining Svarga upon death. The results are not perceptible to our sensory organs and cannot be verified or falsified by empirical means. Likewise, Laukika refers to knowledge about worldly issues and Vaidika refers to the knowledge revealed by Veda.

Vedanta Darshana accepts the classification of Shabda Pramana into Vaidika and Laukika. Ramaraya Kavi notes in chapter 3 that Vaidika Vakya is of three kinds: those related to Vidhi or injunctions, those related to Nishedha or prohibitions, and those related to Brahman or ultimate reality. While Vidhi and Nisheda are belong to early portions of the Veda, the teachings about Brahman belong to the latter portions of Veda. Thus, Veda reveals two fold objects of knowledge: Dharma and Brahman. And these can be known through Shabda Pramana in the form of Veda alone and not through any other Pramanas.

All the Astika Darshanas accept Veda as ultimate Shabda Pramana when it comes to understanding non-perceptible objects like Dharma and Brahman. However, the way they understand the authoritativeness and trustworthiness of Veda is different. While Nyaya considers Veda as being authored by Ishwara, who is the most trustworthy source and hence without any faults or lacunae; Samkhya, Mimamsa and Vedanta consider Veda as ‘Apaurusheya’ i.e. impersonal, one which exists eternally and has not been authored by any being- human or divine, and hence is without any fault or lacunae, and possesses self-evident validity (Svatah-Pramana).

Manu and Other Smritis as Shabda Pramana for Dharma

While Veda is the ultimate Pramana for understanding Dharma as enunciated by Mimamsa Sutra 1.1.1, and has been accepted so by all the Astika Darshanas, we find Smriti texts as positing themselves and other texts as valid source for understanding Dharma as well. Manusmriti in verse 2.6 and again in 2.9-10 posits both Sruti and Smritis as Pramanas for gaining correct knowledge or Prama about Dharma. Yajnavalkya Smriti adds Puranas, Nyaya and Mimamsa texts to this list as well. Manu 2.10 goes to the extent of saying that when it is mentioned ‘Dharmashastras’ or treatises that enunciate about Dharma and Adharma, one must understand it as a reference to the Smritis. However, the Smritis are neither Apaurusheya in the sense that Mimamsa and Vedanta posit Veda to be, nor is it authored by Ishwara per se as understood by Nyaya.

How then does Hindu tradition establish the authoritativeness and trustworthiness of these Smritis with respect to their teachings on Dharma? The Astika Darshanas put forwards two main arguments to establish the authoritativeness and trustworthiness of the Smritis as a Shabda Pramaa:

Smritis are teachings based on Vedas and hence, they are valid, because Veda being Apaurusheya is always valid. This is the argument put forward by the Mimamsakas.
Smritis are teachings of trustworthy Rishis like Manu, Yajnavalkya, etc. who can be considered as Aptas as they have directly perceived what constitute dharma and what does not through yogic perception. This is the argument put forward by the Naiyyayikas.
Nyaya & Mimamsa Darshana provides extensive arguments to prove the authenticity and validity of Smritis as Shabda Pramana.

Nyaya Darshana argues that Smritis are valid because they have been revealed by Aptas or trustworthy people like Rishis. They prove the trustworthiness in three ways:

The Rishis have directly perceived Dharma through Yogic perception and hence reliable.
Agreement of other exemplary people
Running a partial test where possible (as in assertions related to Drshartha) to test whether the assertions are verifiable.
Mimamsa Darshana on the other hand argues that Smritis are valid because they are based on Sruti or Veda. This they prove in two ways:

By using Arthapatti or postulation which is a valid pramana. Mimamsakas note that the teachings of Manu and other rishis cannot be based on error, doubt, etc. which are Aprama or invalid knowledge because what they teach is not invalidated by any subsequent cognition. Further, since what Smritis reveal is unique and cannot be accessed through other Pramanas like Pratyaksha, by Arthapatthi we can arrive at the conclusion that Smritis are based on Veda.
By reference to the fact that those who practice Vaidika Karmas also practice the stipulations of Smritis. Mimamsa successfully shows that Smritis cannot have any source other than Veda and that it is not a product of Raga-Dvesha using Arthapatti Pramana.
Further, Prabhakara Mimamsa holds that Veda are of two kinds: Pratyaksha (perceived) & Anumeya (inferred). Pratyaksha Veda refers to the branches of Veda which are available to us now. Anumeya Veda refers to those Vedic instructions whose presence is inferred by the instructions present in the Smritis. Therefore, Smritis are very much valid as a Shabda Pramana and enjoy the status of Anumeya Veda.

Take the case of Manusmriti for example. The text itself claims that it is valid because Manu is an Apta and that he is well-versed in Veda. The first chapter provides us with Divine origin of Manu as well as him being fully versed in Veda and its teachings, thus fulfilling all the reliability criteria defined in Mimamsa and Nyaya Darshanas. Further, we find praise for the authority of Manu as a teacher and authenticity of his teachings from other texts including the Veda. Taittiriya Samhita, for example, says that whatever Manu says is wholesome like medicine. The same text in verse says that we are all children of Manu. Mahabharata Shanti Parva 336.38-46 speaks about Manu as promulgator of Dharma and how latter teachers of Dharma like Ushanas and Brihaspati composed their works based on the work of Manu. Likewise, Yajnavalkya is a prominent Rishi who imparts teachings in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

From this discussion, we can clearly see that in the Hindu scheme of things, Smritis and other Dharmashastras play an important role as ‘Shabda Pramana’ which reveal valid knowledge/Prama about Dharma, about what actions lead to Karmic merit and happiness and what actions lead to demerit and sorrow.

Conflict Between Sruti & Smriti

Today, a big issue is made about the apparent conflict between Sruti & Smriti. This is a convenient argument used to discredit Smritis because we find some of its teachings inconvenient to our so-called modern mind.

However, Jayanta Bhatta, the renowned Nayyayika from 9th century CE notes in his Nyayamanjari that such contradictions are rarely found and in case, they are found, he suggests three ways to resolve them. These three ways of resolving apparent theological and philosophical contradictions have been arrived at after many centuries of Debates and discussions in Mimamsa & Nyaya Darshanas. They are:

There is no real contradiction, since the seeming contradictory prescriptions in fact
apply to different types or groups of people.
One can opt for the one or the other i.e. they are both valid alternatives.
The Veda overcomes the Smritis.
In most cases, the so-called contradictions can be easily resolved using first and secong options above. Only when both Sruti & Smriti contradict on a specific issue with respect to specific context and cannot be alternatives, then and only then, Veda is considered to override the Smriti injunction. This being the case, the modern attitude to jump into Option three, without even deliberating upon Option one and two, can only be considered as a result of preconceived bias.

Function and Purpose of Smritis in Hindu Society

As we noted earlier, the primary function of Smritis is to act as Pramana Shastras that reveal knowledge about Dharma, a knowledge which cannot be known from any other Pramanas like Pratyaksha, Anumana, etc.

Kulluka Bhatta in his commentary on Manusmriti gives two examples to illustrate this:

Example 1: While everyone indulges in sexual intercourse, only Smritis reveal in what context and time does such sexual intercourse constitutes Dharma and imparts Punya (Karmic merit) and when it does not constitute Dharma and hence leads to Papa (Karmic demerit).

Example 2: While everyone practices one or the other job so as to earn livelihood and maintain families, it is only Dharmashastras which reveal about what kind of livelihood options are both materially and spiritually beneficial to which group of people.

As Pramana Shastra, the Smritis are concerned only with revealing knowledge about dharma, especially about the connection between Karma & Karmaphala. They are not law-books or constitution which were literally & hegemonically imposed upon the society in the past, nor are they books of commandments in a biblical sense as it is made out to be in modern scholarship.

The content of Dharmashastra is broadly divided into three subjects: Achara (practice), Vyavahara (Jurisprudence), and Prayaschitta (expiation). Neither Achara nor Prayashchitta are related to law and hence, Smritis cannot be lawbooks or constitution in strict sense. However, this does not mean they had no relevance in legal matters. They did. Dharmashastras formed the ethical and theoretical basis of law. Legal principles were derived from these texts. For example, on the question of inheritence, pre-colonial India largely followed the legal stipulations of Mitakshara of Vijnaneshwara and Dayabhaga of Jimutavahana.

The Dharmashastras were never imposed in a Biblical sense with respect to practices and morals of people. However, they formed the ethical backbone of the society. They provided the material, knowledge & tools to negotiate with reality and handle challenging issues. An example of how Dharmashastra formed the backbone of society with respect to socio-cultural-ethical issues can be found during the time of Marathas. Dipamba, the wife of Ekoji-the half-brother of Shivaji and the founder of Maratha Empire in Tanjore, commissioned Raghunatha Pandita to compose texts on Stri-dharma so that Hindu women who have strayed away from Hindu Dharma under Islamic influence can find proper guidance regarding their duties and spiritual practices.

The Dharmashastras thus constituted the Knowledge bank of Hindu society that provided theoretical frameworks like Purusharthas, Varna-ashrama Dharma, Apad-dharma, Prayashchitta, Raja-Dharma, Vyavahara, etc. These Dharmic principles derived and interpreted to the needs of the society guided the society and acted as its socio-religious-cultural-legal backbone.

The tenets of Dharma in the form of ‘Vidhi’ (prescribed) and ‘Nisheda’ (Prohibited) enunciated in Manu and other Smritis are generic and broad guidelines and are binding only in one sense: that a particular Karma or action gives rise to a particular kind of result and that particular result could be favourable leading to Sukha (happiness) or unfavourable leading to Dukka (sorrow) based on whether they are Dharma or Adharma. It is for this reason, Bhagavan Krishna in Bhagavad Gita 16.24 says: “The Shastras are the means to understand what actions to be performed and what actions to be avoided. Knowing thus the guidelines in Shastras, one should perform actions in the world.”

However, it is important to note that, the role of the text itself is limited to imparting this knowledge about action and results for the benefit of mankind. This also implies Smritis reveal first principles of dharma which are eternal and which will always remain valid no matter what socio-political changes occur in society. The latter, i.e. socio-political changes only influence the different applications of dharma in practice and not the first principles of dharma itself.

Whether one chooses to follow it or not, or how much one is able to follow it, or how one would interpret and contextualize the teachings to one’s situation is ultimately dependent upon one’s own discretion and exertion of free-will. Whether we approach them for knowledge, or for caricaturing them is up to us. The texts themselves stand tall and unaffected as Pramana Shastra

Final Words

Today we are living in a very challenging times wherein Hindu identity and what it means to be a Hindu facing immense attacks from within and without.
Because of the colonial dismantling of Hindu education institutions and long term foreign occupation has resulted in Hindus becoming deracinated form their roots.
We face immense challenges with the faster and faster developments in technological fields as well as the narrative war that is being waged against Hindu civilization, especially in the field of education, politics, and socio-cultural-religious issues.
On our part, we are blindly imitating the West and adopting their discourses and frameworks to understand our own society and to negotiate with rising challenges. Obviously there can be only one end result of this: dismantling & complete destruction of Hindu civilization.
The only solution to this is to revive Hindu knowledge traditions, institutions, and discourses. One important areas in such a revival has to be “Dharmashastras tradition”.
The Vidyasthana of Dharmashastra forms the socio-cultural backbone of Hindu civilization. Without it, we will be a value-less society and importantly, we will be analysing and negotiating with socio-cultural issues like abortion, adultery, domestic violence, etc. using alien frameworks unsuitable to Hindu society.
A correct understanding of Smritis & their function in society, followed by the revival of study, discussion, and interpretative tradition of Dharmashastras will go a long way in resurgence of Hindu civilization.

Smriti: The Dharma Shastras

The Dharma Shastras include the law codes of Hinduism, both secular and religious (since both were very much inseparable). They deal with three main subjects: codes of conduct, civil and criminal law, and punishment and atonement.

Most important is the Manu Smriti (or Manu Samhita), still consulted in Indian law. It was written by Manu, an administrative demigod (the “ruler of mankind”) and the first law-giver. The word “man” is said to derive from Manu. There are fourteen Manus during each creation of the world. The Manu Smriti contains 2,700 verses divided into twelve chapters. Most scholars claim that it was written between 300 and 600 BCE. Other important dharma texts were written by Yajnavalkya, Parashara, and Narada.

An illustration of the “blue jackal” from a popular version of the Panchatantra.

The Manu Smriti establishes the Hindu way of life. It specifically outlines the duties of the four varnas and four ashramas. It extols the virtues of the brahmanas, but clearly states that the varna divisions are based on individual merit and capacity rather than birthright. The text also deals with rules of inheritance and adoption, and with law and the science of government.

Closely related is the Artha Shastra, a text that discusses the science of acquiring wealth and power. One such popular work is theArtha Shastra of Chanakya (also known as Kauntila), who was the prime minister of King Chandra Gupta, reputed to have defeated Alexander the Great.

Chanakya also studied many scriptures and compiled an anthology of popular wisdom in the form of proverbs. It is part of the Niti-shastra, which also includes the famous animal fables of the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha.

Scriptural Passages

“A man should not associate with a woman in a solitary place, not even with his mother; sister, or daughter, for the senses are so strong that they lead astray even a person advanced in knowledge.”

Manu Smriti 2.215

Personal Reflection

  • How does the quote from Manu (above) relate to popular opinion today? Is it out of date, or could it be relevant?
  • Do any of the proverbs relate to our experience?
  • Are there any similar proverbs from our own background?
  • What do they really mean?

Related Values and Issues

  • Citizenship
  • Crime and punishment
  • Capital punishment
  • Morality
  • Rights and responsibilities
  • Classless society/equal opportunity
  • Righteous war/chivalry

Verses From Chanakya

  • A pigeon today is better than a peacock tomorrow.
  • The union of even small people can become irresistible. The elephant is tied up with rope made of grass.
  • As the gardener plucks each flower without destroying its root, so should the ruler collect revenue without harming its source.
  • Excessive courtesy should never be trusted.
  • Flies go after open wounds, bees after flowers, good people after good qualities, mean people after faults.

  • Differentiate Between Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras
  • Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras are two important categories of ancient Hindu texts that deal with the topic of Dharma, which refers to the moral and ethical principles that govern human behavior.
  • Key differences between Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras:
  • Structure: Dharmasutras are composed in the form of sutras or aphorisms, which are short and concise statements that are difficult to interpret without the help of commentaries. In contrast, Dharmashastras are composed in the form of detailed treatises or manuals that provide extensive explanations and commentary on various aspects of Dharma.
  • Focus: Dharmasutras primarily focus on the performance of Vedic rituals and the duties of the various castes and social classes in ancient Indian society. They provide guidelines on various aspects of life such as marriage, family life, and social conduct. Dharmashastras, on the other hand, focus on broader ethical and moral principles and cover a wide range of topics such as the duties of kings, the rights of women, and the proper conduct of individuals.
  • Authority: Dharmasutras are considered to be more authoritative than Dharmashastras, as they are believed to be based on the teachings of the ancient sages or rishis. Dharmashastras, on the other hand, are often attributed to specific authors, and their authority is sometimes questioned.
  • Time period: Dharmasutras are believed to have been written between 600 BCE and 200 BCE, while Dharmashastras were written later, between 200 BCE and 500 CE.
  • Summary: Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras
  • In summary, Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras are two important categories of ancient Hindu texts that deal with the topic of Dharma. While both texts deal with the similar subject matter, they differ in their structure, focus, authority, and time period.

DHARMA SHĀSTRA Dharma Shāstra (Texts of righteous legal conduct) in the wider sense is an important element of Indian tradition, and its literature is a genre of more than two thousand titles. Hinduism is less an orthodoxy than an “orthopraxy”: Hindu society is less concerned with what a person thinks than with his or her adherence to traditional social norms. In the narrower sense, Dharma Shāstra is the name of several ancient texts, composed about two millennia ago, in several Vedic schools that sought to establish social norms. They grew out of school traditions that preserved and cultivated the sacred Vedic texts: some devoted to the Rig Veda, the oldest sacrificial hymns; others to the Yajur Veda, the collection of formulae used during rituals; others to the Sāma Veda, a collection of melodies, with their attendant dogmatic and ritualistic works. Technical works that dealt with the proper execution of official rituals (Shrauta Sūtra), the domestic rites and life cycle obligations (Grihya Sūtra), and the rules of righteous conduct (Dharma Sūtra or Dharma Shāstra) together were called Kalpa Sūtra “ceremonial manuals” and formed one of the later layers of Vedic works. Among them, the texts dealing with dharma are generally the youngest, dating perhaps from the third century b.c. to the second century a.d. All dates assigned to these texts are tentative; though attributed to fictitious authors, the texts actually grew within their school traditions, often quoting one another. Texts whose core may be very old also contain some rather recent statements, make any exact dating impossible.

The fact that these works originated in a religious and ritualistic tradition explains their emphasis on ritual purity, virtue, and avoidance of acts considered sinful. The aim was the attainment of heaven, spiritual betterment, or bliss, which could be defined in different ways. The authors and compilers of these works were Brahmans, members of the priestly class that was generally entrusted with the preservation of tradition and the education of the young. Though many of their rules were clearly aimed primarily at their fellow Brahmans, they took note also of prevailing customs and attitudes concerning societal problems. There were three major topics: proper conduct, legal procedure, and atonement. Legal problems concerning inheritance, marriage, and adoption gained more prominence in time, and criminal acts, which were first considered sins requiring expiation, were gradually regarded as antisocial acts that required punishment by the king or his judges. Yet, in spite of their growing legal sophistication, the authors of Dharma Shāstra never lost sight of the spiritual roots of their tradition: medieval authors based their rules on the priority among heirs on the question of which of them would confer greater spiritual benefit on the deceased. Texts that could be called legal texts emerged around the middle of the first millennium a.d., and the second millennium saw the creation of several large compendia by courtiers, who under royal orders tried to summarize and harmonize the traditional rules as they applied in their time and to their regions.

The Dharma Shāstras in a narrower sense were the basis of all later Hindu legal developments, and their authority was never challenged directly. The principles of righteousness (dharma) are unchanging—though a good number of rules no longer apply in our decadent age (kali yuga). The ritual killing of cows that was enjoined in Vedic ritual is no longer practiced, and other practices are nowadays “decried by the world” (Manu, Mānava Dharma Shāstra). Over the centuries, many commentaries were written on the authoritative texts, often clarifying difficult or ambiguous passages, at times giving a new interpretation more in tune with contemporary customs. While commentators would not challenge the authority of the basic text, their interpretation could become authoritative, even if later judged erroneous. In British India, the courts employed Indian pandits to advise judges on traditional law as embodied in Dharma Shāstra. Gradually the growing body of case law and, after India gained independence, the passing of new laws limited the role of Dharma Shāstra in the Indian courts, though it still plays a role in cases involving religious groups.

Conflicts and Interpretation
Some of the old Dharma Shāstras (e.g., those ascribed to Gautama, Āpastamba) were composed in a terse form of prose, the so-called sūtras (threads), others (e.g., that ascribed to Manu, Mānava Dharma Shāstra) in verse; both forms were chosen with a view to aid memorization. Contradictions caused by gradual growth sometimes remain: Manu gives rules regulating the levirate (when a man begets a son with the widow of a close relative), then condemns the practice; the killing of animals is alternately allowed and condemned. In cases of conflict, a rule for which a reason is clearly visible is not as potent as one for which it is not; the author might have possessed insight into a higher metaphysical truth that we have no right to challenge. Interpretative skills were honed in the exegesis of Vedic rules, and ambiguous passages were discussed with great sophistication. Current customs that could not be traced to any of the Dharma Shāstras could, it is argued, be based on lost Vedic texts, since it was known that not all Vedic texts survived into later times.

Many Dharma Shāstras explicitly refer to some divine authority who revealed the rules to a holy man in the distant past. There is no reasoning or reference to historical cases. The reasoning was presumably worked out long ago; the existing custom was idealized and systematized and handed down in this state to all future generations. The same attitude is evident in the Indian science of grammar: the wonderful descriptions of the Sanskrit language presuppose a penetrating analysis that is never revealed—we see only the application in the production of correct form. There is a characteristic difference in Buddhist canonical law, which based itself on alleged instances and reasoned rulings by the Buddha himself, fictitious though they might be.

The Dharmashastras are Hindu scriptures that include moral precepts and principles for religious duty and good behaviour. In the past, Hindu kings imposed rules as part of their religious duty, and they created the parameters for their social and religious code of conduct. This article will explain to you the Dharmashastras which will be helpful in Ancient History preparation for the UPSC Civil service exam.


  • Dharmasastra refers to the treatises on dharma, a genre of Sanskrit literature on law and conduct.
  • There are several Dharmashastras, ranging in number from 18 to roughly 100, each with different and sometimes contradictory viewpoints.
  • Each of these writings has a number of different forms, but they are all based on Dharmasutra manuscripts from the first millennium BCE that originated from Vedic Kalpa research.
  • The Dharmasastra literary corpus was created in poetry verses, and is part of the Hindu Smritis, containing a variety of comments and treatises on one’s obligations, responsibilities, and ethics to oneself, family, and society.
  • The texts cover ashrama (life stages), varna (social classes), purushartha (right life aims), personal virtues and duties including ahimsa (nonviolence) against all living beings, just war regulations, and other topics.
  • Dharmasatra became influential in modern colonial India history when it was formulated by early British colonial administrators to be the law of the land for all non-Muslims in South Asia, after Sharia, i.e. Emperor Muhammad Aurangzeb’s Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, had already been accepted as the law for Muslims in colonial India.
  • Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras are the two types of Smritis. Their subjects are nearly identical.
  • The Dharmasutras are written in prose as brief maxims (Sutras), whereas the Dharmashastras are written in poetry (Shlokas).

Dharmashastras – Origin

  • The Dharmashastras are based on ancient Dharmasutra manuscripts, which sprang from the Vedic literary tradition (Rig, Yajur, Sma, and Atharva), which were written between the 2nd millennium BCE and the early 1st millennium BCE.
  • For a number of reasons, including location, specialisation, and disagreements, these Vedic branches separated into different additional schools (shakhas).
  • Each Veda is further subdivided into the Sahit, which is a collection of mantra lines, and the Brahmanas, which are prose books that explain the meaning of the Samhita verses.
  • As the Brahmana layer grew, some of the newer esoteric theoretical levels of literature were known as Aranyakas, while the mystical and philosophical parts became known as Upanishads.
  • The Brahmana layer of the Vedas contains the Vedic foundation of Dharma literature.


Dharmashastras – Composition

  • The Vedas are the foundation of all Dharma in Hindu faiths.
  • The Vedic rules, tradition, virtuous conduct of individuals who study the Vedas, and approbation of one’s conscience (Atmasantushti, self-satisfaction) are all included as sources of Dharma in the Dharmashastra scriptures.
  • The Dharmashastra scriptures provide contradictory statements about dharma’s origins.
  • The theological thesis there argues, without elaboration, that Dharma, like the Vedas, is eternal and timeless, and that the former is tied to the Vedas directly or indirectly.
  • However, these scriptures accept the importance of Smriti, polite knowledgeable people’s conventions, and one’s conscience as sources of dharma.
  • The historical reality differs significantly from theological references to the Vedas, and the Dharmasastra’s dharma has nothing in common with the Vedas.
  • These were the writers’ habits, norms, or declarations, which were most likely formed from growing regional ethical, ideological, cultural, and legal practices.

Meaning of Dharma

Meaning of Dharma

  • In Hinduism, dharma is a broad concept with many interpretations.
  • Its main goal is to ensure the orderly progression of creation and existence by sustaining its fundamental structure, supporting mechanisms, values, order, and regularity.
  • One of God’s self-appointed tasks, according to Hinduism, is to protect the worlds and creatures by enforcing the Dharma that is unique to each of them.
  • The Dharma laws are universal in the sense that their sole source is God.
  • However, since they are applied at different levels and in different worlds according to the tasks, roles, and obligations assigned to each of them, differences in their implementations emerge.
  • Dharma is eternal, yet its enforcement and observance change with the passage of time.
  • As a result, they are prone to change.
  • They also apply to creatures who are enslaved to duty or mortality, but not to those who are eternally free.
  • The souls (muktas) in the liberated condition enjoy perpetual power in the universe of Brahman, where there are no restrictions or regulations, only all-knowing consciousness and a limitless life free of laws and constraints.
  • Each soul rules itself, existing by itself, bound to nothing, complete, perfect, and very much like God in a state of oneness in that everlasting and infinite condition.


Dharmashastras – Significance

  • The Dharmashastras, unlike the Vedas, are not the result of divine revelations.
  • As a result, they are vulnerable to the flaws that the human mind is prone to.
  • They were meticulously crafted in order to convey heavenly instruction.
  • Divine knowledge cleansed by the human intellect and sifted by perceptive intelligence can be found in them.
  • As a result, they are classified as smriti rather than sruti.
  • They represent the knowledge of spiritual teachers, academics, kings, and legislators who contributed to its design and execution.
  • The law books gave each class of beings the finest possible options for pursuing the four principles of dharma, artha, kama, and Moksha, but they were not fully devoid of caste prejudices that favoured a few social strata.
  • They are a hidden attempt by bright minds to maintain the status quo and retain specific castes’ social, economic, and political privileges.
  • The Dharma Shastras attempted to maintain the order and regularity of the world on a continuous basis by using the authority of God and religion, but they were not entirely successful, as evidenced by the decline of their jurisdictional power following the decline of Hindu rulers in the Indian subcontinent.


Dharmashastras – Influence

Dharmasastra is a Sanskrit literary genus that refers to Hinduism’s Dharma treatises (shastras). The Hindu Dharmashastras are ancient Hindu law texts that propose moral norms and principles for ardent duty and ethical behaviour for the faith’s believers. In the past, Hindu rulers enforced laws as part of their religious obligation, and they created the parameters for their social and religious code of behaviour.

Decoding Manusmṛti:  Some Pointers To Make Sense Of Dharmaśāstra Texts


Manusmṛti and other Dharmaśāstra texts occupy a prominent place in Indian textual tradition as authentic sources of dharma. Despite this, the contemporary engagement with the text has been prejudicial and problematic and most importantly, one of discomfort. This discomfort is largely due to unfamiliarity with the purpose, textual landscape, and the underlying worldview of Dharmaśāstras. This paper seeks to fill the gap in contemporary approach and facilitate a better understanding of Dharmaśāstras by highlighting certain important aspects of their textual landscape and the worldview that informs them.


Manusmṛti is among the foremost texts on dharma available in Hindu tradition. While it occupies a preeminent position within the Dharmaśāstra tradition as an authentic source for acquiring knowledge about dharma, contemporary engagement with the text has ranged from outright condemnation and at times burning of the text as a political statement to distortion[2], dismantling[3], and discarding[4] of the text from the discourse on Hindu philosophy and practice.

The contemporary Hindu society’s discomfort with Dharmaśāstra tradition in general and with Manusmṛti in particular owes much to the effects of colonialism and the destruction of indigenous education institutions, as a result of which the society has become deracinated having lost touch with this core aspect of our culture. In particular, people find it exceptionally difficult to relate to the teachings of the Smṛti texts owing to their lack of grounding in foundational principles and frameworks of Dharmaśāstra tradition as well as the unique language employed in these texts to convey its knowledge about dharma.

This paper attempts to provide some pointers, highlight some foundational frameworks, and clarify few misconceptions about Smṛtis as a genre of texts with particular focus on Manusmṛti such that one is better equipped to approach, study, understand and appreciate Manu and other Smṛtis.

Defining dharma

The term ‘dharma’ can be variously understood to mean ethics, morality, law, justice, duty, righteousness etc. depending upon the context of its usage. But, none of these English terms individually or collectively are able to capture the essence of the term dharma.

Etymologically, the word ‘dharma’ has been derived from the root ‘dhṛ’ and ‘dhṛdhārayati’ means to bear, or to support. Hence, ‘dharma’ can be defined as that which upholds, sustains, nurtures, and provides stability and harmony. As MahānārāyaṇaUpaniṣad 79.7 states dharma supports the whole cosmos and removes all Karmic demerits[5]. Likewise, Lord Krishna in MahābhārataKarṇa Parva49.50 says that dharma is that which upholds all created beings[6].

However, this definition does not clarify what exactly this ‘upholding’ imply and how dharma facilitates this upholding and nurturing of individuals. We find clarification on this in the definitions provided by VaiśeṣikaSūtra, Parāśarasmṛti and Sri Madhavacharya’s commentary on it.

VaiśeṣikaSūtra1.1.2 defines dharma as that from which (results) the accomplishment of (material) happiness/wellbeing [called as abhyudaya] and of the supreme good/mokṣa [called as niḥśreyasa][7]. Parāśarasmṛti 1.2 describes dharma as that which is ‘hitam’ or beneficial for human beings[8]. Sri Madhavacharya in his celebrated commentary on the text explains the significance of the use of the phrase hitam thus:

Dharma is called ‘hitam’ or beneficial as it is the means to attain our desired fruits. Such desired fruits are of two types: aihika (this-worldly) and āmuṣmika (other-worldly). This-worldly fruits refer to prosperity and other fruits that result from performance of aṣṭaka and such rituals. The otherworldly fruits are two kinds: abhyudaya (attainment of sukha/happiness and svarga/heaven) and niḥśreyasa (supreme knowledge resulting in liberation). Dharma is the direct means of abhyudaya and dharma by producing tattvajñāna (knowledge of reality) is the cause of mokṣa or niḥśreyasa as well[9].

Thus, dharma upholds, sustains, and nurtures an individual by facilitating him/her to attain worldly happiness (artha/kāma) on the one hand, and on the other hand, otherworldly happiness in the form of svarga[10] as well as absolute bliss or supreme good in the form of mokṣa. That is, dharma is means for both material and spiritual wellbeing.

A further clarification on the definition of dharma is found in Manusmṛti itself. In verse 1.26, Manu says[11]: “For the due discrimination of actions, He (Bhagavān) differentiated dharma and adharma; and he connected these creatures/people with such pairs of opposites as happiness-sorrow and the like (such as heaven-hell, attachment-hatred, etc.)[12].”

In short, the designation of dharma and adharma in the context of individuals is with respect to actions one performs. And such actions could be physical, verbal or mental and they lead to particular results (karmaphala) by the generation of what the Mīmāṃsakas call as ‘apūrva’. Kumarila Bhatta in his Tantravārtika defines ‘apūrva’ as that potential which was absent before the performance of the act and which is produced after the performance of the said act[13]. To put it differently, every action generates an invisible potency or potential result which endures till such a time it manifests the actual result on the ground.

This apūrva is of two kinds: puṇya and pāpa. Puṇya is the positive and beneficial potency generated by the performance of dharma and it results in karmaphala of svarga (heaven), sukha (happiness), and cittaśuddhi (purification of mind) leading to mokṣa or liberation from worldly bondage. Pāpa is the negative and undesirable potency which is generated by performance of adharma and it results in karmaphala of naraka (hell), duḥkha (sorrow), and cittabhrānti (confusion of mind) leading to further strengthening of saṃsāra-bandhana (worldly bondage).

To sum up, irrespective of the context of usage, when an action is designated as dharma, it means that such an action is (and must be) capable of producing puṇya, svarga, sukha and cittaśuddhi. Likewise, an action designated as adharma is (and must be) capable of producing pāpa, naraka, duḥkha, and cittabhranti.

Acquiring authentic knowledge about dharma

Once there is clarity on the essential definition of dharma, the next question which naturally follows is how do we acquire authentic knowledge about dharma (and adharma), especially because the actions in themselves do not reveal whether they are beneficial or not, nor can we use any of our sensory or logical faculties to deduce the same.

Hindu epistemology recognises six independent sources of valid knowledge called as pramāṇas. They are pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference), upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances), anupalabdhi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) and śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts).

Of these six pramāṇas, none of the first five sources listed above –be it perception, inference, comparison, postulation or non-perception –can impart knowledge about Dharma because their field of operation is the empirical world and its objects. Dharma, on the other hand, deals with matters related to karmaphala such as puṇya, pāpa, sukha, duḥkha, svarganaraka, etc. which are by nature non-empirical and beyond the grasp of our sensory faculties.

This being the case, our only source of valid knowledge about dharma is śabda or verbal knowledge. It is the knowledge of objects derived from words and sentences. And such knowledge is acquired through the study of trustworthy sacred texts (śāstras) and through instructions from trustworthy teachers (gurus). As Bhagavān Krishna instructs in Gītā 16.24: “Therefore, the scriptures (śāstras) are the means to understand what actions should be performed and what actions should be avoided. Knowing thus the injunctions declared in the scriptures, one should perform actions in this world[14].” Sri Ramanujacharya in his commentary on this verse explains that the phrase śāstras refer to Vedas, Dharmśāstras (Smṛtis), Itihāsas, and Purāṇas[15]. A similar observation is made by Sri Madhusudhana Saraswathi in his commentary on the said verse as well[16].

Thus, our primary sources of acquiring knowledge about dharma are: Vedas, Smṛtis, Itihāsas and Purāṇas. Among them, the Veda being apauruṣeya[17] and eternal, it is the most prominent and the independent pramāṇa for dharma. All others are dependent upon it. Hence, Jaimini in Mīmāṃsasūtra 1.1.1 defines dharma itself as that which is indicated by injunctions of the Veda[18]. After Veda, Smṛtis are the most important pramāṇa for dharma as Manu, Yajñavalkya, Parashara, Narada and other Rishis composed their treatise on dharma not only based on their deep knowledge of the entirety of Veda[19] but also based on their complete and direct comprehension of dharma in its entirety through their Yogic accomplishments[20]. Hence, Manusmṛti 2.10 says that “The Veda should be known as the Śruti and the Dharmaśāstra as the Smṛti; in all matters, these two do not deserve to be criticised, as it is out of these that dharma shone forth[21].” Itihāsa and Purāṇas are in-turn based on Veda and Smṛtis and hence they also constitute pramāṇas for dharma. Apart from these primary textual sources, sadāchāra or good conduct, customs and practices of those who are well-versed in śāstras and live their life in accordance to it, and ātmanastuṣṭi or what is agreeable to one’s own conscience also constitutes secondary sources[22] for directly acquiring knowledge about dharma as per Manusmṛti 2.12[23].

This understanding of the function and role of Dharmaśāstra as pramāṇas– authentic sources that imparts valid knowledge about dharma is very significant. A popular misconception prevalent today about Manu and other Smṛtis is that they are to be either seen as law-books that stipulated the laws of their times and/or as religious books on the lines of Bible which provides commandments that were hegemonically imposed on society through religious institutions similar to the church. However, being a pramāṇa-śāstra implies that Manu and other Smṛtis are concerned only with revealing knowledge about dharma, especially about the connection between karma & karmaphala and are neither law-books or constitution documents which was hegemonically imposed upon the society in the past, nor are they books of commandments in a biblical sense. As Adi Shankaracharya observes in his commentary on BṛhadāraṇyakaUpaniṣad verse 1.4.10: “Knowledge only removes false notion, it does not create anything. Nor can a scriptural statement impart any power to a thing. It is an accepted principle that the scriptures are only informative (i.e. imparts knowledge) and not creative (i.e. does not bring about or create anything)[24].” This is as true about Dharmaśāstra as it is about Vedāntaśāstra. As Medhatithi notes in his commentary on Manu 2.6: “The Veda and Smṛti can be a ‘cause’ (of dharma) only in the sense that they serve to make known,—not in that of producing, nor in that helping to stand, which are the two senses in which the ‘root’ is the cause of the Tree[25].” The tenets of dharma in the form of ‘vidhi’ (prescribed) and ‘nisheda’ (prohibited) enunciated in Manu and other texts in Smṛti genre are broad guidelines and are binding only in one sense: that a particular karma or action gives rise to a particular kind of result and that particular result could be favourable leading to sukha (happiness) or unfavourable leading to duḥkha (sorrow) based on whether they are dharma or adharma.

Another implication of the understanding of Smṛtis as pramāṇa-śāstra is that they reveal knowledge about the causal relationship that exist between karma and karmaphala in both modes of dharma and adharma, and this causal relationship is eternal, unchanging, and beyond grasp of the mind and the senses. As Sri Jnanandanda Bharathi Swami says “…the śāstras are eternal, not because they originated with the beginning of time itself, but because they lay down the eternal relationship between a cause and its effect. If a flame scorches our hand, it is not because the science of physics or chemistry says that it shall so scorch, but because there is an eternal relationship between fire and its effect, scorching (Bharathi 1969, 18).”

Therefore, contrary to popular misconception which posits Smṛtis as products of their particular time and context and hence as being outdated today, the Smṛtis being pramāṇa-śāstras reveal the essential principles of dharma, namely, the eternal causal relationship between different categories of karmas and their karmaphala which are eternal, unchanging, and beyond the socio-political influence of changing conditions and hence, the Smṛtis are as relevant today as they were in the past and they will remain relevant in future as well. What is changing and dependant on situation is not the essential principles of dharma, but the contextualization of the dharmic teachings to address changing real world situations and thus causing the diversity in the application of dharmic principles.

Need for Śraddhā in studying Dharmaśāstra

Since dharma by definition is non-empirical and Dharmaśāstra (Śruti, Smṛti, Itihāsa, Purāṇa, etc.) alone are the means for attaining valid knowledge about dharma, any person who seeks to study these texts and acquire knowledge about dharma must approach them with śraddhā.

Śraddhā means ‘trust’. Adi Shankaracharya defines śraddhā as trust in the words of guru and śāstras[26]. Without such trust that the text one is studying contains authentic knowledge about a subject, no amount of study will bear any fruit. This is especially so in non-empirical matters as they cannot be verified or falsified through empirical means. Hence, trust in śāstras and gurus who teach those śāstras is very vital for unravelling the teachings of these texts. As śraddhā matures, this trust transforms into conviction and finally into actualization of the truths expounded in the śāstras. It is for this reason Bhagavān Krishna says in Gītā 4.39: ‘One who has śraddhā, he alone attains knowledge[27]’.

Contemporary scholarship has largely approached the study of Hindu texts by adopting what is called hermeneutics of suspicion wherein one reads a text with scepticism in order to expose their purported repressed or hidden meanings.

Though hermeneutics of suspicion has their own importance, in matters of understanding śāstras such as Veda, Smṛti, etc. whose subject is non-empirical, it is completely unsuitable and misleading as such an approach often leads to rejection of non-empirical elements as superstition or poetic fantasy and filling the vacuum thus created with speculations about ideological, political, and social motives of the texts. This approach ultimately results in the undermining of the texts and their own self-description of their purposes.

Instead, adopting what we may call as ‘Hermeneutics of śraddhā’ to study Hindu texts implies that one approaches the text with faith and respect, rather than scepticism, and then attempts to recover its complete meaning through a contemplative process called as ‘śravaṇacatuṣṭaya’ in Vedānta. In this four-fold process (and hence called catuṣṭaya), one starts with śravaṇa or listening to the enunciation of a particular text from a qualified teacher[28]. This is followed by manana or intellectual reflection upon the text and its subject-matter until one arrives at a steady conviction. Then comes nididhyāsana or deeper one-pointed contemplation on the essential truths expounded in the text resulting in sākṣātkāra or actualization of those truths. In this way, what starts as śraddhā’ transforms into sākṣātkāra[29].

Therefore, it is vital that Dharmaśāstras are studied using śraddhā as our method of approach, a point indicated by Manusmṛti itself when it says in verse 2.10 that “The Veda should be known as the Śruti and the Dharmaśāstra as the Smṛti; in all matters, these two do not deserve to be criticised, as it is out of these that dharma shone forth[30].”

Locating dharma: cosmologically, temporally, teleologically, functionally, and relationally

Manusmṛti is unique among the texts on dharma available in Hindu tradition. Unlike the other texts of this genre, it begins with an account of cosmology. In the very first chapter, it provides a detailed account of cosmogony, which not only recounts the manifestation of SvāyambhuvaBrahmā, but also presents a Vedāntic (or rather a Sāṅkhyan) account of origination of the universe. It further presents an account of the creation of various objects and beings, including humans.

The first chapter is thus very important to understand how the Dharmaśāstra texts conceive of dharma and where they locate dharma cosmologically, temporally, and teleologically.

The first chapter begins with a group of sages approaching Manu and requesting him to enunciate about human duties as applicable to people belonging to different varṇa-s (verses 1.1-4). In response to this, Manu lays down the foundational framework for approaching the question with a concise account on sṛṣṭi (creation of the world) and laya (dissolution of the world) (verses 1.5-57). Then, he informs the sages that his pupil Bhrgu who is fully acquainted with the subject would enunciate on the complete treatise (verses 1.58-59). Following this, Bhrgu begins his response with an account of sṛṣṭi and lays down the foundational framework (verses 1.61-119) and then starts the main discourse on the duties of different varṇa-s from second chapter.

While Manu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on cosmological aspect of creation Bhrgu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on temporal aspect of creation.

Manu gives an account of the manifestation of Sāṅkhyan categories of prakṛti, mahat, tanmatras, mahābhūtas, etc. (verses 1.8-20) as well as the manifestation of different objects and beings such as yajña, Devatās, Sādhyas, Vedas, dharma–adharma, different varṇas such as Brāhmaṇas, etc., Manu and other divine sages, different types of non-human beings such as Yakṣas, Rakṣasas, Piśācas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Asuras, Nāgas, Sarpas, Suparṇas, and the several orders of Pitṛs, birds, animals, insects etc. (verses 1.22-53) and locates dharma within this discourse on creation of different beings.

By thus highlighting that humans are merely one among the many beings of the universe, and locating the discourse on manuṣya-dharma or the dharma as applicable to humans within the larger cosmological scheme that points to different beings as having their own dharma uniquely applicable to them, Manusmṛti is shifting the focus from a human-centric discourse on dharma to a cosmos-centric discourse. In other words, the text is nudging the readers to withdraw from anthropocentrism[31] and locate themselves in the larger cosmology and then approach the issue of human duties from this cosmological perspective.

Anthropocentrism is problematic as it is a worldview based on a belief in human exceptionalism that feeds on human greed, selfishness, and ego, and hence, can only speak about human rights and privileges and cannot properly accommodate the notion of dharma, ṛṇa (kārmic debt), mokṣa, etc. which by definition requires selflessness. Consequently, this cosmological location of dharma is significant for understanding the teachings of Dharmaśāstras as it not only provides an anchorage point to center our discussions on dharma, but also provides a reference point to cosmologically locate ourselves in these discussions. Prominent examples of such cosmological location of dharma includes notions such as manuṣya-dharma, devatā–dharma, ṛṣi–dharma, brāhmaṇa–dharma, kṣatriya–dharma, etc.

Bhrgu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on temporal aspect of creation and locates dharma within this discourse on different ways in which time functions at different levels and corresponding distinct time durations such as yuga, manvantara, kalpa, etc. (verses 1.64-73) and how they influence dharma and cause variations in application of dharmic tenets (verses 1.81-86). This temporal location of dharma is also significant as it provides a reference point to locate ourselves temporally and contextualize the teachings of Dharmaśāstras as applicable to our temporal location. Prominent examples of such temporal location of dharma includes notions such as yuga-dharma, kalivarjya, āpad-dharmaand anāpad-dharma.

The first chapter of Manusmṛti also locates dharma teleologically. This it does by making the discourse on dharma a subset of the discourse on cosmogony. Modern scholarship have often found it difficult to make sense of the presence of an account of cosmogony in a text on dharma, so much so that some scholars like George Bühler had designated the whole chapter as a later addition[32]. However, the Sanskrit commentators did not exhibit such discomfort.

Consider Medhatithi. In his commentary on Manusmṛti verse 1.5, he remarks:

What the First Discourse does is to describe the fact of the treatise having an extensive scope; so that what is described here is the whole range of the cosmic process, beginning with Brahman down to the inanimate objects, as forming the basis of dharma and adharma, Right and Wrong (Jha 1920, 21).[33]

That is, for Medhatithi, cosmogony forms the very basis of dharma and any discussion of human duties must be conducted in its context.

Building on this, KullukaBhaṭṭa makes an even more comprehensive case for the inclusion of cosmogony in the discourse of dharma. He remarks that the discourse on cosmogony is neither inappropriate nor incoherent because such a discourse which is nothing but an enunciation of Brahman, the cause of the world (and which would lead one to ātmajñāna or self-knowledge), is a discourse on dharma itself (Kauṇḍinyāyana 2014, 77).[34] Bhatta then cites from a number of textual sources, including the Mahābhārata[35], Yājñavalkyasmṛti[36], Brahmasūtra[37] and TaittirīyaUpaniṣad[38] to establish that the pursuit of ātmajñāna is in fact the paramadharma or the highest duty, and the investigation into cosmogony is an important aspect of this pursuit of ātmajñāna. He then concludes his discussion with a remark that having composed the first chapter to teach about ātmajñāna which is the paramadharma, Manusmṛti enunciates in the second chapter, the transactional or worldly principles of dharma like saṃskāra-s which are to be considered as a limb or a subset of paramadharma.[39]In the end, he adds that a careful study of the verses of Manusmṛti will make his exposition on them self-evident.[40]

From KullukaBhaṭṭa’s exposition three things become evident (1) exposition on cosmogony is also exposition on dharma, (2) cosmogony is the highest dharma, and (3) worldly human duties of varṇāśrama are a limb or subset of this highest dharma. Bhatta’s commentary also reveals how cosmogony forms the basis of both nivṛtti dharma and pravṛtti dharma. In the case of nivṛtti dharma, the investigation into the origination of the universe leads to dispassion and self-knowledge leading to final liberation. In the case of pravṛtti dharma, cosmogony provides the context to understand human duties and the place of human beings in the larger scheme of the universe.

Thus, Manusmṛti teleologically locates dharma as a limb or a subset of spiritual pursuit of mokṣa which also serves as a means to attain mokṣa. A pursuit of pravṛtti-dharma (the dharma of a worldly person) of the nature of varṇāśrama-dharma leads one to purification of the mind (cittaśuddhi) making one competent to pursue nivṛtti-dharma and thereby attain Mokṣa. As Sri Madhavacharya notes in his commentary on Parāśarasmṛti 1.2: “Dharma is the direct means of abhyudaya (happiness and heaven) and dharma by producing tattvajñāna (knowledge of reality) is the cause of mokṣa or niḥśreyasa as well[41]”.Consequently practice of dharma is inevitable for all spiritual paths[42].

Manusmṛti also locates dharma functionally and relationally. Functionally, the text locates dharma under headings such as varṇa–dharma, āśrama-dharma, puruṣa–dharma, strī-dharma, rāja-dharma, etc. –each of which are related to the function a person plays in society. The function that a Brāhmaṇa plays in society is for example different from the function that a Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, or Śūdra plays. Therefore, people who belong to different varṇas have distinct varṇa-dharmas which are functional in nature. Manusmṛti summarises such functionally distinguished varṇa duties of the four varṇas in verses 1.87-91. Likewise, the role and function that the students, the householders, the forest-retired, and the renunciates play in society are distinct from each other. The same is the case with men and women. Owing to difference in their gender and the corresponding physical and psychological differences, men and women play a distinct but mutually complementary roles within family and outside in the larger society. Owing to such functional differences, dharma that arises from or connected to such functions also have differences.

A subset of functionally located dharmas are the relationally located dharmas, i.e. duties and obligations towards a person which arise out of the nature of relationship one shares with that person. Relationally, distinct dharmas can be recognized with respect to relational roles such as: father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, teacher, student, etc.

A comprehensive understanding of dharma is only possible when in any given situation one is able to identify the different strands of dharma located at cosmological, temporal, teleological, functional and relational levels and how their mutual interplay is playing out in the given situation.

Subject-matter of Dharmaśāstras

One way to look at the subject matter of Dharmaśāstras is to look at it from a thematic perspective. Thematically, the content of Dharmaśāstras can be broadly divided into three themes: ācāra (practice), vyavahāra (jurisprudence), and prāyaścitta (expiation).

Ācāra is the most important theme enunciated in the Smṛtis. It literally means ‘conduct, practice, or custom’ and it deals with the karmas of an individual. It covers all those various duties, obligations, and activities which constitute dharma and hence leads to overall wellbeing of an individual as well as those activities which constitute adharma causing suffering to an individual and hence must be avoided. Dharmaśāstras primarily conceive of ācāra in terms of sāmānya–dharma or dharma that is not tied to a specific function (these are universal ethical principles applicable to everyone), and viśeṣa-dharma or context-specific special principles of dharma that applies to individuals based on their varṇa, āśrama, deśa,kāla, gender, relationship, etc.

Vyavahāra refers to legal jurisprudence. It covers a broad range of subjects such as civil and criminal laws, duties of a king, court system, judges and witnesses, judicial process, crimes and punishment, etc.

Prāyaścitta refers to penance or expiation. It provide guidelines regarding various expiation activities that can be undertaken by an individual to repent for and purify oneself from the karmic demerit (pāpa) which accrues as a result of deviation from dharma.

Another way of classifying the content of Dharmaśāstras is on the basis of the nature of the subject-matter. Accordingly, the content of Dharmaśāstras can be divided into five types: dṛṣṭārtha, adṛṣṭārtha,dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha, nyāyamūla, and anuvāda.

While dṛṣṭārtha refers to the subject-matter which deals with tangible, seen, and this-worldly purposes such as those relating to wealth (artha) and pleasure (kāma); adṛṣṭārtha refers to the subject-matter which deals with intangible, unseen, and otherworldly purposes such as those relating to punya, svarga, and mokṣa. When the subject-matter has a bearing on both tangible and intangible purposes, then they are called as ‘dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha’. Nyāyamūla refers to subject-matter based on universal maxims. Anuvāda refers to subject-matter seen by the wise and the knowers of Veda (Wadekar 1996, lxxvi).

Of the five, the three namely, dṛṣṭārtha, adṛṣṭārtha, and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha are important as they tell us about the kind of end-result that a particular prescription or guideline when implemented would give rise to. While adṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha have unseen and transcendental results and hence, they are absolute, eternal, and always valid and applicable; the dṛṣṭārtha dealing with tangible results are neither absolute, nor eternal and are subject to time, location, and context.

This distinction is very important for proper understanding and interpretation of Dharmaśāstras. While the ācāra and prayashcitta portion of the Smṛtis deal predominantly with adṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha purposes, vyavahāra portion of the Smṛtis predominantly deal with dṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha purposes. As a result, while the teachings enunciated in ācāra and prayashcitta are predominantly absolute and not subject to socio-political changes, the teachings of vyavahāra, especially the dṛṣṭārtha portions must be understood as absolute only in their essential spirit and not in external form as they are subject to socio-political changes.

The third way of classifying the content of the Smṛtis is by their mode of expression. The Vedic statements can be classified into five types: vidhi, niṣedha, arthavāda, nāmadheya and mantra.

Vidhi or injunctions are statements that induce one to act. Niṣedha or prohibitions are the opposite of injunctions. They are negative precepts which proscribe actions that are either injurious or disadvantageous. Arthavāda are commendatory and depreciatory texts. Nāmadheya refers to names or appellations of certain yajñas, etc. Mantras are sacred formulas to be recited while performing rituals and they do not lay down injunction.

Among these five, the vidhis[43] and niṣedhas[44] directly indicate about actions, whether they are dharma or adharma. What is prescribed through vidhi is dharma and what is prohibited through niṣedha is adharma. Arthavāda passages serve to supplement the vidhi or niṣedha statements, or in many cases when they stand alone, vidhi or nisheda can be inferred from them. All the three –vidhi, niṣedha, and arthavāda are relevant in the context of Smṛtis.

The vidhis can further be classified into: apūrva–vidhi, niyama–vidhiand parisaṃkhyā–vidhi. Apūrva-vidhi is an original injunction. It is an injunction which enjoins something which is not obtained by any other means[45]. Niyama–vidhi is a restrictive injunction. It is an injunction which indicates one among the many available alternatives as a course of action to be adopted[46]. Parisaṅkhya–vidhi is a preclusive injunction. When many alternatives with simultaneity are available, this vidhi excludes all other alternatives except one[47].

The niṣedhas can also be classified into prohibitions “regarding the person” (puruṣārtha) that are applicable to a person throughout his/her life, and prohibitions “regarding the sacrifice” (kratvārtha) that are applicable only to the specific situation of the sacrifice[48]. A third kind of prohibition is paryudāsa which constitutes an exception to the general rule[49].

A basic familiarity with these different themes, the end-goals, and different modes of expression of the subject-matter of Dharmaśāstras is very vital for a proper understanding and interpretation of these texts.

Decoding the Dharmaśāstra: An illustrative example from Manusmrti

There are a number of verses in Manusmṛti regarding women which have become controversial as they are perceived as being anti-women. Two such verses are criticized for stating that women should not have independence and should always be dependent upon menfolk. Let us briefly examine these two verses and what they actually say.

bālyepiturvaśetiṣṭhetpāṇigrāhasyayauvane |
putrāṇāṃbhartaripretenabhajetstrīsvatantratām || 5.146 ||— [A]

In childhood she should remain under the control of her father, in youth under that of her husband, and on the husband’s death under that of her sons; the woman should never have recourse to independence.

pitārakṣatikaumārebhartārakṣatiyauvane |
rakṣantisthavireputrānastrīsvātantryamarhati || 9.3 ||—[B]

The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence.

Let us call these two verses under examination, namely, verse 5.146 and verse 9.3as [A] and [B] respectively.

Both [A] and [B] are very similar in their content, but they appear in two related but distinct contexts. While [A] appears in the context of strī-dharma or duties of women, [B] appears in the context of relational dharma between husband and wife.

Case [A]:

Cosmologically [A] pertains to manuṣya-dharma, teleologically to pravṛtti-dharma, and functionally to strī-dharma. And we already saw how designation of any action as dharma implies that such an action is capable of giving results of puṇya, sukha, svarga, and cittaśuddhi i.e. overall wellbeing.

Therefore, when [A] says women should remain under the under the control of i.e. dependent upon father, husband, or son, and should never take recourse to independence, contrary to popular interpretation which takes it as an infringement of women’s rights and as impeding women empowerment, it is primarily a statement with respect to pursuit of dharma and not concerned with pursuit of artha or kāma. That it is a statement with respect to dharma and not artha or kāma is explicitly highlighted in Gautama Dharmasūtras 18.1which says “A wife is not independent with respect to the fulfilment of dharma[50]”.

Consequently, this dependence in dharmic practice does not in any way come in the way of women pursuing what they love or empowering themselves. If anything, it merely prevents such pursuit of artha and kāma from descending into reckless indulgences leading to distress and suffering.

What is unique about [A] is that it defines strī-dharma in terms of relational dharma that women have with her closest male relationship, namely father, husband, and son. While puruṣa-dharma or dharma as applicable to men is largely defined in terms of varṇāśrama-dharma, the strī-dharma as illustrated by [A] is largely understood in terms of relational dharma despite the recognition that the whole discourse is a subset of varṇāśrama-dharma itself.

This distinction in dharma discourse regarding men and women is owing to the fact that men and women are distinct from each other in their physical, biological, psychological, social, and spiritual makeup. While men in general are more suited for karma-yoga in its aspect of austerity (tapasyā) and ritual performance (karma-anuṣṭhāna), women in general are more suited for karma-yoga with a stress on devotion (bhakti) and service (śuśrūṣu). As a result of this, while puruṣa-dharma is enunciated in terms of varṇāśrama-dharma which stresses on austerity and ritual performance, strī-dharma is enunciated in relational terms where devotion and service play important role. However, this does not mean that men’s obligations do not involve service or that women are ineligible for all forms of ritual performance[51]. It merely indicates what constitutes the predominant means of pursuing dharma for men and women.

To have further clarity on this, let us examine briefly the Hindu notion of marriage.

In Hindu tradition, the marriage or vivāha is understood as a saṃskāra– a sacrament and a purificatory ritual that imparts competency and allows a couple to enter the gr̥hastha-āśrama or the stage of householder to pursue dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa together.

Etymologically, vivāha means a ‘special kind of carrying away (viśiṣṭaḥvāhaḥvivāhaḥ)’ of the bride by the bridegroom. The ‘carrying away’ refers to the process of bridegroom accepting the bride into his life and family symbolized by the ritual processes of kanyādāna, pāṇigrahaṇa, and saptapadī. It is a special kind of ‘carrying away’ because the saṃskāra of vivāha on the one hand purifies the bride and makes her competent to enter householder life and on the other hand it facilitates the groom to embrace her into his life as his half and accept her into his family and gotra lineage such that he attains competency to perform householder duties as well (Ananthanarasimhachar 2014, 526).

Further, vivāha is a special relationship, a sacred bond standing on the three pillars of rati (desire), dharma (duty), and prajā (progeny), which involves a pursuit of both saha-dharma and saha-kāma, i.e. a pursuit of both the duties and the experiencing of life-pleasures, which are accomplished together.

Vivāha as a saṃskāra facilitates the bride and the bridegroom to enter into gṛhastha–āśrama (householder life) thereby facilitating them to practice varṇāśramadharma in the pursuit of the dharmapuruṣārtha .The vows taken during the marriage ceremony shows that marriage is a commitment by the bride and bridegroom to pursue all the puruṣārthas of life together and hence, the notion of ‘saha-dharma’- pursuing life duties together is central to Hindu understanding of marriage.

However, though the goal pursued is same, the roles played by the man and the woman in a marriage are different. While the man plays the role of a husband and a father, the woman plays the role of a wife and a mother. While the husband takes the role of yajamāna, the conductor of the rituals and other dharmic duties, the wife takes up the role of saha-dharmachāriṇī, one who accompanies the husband in fulfilment of dharmic activities. A virtuous wife is, in fact, identified with the sacred fires of the house itself (Leslie 1995, 141). That is, the role played by the wife is like that of the sacred fire: the role of a facilitator, without whom a gṛhastha man cannot perform any dharmic rituals or actions. That is, the husband is the performer of the dharmic actions like yajñá, etc. with the support, help and company of his wife. On the other hand, for the wife, facilitating the husband in the accomplishment of the gṛhastha duties is itself the dharmic duty and a means for her overall emancipation. It is for this reason, the texts note how the half of dharmic merit of all the actions of the husband automatically becomes transferred to the wife. That is, the husband himself becomes the direct means for accomplishing all the puruṣārtha-s for wife. This is the true meaning of saha-dharma in the context of Hindu vivāha (Sridhar 2022).

From the above discussion on Hindu view on marriage, it is very clear that though husband and wife pursue life goals together and are dependent upon each other, the role that the wife plays in the relationship is fundamentally different from the role of husband and hence nature of dependence is also differs for both of them. Since the husband constitutes the direct means for accomplishing all puruṣārthas for the wife, Manusmṛti 5.153 says “There is no separate sacrificing for women, no observances, no fastings; it is by means of serving her husband that she becomes exalted in heaven[52].”

Likewise, when we are children, both men and women are dependent upon their parents. The parents are the first teachers who teach the child what is dharma and what is adharma. Hence, we have famous statements such as ‘mātṛdevo bhava, pitṛdevo bhava’. Therefore when [A] says that women in their childhood must remain dependent upon their father, it is merely stating the fact that children are dependent upon their parents for nourishment, love, education, and protection.

In the same way, in old age, the parents depend upon their children in multiple number of ways including in matters of dharma wherein the children play the role of facilitator.

Therefore, in recognition of the fact of direct dependence of women on their husbands in dharmic matters (as husbands are the direct means for accomplishing dharma for wives) and secondarily on fathers and sons, the strī-dharma has been enunciated in terms of women’s relational dharma towards people who are closest to her[53].

It is possible that many may take issue with the usage of the phrases: ‘vaśe’ which means ‘in control of or dependent upon’ and ‘nabhajetstrīsvatantratām’ which means ‘the woman should never have recourse to independence’.

However, it is important to realize that dependence is a characteristic trait of any group –be it a family, a community, or a professional organization. Every person is dependent on others in their immediate environment in one way or the other: children are dependent upon their parents while growing up, husband and wife are dependent upon each other in everything they do, parents in their old-age are dependent upon their children, citizens are dependent upon the government, colleagues in a company are dependent upon each other, etc.

This being the case, dependence in general should not be seen as a negative trait. Symbiosis is a positive characteristic be it in natural world or in our social community. The same is the case in matters of dharma as well. Therefore, there is nothing offensive or demeaning towards women in [A] stating that in matters of dharma, women are dependent upon their fathers, husbands, and sons.

As far as not having independence in matters of dharma is concerned, that is equally applicable to both men and women. They both are dependent upon the means indicated by śāstras for practicing dharma. Individuals cannot determine on their own what constitutes dharma based on whims and fancies. We must take refuge in our gurus and śāstras for understanding what constitute dharma, and what adharma and live life accordingly.

Case [B]:

Cosmologically [B] pertains to manuṣya-dharma, teleologically to pravṛtti-dharma, and relationally to dharma in the context of family, especially as between husband and wife.

While [A] had highlighted dharma of women especially with respect to important family members such as father, husband, and son, [B] highlights the dharma of menfolk with respect to women of their family. So, functionally, [B] highlights an important aspect of puruṣa-dharma, namely the role and duties of men in the context of family.

Strī-dharma spoken in [A] highlighted the centrality of devotion, dedication, service, and nurturing roles that women play in family. In contrast to that, the puruṣa-dharma enunciated in [B] highlights the centrality of providing protection to womenfolk. Hence, the repeated use of the phrase ‘rakṣati’.

Guarding or protection is a broad terminology with many different dimensions. But primarily [B] uses it in the context of dharma i.e. It stipulates that it is the duty of the father, husband, and the son to ensure that women in the family remain protected such that they are able to perform their svadharma without any hindrance.

Such protection has two aspects: One, protecting the womenfolk from all kinds of external threats, interventions, or obstacles that may be inimical to them. Two, ensuring that women do not themselves deviate from dharma due to bad influence through providing proper education and training, encouraging them to take up healthy and positive activities, etc.

One of the implications of this verse is that it is a reminder to menfolk to behave appropriately with not only women of their family, but with women in general. It is a reminder that men should protect women and not oppress them in any way. Another implication is that it stipulates that children, especially sons should not abandon their aged parents under any pretext. Abandoning aged parents constitutes adharma. Yet another implication is that husband-wife relationship is not merely that of partnership, but is also that of guru-śiṣya. Hence, it is the duty of the husband to teach dharma to his wife and oversee that she can practice dharma without any hindrance.

The controversial phrase ‘nastrīsvātantryamarhati’ in [B] which means ‘women do not deserve independence’ does not imply a curtailment of women’s freedom, but here the phrase ‘svātantryam’ must be understood as a reference to the ‘state of unprotectedness’(Devanathan 2020). That is, women should always be protected and a healthy society be created wherein they are not harassed.

From the above discussion under Cases [A] and [B], it is very clear that contrary to popular interpretation of the verses 5.146 and 9.3 which paint them as anti-women, there is nothing inimical towards women in these verses. On the contrary while [A] highlights the means by which women can attain overall wellbeing, [B] highlights the duty that śāstrasenjoin upon men regarding protection of women.


The contemporary Hindu society’s discomfort with Manusmṛti and other Dharmaśāstra texts is largely caused due to unfamiliarity and disconnection with the dharma textual tradition as a result of colonialism. However, to truly recover native worldview and express our civilizational thoughts coherently using our own frameworks and categories, it is vital that we reconnect, recover, and revive the study of Dharmaśāstras and contextualize its teachings to address contemporary issues. This paper has presented some pointers that would facilitate such reconnection with dharma textual tradition and recovery of its authentic teachings.


Ananthanarasimhachar, Dr. A. 2014. Samskara Mahodadhi. Bengaluru: Anantha Prakashana.

Bharathi, Swami Jnanananda. 1969. Stray Thoughts on Dharma. Chennai: Sri Gnanananda Bharathi Grantha Prakasana Samithi.

Bühler, George. 1886. Laws of Manu. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed December 25, 2018. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/manu.htm.

Datta, Sreejit. 2022. Interpreting Sacred Hindu texts: Case for a Hindu Hermeneutic. September 25. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6DAMK0ljWA&t=2919s.

Devanathan, Ramanuja. 2020. “Understanding Manu Smriti Part I: Women and Freedom.” Indica Today. October 27. Accessed August 04, 2022. https://www.indica.today/quick-reads/understanding-manu-smriti-part-i-women-freedom/.

Doniger, Wendy (tr.). 1991. The Laws of Manu. London: Penguin Books.

Ganguli, K M (tr.). 1883-1896. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Translated into English Prose from original Sanskrit text. Calcutta: Pratap Chandra Roy. Accessed December 18, 2018. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm.

n.d. “Gautama Dharma Sutra.” Reading the Vedic Literature in Sanskrit. Maharshi University of Management, Department of Maharshi Vedic Science. Accessed August 04, 2022. http://vedicreserve.miu.edu/kalpa/dharma/gautama_dharma_sutra.pdf.

n.d. Gita Supersite. IIT Kanpur. Accessed August 04, 2022. https://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in/.

Harikrishna Dave, Jayantakrishna (ed.). 1972-85. Manu-smrti : with nine commentaries by Medhatithi, Sarvajñanarayana, Kulluka, Raghvananda, Nandana, Ramacandra, Manirama, Govindaraja and Bharuci. 6 vols. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Jha, Ganganath (tr.). 1920. Manusmriti with the ‘Manubhashya’ of Medatithi, Volume 3, English Translation, Part 1, Discourses I & II. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

—. 1903-24. Tantravartika: A Commentary on Sabara’s Bhashya on Purva MImamsa Sutras of Jaimini. Vol. 1. Calcutta: Sri Satguru Publications.

Kauṇḍinyāyana, Śivarāja Ācāryaḥ. 2014. Manusmriti. Varanasi: Chowkamba Vidyabhavan.

Kumar, Surendra. 2018. The Manusmriti. Eighth Edition. Delhi: Arsh Sahitya Prachar Trust.

Leslie, Julie (tr.). 1995. The Perfect Wife (Stridharmapaddhati). New Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Madhavananda, Swami (tr.). 1950. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad With the Commentary of Sankaracharya. Mayavati, Almora: Advaita Ashram.

Naik, Chittaranjan. 2022. “APAURUSHEYATVA OF THE VEDAS BY CHITTARANJAN NAIK.” March 21. Accessed September 2022. https://pingaligopi.wordpress.com/2022/03/21/apaurusheyatva-of-the-vedas-by-chittaranjan-naik/.

Neelakandan, Aravindan. 2015. “How Ashok Singhal Fought The Caste Orthodoxy.” Swarajya Mag. November 19. Accessed August 08, 2022. https://swarajyamag.com/politics/how-ashok-singhal-fought-the-caste-orthodoxy.

Sandal, Pandit Mohan Lal (tr.),. 1923. The Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini: Chapters I-III. Allahabad: The Panini Office.

Sinha, Nandalal (tr.). 1923. The Vaisesika Sutras of Kanada. Allahabad: The Panini Office. Accessed August 03, 2022. https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/vaisheshika-sutra-commentary.

Sridhar, Nithin. 2022. “‘Antaraprabhava’ in Surendra Kumar’s ‘Viśuddha Manusmṛti’: A critical assessment in light of its avowedly revisionist interpretation.” Pragyata. January 16. Accessed August 03, 2022. https://pragyata.com/antaraprabhava-in-surendra-kumars-visuddha-manusm%E1%B9%9Bti-a-critical-assessment-in-light-of-its-avowedly-revisionist-interpretation/.

—. 2022. “Revisiting Sati.” Indica Today. November 17. Accessed August 04, 2022. https://www.indica.today/research/sati-understanding-practice-dharmic-perspective/.

—. 2019. Samanya Dharma: Ethical duties common to all. Hubli: Subbu Publication.

n.d. Tattvabodha of Shri Adi Shankaracharya. International Vedanta Mission. Accessed August 04, 2022. http://practicalphilosophy.in/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/tattvabodha.pdf.

Tripati, Kamalakantha (tr.). 2019. Parasharamadhava. Vol. 1. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Vidyabhavan.

Vaidya, Parashuram Lakshman (ed.). 1958. The Mahābhārata : for the first time critically edited. Vol. 10. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Accessed August 03, 2022. https://sanskritdocuments.org/mirrors/mahabharata/mahabharata-bori.html.

n.d. Valmiki Ramayana. https://www.valmikiramayan.net/index.html.

Vimalananda, Swami (tr.). 1968. Mahanarayanopanisad: Introduction, Translation, Interpretation in Sanskrit, and Critical and Explanatory Notes. Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math.

Wadekar, Dr. Mukund Lalji. 1996. Devalasmriti: Reconstructed and Critical Study. New Delhi: Koshal Book Depot.

[1]This paper was presented at Nirvighnam: A Two Day Conference on the Texts and Traditions of India organized by Saptaparni and The Thinking Cap Series at Hyderabad on August 20-21, 2022.

[2]Dr Surendra Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar affiliated with the Arya Samaj in his revisionist commentary (The Manusmriti 2018) has indulged in many instances of distortion and misinterpretation of key verses.

See one such instance highlighted in “Antaraprabhava in Surendra Kumar’s ViśuddhaManusmṛti: A critical assessment in light of its avowedly revisionist interpretation (Sridhar, ‘Antaraprabhava’ in Surendra Kumar’s ‘Viśuddha Manusmṛti’: A critical assessment in light of its avowedly revisionist interpretation 2022).”

[3] Wendy Doniger (1991) writes: “The Laws of Manu encompasses contradictions that may indeed be ultimately ‘insoluble’, but not necessarily irreconcilable, nor are its attempts to reconcile them necessarily ‘frenzied’. Given the historical background, it is not surprising that Manu expresses a number of different views on many basic points. Different parts of the text were added at different periods (the portions dealing with legal cases are generally regarded as the latest) and, in the recension that we have, some topics are split up and treated in several different places, or in what seem to us to be the wrong places.”

[4] Ashok Singhal of VHP had stated: “The VHP totally rejects the Manu Smriti as it has no place in a civilized & cultured society (Neelakandan 2015).”

[5]dharmoviśvasyajagataḥpratiṣṭhā…dharmeṇapāpamapanudati…|MahānārāyaṇaUpaniṣad79.7 (Vimalananda 1968)

[6]dhāraṇāddharmamityāhuḥdharmodhārayatiprajāḥ।MahābhārataKarṇa Parva 49.50(Vaidya 1958)

[7]yato’bhyudayaniḥśreyasasiddhiḥsadharmaḥ || VaiśeṣikaSūtra 1.1.2 (Sinha 1923)

[8]mānuṣāṇāṃhitaṃdharmmaṃ…| Parāśarasmṛti 1.2(Tripati 2019)

[9]abhimataphalasādhanatvaṃ hi dharmasyahitatvam।taccaphalaṃdvedhā-aihikamāmuṣmikañcaiti।aṣṭakādisādhyaṃpruṣṭyādikāmaihikam।āmuṣmikaṃdvedhāabhyudayoniḥśreyasañca।tatrābhyudayasyasākṣātsādhanaṃdharmaḥ।niḥśreyasasyatutattvajñānotpādanadvāreṇa।Parāśaramādhava, Acharakhanda, Prathama Adhyaya(Tripati 2019)

[10]Svarga can be roughly translated as heaven though unlike Abrahamic notion of heaven, svarga is not a permanent abode. Instead svarga is a realm to experience fruits of one’s punya karma. Likewise, naraka loosely translated as hell is not a permanent abode. There is no concept of eternal hell in Hindu dharma. Naraka is a realm where one experiences the fruits of one’s papa karma.

[11] All citations from Manusmṛti are from (Kauṇḍinyāyana 2014) and translations are adopted with minor modifications from (Jha, Manusmriti with the ‘Manubhashya’ of Medatithi, Volume 3, English Translation, Part 1, Discourses I & II 1920)

[12]karmaṇāṃ ca vivekārthaṃdharmādharmauvyavecayat |
dvandvairayojayaccaimāḥsukhaduḥkhādibhiḥprajāḥ || Manusmṛti 1.26

[13]karmabhyaḥprāgayogyasyakarmaṇaḥpuruṣasyavāyogyatāśāstrāgamyaya para sāpūrvamiṣyate। Tantravārtika of Kumārila, on Bhāṣya of Sābara, on Mīmāṃsa Sutra 2.1.5(Jha 1903-24)

[14]tasmācchāstraṃpramāṇaṃtekāryākāryavyavasthitau | jñātvāśāstravidhānoktaṃ karma kartumihārhasi || Bhagavad Gita 16.24 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[15]dharmaśāstretihāsapurāṇādyupabṛṃhitāvedā yad eva…| Sri Ramanujacharya’s Bhagavad Gita Bhashya on verse 16.24 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[16]śāstraṃvedatadupajīvismṛtipurāṇādikameva…| Sri Madhusudhana Saraswathi’s Gudartha Dipika on Gita verse 16.2 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[17] ’Apauruṣeya’ means ‘not authored by a being, either human or divine’. TheMīmāṃsakas hold that any text or composition that is authored will have some flaws, even those created by perfected beings. It is ’apauruṣeyatva’ or non-authorship of Veda which makes Veda flawless and this is the reason why it is ultimate source of knowledge. For a more elaborate enunciation on this, see: (Naik 2022)

[18]codanālakṣaṇoarthodharmaḥ।Mīmāṃsa Sutra 1.1.1(Sandal 1923)

[19]Manusmṛti 1.3 describes Manu as the knower of entirety of Veda.

[20]Manusmṛti 1.1 describes Manu as being seated in ‘Ekāgra’– one-pointedness when sages approached him with request for instruction on Dharma. Likewise, ParāśaraSmṛti 1.1 makes a similar reference to Vyasa as being seated in ‘Ekāgra’. Madhavacharya in his commentary on said verse from ParāśaraSmṛti notes that one-pointedness happens when all the three- Dhāraṇā(concentration), Dhyāna (meditation), and Samadhi (total absorption)- becomes established in one object. If such one-pointedness happens towards the words and meanings, then one will gain the knowledge of all words and speeches including the knowledge of speech of birds and animals. He adds that in this case, the ‘Ekāgra’ refers to one-pointedness towards the knowledge of the innumerable branches of Vedas (and hence of Dharma).

[21]śrutistuvedovijñeyodharmaśāstraṃtuvaismṛtiḥ |

tesarvārtheṣvamīmāṃsyetābhyāṃdharmo hi nirbabhau || Manusmṛti 2.10

[22]Sadāchāra and ātmanastuṣṭi are not independent pramāṇas. They are secondary sources dependent uponśabdapramāṇa. For example, one learns sadāchāra from the lives of BhagavānRāmaand BhagavānKṛṣṇa which can be known from studying Rāmāyaṇaand Mahābhārata, respectively. Likewise, one is able to implement ātmanastuṣṭi only on the basis of one’s learning in Śāstras.

[23]vedaḥsmṛtiḥsadācāraḥsvasya ca priyamātmanaḥ |

etaccaturvidhaṃprāhuḥsākṣāddharmasyalakṣaṇam || Manusmṛti 2.12

[24]mithyājñānanivartakatvavyatirekeṇākārakatvamityavocāma।na ca vacanaṃvastunaḥsāmarthyajanakam।jñāpakaṃ hi śāstraṃnakārakamitisthitiḥ।Shankara-Bhashya on BrihadaranyakaUpaniṣad 1.4.10 (Madhavananda 1950)

[25]tac ca vedasmṛtyordharmaṃpratijñāpakatayaiva,nanirvartakatayā,na ca sthitihetutayā,vṛkṣasyeva | Medhatithi on Manu 2.6(Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[26]guruvedāntavākyādiṣuviśvāsaḥśraddhā।Tattvabodha 5.7 (Tattvabodha of Shri Adi Shankaracharya n.d.)

[27]śhraddhāvānllabhatejñānaṁ …| Bhagavad Gita 4.39(Gita Supersite n.d.)

[28]A qualified teacher is one who is both well-versed in a branch of knowledge and has also actualized the essential truths of that field. In Vedānta, such a teacher is called śrotriya-brahmaniṣṭha.

[29] Also watch this talk by Prof Sreejit Datta(Interpreting Sacred Hindu texts: Case for a Hindu Hermeneutic 2022)

[30]śrutistuvedovijñeyodharmaśāstraṃtuvaismṛtiḥ |

tesarvārtheṣvamīmāṃsyetābhyāṃdharmo hi nirbabhau || Manusmṛti 2.10

[31]Anthropocentrism or the belief in human centrality and exceptionalism in its essence is very part of human nature as it has ego and selfishness at the very heart of it. When ego, selfishness, and other internal passions that afflict the mind are not kept in check and instead are allowed to manifest then it directly results in an ideology based on anthropocentrism. We see such tendencies depicted in various accounts given in Purāṇas, most notably that of Hiraṇyakaśipu who forced his subjects including his own son, Prahlāda,to worship him instead of BhagavānViṣṇu.

[32]George Bühler remarks: “The whole first chapter must be considered as a later addition. No Dharmasūtra begins with a description of its own origin, much less with an account of creation. The former, which would be absurd in a Dharmasūtra, has been added in order to give authority to a remodelled version.” (Bühler 1886, lxvi).

[33]Medhätithi on Manusmṛti 1.5: śāstrasyamahāprayojanatvamanenasarveṇapratipadyate।brāhmaṇādyā: sthāvaraparyantāḥsaṃsāragatayodharmādharmanimittāatrepratipādyante। (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[34]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: idaṃtuvadāmaḥmunīnāṃdharmaviṣayepraśnejagatkāraṇatayābrahmapratipādanaṃdharmakathanamevetināprastutā’bhidhānam। (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[35]ātmajñānaṃtitikṣā ca dharmaḥsādhāraṇonṛpa | Mahābhārata 12.285.24

[36]ijyācāradamāhiṃsādānasvādhyāyakarmaṇām |ayaṃtuparamodharmoyadyogenaātmadarśanam || Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.8

[37]janmādyasyayataḥ | Brahmasūtra 1.1.2

[38]yatovāimānibhūtānijāyante | yenajātānijīvanti | yatprayantyabhisaṃviśanti | tadvijijñāsasva | tadbrahmeti || (TaittirīyaUpaniṣad 3.1)

[39]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: ātmajñānasvarūpaparamadharmāvagamāyaprathamā’dhyāyaṃkṛtvāsaṃskārādirūpaṃdharmaṃtadaṅgatayādvitīyā’dhyāyādikrameṇavakṣyatītinakaścidvirodhaḥ |(Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[40]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: kiṃcapraśnottaravākyānāmevasvārasyādayaṃmadukto’rtholabhyate। (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[41]tatrābhyudayasyasākṣātsādhanaṃdharmaḥ।niḥśreyasasyatutattvajñānotpādanadvāreṇa।Parāśara Madhava, Acharakhanda, Prathama Adhyaya. (Tripati 2019)

[42] See (Sridhar 2019)

[43]Examples of vidhi statement: svargakāmoyajeta(Those who desire heaven must perform sacrifice); satyaṃvada(Speak truth)

[44]Examples for niṣedha statement: nakalañjaṃbhakṣayet(Do not eat kalañja, i.e. fermented food)

[45]Example of apūrva-vidhi: svargakāmoyajeta– One who desires heaven must perform yajña. It is imparting an original revelation, something which cannot be known from elsewhere, namely, that performance of yajña directly results in attainment of heaven. All such injunctions which are original revelations about Karma &karmaphala are called as apūrva-vidhi.

[46]Example for niyama-vidhi: If ‘A’ is to be done and there are many ways of doing it like ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’. Theniyamavidhi restricts that ‘A’ is to be done only by way of ‘B’ and not by other means.

[47]Example forparisaṅkhya-vidhi: Rāmāyaṇa4.17.39 says: “pañcapañcanakhābhakṣyāḥ” [Five animals each having five nails may be consumed as food (Valmiki Ramayana n.d.)]. It is not prescribing that everyone must eat five animals each having five nails. It is merely saying that if one desires to eat meat, then one should not consume meat of any animals, except the five animals having five nails (namely, rabbit, porcupine, iguana, rhinoceros, and tortoise) mentioned in the verse. That is, by this vidhi while eating meat is not compulsory, if one were to eat meat, then for such a person meat of animals except those allowed are prohibited.

[48] While the statement “One should not threaten a Brāhmaṇa or strike him” is a prohibition regarding the person which is applicable in all context and situations and hence is a puruṣārthaniṣedha; the statement “The yajamāna of a sacrifice should abstain from sexual intimacy” is a prohibition with respect to sacrifice and is applicable only in the context of and during the duration of that particular sacrifice and hence is a kratvārthaniṣedha.

[49] Example for paryudāsa: When there is an injunction that “perform śrāddha ceremony during full moon” and a prohibition that “śrāddha not to be performed in the night”. This prohibition is not niṣedha but is paryudāsa. It is an exception to the general rule. The person is to perform the śrāddha ceremony during full moon, except during the night.

[50]asvatantrādharmestrī | Gautama Dharmasūtras18.1 (Gautama Dharma Sutra n.d.)

[51] In Manusmṛti 2.228-2.237, a man is told to always act in accordance with his mother, father and ācārya.

To serve these three is told be highest austerity. This service to parents and teachers is an integral part of varṇāśrama-dharma. Likewise, when Manusmṛti 5.153 says that there is no separate sacrificing, observations or fastings for women, other than serving her husband, it does not mean total exclusion, but only that all other religious activities are secondary and a limb of serving the husband which is primary dharma and hence, her ritual practice must be done either together with the husband or with the permission of the husband, a point noted by Medhatithi in his commentary on the verse.


patiṃśuśrūṣateyenatenasvargemahīyate॥Manusmṛti 5.153

[53]While the strī-dharma has been defined in terms of women’s relational dharma towards parents, husband, and children, one could ask what about dharma for women who neither have parents nor are they married and hence without children? Or for women in professions such as prostitution, or women who are divorced and hence cannot practice pativratā dharma? The answer to this is that while they may be ineligible to practice strī-dharma as enunciated in Manu5.146, which is a viśeṣa-dharma, they could still practice sāmānya–dharma, which is available for everyone. This is similar to cases of those menfolk who remain unmarried or have become widowers and hence ineligible to perform gṛhastha-āśrama-dharma, but are nevertheless eligible to perform sāmānya–dharma. Thus, no one is excluded from dharma.

Feature Image Credit: istockphoto.com

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

Sources Of Hindu Law:

Ancient Sources of Hindu Law:



c.Digests and Commentaries and


Modern Sources of Hindu Law:

a.Justice, equity and good conscience



Ancient Sources:


It literally means that which has been heard. The word is derived from the word “shru” which means ‘to hear’. In theory, it is the primary and paramount source of Hindu law and is believed to be the language of the divine revelation through the sages.
The synonym of shruti is veda. It is derived from the root “vid” meaning ‘to know’. The term Veda is based on the tradition that they are the fountain of all knowledge. There are four Vedas namely,

a.Rig Veda (containing hymns in Sanskrit to be recited by the chief priest),

b.Yajurva Veda (containing formulas to be recited by the officiating priest),

c.Sama Veda (containing verses to be chanted by seers) and

d.Atharva Veda (containing a collection of spells and incantations, stories, predictions, apotropaic charms and some speculative hymns)


The wordSmriti is derived from the word “smri” meaning ‘to remember’. Traditionally, Smritis contain those portions of the Shrutis which the sages forgot in their original form and the idea whereby they wrote in their own language with the help of their memory. Thus, the basis of the Smritis is Shrutis but they are human works.
There are two kinds of Smritis viz. “Dharmasutras” and “Dharmashastras”. Their subject matter is almost the same. The difference is that the Dharmasutras are written in prose, in short maxims (Sutras) and the Dharmashastras are composed in poetry (Shlokas). However, occasionally, we find Shlokas in Dharmasutras and Sutras in the Dharmashastras. In a narrow sense, the word Smriti is used to denote the poetical Dharmashastras.

3.Digests and Commentaries:

After Shrutis came the era of commentators and digests. Commentaries (Tika or Bhashya) and Digests (Nibandhs) covered a period of more than thousand years from 7th century to 1800 A.D. In the first part of the period most of the commentaries were written on the Smritis but in the later period the works were in the nature of digests containing a synthesis of the various Smritis and explaining and reconciling the various contradictions.
The evolution of the different schools of Hindu law has been possible on account of the different commentaries that were written by various authorities. The original source of Hindu law was the same for all Hindus. But schools of Hindu law arose as the people chose to adhere to one or the other school for different reasons. The Dayabhaga and Mitakshara are the two major schools of Hindu law. The Dayabhagaschool of law is based on the commentaries of Jimutvahana (author of Dayabhagawhich is the digest of all Codes) and the Mitakshara is based on the commentaries written by Vijnaneswar on the Code of Yajnavalkya.


Custom is regarded as the third source of Hindu law. From the earliest period custom (‘achara’) is regarded as the highest ‘dharma’. As defined by the Judicial Committee custom signifies a rule which in a particular family or in a particular class or district has from long usage obtained the force of law.
Custom is a principle source and its position is next to the Shrutis and Smritis but usage of custom prevails over the Smritis. It is superior to written law. There are certain characteristics which need to be fulfilled for declaring custom to be a valid one.

Modern Sources:

1.Justice, equity and good conscience:

Occasionally it might happen that a dispute comes before a Court which cannot be settled by the application of any existing rule in any of the sources available. Such a situation may be rare but it is possible because not every kind of fact situation which arises can have a corresponding law governing it.

The Courts cannot refuse to the settle the dispute in the absence of law and they are under an obligation to decide such a case also. For determining such cases, the Courts rely upon the basic values, norms and standards of fairplay and propriety.


Legislations are Acts of Parliament which have been playing a profound role in the formation of Hindu law. After India achieved independence, some important aspects of Hindu Law have been codified. Few examples of important Statutes are The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, The Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act, 1956, The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, etc.

After codification, any point dealt with by the codified law is final. The enactment overrides all prior law, whether based on custom or otherwise unless an express saving is provided for in the enactment itself. In matters not specifically covered by the codified law, the old textual law contains to have application.


After the establishment of British rule, the hierarchy of Courts was established. The doctrine of precedent based on the principle of treating like cases alike was established. Today, the decisions of Privy Council are binding on all the lower Courts in India except where they have been modified or altered by the Supreme Court whose decisions are binding on all the Courts except for itself.

The Dharmasutras

The Dharmasūtras are Sanskrit texts dealing with law and rituals. They include the four surviving written works of the ancient Indian tradition on the subject of dharma, or the rules of behavior recognized by a community. Unlike the later Dharmashastra, the dharmasutras are composed in prose. The oldest Dharmasutra is generally believed to have been that of Apastamba, followed by the dharmasutras of Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasishtha. It is difficult to determine exact dates for these texts, but the dates between 500-300 B.C.E. have been suggested for the oldest Dharmasutras.

The Dharmashastras

The Dharmaśāstra is a genre of Sanskrit texts and refers to the śāstra, or Hindu branch of learning, pertaining to dharma, religious and legal duty. The voluminous textual corpus of Dharmaśāstra is primarily a product of the Brahmanical tradition in India and represents the elaborate scholastic system of an expert tradition. Because of its sophisticated jurisprudence, Dharmaśāstra was taken by early British colonial administrators to be the law of the land for Hindus in India. Ever since, Dharmaśāstra has been linked with Hindu law, despite the fact that its contents deal as much or more with religious life as with law. In fact, a separation of religion and law within Dharmaśāstra is artificial and has been repeatedly questioned. Dharmaśāstra is important within the Hindu tradition—first, as a source of religious law describing the life of an ideal householder and, second, as symbol of the summation of Hindu knowledge about religion, law, ethics, etc.

All Dharmaśāstra derives its authority with reference to the Vedas, though few, if any, of the contents of most Dharmaśāstra texts can be directly linked with extant Vedic texts. Traditionally, Dharmaśāstra has, since the time of the Yājñvalkyasmṛti, been divided into three major topics: 1) ācāra, rules pertaining to daily rituals, life-cycle cites, and other duties of four castes or varnas 2) vyavahāra, rules pertaining to the procedures for resolving doubts about dharma as well as rules of substantive law categorized according the standard eighteen titles of Hindu law, and 3) prāyaścitta, rules about expiations and penances for violations of the rules of dharma.

A more descriptive catalog of the contents of Dharmaśāstra (culled from the contents of P.V. Kane’s History of Dharmaśāstra) includes the following topics:

  1. Sources of dharma
  2. Varna, or caste
  3. Consecratory, or life-cycle, rites (sanskāras), especially marriage
  4. Orders of life, or life-stages (āśramas)
  5. Five great sacrifices (mahāyajñas)
  6. Rules for eating
  7. Religious gifts (dāna)
  8. Rules for renunciation (sanyāsa)
  9. Duties of a king
  10. Legal procedure
  11. Eighteen titles of law (vyavahārapadas)
  12. Categories of sin
  13. Expiations and penances
  14. Karma
  15. Funerary and ancestral rites (antyeṣṭi and śrāddha)
  16. Pilgrimage
  17. Vows
  18. Festivals
  19. Propitiatory rites



The Mānava-Dharmaśāstra (“Manu” for short) occupies a pivotal position in the long history of Dharmaśāstric textual production. Dharmaśāstras produced before Manu, in the last three centuries BCE, consisted of prose texts written in the sutra style with interspersed verses. Manu is the first to be written entirely in verse, a style that is followed by all later authors. Manu is also the first to integrate completely the Arthaśāstric material dealing with the duties of the king, warfare and foreign policy, and law and jurisprudence. These will remain central topics of later Dharmaśāstric discourse. Manu was also considered within the native tradition itself as the most authoritative text on dharma. Its preeminent position was clearly established by the 5th century CE and possibly as early as the 3rd. Sometime toward the middle of the first millennium, Bṛhaspati, one of Manu’s successors and himself a composer of a Dharmaśāstra, pays Manu the ultimate compliment: Manu is the authority, and any text contradicting Manu has no validity. Manu’s importance is also indicated by the number of important commentaries that were written on it; nine of them survive, written between the 8th and the 17th centuries. It is also one of the most cited texts in medieval legal digests (nibandha).