Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dharma Shastras- Legal Literature of Ancient India

Dharma Shastras is the designation of legal literature in Sanskrit. It comprises laws and rules of conduct of the people of different category and had its origin in the Dharma Sutras which formed a part of the Vedanga Kalpa Sutras. Dharma means what upholds an individual; what sustains one; what leads to happiness; one’s own obligations or duties; sacred law; moral order; practicing various truths responsible for integrated development; correctness; eternal principle; philosophy of life; meritorious act and so on. Dharma Shastras or Science of Law contains Dharma Sutras and Smritis. The former is in the form of definition while the latter is in sloka or verse form. Dharma Shastras existed at least prior to the period 600-300 B.C. and in the 2nd century B.C. they had attained a position of supreme authority in regulating the conducting of men.

Origin of Dharma Sutras: A Sutra is a style of writing treatise by utilizing the fewest possible words to ensure brevity and easy memorization. The Dharma Sutras along with Srauta Sutras and Grihya Sutras comprises the Kalpa, one among the six Vedangas, the auxiliary of the Vedas.

  • The Srauta Sutras deal with the great Vedic sacrifices of Havis (oblation) and Soma and other religious matters.
  • The Grihya Sutra deal with domestic ritual. They contain minute rules for the performance of various ceremonies (samskaras) marking every important epoch of an individual’s life from conception to cremation.
  • The Dharma Sutras deal with social usage and customs of everyday life. In them we see the beginning of civil and criminal law. The important Dharma Sutras are the Gautama Sutra, Baudhayana Sutra and Apastamba Sutra to name a few.

Gautama Dharmasutra: Gautama Dharmasutra is the oldest of the Dharmasutras and can be placed between 600-400 B.C. The contents of this dharmasutra is divided into 28 chapters and contains duties for bramacharins (students), gruhasta (householders), responsibilities for the king, about taxation, inheritance, expiation, etc. In numerous places Gautama refers to the views of his predecessors which prove that Gautama was preceded by great literary activities in the sphere of Dharmasutras. This Dharmasutra was specially studied by the followers of the Samaveda. Haradatta has written a commentary on Gautama Dharmasutra by the name Mitakshara.

Baudhayana Dharmasutra: Baudhayana Dharmasutra represents a south Indian school of Krishna Yajurveda. According to Buhler, Baudhayana was from south India. Baudhayana Dharmasutra is certainly later than that of Gautama Dharmasutra as it mentions Gautama twice by name and is placed between 500-200 B.C. This dharmasutra contains eight chapters and contains sources of dharma (law), duties for students and householders, purification after birth and death ceremonies, about caste and sub-castes, punishment for sins, etc. Some of its sections are later additions made to its original form. A commentary on this dharmasutra has been written by Govindaswamin.

Apastamba Dharmasutra: Apastamba Dharmasutra belonging to the school of Apastamba of the Krishna Yajurveda in south India is the best preserved among the Dharmasutra. It is divided into 30 chapters and quotes besides the Samhitas, the Brahmanas very frequently. Punishment for various breaches of conduct and expiation for sins are found this dharmasutra. Apastamba Dharmasutra is written in a concise and compact style and though mainly in prose, there are verses here and there. Apastamba is enumerated by Yajnavalkya as a writer on dharma and Apastamba Dharmasutra has been quoted from very ancient times as authoritative. The date of this dharmasutra is later than Gautama Dharmasutra and probably Baudhayana Dharmasutra and is placed between 600-300 B.C. Haradatta has written a commentary on this dharmasutra by the name Ujjvala Vrtti.

Meaning of Smriti: The word Smriti literally means recollection or what is remembered. It is used in two connotations. It is used to refer all those literature which does not come under the class Shruti (revealed text like the Vedas). This includes the Vedangas, Dharma Shastra, Puranas and other branches of knowledge. The word Smriti is also synonyms with the word Dharma Shastra or sources of law and is a collection of all legal principles found in the Vedas and included in the Dharma Shastras; as well as customs or usage which came to be practiced and accepted by the society. These legal principles were all arranged subject wise in a systematic manner under three main heads, namely achara (rites), vyavahara (dealings) and prayaschitta (expiation). The Smritis contained rules both for religious and secular purposes. According to Vijneshwara the author of Mitakshara, there are 87 Smritis. Anantadeva in his work Samskara Kaustubha refers to 104 Smritis while Kamalakara in his work Nirnayasindhu refers to 131 Smritis. As the Smritis were not always easily intelligible, commentaries were written with a view to explain their contents. For instance Mitakshara is a commentary on the Yajnavalkya Smriti written by Vijneshwara during 11th century A.D. The important Smritis are Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti, Narada Smriti, Parashara Smriti, and so on.

Manu Smriti: It is the most ancient and authoritative among the Smritis. Right from the age of Rig-Veda almost all authors of Dharma Shastras refer to Manu as the first lawgiver. However the Manu Smriti in its present form available to us now was compiled by some eminent author probably Sage Brighu between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. and who gave it the title Manu Smriti. The compilation of Manu Smriti was possibly the result of the need for codification of all the rules of Dharma Shastras which had been in vogue, at one place. The systematic collection of all rules of Dharma Shastras covering all the branches of law then in force, the simple language and great clarity in its composition made the Manu Smriti the most authoritative source of ancient Hindu jurisprudence. The compilation practically replaced all the previous texts as it was an exhaustive compilation. The popularity of the code was so great that it was adopted and followed in Burma, Java, Philippines and other neighbouring countries. The Manu Smriti consists of 2694 verses and is divided into 12 chapters. The bhasya of Medhatithi is the earliest extant commentary on the Manu Smriti and was composed around 900 A.D. Other famous commentators on Manu Smriti include Govindaraja (12th century A.D.) and Kulluka Bhatta (15th century A.D.)

Yajnavalkya Smriti: Next to Manu Smriti, the code of Yajnavalkya acquired a very high position in Hindu jurisprudence. When it was found by the thinkers of the then Hindu society that the rules as laid down by Manu needed a revision, Yajnavalkya compiled his own code in around 200 A.D. known as Yajnavalkya Smriti. Though this Smriti follows the same pattern as of Manu Smriti in the treatment of subjects, it is scientific and more methodical. It avoids repetition and according to J.C. Ghose though Manu’s authority is unquestioned by all Hindus, it is the law of Yajnavalkya by which they are really governed. Yajnavalkya Smriti consists of 1010 verses divided into three chapters namely achara, vyavahara and prayaschitta. On matters such as women’s right of inheritance and right to hold property and criminal penalty, Yajnavalkya Smriti is more liberal than Manu Smriti. It is said that the profound influence of the teachings of Buddha had great impact on the society which has found itself expressed in the form of more humane provisions of law in the Yajnavalkya Smriti. Compared to Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti is very brief, scientific and practical. By writing a commentary on Yajnavalkya Smriti under the title, Mitakshara, Vigneshwara greatly advanced the prestige and authority of Yajnavalkya Smriti. Vigneshwara was a south Indian who lived during 1050-1100 A.D. The commentary of Vigneshwara has been accepted as the paramount authority on Hindu law in the whole of India except the province of Bengal, where the Jumutavahana’s code known as Dayabhaga reigns supreme.

Narada Smriti: This Smriti contains 1028 verses. Dr. Jolly who has translated this Smriti opines that the date of this Smriti is later than 300 A.D. and that the author of this Smriti hailed from Nepal. Narada has not been cited by Kautilya and so he must have been certainly after Kautilya and not prior to him. This Smriti solely deals with forensic law, both substantive and procedural without any reference to penance and other religious matters. Thus Narada Smriti makes a departure from the earlier works and can be regarded as purely relating to law. It deals with courts and judicial procedure and also lays down the law regulating the 18 titles with great clarity. Narada was independent in his views and did not allow himself to be bound by the earlier text. This Smriti is remarkable for its progressive views on various matters. To give a few instances, in the matter of inheritance Narada Smriti provides for an equal share in property for the mother along with her sons after the death of her husband. In marriage, he holds that a widow as well as a wife whose husband is impotent or absconding is entitled to remarriage. In politics Narada was par excellence champion of royalty. He is the solitary writer who went to the extent of maintaining that even a worthless ruler must be constantly worshipped by his subject.

Introduction of Purificatory Rites: That the legal writers of ancient India composed laws according to demanding situations is evidenced by the fact that after 10th century A.D. we find a new topic, Shuddhi which deals with purificatory rites in many of the legal digest composed. This topic was necessitated to tackle the menace of forced conversion to Islam by Muslim invaders. To give a few instances, Deval Smriti which was composed in Sindh after its conquest by the Muslims is essentially a Smriti composed for prescribing the rules for reconversion; it permits reconversion of forcibly converted men within a period of 20 years. Deval the composer of this Smriti was so progressive in his views that he recommends the readmission into the family and society of a kidnapped woman even after she is raped and made pregnant after some penance and purification rites. Lakshamidhar Bhatt who lived in the twelfth century wrote Krityakalpataru which has two topics, Suddhi-Kanda which deals with the purificatory rites and Santi Kanda which describes all kinds of propitiatory rites. Chandesvara who lived in the latter half of the 13th century composed Smritiratnakara which has separate chapters on Suddhi and Vivada. Another work Suddhiviveka written by Rudradhar who flourished in the first half of the 15th century is an exhaustive treatise dealing with all aspects of purification. Other important works composed on purificatory rites include Suddhinirnaya by Vachaspati Misra, Suddhikaumudi by Govindananda and Madanapradipa by Madanpal. As a defence against forced conversion the Hindus also adopted various regressive measures like forbidding inter-caste marriages, confining women within the four walls of their homes and encouraging child marriages.