By Swami Harshananda
Dharma and its application to the various aspects of life are of great importance. The concept itself has undergone several changes over the centuries. Word dharma is derived from the root ‘dhṛ’ which means ‘to support and to sustain’. Gradually dharma was used in several senses but the sense of ‘duties and responsibilities based on some fundamental moral virtues' became most widely accepted. Some other meanings of dharma are:
- Good works
- Function or characteristics
Sources of Dharma
The Vedas are the primary scriptures of the religion defined as the source of dharma. With the growth of the human society and the consequent issues related to it, the need to expand the scope of dharma was inevitable. This gave rise to the composition of the later works now given the comprehensive term ‘dharmaśāstras.’ According to all these works, the sources of dharma are:
- The Vedas
- The smṛtis
- The teachings and conduct of persons who are well-versed in the scriptures and are of unblemished character
- One’s own conscience
Growth of the Dharmaśāstras
The Vedas lack positive precepts regarding dharma concerning personal conduct and social regulations. Later scriptures do contain incidental references of various topics that fall under the domain of the dharmaśāstras. There are at least 50 passages in the Vedas highlighting different rituals and regulations related to it. All the topics have been dealt with in much greater detail in the dharmaśāstras. These topics are:
- The forms of marriage
- Different kinds of sons
- Adoption of a son
- Śrāddha ceremony
- Strīdhana or property that should rightfully accrue to women
- Śrautasutras - They deal with Vedic sacrifices.
- Gṛhyasutras - They mention the rites and ceremonies to be performed by a householder in his house (gṛha = house).
- Dharmasutras - They are concerned with the more general and social aspects of dharma like the conduct of human beings as members of a society and community. However, these two are interconnected and interdependent.
- Śulbasutras - They include the procedures of Vedic sacrifices.
As the implementation of the rules of conduct in the society progressed, problems including differences of opinion must have cropped up. Hence, commentaries on these works were written by competent scholar in an attempt to expand the given ideas or clear the doubts and anomalies, thus enriching the whole field of dharmaśāstra literature. As the number of such compositions increased, it became necessary to produce ready-reference material containing abstracts, surveys and reviews, of all the matter available on that subject. This gave rise to another class of works known as ‘nibandhas’ or digests.
The two well known epics, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, and many purāṇas contain a lot of material that should normally come under the dharmaśāstras. The nibandhas have used this material appropriately. Hence any standard work on the dharmaśāstras should avail all the relevant data provided by these sources.
Topics of the Dharmaśāstras
The topics generally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras fall under three broad groups:
- Ācāra - general conduct
- Vyavahāra - social conduct, law and order
- Prāyaścitta - expiatory rites for transgressions
Unless the body-mind complex is kept clean and pure both physically and ceremonially, a human being cannot attain dharma in its two primary aspects, viz.:
- Abhyudaya - worldly progress
- Niśśreyasa - spiritual welfare
This is achieved by strictly following ācāra or the code of conduct prescribed to be observed in one’s personal life. This code should be practiced meticulously without indolence or neglect as ordained in the śruti, the smṛtis and sadācāra. Sadācāra leads to long life, fulfillment of desires and attainment of wealth. On the other hand durācāra results in disease, suffering, short-life and ill-fame. The ācāra or sadācāra mainly concerns the ‘ṣaṭkarmas’ or six daily rituals. They are:
- Snāna & sandhyā - bath and the sandhyā ritual
- Japa - Repetition of Vedic mantras or God’s name
- Homa - Oblations into a consecrated fire
- Devapuja - Worship of gods
- Ātithya - Entertaining the guests
- Vaiśvadeva - Offering cooked food to all the gods
Daily routine also includes tarpaṇa or ceremonial offering of water with appropriate mantras, to devas (the gods), ṛṣis (sages) and pitṛs (manes). Some aspects of these karmas like bath, worship of one’s family deity, repetition of the divine name and entertaining guests, apply to persons of all castes without any distinction.
Another cardinal aspect of the religion and society, viz., the varṇa-āśrama-dharmas has been given the primary place in all the dharmaśāstra works in the ācāra section.
Though the word ‘vyavahāra’ refers to the general social conduct, in the dharmaśāstras it is used in a more technical sense concerning civil and criminal law. In this section 18 subjects have been dealt with. Some of them are:
- Ṛṇādāna - debts
- Sambhuya-samutthāna - partnership
- Sarñvid-vyatikrama - breach of contract
- Kraya-vikraya - purchase and sale
- Svāmi-pāla-vivāda - disputes between the master and the servant
- Sīmāvivāda - boundary disputes
- Daṇḍapāruṣya - assault
- Vākpāruṣya - libel
- Steya - theft
- Strīsaṅgrahaṇa - abduction of women
- Strīpuiṅdharma - relation between husband and wife
- Vibhāga - partition
In ancient times, the king’s court was considered as the judiciary. He was assisted by men of knowledge, wisdom and character in the dispensation of justice. He could also depute a judge to decide on his behalf. There were duly appointed persons to adjudicate the implementation of the decisions taken by the court.
To err is human. Human beings are prone to commit errors of omission and commission. If they do not realize their faults and mistakes and do not reform themselves, they have to suffer a lot. This reformation has to be in two stages:
- Repentance, a firm resolve that the mistake will not be repeated.
- Expiation for the mistakes already committed.
The mistake is called ‘pātaka or pāpa’ (sin) and the expiation for that mistake is termed as ‘prāyaścitta’. The prāyaścitta sections of the dharmaśāstras describe various types of sins and prescribe the necessary expiations for the sins. It categorizes the sins into two parts:
- Mahāpātakas (mortal sins) - brahmahatyā (killing a brāhmaṇa), surāpāna (drinking wine and other intoxicating liquids) and incest are classed among the mahāpātakas.
- Upapātakas (venial sins) - Forsaking the sacred fires, offending the guru (Vedic teacher), minor thefts, non-payment of debts, selling prohibited articles, cutting down trees or killing harmless animals and so on, are grouped under upapātakas.
The prāyaścittas vary from sin to sin. Certain modes of prāyaścittas are:
- Tapas - austerities like fasting
- Japa - repetition of certain Vedic formulae or names of God
- Dāna - giving gifts
- Going on a pilgrimage - for minor sins
- Religious suicide - for heinous sins
The Philosophy of the Dharmaśāstras
The dharmaśāstras are based on the Vedas. They amplify their teachings for better application of day-to-day practical level. It emphasizes on the final goal of human life as the attainment of God. God is referred as the ultimate authority called by various names and the Supreme Ruler of the universe. He is accounted as the origin and final destination of whole creation.
The dharmaśāstras have recognized the importance of the physical body, health, strength, energy and protection against dangers in times of emergency as the fundamental necessity of spiritual and temporal life. Hence they advise everyone to protect his life and limb by all means.
However, this is only the first step. The cultivation of moral values is also equally important. All the dharmaśāstra works lay great stress on the sāmānya dharmas or universal principles of truth. These sāmānya dharmas include:
- Self control
- Decent and dignified behavior especially towards the womenfolk
- Earning one’s livelihood by honest and right means
- Performing one’s duties and discharging the obligations to one’s family and the society
- Not harming others
- Personal and environmental cleanliness
- Study or listening to sacred literature
- A certain degree of austerity and devotion to God
Some Important Dharmaśāstra Works
The Sanskrit language has vast dharmaśāstra literature. Many well-known works, two epics and the and the purāṇas are directly composed on the topics of the dharmaśāstras. There are innumerable verses in various texts dealing with the different aspects of the the dharmaśāstras. A concise attempt is made below to give a brief account of the more ancient and important of the works.
The Dharmasutras is in 4 praśnas or khaṇdas (sections). In general the subjects dealt with are:
- Duties of a brahmacārin
- Several purification rites
- Forms of marriage
- Śrāddha ceremonies
- Some rites for securing siddhis or supernatural powers
- The Grhyasutras chiefly deals with the sanskāras.
The dharmasutras are classed into 9 sections. These sections are described below:
- Āpastamba Dharmasutras: This work forms the 28th and the 29th praśnas or sections of the bigger work named as the Āpastamba Kalpasutras. It belongs to the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. When compared with the Gṛhyasutras of the same author, there are a few sutras which are identical. Some topics are also interrelated. This is assigned to the period 450-350 B.C. The style is more archaic and the sutras are very concise. A wide range of topics normally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras are found here also though the prāyaścitta portion is more elaborate. The pecularity of this work is that it abounds in the technical terms and doctrines of the Purvamīmāmsā school.
- Auśanasa Dharmasutras: Kāvya Uśanas is an ancient sage mentioned in the Ṛgveda. There is an Auśanasa Dharmaśāstra mostly in prose, available now, though in parts. The topics dealt with are: aśauca, the four varṇas and some mixed castes, prāyaścittas and śrāddha (obsequial rites). The Auśanasa Dharmasutras is in prose and contains material identical with that of some parts of the Manusmrti. We can assume from the writings of other authors that a bigger sutra work was available dealing with all the three aspects of ācāra, vyavahāra and prāyaścitta. Another dharmaśāstra and smṛti, both ascribed to Uśanas, are available now either in print or in the manuscript form. The dharmaśāstra has 51 verses and deals mainly with the mixed castes such as suta and māgadha. The smṛti has 600 verses in 9 chapters and deals with such topics as upanayana and śrāddha.
- Baudhāyana Dharmasutras: Baudhyāna probably lived during the period 600-300 B.C. and belonged to South India. His work on all the four branches of the Kalpa are available now.
- Gautama Dharmasutras: This ancient work is entirely in prose and can be assigned to the period 600-400 A. C. It has 28 chapters. The topics dealt with are: details of the upanayana for the various varṇas, the four āśramas, avocations of the four varṇas, saiṅskāras or sacraments, details of the duties of a king including crime and punishment, duties of women, prāyaścittas, rules of partition of property and a few other minor topics.
- Hārita Dharmasutras: Hārīta is considered as an ancient teacher since he has been quoted by Āpastamba, Baudhāyana and Vasiṣṭha. The work available now has thirty chapters. He speaks of eight kinds of marriages, of which kṣāttra and mānuṣa have replaced ārṣa and prājāpatya given in other works. He mentions two kinds of women, brahmavādinīs and sadyovadhus. The brahmavādinīs are entitled to undergo upanayana, to the study the Vedas and to the maintain Vedic fires. This work may be assigned to the period 600-300 B.C.
- Hiranyakeśi Dharmasutras: This treatise forms the 26th and the 27th praśnas of the Kalpasutras by Hiraṇyakeśin. It has been profusely borrowed from the sutra works of Āpastamba and Bhāradvāja. Hence, it is not considered as an independent authority. The author belonged to the Taittirīya school of Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda and lived in the Konkan region (West Coast, South India).
- Vaikhānasa Dharmasutras: The work which is available now is a smaller version of the original one. It is also called as Vaikhānasa-dharma-praśna. It is believed to be later on authored by a devotee of Nārāyaṇa. It is assumed to be belonging to the period A.D. 300-400. It could be a redaction of an earlier work. It mentions four kinds of each brahmacārins, gṛhasthas, vānaprasthas and sanyāsins. Purification of gold, metallic objects and other things before their usage is very interesting.
- Vasistha Dharmasutras: It is assigned to the period 300-100 B.C. This work is not a part of a kalpasutra. It is very similar to the Dharmasutras of Baudhāyana and Gautama. The topics dealt with are almost the same as in other similar works. He mentions only six forms of marriage and allows niyoga (levirate) and the remarriage of child-widows. Administration of justice by the king is another important subject dealt with in this work.
- Visnu Dharmasutras: This book professes to be a revelation of Visṇu in his Varāha or Boar-incarnation. It is said to belong to the Kaṭha school of the Krsna Yajurveda. It's some parts are common with the Kāthaka Gṛhyasutras, popular in Kashmir. It adopts majority of it's content from the Manusmṛti. Rājadharma (duties of a king), crime and punishment, twelve kinds of sons, mixed castes and funeral rites are some of the topics dealt with. The older part of this treatise is believed to be from 300-100 B.C.
- Añgirasa Smṛti: Aṅgiras is one of the ten primordial sages mentioned in the Ṛgveda. Three smṛtis bearing his name have been published so far. The first one has 72 verses in abridged form. It mainly deals with prāyaścittas. The second one has 168 verses dealing with same subject. It mentions some of the well-known authors of smṛtis like Apastamba, Saṅkhalikhita and Sumantu. The third one has 1200 verses and is different from the other two editions.
- Atri Smṛti: Atri was an ancient writer on dharma referred by Manu. There is one Atreya Dharmaśāstra available in 9 chapters. It is in verses and in prose. The topics dealt with are: gifts, prayers, austerities and expiations. The work refers to a number of foreign tribes such as Sakas, Yavanas, Bāhlīkas and Paraśas. There are other works styled like Atri Smrti or Atri Samhitā available in the manuscript form. They contain secret expiations for sins. They also deal with gifts and ācāra. Another Atri Samhitā available in print has 400 verses. It deals with the duties of the four castes. Two more works named Laghu Atri and Vrddha-ātreya Smrti are also available now.
- Bṛhaspati Smṛti: Bṛhaspati was an ancient teacher of arthaśāstra. He wrote a dharmasutra work which is not available now. He has been quoted by several writers on the dharmaśāstras. Some writers consider him as an atheist. The Bṛhaspati Smṛti available now has seven sections, mostly in verses, dealing with vyavahāra (social conduct), ācāra (general conduct) including āpad-dharma (emergency measures) and prāyaścitta. He is assigned to the period A.D. 300-500.
- Bṛhat-Parāśara Smṛti: This is an extensive work having 12 chapters comprising of 3000 verses. It seems to be a re-cast of the Parāśara Smṛti by one Suvrata. The subjects dealt with are: ṣaṭkarmas or six items of the daily routine, sanskāras, aśauca, prāyaścittas, duties of the four āśramas, rājadharma and yogic disciplines.
- Dakṣa Smṛti: This is an ancient smṛti. Printed texts have 220 verses distributed in seven chapters. The subjects treated are: the four āśramas, daily round of duties of the dvijas, various types of action, making gifts, aśauca, yoga and its limbs, philosophies of the dvaita and the advaita schools. This smṛti has been extensively quoted by others.
- Devala Smṛti: Devala is a sage often referred in the Mahābhārata and sometimes along with another sage Asita. An extensive dharmasutra treatise has been attributed to him. It contained sections on ācāra, vyavahāra and śrāddha which can be guessed by the numerous quotations in other works. The Devala Smṛti which is available now, seems to be a late work. It is in 90 verses which deals with purification rites.
- Gobhila Smṛti: There is a gṛhyasutra work of Gobhila belonging to the Sāmaveda. The Gobhila Smṛti available now has 491 verses in three sections. Topics like yajñopavīta, upākarma and śrāddha are dealt with in this work.
- Kātyāyana Smṛti: Nārada, Bṛhaspati and Kātyāyana are the Trinity of sages considered as authorities in ancient religious Laws. His work which is available now has 973 verses (with an addenda of another 121 verses). Portions of the work on the vyavahāra sections are yet to be recovered. He might have lived during the period of 4th to 6th cent. A. D. Another work, also attributed to Kātyāyana, is available in 3 sections comprising 29 chapters and about 500 verses. The contents are: details of wearing the sacred thread, worship of Gaṇeśa and the various goddesses in religious rites, some information connected with Vedic sacrifices, chanting of Vedic mantras, śrāddha and aśauca.
- Manusmṛti: The Manusmṛti is the most ancient and authoritative among the extant metrical treatises on dharma. It has 12 chapters and 2684 verses covering all the three aspects of a typical dharmaśāstra as follows: ācāra, vyavahāra and prāyaścitta. The topics dealt with include: creation of the world, four āśramas, the sixteen samskāras, śrāddha, the four varṇas (castes), disputes and their resolution, āpad-dharmas, the mortal sins and their expiation, good and bad deeds and the nature of the Ātman. The extant work may be assigned to the period 300 B.C. It may have undergone a few redactions.
- Nārada Smṛti: The printed edition of this work has 21 chapters and 1028 verses. It was probably composed during A. D. 100-300. It follows the Manusmṛti closely. It has been quoted by a few authors of nibandhas. The contents are generally the same as in other dharmaśāstras. Nārada differs from Manu in some respects. It has introduced many sub-divisions in the major topics. His classification of impotent persons, women who can remarry and some of the juristic and political principles distinguish it from other works.
- Parāśara Smṛti: Though Parāśara was an ancient sage, the present work available in print must be a product of several revisions. The Parāśara Smṛti is said to be the ideal guide for this Kaliyuga or the Iron-age. It has 12 chapters and 592 verses. It deals only with ācāra and prāyaścitta. The contents are: the four yugas, the six daily duties, Vedic study, duties of a householder, the four varṇas and their duties, remarriage of widows under certain conditions, purification of various articles of use and expiations of various types for sins. Other two works, the Bṛhat-Parāśara and the Vṛddha-Parāśara available, are later compositions.
- Samvarta Smṛti: The Samvarta Smṛti which is available in print today has 230 verses. It contains very ancient material. The extant work is an epitome of the original smṛti. It is in the form of teachings given by the sage Samvarta to Vāmadeva and other sages. Its main contents are: rules of conduct for the brahmacārin; prāyaścittas for lapses on the part of the brahmacārin and others; duties of householders, forest hermits and monks. Other authors have referred to the views of Samvarta on the topics of vyavahāra by quoting him.
- Vyāsa Smṛti: There is a smṛti ascribed to Vyāsa available now. It has four chapters and 250 verses. It can be assigned to the period A. D. 200-500. The contents can be summarized as follows: authoritativeness of the Śruti, the smṛti and the purāṇas; the sixteen sariiskāras; mixed castes; duties of a brahmacārin; marriage; nitya (obligatory) naimittika (occasional) and kāmya (desire- motivated) karmas; eulogy of the householder stage and a few other related topics.
- Yājñavalkya Smṛti: Yājñavalkya is a highly respected and one of the most brilliant and outstanding sages of ancient India. The Śukla Yajurveda was revealed to him. The Yājñavalkya smṛti has 1010 verses distributed among the three kānḍas or sections dealing with all the three topics: ācāra, vyavahāra and prāyaścitta. The whole work is well-organised and is in the classical anuṣṭubh metre. The subjects dealt with can be briefly stated as follows: sanskāras, marriage, varṇa and jāti, dāna, śrāddha, details of civil disputes and the methods of solving them, crime and punishment, aśauca and prāyaścittas and some miscellaneous topics. The original text have undergone several revisions. The present form probably belongs to the period 100 B. C. to A. D. 300.
- Yama Smṛti: Yama was a great sage having quotes even in the Vasistha Dharmasutras. The extant smṛti has 78 verses dealing with prāyaścitta and śuddhi (purification) rites. He has prescribed punishments for cutting trees, shrubs, plants and creepers and especially if they are flowered or have fruits.
- Caturvargacintāmani: This is an encyclopedic work by Hemādri on ancient religious rites and observances. It might have been composed during the period A. D. 1260-1270. Four volumes of this book containing 6000 verses have been printed. The complete work has not been recovered till now. The four puruṣārthas dealt with in complete details. The topics dealt with in details are of vṛata (religious rites and observances), dāna (gifts), śrāddha (obsequial ceremonies) and kāla (time and proper periods for the observance of religious rites).
- Kalpataru: The Kalpataru or the Kṛtya-kalpataru of Lakṣmidhara is a voluminous work in fourteen kāṇdas or Books. Lakṣmidhara was a minister in the cabinet of the king Govindacandra of Kanauj (A. D. 1114-1154). This treatise has exercised tremendous influence in North India for over 500 years. The subjects dealt with in these fourteen kāṇḍas are: duties of brahma- cārins and gṛhasthas, āhnika, śrāddha, vratas, pujā (worship of gods), pilgrimage, prāyaścittas, śuddhi, duties of a king, law and administration, śāntis (propitiatory rites) and mokṣa (liberation).
- Nirnayasindhu: It is an extensive and erudite work of Kamalākara Bhaṭṭa. It was composed around A. D. 1612. About a hundred smṛtis and three hundred authors of nibandhas have been named in this treatise. The topics dealt with are: kāla, vratas, saiṅskāras, Agnihotra, śrāddhas, kalivarjyas (actions forbidden in the Kaliyuga), aśauca and also sanyāsa.
- Smṛticandrikā: It is a well-known digest on the dharmaśāstra topics by Devaṇṇabhaṭṭa (circa A. D. 1150-1225). Mostly it originates from South India. The contents are: varṇa-āśrama dharmas; saiṅskāras; daily duties of a dvija; sandhyā, śrauta and smārta rites; rules about food; the five daily sacrifices; procedure of law-courts; dāyabhāga; and śrāddhas. Though several writers composed works having Smṛticandrikā pattern, only Devaṇṇabhaṭṭa’s work is held as authoritative and highly relied upon.
- Smṛtikaustubha: It is composed around the period A.D. 1645-1695 by Anantadeva.. This vast digest deals with several topics such as: the sixteen saiṅskāras, rules for adoption, festivals and sacred days, vāstu śāstra (architecture and town planning), coronation of a king, homas and śāntis.
- Smṛtiratnākara: Caṇḍeśvara (circa A. D. 1314) is the author of this extensive digest. He was a minister in the court of the king Bhaveśvara of Mithilā. It contains seven sections, each being called ‘Ratnākara’. They are: Krtyaratnākara, Dānaratnākara, Suddhiratnākara, Pujā- ratnākara, Vyavahāraratnākara, Vivāda ratnākara and Gṛhastharatnākara. It deals with the subject like: vratas, duties of householders, various kinds of gifts, civil and criminal law, aśauca as also pujā.
- Smṛtitattva: This is the work of Raghunandana (A.D. 1510-1580), the last great writer of Bengal on the dharmaśāstras. It is divided into 28 sections, each being called ‘tattva’, such as Tithitattva, Durgāpujātattva, Dāyatattva and so on. The topics delineated include purification rites, sacraments, festivals like Janmāṣṭamī and Durgotsava, civil law, public utility works, religious observances, establishment of temples, śrāddha and so on.
- Viramitrodaya: The Viramitrodaya of Mitramiśra (A. D. 1610-1640) is a vast digest of dharmaśāstras. It is the second largest in size. Each of the sections is named as a ‘prakāśa,’ such as Vyavahāraprakāśa, Samskāraprakāśa, Rājanitiprakāśa and so on. The contents include the following topics: āhnika, pṅjā, pilgrimage, civil law, sarhskāras, rājanīti or political science, giving gifts, purification rites, śrāddha, prāyaścittas, bhakti and mokṣa.
Apart from the dharmasutras, the smṛtis and the nibandhas, there are another factors also that has contributed significantly to the enormous growth of this literature. The composition of learned commentaries on these works have added to the literary works. These commentaries have explained the originals, expounded the various doctrines and subtle points and resolved many doubts and misgivings. They give a clear practical direction for implementing the various rules of the originals. The following table gives some idea of these commentaries:
- Commentaries of Haradatta, Maskarin and Asahāya on the Gautama Dharmasutras.
- Bhāṣyas (expositions) of Medhātithi, Kulluka and five others on the Manusmṛti.
- Bālakridā of Viśvarṅpa, Mitāksarā of Vijñāneśvara and Dikpālikā of Sulapāṇi on the famous Yājñavalkya Smṛti.
- Parāśara-mādhavīya by Mādhavācārya (Vidyāraṇya) and Vidvanmanoharā of Nandapaṇḍita on the Parāśara Smṛti.
The Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya (300 B.C.) along with it's two commentaries Naya-candrikā of Mādhava Yajvan and Prati padapañcikā of Bhaṭṭa Svāmin contains a lot of material on vyavahāra and rāja-dharma. These are the two important topics discussed by most of the dharmaśāstras.
The Rāmāyana though being a kāvya or a literary composition, contains few references to some of the topics discussed in the dharmaśāstra treatises. Details of the coronation of a king, effects of anarchy, sins (and expiations), duties and responsibilities of a king, obsequial rites, value of truth, and duties and virtues of women are the topics that have found a place in the epic.
The Mahābhārata contains a lot of material that comes under the purview of the dharmaśāstras. Some subjects are dealt with in brief and some of the topics are explained in details. The following are the subjects dealt with in the epic: coronation, evils of anarchy, ahimsā (nonviolence), the dharmas of the varṇas and āśramas, ācāra, āpad-dharmas, pilgrimage, giving gifts, dāyabhāga, expiations for sins, rules regarding food, political science (in detail), marriage and śrāddha.
The eighteen principal purāṇas and some of the minor ones contain extensive and very rich material on the various topics discussed in the dharmaśāstras. The commentators and the authors of the nibandhas have quoted from them profusely. A brief list of these topics as they appear in the purāṇas is: ācāra, āhnika, aśauca, varṇa-āśrama- dharmas, rules about food, dāna, kali- varjya (what is prohibited in the Kaliyuga), sins and their expiations, duties of a king, sanskāras, śāntis, śrāddha, pilgrimages, vratas, vyavahāra and yugadharmas (special characteristics of the four yugas).
The society exhibits a chequered history over the last 2500 years. The dharmaśāstras have also grown over the same period not only in volumes but also to highly refined proportions. These literatures have played a very significant part in preserving the unity and solidarity of the society to a considerable extent. This have been done by:
- Preserving the basic values of life compressed in one omnibus term called ‘dharma.’
- Stressing the duties and responsibilities towards the society much more than rights and privileges.
- Making the necessary adjustments to suit the needs of the changing times.
- Not allowing any socio-political rule to have an absolute status and preferring a well- established custom to the Books of rules.
As long as there were rulers to enforce the code of conduct as prescribed by the dharmaśāstras, there was order and peace in the society. When the political power passed into the hands of ruthless alien rulers, even a safe and honorable existence became a serious problem. Hence the religious and social leaders made supreme efforts to preserve the unity and integrity of the society by modifying the ācāra and the prāyaścitta parts of dharma to a greater extent. They did this by controlling the vyavahāra part which had practically passed out of their hands.
There is a debate that the writers of the dharmaśāstras of later periods (A.D. 1000 onwards) unnecessarily went into great depths to discuss small details. Around this period, the dharmaśāstras had become an important subject to study and to discuss in the academics of the traditional institutions like Maṭhas, Pāṭhaśālas and Vidyālayas. Hence, this scholarship was both necessary and useful in those circles.
Another accusation leveled against these dharmaśāstras is that, they were meant only for the first three varnas, that too for the brāhmaṇas and the kṣattriya rulers. They were not very helpful to the others. The counter-argument is that the society in those days was like that and hence these works had to be in tune with the same. A detailed examination of these works also reveal the startling fact that higher the person in the social hierarchy, more stringent were the rules guiding or binding him. Hence this accusation was ruled out.
The dharmaśāstras maintained the law, that the rule disliked by the majority of the people, should be replaced by a more agreeable one. The principle of kalivarjya or āpad-dharma is an example to this.
After country gained political freedom, drastic changes have been made in the structure of general laws and Hindu Laws. These changes have corrected many imbalances of the past ages.
- Vedāṅga is the ‘limb of the Veda’ or a subsidiary of the Veda.
- ‘Kalpa’ means procedure or the method of a ritual.
- Śruti is referred as the Vedas.
- Smṛtis are the secondary scriptures.
- Sadācāra is the conduct of the sagely persons.
- Durācāra is the bad and sinful conduct.
- Ācāra-kāṇḍa means the section dealing with the ācāras
- Upanayana means the investiture with the sacred thread called ‘yajñopavīta’ and the imparting of the famous Gāyatrī-mantra
- Antyeṣṭi means after-death ceremonies.
- Aśauca means impurity through birth and death.
- Arthaśāstra is economics and political science.
- Rājadharma is meant as king’s duties and responsibilities.
- Manusmṛti chapters 1-7
- Manusmṛti chapters 8-10
- Manusmṛti chapters 11-12
- Āpad-dharma is the conduct during emergencies.
- Anantadeva was the grandson of the famous Marathi saint and poet Eknāth.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore