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Sutra · Stotra ·Dharmashastra
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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.

Contents of Dharmaśāstra

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 and rules of substantive law categorized according the standard eighteen titles of Hindu law
  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

In addition to these topics, Dharmaśāstra makes extensive use of the tradition of textual hermeneutics known as Pūrva-Mīmāṃsā, which describes in great detail how to interpret the ritual texts of the Vedic corpus. The principles of Mīmāṃsā have been borrowed and reapplied to a broader range of religious and legal phenomena in the Dharmaśāstra. Other cognate disciplines important for understanding Dharmaśāstra are grammar and Nyāya.

Principal texts

While there are literally hundreds of Dharmaśāstra texts and many more commentaries and digests, the principal Dharmaśāstra texts include 1) the four Dharmasūtras of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vāsiṣṭha, dating from around the third to first centuries B.C.E., 2) the major smṛtis of Manu, Yājñvalkya, Nārada, Viṣṇu, Bṛhaspati and Kātyāyana, tentatively dating from between the first and sixth centuries C.E., and 3) the many commentaries and digests, including prominently those of Aparāditya, Asahāya, Bhaṭṭa Nīlakaṇtḥa, Devaṇṇabhaṭṭa, Hemādri, Jīmūtavāhana, Lakṣmīdhara, Mādhava, Mēdhātithi, Mitra Miśra, Raghunandana, Vācaspatimiśra, Varadarāja, Vijñāneśvara, and Viśvarūpa, among many others.

Major English translations

Best for beginners

  • Olivelle, Patrick. 2004. The Law Code of Manu. New York: Oxford UP.
  • Olivelle, Patrick. 1999. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vāsiṣṭha. New York: Oxford UP.

Other major translations

  • Jolly, Julius (trans.) 1889. Minor Law-Books. SBE Vol. 33. Oxford, 1889. [contains both Bṛhaspatismṛti and Nāradasmṛti]
  • Kane, P.V. (ed. and trans.) 1933. Kātyāyanasmṛti on Vyavahāra (Law and Procedure). Poona: Oriental Book Agency.
  • Lariviere, Richard W. 2003. The Nāradasmṛti. 2nd rev. ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  • Rocher, Ludo. 1956. Vyavahāracintāmani: A Digest on Hindu Legal Procedure. Gent.

Early translations with full-text online

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Banerji, S.C. & S.C. Banerjee. Brief History of Dharmasastra. Abhinav Publications, 1999. ISBN 978-8170173700
  • Derrett, J. Duncan. Dharmasastra and Juridical Literature. Harrassowitz, 1973. ISBN 978-3447015196
  • Glucklich, Ariel. Religious Jurisprudence in the Dharmasastra. Macmillan Pub Co, 1989. ISBN 978-0029118719
  • Sharma, Shashi S. Imagined Manuvad: The Dharmasastras and Their Interpreters. Rupa, 2005. ISBN 978-8129108081
  • Swain, Brajashore. The Dharmasastra" Akshaya Prakashan, 2004. ISBN 978-8188643134


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