Hindu Law Books

From New World Encyclopedia

The religion of Hinduism contains hundreds of Hindu Law Books, which encompass virtually all aspects of the Hindu way of life. Within this large corpus of materials, the principle Hindu law books are the following: 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.

Hindu Law derives from three principle sources: 1) śruti, literally "what is heard," but referring to the Vedas or Vedic literature, the liturgical and praise hymns of the earliest Hindu tradition, 2) smŗti, literally "what is remembered," but referring to the Dharmaśāstra texts as well as other Sanskrit texts such as the Purāņas and the Epics (Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaņa), and 3) ācāra, literally "practice," but referring to the norms and standards established by educated people who know and live by the first two sources of dharma. Effectively, the three ideal sources of dharma reduce to two—texts and the practiced norms of people who know the texts. It is the latter category that gave Hindu law a tremendous flexibility to adapt to different temporal and geographic contexts.

Though the smŗti texts acknowledge variability in regional religious and legal practices, their principal concern is to explain dharma (meaning "right conduct," "duty," "law," and "order"). The most famous and the earliest known smŗti text is the Laws of Manu, or Mānavadharmaśāstra, which dates to approximately the first century C.E.

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

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.

The Manusmriti

The Manusmriti (also known as the "Law book of Manu," or Mānava Dharma Śāstra is the most famous of the Hindu Law Books found in the collection of texts known as the Dharmashastra. It is considered to be one of the most important texts of this genre.[1] Some of these codes of conduct pertain to the caste system and discuss the stages of life for "twice-born" males (the āśrama system).[2] This legal text explains itself as a discourse given by the Sage Manu to rishis who begged him to enlighten them on the topic. There are 2,684 verses divided into twelve chapters.

A range of historical opinion generally dates composition of the text any time between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.[3] The dating is significant because the work was written during the period when Brahmanical tradition was seriously threatened by non-Vedic movements.[4] The Manu Smriti and other dharmashastras, and the views of society they represent, were Brahmanical responses to those threats.[5] After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there was a period of uncertainty that led to renewed interest in traditional social norms.[6] In Romila Thapar's view, "The severity of the Dharma-shastras was doubtless a commentary arising from the insecurity of the orthodox in an age of flux."[7]

The dharma class of texts were also noteworthy because they did not depend on the authority of particular Vedic schools, becoming the starting point of an independent tradition that emphasized dharma itself and not its Vedic origins.[8]

The work is considered an important source for sociological, political and historical studies. Manusmriti is one of the most heavily criticized of the scriptures of Hinduism, having been attacked by a gamut of people including colonial scholars, Dalit advocates, feminists,[9] and Marxists.

The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by the British. It was first translated into English by the founder of Indology, Sir William Jones, and the translated version was published in 1794.[10] British administrative requirements encouraged their interest in the Dharmashastras, which they believed to be legal codes, but which were in fact not codes of law but norms related to social obligations and ritual requirements.[11] According to Avari:

The text was never universally followed or acclaimed by the vast majority of Indians in their history; it came to the world's attention through a late eighteenth-century translation by Sir William Jones, who mistakenly exaggerated both its antiquity and its importance. Today many of its ideas are popularised as the golden norm of classical Hindu law by Hindu universalists. They are, however, anathema to modern thinkers and particularly feminists.[12]

Dr. Surendra Kumar, who counts a total of 2,685 verses, claims that only 1,214 are authentic, the other 1,471 being interpolations on the text.

In reply to criticism of Shudras, verses critical of Shudras and women are proclaimed to be later interpolations, but not later than Adi Shankara (seventh-eighth century C.E.). The law in Manu Smriti also is claimed to be overtly positive towards Brahmins (priests) in terms of concessions made in fines and punishments. The stance of Manu Smriti about women is also an issue. While certain verses such as (III-55, 56, 57, 59, 62) glorify the position of women, other verses (IX-3, 17) seem to attack the position and freedom women have. The education of women is also an issue. Certain interpretations of Verse (IX-18) claim that it discourages women from reading Vedic scriptures. Verse (II-240), however, allows women to read Vedic scriptures. Similar contradictory phrases are encountered in relation to child marriage in verses (IX-94) and (IX-90).

A major piece of the Hindu law tradition is, however, not represented in the main body of this translation, but rather in its footnotes—namely, the commentarial or scholastic tradition that took texts like the Laws of Manu and explained and elaborated upon them in an unbroken tradition that extended at least up to the time of the British and in some ways beyond. Similar to other scholastic traditions of religious law, the Dharmaśāstra commentators' first concern was to explain the sacred legal texts precisely, with careful attention to word meanings, grammatical structures, and principles of legal hermeneutics.


  1. Flood (1996), p. 56.
  2. Flood (1996), p. 61-65.
  3. Avari, p. 142.
  4. Hopkins, p. 74.
  5. Hopkins, p. 74, 84.
  6. Kulke and Rothermund, p. 85.
  7. Tharpar (2002), p. 279.
  8. Hopkins, p. 74.
  9. Avari, p. 142-143.
  10. Flood (1996), p. 56.
  11. Thapar (2002), p. 2-3.
  12. Avari, p. 142.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Avari, Burjor. India: The Ancient Past. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0-415-35616-9
  • Bühler, G., trans. Sacred Books of the East: The Laws of Manu (Vol. XXV). Oxford, 1886.
  • Catholic Encyclopedia. "Hindu Law Books." New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1993.
  • Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-521-43878-0
  • Hopkins, Thomas J. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra: Ancient and Mediaeval, Religious, and Civil Law. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975.
  • Keay, John. India: A History. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3797-0
  • Kulke, Hermann. and Dietmar Rothermund. A History of India. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1986. ISBN 0-88029-577-5
  • Thapar, Romila. Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. ISBN 0-520-24225-4


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