Śāstra Literature

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ŚĀSTRA LITERATURE . The Sanskrit term śāstra means, first, "precept, command, rule"; hence, a treatise in which precepts on a particular topic have been collected; and, finally, any branch of technical lore. Vāstuśāstra, for example, refers both to a treatise on vāstu ("architecture") and to the science of architecture generally; Cikitsāśāstra indicates both a treatise on medicine and the science of medicine; and so forth.

This article will be primarily concerned with the śāstra s connected with the three goals (trivarga ) that a Hindu is supposed to pursue during life: dharma ("spiritual obligations"), artha ("material welfare"), and kāma ("pleasure, enjoyment"). It is worth noticing that the texts in each of these three categories, to a greater or lesser extent, also recognize the importance of pursuing the other two goals. In fact, a harmonious pursuit of the trivarga is a necessary condition to reach a Hindu's ultimate goal: moka, final liberation from the cycle of deaths and rebirths (sasāra ).

Most importantand most voluminousare the Dharmaśāstras. They basically cover the same material as the Dharmasūtras, but they are more detailed and better organized, are mostly in verse (the thirty-two syllable anuubh, or śloka ), and are considered to be more recent. Like the Dharmasūtras, they are attributed to ancient sages or "seers" (i ), the most important of whom was Manu. The date of the Manava Dharmaśāstra (Laws of Manu) is uncertain, but falls somewhere between about 200 bce and 100 ce. It was followed, probably in this order, by the Dharmaśāstras attributed to Yājñavalkya, Viu, Nārada, Bhaspati, Kātnāyana, and others.

The Dharmaśāstras, together with the sūtra s, constitute what is known as the smti (from the root sm, "to remember"); hence the titles Manusmti (the Mānava Dharma-śāstra ), Yājñavalkyasmti, and so forth. The smti is considered to be a form of revelation based on the Vedas, which in turn form the śruti (from the root śru, "to hear"). The śruti is the only more authoritative body of writings than the smti; the śāstra s themselves state that, in case of a conflict between śruti and smti, the former shall prevail. Although all smti s theoretically have equal authority, in practice the Manusmti is recognized as being superior to the others.

The Manusmti represents the Indian ideal of a Dharmaśāstra. After an introductory section on the creation, the text devotes five chapters to the description of the saskāra s, that is, those ritual performances that mark off the successive periods in a Hindu's life, and of the duties to be performed in each of the four principal stages (āśrama s). The next three chapters concentrate on the dharma of one individual: the king. He is to protect those among his subjects who adhere to their own dharma against those who do not. The section on the king's dharma (rājadharma ) naturally includes those passages for which the text first became known to Westerners, those on Hindu law. (Hence the title Laws of Manu.) Among the miscellaneous topics treated in the last three chapters are the duties and occupations of the different castes (vara ) including "mixed castes," expiations of sins, and the rules governing specific forms of rebirth.

The beginning of this century witnessed the discoveryand publicationof the text of the Arthaśāstra attributed to Kauilya (or Kaualya; occasionally Cāakya or Viugupta). Even though minor Arthaśāstra texts had been known before that time, and even though some Arthaśāstra materials also appear in the Dharmaśāstras, until 1905 the text called Arthaśāstra was known from a few quotations only. Kauilya, unlike the composers of the Dharmaśāstras, is a historic figure. If he was indeed a minister of the Maurya king Candragupta, he must have lived at the end of the fourth century bce. Some scholars, however, do not believe in Kauilya's authorship; based on detailed comparisons of elements in the Arthaśāstra with their appearance in various other works of Sanskrit literature, they assign the text later dates, down to the fourth century ce.

The Arthaśāstra, in prose occasionally mixed with verse, is a manual for the king and for the successful administration of his kingdom. It provides detailed prescriptions on the various administrative departments, the duties of their heads, and their internal organization. Perhaps the text has become even better known for its ideas on foreign policy. Each king is considered a potential world conqueror (cakravartin ), and the Arthaśāstra provides him with various ways to achieve that goal. Kauilya's view that one's neighbor is, by definition, one's enemy who must be defeated with the support of his neighbor (who is, again by definition, a temporary ally), and his ruthless instructions on how to use spies and secret agents, are some of the reasons why he has been labeled "the Indian Machiavelli."

Within the area of Kāmaśāstra literature the principal text is undoubtedly the Kāma Sūtra attributed to Vatsyayana. The Kāma Sūtra shares a number of important characteristics with the Arthaśāstra: The Kāma Sūtra is also mostly in prose, interspersed with verses; like Kauilya, Vātsyāyana repeatedly quotes the opinions of predecessors, some of whom are the same as those named by Kauilya; and most important, both texts exhibit a number of passages that correspond, word for word. There seems to be general agreement that Vātsyāyana lived after Kauilya; his date, therefore, varies according to the individual scholar's opinion on the age of the Arthaśāstra.

The Kāma Sūtra instructs the nāgaraka, the prosperous citizen, on how to enjoy life to its fullest. Even though this involves, to a certain extent, the nāgaraka 's relationship with womenincluding married women and courtesansthe Kāma Sūtra also treats numerous other topics that shed light on the way of life and worldview of one section of ancient Indian society.

The true nature and purpose of the Indian śāstra s is still the object of much discussion among scholars. Contrary to the early belief of Westernerswhich led to the adoption, in 1772, of "the shaster" as the main source of Hindu family law in British Indiait was soon recognized that, at least as far as the Dharmaśāstras are concerned, they may very well have painted an ideal picture that did not necessarily correspond to real life situations. Hence the high expectations on the occasion of the discovery of the Arthaśāstra; scholars believed, and wrote at length, on the extent to which a book on artha was bound to provide a more realistic description of classical Indian society. The author of this article prefers to look upon the śāstra s asno doubt highly stylized and systematizedcompendia of existing customs and practices. They provided the overall theoretical framework that authorized each individualmostly groups of individualsto engage in the practice (prayoga ) of their traditionally recognized ways of behavior.

See Also

Cakravartin; Dharma, article on Hindu Dharma; Law and Religion; Manu; Moka; Sasāra; Sūtra Literature.


The most encyclopedic treatment of Dharmaśāstra is P. V. Kane's History of Dharmaśāstra, 5 vols. (Poona, 19301962). For a brief survey, see J. D. M. Derrett's Dharmaśāstra and Juridical Literature (Wiesbaden, 1973). The Manusmti has been translated in volume 25 of the "Sacred Books of the East" (Oxford, 1886); other translations in this series are the Viusmti in volume 7 (Oxford, 1880) and the Nāradasmti and Bhaspatismti, both in volume 33 (Oxford, 1889). The most recent edition and translation of the Arthaśāstra is R. P. Kangle's The Kauilīya Arthaśāstra, 3 vols. (Bombay, 19601965); that of the Kāma Sūtra is S. C. Upadhyaya's Kāma Sūtra of Vatsyāyāna (Bombay, 1961). For a bibliography on this subject, see Ludwik Sternbach's Bibliography on Dharma and Artha in Ancient and Mediaeval India (Wiesbaden, 1973).

New Sources

Boesche, Roger. The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra. Lanham, 2002.

Goyala, Srirama. The Kautilya Arthasastra: Its Author, Date, and Relevance for the Maurya Period. Jodhpur, 2000.

Kamasutra of Vatsyayana Mallanaga. Translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar. Oxford; New York, 2002.

Sastri, Manabendu Banerjee, ed. Occasional Essays on Arthasastra. Calcutta, 2000.

Ludo Rocher (1987)

Revised Bibliography