Sūtra Literature

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SŪTRA LITERATURE . The Sanskrit term sūtra means "a thread"; it is also used, however, to refer to a short, aphoristic sentence and, collectively, to a work consisting of such sentences. Sūtra literature, as distinguished from śāstra literature, is in prose. The sūtra style, characterized by laghutva ("brevity, conciseness"), is a mnemonic device that attempts to condense as much meaning as possible into as few words, even syllables, as possible.

The most important sūtra texts in the context of the religious literature of India are the Kalpasūtras. The term kalpa has been variously explained by different traditional and modern scholars, but can best be rendered as "ritual." Kalpa, together with śikā (phonetics), chandas (prosody), nirukta (etymology), vyākaraa (grammar), and jyotia (astronomy), is one of the six Vedāgas, or branches of learning auxiliary to the Vedas. The Kalpasūtras are closely connected with the individual Vedic schools (śākhās ). (Even though not all the texts have survived, it may be assumed that at one time each Vedic school had not only its own sahitā, brāhmaa, ārayaka, and upaniad but also its own kalpa-sūtra. ) There are three main classifications of Kalpasūtra: Śrautasūtras, Ghyasūtras, and Dharmasūtras.

The ritual performances described in the Śrautasūtras distinguish themselves by theiroften extremecom-plexity. First, in addition to the yajamāna (patron of the sacrifice) and his wife, for whose benefit the ritual is performed, śrauta ritual can involve the presence of up to sixteen specialized priests. Second, it requires an elaborately laid-out sacrificial area in which three sacred fires are kept burning continually. Third, śrauta ritual includes not only ekāha ("one-day-long") ceremonies but also ahīna rituals, which last up to twelve days, and sattra "sessions," which can extend over several years. Large sections of the Śrautasūtras are devoted to the Agnioma sacrifice, which is the prototype (prakti ) for many variant forms of soma sacrifices collectively called jyotioma, among which are the seventeen-day-long Vajapeya and the Rājasūya, the royal consecration. Other well-known śrauta rituals are the sacrifices to the new and full moons (Darśapūramāsau), the horse sacrifice (Aśvamedha), and the animal sacrifice (Paśubandha). Some Śrautasūtras end in more or less independent appendices called sulbasūtra s; because they describe the exact layout of the sacrificial area (vedi ), they are, in effect, the earliest Indian texts on geometry and mathematics.

In addition to rites that are part of the daily life of the householder and rituals on such occasions as building a house or digging a tank, the Ghyasūtras principally deal with the saskāra s. These are the rites of passage that guide a Hindu through the various stages of his life, from conception until death, especially the Upanayana (his second birth, at which time he begins the study of the Veda and is invested with the sacred thread) and marriage. Many topics treated in the Ghyasūtras also appear in the Dharmasūtras, although the latter expand their teachings to cover all the duties and obligations of the different asrama s ("stages of life") and vara s ("classes of society"). The Dharmasūtras, in prose, are considered to be the precursors of the versified Dharmaśāstras.

Treatises in sūtra style also form the basic texts for the six Hindu darśana s (orthodox philosophical systems). They are Jaimini's Pūrvamīmāsā Sūtras, Bādarāyaa's Uttara-mīmāsā Sūtras, or Vedānta Sūtras, Gautama's Nyāya Sūtras, Kaāda's Vaiśeika Sūtras, Kapila's Sākhya Sūtras, and Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras. Some of these philosophical sūtras are so concise that they have lent themselves to divergent interpretations, and they have thus become the authoritative texts for very different philosophical systems. Bādarāyaa's sūtras, for example, are the common source for all later schools of Vedānta, including Śakara's Advaita, Rāmānuja's Viśiād-vaita, and Madhva's Dvaita. The sūtra style was also adopted in certain Buddhist and Jain scriptures.

The area of sūtra literature in which the ideal of brevity and conciseness has been realized most perfectly is the grammatical literature, which technically belongs to the Vedāgas, mentioned earlier. Pāini's Aādhyāyī not only uses as few words as possible; it has recourse to all kinds of devices to abbreviate the sūtras, such as the replacement of longer grammatical terms with shorter symbols. The commentators on Pāini's work go to great length to account for the presence and meaning of each and every syllable in the Aādhyāyī.

It would be misleading to suggest specific dates for the Kalpasūtras and for sūtra literature generally. The texts clearly belong to the end of the Vedic period, and they are thought to be earlier than the epic period. Allowing for exceptions belonging to earlier or later dates, the major part of the sūtra literature may be safely situated in the second half of the first millennium bce.

See Also

Śāstra Literature.


The most recent, informative, and comprehensive book on the Kalpasūtras is Jan Gonda's The Ritual Sutras (Wiesbaden, 1977), vol. 1, pt. 2, of History of Indian Literature, edited by Jan Gonda. Some of the Ghyasūtras and Dharmasūtras are available in English translation in volumes 2, 14, 19, and 30 of the series "Sacred Books of the East" (Oxford, 18791910), edited by F. Max Müller.

New Sources

Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasishtha. Annotated text and translation by Patrick Olivelle. Delhi, 2000.

Ludo Rocher (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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