Dharma Shastra

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DHARMA SHĀSTRA Dharma Shāstra (Texts of righteous legal conduct) in the wider sense is an important element of Indian tradition, and its literature is a genre of more than two thousand titles. Hinduism is less an orthodoxy than an "orthopraxy": Hindu society is less concerned with what a person thinks than with his or her adherence to traditional social norms. In the narrower sense, Dharma Shāstra is the name of several ancient texts, composed about two millennia ago, in several Vedic schools that sought to establish social norms. They grew out of school traditions that preserved and cultivated the sacred Vedic texts: some devoted to the Rig Veda, the oldest sacrificial hymns; others to the Yajur Veda, the collection of formulae used during rituals; others to the Sāma Veda, a collection of melodies, with their attendant dogmatic and ritualistic works. Technical works that dealt with the proper execution of official rituals (Shrauta Sūtra), the domestic rites and life cycle obligations (Grihya Sūtra), and the rules of righteous conduct (Dharma Sūtra or Dharma Shāstra) together were called Kalpa Sūtra "ceremonial manuals" and formed one of the later layers of Vedic works. Among them, the texts dealing with dharma are generally the youngest, dating perhaps from the third century b.c. to the second century a.d. All dates assigned to these texts are tentative; though attributed to fictitious authors, the texts actually grew within their school traditions, often quoting one another. Texts whose core may be very old also contain some rather recent statements, make any exact dating impossible.

The fact that these works originated in a religious and ritualistic tradition explains their emphasis on ritual purity, virtue, and avoidance of acts considered sinful. The aim was the attainment of heaven, spiritual betterment, or bliss, which could be defined in different ways. The authors and compilers of these works were Brahmans, members of the priestly class that was generally entrusted with the preservation of tradition and the education of the young. Though many of their rules were clearly aimed primarily at their fellow Brahmans, they took note also of prevailing customs and attitudes concerning societal problems. There were three major topics: proper conduct, legal procedure, and atonement. Legal problems concerning inheritance, marriage, and adoption gained more prominence in time, and criminal acts, which were first considered sins requiring expiation, were gradually regarded as antisocial acts that required punishment by the king or his judges. Yet, in spite of their growing legal sophistication, the authors of Dharma Shāstra never lost sight of the spiritual roots of their tradition: medieval authors based their rules on the priority among heirs on the question of which of them would confer greater spiritual benefit on the deceased. Texts that could be called legal texts emerged around the middle of the first millennium a.d., and the second millennium saw the creation of several large compendia by courtiers, who under royal orders tried to summarize and harmonize the traditional rules as they applied in their time and to their regions.

The Dharma Shāstras in a narrower sense were the basis of all later Hindu legal developments, and their authority was never challenged directly. The principles of righteousness (dharma) are unchanging—though a good number of rules no longer apply in our decadent age (kali yuga). The ritual killing of cows that was enjoined in Vedic ritual is no longer practiced, and other practices are nowadays "decried by the world" (Manu, Mānava Dharma Shāstra). Over the centuries, many commentaries were written on the authoritative texts, often clarifying difficult or ambiguous passages, at times giving a new interpretation more in tune with contemporary customs. While commentators would not challenge the authority of the basic text, their interpretation could become authoritative, even if later judged erroneous. In British India, the courts employed Indian pandits to advise judges on traditional law as embodied in Dharma Shāstra. Gradually the growing body of case law and, after India gained independence, the passing of new laws limited the role of Dharma Shāstra in the Indian courts, though it still plays a role in cases involving religious groups.

Conflicts and Interpretation

Some of the old Dharma Shāstras (e.g., those ascribed to Gautama, Āpastamba) were composed in a terse form of prose, the so-called sūtras (threads), others (e.g., that ascribed to Manu, Mānava Dharma Shāstra) in verse; both forms were chosen with a view to aid memorization. Contradictions caused by gradual growth sometimes remain: Manu gives rules regulating the levirate (when a man begets a son with the widow of a close relative), then condemns the practice; the killing of animals is alternately allowed and condemned. In cases of conflict, a rule for which a reason is clearly visible is not as potent as one for which it is not; the author might have possessed insight into a higher metaphysical truth that we have no right to challenge. Interpretative skills were honed in the exegesis of Vedic rules, and ambiguous passages were discussed with great sophistication. Current customs that could not be traced to any of the Dharma Shāstras could, it is argued, be based on lost Vedic texts, since it was known that not all Vedic texts survived into later times.

Many Dharma Shāstras explicitly refer to some divine authority who revealed the rules to a holy man in the distant past. There is no reasoning or reference to historical cases. The reasoning was presumably worked out long ago; the existing custom was idealized and systematized and handed down in this state to all future generations. The same attitude is evident in the Indian science of grammar: the wonderful descriptions of the Sanskrit language presuppose a penetrating analysis that is never revealed—we see only the application in the production of correct form. There is a characteristic difference in Buddhist canonical law, which based itself on alleged instances and reasoned rulings by the Buddha himself, fictitious though they might be.

Hartmut E. Scharfe

See alsoHinduism (Dharma) ; Judicial System, Modern


Derrett, J. Duncan M. Dharmasáāstra and Juridical Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1973.

Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmasáāstra. 5 vols. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930–1962.

Lingat, Robert. The Classical Law of India, translated by J. D. M. Derrett. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Olivelle, Patrick. The Āsárama System. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.