Category Archives: a. Dharma and the Dharma Sastras

Celibacy (Brahmacarya)

In classical Hinduism, the origins of ascetic practices such as celibacy are highly debated. Chastity is defined as the abstinence of all sexual intercourse and celibacy was used to describe the single relationship status of an individual, but now more recent descriptions are approaching the definition of chastity (Olivelle 151). In Hinduism, the Sanskrit word Brahmacarya is used interchangeably to describe celibacy and chastity even though it is not the direct application of the use of the word. The word Brahmacarya more precisely refers to the first of four “religiously sanctioned modes of life” (Olivelle 158) called Asramas. These Asramas are prescribed phases of life originating from laws written in the first century CE. These were treatises written on the moral duty, and the nature of righteousness, called Dharma Sastras. Dharma is the proper actions, rituals, social and personal behaviors that are supported by the cosmic order (Rta), the natural rightness of things. One example would be The Laws of Manu containing several rules of proper social and personal conduct which include the four phases of life (Asramas). The Laws of Manu was written in the first century CE therefor “reflect the social norms of the time” and were “seldom followed strictly”. While in the Asrama known as the student stage, or Brahmacarya, it is the “student’s Dharma not to work for a living and to remain celibate” and in the second stage “a householder’s Dharma to be employed and lead a conjugal life with his partner” (Narayana 50).

The Laws of Manu go into great detail of many restricting rules and systems such as the caste and class system that are supported by even older highly regarded Vedic texts such as the Rg Vedas. The laws state, that only certain classes are permitted to commence the once highly regarded religious journey of studying the Vedas through the four Asramas. Studying the Vedas is a privilege only granted to the religious classes belonging in the greater classification group named the Twice-Born. The story of creation entitled ‘Hymn of the supreme person’ from the Rg Vedas can accommodate the origin of various elements of the universe such as the class system. It is the Purusa Sukta, Purusa is believed to be the original being of the universe from which the ultimate sacrifice was made to create man. The dismemberment of Purusa is the origin of the class system. “From his mouth came the priestly class, from his arms, the rulers. The producers came from his legs; from his feet came the servant class” (Narayanan 27). The Brahmin (priestly) class, Ksatriya (ruler) class, and Vaisya (producer) class make up the twice born, but do not include the Sudras (servant) class. The Twice Born have the privilege of following the prescribed Asramas to pursue the ultimate goal of complete liberation (Moksa) following a spiritual re-birth.

A ceremony must be performed to mark the second birth of a Twice-Born male into the studies of the Vedas. The sacred threat ritual (Upanayana) is the first ritual marking the rite of passage into the first Asrama (Brahmacarya). The Upanayana and marriage are examples of Samskara; a ritual that marks the rite of passage into the next Asrama. A different stage marks the pursuit of different goals and the attainment of a different set of knowledge or values. This can be better understood with the apprehension of Dharma. The first goal is to abide by the dharmic principles of sexual asceticism while studying the Vedas, but in the second Asrama (Grhastha), the focus shifts to the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha). In the third Asrama (Vanaprastha) one begins to practice various methods of gaining transformative insight, and in the last Asrama (Samnyasin) the goal is to attain the highest level of complete liberation.

If an individual were to attain moksha, through devoting one’s life to following the Asramas or other practices, the individual is then liberated from Samsara. In most Hindu philosophies (Darasanas) it is believed that every action has Karmic consequences, and after death in this world the Karmic seeds will bear fruit, and be the ultimate deciding factor of the realm of rebirth. Samsara is the cycle of endless rebirth in another realm unless the cycle can be broken by attaining Moksa (Olivelle 156). Liberation from endless cycles of Karmic rebirth is attained by dispelling illusion, and gaining transformative insight on the self (Atman) or knowledge about ultimate reality (Brahman) (Narayanan 52). Those that practice sexual asceticism tend to have as a goal the pursuit of liberation (Moksa). Since detaching from the sensual world is the first step toward renunciation, “the sexual impulse was viewed as the greatest source of attachment and the greatest impediment to progress on the spiritual path” (Olivelle 160). The biggest obstacle to ascetic detachment is the natural attraction towards the opposite sex, and the sexual nature of the body which is seen as impure (Olivelle 160). One of the five preliminary restraints (Yama) that need to be practiced is abstinence as highlighted in Yoga Sutra for the pursuit of liberation. Time and time again we see that sexual asceticism is clearly favored as one of the key practices in the bigger goal of attaining liberation, nonetheless during the householder (Grhastha) Asrama stage the practice of celibacy and chastity is disregarded.

It is the dharma of a married householder to raise children, therefor there are no negative karmic consequences. Offspring and marriage are undesirable to a renounced individual seeking liberation because they cannot help nor hinder the present Karmic state of the individual. Choosing not to practice celibacy, or believing in the institution of marriage and the action of procreation,  is closely tied to the rejection of ritual activity, and is seen as harmful to spiritual progress. This can explain why the acceptance of householder ideals such as procreation bears no fruit in the search for Moksa but one can also argue that it is indeed necessary for some Hindu religious practices. The Vedas talk about a great spiritual and physical debt that is owed to the gods since birth. Two of them are “offering sacrifices and procreating sons” (Olivelle 154). Vedic religion used sons for death rituals and thus, the birth of a son is “viewed as ensuring immortality of the father” (Olivelle 153). Some Vedic theology promotes the married householder way of life as being the ideal, while other Vedic theology also supports ascetic and celibate ideologies. These contrasting principles warrant different outcomes, but are supported and followed equally.

An unbalanced ratio of renouncers who neglect the benefits of the householder stage would be devastating for the continuity of the population and would require adjustments to the Asrama system over time to promote healthy proliferation. The four Asramas were originally meant for an individual wanting to pursue a sacred ascetic life; free of unnecessary ties with the artificial world. In the old Asrama system, after graduating from Vedic studies, the individual was able to choose between four modes of life to pursue permanently for this persons entire lifetime. There was the option to continue the Asrama of a student through adulthood and devote one’s life to the study of the Vedas while remaining celibate (Olivelle 159). Another Asrama was the forest-hermit, where the individual could roam the forest, and most texts mention the ability to have a wife or family while other texts order celibacy. And the last Asrama from the old system was the world renouncer, marked by celibacy and no familial ties (Olivelle 159). Years after the Common Era, the reformed version of the four Asramas were known to be temporary stages of life. Nonetheless, celibacy and chastity played a major role in all four Asramas. In the second Asrama, the Householder (Grhastha) stage, the pursuit of sensory pleasure (Kama) and self-empowerment (Artha) is permitted. The aims of each Asrama can be pursued in moderation and in the order prescribed (Narayanan 50). If one chooses, Brahmacarya is also practiced during the householder stage, as the term is adapted to justify the Dharmic duty to create offspring. Throughout time, The Laws of Manu closely guarded by the Brhamin class needed to change in order to more accurately parallel other popular Vedic beliefs. To further promote the highly reputed concept of Brahmacarya in the context of sexual asceticism, Brahmanical adaptations were made to integrate sexual asceticism in all Asramas including Grhastha. The householder equivalent to sexual asceticism is sexual intercourse with one’s wife at night if the sole purpose is procreation (Olivelle 162).  Domesticating the practice of Asceticism during the householder stage would be justified with Dharma. The Third Asrama is the Forest-Dweller (Vanaprastha) and the last is the renouncer (Samnyasin) Asrama, where death rituals are performed to shed the bonds of family, marriage, kids or sexual activities to facilitate the detachment from the world in the pursuit of Moksa (Olivelle 159).

Mental and Physical powers such as the ability to fly, the ability to see into the future and read minds are said to be related to the retention of semen, while the opposite effect of physical and mental impotence is related to sexual relations (Olson 165). “The celibate body is extremely fit, and as such evokes a divine and heroic mystique of epic proportion” (Alter 46). The internal, unnatural heat (Tapas) found in a celibate renouncer can lead to the acquisition of powers. Comparing the celibate renouncer to the sexually active householder, who generates a different kind of natural heat with no control over the excessive indulgence of sexual behavior, reveals a theme. The heating of the renouncer and cooling of the householder is the tension visible throughout the history of devotional Hinduism (Olson 167).

Brahmacarya is used to describe the model example of celibacy in Hinduism, referring to the stage of ascetic study of the Vedas, but not directly meaning chastity or celibacy (Olivelle 152). Brahmacarya comes prior to the accepted but unstable sensual release in the householder Asrama. This is followed by the necessary condition of sexual continence for the pursuit of liberation while renouncing the world. Celibacy, chastity, marriage, and procreation are all supported by the Hindu tradition, but at specific times throughout life and also within moderation.



Alter, Joseph (1994) “Sexuality and the Transformation of Gender Into Nationalism in North India.” The Journal of Asian studies 53:45-66.Accessed 07/01/2009.

Buswell. R, Lopez. D (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Narayanan, Vasudha (2002) “Chapter One: The Hindu Tradition.” In World Religions, Eastern Religions, edited by Willard G. Oxtoby, 12-125. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Olivelle, Patrick (2008) “Celibacy in Classical Hinduism.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 151-164. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olson, Carl (2008) “Hindu Devotionalism, Tantra, and Celibacy.” In Celibacy and Religious Traditions, edited by Carl Olson, 165-180. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Article written by: Uriel Karerwa (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Laws of Manu

Also known as the Manu Samhita, Manu Smrti, or Manava Dharma Shastra, The Laws of Manu form the basis of what has been called “the most authoritative and influential text of ancient Indian laws” (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu addresses social, moral, and legal questions, and has gradually gained precedence in Hinduism. Scholars disagree as to its exact age, most commonly placing its original publication date between 200BCE to 400CE. Hindu tradition states that it was dictated by a visionary named Manu to a group of seers, or rsi. This means that The Laws of Manu is not sruti literature, but smrti, or “remembered” literature.

The Laws of Manu is divided into sections dealing with different aspects of Hindu life. One of the most well-known sections deals with the roles of women in society. The Laws of Manu takes a firm stance in rejecting the independence of women and places them firmly in subjugation to their fathers, brothers, or husbands. “By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house,” states The Laws of Manu (Muller 1886:195). It describes how a woman should behave if she is a daughter, sister, wife, or widow, and urges chastity and self-sacrifice. Wives must be cheerful, clever, and clean; even the names of women must be pleasing and auspicious (Muller 1886:35). They must also respect their husband in the manner of a god-husband, or patideva, regardless of his actions. Because of the perceived patriarchal position of The Laws of Manu, it has attracted modern critics. Barbara Ramusack (2005) writes of the authorization of “patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal family structures,” while Lisa Lassell Hallstrom (1999) describes The Laws of Manu’s “need to control women.”

Ramusack (1999) also says that the Laws “represent the effort of brahmans [sic] to impose their ideals as the dominant practice in Hindu society.” This is certainly true; the Laws firmly establish the boundaries between the Hindu classes, or varnas. The four main varnas described in the text are the brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. The Laws of Manu goes even further than these four, describing the various categories of people that arise due to inter-class marriages. The first three varnas are the “twice-borns,” while the sudras (the lowest of the four varnas) are “once-borns.” Each varna has different duties and must follow a different dharma. The Laws of Manu goes into great detail regarding the correct dharmic action for each class. Brahmins, the priestly class, are commanded to teach, study, and sacrifice, while ksatriyas are ordered to bear arms as the warrior class (Muller 1886:419). Vaisyas should pursue trade or agriculture, and sudras should look for employment serving the upper varnas. A sudra can serve the brahmins, ksatriyas, or vaisyas, but only serving the brahmins will “bear him fruit”(Muller 1886:429). Even the personal names of Hindus should be influenced by their varna; brahmins should be given names that are auspicious and happy, ksatriyas should be given powerful names connected with protection, vaisyas should have names evoking wealth, and sudras should have names denoting service (Muller 1886:35).

In addition to providing a background of class duties, The Laws of Manu also provides a description of the stages of life. The studentship stage, or brahmacarya, can last anywhere from nine to thirty-six years, during which time the Vedas are studied. After this stage, the householder stage can then be entered. This is known as the grhastha stage. Marriage is an essential part of the householder stage, and criteria for a suitable wife are described at length in the Laws. A good candidate has male children in their family, neither too much body hair nor too little, no obvious health problems, and is not named after a constellation, tree, mountain, or bird (Muller 1886:76). Men should look to their own caste when finding a first wife, and then take their next wives from the lower classes. While we have seen that some of the views found in The Laws of Manu are patriarchal, in this section the text states that “women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law” (Muller 1886:85). After the householder stage is complete and a Hindu man has grandchildren (and possesses white hair and a wrinkled face), he may enter the next stage, vanaprastha, and become a forest-dweller. A forest-dweller lives a simple life in the wilderness privately reciting the Vedas (Muller 1886:199). After spending some time in this manner, a man is ready to enter the fourth stage of life and become a renouncer, “abandoning all attachment to worldly objects” (Muller 1886:205). This last stage is the samnyasin stage.

While The Laws of Manu provides a framework for society, it also deals with theological issues, such as the Creation. According to The Laws of Manu, before the Creation there was merely darkness. Out of the darkness arose “the divine self-existent,” or Svayambhuva, which compelled the universe with “irresistible” power (Muller 1886:3). According to Manu, this force is indiscernible and cannot be comprehended by human beings. This force wished to create beings from its own body, and so created water and planted its seed. This seed grew into a golden egg out of which sprung Brahman, a manifestation of Purusa. Brahman remained in the egg for a year, and then mentally divided the egg into the heavens and the earth (Muller 1886:6). He himself was divided, with the different varnas sprouting from his different body parts.

The concept of time is also discussed in The Laws of Manu. The text describes the different yugas, or ages, and tells how virtue steadily decreases in each age. Our current age, the Kali Yuga, is one of “liberality alone” (Muller 1886:24). Men live shorter lives and the end of the world will come relatively soon. The Laws of Manu states that the distinction between varnas is necessary to maintain the order of this fragile universe.

The Laws of Manu is a very important work, but it has not always been viewed as the most important dharmic text in Hinduism. According to Asma (2013), “traditional Indian culture has not recognized a one-size-fits-all universal moral code.” The Laws of Manu had competition in the form of other legal and moral codes, like those of King Asoka (304-232 BCE) (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu contains ancient materials, and is generally regarded as a compendium of knowledge regarding contemporary moral codes, rather than an original work (Muller 2011:161). The section on time, for example, shares verses with the Mahabharata (Trautmann 189).

The question of authorship regarding The Laws of Manu is debated. According to the text itself, there are seven Manus, all sons of the aforementioned Svayambhuva (Trautmann, 188). Every age has its own Manu. The Manu of this age heard the moral code from Brahma, the Creator, and then taught it to the rsis. Among these rsis was Bhrigu, who is said to have transcribed them.

While we cannot know for certain how old The Laws of Manu is, or who its exact author was, it is safe to say that it is one document that has influenced many aspects of Hindu life today.






Asma, Stephen T. (2013) Against Fairness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Bhatia, Vijay K. and Rajesh Sharma (2008) “Language and the Legal System.” In Language in South Asia. Braj B. Kachru, Yamuna Kachru, and S. N. Sridhar (eds.). New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 361-376.


Doniger, Wendy (1991) “Why Should a Priest Tell You Whom to Marry? A Deconstruction of the Laws of Manu.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 44 (March): 18-31.


Doniger, Wendy (1992) “Rationalizing the Irrational Other: ‘Orientalism’ and the Laws of Manu.” New Literary History 23 (Winter): 25-43.


Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66 (Spring): 151-165.


Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982). New York: Oxford University Press.


Muller, F. Max (2011) Theosophy or Psychological Religion: The Gifford Lectures Delivered before the University of London in 1892. New York: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 1893.


Muller, F. Max (ed.) (1886) The Laws of Manu. Oxford University Press.


Ramusack, Barbara N. (1999) “Women in South Asia.” In Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History. Barbara N. Ramusack and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 15-76.


Ramusack, Barbara N. (2005) “Women and Gender in South and Southeast Asia.” In Women’s History: In Global Perspective. Bonnie G. Smith (ed.). American Historical Association. pp. 101-138.


Trautmann, Thomas R. (1995). “Indian Time, European Time.” In Time: Histories and Ethnologies. Diane Owen Hughes and Thomas R. Trautmann (eds.). Michigan:University of Michigan Press. pp. 167-200.



Related Topics for Further Investigation

Smrti Literature














Kali Yuga




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic



Article written by Kaylyn Cudrak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


















The Dharma Sastras

The Dharma Sastras are texts in Hinduism that are concerned with the legal precedent or law that is in relation to dharma (Rodrigues, 535). Dharma as it relates to the Dharma Sastra’s acts as a guide to what a Hindu must do in their life to fulfil their dharmic duty. In relation to religious texts for Hindu’s the Dharma Sastras are considered smrti [all texts containing traditions] not sruti [divinely heard or from the gods] an example of these are the Vedas (Banerji, 1). As the Dharma Sastras are smrti which are of human authorship they are not as revered as are the main sruti texts of the Hindu religion.

The exact origin of the Dharma Sastras is not known but it is believed that the Dharma Sastras can be traced back to Vedic times. The Dharma Sastras were believed to be written because the Dharma Sutras[texts that contained dharmic law and were the basis for the Dharma Sastras] were antiquated and a new text was needed to address the increasingly complex needs of society. Therefore, the Dharma Sastras were needed to explain the more complex matters that were arising in this new era (Banerji, 4-5).

Just as the Dharma Sutras contains many works, the Dharma Sastras do as well, with the main works being of Manu, Yajnvalka, Parasara, Katyayana, and Narada, [these are all different Dharma Sastra writers however Manu was most extensive and all had similar teachings]; however, these are just a few of the works that are considered Dharma Sastras, and there are many more examples. This paper will mention the main two Dharma Sastras, which are regarded highly as important smrti writings and legal codices of ancient India. The two works are the works of Manu and Yajnavalka. Where Manu`s works contains information on acara, prayascitta, vyavahara, and rajadharma. Where the Yajnavalka only comments on three of these which are the acara, prayascitta, and, vyavahara (Banerji 30-35)

The Manu Smrti is a name used for the Laws of Manu. It is considered the most important of the Dharma Sastras [the composition of Manu Smrti according to B. C. Kane to fall somewhere in between second century BC and second century AD](Banerji, 31). The Laws of Manu are composed of a manuscript which is divided into twelve adhyayas [lessons or chapters]. According to Patrick Olivelle these twelve adhyayas is an “old version” as all of the commentaries on it Manu’s works follow that there is the twelve adhyayas. However, Olivelle suggests that it is not the original breakup of the adhyayas of the Laws of Manu, and further suggests that there was a possibility of more at one time before the commentaries were written (Olivelle, 7). This version is also considered to contain two thousand six hundred ninety four verses. However, it is not known who composed the work; there are several different opinions concerning authorship, such as those who believe that Manu was a mythical being; others believe that it arose from a school propounded by a sage named Manu (Banerji, 31). In P. V. Kane’s History of the Dharmasastras, he states that myth says Manu is possibly the father of the human race and a semi-divine sage that received the laws and regulations from God (Kane, 307 vol. 1). This causes confusion as to who was the actual author of the work. However, the work itself says “Brahma formulated this sastra, and taught it to Manu. (Banerji, 31) ” This Dharma Sastra has some contradicting statements such as allowing brahmins to take a sudra wife in one adhyaya and forbidding it in another adhyaya. This brings forth an assumption that this Dharma Sastra was possibly brought through three different stages of its development in its writing. While, this is thought because of the contradictions may indicate the works could have been written by more than one hand.  Some scholars disagree that this is the case.  It is said that the Laws of Manu is to the most commented on of all the smrti literature composed (Banerji, 30-34). It is also considered to be the most authoritative work of all the Dharma Sastras and is commented in the Yajnavalka by saying “that smrti which runs counter to Manu is not commended (Banerji, 33)” and “whatever Manu said is medicine. (Banerji, 33)” Showing that this Dharma Sastra is the most influential work, it is even stated in other versions of the Dharma Sastras as other authors of the Dharma Sastras recognize it as the most .

The Yajnavalka Smrti [the second most important Dharma Sastra] which was composed by Yajnavalka himself is also very important version of the Dharma Sastra. It is believed to have been written between first century BCE and third century CE.  This version is important because it brings order to three of the subjects that are touched in the Laws of Manu. The three topics that Yajnavalka brings order to is acara, vyavahara, and prayascitta. Yajnavalka lays these out in an order so that they are to be easily understood. The most famous portion of this Dharma Sastra is its section on the vyavahana which concerns itself with secular law. A subsection in the vyavahana has actually given rise to two different schools of law, the Mitaksara which is law in all of India except Bengal, and the Dayabhaga which is the law in Bengal. There have been a few changes made to the Yajnavalka, between eight hundred and eleven hundred CE and other then these few changes the text is believed to be intact since seven hundred CE (Banerji, 34-35)

I will now touch on the subjects that are talked about in the Dharma Sastras, these topics being acara, vyavahara, prayascitta, and rajadharma. Acara [customary laws] in the Dharma Sastras is concerned with the practice of dharma in the everyday life of a Hindu and the ways in which they must live in order to be a dharmic Hindu (Davis, 814). This meaning that acara was concerned with ensuring that you could have a good dharmic life. To ensure that a person has a good dharmic life they must follow the samskaras [life cycle rites that Hindus participate in(Rodrigues, 562)] . This is mostly for brahmins who are to lead a life devoted to the dharma. These samskaras are there to help these brahmins remove their taint and sin that they inherit from their parents. In the acara concerning samskaras there are certain rituals that are only reserved for the twice-born castes brahmin, ksatriya, and vaisyas. Within the twice-born casts, only the males are allowed to have Vedic mantras said, however, in the case of marriage Vedic mantras are uttered for the females of twice-born families. Sudras are only allowed to perform samskaras not reserved for the twice-born. However it is now thought that most of the samskaras are now considered obsolete. Marriage it is not seen as much as a samskara but more of a contract (banerji, 77-81). An example of acara is its provisions in the Laws of Manu regarding bride’s price, selection of a bride, and types of marriage, just to name a few that are concerned with the acara.

Vyavahara [civil and criminal law] is concerned with disputes of law in the sense that western society thinks of law. It contains both civil and criminal law that we in the western world (Banerji, 157). According to the Laws of Manu there are eighteen different disputes. To name a few there is: rnadana which is non-repayment of debt, strisamgrahana which is the molestation and unlawful sexual union of women, and samahvaya which is animal-betting. This is showing that vyavahara concerns itself with the actual laws of the Hindu society which is part of their dharmic responsibility. For a person to follow dharma they must follow these laws because if you break these laws you are not fulfilling your dharmic duty and therefore not fulfilling your responsibilities to dharma. When you look at Hindu laws it is shown that  a similar code covers similar topics as our own laws such as judicial proceedings, evidence, possession and ownership, and crime and punishment (Banerji, 157-167). The Laws of Manu shows examples of what to do with criminal code such as theft and thieves in chapter eight which includes others crimes such as violence and the code also includes how the justice system is to function and a range of different criminal charges (Olivelle, 167-189).

Prayascitta [penance or washing away ones sins] is concerned with the penance of a sinner. It is the washing off of their sin where they make amends for their crimes against dharma. Prayascitta is meant to be used to avert the sinners fall into hell and allows for the sinner to be acceptable for social interaction in that he can partake in social activities within the society. However, prayascitta only makes the sinner acceptable for social interaction within society if they did not intentionally sin. If the person intentionally commits a sinful deed they can avert from falling into hell but cannot gain back their right for social interaction within regular society (Banerji, 90-92). The prayascitta is the way that a Hindu is punished for their wrongdoing. Just as someone in western society is given a jail sentence for a crime to pay penance for his/her wrongdoing; prayascitta to a Hindu is in a sense there “jail sentence” to make amends for their wrongdoing as the jail sentence is to the westerner. Examples of this would be punishments for people who breach Hindu law such as punishments for thieves that is found in chapter eight of Manu’s code of law (Olivelle, 184)

In regards to the last section of Laws of Manu; the section raja dharma concerns itself with the kingly dharma. It is concerned with how a King must live and it contains information on where a king must live and how he must protect himself. It also includes information on how he is to receive council from his ministers; who to have as ambassadors, political expedients’, and other topics that are needed for a king to do their duty (Banerji, 92-100).

These four topics are what make up most of the Dharma Sastras. These are guides for the Hindus to follow in their life. Especially brahmins as they are expected to lead a dharmic life. With these codes they are able to sustain a society that is prosperous and cohesive.

The Dharma Sastras discusses issues from how to live dharmically to what will happen if the codes of your dharma are not followed. It teaches the Hindus about how they must live in their everyday life and shows what are expected of them in their life. It is seen that the Dharma Sastras are also connected to other aspects of the Hindu’s life such as the Arthasastras as they are related in what they teach regarding one’s life duties (Banerji, 6-7). We also see that the Dharma Sastras are related to the epics, in that the epics are seen as the “sources of dharma (Banerji, 7).” The Mahabharata contains many matters that are in the Dharma Sastras so one could think that it is a possibility that the epics are a way of teaching the Hindu’s on how to live there life in an easily understandable way through the narrative. The Dharma Sastras are books that help with everyday life for every Hindu and are needed to ensure that there dharmic duties are fulfilled. These texts are needed for Hindus culture because they make up what a Hindu is and what a Hindu does, showing them how in their lives they can attain their ultimate dharmic goal eventually through living a life of dharma and attaining moksa [liberation from the worldly state].

References and Further Readings

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the eBook an Online introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics online Books.

Olivelle, Patrick (2005) Manu’s Code of Law A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Banerji, S.C.(1999) A Brief History of Dharmasastra.New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kane, Pandurang (1968) History of Dharmasatras vol.1, 4. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.

Davis, Donald R. (2004) Journal of Indian Philosophy. 32:5-6:p.813-830

Related Topics:

  • Dharma Sutras
  • Laws of Manu
  • Yajnavalka Smrti
  • Mahabharata
  • Acara
  • Prayascitta
  • Vyabahara
  • Rajadharma
  • Artha Sastras

Related websites:

Article written by: Tony Slezina (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its contents.

The Laws of Manu (On Women)

The Laws of Manu are one of the three major Dharma Sastras whose authorship in attributed to Manu, a Hindu Lawmaker (Neufeldt 144; Kumar 207). The text is also known as Manusmrti or Manavadharmasastra and is often referred to as simply Manu. The Laws of Manu are comprehensive set of codices that outline dharmic practices; many scholars refer to them as legal codices (Monius 334). This particular text is widely used by orthodox Hindus as instruct their day to day lives. This practice became even more wide spread after the British came into power in India as the Laws of Manu were implemented at a state level as a way of handling legal issues with the Hindu population (Mitra, 78).

The Laws of Manu have often been criticized as it appears to serve at continuing to propagate inequality within Hindu Society. This is perhaps the case with some practices. However it is important to recognise that the text also has its strengths. Mitra argues throughout her piece Human Rights in Hinduism that the practice of dharma, which is the focus of the Laws of Manu, focuses on justice and thus it does in fact consider the rights of individuals by prescribing dharmic practices. The text outlines the ways in which individuals should protect their families and conduct themselves in public to outline a properly functioning Hindu society.

Like many religious texts, one must consider that interpretations of the verses contained within the Laws of Manu are simply that, interpretations. Different groups and individuals will focus their attention on a particular section of the Manusmirti while completely ignoring others that may contradict their viewpoint. This is particularly present when considering the treatment of women in Hinduism.

Kumar argues throughout his article Manu: The Meaning of Svatantrya and Its Implications for Women’s Freedom that many of the codices in The Laws of Manu itself are actually put in place to protect women. Unfortunately, throughout history women have been particularly vulnerable to rape and other forms of attack and thus, Manu devoted much of his ninth chapter to the proper treatment of women within one’s family (Buhler). Kumar also points out that there are only two main areas where Manu prescribed the control of women’s actions: “… (1) attachments to worldly or sensual objects and (2) sexual relationships with men of inferior classes.” (Kumar, 213). Despite this, Kumar does not deny that in practice the Laws of Manu have also caused the grave mistreatment of Hindu women as well. If one observes verses 147 through 149 of chapter five of the Laws of Manu, it is noted that Manu also prescribed that women should never do any activity independently or try to separate herself from her male family members (Buhler). This may be one explanation for why the advancement of women in the workforce in India has been so difficult. By attempting to independently contribute the household or to support oneself as women would imply that you are directly disobeying the religious doctrine.

The only apparent time that a woman obtains any real power is when she becomes the senior married woman in a household. It is then that other women are expected to turn to her. However even this status has its limits. According to the Manusmrti the wife must still obey her male relatives, which in this case would mean chiefly her husband. So what does a woman do when her husband dies? If a Hindu woman is lucky she will have other male relatives who will care for her, in particular her sons.

A husband is a Hindu woman’s main support explains Wadley (92). Once a woman becomes a widow not only is she viewed as a burden economically, but due to scriptures (for example Laws of Manu chapter 3, verse 57) they are also viewed as a liability. If a woman does not have a son to look after her after her husband’s death a woman is almost guaranteed to suffer many hardships. Especially in the lower classes women often have difficulty supporting themselves as Manu does not encourage an independent woman. Some orthodox Hindus go so far as to argue that a widow is half dead herself as her husband was half of her being (Wadley 105). This leads to even further harsh treatment as there is a sense of becoming untouchable. Chapter three of the Laws of Manu touches on this at several points. When discussing who should not be invited to or served food at the ceremony for the dead several references are made to sons of widows and remarried women and men who have taken their older brother’s place; i.e. a younger brother who has married his deceased brother’s widow (Doniger 57-62). It is quite clear that in the context of the ceremony of dead, individuals associated with widows are not to be thought of highly.

Doniger (xliv) points out that the Laws of Manu appears full of contradictions, but really is a series of rules and a list of their exceptions. Part of the text actually does focus on the good treatment of women, as is seen in chapter 3 verses 51 through 63. These verses focus both on the necessity of women’s happiness to a household’s happiness and the proper practice for arranging a daughter’s marriage. In my opinion, verse 51(Doniger 48) shows a respect for women as people because it states, “No learned father should take a bride-price for his daughter, no matter how small, for a man who, out of greed, exacts a bride-price would be selling his child like a pimp.” Throughout the text we see verses like this and then others which appear to knock women down to an inferior level. However, it is important to note that the majority of verses which hold women in a negative light are context specific, and thus it is not the text that has caused injustice to women, but its use outside the context which were outlined.
The Laws of Manu are deeply entrenched in Hindu society. This particular Dharma Sastra is perhaps the most influential religious-legal scripture in existence. Its far reaching influence has been both beneficial and troublesome throughout Hindu history and certainly cannot be discounted within the tradition. However, it is also important to note that the text was compiled between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. thus policies that were once useful and protective must be taken within their historical context and adjusted to the different eras they are used in, in order to prevent undue discrimination and maltreatment.


Buhler, Georg (1886) The Laws of Manu Sacred Text of the East. Volume 25.Gloucestershire: Clarendon Press.

Doniger, Wendy (1991) The Laws of Manu. Toronto: Penguin Books Canada.

Kumar, Sanjay (2006) “Manu: The Meaning of Svatantrya and Its Implications for Women’s Freedom.” The Journal of Religious Studies, 34, 207-223

Mitra, Kana (1982) “Human Rights in Hinduism.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19, 77-84

Monius, Anne E. (2005) “Origin of Hindu Ethics.” In The Blackwell Companion to Religious Ethics (William Schweiker, Editor) Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Neufeldt, Ronald W. (2001) “Justice in Hinduism.” In Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (Michael L. Hadley, Editor) Albany: State University of Albany Press

Olivelle, Patrick (2004) “Manu and the Arthasastra A Study in Sastric Intertextuality.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, 32, 281-291

Sharma, Pajendra Nath (1980) Ancient India According to Manu. Delhi: Nag Publishers

Wadley, Susan (1995) “No Longer a Wife: Widows in Rural North India.” In The Margins of Hindu Marriage (Lindsey Harlan & Paul B. Cartwright, Editors) New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Hindu Widows


Ancient India

Dharma Sastra


Religion in Society

Noteworthy Website Related to Topic

Written by Rachelle Lamoureux (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Dharma Sutras

One might wonder what exactly “Dharma Sutra” means and how it came about. It is a blend of the two components ‘dharma’ and ‘sutra’. Therefore this blend obviously means ‘sutras’ dealing with ‘dharma’ (Banerji 1). It is hard to define Dharma itself as it could be interpreted in many ways. However, it is often understood as religion or moral code (Sekhar 1).Hence, I would say that Dharma Sutras deal with directions about our domestic, social and religious lives.

The origin of Dharma Sutra, just like the many other ancient Indian literature, is veiled in shadows. The Dharma Sutra is part of the Kalpa Sutras which is derived from the Vedas. Therefore from this significance we can say that Dharma Sutra is also written during the Vedic age. The Vedas have two different aspects, speculative and ritualistic (Banerji 7). Much later into the Vedic age, literature becomes more focus on rites and rituals. As the civilization was growing, this led to the preparation for shorter and easier manuals of these ritualistic works. In the process of trying to do this, the Kalpa Sutras were composed. To distinguish heterogeneous matters within the Kalpa Sutras, it was classified into three distinct classes. These were the Śrauta which deals purely with Vedic rites, Grhya which deals with domestic rites performed before the domestic fire and Dharma which deals principally with the rules of conduct and Vyavahāra.

People tend to overlap and think that Grhya Sutra and Dharma Sutra deal with the same idea. However, they do not deal with the same idea; instead they have a close comparison of the contents within these sutras. Grhya Sutra deals absolutely with just the domestic rites and the procedure of how one is supposed to go about doing the rites. Dharma Sutra not only deals on the ‘law’ or righteousness but also on the broader stand about the conduct of men, secular law (Vyavahāra) and duties of the king (rājadharma). Even then still, people wonder “What is the reason of the overlapping of the contents of these two types of works in respect of certain rites, e.g. upanayana, vivāha, etc (Banerji 10)?” The easiest response to this would be that, Grhya Sutra really stresses on the procedure of the different rites and goes really into details. On the other hand, Dharma Sutra accounts for the various customs and practices connected with these rites excluding the details of procedure. Although some of the topics covered in both the sutras are similar, they are both independent types of works apparently composed to serve different purposes.

Before going any further into the details of the Dharma Sutras, we should know the differences between Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras. Both of these texts are closely connected as both deals with the same or allied topics (Banerji 2). Even then there are differences to be noted between them. There are eight main points of differences; Form, Language, Divine Origin, Arrangement of topics, Historical priority, and Affiliation. Form: majority of the work of Dharma Sutras is composed in text intermixed with verse, however for the Dharma Sastras, it is entirely in verse. Language: Dharma Sutras contains many outdated forms than the Dharma Sastras. Affiliation to Vedic School: most of the Dharma Sutras betray some preference in the quotations for certain Vedas or Vedic Schools whereas the Dharma Sastras do not (Banerji 2). These are just some of the differences between Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras.

To this day, the only four remaining works which are related on the topic of Dharma are the Āpastamba, Baudhāyana, Gautama and Vasistha (Olivelle 3). Āpastamba and Baudhāyana are the only two Dharma Sutras that were brought down from Kalpa Sutras (Olivelle 3). Majority of the work which dealt with dharma appeared to have been composed during the Common Era.

The Āpastamba contains thirty praśnas (lit., “questions”) or books. Of these, the first 24 compromises of the Śrauta Sutra, 25-26 compromises of the collections of ritual formulas to be used in domestic rites, 27 compromises of the Grhya Sutra, 28-29 compromises of the Dharma Sutra and the final book on Śulva Sutra. The Āpastamba belongs to the Taittirīya branch of the Black Yajurveda. It has been conserved better than the rest of the Dharma Sutras. This could be proved by the only one surviving commentary of Haradatta (Olivelle 20). The laws of the Āpastamba are very straight forward and strict as it is the oldest Dharma Sutras. It deals with matters of civil law such as inheritance and brief sections on the orders of life. An example of a law of the Āpastamba underlying the caste system is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should give a thousand cows to erase the enmity, a hundred if he kills a Vaiśya, and ten if he kills a Sudra.” (Olivelle 61)

The Gautama Dharma Sutra did not have any connection with the Kalpa Sutras. It was composed as a separate thesis. Traditionally, the Gautama has been associated with the Sāmaveda (Olivelle 116). This is proved in the book, the twenty-sixth chapter, where the atonement is taken from the Sāmavidhāna Brāhmana which belongs to the Sāmaveda. Only one of the two commentaries could be said is a useful source. That was by Maskarin; however the other commentary by Haradatta is not really a useful source as he merely worked on what Maskarin had wrote before. This would be plagiarism in today’s world. An example of a law of the Gautama underlying the caste system is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should observe the standard vow of chastity for six years and give a thousand cows together with a bull; if he kills a Vaiśya, he should do so for three years and give a hundred cows together with a bull; and if he kills a Śūdra, he should do so for one year and give ten cows together with a bull.” (Olivelle 175)

The Baudhāyana Dharma Sutra is also part of the Kalpa Sutras just like the Āpastamba. Āpastamba was preserved really excellent compared to the rest of the Dharma Sutra; however Baudhāyana text was tampered around and inter-mixed a lot. Baudhāyana contains more detailed descriptions of rituals- sacrifices, twilight worship, bathing, quenching libations than any other Dharma Sutras (Olivelle 191). An example of a law of the Baudhāyana underlying the outcaste system is that: “When someone associates with an outcaste- not, however, by officiating at his sacrifices, by teaching him, or by contracting a marriage with him- but by traveling in the same vehicle or sitting on the same seat as he, or by eating together with him, he himself becomes an outcaste within a year.” (Olivelle 249)

The Vasistha Dharma Sutra, just like the Gautama Dharma Sutra, did not have any connection with the Kalpa Sutras. It also came down as a separate text. Traditionally, Vasistha has been associated with the Rgveda (Olivelle 346). It does not have a strong ancient commentary to prove its work; therefore, Vasistha Dharma Sutra might also have addition of works from different people over time. The Vasistha represents a trasitional phase from the prose Dharma Sutras to the verse Smrtis (Olivelle 346). An example of a law of the Vasistha is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should do the same for eight years; if he kills a Vaiśya, for six years; and if he kills a Sudra, for three years.” (Olivelle 435)

The Dharma Sutras were not really investigated well in Hindu studies in the past. It has limited sources and commentaries notes to prove its accurate date and existence. However, from the following books of sources, which guided me through this article, the related websites which gave me some knowledge on this topic, Dharma Sutras is indeed a wide text. From the four remaining Dharma Sutras, Āpastamba, Gautama, Vasistha and Baudhāyana we can see similar laws but phrased in different ways. The punishment for the same concept of sin done is different or phrased differently within the Dharma Sutras. Therefore one has to read and understand the different Dharma Sutras in general and also in detail.


Olivelle, Patrick (2000) Dharma Sutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Creel, B Austin (1977) Dharma in Hindu Ethics. Calcutta: South Asia Books

Singh, Balbir (1981) Dharma: Man, Religion and Society. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Humanities Press Inc. Atlantic Highlands New Jersey.

S. J. Sekhar, Vincent (2003) Dharma: In early Brahmanic, Buddhist and Jain traditions. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Banerji, Sures Chandra (1962) Dharma Sutras: A Study in Their Origin and Development. Calcutta: Sankar Bhattacharya for Punthi Pustak.

Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Shova Gurung (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.