Category Archives: D. Hindu Social Organization and Values

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 Untouchables

The Untouchables Within the Hindu varna (class system) the Untouchables or Candalas are a group of individuals who are regarded as outcastes and contaminating to the other members of society. These individuals live on the outskirts of society and perform “polluting” labours (Rodrigues 114). Due to the nature of their occupations, the Untouchables are not identified with any specific class of Hindu society and are considered outcastes. In both ancient and contemporary India, the Untouchables have struggled to secure their place within Hindu society and fight discrimination.

There are many theories surrounding the origin of the Untouchables. While the exact source of the Untouchables is unclear, it is believed that they emerged in the later Vedic period of 1000- 600 B.C.E (Yamazaki 3) when the Aryans travelled northward up the Ganga basin and formed an agricultural society. During this time, the Brahmins (priestly class) placed a great emphasis on purity. This emphasis “gave rise” to a group of individuals, known as the Untouchables, who were considered impure, due to the work they performed (Yamazaki 11).

The orthodox Hindu tradition claims that the origins of the class system emerged from the early Aryan scripture of the Rg Veda in the mythological hymn, the Purusa Sukta (Rodrigues 102). The hymn tells of the sacrifice of the great cosmic being Purusa, by the Hindu gods. During this sacrifice, Purusa’s body is divided amongst the gods forming the four Hindu classes. From his head came the priestly class of the Brahmins, from his arms came the noble/warrior class of the Ksatriya, from his thighs came the merchant class Vaisya, and from his feet the Sudras (Rodrigues 102). The origin of the Untouchables is not linked to the myth of Purusa and therefore they do not have a place in the configurations of the varna system.

The status of the Untouchables is said to arise from the tasks they perform (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 7). In Hindu society, the Untouchables perform daily tasks that are polluting such as “removing human waste/remains, skinning dead animals, cremating the dead, tanning leather, and washing clothes” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 12). These daily tasks are considered defiling and unsanitary causing the Untouchables to be in a constant state of pollution. In traditional Hindu society, the Untouchable can transfer temporarily their pollution to members of the higher varnas, through contact. Such contact includes touching, talking to, or looking an Untouchable in the eye (Yamazaki 12). Although contact with an Untouchable diminishes one’s purity, it can be restored through a series of purification rituals. These rituals include bathing, praying, and depending on the degree of contact, the closest being intercourse, through “more difficult penances such as fasting” (Yamazaki 12).

In ancient India the Untouchables, being a permanently polluted people were segregated from the rest of Hindu society, and therefore “maintained their own tribal organization and lived as tight communities on the outskirts of villages or communities” (Yamazaki 15). According to the Dharma Sastra text, Laws of Manu, the Untouchables, were supposed to wear the clothing of the dead, ornaments of steel, eat from broken dishes without utensils, and live a nomadic life (Nirula 13). The Laws of Manu further assert that dogs and donkeys are the only wealth the Untouchables may acquire (Nirula 12). It is important to note, however, that not all Untouchables conform to the regulations in the Laws of Manu.

Scholars maintain that discrimination against the Untouchables has been an embedded practice within ancient and contemporary Hindu society (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 1). Discriminatory practices towards the Untouchables include, living in seclusion form the rest of society, exclusion from religious (Brahministic) practices (Yamazaki 12) and exclusion from cremating their dead in the same location as other members of Hindu society (Nirula 105). Along with discrimination, violence against the Untouchables has been based on their associated with “dark forces and evil spirits” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46). Historically ‘traditional’ violence against the Untouchables has included rape, assault, and beatings (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46). For instance, in 1973 in the Sahara District of Bihar, after the death of a boy from a snake bit, three women and a male untouchable were accused of bringing about the boy’s death by using witchcraft. They were forced to the boy’s home where the untouchable women were told to bring the boy back to life. However, after insisting that they had no part in the boy’s death, the women and man were removed of their clothing and were then beaten and kicked repeatedly. After this led to no results, the family of the boy persisted in using hot irons to brand the “untouchables” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 46)

In the 20th century in order to improve the status of the Untouchables, political leader Mohandas Gandhi 1869-1948, (Woodcock 2,15) believed that the language of the oppressed and social structures surrounding the Untouchables should change. In 1933, Gandhi developed the term “Harijan” meaning “people of God” to replace the label “untouchable”. While this term proved acceptable, it soon lost support with India’s population, as it appeared illogical to take a despised class and elevate it to a position that it did not otherwise hold (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 3). The commonly used term in contemporary India derives from the ancient Hindu Sanskrit language, “Dalt”’ meaning “oppressed” (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 3-4). Today, the Government of India uses the terms “Scheduled Caste” when referring to the Untouchables (Nirula 104)

Apart from attempting to change their identity, Gandhi also employed his political status to improve life for the Untouchables. In the late 1920’s during his first political campaign, he travelled to western India and attempted to force the Hindu temples to open their doors to the Untouchables (Mendelsohn & Vicziany 77). On September 3rd 1932, Gandhi organized the All India Anti-Untouchablilty League, later renamed the Servants of the Untouchable Society (Zelliot 86). The purpose of Gandhi’s organization was to devote itself to removing the malevolence associated with the Untouchables through peaceful means and securing access for the Untouchables to public facilities such as wells, roads, and temples. In 1933-1934, Gandhi travelled throughout India collecting funds for the Servants of the Untouchables Society and lecturing against the unfair treatment the Untouchables received from the hands of society (Zelliot 87). Finally, on November 29, 1948 after Gandhi’s death, untouchability was abolished (Zelliot 69). While Gandhi and other politicians may have abolished untouchablility, poverty and discrimination remains a hindrance to the Untouchable’s attempts to increase their status (Zelliot 95).

References and Further Recommended Readings

Mendelsohn, Oliver, and Marika Vicziany (1998) The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer¬sity Press.

Rodrigues, Hilary (2006) Hindusim- The Ebook. Journal of Buddist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Singh, Nirula (2005) Dalits: A Bruised Dignity, The Pure and the Impure. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation

Yamazaki, Gen’ichi (1999) “Social discrimination in Ancient India and its Transition to the Medieval Period” In Japanese Studies on South Asia No. 1: Caste System, Untouchability and the Depressed. Kotani, H. (Ed) New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1998) “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership” In The Untouchables in Contempary India. Mahar, Michael (Ed) New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

Related Topic for Further Investigation

All India Anti-Untouchablilty League






Mohandas Gandhi


Rg Veda

Servants of the Untouchables Society




Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Sarah Kujat (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Food in the Hindu Tradition

“In Vedic texts, the sacrifice plays the pivotal role in [the] perpetual redistribution of food. The sacrifice was the dining hall of the gods; humans fed the divinities in the expectation that the sated diners would, in turn, feed the universe” (Smith 180). Hindus perform sacrifices for many different reasons and most, if not all, involve an offering of food (Yajna) to a selected deity. It is important to note that one must be in a state of purity in order to offer food to the gods. According to the Havik Brahmin’s three states of pollution, a Havik male must be in the Madi, or purist state in order to worship and feed a god. A Havik female, even when in Madi, is still not pure enough to feed a deity. However, a woman must be in her highest state of Madi to feed a Havik man his dinner. The Hindus see eating as a form of pollution (Rodrigues 68). However, food is still very important within the Hindu culture. It is not only a source of nourishment that sustains life, but it is “synonymous with life and all its goals” (Ravindra 1)

During many stages in a Hindu’s life, food plays a role. For example; in the Investiture with the Sacred Thread (Upanayana) ritual, the boy is “fed by [his mother] like a small child…this is expected to be the final time he will receive food into his mouth from her hands…The boy also begs for his first meal” (Rodrigues 79). Marriage, being one of the most important rites of passage, is celebrated with a huge feast. When the married couple has their first child, Brahmins are invited into the home and offered food in celebration. According to the Laws of Manu, Brahmins are quite restricted in who they can accept food from.

A Brahmin should never eat (the food) of those who are drunk, angry, or ill, nor (food) in which hair or bugs have fallen, or which has been intentionally touched by the foot; nor (food) which has been looked at by an abortionist, or touched by a menstruating woman, or pecked at by a bird, or touched by a dog; nor food sniffed by a cow, nor, most especially, food publicly advertised… nor (food) which someone has sneezed on; nor the food of a slanderer, a liar, or the seller of rituals, nor the food of a tumbler or a weaver, nor the food of an ingrate; nor that of a blacksmith, a member of the Hunter caste (Doniger 1)

Although there are many more restrictions, it is easy to see how eating food can be an ordinary, yet complex task when there are so many limitations to consider. If a Brahmin were to eat any foods treated in such a fashion as described above, that Brahmin would plummet into a high state of pollution. Non-Brahmin Hindus also take heed when eating and accepting food from others for the same reasons. It may seem that some of these dietary boundaries are purely common sense, such as not eating food that has hair or bugs in it. Other boundaries however, appear fairly extreme and would take a great effort to ensure these rules are followed if one wishes to remain pure.

There are three categories of food that can cause anything from health and happiness to disease and sorrow. These categories; Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic are synonymous with the three Gunas (the primary qualities of nature). The Gunas are believed to exist in all human beings and are a part of Prakrti (that which keeps one from realizing absolute reality by binding one to material objects and emotions). The first and purist is Sattvic food. In this category food can be anything such as nuts, fruits, or vegetables. These foods increase one’s health, duration of life, strength, and happiness. It is believed that “when food is offered to one’s personal deity before eating, the deity would neutralize harmful energies contained in the food” (Jayaram a1). Thus the food becomes pure (Sattvic) and so does the eater of the food. The second is known as Rajasic (hot) food which can be bitter, salty, meat, garlic, onions or any hot, spicy foods (Saksena 1). It is said this food and/or Guna creates a person who is unhappy, sorrowful and diseased (Jayaram b1). The third and darkest or most intoxicating Guna is called Tamasic. Food under this category would be fermented, or considered untouchable. It would include such foods as meat, fish, poultry and eggs. Eating Tamasic food would make a person dull, sleepy or reckless (Jayaram b 1) Meat is especially important in the Hindu culture. Not for consumption but rather to avoid eating.

It is not the case that Hindus are all vegetarians, but due in part to Karma (action), Hindus refrain from killing, harming and eating any animal unless for ritual purposes or other extreme cases. According to the Laws of Manu, “times when one is in extremis [one] can eat any food whatsoever–even meat from a cow or a dog, or food bought by killing your son” (Doniger 1). Karma plays a large role in this belief of keeping animals off the Hindu’s dietary menu. Karma comes from doing, and what you do will affect you in this life and in the next life. Eating, killing or harming an animal is bad Karma and ultimately those that kill and eat animals will have to experience the same amount of suffering due to the effects of Karma. Food is considered to be one of the five “sheaths” that clothes the soul (the other four are breath, mental, intelligence, and bliss), thus “food directly matters to the formation of a Hindu’s inner being and its becoming from one birth to the next” (Ravindra 5) “Eating meat impacts the development of the five sheaths and delays spiritual development” (Jayaram a1)

Spiritual development is life’s purpose for most Hindus. The highest goal in life is to obtain Moksa, or freedom from worldly existence and Karma. Moksa is contrasted with Bhukti which is defined as the enjoyment of worldly pleasures (Rodrigues 52). Food is a worldly pleasure. Many people find satisfaction in food because of its taste, smell and its ability to eradicate the feeling of hunger. “With food, the [Hindu] regulates his mental states and aesthetic feelings and secures spiritual gains” (Ravindra 9). However, Hinduism offers another religious thought known as fasting. It is believed that fasting will bring you closer to Moksa. Fasting is going for long periods of time without food or with limited amounts of food. Depending on the type of fasting and for what occasion, the time period can vary from a few days to many years. The few Hindus who enter into the fourth life stage (Samnyasin) dedicate their time trying to achieve the goal of Moksa. There are variations of the ideal path, but fasting or restraining from any worldly pleasures is one way in which a Samnyasin attempts to reach the goal of Moksa. “Starvation [becomes] and [remains] a religious goal, even while eating extremely well [remains] a worldly goal” (Doniger 1).

A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan
A platter of jalebis and puris (deep fried sweets and bread) at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Rajasthan

Food is most definitely a complex aspect of Hinduism. With all the different types of food that the world has to offer, Hindus are particular in choosing the food they eat and are also cautious about the source from which the food comes. Worship is taken to a higher level when food is involved. Hindus carry the belief that feeding the gods will keep the cycle of food distribution in motion. Through Sattvic, Rajasic and Tamasic food categories, Hindus are able to decipher which foods they shall eat in order to gain or avoid certain actions or emotions. In terms of actions, or Karma, Hindus are quite firm when it comes to avoiding the consumption of animals. “Do not kill an animal, for it might be your grandmother, or your grandchild, or you” (Doniger 1). Food is self evident, it is part of Brahman (Ravindra 5) Brahman is equated with Atman (true inner most self) and thus when you eat food, according to Hindus; you are eating yourself because food and you are one in the same. They are both part of Brahman which is the innermost essence of the created universe, the universe itself (Rodrigues 36). Hindu’s hold a deep knowledge and appreciation for food. “Food reflects survival on one hand and spiritual liberation in the other” (Ravindra 5).


Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66.1:151. Academic OneFile. Gale. University of Lethbridge. 28 Feb. 2008

Jayaram a (2000-2007) Concepts of Hinduism-Annam, Food. Hindu Website

Jayaram b (2000-2007) Gunas, The Qualities of Nature. Hindu Website

Ravindra S. Khare (1992) The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Rodrigues P. Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York and London: Routledge.

Saksena, Dev (2005) Hindu Foods. Cambridge University Hindu Cultural Society

Smith, Brian K (1990) “Eaters, food and social hierarchy in ancient India: a dietary guide to a revolution of values.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58 no.2 Sum, p. 177-205

Related topics




Caste system




Five Sheaths

Food offerings (Yajna)


Havik Brahmins


Laws of Manu




Upanayana Ritual

Vedic literature


Related websites

Written by Tiana Mutter-Veitch (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

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.

Changing Attitudes Regarding the Indian Caste System

There are four major varnas in India: Brahmin (priestly class), Ksatriya (military and ruling class), Vaisya (merchants and traders), and Sudra (labourers). At the bottom and separate from the varnas one finds the Dalit, formally called untouchables. Dalit are considered unclean, and as a result, in the past interaction with those outside their group had not been permitted. There are also subgroups called jatis found within the varnas. Varnas and jatis are typically understood to make up the Indian caste system, which determines the social hierarchy in India. However, changes are taking place in India concerning how people view the caste system and how it shapes their lives. One study shows that college students have adopted more liberal ways of thinking that have diminished the importance of the ancient caste system in their eyes. Another study shows how the effects of globalization have changed the mindsets of youth in upper-class New Delhi, causing a drastic departure from the views of the older generation concerning issues such as marriage and religion. A final article explores the status of Dalit women in Indian society today and indicates that problems such as poverty, oppression, and abuse still exist in light of these changing views. Hence, while the influence of the Indian caste system may be disappearing in India, many inequalities still persist in light of changing attitudes.

Research conducted among college students in the cities of Bangladore, Calcutta, and Delhi indicates that caste distinctions among Indians are eroding and being replaced with more liberal views. As students are subjected to western ideas, pressures regarding caste, expectations for marrying within one’s caste, and rules for interacting with “Dalits” (untouchables) have become less important. For instance, 67.5 percent of college students surveyed believe one’s occupation, not caste, determines one’s status (Anant 194). The research also says that 69.7 percent do not support the theory of karma, which suggests that actions from a previous life determine one’s caste (196). Very noteworthy is the fact that 64.4 percent believe the caste system should be abolished altogether. Sixty-nine percent say it is okay to marry someone from another caste, and 86 percent say they would eat food that was touched by a Dalit (199). An interesting point from this study is that females are generally more liberal in their attitudes than males (196). The findings of this research, done in 1978, suggest that even twenty-eight years ago, religion and the caste system were playing a less significant role in the lives of Indians, who instead opted for a more liberal view.

Another study, conducted more recently, also suggests that this trend is taking place among upper-middle class youths in the city of New Delhi. This particular study suggests the effects of globalization are causing western influences to manifest themselves among India’s elite (Mathur 161). The study compares and contrasts the views of Delhi’s youth aged 18-26 with those held by middle-aged persons aged 46-62. For example, 62 percent of the older group believed parents should choose their children’s spouse, whereas 73 percent of the youth believed the children should decide (167). Another example indicates that 64 percent of the older generation do not believe love is an important component for those getting married. However, 57 percent of the younger generation believe love is important prior to getting married. Even more interesting is the fact that while 70 percent of the older generation believe one should marry within their religion, only 25 percent of the youth feel the same way. An interesting finding in the study indicates that while 83 percent of the older generation are proud to be Indian, 95 percent of the youth feel the same way (168). On the other hand, 59 percent of the younger generation claim they would migrate to a more advanced, developed country if given the opportunity, whereas only 30 percent of the older generation said the same (169).

The author interpreted this apparent contradiction by stating that “increasing nationalism could be one of many responses to the erosion of one’s cultural identity” (170), and that “the youth are not rejecting India, but what they consider outmoded in their culture” (177). The study also makes some interesting concluding statements, declaring that “Many of the elite youths surveyed here would have more in common with youths in advanced, developed countries than with their own parents” (170). The findings of this study appear to support its argument. The article ends by saying, “most middle-class Indians have learned to de-emphasize the importance of ethnic markers to their sense of identity that they feel as Indians” (171).

Despande takes the findings even further. Taking for granted that the forces of globalization and liberalism have been at play in India for some time, the author takes a close look at how women have been effected by the diminished importance of traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system and religion. In her article she states “While a small proportion of Indians (of both sexes) can claim that caste does not matter, …this freedom from caste is impossible for [lower caste women], who endure a combination of poverty and gender discrimination that keeps them illiterate, low paid, malnourished, and unhealthy…” (32) The author states that despite changing perspectives, “Dalit women are worse off than upper-caste women in terms of standard of living” (27). The author also explores the assumption which holds that the conduct and behavior of upper-caste women is more heavily regulated than Dalit women, and as a result, Dalit women enjoy greater autonomy in their lives. However, the research done by the author suggests that this assumption simply is not true. That is, they do not enjoy “greater autonomy to compensate for their greater poverty” (28). The author states that the majority of Dalit women are not allowed to decide how to care for themselves, nor do their husbands consult with them in making decisions that affect the whole family. Furthermore, Dalit women are also more prone to domestic violence and abuse. She concludes by saying that, “An assessment of the material aspects of the gender-caste overlap suggest that more than fifty years after Indian independence, the economic condition of women continues to be defined and constrained by their caste status” (33). So despite changes in how the caste system is regarded, inequalities left behind by the powerful distinctions it imposed are still an important issue in India.

So one sees that the importance of caste is disappearing as people are more willing to interact and associate with those from different castes, including the Dalit. Religion has taken on a less significant role in the lives of Indians, and traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system have been challenged even by the privileged youth of the upper castes as well as by college students. Forces of liberalism and globalization have been at play, as western influences serve to weaken the status quo. Nevertheless, despite such changes, inequality, poverty, and discrimination are still the reality among women at the bottom of the social ladder. Unfortunately, even as caste distinctions disappear, problems pertaining to class inequality still remain. Thus, in light of caste distinctions being less visible now, the consequences of such distinctions continue to manifest themselves plainly.


Anant, Santokh (1978) “Caste Attitudes of College Students in India.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 8. 193-202.

Deshpande, Ashwini (2002) “Assets Versus Autonomy? The Changing Face of The Gender- Caste Overlap in India.” Feminist Economics. Vol. 8, No. 2. 19-35.

Mathur, Smita & Gowri Parameswaran (2004) “Intergenerational Attitudinal Differences about Consumption and Identity among the Hindu Elite in New Delhi, India.” Journal of Intercultural Studies. Vol. 25, No. 2. 161-173.

Further Reading

Anant, Santokh (1975) “The Changing Intercaste Attitudes in North India: A follow-up after four years.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 5, No. 1. 49-59.

Borooah, Vani K. & Sriya Iyer (2005) “Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India.” Journal of Development Studies. Vol 41, No. 8. 1369-1404.

Arora, Kriti (2006) “Living in Refuge: Kashmiri Pandit Women.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Vol 7, No. 1. 113-120.

Related Research Topics

effects of globalization on Indian society; economic and social conditions of Dalit men and women; Liberal influences in Indian culture; public education and its role in forming perceptions; attitudes of class inequality in India; socio-economic conditions of women within India; ancient Hinduism and the Indian caste system; relationship between caste and religion; intercaste relationships; views of women on the caste system as compared to men.

Notable Relevant Websites

Written by Noah Heninger (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hindu Varna System

Within the Hindu tradition there are many explanations about origins of the class (or varna) system within Indian society. Some are mythic and others are socio-historical, and both play enormous roles in the Hindu culture. Although there are numerous myths to explain the creation of the varnas, the Purusa-Viraj (sometimes referred to as Purusa-Sukta, or the Hymn of Man) will be summarized and referenced. This particular story/hymn is found within the Rig Veda, a very significant text in Hinduism, which may have its origins between 1500 to 1200 BCE (Muller in Flood 37), although its precise date of origin is a matter of some debate. David Mandelbaum states that the varnas are the primordial makeup of society (Mandelbaum 22). And to this day, this system persists in much of India (Smith 19). The four social classes that have been set out within the Purusa-Viraj are the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras.Each class has its own distinctive set of duties and functions to be performed and also carried out within society.Although this provides a view on what the class system of India is like, one needs to remember that this is an Orthodox view, and that not everyone in India promotes the Brahmins, the class system, or even the Vedas.There are also heterodox perspectives to consider.

This famous hymn describes how the world was created by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa, thus forming the four social varnas from certain body parts.Along with the creation of the human being, animals, seasons, verses, meters, and other such elements were formed (Doniger O’Flaherty 29-30).

11 …When they divided the Man, into how many parts did

they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his

two arms and thighs and feet?

12 His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into

the warrior [ksatriyas], his thighs the People [vaisyas], and from his feet the Servants were born [sudras]…[ Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda: An Anthology, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), p. 31. These are the only two paragraphs that have come from this translated book ]

This particular section of the hymn provides a basis for understanding the classical Orthodox Indian varna system. The varna system categorizes the four groups hierarchically with the Brahmins at the top. The hymn reinforces this hierarchy by placing one class above another anatomically; the Brahmins emerge from the mouth, and the Sudras emerge from the feet of Purusa.

Brahmins are characterized by being the closest to the deities and being the most familiar with the scripts and texts of Vedic Hinduism (Mandelbaum 223). Their work tends to involve less laborious work compared to that of the other varnas, for the Brahmins study the original works (usually memorizing them) and performing rituals (Mandelbaum 188). Before the texts were written down they were passed along orally and memorized. Brahmins were the only groups within the Aryan community to learn the Veda and carry out yajna (ritual sacrifice) (Smith 14).This is because the Veda was sacred and purported to be something to which only the Brahmin class could access. A result of the Brahmins’ close relationship to the gods, as well as constantly being under the public eye is that they have to be meticulous about their ritual purity.The Brahmins are therefore cautious about whom they are in contact with, what they eat, and other acts that cause ritual pollution (Mandelbaum 181).Brahmins, by virtue of their lifestyle and purity concerns, are subject to the least amount of pollution.Pollution increases as one moves down the hierarchy with the Sudra experiencing the most (Das 129).These duties and responsibilities explain why the Brahmins emerge from the mouth according to this Orthodox view.For the mouth is what speaks the Vedas and passes on the texts to fellow Hindus.Therefore a Brahmin stresses purity, piety, learning, and priesthood (Mandelbaum 451).

The second class is the Ksatriyas who are known as the warriors. They are said to emerge from the arms of Purusa in the Purusa-Sukta hymn. They are the protectors and enforcers of Indian society. Their duty is to see that the “relationships between the castes are maintained and that the hierarchy of society is preserved” (Mandelbaum 452). This provides a sense of security to others in the community because Ksatriyas are thought to be ready to use their force wisely and for the right reasons. When the Ksatriyas abuse their power they are seen to be going against their dharmic duty. Their role is to uphold their attributes of honour, virtue, force and masculinity (Mandelbaum 451). All of these attributes produce a class of great warrior who have pride in their status. The Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharta offer teachings on how a true Ksatriya is expected to act and fulfill his duties.

Vaisyas are the third varna, and members of this class are said to preside over the everyday domain, dealing with agriculture, produce and livestock (Smith 29). They are the ones who provide a market for the community, for they are skilled in trade and crafts (Mandelbaum 453). The Purusa-Sukta hymn states that this varna is produced from the thighs of Purusa.Their dedication to hard work in commerce and farming provides a rationale for why the largest body part is a representation of them.The Vaisyas are expected to take pride in their “steadiness, thrift, intelligence, purity, and piety” (Mandelbaum451).Members of classes lower than this one are considered to be far less highly regarded than those of classes above them.

The above three varnas (the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, and Vaisyas) constitute a group known as the “twice born” or dvija. This status of being “twice born” begins with the upanayanam rite, (the Sacred Thread Ceremony). In this ritual, a boy from one of these classes would traditionally and formally be separated from his mother and begin a period of formal religious study (Mandelbaum 448). After the sacred verse is taught by a spiritual mentor, he is given a sacred thread to be worn across the left shoulder (Mandelbaum 448). By this ritual, one notes how the “twice born” tangibily separate themselves from the Sudras. The “twice born” are expected to differ in such things as style of life and daily ritual (Mandelbaum 223).A major difference is that the lowly Sudra servants may not participate in Vedic sacrifice (Smith 29).

The fourth and final varna according to the Hindu Orthodox system are the Sudras.Their duty is to carry out unskilled tasks, and to serve the higher castes (Das 81).This particular class is not known for shifting in status and are often called the untouchables (Mandelbaum 461).Because their duty is to serve, one can conceptualize why they are produced from the feet of the cosmic giant Purusa.

Thus far the Orthodox view of the class system has been presented, but this is not to say it is the only view. The heterodox systems of Buddhism and Jainism provide a contrast. These two religions reject the Vedas as revealed truth and the orthodox teachings of Brahmans (Flood 82). It is worth noting that in the past the Brahmins were not the only group that wielded economic, political and intellectual power, and thus their articulation of the acceptable or orthodox way of life was not the only mood of religious practice among the vast majority of Indians (Rhys-Davids 69). Within the orthodox class system described above it is evident that there are certain obligations to be fulfilled in each class. However, heterodox religious-philosophies might “accept people from a wider social spectrum” (Flood 90). This openness, then, does not hold men and women to such strict class categories and dharmic duties, which allows a more encompassing practice of religion.

From the description of each of the varnas’ duties and responsibilities, one can begin to comprehend the rationale behind the Orthodox explanation of the origins of the caste system, as found in the Purusa-Sukta. It is but one myth that provides a religious justification for the Hindu varna system, and attempts to establish a hierarchy.


Das, Veena (1982) Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (1981) The Rig Veda: An Anthology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mandelbaum, David (1970) Society in India: Change and Continuity. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rhys-Davids (1970) Buddhist India. Delhi: Hindustan Press.

Smith, Brian (1994) Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

HChuyen, GillesH (2004) Who is a Brahmin? : the politics of identity in India. New Delhi: Manohar.

Fuller, C.J. (1996) Caste today. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Gould, Harold A (1987-1990) The Hindu caste system. Delhi: Chanakya Publications.

Topics for Further Investigation

socio-historical origins






twice born class or dvija

upanayanam rite





Websites that Complement this Topic






Article written by Jodie Beddome (April 2006) 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.