Dharma Shastra

Dharma Shastra or Dharmaśāstra (Sanskrit: धर्मशास्त्र, "Religious law book.") — a term referring to all or any of numerous codes of Hindu civil and social law composed by various authors. The best known and most respected are those by Manu and Yajnavalkya. The Dharma Shastras are part of the Smriti literature, included in the Kalpa Vedanga, and are widely available today in many languages.

The Dharma Shastras, along with the Artha Shastras, are the codes of Hindu law, parallel to the Muslim Sharia, the Jewish Talmud, each of which provides guidelines for kings, ministers, judicial systems and law enforcement agencies. These spiritual-parliamentary codes differ from British and American law, which separate religion from politics. (Contemporary British law is influenced by Anglican Christian thought, just as American democracy was, and is, profoundly affected by the philosophy of its non-Christian, Deistic founders.) The Dharma Shastras also speak of much more, including creation, initiation, the stages of life, daily rites, duties of husband and wife, varnasrama, Vedic study, penances and transmigration.


Written after the Dharmasūtras, these texts use a metered verse and are much more elaborate in their scope. Scholars have postulated that these texts are actually compilations of common gnomic verses of the times, known by the śiṣṭas. Such verses were regularly cited as legitimation for legal judgments and advice. At some point these verses were gathered together into complete texts under the name of particular sages. These texts are said to have been edited and updated with additions of verses which had not previously been included.[48] However, there is an ongoing debate amongst scholars regarding this matter. Other scholars refute the multiple authorship idea, claiming that the major texts were written by a single author at a particular time in history and remained relatively unedited as time went by. [49] Regardless, by attributing their authorship to that of well known sages like Nārada, the text takes on a superior authority. The most influential texts are listed below, along with their approximate dates:

  • The Manusmṛti is the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism.
  • The Yājñavalkya Smṛti has been called the "best composed" and "most homogeneous" text of the Dharmaśāstra tradition, with its superior vocabulary and level of sophistication.
  • The Nāradasmṛti has been called the “juridical text par excellence” and represents the only Dharmaśāstra text which deals solely with juridical matters and ignoring those of righteous conduct and penance.
  • The Viṣṇusmṛti is one of the latest books of the Dharmaśāstra tradition in Hinduism and also the only one which does not deal directly with the means of knowing dharma, focusing instead on the bhakti tradition.
  • The Bṛhaspatismṛti is a modern reconstruction of a text that has not yet been found and may never have been recorded in written form. The attempt to author this lost Dharmaśāstra has been made based on a gathering of all verses attributed to the sage Bṛhaspati but pays full tribute to Manu as the ultimate authority on dharma.
  • The Kātyāyanasmṛti is another modern reconstruction similar to that of Bṛhaspatismṛti, specializing in vyavahāra.


All Dharmaśāstra derives its authority with reference to the Vedas, though few, if any, of the contents of most Dharmaśāstra texts can be directly linked with extant Vedic texts. Traditionally, Dharmaśāstra has, since the time of the Yājñvalkyasmṛti, been divided into three major topics: 1) ācāra, rules pertaining to daily rituals, life-cycle rites, and other duties of four castes or varṇas, 2) vyavahāra, rules pertaining to the procedures for resolving doubts about dharma and rules of substantive law categorized according the standard eighteen titles of Hindu law, and 3) prāyaścitta, rules about expiations and penances for violations of the rules of dharma.



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