Dharmaśhāstra (Sanskrit: धर्मशास्त्र) is a genre of Sanskrit theological texts, and refers to the treatises (shastras) of Hinduism on dharma. There are many Dharmashastras, variously estimated to be 18 to about 100, with different and conflicting points of view.[1][note 1] Each of these texts exist in many different versions, and each is rooted in Dharmasutra texts dated to 1st millennium BCE that emerged from Kalpa (Vedanga) studies in the Vedic era.[3][4]

The textual corpus of Dharmaśāstra were composed in poetic verses,[5] are part of the Hindu Smritis,[6] constituting divergent commentaries and treatises on duties, responsibilities and ethics to oneself, to family and as a member of society.[7][8] The texts include discussion of ashrama (stages of life), varna (social classes), purushartha (proper goals of life), personal virtues and duties such as ahimsa (non-violence) against all living beings, rules of just war, and other topics.[9][10][11]

Dharmaśāstra became influential in modern colonial India history, when they were formulated by early British colonial administrators to be the law of the land for all non-Muslims (Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs) in South Asia, after Sharia i.e. Mughal Empire's Fatawa-e-Alamgiri[12][13] set by Emperor Muhammad Aurangzeb, was already accepted as the law for Muslims in colonial India.[14][15][16]


Copy of a royal land grant, recorded on copper plate, made by Chalukya King Tribhuvana Malla Deva in 1083

The Dharmashastras are based on ancient Dharmasūtra texts, which themselves emerged from the literary tradition of the Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sāma, and Atharva) composed in 2nd millennium BCE to the early centuries of the 1st millennium BCE. These Vedic branches split into various other schools (shakhas) possibly for a variety of reasons such as geography, specialization and disputes.[17] Each Veda is further divided into two categories namely the Saṃhitā which is a collection of mantra verses and the Brahmanas which are prose texts that explain the meaning of the Samhita verses.[18] The Brāhmaṇa layer expanded and some of the newer esoteric speculative layers of text were called Aranyakas while the mystical and philosophical sections came to be called the Upanishads.[18][19] The Vedic basis of Dharma literature is found in the Brahmana layer of the Vedas.[18]

Towards the end of the vedic period, after the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, the language of the Vedic texts composed centuries earlier grew too archaic to the people of that time. This led to the formation of Vedic Supplements called the Vedangas which literally means ‘limbs of the Veda’.[18] The Vedangas were ancillary sciences that focused on understanding and interpreting the Vedas composed many centuries earlier, and included Shiksha (phonetics, syllable), Chandas (poetic metre), Vyakarana (grammar, linguistics), Nirukta (etymology, glossary), Jyotisha (timekeeping, astronomy), and Kalpa (ritual or proper procedures). The Kalpa Vedanga studies gave rise to the Dharma-sutras, which later expanded into Dharma-shastras.[18][20][21]

The Dharmasutras

The Dharmasutras were numerous, but only four texts have survived into the modern era.[22] The most important of these texts are the sutras of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha.[23] These extant texts cite writers and refer opinions of seventeen authorities, implying that a rich Dharmasutras tradition existed prior to when these texts were composed.[24][25]

The extant Dharmasutras are written in concise sutra format,[26] with a very terse incomplete sentence structure which are difficult to understand and leave much to the reader to interpret.[22] The Dharmasastras are derivative works on the Dharmasutras, using a shloka (four 8-syllable verse style chandas poetry, Anushtubh meter), which are relatively clearer.[22][5]

The Dharmasutras can be called the guidebooks of dharma as they contain guidelines for individual and social behavior, ethical norms, as well as personal, civil and criminal law.[22] They discuss the duties and rights of people at different stages of life like studenthood, householdership, retirement and renunciation. These stages are also called ashramas. They also discuss the rites and duties of kings, judicial matters, and personal law such as matters relating to marriage and inheritance.[23] However, Dharmasutras typically did not deal with rituals and ceremonies, a topic that was covered in the Shrautasutras and Grihyasutras texts of the Kalpa (Vedanga).[22]

Style of composition

The hymns of Ṛgveda are one of the earliest texts composed in verse. The Brāhmaṇa which belongs to the middle vedic period followed by the vedāṇga are composed in prose. The basic texts are composed in an aphoristic style known as the sutra which literally means thread on which each aphorism is strung like a pearl.[27]

The Dharmasūtras are composed in sutra style and were part of a larger compilation of texts, called the Kalpasūtras which give an aphoristic description of the rituals, ceremonies and proper procedures. The Kalpasutras contain three sections, namely the Śrautasūtras which deal with vedic ceremonies, Gṛhyasūtras which deal with rites of passage rituals and domestic matters, and Dharmasūtras which deal with proper procedures in one's life.[28] The Dharmasūtras of Āpastamba and Baudhāyana form a part of larger Kalpasutra texts, all of which has survived into the modern era.[28]

The sūtra tradition ended around the beginning of the common era and was followed by the poetic octosyllable verse style called the śloka.[29] The verse style was used to compose the Dharmaśāstras such as the Manusmriti, the Hindu epics, and the Puranas.[29]

The age of Smṛtis that ended around the second half of the first millennium CE was followed by that of commentaries around the 9th century called nibandha. This legal tradition consisted of commentaries on earlier Dharmasūtras and Smritis.[29]

Authorship and dates

About 20 Dharmasutras are known, some surviving into the modern era just as fragments of their original.[30] Four Dharmasūtras have been translated into English, and most remain in manuscripts.[30] All carry the names of their authors, but it is still difficult to determine who these real authors were.[29]

The extant Dharmasūtra texts are listed below:

  1. Apastamba (450–350 BCE) this Dharmasūtra forms a part of the larger Kalpasūtra of Apastamba. It contains 1,364 sutras.[31]
  2. Gautama (600–200 BCE) although this Dharmasūtra comes down as an independent treatise it may have once formed a part of the Kalpasūtra, linked to the Samaveda.[32] It is likely the oldest extant Dharma text, and originated in what is modern Maharashtra-Gujarat.[33] It contains 973 sutras.[34]
  3. Baudhāyana (500–200 BCE) this Dharmasūtra like that of Apastamba also forms a part of the larger Kalpasūtra. It contains 1,236 sutras.[31]
  4. Vāsiṣṭha (300–100 BCE) this Dharmasūtra forms an independent treatise and other parts of the Kalpasūtra, that is Shrauta- and Grihya-sutras are missing.[30] It contains 1,038 sutras.[31]

The Dharmasūtra of Āpastamba and Baudhayana form a part of the Kalpasūtra but it is not easy to establish whether they were historical authors of these texts or whether these texts were composed within certain institutions attributed to their names.[29] Moreover, Gautama and Vasiṣṭha are ancient sages related to specific vedic schools and therefore it is hard to say whether they were historical authors of these texts.[35] The issue of authorship is further complicated by the fact that apart from Āpastamba the other Dharmasūtras have various alterations made at later times.[35]


Practise righteousness (dharma), not unrighteousness.
Speak the truth, not an untruth.
Look at what is distant, not what's near at hand.
Look at the highest, not at what's less than highest.

Vasishtha Dharmasutra 30.1 [36]

There is uncertainty regarding the dates of these documents due to lack of evidence concerning these documents. Kane has posited the following dates for the texts, for example, though other scholars disagree: Gautama 600 BCE to 400 BCE, Āpastamba 450 BCE to 350 BCE, Baudhāyana 500 BCE to 200 BCE, and Vasiṣṭha 300 BCE to 100 BCE.[37] Patrick Olivelle suggests that Apastamba Dharmasutra is the oldest of the extant texts in Dharmasutra genre and one by Gautama second oldest, while Robert Lingat suggests that Gautama Dharmasutra is the oldest.[38][33]

There is confusion regarding the geographical provenance of these documents. According to Bühler and Kane, Āpastamba came from South India probably from a region corresponding to modern Andhra Pradesh.[39] Baudhāyana also came from south although evidence regarding this is weaker than that of Āpastamba.[39] Gautama likely came from western region, nearer to the northwestern region to which Pāṇini belonged, and one which corresponds to where Maratha people in modern India are found.[32] Nothing can be said about Vasiṣṭha due to lack of any evidence.[40]

Scholars have varied opinions about the chronology of these documents. Regarding the age of Āpastamba and Gautama there are opposite conclusions. According to Bühler and Lingat Āpastamba is younger than Baudhāyana. Vasiṣṭha is surely a later text.[40]

Literary structure

The structure of these Dharmasūtras primarily addresses the Brahmins both in subject matter and the audience.[41] The Brahmins are the creators and primary consumers of these texts.[41] The subject matter of Dharmasūtras is dharma. The central focus of these texts is how a Brahmin male should conduct himself during his lifetime.[41] The text of Āpastamba which is best preserved has a total of 1,364 sūtras out of which 1,206 (88 per cent) are devoted to the Brahmin, whereas only 158 (12 per cent) deals with topics of general nature.[42] The structure of the Dharmasūtras begin with the vedic initiation of a young boy followed by entry into adulthood, marriage and responsibilities of adult life that includes adoption, inheritance, death rituals and ancestral offerings.[42] According to Olivelle, the reason Dharmasutras introduced vedic initiation was to make the individual subject to Dharma precepts at school, by making him a ‘twice born’ man, because children were considered exempt from Dharma precepts in the vedic tradition.[42]

The structure of Dharmasūtra of Āpastamba begins with the duties of the student, then describes householder duties and rights such as inheritance, and ends with administration of the king.[43] This forms the early structure of the Dharma texts. However, in the Dharmasūtras of Gautama, Baudhāyana and Vasiṣṭha some sections such as inheritance and penance are reorganized, and moved from householder section to king-related section.[43] Ollivelle suggests that these changes may be because of chronological reasons where civil law increasingly became part of the king's administrative responsibilities.[43]

The meaning of Dharma

Dharma is a concept which is central not only in Hinduism but also in Jainism and Buddhism.[44] The term means a lot of things and has a wide scope of interpretation.[44] The fundamental meaning of Dharma in Dharmasūtras, states Olivelle is diverse, and includes accepted norms of behavior, procedures within a ritual, moral actions, righteousness and ethical attitudes, civil and criminal law, legal procedures and penance or punishment, and guidelines for proper and productive living.[45]

The term Dharma also includes social institutions such as marriage, inheritance, adoption, work contracts, judicial process in case of disputes, as well personal choices such as meat as food and sexual conduct.[46]

The source of Dharma: scriptures or empiricism

The source of dharma was a question that loomed in the minds of Dharma text writers, and they tried to seek "where guidelines for Dharma can be found?"[47] They sought to define and examine vedic injunctions as the source of Dharma, asserting that like the Vedas, Dharma is not of human origin.[47] This worked for rituals-related rules, but in all other matters this created numerous interpretations and different derivations.[47] This led to documents with various working definitions, such as dharma of different regions (deshadharma), of social groups (jatidharma), of different families (kuladharma).[47] The authors of Dharmasutras and Dharmashastra admit that these dharmas are not found in the Vedic texts, nor can the behavioral rules included therein be found in any of the Vedas.[47] This led to the incongruity between the search for legal codes and dharma rules in the theological versus the reality of epistemic origins of dharma rules and guidelines.[47]

The Hindu scholar Āpastamba, in a Dharmasutra named after him (~400 BCE), made an attempt to resolve this issue of incongruity. He placed the importance of the Veda scriptures second and that of samayacarika or mutually agreed and accepted customs of practice first.[48] Āpastamba thus proposed that scriptures alone cannot be source of Law (dharma), and dharma has an empirical nature.[48] Āpastamba asserted that it is difficult to find absolute sources of law, in ancient books or current people, states Patrick Olivelle with, "The Righteous (dharma) and the Unrighteous (adharma) do not go around saying, 'here we are!'; Nor do gods, Gandharvas or ancestors declare, 'This is righteous and that is unrighteous'."[48] Most laws are based on agreement between the Aryas, stated Āpastamba, on what is right and what is wrong.[48] Laws must also change with ages, stated Āpastamba, a theory that became known as Yuga dharma in Hindu traditions.[49] Āpastamba also asserted in verses 2.29.11–15, states Olivelle, that "aspects of dharma not taught in Dharmasastras can be learned from women and people of all classes".[50]

Āpastamba used a hermeneutic strategy that asserted that the Vedas once contained all knowledge including that of ideal Dharma, but parts of Vedas have been lost.[49] Human customs developed from the original complete Vedas, but given the lost text, one must use customs between good people as a source to infer what the original Vedas might have stated the Dharma to be.[49] This theory, called the ‘lost Veda’ theory, made the study of customs of good people as a source of dharma and guide to proper living, states Olivelle.[49]

Testimony during a trial

The witness must take an oath before deposing.
Single witness normally does not suffice.
As many as three witnesses are required.
False evidence must face sanctions.

Gautama Dharmasutras 13.2–13.6 [51][52]

The sources of dharma according to Gautama Dharmasutra are three: the Vedas, the Smriti (tradition), acāra (the practice) of those who know the Veda. These three sources are also found in later Dharmashastra literature.[49] Baudhāyana Dharmasutra lists the same three, but calls the third as śiṣṭa (शिष्ट, literally polite cultured people)[note 2] or the practice of cultured people as the third source of dharma.[49] Both Baudhāyana Dharmasutra and Vāsiṣṭha Dharmasutra make the practices of śiṣṭa as a source of dharma, but both state that the geographical location of such polite cultured people does not limit the usefulness of universal precepts contained in their practices.[49] In case of conflict between different sources of dharma, Gautama Dharmasutra states that the Vedas prevail over other sources, and if two Vedic texts are in conflict then the individual has a choice to follow either.[54]

The nature of Dharmasūtras is normative, they tell what people ought to do, but they do not tell what people actually did.[55] Some scholars state that these sources are unreliable and worthless for historical purposes instead to use archaeology, epigraphy and other historical evidence to establish the actual legal codes in Indian history. Olivelle states that the dismissal of normative texts is unwise, as is believing that the Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras texts present a uniform code of conduct and there were no divergent or dissenting views.[55]

The Dharmaśāstras

Written after the Dharmasūtras, these texts use a metered verse and are much more elaborate in their scope than Dharmasutras.[56] The word Dharmaśāstras never appears in the Vedic texts, and the word śāstra itself appears for the first time in Yaska's Nirukta text.[57] Katyayana's commentary on Panini's work (~3rd century BCE), has the oldest known single mention of the word Dharmaśāstras.[57]

The extant Dharmaśāstras texts are listed below:

  1. The Manusmriti (~ 2nd to 3rd century CE)[58][59] is the most studied and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism.[60] The medieval era Buddhistic law of Myanmar and Thailand are also ascribed to Manu,[61][62] and the text influenced past Hindu kingdoms in Cambodia and Indonesia.[63]
  2. The Yājñavalkya Smṛti (~ 4th to 5th-century CE)[58] has been called the "best composed" and "most homogeneous"[64] text of the Dharmaśāstra tradition, with its superior vocabulary and level of sophistication. It may have been more influential than Manusmriti as a legal theory text.[65][66]
  3. The Nāradasmṛti (~ 5th to 6th-century CE)[58] 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.[67]
  4. The Viṣṇusmṛti (~ 7th-century CE)[58] 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.[68]

In addition, numerous other Dharmaśāstras are known,[69][note 3] partially or indirectly, with very different ideas, customs and conflicting versions.[72] For example, the manuscripts of Bṛhaspatismṛti and the Kātyāyanasmṛti have not been found, but their verses have been cited in other texts, and scholars have made an effort to extract these cited verses, thus creating a modern reconstruction of these texts.[73] Scholars such as Jolly and Aiyangar have gathered some 2,400 verses of the lost Bṛhaspatismṛti text in this manner.[73] Brihaspati-smriti was likely a larger and more comprehensive text than Manusmriti,[73] yet both Brihaspati-smriti and Katyayana-smriti seem to have been predominantly devoted to judicial process and jurisprudence.[74] The writers of Dharmasastras acknowledged their mutual differences, and developed a "doctrine of consensus" reflecting regional customs and preferences.[75]

Of the four extant Dharmasastras, Manusmriti, Yajnavalkyasmriti and Naradasmriti are the most important surviving texts.[76] But, states Robert Lingat, numerous other Dharmasastras whose manuscripts are now missing, have enjoyed equal authority.[76] Between the three, the Manusmriti became famous during the colonial British India era, yet modern scholarship states that other Dharmasastras such as the Yajnavalkyasmriti appear to have played a greater role in guiding the actual Dharma.[77] Further, the Dharmasastras were open texts, and they underwent alterations and rewriting through their history.[78]