Dharmasutras (धर्मसूत्राणि)

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Dharmasutras (Samskrit: धर्मसूत्राणि) are a class of ancient samskrit texts of Bharatavarsha, represent the codification of a long tradition of expounding the principles of dharma. Studied as a part of the Kalpa Vedanga texts, they are categorized as Sutragranthas, primarily because a majority of these texts are composed in Sutra style of writing or short terse aphorisms. The sutras lay equal stress on the trivarga; Dharma, Artha and Kama, but do not discuss anything at length about Moksha.[1]

These unique texts give a glimpse of the dharmika jivana vidhana of the people of Bharatavasha and the social fabric that knit the society together.

परिचयः॥ Introduction

Dharmasutras, the ancient texts dealing on matters of dharma, contain directions about domestic, social and moral aspects pertaining to people in general. Sections about Rajadharma, or duties of royal persons are not dealt with elaborately in them. The Dharmasutras differ from Smrti texts considerably and the former are regarded as the source of later. They are closely allied to the Grhyasutras and several topics are common to both Dharmasutras and Grhyasutras. While the grhyasutras are restricted to domestic rites pertaining to individuals, the Dharmasutras include a broader scope of treatment of a human being in social, economic, political, religious and philosophical spheres. A point of mention is that they deal with the trivarga of the Purusharthas extensively, highlighting only those philosophical aspects which pertain to the ashramas and varnas. Several topics such as Upanayana, Anadhyayana, Shraddha, Panchamahayajnas, vivaha samskara are common to both.

The final goals and fruits of these yajnas are directed towards attainment of desires in this world or the other worlds (such as svarga) as stepping stones which lead to the Brahman ultimately. Thus they define an indirect karmamarga to Brahmaloka; the Upanishads focus on the jnanamarga directly leading to Brahman.

The authors of Dharmasutras declare themselves to be ordinary people and state that they have attempted to codify Dharma based on the three main sources, namely, the Shrutis, Smrtis and conduct of shishtas (unselfish, virtuous and learned personages prior to them).[1]

Authors and Commentators

Mentioned usually as the third of the Kalpasutras, Dharmasutras have some characteristics which set them apart from the other texts of Kalpas. Of the Kalpasutras, the Shrauta and Grhyasutras confine themselves to the ritualistic matters of the Karmakanda, whereas the Dharmasutras directed the moral, and ethical norms of people irrespective of the rituals, thus became universally applicable treatises.

Many scholars opine that there is no means to determine the exact number of texts composed as part of the Kalpa Sutragranthas. Neither the number nor the time of composition can be determined and it is highly debatable by many. The dharmasutras of Gautama, Baudhayana, Apastamba, Vashistha, Vaikhanasa and Vishnu are included into the major works, as per S. C. Banerji. He also quotes law books of Atri, Ushanas, Kanva, Kaanva, Kashyapa, Kaasyapa, Kaatyayana, Gaargya, Chyavana, Jamadagni, Jaatukarnya, Devala, Javali, Prajapati, Brhaspati, Bharadvaja, Sataatapa, Harita and many others, known only from quotations found in later Smrti digests and have been designated as minor works by him.[2]

The Dharmasutras are named after their authors, the four prominent being Apastamba, Baudhayana, Gautama and Vashistha. A significant issue of authorship of these texts is complicated by the fact that, they contain numerous spurious additions made at later times as determined by the scholarly community based on certain linguistic studies. Apastamba Kalpasutra is said to be best preserved with least amount of interpolations and interventions. Geographical references, inscriptional evidence, textual references, linguistic archaism, personal views of the authors themselves are aspects of extensive discussions in the scholarly community.

Dharmasutras and Commentaries

The word dharmasutra means the sutras dealing with dharma. Given the brevity of each sutra, it is mostly impossible to understand the meaning without the context and required an oral explanation (as in the early days) or commentary.[2]

Shlokas are interspersed among the sutras in all dharmasutra texts except Gautama, hence the sutra style of writing is not strictly adopted by them. In Baudhayana and Vasishta Dharmasutras, an increasing use of metrical shlokas as integral parts of the composition, reflects their being precursors to the genre of the later day Smrtis which exclusively consist of shlokas.

List of Dharmasutra texts and a few peculiarities are given below[1][3]

Vedas Shaka Dharmasutra Contents Commentators
Rigveda Shakala Vashista 30 Adhyayas both in sutra and shloka format Commentary by Krishna Pandita Dharmadhikari (named Vidvanmedini)
Kaushitaki Vishnu 100 Adhyayas Nanda Pandit's (Vyjayanti vyakhya), Bharuchi
Shukla Yajurveda Harita 30 Adhyayas [4] Associated with Laghu Harita Smrti and Vrddha Harita Smrti.
Krishna Yajurveda Taittriya Baudhayana Four prasnas (only two are regarded as original) Commentary by Govindasvami (Vivarana)
Apastamba 28th and 29th Prashnas of Apastamba Kalpa (1364 Sutras and 30 shlokas) Commentaries by Haradatta (Ujjvalavritti), Dhurtasvami and Shankar.
Hiranyakeshi 26th and 27th Prashnas of Hiranyakeshi Kalpa Mahadeva Dikshit (Vyjayanti)
Vaikhanasa 3 Prasnas of the Vaikhanasa Smartasutra (51 Kandas and 365 sutras) No commentaries available
Samaveda Rananiyashaka Gautama according to Charanavyuha 28 Adhyayas (composed in sutra format) Haradatta (Mitakshara), Asahaya, Bharthyajna, Maskari
Atharvaveda None Available

समयाचारधर्मः ॥ Samayachara Dharmas

The central theme of three main sutragranthas of the Kalpa Vedanga is Dharma; Shrauta sutras comprehend the dharmik activities for the larger welfare of the society, the Grhyasutras lay down the dharmas (in relation to yajnas) governing the individual in particular. Dharmasutras are set of treatises, which often confused with the Dharmashastras, are precursors to personal law codes and include the details of prevalent samayacharas (traditional practices prevalent at the time of their composition) in their discourse.[1]

The term Dharmasutra is elliptically used for the full title "Samayacharika Dharma" or "Smarta Dharmasutra". These dharmasutras nowhere claim that they deal with dharma in its entirety and openly declare that they are going to expound Samayacharika dharmas which are otherwise called Smarta dharmas. The Apastamba Dharmasutra, for instance, opens with the words,

अथातः सामयाचारिकान्धर्मान्व्याख्यास्यामः । athātaḥ sāmayācārikāndharmānvyākhyāsyāmaḥ । (Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.1)[5]

According to Ram Gopal,[1] Dharma is employed in a restricted sense and signifies Smarta Dharma only. The dharma based on established tradition (Smrtis) is called Smarta Dharma founded upon conventional practice (समयाचारः ।Samayachara) is known as Saamayachaarika Dharma (सामयाचारिकान्धर्मा). Thus Dharmasutras propound Dharmas based on tradition or conventional practices, which is the primary difference from the topic discussed in Shrauta and Grhyasutras.

Smarta dharma embodied in the Dharmasutras is the basis of development of Smrti granthas is advocated by many scholars and there is no denying that the said dharmas are far more elaborate in the Smrtis than in Dharmasutras. But the exact relationship of the Sutras and Smrtis is highly controversial. Many western and Indian scholars have extensively discussed about this topic, which is at present beyond the scope of this article.

धर्मसूत्रविषयाणि ॥ Subject Matter of Dharmasutras

There are varied opinions in the scholarly community (both western and traditional scholarships) about the availability of sutragranthas based on the veda shakas. Hence some variation in the topics discussed in these sutragranthas may be expected as they evolved imbibing the specialities of those vedashakas. According to Gautama Dharmasutras, taken as a representative example here, the topics of Dharma treated in Dharmasutras are classified broadly into three categories as follows.

  1. Varna dharmas (duties of people in four social classes)
  2. Ashrama dharmas (duties of people in four stages of life)
  3. Naimittika dharmas (performance of penances, prayaschittas)

Medhatithi on Manu's (2.25) text remarks that the commentators dwell upon five-fold division of Dharma.

  1. Varna dharmas
  2. Ashrama dharmas
  3. Varnaashrama dharmas
  4. Naimittika dharmas
  5. Guna dharmas

Haradatta commenting on Gautama dharmasutras, mentions this five-fold division of Dharma. Vijnaneshvara commenting on Yajurveda, adds Saadharana-dharma, i.e., duties common to all, to the above five making it six categories. While it is possible to classify the contents of the Dharmas into five or six categories, the three broad categories are prominent and comprehend most of the topics treated of in the Dharmasutras.[1]

These texts are the earliest primary sources which classify the people working in various social orders and the tasks performed by them. The dharmas in the process of evolution, modified the duties of the people of the four varnas, which, having been 'highly twisted' in the past few centuries giving rise to strong intolerance and deep furrows in the society. However, due to the gradual decline in the social order, the activities related to the personal stage of man are further diluted and we see a loss of tradition over generations. A brief outline of what constitutes the dharmasutras are mentioned below.

Varna Dharmas: The dharmasutras enumerate the varnas and their interconnectedness, detail the rites specific to each of them, and their occupations. Alternatives are further described for those who are unable to carry their proper occupations due to unavoidable circumstances. A few details about the rajadharmas are mentioned in connection to the Kshatriya, such as criminal law, taxation, governance, the administration of justice, and war laws. Thus we see a reference to rajadharmas but the topic is not explained in great detail as seen in say Arthashastra.

Ashrama Dharmas: A large portion of the sutragranthas describe the Ashrama dharmas. According to the scheme of life envisaged in the dharmasutras, the entire life of a dvija is divided into four stages - Brahmacharya, Grhastha, Vaanaprastha and Sanyasa ashramas respectively. Rules and regulations governing a person in each stage of life are well explained long before any other civilization. The first stage is the Brahmacharyashrama, prior to which a person attains the status of a Dvija during the Upanayana samskara. In this stage, a Brahmacharin must devote his energy to acquire education at the house of an acharya. In this context the dharma of a Brahmacharin, his conduct, the dos and donts, holidays, his dinacharya, gurusushruta, the duties of a preceptor are clearly laid out with few modifications over the changing ages. On the completion of the education, which primarily included the chaturdashavidyas, he becomes a Snataka (graduate) governed by the Snataka dharmas. Crossing this stage he enters the next stage of life, the Grhasthashrama. The Dharmasutras draw special attention to the snataka dharmas exhorting a graduating student to lead a dignified code of conduct and prepares him for the life ahead to put his education to good use. The grhasthashrama is highly commended in these sutragranthas and regarded as Ashrama par excellence. The statement that all other ashramas depend on the grhastha for their sustenance and for the perpetuance of the race and culture, finds primary importance in these sutras. Thus we find that Grhasthashrama dharmas are well elaborated here, dwelling on daily duties of a grhastha (including the time of rising up and cooking etc), the laws of marriage, conjugal relations and deviations, children and sons, succession laws, treatment of women and conduct towards people of other ashramas, rites for housewarming and building a house, rites for the ancestors and new-borns, and so forth.

Gaarhasthya is followed by the Vanaprasthashrama. It is the order of the forest dwelling munis and rshis who have left behind an active participation in the grhastha activities. A householder may choose at a proper time to leave his household and withdraw to the forests alone or along with his wife. He leaves behind the care of family activities, to his subsequent generations, to practice meditation and attain higher adhyatmik goals. Many types of Vanaprasthas and their mode of living are described in here but no great importance is attached to this Ashrama.

Sanyasa ashrama follows the Vanaprastha. It is the fourth stage of human life and signifies renunciation of worldly possessions and attachments to relations. The Dharmasutras prescribe a code of standard conduct for a Sanyasin and enjoin upon him to refrain from participation in activities such as astrology, palmistry etc and lead a life of complete resignation, contentment, and meditation.

Other Topics: Apart from the above topics which form a major portion of these treatises, Dharmasutras dwell on Naimittika dharma, enumerate various types of papakarmas (sins) and atonement for them by performing penances. They also explain about Saucha and Asaucha (impurities related to events of birth and death) and the process of cleansing after asaucha.[2] General rules of life showcasing the bharatiya jivana vidhana are best visible in these texts. They include a discussion about rules for taking food, drinking, daily cleansing activities, habits, menstruation time in women, observing vows among other things.

विशेषाशः ॥ Special Points in Dharmasutras

A few contrasting points about certain topics in various dharmasutras.

  • Upavita of a Brahmin (an upper garment worn in the style of yajnopavita, looped over the left shoulder and under the right arm) is a term used by Apastamba and Gautama. Apastamba (2.4.21-2) allows the use of a yajnopavita to substitute for the upper garment during some rituals, while Baudhayana (1.8.5) mentions it as a yajnopavita itself.
  • The usages of Northeners (Udichya) by Apastamba and Baudhayana indicate regional differences of those days.
  • Gautama uses prakrtik forms of terms such as yavana (Greek) and bhikshu (medicant) have also been used by Panini.
  • Apastamba's quotes Harita's views about theft which are very strict; even coveting someone's property is a theft. For taking a small amount of a neighbor's fodder one must always obtain permission first.
  • While others permit Brahmins to have upto four wives, Apastamba endorses monogamy, forbidding the taking of a second wife if the first is able to participate in ritual activities and bear children.
  • Apastamba's views about women is progressive - A man is not allowed to abandon his wife (2.11.12-13). He allows daughters to have a share in inheritance (2.14.4). He restricts the division of property between a husband and wife and allows joint custody of the property (2.29.3).
  • Apastamba rejects remarriage of widows and strongly supports monogamy. Vasishta, not only encourages remarriage of widows, but also permits a woman whose husband is abroad to visit a male relative of her husband or even a stranger (Va. 17.75-80).
  • Apastamba does not mention mixed varnas. Vaikhanasa enumerates a large number of mixed varnas. Silent on Shraddhas and administration rules.
  • Harita first defined Upakurvana and Naisthik Brahmacharis. He also introduced two kinds of marriages namely Kshatra and Manushya vivaha which are not seen in any other dharmasutras. Brahmavadinis and vedic study was discussed by him.[4]
  • Vishnu dharmasutras mention the custom of suttee, the word Pustaka for a book, days of a week, Trimurtis and many tirthas in the South of India.


Scope of Dharmasutras

Thus it is amply clear aforesaid sections of the Dharmasutras, from the context the word 'Dharma', one can comprehend broadly three (five or six) mentioned activities of a person and does not embrace all the aspects of Dharma. It is extremely significant in the present day to mention the context of dharma presented in these ancient texts as they have been irrationally extrapolated and misrepresented without accounting for the age and changes that have taken place in the society.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Gopal, Ram. (1959) India of Vedic Kalpasutras. Delhi : National Publishing House
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Sarma, Ratul (2013) Ph.D. Thesis Title : The Gautamadharmasutra, A Study. Chapter 1. Gauhati University
  3. Pt. Baldev Upadhyaya (1997) Samskrit Vangmay ka Brhad Itihas, Dvitiya Khand - Vedang. Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Samskrit Sansthan (Page 187-212)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Pt. Baldev Upadhyaya (1997) Samskrit Vangmay ka Brhad Itihas, Dvitiya Khand - Vedang. Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Samskrit Sansthan (Page 208-209)
  5. Apastamba Dharmasutras (Full Text)