Pramanas for Dharma (धर्मप्रमाणानि)

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Pramanas for Dharma (Samskrit : धर्मप्रमाणानि) are the Vedas (वेदाः) which have been the pillars on which Sanatana Dharma (सनातनधर्मः) stood ground since time immemorial. That Vedas are the source of all Dharma (in moral, social, religious, judicial, and adhyatmik sense) is irrefutably advocated by all authoritative texts of our Bharatiya Samskrtika Parampara.

Many scholars have debated as to what is the source and pramana (basis) for Dharmas that have been prevalent from ancient times. With the advent of modern social conditions, it is time to revisit the gold standards for moral and social conduct of human beings. The word Dharma (धर्मः), for which no word of any language can be substituted, is used erroneously and loosely in the sense of sanctioning various unrighteous deeds in the name of changing society and times by different people all over the globe.

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Dharma (धर्मः) is a samskrit expression of the widest import. There is no corresponding word for Dharma in any other world language as it is a unique and ancient concept promulgated by rshis since ages. Any single definition of Dharma would be an insufficient attempt to define the word. It can only be explained and has a wide variety of meanings in various contexts.

In this article we revisit and compile the pramanas or sources of valid knowledge of Dharmas from Vedas and the subsequent vaidika vangmaya. The extensive vedic literature has shown the irrevocable link between Dharma and Vedas, a few instances are presented here.

धर्मप्रमाणानि ॥ Pramanas for Dharma

Many Sanatana Dharma texts proclaim that Vedas are the pramanas or basis of Dharma. These texts being the oldest in the world with no precedents to them, it is accepted with authority and respect by every follower of the concept of Dharma. Vyasa Maharshi's sayings stand testimony to the vedic authority of dharma as mentioned in Smrtichandrika as follows[1]

धर्ममूलं वेदमाहुः ग्रन्थराशिमकृत्रिमम्। तद्विदां स्मृतिशीले च साध्वाचारं मनःप्रियम् ॥ dharmamūlaṁ vēdamāhuḥ grantharāśimakr̥trimam। tadvidāṁ smr̥tiśīlē ca sādhvācāraṁ manaḥpriyam ॥

Meaning : The Vedas are said to be the source of Dharma, as are the abundance of texts which are not created (apaurusheya), along with traditions (based on smrtis) and the virtuous conduct of those who follow Vedas; ultimately the source of Dharma also lies as given by the inner conscience of a human being.

Following Vyasa Maharshi's words the following sources are listed below as accepted pramanas for Dharma.

  • वेदः ॥ the Vedic texts
  • स्मृतिः ॥ the Smrti texts
  • साध्वाचारम् ॥ the virtuous conduct of those who follow the Veda
  • मनःप्रियम् ॥ the inner voice of the person

Kurma Purana describing what dharmas are to be followed mentions that Shrauta dharmas involving the tretagni are the most advisable followed by Smarta dharmas. When both Shruti and Smrti texts are unavailable (in unusual situations), Shistachara forms the third kind of dharma that is taken as standard for enforcing dharma.[2]

श्रौतस्त्रेताग्निसंबन्धात् स्मार्त्तः पूर्वं मयोदितः । श्रेयस्करतमः श्रौतस्तस्माच्छ्रौतं समाचरेत् ।। २४.१५

śrautastrētāgnisaṁbandhāt smārttaḥ pūrvaṁ mayōditaḥ । śrēyaskaratamaḥ śrautastasmācchrautaṁ samācarēt ।। 24.15

उभावभिहितौ धर्मौ वेदवेदविनिःसृतौ । शिष्टाचारस्तृतीयः स्याच्छ्रतिस्मृत्योरलाभतः ।। २४.१६ (Kurm. Pura. 24.15-16)[3]

ubhāvabhihitau dharmau vēdavēdaviniḥsr̥tau । śiṣṭācārastr̥tīyaḥ syācchratismr̥tyōralābhataḥ ।। 24.16 (Kurm. Pura. 24.15-16)

Thus it is to be noted that Shistachara is also one source of knowing dharma that is to be followed in particular situations when the same cannot be understood from the vedic and smrti texts.

आचारप्रमाणम् ॥ Achara Pramana

Shistaachara means the aachara (traditional lifestyle) of a Shista. It is founded in turn on Shrutis and Smrtis (which are again based on Shrutis). Kurma Purana and Manu define who a शिष्टः or a person of virtuous conduct is, as follows[1]

धर्मेणाधिगतो यैस्तु वेदः सपरिबृंहणः । ते शिष्टा ब्राह्मणाः प्रोक्ता नित्यमात्मगुणान्विताः ।। २४.१७ (Kurm. Pura. 24.17)

dharmēṇādhigatō yaistu vēdaḥ saparibr̥ṁhaṇaḥ । tē śiṣṭā brāhmaṇāḥ prōktā nityamātmaguṇānvitāḥ ।। 24.17

तेषामभिमतो यः स्याच्चेतसा नित्यमेव हि । स धर्मः कथितः सद्भिर्नान्येषामिति धारणा ।। २४.१८ (Kurm. Pura. 24.18)[3]

tēṣāmabhimatō yaḥ syāccētasā nityamēva hi । sa dharmaḥ kathitaḥ sadbhirnānyēṣāmiti dhāraṇā ।। 24.18 (Kurm. Pura. 24.18)

One who is knowledgeable in the dharmik concepts given in Vedas and Paribhrimhanas (परिबृंहणः । Includes the vedic extensions such as Ramayana and Mahabharata Itihasas and Purana texts), and who is filled with Atmagunas (such as Ahimsa, Daya, Satya and eight such others) engrossed in pursuing the knowledge of Brahman (Brahmana) is called Shista (शिष्टः). It is laid down that the views (policies) held by these Shistas, which are ever present in their Antakarana (Chetas), are called Dharma by scholarly people and do not constitute the views of those who live (or do not have the moral qualities) otherwise.[2]

शिष्टानां स्वरूपम् ॥ Qualities of Shista Brahmanas

Baudhayana Dharmasutras gives elaborate details about who is called a Shista and what his Atma and Buddhi gunas are.

शिष्टाः खलु विगतमत्सरा निरहंकाराः कुम्भीधान्या अलोलुपा दम्भदर्पलोभ-मोह-क्रोध-विवर्जिताः ॥

धर्मेणाधिगतो येषां वेदः सपरिबृंहणः । शिष्टास् तदनुमानज्ञाः श्रुति-प्रत्यक्ष-हेतवः ॥ इति ॥ (Bau. Dhar. Sutr. 5-6)[4]

Shistas are devoid of matsarya (intolerance to others good qualities), ahamkara (pride due to vidya or social position), hypocrisy, arrogance, greed, moha (inability to discriminate), anger, they are content and have few desires. They have a though understanding of the Vedas and associated granthas like puranas and itihasas, who can clearly envisage the reasoning that "this shruti (words) is directly pertinent to this dharma" (श्रुति-प्रत्यक्ष-हेतवः), and are experts at pointing out the inferential references of Vedas in Smrtis, acharas, agamas (स्मार्तशिष्टागमयोश्श्रुत्यानुमानविदः). Thus he is one who, having understood the dharmas defined by the shastras, applies and executes them as per situations (अनुष्ठानम्).[5] Manusmrti reiterates the importance of Shistas and their exceptional qualities.

धर्मेणाधिगतो यैस्तु वेदः सपरिबृंहणः । ते शिष्टा ब्राह्मणा ज्ञेयाः श्रुतिप्रत्यक्षहेतवः । । १२.१०९ । (Manu. Smrt. 12.109)[6]

dharmēṇādhigatō yaistu vēdaḥ saparibr̥ṁhaṇaḥ । tē śiṣṭā brāhmaṇā jñēyāḥ śrutipratyakṣahētavaḥ । । 12.109 । (Manu. Smrt. 12.109)

Those who have thoroughly studied the Dharmashastras, well-versed in the Vedas and vedangas, and leading a life according to the prescribed way laid down in the Shrutis are to be known as qualified persons of virtuous conduct or Shista Brahmanas (शिष्टा ब्राह्मणा-s).[7]

It is further debated that if one who follows the activities as given by the Vedas and one who knows the Vedas (वेदविद्) becomes the pramana or standard for Shistachara, then even the (unlawful) living of Ahalya and Tara with Indra and Chandra respectively is be called as virtuous conduct (इन्द्रचन्द्रादेरहल्यातारादिगमनमपि प्रमाणं स्यात् किम्?) That is not the case. Then how is Aachara pramana (कथमाचारप्रामाण्यम्?) to be determined?

In the case of knowing what Aachara pramanas are, even though deviations from Dharma are observed in examples such as those seen with Ahalya and Tara with Indra and Chandra respectively, Gautama explains it as follows

दृष्टो धर्मव्यतिक्रमः साहसं च महतां ॥ dr̥ṣṭō dharmavyatikramaḥ sāhasaṁ ca mahatāṁ ॥ (Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.3)[8]

(तेषां तेजोविशेषेण प्रत्यवायो न विद्यते) इति। साहसं परशुरामादेः मातुः शिरछेदादि।

(tēṣāṁ tējōviśēṣēṇa pratyavāyō na vidyatē) iti। sāhasaṁ paraśurāmādēḥ mātuḥ śirachēdādi।

Meaning : Bigger instances of transgression of dharma and bold adventurous acts are observed such as the beheading of Parashurama's mother. But such instances do not diminish their greatness owing to their glorious deeds. Bhagavata Purana talks about deviations from dharma as follows

धर्मव्यतिक्रमो दृष्ट ईश्वराणां च साहसम् । तेजीयसां न दोषाय वह्नेः सर्वभुजो यथा ॥ ३० ॥

dharmavyatikramō dr̥ṣṭa īśvarāṇāṁ ca sāhasam । tējīyasāṁ na dōṣāya vahnēḥ sarvabhujō yathā ॥ 30 ॥

नैतत्समाचरेज्जातु मनसापि ह्यनीश्वरः । विनश्यत्याचरन्मौढ्याद् यथारुद्रोऽब्धिजं विषम् ॥ ३१ ॥

naitatsamācarējjātu manasāpi hyanīśvaraḥ । vinaśyatyācaranmauḍhyād yathārudrō'bdhijaṁ viṣam ॥ 31 ॥

ईश्वराणां वचः सत्यं तथैवाचरितं क्वचित् । तेषां यत् स्ववचोयुक्तं बुद्धिमांस्तत् समाचरेत् ॥ ३२ ॥

īśvarāṇāṁ vacaḥ satyaṁ tathaivācaritaṁ kvacit । tēṣāṁ yat svavacōyuktaṁ buddhimāṁstat samācarēt ॥ 32 ॥

कुशलाचरितेनैषां इह स्वार्थो न विद्यते । विपर्ययेण वानर्थो निरहङ्‌कारिणां प्रभो ॥ ३३ ॥ (Bhag. Pura. 10.1.30-33)[9]

kuśalācaritēnaiṣāṁ iha svārthō na vidyatē । viparyayēṇa vānarthō nirahaṅ‌kāriṇāṁ prabhō ॥ 33 ॥ (Bhag. Pura. 10.1.30-33)

Transgressing the limits of dharma and over-adventurous acts are found to have been committed by mighty divine beings. But that does not amount to a blemish for those glorious beings, just as the fire having numerous flames (which does not get polluted by consuming impure things). These (transgressive) acts should not be committed even mentally by those beings who are not divine. Such people meet with destruction (people who transgress dharma) just like a person, other than Rudra, who swallows the poison that arose by the churning of the ocean. The words of those having divine wisdom are irrefutably truth and authoritative but their actions may be emulated only at certain times. A prudent and intelligent person should follow the actions of such virtuous men only when consistent with their own personal precepts. Such authoritative persons who are devoid of ahamkara (ego) have no selfish ends as they work for the welfare of others and gain nothing by acting on the contrary.[10]

धर्मज्ञसमयः प्रमाणम् ॥ Dharmajna Achara Pramana

According to Apastamba the acharas that are followed by a Dharmajna, who is one well-versed in dharmashastras, is also a pramana for dharma.[1]

धर्मज्ञसमयः प्रमाणं वेदाश्च। २ वेदाश्च ३ dharmajñasamayaḥ pramāṇaṁ vēdāśca। (Apas. Dhar. Sutr. 1.1.2)[11]

परिषद्वचन-प्रमाणम् ॥ Parishad Vachana Pramana

Formation of a Parishad (a group of people forming a deciding authority) is an important aspect of our present day social fabric as well as the judicial system. We can now see how the pramanas for dharma evolved over time. Initially it was directly Veda pramana, then Smrtis, followed by practicing seers. As the rshi-parampara started dwindling the words of Shista Brahmanas with exceptional knowledge who practiced dharmik activities were considered as dharma pramanas. Further, in handling exceptional situations wherein the texts were not available the verdict of the Parishad of Shista Brahmanas was considered as authority or dharma pramanas.

For dharmas which have Vedic and vaidika vangmaya references any question arising therein can be resolved. However, as the socio-economic scenarios are changing, as the yugas are changing, how does one arrive at a pramana for a dharmik point that is not mentioned in vedic or smrti reference? Simply put, who in the present era, decides about a particular dharmik activity/issue not found in the vedas and dharmashastras?

For example, the usage of plastic items for pujas or dharmik activities are not directly mentioned in Vedas or even dharmashastras, as plastic is a product created in the past 50 years. Plastic items and their merits of usage are not directly mentioned in vedas or dharmashastras whereas usage of bronze, copper or other metallic containers or vessals are explicitly mentioned and found to be used in archaeological evidences. In such cases the decisions of the Dharma Parishads are accepted as pramanas. Questions like is the dana of a plastic item bringing the donor any merit or punya, are to be addressed in the present day.

Whenever there are no pramanas for a  dharmic point in question then the decisions of Shista Brahmanas are unhesitatingly to be followed. Nannaya, the great poet who translated Mahabharata into Telugu language, pays his respects to the Vidvat Parishad before whom his literary work was presented for evaluation. Parishads have played an important role as quality control and regulatory bodies in the ancient days.

Groups of Shistas formed Parishads which worked selflessly to set the social standards based on existing dharmas given in the Shrutis and Smrtis after due judicious deliberation. Smrtis have taken into account such minute aspects about changing Dharmas and instituted a system of having Parishads as decisive authorities with high standards of quality.

The people constituting the Parishad should have exceptional qualities described in the shastras. The concept of Vidvat Parishads led to modern day thesis defence in our education system wherein a thesis is evaluated by a panel of experts in that particular field. Formation of parishads has extended to other areas where a group of experts in any given field form the Parishad. Manu discusses this aspect as follows[1]

अनान्मातेषु धर्मेषु कथं स्यादिति चेद्भवेत् । यं शिष्टा ब्राह्णा भ्रूयुः स धर्मस्स्यादशाङ्केतः।। १२.१०८ । । (Manu. Smrt. 12.108)[6]

anānmātēṣu dharmēṣu kathaṁ syāditi cēdbhavēt । yaṁ śiṣṭā brāhṇā bhrūyuḥ sa dharmassyādaśāṅkētaḥ।। 12.108 । । (Manu. Smrt. 12.108)

Meaning: How are the dharmas not found in the Vedas dealt with if present? That which the Shishta Brahmanas pronounce is the Dharma without any doubt (in such situation). Gautama mentions that when dharmas in question are not found in the available Amnayas (vedas) (as many Vedas themselves are lost over a period of time, or the issue of a particular dharma in the present day is unavailable in the vedic references) then the decision, of what is best suitable, made by a group of selfless (अलुब्धः। not a greedy person) Shistas are to be implemented without any doubt. The additional qualities of a Shista Brahmana are mentioned here, i.e., selflessness or devoid of greed or not acting for personal gains.

अनान्माते दशावरैः शिष्टैः ऊहवद्भिः अलुब्धैः प्रशस्तं कार्यम्। यत्तैः प्रशस्तमित्युक्तं तत्कार्यमित्यर्थः। (Gaut. Dhar. Sutr. 3.10.46)[8]

anānmātē daśāvaraiḥ śiṣṭaiḥ ūhavadbhiḥ alubdhaiḥ praśastaṁ kāryam। yattaiḥ praśastamityuktaṁ tatkāryamityarthaḥ।

Meaning: The best (for a given situation) solution given by a group of not less than ten selfless Shistas has to be enacted. It means that which is best as suggested by them is to be implemented. Baudhayana also mentions the importance of the Parishad formed with not less than ten people.[1] Baudhayana gives a description about the formation of Parishads by the constituting scholars and their qualities.

तदभावे दशावरा परिषत्। tadabhāvē daśāvarā pariṣat। तदाभावे शिष्टाभावे। tadābhāvē śiṣṭābhāvē। (Bau. Dhar. Sutr.7)[4]

Yajnavalkya mentions that a Parishad could consist of lesser number of Shistas and among them even if one Atmajnani is present his decision is to be accepted and followed as dharma in matters of ambiguity.[1]

चत्वारो वेदधर्मज्ञाः परिषत्रैविद्यमेव वा। सा ब्रूते यं स धर्मस्स्यादेको वाऽध्यात्मवित्तमः।। (Yajn. Smrt. 1.9)[12]

catvārō vēdadharmajñāḥ pariṣatraividyamēva vā। sā brūtē yaṁ sa dharmassyādēkō vā'dhyātmavittamaḥ।।

Meaning: That which is pronounced by those who are well-versed either in the Four Vedas and Dharmashastras, or even in three Vedas, or a single Adhyatmavid (Brahmajnani), in a Parishad, is said to be Dharma. Vasishta clearly spells out that[1]

वेदाः प्रमाणं स्मृतयः प्रमाणं धर्मार्थयुक्तं वचनं प्रमाणम्। यस्य प्रमाणं न भवेत्प्रमाणं न तस्य कुर्याद्वचनं प्रमाणम्।।

vēdāḥ pramāṇaṁ smr̥tayaḥ pramāṇaṁ dharmārthayuktaṁ vacanaṁ pramāṇam। yasya pramāṇaṁ na bhavētpramāṇaṁ na tasya kuryādvacanaṁ pramāṇam।।

Summary: Vedas, smrtis and the advices of dharma and artha are pramanas. Those whose pramanas do not include any of the above pramanas such a person’s words are not to be considered as having any basis or pramanas, and hence should be ignored.

सम्प्रदायोऽपि प्रमाणम् ॥ Sampradaya Pramana

Along with the above Dharma pramanas, Sampradaya also has been considered as pramana in some instances according to Manu. Sampradaya is defined as those aacharas (activities) that have come down traditionally in one’s own community/family. Where there are differences in aacharas according to shastras, that particular sampradaya has to be followed.[1]

तथा सम्प्रदायोऽपि कचित्प्रमाणमित्याह मनुः। स्वकुलपरम्परायात आचारः सम्प्रदायः। सोऽपि शास्त्रविप्रतिपत्तौ द्रष्टव्यः।

tathā sampradāyō'pi kacitpramāṇamityāha manuḥ। svakulaparamparāyāta ācāraḥ sampradāyaḥ। sō'pi śāstravipratipattau draṣṭavyaḥ।

येनास्य पितरो याताः येन याताः पितामहाः। तेन यातात्सतां मार्गे तेन गच्छन्नरिष्यति।।

yēnāsya pitarō yātāḥ yēna yātāḥ pitāmahāḥ। tēna yātātsatāṁ mārgē tēna gacchannariṣyati।।

Meaning: One always go in the way (follow those acharas) in which the forefathers and grandfathers have traveled.

The above lines mean that it is better for one to perform the same dharmik activities that were previously followed by one’s forefathers and grandfathers.

For example, specific vratas (vows) for deities such as Vishnu and Lakshmi are typically performed in many families as a tradition because their forefathers had performed them in a certain way. Newly-weds perform Satyanarayana vrata in many families in South of Bharat as a tradition, but the vrata is widely performed in all regions of Bharat for well-being and auspiciousness at prescribed times which is different from family tradition.

Sumantu reiterates[1]

यत्र शास्त्रगतिर्भिन्ना सर्वकर्मसु भारत। उदिते-नुदिते चैव होमभेदो यथा भवेत्।।

yatra śāstragatirbhinnā sarvakarmasu bhārata। uditē-nuditē caiva hōmabhēdō yathā bhavēt।।

तस्मिन्कुलक्रमायातमाचारंत्वाचरेद्रुधः। स गरीयान्महाबाहो सर्वशास्त्रोदितादपि।।

tasminkulakramāyātamācāraṁtvācarēdrudhaḥ। sa garīyānmahābāhō sarvaśāstrōditādapi।।

आत्मनः प्रमाणम् ॥ Atma Pramana

Apart from all these pramanas, one's own inner conscience is also a dharma pramana as given by Vyasa.

A good example of Atma pramana is seen in Mahabharata in the Adi Parva, when Dushyanta speaks about his inner conscience advising him that it was not against his dharma to make an offer of marriage to Shakuntala, at Kanva Maharshi's ashram, even though he does not know her lineage.

न मेऽन्यत्र क्षत्रियाया मनो जातु प्रवर्तते। ऋषिपुत्रीषु चान्यासु नावरासु परासु च।। (Maha. Adi. Parv. 92.20)

na mē'nyatra kṣatriyāyā manō jātu pravartatē। r̥ṣiputrīṣu cānyāsu nāvarāsu parāsu ca।। (Maha. Adi. Parv. 92.20)

तस्मात्प्रणिहितात्मानं विद्दि मां कलभाषिणि। यस्यां मे त्वयि भावोऽस्ति क्षत्रिया ह्यसि का वदा।। (Maha. Adi. Parv. 92.21)

tasmātpraṇihitātmānaṁ viddi māṁ kalabhāṣiṇi। yasyāṁ mē tvayi bhāvō'sti kṣatriyā hyasi kā vadā।। (Maha. Adi. Parv. 92.21)

Dushyanta, while on a hunting trip visits the Kanva ashram one day. There, he comes across an exquisitely beautiful Shakuntala and is immediately attracted to her beauty. Dushyanta had never seen a maiden of such grace, charm and beauty. He comes to know that she is a hermit girl. Realizing that he has lost his heart to her, he is intrigued by the thought as to how he can fall in love with a sage's daughter. He enquires about her and finds out that she is born to Vishwamitra, a Kshatriya, and Menaka and comes to know that she is indeed a Kshatriya-girl. He is elated about the fact that even his heart did not fail him in performing the dharma or the righteous act and since Shakuntala is a Kshatriya-girl, he was not wrong in losing his heart to her.

धर्मस्थानानि ॥ Dharmasthanas

Just like the Chaturdasha Vidyasthanas and Ashtadasha Vidyasthanas form the sum total of the syllabus for holistic education, so also our Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras form the primary texts that explain our dharmas extensively. In fact Yajnavalkya smrti emphasizes that the very Vidhyastanas are also the sources of dharma or Dharmasthanas (धर्मस्थानानि) for our reference.

संवादः ॥ Discussion

There are different versions and ways in which many shlokas and mantras have been interpreted by different scholars across ages. Enforcement of Dharma was of prime importance since Vedic era.

In the present days, numerous questions and doubts about the dharmik activities, unknown to the present generation, are preached but not practiced by many people who have studied the Dharmashastras. Sadly, practicing dharmas and acharas laid down in the dharmashastras for various people of four varnas and ashramas have become very limited in this age, some for valid and some due to devious reasons in the name of religion. Much confusion exists in the society as what and who is to be approached as a valid source of knowledge to decide dharmas related to the present generation.

Also in the name of traditions many superfluous traditions have cropped up, many new dharmas and shastra asammata paddhatis have been floated such as pouring milk (abhisheka) on the murti or vigrahas and statues of politicians, in the name of puja and dharmachara. Consider ancient times when Rajas and Maharajas, took great responsibility of their subjects and strove to set an example to the society. Kshatra dharma was the foundation of their very character, which, is totally lacking in many politicians of the present system of social administration. Needless to say varna and ashrama dharmas are gradually lost in time.

Our acharas have a dharmik background and a valid reason for performing them was explained in the ancient times. Gradually they became symbolic as we lost the people who could explain any particular tradition and without appropriate guidance younger generations are turning towards modern faiths as they are “easier and fashionable” to follow.


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