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Decoding Manusmṛti:  Some Pointers To Make Sense Of Dharmaśāstra Texts


Manusmṛti and other Dharmaśāstra texts occupy a prominent place in Indian textual tradition as authentic sources of dharma. Despite this, the contemporary engagement with the text has been prejudicial and problematic and most importantly, one of discomfort. This discomfort is largely due to unfamiliarity with the purpose, textual landscape, and the underlying worldview of Dharmaśāstras. This paper seeks to fill the gap in contemporary approach and facilitate a better understanding of Dharmaśāstras by highlighting certain important aspects of their textual landscape and the worldview that informs them.


Manusmṛti is among the foremost texts on dharma available in Hindu tradition. While it occupies a preeminent position within the Dharmaśāstra tradition as an authentic source for acquiring knowledge about dharma, contemporary engagement with the text has ranged from outright condemnation and at times burning of the text as a political statement to distortion[2], dismantling[3], and discarding[4] of the text from the discourse on Hindu philosophy and practice.

The contemporary Hindu society’s discomfort with Dharmaśāstra tradition in general and with Manusmṛti in particular owes much to the effects of colonialism and the destruction of indigenous education institutions, as a result of which the society has become deracinated having lost touch with this core aspect of our culture. In particular, people find it exceptionally difficult to relate to the teachings of the Smṛti texts owing to their lack of grounding in foundational principles and frameworks of Dharmaśāstra tradition as well as the unique language employed in these texts to convey its knowledge about dharma.

This paper attempts to provide some pointers, highlight some foundational frameworks, and clarify few misconceptions about Smṛtis as a genre of texts with particular focus on Manusmṛti such that one is better equipped to approach, study, understand and appreciate Manu and other Smṛtis.

Defining dharma

The term ‘dharma’ can be variously understood to mean ethics, morality, law, justice, duty, righteousness etc. depending upon the context of its usage. But, none of these English terms individually or collectively are able to capture the essence of the term dharma.

Etymologically, the word ‘dharma’ has been derived from the root ‘dhṛ’ and ‘dhṛdhārayati’ means to bear, or to support. Hence, ‘dharma’ can be defined as that which upholds, sustains, nurtures, and provides stability and harmony. As MahānārāyaṇaUpaniṣad 79.7 states dharma supports the whole cosmos and removes all Karmic demerits[5]. Likewise, Lord Krishna in MahābhārataKarṇa Parva49.50 says that dharma is that which upholds all created beings[6].

However, this definition does not clarify what exactly this ‘upholding’ imply and how dharma facilitates this upholding and nurturing of individuals. We find clarification on this in the definitions provided by VaiśeṣikaSūtra, Parāśarasmṛti and Sri Madhavacharya’s commentary on it.

VaiśeṣikaSūtra1.1.2 defines dharma as that from which (results) the accomplishment of (material) happiness/wellbeing [called as abhyudaya] and of the supreme good/mokṣa [called as niḥśreyasa][7]. Parāśarasmṛti 1.2 describes dharma as that which is ‘hitam’ or beneficial for human beings[8]. Sri Madhavacharya in his celebrated commentary on the text explains the significance of the use of the phrase hitam thus:

Dharma is called ‘hitam’ or beneficial as it is the means to attain our desired fruits. Such desired fruits are of two types: aihika (this-worldly) and āmuṣmika (other-worldly). This-worldly fruits refer to prosperity and other fruits that result from performance of aṣṭaka and such rituals. The otherworldly fruits are two kinds: abhyudaya (attainment of sukha/happiness and svarga/heaven) and niḥśreyasa (supreme knowledge resulting in liberation). Dharma is the direct means of abhyudaya and dharma by producing tattvajñāna (knowledge of reality) is the cause of mokṣa or niḥśreyasa as well[9].

Thus, dharma upholds, sustains, and nurtures an individual by facilitating him/her to attain worldly happiness (artha/kāma) on the one hand, and on the other hand, otherworldly happiness in the form of svarga[10] as well as absolute bliss or supreme good in the form of mokṣa. That is, dharma is means for both material and spiritual wellbeing.

A further clarification on the definition of dharma is found in Manusmṛti itself. In verse 1.26, Manu says[11]: “For the due discrimination of actions, He (Bhagavān) differentiated dharma and adharma; and he connected these creatures/people with such pairs of opposites as happiness-sorrow and the like (such as heaven-hell, attachment-hatred, etc.)[12].”

In short, the designation of dharma and adharma in the context of individuals is with respect to actions one performs. And such actions could be physical, verbal or mental and they lead to particular results (karmaphala) by the generation of what the Mīmāṃsakas call as ‘apūrva’. Kumarila Bhatta in his Tantravārtika defines ‘apūrva’ as that potential which was absent before the performance of the act and which is produced after the performance of the said act[13]. To put it differently, every action generates an invisible potency or potential result which endures till such a time it manifests the actual result on the ground.

This apūrva is of two kinds: puṇya and pāpa. Puṇya is the positive and beneficial potency generated by the performance of dharma and it results in karmaphala of svarga (heaven), sukha (happiness), and cittaśuddhi (purification of mind) leading to mokṣa or liberation from worldly bondage. Pāpa is the negative and undesirable potency which is generated by performance of adharma and it results in karmaphala of naraka (hell), duḥkha (sorrow), and cittabhrānti (confusion of mind) leading to further strengthening of saṃsāra-bandhana (worldly bondage).

To sum up, irrespective of the context of usage, when an action is designated as dharma, it means that such an action is (and must be) capable of producing puṇya, svarga, sukha and cittaśuddhi. Likewise, an action designated as adharma is (and must be) capable of producing pāpa, naraka, duḥkha, and cittabhranti.

Acquiring authentic knowledge about dharma

Once there is clarity on the essential definition of dharma, the next question which naturally follows is how do we acquire authentic knowledge about dharma (and adharma), especially because the actions in themselves do not reveal whether they are beneficial or not, nor can we use any of our sensory or logical faculties to deduce the same.

Hindu epistemology recognises six independent sources of valid knowledge called as pramāṇas. They are pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference), upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), arthāpatti (postulation, derivation from circumstances), anupalabdhi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) and śabda (word, testimony of past or present reliable experts).

Of these six pramāṇas, none of the first five sources listed above –be it perception, inference, comparison, postulation or non-perception –can impart knowledge about Dharma because their field of operation is the empirical world and its objects. Dharma, on the other hand, deals with matters related to karmaphala such as puṇya, pāpa, sukha, duḥkha, svarganaraka, etc. which are by nature non-empirical and beyond the grasp of our sensory faculties.

This being the case, our only source of valid knowledge about dharma is śabda or verbal knowledge. It is the knowledge of objects derived from words and sentences. And such knowledge is acquired through the study of trustworthy sacred texts (śāstras) and through instructions from trustworthy teachers (gurus). As Bhagavān Krishna instructs in Gītā 16.24: “Therefore, the scriptures (śāstras) are the means to understand what actions should be performed and what actions should be avoided. Knowing thus the injunctions declared in the scriptures, one should perform actions in this world[14].” Sri Ramanujacharya in his commentary on this verse explains that the phrase śāstras refer to Vedas, Dharmśāstras (Smṛtis), Itihāsas, and Purāṇas[15]. A similar observation is made by Sri Madhusudhana Saraswathi in his commentary on the said verse as well[16].

Thus, our primary sources of acquiring knowledge about dharma are: Vedas, Smṛtis, Itihāsas and Purāṇas. Among them, the Veda being apauruṣeya[17] and eternal, it is the most prominent and the independent pramāṇa for dharma. All others are dependent upon it. Hence, Jaimini in Mīmāṃsasūtra 1.1.1 defines dharma itself as that which is indicated by injunctions of the Veda[18]. After Veda, Smṛtis are the most important pramāṇa for dharma as Manu, Yajñavalkya, Parashara, Narada and other Rishis composed their treatise on dharma not only based on their deep knowledge of the entirety of Veda[19] but also based on their complete and direct comprehension of dharma in its entirety through their Yogic accomplishments[20]. Hence, Manusmṛti 2.10 says that “The Veda should be known as the Śruti and the Dharmaśāstra as the Smṛti; in all matters, these two do not deserve to be criticised, as it is out of these that dharma shone forth[21].” Itihāsa and Purāṇas are in-turn based on Veda and Smṛtis and hence they also constitute pramāṇas for dharma. Apart from these primary textual sources, sadāchāra or good conduct, customs and practices of those who are well-versed in śāstras and live their life in accordance to it, and ātmanastuṣṭi or what is agreeable to one’s own conscience also constitutes secondary sources[22] for directly acquiring knowledge about dharma as per Manusmṛti 2.12[23].

This understanding of the function and role of Dharmaśāstra as pramāṇas– authentic sources that imparts valid knowledge about dharma is very significant. A popular misconception prevalent today about Manu and other Smṛtis is that they are to be either seen as law-books that stipulated the laws of their times and/or as religious books on the lines of Bible which provides commandments that were hegemonically imposed on society through religious institutions similar to the church. However, being a pramāṇa-śāstra implies that Manu and other Smṛtis are concerned only with revealing knowledge about dharma, especially about the connection between karma & karmaphala and are neither law-books or constitution documents which was hegemonically imposed upon the society in the past, nor are they books of commandments in a biblical sense. As Adi Shankaracharya observes in his commentary on BṛhadāraṇyakaUpaniṣad verse 1.4.10: “Knowledge only removes false notion, it does not create anything. Nor can a scriptural statement impart any power to a thing. It is an accepted principle that the scriptures are only informative (i.e. imparts knowledge) and not creative (i.e. does not bring about or create anything)[24].” This is as true about Dharmaśāstra as it is about Vedāntaśāstra. As Medhatithi notes in his commentary on Manu 2.6: “The Veda and Smṛti can be a ‘cause’ (of dharma) only in the sense that they serve to make known,—not in that of producing, nor in that helping to stand, which are the two senses in which the ‘root’ is the cause of the Tree[25].” The tenets of dharma in the form of ‘vidhi’ (prescribed) and ‘nisheda’ (prohibited) enunciated in Manu and other texts in Smṛti genre are broad guidelines and are binding only in one sense: that a particular karma or action gives rise to a particular kind of result and that particular result could be favourable leading to sukha (happiness) or unfavourable leading to duḥkha (sorrow) based on whether they are dharma or adharma.

Another implication of the understanding of Smṛtis as pramāṇa-śāstra is that they reveal knowledge about the causal relationship that exist between karma and karmaphala in both modes of dharma and adharma, and this causal relationship is eternal, unchanging, and beyond grasp of the mind and the senses. As Sri Jnanandanda Bharathi Swami says “…the śāstras are eternal, not because they originated with the beginning of time itself, but because they lay down the eternal relationship between a cause and its effect. If a flame scorches our hand, it is not because the science of physics or chemistry says that it shall so scorch, but because there is an eternal relationship between fire and its effect, scorching (Bharathi 1969, 18).”

Therefore, contrary to popular misconception which posits Smṛtis as products of their particular time and context and hence as being outdated today, the Smṛtis being pramāṇa-śāstras reveal the essential principles of dharma, namely, the eternal causal relationship between different categories of karmas and their karmaphala which are eternal, unchanging, and beyond the socio-political influence of changing conditions and hence, the Smṛtis are as relevant today as they were in the past and they will remain relevant in future as well. What is changing and dependant on situation is not the essential principles of dharma, but the contextualization of the dharmic teachings to address changing real world situations and thus causing the diversity in the application of dharmic principles.

Need for Śraddhā in studying Dharmaśāstra

Since dharma by definition is non-empirical and Dharmaśāstra (Śruti, Smṛti, Itihāsa, Purāṇa, etc.) alone are the means for attaining valid knowledge about dharma, any person who seeks to study these texts and acquire knowledge about dharma must approach them with śraddhā.

Śraddhā means ‘trust’. Adi Shankaracharya defines śraddhā as trust in the words of guru and śāstras[26]. Without such trust that the text one is studying contains authentic knowledge about a subject, no amount of study will bear any fruit. This is especially so in non-empirical matters as they cannot be verified or falsified through empirical means. Hence, trust in śāstras and gurus who teach those śāstras is very vital for unravelling the teachings of these texts. As śraddhā matures, this trust transforms into conviction and finally into actualization of the truths expounded in the śāstras. It is for this reason Bhagavān Krishna says in Gītā 4.39: ‘One who has śraddhā, he alone attains knowledge[27]’.

Contemporary scholarship has largely approached the study of Hindu texts by adopting what is called hermeneutics of suspicion wherein one reads a text with scepticism in order to expose their purported repressed or hidden meanings.

Though hermeneutics of suspicion has their own importance, in matters of understanding śāstras such as Veda, Smṛti, etc. whose subject is non-empirical, it is completely unsuitable and misleading as such an approach often leads to rejection of non-empirical elements as superstition or poetic fantasy and filling the vacuum thus created with speculations about ideological, political, and social motives of the texts. This approach ultimately results in the undermining of the texts and their own self-description of their purposes.

Instead, adopting what we may call as ‘Hermeneutics of śraddhā’ to study Hindu texts implies that one approaches the text with faith and respect, rather than scepticism, and then attempts to recover its complete meaning through a contemplative process called as ‘śravaṇacatuṣṭaya’ in Vedānta. In this four-fold process (and hence called catuṣṭaya), one starts with śravaṇa or listening to the enunciation of a particular text from a qualified teacher[28]. This is followed by manana or intellectual reflection upon the text and its subject-matter until one arrives at a steady conviction. Then comes nididhyāsana or deeper one-pointed contemplation on the essential truths expounded in the text resulting in sākṣātkāra or actualization of those truths. In this way, what starts as śraddhā’ transforms into sākṣātkāra[29].

Therefore, it is vital that Dharmaśāstras are studied using śraddhā as our method of approach, a point indicated by Manusmṛti itself when it says in verse 2.10 that “The Veda should be known as the Śruti and the Dharmaśāstra as the Smṛti; in all matters, these two do not deserve to be criticised, as it is out of these that dharma shone forth[30].”

Locating dharma: cosmologically, temporally, teleologically, functionally, and relationally

Manusmṛti is unique among the texts on dharma available in Hindu tradition. Unlike the other texts of this genre, it begins with an account of cosmology. In the very first chapter, it provides a detailed account of cosmogony, which not only recounts the manifestation of SvāyambhuvaBrahmā, but also presents a Vedāntic (or rather a Sāṅkhyan) account of origination of the universe. It further presents an account of the creation of various objects and beings, including humans.

The first chapter is thus very important to understand how the Dharmaśāstra texts conceive of dharma and where they locate dharma cosmologically, temporally, and teleologically.

The first chapter begins with a group of sages approaching Manu and requesting him to enunciate about human duties as applicable to people belonging to different varṇa-s (verses 1.1-4). In response to this, Manu lays down the foundational framework for approaching the question with a concise account on sṛṣṭi (creation of the world) and laya (dissolution of the world) (verses 1.5-57). Then, he informs the sages that his pupil Bhrgu who is fully acquainted with the subject would enunciate on the complete treatise (verses 1.58-59). Following this, Bhrgu begins his response with an account of sṛṣṭi and lays down the foundational framework (verses 1.61-119) and then starts the main discourse on the duties of different varṇa-s from second chapter.

While Manu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on cosmological aspect of creation Bhrgu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on temporal aspect of creation.

Manu gives an account of the manifestation of Sāṅkhyan categories of prakṛti, mahat, tanmatras, mahābhūtas, etc. (verses 1.8-20) as well as the manifestation of different objects and beings such as yajña, Devatās, Sādhyas, Vedas, dharmaadharma, different varṇas such as Brāhmaṇas, etc., Manu and other divine sages, different types of non-human beings such as Yakṣas, Rakṣasas, Piśācas, Gandharvas, Apsaras, Asuras, Nāgas, Sarpas, Suparṇas, and the several orders of Pitṛs, birds, animals, insects etc. (verses 1.22-53) and locates dharma within this discourse on creation of different beings.

By thus highlighting that humans are merely one among the many beings of the universe, and locating the discourse on manuṣya-dharma or the dharma as applicable to humans within the larger cosmological scheme that points to different beings as having their own dharma uniquely applicable to them, Manusmṛti is shifting the focus from a human-centric discourse on dharma to a cosmos-centric discourse. In other words, the text is nudging the readers to withdraw from anthropocentrism[31] and locate themselves in the larger cosmology and then approach the issue of human duties from this cosmological perspective.

Anthropocentrism is problematic as it is a worldview based on a belief in human exceptionalism that feeds on human greed, selfishness, and ego, and hence, can only speak about human rights and privileges and cannot properly accommodate the notion of dharma, ṛṇa (kārmic debt), mokṣa, etc. which by definition requires selflessness. Consequently, this cosmological location of dharma is significant for understanding the teachings of Dharmaśāstras as it not only provides an anchorage point to center our discussions on dharma, but also provides a reference point to cosmologically locate ourselves in these discussions. Prominent examples of such cosmological location of dharma includes notions such as manuṣya-dharma, devatādharma, ṛṣidharma, brāhmaṇadharma, kṣatriyadharma, etc.

Bhrgu’s discourse on sṛṣṭi focuses on temporal aspect of creation and locates dharma within this discourse on different ways in which time functions at different levels and corresponding distinct time durations such as yuga, manvantara, kalpa, etc. (verses 1.64-73) and how they influence dharma and cause variations in application of dharmic tenets (verses 1.81-86). This temporal location of dharma is also significant as it provides a reference point to locate ourselves temporally and contextualize the teachings of Dharmaśāstras as applicable to our temporal location. Prominent examples of such temporal location of dharma includes notions such as yuga-dharma, kalivarjya, āpad-dharmaand anāpad-dharma.

The first chapter of Manusmṛti also locates dharma teleologically. This it does by making the discourse on dharma a subset of the discourse on cosmogony. Modern scholarship have often found it difficult to make sense of the presence of an account of cosmogony in a text on dharma, so much so that some scholars like George Bühler had designated the whole chapter as a later addition[32]. However, the Sanskrit commentators did not exhibit such discomfort.

Consider Medhatithi. In his commentary on Manusmṛti verse 1.5, he remarks:

What the First Discourse does is to describe the fact of the treatise having an extensive scope; so that what is described here is the whole range of the cosmic process, beginning with Brahman down to the inanimate objects, as forming the basis of dharma and adharma, Right and Wrong (Jha 1920, 21).[33]

That is, for Medhatithi, cosmogony forms the very basis of dharma and any discussion of human duties must be conducted in its context.

Building on this, KullukaBhaṭṭa makes an even more comprehensive case for the inclusion of cosmogony in the discourse of dharma. He remarks that the discourse on cosmogony is neither inappropriate nor incoherent because such a discourse which is nothing but an enunciation of Brahman, the cause of the world (and which would lead one to ātmajñāna or self-knowledge), is a discourse on dharma itself (Kauṇḍinyāyana 2014, 77).[34] Bhatta then cites from a number of textual sources, including the Mahābhārata[35], Yājñavalkyasmṛti[36], Brahmasūtra[37] and TaittirīyaUpaniṣad[38] to establish that the pursuit of ātmajñāna is in fact the paramadharma or the highest duty, and the investigation into cosmogony is an important aspect of this pursuit of ātmajñāna. He then concludes his discussion with a remark that having composed the first chapter to teach about ātmajñāna which is the paramadharma, Manusmṛti enunciates in the second chapter, the transactional or worldly principles of dharma like saṃskāra-s which are to be considered as a limb or a subset of paramadharma.[39]In the end, he adds that a careful study of the verses of Manusmṛti will make his exposition on them self-evident.[40]

From KullukaBhaṭṭa’s exposition three things become evident (1) exposition on cosmogony is also exposition on dharma, (2) cosmogony is the highest dharma, and (3) worldly human duties of varṇāśrama are a limb or subset of this highest dharma. Bhatta’s commentary also reveals how cosmogony forms the basis of both nivṛtti dharma and pravṛtti dharma. In the case of nivṛtti dharma, the investigation into the origination of the universe leads to dispassion and self-knowledge leading to final liberation. In the case of pravṛtti dharma, cosmogony provides the context to understand human duties and the place of human beings in the larger scheme of the universe.

Thus, Manusmṛti teleologically locates dharma as a limb or a subset of spiritual pursuit of mokṣa which also serves as a means to attain mokṣa. A pursuit of pravṛtti-dharma (the dharma of a worldly person) of the nature of varṇāśrama-dharma leads one to purification of the mind (cittaśuddhi) making one competent to pursue nivṛtti-dharma and thereby attain Mokṣa. As Sri Madhavacharya notes in his commentary on Parāśarasmṛti 1.2: “Dharma is the direct means of abhyudaya (happiness and heaven) and dharma by producing tattvajñāna (knowledge of reality) is the cause of mokṣa or niḥśreyasa as well[41]”.Consequently practice of dharma is inevitable for all spiritual paths[42].

Manusmṛti also locates dharma functionally and relationally. Functionally, the text locates dharma under headings such as varṇadharma, āśrama-dharma, puruṣadharma, strī-dharma, rāja-dharma, etc. –each of which are related to the function a person plays in society. The function that a Brāhmaṇa plays in society is for example different from the function that a Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, or Śūdra plays. Therefore, people who belong to different varṇas have distinct varṇa-dharmas which are functional in nature. Manusmṛti summarises such functionally distinguished varṇa duties of the four varṇas in verses 1.87-91. Likewise, the role and function that the students, the householders, the forest-retired, and the renunciates play in society are distinct from each other. The same is the case with men and women. Owing to difference in their gender and the corresponding physical and psychological differences, men and women play a distinct but mutually complementary roles within family and outside in the larger society. Owing to such functional differences, dharma that arises from or connected to such functions also have differences.

A subset of functionally located dharmas are the relationally located dharmas, i.e. duties and obligations towards a person which arise out of the nature of relationship one shares with that person. Relationally, distinct dharmas can be recognized with respect to relational roles such as: father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, teacher, student, etc.

A comprehensive understanding of dharma is only possible when in any given situation one is able to identify the different strands of dharma located at cosmological, temporal, teleological, functional and relational levels and how their mutual interplay is playing out in the given situation.

Subject-matter of Dharmaśāstras

One way to look at the subject matter of Dharmaśāstras is to look at it from a thematic perspective. Thematically, the content of Dharmaśāstras can be broadly divided into three themes: ācāra (practice), vyavahāra (jurisprudence), and prāyaścitta (expiation).

Ācāra is the most important theme enunciated in the Smṛtis. It literally means ‘conduct, practice, or custom’ and it deals with the karmas of an individual. It covers all those various duties, obligations, and activities which constitute dharma and hence leads to overall wellbeing of an individual as well as those activities which constitute adharma causing suffering to an individual and hence must be avoided. Dharmaśāstras primarily conceive of ācāra in terms of sāmānyadharma or dharma that is not tied to a specific function (these are universal ethical principles applicable to everyone), and viśeṣa-dharma or context-specific special principles of dharma that applies to individuals based on their varṇa, āśrama, deśa,kāla, gender, relationship, etc.

Vyavahāra refers to legal jurisprudence. It covers a broad range of subjects such as civil and criminal laws, duties of a king, court system, judges and witnesses, judicial process, crimes and punishment, etc.

Prāyaścitta refers to penance or expiation. It provide guidelines regarding various expiation activities that can be undertaken by an individual to repent for and purify oneself from the karmic demerit (pāpa) which accrues as a result of deviation from dharma.

Another way of classifying the content of Dharmaśāstras is on the basis of the nature of the subject-matter. Accordingly, the content of Dharmaśāstras can be divided into five types: dṛṣṭārtha, adṛṣṭārtha,dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha, nyāyamūla, and anuvāda.

While dṛṣṭārtha refers to the subject-matter which deals with tangible, seen, and this-worldly purposes such as those relating to wealth (artha) and pleasure (kāma); adṛṣṭārtha refers to the subject-matter which deals with intangible, unseen, and otherworldly purposes such as those relating to punya, svarga, and mokṣa. When the subject-matter has a bearing on both tangible and intangible purposes, then they are called as ‘dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha’. Nyāyamūla refers to subject-matter based on universal maxims. Anuvāda refers to subject-matter seen by the wise and the knowers of Veda (Wadekar 1996, lxxvi).

Of the five, the three namely, dṛṣṭārtha, adṛṣṭārtha, and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha are important as they tell us about the kind of end-result that a particular prescription or guideline when implemented would give rise to. While adṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha have unseen and transcendental results and hence, they are absolute, eternal, and always valid and applicable; the dṛṣṭārtha dealing with tangible results are neither absolute, nor eternal and are subject to time, location, and context.

This distinction is very important for proper understanding and interpretation of Dharmaśāstras. While the ācāra and prayashcitta portion of the Smṛtis deal predominantly with adṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha purposes, vyavahāra portion of the Smṛtis predominantly deal with dṛṣṭārtha and dṛṣṭādṛṣṭārtha purposes. As a result, while the teachings enunciated in ācāra and prayashcitta are predominantly absolute and not subject to socio-political changes, the teachings of vyavahāra, especially the dṛṣṭārtha portions must be understood as absolute only in their essential spirit and not in external form as they are subject to socio-political changes.

The third way of classifying the content of the Smṛtis is by their mode of expression. The Vedic statements can be classified into five types: vidhi, niṣedha, arthavāda, nāmadheya and mantra.

Vidhi or injunctions are statements that induce one to act. Niṣedha or prohibitions are the opposite of injunctions. They are negative precepts which proscribe actions that are either injurious or disadvantageous. Arthavāda are commendatory and depreciatory texts. Nāmadheya refers to names or appellations of certain yajñas, etc. Mantras are sacred formulas to be recited while performing rituals and they do not lay down injunction.

Among these five, the vidhis[43] and niṣedhas[44] directly indicate about actions, whether they are dharma or adharma. What is prescribed through vidhi is dharma and what is prohibited through niṣedha is adharma. Arthavāda passages serve to supplement the vidhi or niṣedha statements, or in many cases when they stand alone, vidhi or nisheda can be inferred from them. All the three –vidhi, niṣedha, and arthavāda are relevant in the context of Smṛtis.

The vidhis can further be classified into: apūrvavidhi, niyamavidhiand parisaṃkhyāvidhi. Apūrva-vidhi is an original injunction. It is an injunction which enjoins something which is not obtained by any other means[45]. Niyamavidhi is a restrictive injunction. It is an injunction which indicates one among the many available alternatives as a course of action to be adopted[46]. Parisaṅkhyavidhi is a preclusive injunction. When many alternatives with simultaneity are available, this vidhi excludes all other alternatives except one[47].

The niṣedhas can also be classified into prohibitions “regarding the person” (puruṣārtha) that are applicable to a person throughout his/her life, and prohibitions “regarding the sacrifice” (kratvārtha) that are applicable only to the specific situation of the sacrifice[48]. A third kind of prohibition is paryudāsa which constitutes an exception to the general rule[49].

A basic familiarity with these different themes, the end-goals, and different modes of expression of the subject-matter of Dharmaśāstras is very vital for a proper understanding and interpretation of these texts.

Decoding the Dharmaśāstra: An illustrative example from Manusmrti

There are a number of verses in Manusmṛti regarding women which have become controversial as they are perceived as being anti-women. Two such verses are criticized for stating that women should not have independence and should always be dependent upon menfolk. Let us briefly examine these two verses and what they actually say.

bālyepiturvaśetiṣṭhetpāṇigrāhasyayauvane |
putrāṇāṃbhartaripretenabhajetstrīsvatantratām || 5.146 ||— [A]

In childhood she should remain under the control of her father, in youth under that of her husband, and on the husband’s death under that of her sons; the woman should never have recourse to independence.

pitārakṣatikaumārebhartārakṣatiyauvane |
rakṣantisthavireputrānastrīsvātantryamarhati || 9.3 ||—[B]

The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence.

Let us call these two verses under examination, namely, verse 5.146 and verse 9.3as [A] and [B] respectively.

Both [A] and [B] are very similar in their content, but they appear in two related but distinct contexts. While [A] appears in the context of strī-dharma or duties of women, [B] appears in the context of relational dharma between husband and wife.

Case [A]:

Cosmologically [A] pertains to manuṣya-dharma, teleologically to pravṛtti-dharma, and functionally to strī-dharma. And we already saw how designation of any action as dharma implies that such an action is capable of giving results of puṇya, sukha, svarga, and cittaśuddhi i.e. overall wellbeing.

Therefore, when [A] says women should remain under the under the control of i.e. dependent upon father, husband, or son, and should never take recourse to independence, contrary to popular interpretation which takes it as an infringement of women’s rights and as impeding women empowerment, it is primarily a statement with respect to pursuit of dharma and not concerned with pursuit of artha or kāma. That it is a statement with respect to dharma and not artha or kāma is explicitly highlighted in Gautama Dharmasūtras 18.1which says “A wife is not independent with respect to the fulfilment of dharma[50]”.

Consequently, this dependence in dharmic practice does not in any way come in the way of women pursuing what they love or empowering themselves. If anything, it merely prevents such pursuit of artha and kāma from descending into reckless indulgences leading to distress and suffering.

What is unique about [A] is that it defines strī-dharma in terms of relational dharma that women have with her closest male relationship, namely father, husband, and son. While puruṣa-dharma or dharma as applicable to men is largely defined in terms of varṇāśrama-dharma, the strī-dharma as illustrated by [A] is largely understood in terms of relational dharma despite the recognition that the whole discourse is a subset of varṇāśrama-dharma itself.

This distinction in dharma discourse regarding men and women is owing to the fact that men and women are distinct from each other in their physical, biological, psychological, social, and spiritual makeup. While men in general are more suited for karma-yoga in its aspect of austerity (tapasyā) and ritual performance (karma-anuṣṭhāna), women in general are more suited for karma-yoga with a stress on devotion (bhakti) and service (śuśrūṣu). As a result of this, while puruṣa-dharma is enunciated in terms of varṇāśrama-dharma which stresses on austerity and ritual performance, strī-dharma is enunciated in relational terms where devotion and service play important role. However, this does not mean that men’s obligations do not involve service or that women are ineligible for all forms of ritual performance[51]. It merely indicates what constitutes the predominant means of pursuing dharma for men and women.

To have further clarity on this, let us examine briefly the Hindu notion of marriage.

In Hindu tradition, the marriage or vivāha is understood as a saṃskāra– a sacrament and a purificatory ritual that imparts competency and allows a couple to enter the gr̥hastha-āśrama or the stage of householder to pursue dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa together.

Etymologically, vivāha means a ‘special kind of carrying away (viśiṣṭaḥvāhaḥvivāhaḥ)’ of the bride by the bridegroom. The ‘carrying away’ refers to the process of bridegroom accepting the bride into his life and family symbolized by the ritual processes of kanyādāna, pāṇigrahaṇa, and saptapadī. It is a special kind of ‘carrying away’ because the saṃskāra of vivāha on the one hand purifies the bride and makes her competent to enter householder life and on the other hand it facilitates the groom to embrace her into his life as his half and accept her into his family and gotra lineage such that he attains competency to perform householder duties as well (Ananthanarasimhachar 2014, 526).

Further, vivāha is a special relationship, a sacred bond standing on the three pillars of rati (desire), dharma (duty), and prajā (progeny), which involves a pursuit of both saha-dharma and saha-kāma, i.e. a pursuit of both the duties and the experiencing of life-pleasures, which are accomplished together.

Vivāha as a saṃskāra facilitates the bride and the bridegroom to enter into gṛhasthaāśrama (householder life) thereby facilitating them to practice varṇāśramadharma in the pursuit of the dharmapuruṣārtha .The vows taken during the marriage ceremony shows that marriage is a commitment by the bride and bridegroom to pursue all the puruṣārthas of life together and hence, the notion of ‘saha-dharma’- pursuing life duties together is central to Hindu understanding of marriage.

However, though the goal pursued is same, the roles played by the man and the woman in a marriage are different. While the man plays the role of a husband and a father, the woman plays the role of a wife and a mother. While the husband takes the role of yajamāna, the conductor of the rituals and other dharmic duties, the wife takes up the role of saha-dharmachāriṇī, one who accompanies the husband in fulfilment of dharmic activities. A virtuous wife is, in fact, identified with the sacred fires of the house itself (Leslie 1995, 141). That is, the role played by the wife is like that of the sacred fire: the role of a facilitator, without whom a gṛhastha man cannot perform any dharmic rituals or actions. That is, the husband is the performer of the dharmic actions like yajñá, etc. with the support, help and company of his wife. On the other hand, for the wife, facilitating the husband in the accomplishment of the gṛhastha duties is itself the dharmic duty and a means for her overall emancipation. It is for this reason, the texts note how the half of dharmic merit of all the actions of the husband automatically becomes transferred to the wife. That is, the husband himself becomes the direct means for accomplishing all the puruṣārtha-s for wife. This is the true meaning of saha-dharma in the context of Hindu vivāha (Sridhar 2022).

From the above discussion on Hindu view on marriage, it is very clear that though husband and wife pursue life goals together and are dependent upon each other, the role that the wife plays in the relationship is fundamentally different from the role of husband and hence nature of dependence is also differs for both of them. Since the husband constitutes the direct means for accomplishing all puruṣārthas for the wife, Manusmṛti 5.153 says “There is no separate sacrificing for women, no observances, no fastings; it is by means of serving her husband that she becomes exalted in heaven[52].”

Likewise, when we are children, both men and women are dependent upon their parents. The parents are the first teachers who teach the child what is dharma and what is adharma. Hence, we have famous statements such as ‘mātṛdevo bhava, pitṛdevo bhava’. Therefore when [A] says that women in their childhood must remain dependent upon their father, it is merely stating the fact that children are dependent upon their parents for nourishment, love, education, and protection.

In the same way, in old age, the parents depend upon their children in multiple number of ways including in matters of dharma wherein the children play the role of facilitator.

Therefore, in recognition of the fact of direct dependence of women on their husbands in dharmic matters (as husbands are the direct means for accomplishing dharma for wives) and secondarily on fathers and sons, the strī-dharma has been enunciated in terms of women’s relational dharma towards people who are closest to her[53].

It is possible that many may take issue with the usage of the phrases: ‘vaśe’ which means ‘in control of or dependent upon’ and ‘nabhajetstrīsvatantratām’ which means ‘the woman should never have recourse to independence’.

However, it is important to realize that dependence is a characteristic trait of any group –be it a family, a community, or a professional organization. Every person is dependent on others in their immediate environment in one way or the other: children are dependent upon their parents while growing up, husband and wife are dependent upon each other in everything they do, parents in their old-age are dependent upon their children, citizens are dependent upon the government, colleagues in a company are dependent upon each other, etc.

This being the case, dependence in general should not be seen as a negative trait. Symbiosis is a positive characteristic be it in natural world or in our social community. The same is the case in matters of dharma as well. Therefore, there is nothing offensive or demeaning towards women in [A] stating that in matters of dharma, women are dependent upon their fathers, husbands, and sons.

As far as not having independence in matters of dharma is concerned, that is equally applicable to both men and women. They both are dependent upon the means indicated by śāstras for practicing dharma.  Individuals cannot determine on their own what constitutes dharma based on whims and fancies. We must take refuge in our gurus and śāstras for understanding what constitute dharma, and what adharma and live life accordingly.

Case [B]:

Cosmologically [B] pertains to manuṣya-dharma, teleologically to pravṛtti-dharma, and relationally to dharma in the context of family, especially as between husband and wife.

While [A] had highlighted dharma of women especially with respect to important family members such as father, husband, and son, [B] highlights the dharma of menfolk with respect to women of their family. So, functionally, [B] highlights an important aspect of puruṣa-dharma, namely the role and duties of men in the context of family.

Strī-dharma spoken in [A] highlighted the centrality of devotion, dedication, service, and nurturing roles that women play in family. In contrast to that, the puruṣa-dharma enunciated in [B] highlights the centrality of providing protection to womenfolk. Hence, the repeated use of the phrase ‘rakṣati’.

Guarding or protection is a broad terminology with many different dimensions. But primarily [B] uses it in the context of dharma i.e. It stipulates that it is the duty of the father, husband, and the son to ensure that women in the family remain protected such that they are able to perform their svadharma without any hindrance.

Such protection has two aspects: One, protecting the womenfolk from all kinds of external threats, interventions, or obstacles that may be inimical to them. Two, ensuring that women do not themselves deviate from dharma due to bad influence through providing proper education and training, encouraging them to take up healthy and positive activities, etc.

One of the implications of this verse is that it is a reminder to menfolk to behave appropriately with not only women of their family, but with women in general. It is a reminder that men should protect women and not oppress them in any way. Another implication is that it stipulates that children, especially sons should not abandon their aged parents under any pretext. Abandoning aged parents constitutes adharma. Yet another implication is that husband-wife relationship is not merely that of partnership, but is also that of guru-śiṣya.  Hence, it is the duty of the husband to teach dharma to his wife and oversee that she can practice dharma without any hindrance.

The controversial phrase ‘nastrīsvātantryamarhati’ in [B] which means ‘women do not deserve independence’ does not imply a curtailment of women’s freedom, but here the phrase ‘svātantryam’ must be understood as a reference to the ‘state of unprotectedness’(Devanathan 2020). That is, women should always be protected and a healthy society be created wherein they are not harassed.

From the above discussion under Cases [A] and [B], it is very clear that contrary to popular interpretation of the verses 5.146 and 9.3 which paint them as anti-women, there is nothing inimical towards women in these verses. On the contrary while [A] highlights the means by which women can attain overall wellbeing, [B] highlights the duty that śāstrasenjoin upon men regarding protection of women.


The contemporary Hindu society’s discomfort with Manusmṛti and other Dharmaśāstra texts is largely caused due to unfamiliarity and disconnection with the dharma textual tradition as a result of colonialism. However, to truly recover native worldview and express our civilizational thoughts coherently using our own frameworks and categories, it is vital that we reconnect, recover, and revive the study of Dharmaśāstras and contextualize its teachings to address contemporary issues. This paper has presented some pointers that would facilitate such reconnection with dharma textual tradition and recovery of its authentic teachings.


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[1]This paper was presented at Nirvighnam: A Two Day Conference on the Texts and Traditions of India organized by Saptaparni and The Thinking Cap Series at Hyderabad on August 20-21, 2022.

[2]Dr Surendra Kumar, a Sanskrit scholar affiliated with the Arya Samaj in his revisionist commentary (The Manusmriti 2018) has indulged in many instances of distortion and misinterpretation of key verses.

See one such instance highlighted in “Antaraprabhava in Surendra Kumar’s ViśuddhaManusmṛti: A critical assessment in light of its avowedly revisionist interpretation (Sridhar, ‘Antaraprabhava’ in Surendra Kumar’s ‘Viśuddha Manusmṛti’: A critical assessment in light of its avowedly revisionist interpretation 2022).”

[3] Wendy Doniger (1991) writes: “The Laws of Manu encompasses contradictions that may indeed be ultimately ‘insoluble’, but not necessarily irreconcilable, nor are its attempts to reconcile them necessarily ‘frenzied’. Given the historical background, it is not surprising that Manu expresses a number of different views on many basic points. Different parts of the text were added at different periods (the portions dealing with legal cases are generally regarded as the latest) and, in the recension that we have, some topics are split up and treated in several different places, or in what seem to us to be the wrong places.”

[4] Ashok Singhal of VHP had stated: “The VHP totally rejects the Manu Smriti as it has no place in a civilized & cultured society (Neelakandan 2015).”

[5]dharmoviśvasyajagataḥpratiṣṭhā…dharmeṇapāpamapanudati…|MahānārāyaṇaUpaniṣad79.7 (Vimalananda 1968)

[6]dhāraṇāddharmamityāhuḥdharmodhārayatiprajāḥMahābhārataKarṇa Parva 49.50(Vaidya 1958)

[7]yato’bhyudayaniḥśreyasasiddhiḥsadharmaḥ || VaiśeṣikaSūtra 1.1.2 (Sinha 1923)

[8]mānuṣāṇāṃhitaṃdharmmaṃ…| Parāśarasmṛti 1.2(Tripati 2019)

[9]abhimataphalasādhanatvaṃ hi dharmasyahitatvamtaccaphalaṃdvedhā-aihikamāmuṣmikañcaitiaṣṭakādisādhyaṃpruṣṭyādikāmaihikamāmuṣmikaṃdvedhāabhyudayoniḥśreyasañcatatrābhyudayasyasākṣātsādhanaṃdharmaḥniḥśreyasasyatutattvajñānotpādanadvāreṇaParāśaramādhava, Acharakhanda, Prathama Adhyaya(Tripati 2019)

[10]Svarga can be roughly translated as heaven though unlike Abrahamic notion of heaven, svarga is not a permanent abode. Instead svarga is a realm to experience fruits of one’s punya karma. Likewise, naraka loosely translated as hell is not a permanent abode. There is no concept of eternal hell in Hindu dharma. Naraka is a realm where one experiences the fruits of one’s papa karma.

[11] All citations from Manusmṛti are from (Kauṇḍinyāyana 2014) and translations are adopted with minor modifications from (Jha, Manusmriti with the ‘Manubhashya’ of Medatithi, Volume 3, English Translation, Part 1, Discourses I & II 1920)

[12]karmaṇāṃ ca vivekārthaṃdharmādharmauvyavecayat |
dvandvairayojayaccaimāḥsukhaduḥkhādibhiḥprajāḥ || Manusmṛti 1.26

[13]karmabhyaḥprāgayogyasyakarmaṇaḥpuruṣasyavāyogyatāśāstrāgamyaya para sāpūrvamiṣyate Tantravārtika of Kumārila, on Bhāṣya of Sābara, on Mīmāṃsa Sutra 2.1.5(Jha 1903-24)

[14]tasmācchāstraṃpramāṇaṃtekāryākāryavyavasthitau | jñātvāśāstravidhānoktaṃ karma kartumihārhasi || Bhagavad Gita 16.24 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[15]dharmaśāstretihāsapurāṇādyupabṛṃhitāvedā yad eva…| Sri Ramanujacharya’s Bhagavad Gita Bhashya on verse 16.24 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[16]śāstraṃvedatadupajīvismṛtipurāṇādikameva…| Sri Madhusudhana Saraswathi’s Gudartha Dipika on Gita verse 16.2 (Gita Supersite n.d.)

[17]Apauruṣeya’ means ‘not authored by a being, either human or divine’. TheMīmāṃsakas hold that any text or composition that is authored will have some flaws, even those created by perfected beings. It is ’apauruṣeyatva’ or non-authorship of Veda which makes Veda flawless and this is the reason why it is ultimate source of knowledge. For a more elaborate enunciation on this, see: (Naik 2022)

[18]codanālakṣaṇoarthodharmaḥ।Mīmāṃsa Sutra 1.1.1(Sandal 1923)

[19]Manusmṛti 1.3 describes Manu as the knower of entirety of Veda.

[20]Manusmṛti 1.1 describes Manu as being seated in ‘Ekāgra’– one-pointedness when sages approached him with request for instruction on Dharma. Likewise, ParāśaraSmṛti 1.1 makes a similar reference to Vyasa as being seated in ‘Ekāgra’. Madhavacharya in his commentary on said verse from ParāśaraSmṛti notes that one-pointedness happens when all the three- Dhāraṇā(concentration), Dhyāna (meditation), and Samadhi (total absorption)- becomes established in one object. If such one-pointedness happens towards the words and meanings, then one will gain the knowledge of all words and speeches including the knowledge of speech of birds and animals. He adds that in this case, the ‘Ekāgra’ refers to one-pointedness towards the knowledge of the innumerable branches of Vedas (and hence of Dharma).

[21]śrutistuvedovijñeyodharmaśāstraṃtuvaismṛtiḥ |

tesarvārtheṣvamīmāṃsyetābhyāṃdharmo hi nirbabhau || Manusmṛti 2.10

[22]Sadāchāra and ātmanastuṣṭi are not independent pramāṇas. They are secondary sources dependent uponśabdapramāṇa. For example, one learns sadāchāra from the lives of BhagavānRāmaand BhagavānKṛṣṇa which can be known from studying Rāmāyaṇaand Mahābhārata, respectively. Likewise, one is able to implement ātmanastuṣṭi only on the basis of one’s learning in Śāstras.

[23]vedaḥsmṛtiḥsadācāraḥsvasya ca priyamātmanaḥ |

etaccaturvidhaṃprāhuḥsākṣāddharmasyalakṣaṇam || Manusmṛti 2.12

[24]mithyājñānanivartakatvavyatirekeṇākārakatvamityavocāmana ca vacanaṃvastunaḥsāmarthyajanakamjñāpakaṃ hi śāstraṃnakārakamitisthitiḥShankara-Bhashya on BrihadaranyakaUpaniṣad 1.4.10 (Madhavananda 1950)

[25]tac ca vedasmṛtyordharmaṃpratijñāpakatayaiva,nanirvartakatayā,na ca sthitihetutayā,vṛkṣasyeva | Medhatithi on Manu 2.6(Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[26]guruvedāntavākyādiṣuviśvāsaḥśraddhāTattvabodha 5.7 (Tattvabodha of Shri Adi Shankaracharya n.d.)

[27]śhraddhāvānllabhatejñānaṁ …| Bhagavad Gita 4.39(Gita Supersite n.d.)

[28]A qualified teacher is one who is both well-versed in a branch of knowledge and has also actualized the essential truths of that field. In Vedānta, such a teacher is called śrotriya-brahmaniṣṭha.

[29] Also watch this talk by Prof Sreejit Datta(Interpreting Sacred Hindu texts: Case for a Hindu Hermeneutic 2022)

[30]śrutistuvedovijñeyodharmaśāstraṃtuvaismṛtiḥ |

tesarvārtheṣvamīmāṃsyetābhyāṃdharmo hi nirbabhau || Manusmṛti 2.10

[31]Anthropocentrism or the belief in human centrality and exceptionalism in its essence is very part of human nature as it has ego and selfishness at the very heart of it. When ego, selfishness, and other internal passions that afflict the mind are not kept in check and instead are allowed to manifest then it directly results in an ideology based on anthropocentrism. We see such tendencies depicted in various accounts given in Purāṇas, most notably that of Hiraṇyakaśipu who forced his subjects including his own son, Prahlāda,to worship him instead of BhagavānViṣṇu.

[32]George Bühler remarks: “The whole first chapter must be considered as a later addition. No Dharmasūtra begins with a description of its own origin, much less with an account of creation. The former, which would be absurd in a Dharmasūtra, has been added in order to give authority to a remodelled version.” (Bühler 1886, lxvi).

[33]Medhätithi on Manusmṛti 1.5: śāstrasyamahāprayojanatvamanenasarveṇapratipadyatebrāhmaṇādyā: sthāvaraparyantāḥsaṃsāragatayodharmādharmanimittāatrepratipādyante (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[34]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: idaṃtuvadāmaḥmunīnāṃdharmaviṣayepraśnejagatkāraṇatayābrahmapratipādanaṃdharmakathanamevetināprastutā’bhidhānam। (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[35]ātmajñānaṃtitikṣā ca dharmaḥsādhāraṇonṛpa | Mahābhārata 12.285.24

[36]ijyācāradamāhiṃsādānasvādhyāyakarmaṇām |ayaṃtuparamodharmoyadyogenaātmadarśanam || Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.8

[37]janmādyasyayataḥ | Brahmasūtra 1.1.2

[38]yatovāimānibhūtānijāyante | yenajātānijīvanti | yatprayantyabhisaṃviśanti | tadvijijñāsasva | tadbrahmeti || (TaittirīyaUpaniṣad 3.1)

[39]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: ātmajñānasvarūpaparamadharmāvagamāyaprathamā’dhyāyaṃkṛtvāsaṃskārādirūpaṃdharmaṃtadaṅgatayādvitīyā’dhyāyādikrameṇavakṣyatītinakaścidvirodhaḥ |(Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[40]KullūkaBhaṭṭa on Manusmṛti 1.5: kiṃcapraśnottaravākyānāmevasvārasyādayaṃmadukto’rtholabhyate (Harikrishna Dave 1972-85)

[41]tatrābhyudayasyasākṣātsādhanaṃdharmaḥniḥśreyasasyatutattvajñānotpādanadvāreṇaParāśara Madhava, Acharakhanda, Prathama Adhyaya. (Tripati 2019)

[42] See (Sridhar 2019)

[43]Examples of vidhi statement: svargakāmoyajeta(Those who desire heaven must perform sacrifice); satyaṃvada(Speak truth)

[44]Examples for niṣedha statement: nakalañjaṃbhakṣayet(Do not eat kalañja, i.e. fermented food)

[45]Example of apūrva-vidhi: svargakāmoyajeta– One who desires heaven must perform yajña. It is imparting an original revelation, something which cannot be known from elsewhere, namely, that performance of yajña directly results in attainment of heaven. All such injunctions which are original revelations about Karma &karmaphala are called as apūrva-vidhi.

[46]Example for niyama-vidhi: If ‘A’ is to be done and there are many ways of doing it like ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’. Theniyamavidhi restricts that ‘A’ is to be done only by way of ‘B’ and not by other means.

[47]Example forparisaṅkhya-vidhi: Rāmāyaṇa4.17.39 says: “pañcapañcanakhābhakṣyāḥ” [Five animals each having five nails may be consumed as food (Valmiki Ramayana n.d.)]. It is not prescribing that everyone must eat five animals each having five nails. It is merely saying that if one desires to eat meat, then one should not consume meat of any animals, except the five animals having five nails (namely, rabbit, porcupine, iguana, rhinoceros, and tortoise) mentioned in the verse. That is, by this vidhi while eating meat is not compulsory, if one were to eat meat, then for such a person meat of animals except those allowed are prohibited.

[48] While the statement “One should not threaten a Brāhmaṇa or strike him” is a prohibition regarding the person which is applicable in all context and situations and hence is a puruṣārthaniṣedha; the statement “The yajamāna of a sacrifice should abstain from sexual intimacy” is a prohibition with respect to sacrifice and is applicable only in the context of and during the duration of that particular sacrifice and hence is a kratvārthaniṣedha.

[49] Example for paryudāsa: When there is an injunction that “perform śrāddha ceremony during full moon” and a prohibition that “śrāddha not to be performed in the night”. This prohibition is not niṣedha but is paryudāsa. It is an exception to the general rule. The person is to perform the śrāddha ceremony during full moon, except during the night.

[50]asvatantrādharmestrī | Gautama Dharmasūtras18.1 (Gautama Dharma Sutra n.d.)

[51] In Manusmṛti 2.228-2.237, a man is told to always act in accordance with his mother, father and ācārya.

To serve these three is told be highest austerity. This service to parents and teachers is an integral part of varṇāśrama-dharma. Likewise, when Manusmṛti 5.153 says that there is no separate sacrificing, observations or fastings for women, other than serving her husband, it does not mean total exclusion, but only that all other religious activities are secondary and a limb of serving the husband which is primary dharma and hence, her ritual practice must be done either together with the husband or with the permission of the husband, a point noted by Medhatithi in his commentary on the verse.


patiṃśuśrūṣateyenatenasvargemahīyateManusmṛti 5.153

[53]While the strī-dharma has been defined in terms of women’s relational dharma towards parents, husband, and children, one could ask what about dharma for women who neither have parents nor are they married and hence without children? Or for women in professions such as prostitution, or women who are divorced and hence cannot practice pativratā dharma? The answer to this is that while they may be ineligible to practice strī-dharma as enunciated in Manu5.146, which is a viśeṣa-dharma, they could still practice sāmānyadharma, which is available for everyone. This is similar to cases of those menfolk who remain unmarried or have become widowers and hence ineligible to perform gṛhastha-āśrama-dharma, but are nevertheless eligible to perform sāmānyadharma. Thus, no one is excluded from dharma.

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