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Indian Political Thought: Dharamshastra

Indian political thought were evolved by great intellectuals in ancient times. Manu and Kautilya, the ancient Indian philosophers had devised highly valuable political and administrative ideas and policies. In the era that began with the philosophical movements which are expressed in the mystical texts known as Upanisads and ended in the government of the emperor Asoka, whose rule extended over all but southernmost India, the dimensions of Indian social thought were established. During these influential centuries, approximately from the seventh to the middle of the third century B.C., new approaches of economic production, the incorporation of indigenous peoples into the Aryan community, and other social changes rendered the old agencies of integration and new social relationships demanding new justifications. People were faced with challenges of life that needed to re-evaluate basic values and institutions. Numerous ideas about the nature and destiny of human life began to challenge outmoded religious notions.

Below are the elaboration of political ideas of great thinkers of ancient and modern times:


Although, the theoretical text of Arthasastra initiated inductive reasoning and a greater realism into political thought, the Dharma Sastras are basically deductive in nature. The shastras in Sanskrit Hindu literature are the texts of spiritual and legal duty. Shastra factually means "rule, command, code of laws, science," and these works focus on many different subjects, including the three principal goals for human beings: dharma (law), artha (wealth, profit, business, or property), and kama (passion, desire, pleasure). The Dharmashastra is related to dharma. It is a concept that integrates the nature of the world, eternal or cosmic law, and social law, applied to rituals and life-cycle rites, procedures for resolving disputes, and penalties for defilements of these rules.

Dharmasastra is a genus of Sanskrit texts, and refers to the treatises (shastras) of Hinduism on Dharma. The Dharmashastras are the ancient law books of Hindus, which advocate moral laws and principles for devout duty and righteous conduct for the followers of the faith. They also shaped the guidelines for their social and religious code of conduct Hindus in the past where Hindu monarchs enforced the laws as part of their religious duty. However, looking to the heterogeneity and complex nature of Indian society from the earlier times, it is difficult to state how seriously these laws were imposed by the ruling classes among all sections of society. However, the Dharmashastras highlighted upon the social and religious conditions of ancient India, family life, gender and caste based distinctions, and principles of ancient jurisprudence. It can be find in them rudiments of many principles and practices of social and religious aspects of modern Hindu civilisation.

Origin of Dharma Sutras: A Sutra is a style of writing treatise by utilizing the fewest possible words to ensure brevity and easy memorization. The Dharma Sutras along with Srauta Sutras and Grihya Sutras comprises the Kalpa, one among the six Vedangas, the auxiliary of the Vedas.

- The Srauta Sutras deal with the great Vedic sacrifices of Havis (oblation) and Soma and other religious matters.

- The Grihya Sutra deal with domestic ritual. They contain minute rules for the performance of various ceremonies (samskaras) marking every important epoch of an individual's life from conception to cremation.

- The Dharma Sutras deal with social usage and customs of everyday life. In them we see the beginning of civil and criminal law. The important Dharma Sutras are the Gautama Sutra, Baudhayana Sutra and Apastamba Sutra to name a few.

Historical review: The shastras, including the Dharmashastra, are categorized as smriti, a word indicating "what is remembered," as distinct from the Vedas and the Upanishads which are shruti, "what is heard." The Vedas and the Upanishads are deliberated to be divinely perceived that is, the early seers were held to have perceived eternal truths and the Dharmashastra, as well as other smriti texts, are the thoughts and explanations of Hindu scholars in response to the shruti books. Chronologically, the sutras of the Dharmahshastra follow sometime after the Vedic period, but these works have been extremely difficult to date. Most researchers agree that the first three sutras from which selections are included in this volume, Gautama, Apastamba, and Vasishtha, fall sometime between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century B.C. From the time of their composition, the works of the Dharmashastra had vital role in influencing Hindu culture and law. In fact, the shastras were still being cited in cases of legal contracts as late as the mid-19th century in some regions of India.

The Dharma-shastras asserted to be divine in origin and to have been transmitted by ancient saints who cannot be recognized as historical figures. Manu is found as early as the Rg Veda (c, 1200 BCE), where he is pronounced as Father Manu, ancestor of the human race. In the Satapatha Brahmana of around 900 BCE, Manu is evidently the father of mankind when he follows the advice of a fish and builds a ship in which he alone among men survives the great flood. Afterwards, he worships and performs penance and a woman, Ida or Ila, is produced and he starts mankind with her. Manu was also the first king and the first to spark the sacrificial fire. As the inventor of social and moral order, he is the rishi who discloses the most authoritative of the Dharma-shastras. Manu's text, the Manusmrti or Manava Dharma-shastra is the earliest of the Dharma-shastras. Its date is unclear, being somewhere between 200BCE and 100 CE. It probably reached its present form around the second century CE. In the section of the text on rajadharma, the king's dharma, there are passages on Hindu law. It was these passages which were first noted by Western scholars and so the text became known as the Laws of Manu.

The Manusmrti gives importance to the ruling groups of invading peoples such as the Sakas, Pahlavas, and the Greeks, who were called the Yavanas. In this, the Manusmrti was cooperative with the new social realities to the theoretical pattern. Yavanas, Sakas, Pahlavas and other foreign trespassers are described by Manu as lapsed ksatriyas, of the warrior class. These warriors had lost their status for not following dharma, but by performing appropriate expiatory sacrifices and acknowledging the brahmans as religious leaders they could come into the fold of the orthodox community. During fourth century CE, the writing of mature Dharma-shastras was fully thriving. In this period, the rules of caste were being systematically enforced by brahmanical dynasties for the first time after centuries of foreign rule.

There were other aspects of Manu's text which brought theory with actual practice and social reality. In his theory of mixed castes, he developed a system of combination between the four classes (varnas), producing the many castes (jati). Already occupational groups or guilds had set up closed patterns of endogamy characteristic of a jati, so Manu was fitting his theory to the facts.

It is debated whether the Dharma-shastras highlighted an ideal picture that did not correspond to real life. However, the Dharma-shastras, though stylised and systematised, were collections of existing customs and practices that provided the overall theoretical framework for everyone to practise their traditionally recognised ways of life.

In the period of first centuries A.D. the text Dharma Sutra texts were reworked in verse form, and the social and religious regulations of the orthodox brahman culture were systematized. These codes are accepted as authentic guides to law, custom, and duty. Since many centuries, they attained a stature comparable to that of the Vedic hymns, although it is not possible to assess whether any of the law codes were purposely employed as guidelines supported by coercive sanctions. In the beginning of sixteenth century, there were several streams of religio-cultural creativity among Bengali Hindus. One of these was Raghunandan Siromani in the field of Dharma-shastra. He may have been a contemporary of Caitanya in Mayapur.

Dharma in Hinduism is a very extravagant concept with different meanings. Its primary aim is to guarantee the orderly development of creation and existence, by preserving their foundational structure, supporting mechanism, values, order and regularity. Hinduism described as one of the self-appointed duties of God is to shield the worlds and beings by enforcing the Dharma that is specific to each of them. The rules of Dharma are world-wide in the sense that their primary source is God only. However, variations rise in their implementations as they are applied at different levels and in different worlds according to the duties, roles and responsibilities suggested to each of them.

Dharma is everlasting, but its enforcement and observance are subject to variations according to the progression of time. Hence, they are subject to change. They are also applicable to beings who are bound to either duty or mortality, but not to those who are liberated forever. In the liberated state, the souls (muktas) enjoy eternal power in the world of Brahman, where there are no limits and no laws, but only all-knowing awareness, and vast existence that is not subject to any laws or limitations. In that eternal and infinite state, each soul governs itself, exists by itself, bound to nothing, complete, perfect and very much like God in a state of unity.

The Dharma Shastras were predestined for people who are assured to the worldly world, because of their ignorance, immoral karma, delusion and desires, and who engage in desire-ridden actions. For such people, guidance is required for differentiating the legal act from the unlawful, and performing such duties that flow directly from God which will ensure the orderly development of the world and preservation of the moral, social and political order.

The Dharmashastras are not products of divine revelations like the Vedas. Therefore, they are susceptible to the imperfections to which the human mind is prone. Yet, we cannot cast them away as mere intellectual works of limited vision. They were shaped with care to provide guidance from a divine perspective. In them, people will find a sincere attempt to provide practical solutions to possible social disorder, disarrangement, and moral confusion. In them people will find divine wisdom as purified by the human mind and filtered by perceptive intelligence. Hence, they are considered smriti rather than sruti. They signify the collective wisdom of spiritual teachers, scholars, rulers, and law makers who were instrumental in their creation and implementation. The law books prescribed best possible solutions to each class of beings to chase the four principles of dharma, artha, kama and Moksha, but in doing so they were not completely free from the caste predilections that favoured a few social classes. They deceive a veiled attempt by clever minds to ensure status quo and preserve the social, economic and political privileges of select castes.

With the use of authority of God and religion, the Dharma Shastras attempted to ensure the order and regularity of the world on an ongoing basis, but in that they were not completely successful as it is evident from the decline of their jurisdictional power following the decline of the power of Hindu rulers in the Indian subcontinent. Nonetheless, on the positive side, they created a framework to imagine ideal human conduct and standards to distinguish the right from the wrong. They laid down elaborate rules to oversee human conduct and instil fear of moral and temporal power.

Some of the laws and principles of unfairness prescribed in the Dharma Sutras are bound to offend the sensibilities of present day educated Hindus, who have been heavily influenced by modern western education and brought up upon the values of equality, fraternity, individual liberty and social and moral justice. Many verses in them stand in contrast to these modern values and sound retrogressive. Therefore, when people study them, suspend their judgment and weigh the knowledge from an academic or historical standpoint as a work in progress. It is reckless to use them as a reference to rationalise any social or gender inequality in current society or make an argument that people must draw inspiration from them to regulate their social conduct. People may take from them a few principles that are still valid in the present day world and observe them in their life, but they may not use it as a reasonable point to argue their universal version.

The Gautama Dharmasutra, most ancient the texts of the Dharmashastra, possibly composed sometime between 600 and 400 B.C.. It was concerned with the sources of dharma, standards for both students and the uninitiated, the four stages of life, dietary rules, penance, rules concerning impurity, and many other regulations and rituals for Hindu life.

The Dharmasutra of Apastamba was possibly composed between 450 and 350 B.C. It is an extensive work with many aphoristic verses and meticulously detailed rituals for daily life. Some of the noticeable subject matter includes rules about marriage and married life, forbidden foods and dietary regulations, ritual purity, property laws, rebirth, and various penances. This sutra details various methods of self-destruction that will exculpate violators of certain Hindu laws fornication with the wife of a religious teacher, drinking alcohol, theft, or murder of a high-caste man and relieve them of their impurity. It also includes contrary rules, including a ban of self-killing.

The Vasishtha Dharmasutra was possibly written between 300 and 100 B.C. This sutra is famous for its sections on adoption, but it also concerns justice, legal testimony, inheritance, interest rates, and other matters of social law. Several issues surrounding suicide are raised in the text, including penances for those who contemplate suicide or fail in an attempt at self-killing; these are unpermitted suicides. As in the Apastamba sutra, which it echoes, suicide can also be an act of expiation for unlawful behaviour, restoring one to purity after death.

The Manu-Smrti is the ancient and most prominent of the Dharma Sastras. The Laws of Manu are perhaps the most famous part of the Dharmashastra. It was written in the later part of the Epic Period and often given separate recognition because of their unique metrical style. The Laws of Manu communicated extensive regulations for many aspects of Hindu life, including rules governing religious offerings, purifications, rites, and many other religious and social practices. This code, like Hindu thought generally, differentiates between unpermitted and permitted suicides. In Book V, suicides are grouped with heretics, those who fail to perform the appropriate religious rites, and those of mixed caste: libations may not be offered to them. In Book VI, the code compares the person who is alive to a servant awaiting payment from his master, explaining that one should neither "desire to die" nor "desire to live." In many of their other passages, however, the Laws of Manu emphasize the value of leaving the body and becoming free of its pains and torment, as well as achieving full liberation from worldliness and desire. Books VI and XI indicated the means by which the Brahmana or renouncer should separate himself from his body. Based on the teaching of the four stages of life, developed in the text in detail, the Laws of Manu hold that, after one has become old and passed through the three previous stages of life celibate religious discipleship, married householder status, and, after one's grandchildren are born, retirement to the forest. One should simply walk in a northeasterly direction in this version, without food or water until one dies. It is in this stage that one becomes a sanyasin, attaining the highest level of spirituality. This expedition that ends in death is often called "the Great Departure."

As a broad social code, Manu Smrti served as an authoritative conductor for Hindu jurisprudence for a long time in Indian social history. In terms of authority and admiration, it has important place next only to the Vedas from which it derives its authority. It is usually considered as the most influential work on Hindu law. To elaborate sacred law, the treatise includes, in addition to the sacred tradition, individual conscience and the example of virtuous men. Allowance must be made for local custom, and past usage must be considered in the settling of legal clashes. The king is assumed to be divinely created and ordained to shield the people from a cruel state of nature, but the absolutism of the European divine right argument is not found in the conception. The king embodies the virtues of eight deities; his authority is derived from the divine nature of his office and the significance of his crucial role in the preservation of the social order, as well as from the supernatural origin of his person. It is said that such descriptions of monarchy as found in the Manu-Smrti and the Mahabharata are attuned only with hereditary kingship. Caste distinctions are also made the product of divine decree as well as the result of social necessity. Brahman dominance is described and justified in the most exaggerated terms. In the Manu-Smrti and most of the law books, punishment increased in severity as social status weakened.

Manu's text contain12 chapters with 2685 verses, it is evident from the translated work of C. Buhler, and other scholars.

Manu's Samriti covers following topics (K. S. Padhy, 2011):

  1. Social responsibilities, obligations, duties of various caste and individuals in different stages of life.
  2. The way a perfect and righteous king of rules and punishes the criminals and transgressors of law in his kingdom.
  3. Social relations between man and woman of different caste and of husband and wife in privacy of the house.
  4. Birth, death and taxes.
  5. Cosmogony, karma and rebirths.
  6. Ritual practices.
  7. Error and restoration.

Table: Table reflect the Mnu's text (K. S. Padhy, 2011)

Chapter Number of verses Content
1 119 Origins of universe etc.
2 249 Sources of law, the first stage of Brahman's life, i.e. the studentship.
3 286 The second stage of life, the householder and his religious studies.
4 260 Subsistence and private morals of the Brahman householder.
5 169 Food-ceremonial purification duties of woman.
6 97 The third and fourth stages of life.
7 226 The king's duties, the second caste etc.
8 420 Civil and criminal laws.
9 336 Civil and criminal laws continued: the third and fourth castes.
10 131 The mixed castes and classes, procedure in time of need.
11 266 Penance, expiration, etc.
12 126 Exposition of philosophical principles, acquisition of final happiness.

In his valuable work, Manu elaborated the text on following (K. S. Padhy, 2011):

- Origin of universe and rules for the rituals.

- Keeping promises and attending the teacher.

- Kinds of marriages.

- Regulation for great sacrifices and the obligatory rule for the ceremonies for the dead and for questioning witnesses..

- Various means of livelihood, vows of the Vedic graduate, kinds of food to be eaten, purification and cleansing of impurities.

- Duties of women, of a king, of a husband and wife, heretics.

- Freedom and renunciation.

- Partition of property, gambling, and cleaning out thorns.

- Attendance by commoners and servants and origin of confused classes.

- Religious duties of all classes in extremity and rules for restorations.

- Three fold course for transmigration that arises from the effect of past actions.

- Supreme good and examination of the virtues and vices of the effect of past actions.

- Obligatory duties of countries, cates and families.

It can be said that text of Manu focused on life, how is it or how it should be? It is about Dharma which covers notions like religion, duty, law, right, justice, practice and principle (K. S. Padhy, 2011). It describes religion in its entirely good and bad effect of the past actions and the external code of conduct of four classes of people. The code is the highest law and it is described in the revealed canon and in tradition. Therefore, a twice born person who is self-possessed should always practice it. He who fails to do so does not reap the fruit of the Veda. Its strict adherence ensures full enjoyment of the fruit. Manu's text though ancient cannot be ignored for its comprehensiveness. It covers family life, psychology, human body, sex, relationship between humans and animals attitude to money and material possession, politics, law, castes, purification and pollution, rituals, social practices and ideals, world renunciation and worldly goals. Manu's teaching inspire humans to fulfil his promises and liberate himself from the consequences of his past deeds. He not only purifies himself of all his sins but help his predecessors and successors up to seven generations in achieving salvation. Manu's law are found in Vedas (K. S. Padhy, 2011).

Yajnavalkya Smriti: Except Manu Smriti, the code of Yajnavalkya attained supreme position in Hindu jurisprudence. When it was found by the intellectuals of the then Hindu society that the rules as laid down by Manu needed a revision, Yajnavalkya collected his own code in around 200 A.D. known as Yajnavalkya Smriti. However this Smriti follows the same pattern as of Manu Smriti in the treatment of subjects, it is scientific and more systematic. It evades replication. J.C. Ghose stated that though Manu's authority is unquestioned by all Hindus, it is the law of Yajnavalkya by which they are really governed. Yajnavalkya Smriti contained 1010 verses divided into three chapters namely achara, vyavahara and prayaschitta. On matters such as women's right of inheritance and right to hold property and criminal penalty, Yajnavalkya Smriti is more liberal than Manu Smriti. It is thought that the deep influence of the teachings of Buddha had great impact on the society which has found itself expressed in the form of more humane provisions of law in the Yajnavalkya Smriti. When comparing Manu Smriti text, Yajnavalkya Smriti is very brief, scientific and practical. By writing explanation on Yajnavalkya Smriti under the title, Mitakshara, Vigneshwara greatly advanced the prestige and authority of Yajnavalkya Smriti. Vigneshwara was a south Indian who lived during 1050-1100 A.D. The interpretation of Vigneshwara has been recognized as the paramount authority on Hindu law in the whole of India except the province of Bengal, where the Jumutavahana's code known as Dayabhaga controls supreme.

Narada Smriti: This Smriti consists of 1028 verses. Dr. Jolly who has translated this Smriti pronounces that the date of this Smriti is later than 300 A.D. and that the writer of this Smriti welcomed from Nepal. Narada has not been quoted by Kautilya and so he must have been certainly after Kautilya and not prior to him. This Smriti exclusively deals with forensic law, both substantive and technical without any reference to penance and other religious matters. Thus, Narada Smriti makes a departure from the earlier works and can be considered as purely relating to law. It deals with courts and judicial procedure and also lays down the law regulating the 18 titles with great clarity. Narada was independent in his interpretations and did not allow himself to be bound by the earlier text. This Smriti is noteworthy for its liberal views on various matters. For instances, in the matter of inheritance, Narada Smriti provides for an equal share in property for the mother along with her sons after the death of her husband. In marriage, he holds that a widow as well as a wife whose husband is impotent or absconding is entitled to remarriage. In politics Narada was par excellence champion of royalty. He is the solitary writer who went to the extent of maintaining that even a worthless ruler must be constantly worshipped by his subject.

A basic principle of Hindu political thought was the faith that the king must consider himself not as the creator of the law but only as its guardian. The Narada-Smrti is an omission. In this work the royal decree is regarded as legitimate in its own right. Perhaps the most authoritarian of Indian writers, Narada stressed that the king be obeyed whether right or wrong in his actions. Narada Smrti refers to four successive versions of the Manu's code. The original text had 1,00,000 slokas with 1,080 chapters when it was first given to Narada. Narada is said to have edited it before he passed it on to Markandeya with 12,000 slokas. Markandeya in turn taught it to Sumati, the son of sage Bhrgu, as consisting of 8,000 slokas. Sumati reduced it to 4,000 slokas. But the present form of Manu Smrti, as it comes to public, include only of 2,635 slokas spread over 12 chapters. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of Narada Smrti is generally considered to be uncertain as it belongs to the early centuries of the Christian era. The above account of the Narada Smrti may be not reliable. However, its suggestion that Manu Smrti had different versions need not be disregarded. As to the exact date of the Smrti, there are contradictory views held by different researchers. Indian chronology has been so challenging that it is difficult to determine the exact periods of most of the ancient Sanskrit texts and Manu Smrti is no exception. However, It can be accepted that the code had an oral tradition for about three centuries before it acquired present form around second century B.C.

However, from about the third century B.C., there was growing appreciation of the need to relate law and tradition to changing social conditions. This mindfulness can be understood in the Dharma Sastra work credited to Yajnavalkya. In that work and in the codes of other legal authorities, it is contended that the proclamation must synchronise with customary and sacred law and that departures from the original rajadharma must be carefully controlled. Judicial offices were generally to be filled by brahmans, since no man could be judged by one who was not at least his social equal and since the sin involved in the crime must also be judged. The earliest court was likely the king's palace, but by the time of the Dharma Sastras intricacies of judicial administration required formal institutions of a more specialized nature. There existed a regular procedure for appeal from lower to higher courts.

The political explanation of the Dharma Sastras is alike to that of the Arthasastra authors. Tax revenue was seen as the king's equitable due in return for the security he provided. For social stability legal theorists elaborated rules of statecraft with Kautilyan candor, but usually (as in Yajnavalkya) military action was to conform to a code of conduct. The method of the power balance was understood, and alliances were considered among the major assets of the state. In Hindu political theory, diplomacy is built on the interrelationships within a group of states, all gracefully labelled in terms of their probable effect on the fortunes of the home state. This theory (mandala) is based on the assumption that the king, by nature, aspires to conquest and that his neighbour is his enemy. The natural ally is the kingdom on the opposite edge of the opponent.

It is well acknowledged that Dharma Shastras give too much importance to the aspect of dharma. Dharma-shastra is the "science of dharma" and is a set of texts which teach the eternal immutable dharma found in the Vedas. Dharma Shastras is a term denotes to all or any of numerous codes of Hindu civil and social law composed by various authors. The best known and most respected are those by Manu and Yajnavalkya. The Dharma Shastras are part of the Smriti literature, included in the Kalpa Vedanga, and are widely available today in many languages. The Dharma-shastras expanded and remodelled in verse form the Dharmasutras. Both these groups of texts are commonly translated as "The Law Books" but this is misleading. Dharma means a great deal more than "Law" (see Sva-dharma) and in classical Hindu thought there was no distinction between religion and law. In socio-religious terms dharma upholds private and public life and establishes social, moral, and religious order. As the basis for the legal system dharma is a system of natural laws with specific rules derived from an ideal, moral, and eternal order of the universe. The most succinct statements on dharma are found in the Dharma-shastras and Dharmasutras, which can be divided into three categories: rules for good conduct, rules for legal procedure, and rules for penance.

The Dharma-shastras prescribed rules for all of society, so that each person might live according to dharma. These texts are accredited to ancient rishis, seers or sages. Dharma Shastras is the description of legal literature in Sanskrit. It consists of laws and rules of conduct of the people of different category and had its origin in the Dharma Sutras which formed a part of the Vedanga Kalpa Sutras. Dharma means what upholds an individual; what sustains one; what leads to happiness; one's own obligations or duties; sacred law; moral order; practicing various truths responsible for integrated development; correctness; eternal principle; philosophy of life; estimable act and so on. Dharma Shastras or Science of Law contains Dharma Sutras and Smritis.

Manu was the most important figure of these and his Manava Dharma-shastra (Laws of Manu) is the most famous of the texts. It is also called the Manusmrti from smrti. It is in the form of the dharma exposed by Brahma to Manu, the first man, and passed on through Bhrigu, one of the ten great sages. A divine origin is claimed for all the Dharma-shastras to enable their general acceptance. The Manusmrti designates the creation of the world by Brahma, Manu's own birth, the sources of dharma, and the main ceremonies of the four stages of life. This was to develop into the successive stages of life. To reach the fourth stage of renunciation, it was necessary to pass through the other three stages. Other chapters deal with the duties of a king, the mixed castes, the rules of occupation in relation to caste, occupations in times of distress, expiations of sins, and the rules governing specific forms of rebirth. Though a theoretical textbook, the Manusmrti wrote about the practicalities of life and is largely a textbook of human conduct. After Manu came Dharma-shastras attributed to Yajnavalkya, Vishnu, Narada, Brhaspati, Katyayana, and others. The later Dharma-shastras are nearly pure legal textbooks. The Manusmrti is considered superior to the other Dharma-shastras.