Āpastamba is one of the few highly venerated ancient sages accredited with the authorship of some important religious works which are considered as authoritative even today. Tradition ascribes his works to the period Kali 450 (i.e., 2652 B. C.). However, it is impossible to confirm or deny this, as in the case of many other ancient authors.
The name is sometimes spelt as ‘Āpastambha’ (‘one who could restrain water’). The mythological lore attributes to him the yogic power to stay under water for long. This would often attract the aquatic creatures to him. Fishermen interested in making a bonanza of the catch, once spread their nets in the place where he was seated in yoga and un-wittingly netted him. King Nābhāga is then said to have freed him honouring him with a cow and a calf and sent him back to his hermitage.
The four or five works ascribed to him may be grouped under one title, the Āpastamba Kalpasūtras. The ‘Kalpa’ (or Kalpasūtras) is a class of literature grouped under the Vedāṅgas (subsidiary disciplines which help grasp the purport of the Vedas better), and is further subdivided into śrauta, gṛhya, dharma and śulba. (For details, see under KALPA-SŪTRAS, ŚRAUTA-SŪTRAS, GṚHYASŪTRAS, DHARMASŪTRAS and ŚULBASŪTRAS.)
The Āpastamba Kalpasūtras is a fairly voluminous work comprising 30 praśnas, or sections. Out of these, the first 24 praśnas, appropriating a lion’s share, form the Śrautasūtras. The next two sections are called Mantrapāṭha. The 27th praśna is the Gṛhyasūtras. The next two make up the Dharmasūtras whereas the last is known as Śulbasūtras. Of course, when these works are treated as independent treatises, they are prefixed by the author’s name. (Āpastamba Śrautasūtras and so on.)
The Śrautasūtras (no. of sūs. 7590) deal exhaustively with the conduct of Vedic sacrifices from Darśapūrṇamāsa up to Aśvamedha and Puruṣamedha. It is assigned to the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda and has been commented upon by Dhūrtasvāmin and Kapardisvāmin.
The Mantrapāṭha gives the prayers or hymns to be used at appropriate places during the conduct of rituals and sacrifices.
The Gṛhyasūtras (no. of sūs. 389) deal mainly with the rites connected with the family (gṛha = home, family) life, like upanayana (initiation into Vedic studies), samāvartana (returning from the guru’s house after Vedic studies), marriage, rites to be performed on the birth of children as also certain magical rites. The work has been commented upon by Haradatta Miśra and Sudarśanācārya.
The Dharmasūtras (no. of sūs. 1381) give a fairly good account of the duties of the four āśramas and the four varṇas and also describe the sixteen saṁskāras (purificatory rites). Haradatta Miśra has written a beautiful commentary on it, which he has named as Ujjvalā.
The Śulbasūtras is a highly technical work dealing with the construction of altars for Vedic sacrifices. Out of the three commentaries available, that of Kapardi-svāmin is the oldest.