The concept of dharma and its appli-cation to the various aspects of life is of fundamental importance in Hinduism. The concept itself has undergone several changes over the centuries. As derived from the root ‘dhṛ’ (‘to support, to sustain’), the most general meaning of the word ‘dharma’ is ‘that which supports and sustains’. Gradually it came to acquire several senses such as—ordinance, usage, duty, right, justice, morality, virtue, reli-gion, good works, function or characteristic. However, the sense of ‘duties and responsibilities based on some fundamental moral virtues’ became most widely accepted.
The Vedas being the primary scriptures of Hinduism, naturally get the pride of place as the definer and the source of dharma. But, with the growth of the human society and the consequent problems it had to face, there arose a great need to expand the scope of and to delve deeper into, the concept itself. It is this that gave rise to the composition of the later works, now included under the comprehensive term ‘dharmaśāstras.’
According to all these works, the sources of dharma are: the Vedas; the smṛtis; the teachings and conduct of persons who are well-versed in the scriptures and are of unblemished character; one’s own conscience.
Though the Vedas do not have positive precepts on matters of dharma—concerning personal conduct and social regulations as understood and defined by the later works, they do contain incidental references to various topics that fall under the domain of the dharmaśāstras. There are at least 50 passages in the Vedas that shed light on the forms of marriage, different kinds of sons, adoption of a son, partition, inheritance, śrāddha ceremony and strīdhana or property that should rightfully accrue to women. All these topics have been dealt with in much greater detail in the dharmaśāstras.
The first stage in the evolution of the dharmaśāstras is met with in the Vedāṅga (‘limb of the Veda’ or a subsidiary of the Veda) called ‘kalpasūtras.’ ‘Kalpa’ means procedure, the ‘how’ of a thing.
The kalpasūtras comprise four sections:
The first and the last are directly concerned with Vedic sacrifices. Whereas the gṛhyasūtras deal with the rites and ceremonies to be performed by a householder in his house (gṛha = house), the dharmasūtras are concerned with the more general and social aspects of dharma, the conduct of human beings as members of a society, of a community. However, these two are interconnected and even inter-dependent.
In the gṛhyasūtras and the dharma-sūtras, the language is archaic and the delineation of the subjects is not very systematic. Hence the need arose for the composition of another class of works, now well-known as ‘smṛtis,’ written in a more intelligible language and mostly in poetical verses, to facilitate easy remembrance. Quite a few of these smṛtis are now available in print.
Though the dharmasūtras in general, are more ancient than the metrical smṛtis, it is equally possible that some from the latter group like the Manusmṛti, are as old as the former or even older. At least, the core-content could be so.
As the implementation of the rules of conduct in the society progressed, problems, including differences of opinion must have cropped up. Hence, commentaries on these works, attempting to expand the ideas given there or clear the doubts and anomalies, were written by competent scholars, thus enriching the whole field of dharmaśāstra literature.
As the number of such compositions increased, it became necessary to produce ready-reference material, containing abstracts, surveys and reviews, of all the matter available on that subject. This gave rise to another class of works known as ‘nibandhas’ or digests.
The two epics—the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata—as also many of the purāṇas contain a lot of material that should normally be the concern of the dharmaśāstras. The nibandhas, naturally, have made good use of this material at the appropriate places.
Hence any standard work on the dharmaśāstras should avail of all the relevant stuff provided by these various sources.
The topics generally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras fall under three broad groups: ācāra (general conduct), vyavahāra (social conduct, law and order) and prāyaścitta (expiatory rites for transgressions).
They may now be described briefly.
Unless the body-mind complex is kept clean and pure, both physically and ceremonially, a human being cannot attain dharma in its two primary aspects, viz., abhyudaya (worldly progress) and niśśre-yasa (spiritual welfare). This is achieved by strictly following ācāra or the code of conduct, prescribed to be followed in one’s personal life. This code as ordained in the śruti (the Vedas), the smṛtis (the secondary scriptures) and sadācāra (conduct of the sagely persons) should be practised meticulously, without indolence or neglect. Sadācāra (good conduct) leads to long life, fulfilment of desires and attainment of wealth, whereas durācāra (bad and sinful conduct) results in disease, suffering, short-life and ill-fame.
The ācāra or sadācāra concerns mainly what are termed as ‘ṣaṭkarmas’ or six daily rituals. They are: snāna & sandhyā (bath and the sandhyā ritual), japa (repetition of Vedic mantras or God’s name), homa (oblations into a consecrated fire), devapūja (worship of gods), ātithya (entertaining the guests) and vaiśvadeva (offering cooked food to all the gods).
Tarpaṇa or ceremonial offering of water with appropriate mantras, to devas (the gods), ṛṣis (sages) and pitṛs (manes) is also included in the daily routine.
Some aspects of these karmas like bath, worship of one’s family deity, repetition of the divine name and entertaining guests, apply to persons of all castes without any distinction.
As an important part of the ‘ācāra-kāṇḍa’ (section dealing with the ācāras), the ṣoḍaśasaṁskāras or 16 purificatory sacraments are also delineated. Upa-nayana (investiture with the sacred thread called ‘yajñopavīta’ and the imparting of the famous Gāyatrī-mantra), vivāha (marriage) and antyeṣṭi (after-death ceremonies) are the most prominent of the 16 sacraments.
Another aspect of life, which is cardinal to Hindu religion and society, viz., the varṇa-āśrama-dharmas, has also been given the primary place in all the dharmaśāstra works in the ācāra section.
Though the word ‘vyavahāra’ refers to the general social conduct, in the dharmaśāstras it is used in a more technical sense, that of civil and criminal law.
In this section 18 subjects have been dealt with. Some of them are: ṛṇādāna (debts), sambhūya-samutthāna (partnership), saṁvid-vyatikrama (breach of contract), kraya-vikraya (purchase and sale), svāmi-pāla-vivāda (disputes between the master and the servant), sīmāvivāda (boundary disputes), daṇḍapāruṣya (assault), vākpāruṣya (libel), steya (theft), strīsaṅgrahaṇa (abduction of women), strīpuṁdharma (relation between husband and wife) and vibhāga (partition).
The king’s court was the judiciary. He was assisted by men of knowledge, wisdom and character in the dispensation of justice. He could also depute a judge to act on his behalf. There were duly appointed persons to oversee the implementation of the decisions taken by the court.
To err is human. Human beings are prone to commit errors of omission and commission. If they do not realise their faults and mistakes, and do not reform themselves, they have to suffer a lot. This reformation has to be in two stages: repentance and a firm resolve that the mistake will not be repeated; expiation for the ones already committed.
The mistakes are called ‘pātaka or pāpa’ (sin) and the expiations, ‘prāyaścitta’.
The prāyaścitta sections of the dharmaśāstras describe the various types of sins, categorise them into mahāpātakas (mortal sins) and upapātakas (venial sins) and prescribe the necessary expiations.
Sins like brahmahatyā (killing a brāhmaṇa), surāpāna (drinking wine and other intoxicating liquids) and incest are classed among the mahāpātakas. Minor sins like forsaking the sacred fires, offending the guru (Vedic teacher), minor thefts, non-payment of debts, selling prohibited articles, cutting down trees or killing harmless animals and so on, are grouped under upapātakas.
The prāyaścittas can vary from certain modes of tapas (austerities) like fasting, japa (repetition of certain Vedic formulae or names of God), dāna (giving gifts), going on a pilgrimage (for minor sins), right up to religious suicide (for heinous sins).
The dharmaśāstras are not only based on the Vedas, but, amplify their teachings for better application at day-to-day practical level. Of course, they do not forget to emphasise that the final goal of human life is the attainment of God who is one without a second, who is called by various names, who is the Supreme Ruler of the universe, the origin of creation and its final destination.
It is admirable that the dharma-śāstras have recognised the importance of the physical body—its health, strength and energy as also its protection against dangers in times of emergency—as basic to any achievement in life, whether spiritual or temporal. Hence they advise everyone to protect his life and limb by all means at his disposal.
However, this is only the first step. Equally important is the cultivation of moral values. All the dharmaśāstra works, without exception, lay great stress on the sāmānya-dharmas or universal principles of truth, self control, decent and dignified behaviour (especially towards the women-folk), earning one’s livelihood by honest and right means, performing one’s duties and discharging the obligations to one’s family and the society, not harming others, personal and environmental cleanliness, study of (or listening to) sacred literature, a certain degree of austerity and devotion to God.
The dharmaśāstra literature (in Sans-krit) is very vast. Apart from the well-known works directly composed on the topics of the dharmaśāstras, there are innumerable verses spread over the two epics and the purāṇas dealing with the various aspects of the subject. Here, an attempt will be made to give a very brief account of the more ancient and important of the works.
This work forms the 28th and the 29th praśnas or sections of the bigger work, the Āpastamba Kalpasūtras. It belongs to the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. When compared with the Gṛhyasūtras of the same author, there are a few sūtras which are identical and the topics are inter-related. It may be assigned to the period 450-350 B. C. The style is more archaic and the sūtras are very concise.
A wide range of topics normally dealt with in the dharmaśāstras are found here also though the prāyaścitta portion is more elaborate. One of its peculiarities is that it abounds in the technical terms and doctrines of the Pūrvamīmāṁsā school.
Kāvya Uśanas is an ancient sage mentioned even in the Ṛgveda.
There is an Auśanasa Dharmaśāstra mostly in prose, available now, though in parts. The topics dealt with are: aśauca (impurity on birth and death), the four varṇas and some mixed castes, prāya-ścittas and śrāddha (obsequial rites).
The Auśanasa Dharmasūtras is in prose and contains material identical with that of some parts of the Manusmṛti. From the writings of other authors it is possible to assume that a bigger sūtra work was available, dealing with all the three aspects of ācāra, vyavahāra and prāyaścitta.
Another dharmaśāstra and also a smṛti, both ascribed to Uśanas are available now either in print or in the manuscript form. The former has 51 verses and deals mainly with the mixed castes such as sūta and māgadha. The latter has 600 verses in 9 chapters and deals with such topics as upanayana and śrāddha.
Baudhyāna probably lived during the period 600-300 B. C. and belonged to South India. His work on all the four branches of the Kalpa are available now.
The Dharmasūtras is in 4 praśnas or khaṇḍas (sections). The subjects dealt with are: upanayana, duties of a brahma-cārin, several purificatory rites, forms of marriage, śrāddha ceremonies, saṁnyāsa and some rites for securing siddhis or supernatural powers.
The Gṛhyasūtras deals mainly with the saṁskāras.
This ancient work is entirely in prose and can be assigned to the period 600-400 B. C. It has 28 chapters.
The topics dealt with are: details of the upanayana for the various varṇas, the four āśramas, avocations of the four varṇas, saṁskāras or sacraments, details of the duties of a king including crime and punishment, duties of women, prāyaścittas, rules of partition of property and a few other minor topics.
Hārīta is considered as an ancient teacher since he has been quoted by Āpastamba, Baudhāyana and Vasiṣṭha. The work available now has thirty chapters. He speaks of eight kinds of marriages, of which kṣāttra and mānuṣa have replaced ārṣa and prājāpatya given in other works. He mentions two kinds of women, brahmavādinīs and sadyovadhūs, the former being entitled to undergo upanayana, to the study of the Vedas and even to the maintenance of Vedic fires.
This work may be assigned to the period 600-300 B. C.
This treatise forms the 26th and the 27th praśnas of the Kalpasūtras by Hiraṇyakeśin. It has borrowed profusely from the sūtra works of Āpastamba and Bhāradvāja. Hence, it is not considered as an independent authority.
The author belonged to the Taittirīya school of Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda and lived in the Konkan region (West Coast, South India).
The work as available now, is a small one. It is also called Vaikhānasa-dharma-praśna. It is considered as a later production, by a devotee of Nārāyaṇa and may belong to the period A. D. 300-400. It could be a redaction of an earlier work.
It mentions four kinds each, of brahmacārins, gṛhasthas, vānaprasthas and saṁnyāsins.
Purification of golden and other metallic objects as also other things before their use, mentioned here seems to be interesting.
Assigned to the period 300-100 B. C. this work is not a part of a kalpasūtra. It is very similar to the Dharmasūtras of Baudhāyana and Gautama.
The topics dealt with are almost the same as in other, similar, works. He mentions only six forms of marriage, allows niyoga (levirate) and the remarriage of child-widows. Administration of justice by the king is another important subject dealt with.
This book professes to be a revelation of Viṣṇu in his Varāha or Boar-incarnation. It is said to belong to the Kaṭha school of the Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda. It has a hundred chapters in mixed prose and verse, of which some parts are in common with the Kāṭhaka Gṛhyasūtras, popular in Kashmir.
It draws heavily on the Manusmṛti. Rājadharma (duties of a king), crime and punishment, twelve kinds of sons, mixed castes and funeral rites are some of the topics dealt with.
The date of the older part of this treatise is fixed as 300-100 B. C.
Aṅgiras is one of the ten primordial sages and has been mentioned even in the Ṛgveda.
Three smṛtis bearing his name have been published so far. The first one has 72 verses and is probably an abridgement. It deals mainly with prāyaścittas.
The second one has 168 verses, the subject being, again, prāyaścittas. It mentions some of the well-known authors of smṛtis like Āpastamba, Śaṅkhalikhita and Sumantu.
The third one has 1200 verses and is different from the other two editions.
Atri was an ancient writer on dharma. Even Manu refers to him.
There is one Ātreya Dharmaśāstra available in 9 chapters. The work is in verses as well as in prose, in the sūtra form.
The topics dealt with are: gifts, prayers, austerities and expiations.
The work refers to a number of foreign tribes such as Śakas, Yavanas, Bāhlīkas and Paraśas.
There are other works styled Atri Smṛti or Atri Saṁhitā available in the manuscript form. They contain secret expiations for sins. They also deal with gifts and ācāra.
Another Atri Saṁhitā, available in print has 400 verses and deals with the duties of the four castes.
Two more works—Laghu Atri and Vṛddha-ātreya Smṛti are also available.
Bṛhaspati was an ancient teacher of arthaśāstra (economics and political science). He probably wrote a dharmasūtra work which is not available now. He has been quoted by several writers on the dharmaśāstras. Some writers consider him as an atheist.
The Bṛhaspati Smṛti available now has seven sections (mostly in verses) dealing with vyavahāra (social conduct), ācāra (general conduct) including āpad-dharma (emergency measures) and prāyaścitta.
He is assigned to the period A. D. 300-500.
This is an extensive work of a late period, in 12 chapters comprising 3000 verses. It seems to be a recast of the Parāśara Smṛti by one Suvrata. The subjects dealt with are: ṣaṭkarmas or six items of the daily routine, saṁskāras, aśauca, prāyaścittas, duties of the four āśramas, rājadharma (a king’s duties and responsibilities) and yogic disciplines.
This smṛti is an old one. Printed texts have 220 verses distributed in seven chapters. The subjects treated are: the four āśramas, daily round of duties of the dvijas, various types of action, making gifts, aśauca, yoga and its limbs, philosophies of the dvaita and the advaita schools.
This smṛti has been extensively quoted by others.
Devala is a sage whose name often appears in the Mahābhārata, sometimes, along with another sage Asita. A dharma-sūtra treatise—probably an extensive one—has been attributed to him. It perhaps contained sections on ācāra, vyavahāra and śrāddha, as can be guessed by the numerous quotations in other works.
The Devala Smṛti available now seems to be a late work. It is in 90 verses and deals with purificatory rites.
There is a gṛhyasūtra work of Gobhila belonging to the Sāmaveda. The Gobhila Smṛti available now has 491 verses in three sections. Topics like yajñopavīta, upākarma and śrāddha are dealt with in this work.
Nārada, Bṛhaspati and Kātyāyana are the Trinity of sages considered as authorities in ancient Hindu Law. His work as available now has 973 verses (with an addenda of another 121 verses). Portions of the work on the vyavahāra section are yet to be recovered. He might have lived during the period 4th to 6th cent. A. D.
Another work, also attributed to Kātyāyana is available in 3 sections comprising 29 chapters and about 500 verses. The contents are: details of wearing the sacred thread, worship of Gaṇeśa and the various goddesses in religious rites, some information connected with Vedic sacrifices, chanting of Vedic mantras, śrāddha and aśauca.
The Manusmṛti is the most ancient and authoritative among the extant metrical treatises on dharma. It has 12 chapters and 2684 verses, covering all the three aspects of a typical dharmaśāstra as follows: ācāra (chs. 1-7), vyavahāra (chs. 8-10) and prāyaścitta (chs. 11 & 12).
The topics dealt with include: creation of the world, four āśramas, the sixteen saṁskāras, śrāddha, the four varṇas (castes), disputes and their resolution, āpad-dharmas (conduct during emergencies), the mortal sins and their expiation, good and bad deeds as also the nature of the Ātman.
The extant work may be assigned to the period 300 B. C. It may have undergone quite a few redactions.
The printed edition of this work has 21 chapters and 1028 verses. It was probably composed during A. D. 100-300.
It follows the Manusmṛti closely. It has been quoted by a few authors of nibandhas. The contents are generally the same as in the other dharmaśāstras. Nārada differs from Manu in some respects and has introduced many sub-divisions in the major topics. His classification of impotent persons, women who can remarry, as also some of the juristic and political principles distinguish it from other works.
Though Parāśara was an ancient sage, the present work available in print must be a product of several revisions. The Parāśara Smṛti is said to be the ideal guide for this Kaliyuga or the Iron-age. It has 12 chapters and 592 verses. It deals only with ācāra and prāyaścitta.
The contents are: the four yugas, the six daily duties, Vedic study, duties of a householder, the four varṇas and their duties, remarriage of widows under certain conditions, purification of various articles of use and expiations of various types for sins.
Two more works—the Bṛhat-Parāśara and the Vṛddha-Parāśara—are also available which are obviously later compositions.
The Saṁvarta Smṛti as available in print today has 230 verses. It contains very ancient material. The extant work may be an epitome of the original smṛti. It is in the form of teaching given by the sage Saṁvarta to Vāmadeva and other sages.
Its main contents are: rules of conduct for the brahmacārin; prāyaścittas for lapses on the part of the brahmacārin and others; duties of householders, forest hermits and monks.
Other authors have referred to the views of Saṁvarta on topics of vyavahāra by quoting him.
There is a smṛti ascribed to Vyāsa and is available now. It has four chapters and 250 verses. It can be assigned to the period A. D. 200-500.
The contents can be summarised as follows: authoritativeness of the Śruti, the smṛti and the purāṇas; the sixteen saṁskāras; mixed castes; duties of a brahmacārin; marriage; nitya (obligatory) naimittika (occasional) and kāmya (desire-motivated) karmas; eulogy of the householder stage and a few other related topics.
Yājñavalkya is a highly respected and one of the most brilliant and outstanding sages of ancient India. The Śukla Yajurveda was revealed to him.
The smṛti that goes in his name now, has 1010 verses distributed among the three kānḍas or sections dealing with all the three topics: ācāra, vyavahāra and prāyaścitta. The whole work is well-organised and is in the classical anuṣṭubh metre.
The subjects dealt with can be briefly stated as follows: saṁskāras, marriage, varṇa and jāti, dāna, śrāddha, details of civil disputes and the methods of solving them, crime and punishment, aśauca and prāyaścittas as also some miscellaneous topics.
The original text must have undergone several revisions. The present form probably belongs to the period 100 B. C. to A. D. 300.
Yama was probably a great sage since his views have been quoted even in the Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtras.
The extant smṛti has 78 verses dealing with prāyaścitta and śuddhi (purificatory rites).
It is interesting to note that he prescribes punishment for cutting trees, shrubs, plants and creepers, especially if they have flowered or have fruits!
This is an encyclopaedic work by Hemādri on ancient religious rites and observances. It might have been composed during the period A. D. 1260-1270. Four volumes containing 6000 verses have so far been printed. The complete work has not been recovered till now. The four puruṣārthas form the main content of the work. The topics of vrata (religious rites and observances), dāna (gifts), śrāddha (obsequial ceremonies) and kāla (time and proper periods for the observance of religious rites) have been dealt with in great deal.
The Kalpataru or the Kṛtya-kalpataru of Lakṣmīdhara is a voluminous work in fourteen kāṇḍas or Books. Lakṣmīdhara was a minister in the cabinet of the king Govindacandra of Kanauj (A. D. 1114-1154).
This treatise has exercised tremendous influence in North India for over 500 years.
The subjects dealt with in these fourteen kāṇḍas are: duties of brahma-cārins and gṛhasthas, āhnika, śrāddha, vratas, pūjā (worship of gods), pilgrimage, prāyaścittas, śuddhi, duties of a king, law and administration, śāntis (propitiatory rites) and mokṣa (liberation).
An extensive and erudite work of Kamalākara Bhaṭṭa, this was probably composed around A. D. 1612. About a hundred smṛtis and three hundred authors of nibandhas have been named in this treatise.
The topics dealt with are: kāla, vratas, saṁskāras, Agnihotra, śrāddhas, kalivarjyas (actions forbidden in the Kaliyuga), aśauca and also saṁnyāsa.
This is a well-known digest on the dharmaśāstra topics, by Devaṇṇabhaṭṭa (circa A. D. 1150-1225), most probably from South India.
The contents are: varṇa-āśrama-dharmas; saṁskāras; daily duties of a dvija; sandhyā, śrauta and smārta rites; rules about food; the five daily sacrifices; procedure of law-courts; dāyabhāga; and śrāddhas.
Though several writers composed works styled Smṛticandrikā, it is only Devaṇṇabhaṭṭa’s work that is held as authoritative and relied upon.
Composed around the period A. D. 1645-1695 by Anantadeva (grandson of the famous Marathi saint and poet Eknāth), this vast digest deals with several topics such as: the sixteen saṁskāras, rules for adoption, festivals and sacred days, vāstu śāstra (architecture and town planning), coronation of a king, homas and śāntis.
Caṇḍeśvara (circa A. D. 1314), the author of this extensive digest was a minister in the court of the king Bhaveśvara of Mithilā. This work is also known as the Ratnākara. It contains seven sections, each of them being called ‘Ratnākara’. They are: Kṛtyaratnākara, Dānaratnākara, Śuddhiratnākara, Pūjā-ratnākara, Vyavahāraratnākara, Vivāda-ratnākara and Gṛhastharatnākara.
The subjects dealt with comprise the following areas: vratas, duties of house-holders, various kinds of gifts, civil and criminal law, aśauca as also pūjā.
This is the work of Raghunandana (A. D. 1510-1580), the last great writer of Bengal on the dharmaśāstras. It is divided into 28 sections, each being called ‘tattva’, such as Tithitattva, Durgāpūjātattva, Dāyatattva and so on. The topics delineated include—purificatory rites, sacraments, festivals like Janmāṣṭamī and Durgotsava, civil law, public utility works, religious observances, establishment of temples, śrāddha and so on.
The Vīramitrodaya of Mitramiśra (circa A. D. 1610-1640) is a vast digest of dharmaśāstras, the second largest in size. Each of the sections is named as a ‘prakāśa,’ such as Vyavahāraprakāśa, Saṁskāraprakāśa, Rājanītiprakāśa and so on.
The contents include the following topics: āhnika, pūjā, pilgrimage, civil law, saṁskāras, rājanīti or political science, giving gifts, purificatory rites, śrāddha, prāyaścittas, bhakti and mokṣa.
Apart from the dharmasūtras, the smṛtis and the nibandhas, another factor that has contributed significantly to the enormous growth of this class of literature is the composition of learned commentaries on these works. These commentaries have explained the originals, expounded the various doctrines and subtle points and resolved many doubts and misgivings, thus giving a clear practical direction for implementing the various rules of the originals.
The following table gives some idea of these commentaries:
The Arthaśāstra of Kauṭilya (300 B. C.) along with its two commentaries Nayacandrikā of Mādhava Yajvan and Pratipadapañcikā of Bhaṭṭa Svāmin contains a lot of material on vyavahāra and rāja-dharma, two of the important topics discussed by most of the dharmaśāstras.
The Rāmāyaṇa, though a kāvya or a literary composition, contains quite a few references to some of the topics discussed in the dharmaśāstra treatises. Details of the coronation of a king, effects of anarchy, sins (and expiations), duties and responsi-bilities of a king, obsequial rites, value of truth, and, duties and virtues of women—all these topics have found a place in the epic, here and there.
Similarly, the Mahābhārata also contains a lot of material that comes under the purview of the dharmaśāstras. The following are the subjects dealt with, some briefly, others more exhaustively: coronation, evils of anarchy, ahiṁsā (non-violence), the dharmas of the varṇas and āśramas, ācāra, āpad-dharmas, pilgrimage, giving gifts, dāyabhāga, expiations for sins, rules regarding food, political science (in detail), marriage and śrāddha.
The eighteen principal purāṇas as also some of the minor ones contain extensive and very rich material on the various topics discussed in the dharma-śāstras. That is why the commentators and the authors of the nibandhas have quoted from them profusely.
A brief list of these topics as they appear in the purāṇas may now be given:
ācāra, āhnika, aśauca, varṇa-āśrama-dharmas, rules about food, dāna, kali-varjya (what is prohibited in the Kaliyuga), sins and their expiations, duties of a king, saṁskāras, śāntis, śrāddha, pilgrimages, vratas, vyavahāra and yugadharmas (special characteristics of the four yugas).
The Hindu society has had a chequered history over the last 2500 years. The dharmaśāstras too, have grown over the same period, not only to voluminous but also to highly refined, proportions. They have played a very significant part in preserving the unity and solidarity of the society to a considerable extent.
This they have done by:
As long as there were Hindu rulers to enforce the code of conduct as prescribed by the dharmaśāstras, there was order and peace in the society. When the political power passed into the hands of ruthless alien rulers, even a safe and honourable existence became a serious problem. Hence the religious and social leaders, swimming against the current, made supreme efforts to preserve the unity and integrity of the society by modifying the ācāra and the prāyaścitta parts of dharma as much as possible, since the vyavahāra part had practically passed out of their hands.
There is a charge that the writers of the dharmaśāstras of later periods (A. D. 1000 onwards) unnecessarily went into great depths to discuss small details. One should not forget that, by this time, the dharmaśāstras had become an important subject for study and discussion even in the academic circles of the day, in the traditional institutions like Maṭhas, Pāṭhaśālas and Vidyālayas. Hence, this scholarship was both necessary and useful in those circles.
Another accusation levelled against these dharmaśāstras is that they were meant only for the first three castes, that too for the brāhmaṇas and the kṣattriya rulers, and were not very helpful to the others. The reply is that the society of those days was like that and hence these works had to be in tune with the same. An examination of these works also reveals the startling fact that the higher a person was in the social hierarchy, more stringent were the rules guiding or binding him! And, this certainly is not a point for pointing the finger of accusation!
Again, the dharmaśāstras in general, have all along maintained that any rule disliked by the majority of the people should be replaced by a more agreeable one. The principle of kalivarjya or āpad-dharma is a case to the point.
After India gained political freedom, drastic changes have been made in the structure of general laws and Hindu Law, correcting many an imbalance of the past ages. In spite of this, if justice is not being meted out to the weaker sections of the society, the fault obviously lies elsewhere!