|Doctrines|| ||Dharma-shastra is the "science of dharma" and is a set of texts which teach the eternal immutable dharma found in the Vedas. 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 attributed to ancient rishis, seers or sages. Manu was the most important 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, what is remembered. It is in the form of the dharma revealed 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 facilitate their general acceptance.
The Manusmrti describes 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 evolve 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 deals with 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.
|History|| ||The Dharma-shastras claim to be divine in origin and to have been passed on by ancient rishis who cannot be identified as historical figures. Manu is found as early as the Rg Veda (c, 1200 BCE), where he is described as Father Manu, progenitor of the human race. In the Satapatha Brahmana of around 900 BCE, Manu is clearly 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 kindle the sacrificial fire. As the originator of social and moral order, he is the rishi who reveals 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 uncertain, 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 a place 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 accommodating the new social realities to the theoretical pattern. Yavanas, Sakas, Pahlavas and other foreign invaders 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. By the fourth century CE the writing of mature Dharma-shastras was fully flourishing. At 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 in line with actual practice and social reality. In his theory of mixed castes he has an elaborate system of marriages 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 argued whether the Dharma-shastras painted an ideal picture that did not correspond to real life. However, it is more likely that the Dharma-shastras, though stylised and systematised, were compendia of existing customs and practices that provided the overall theoretical framework for everyone to practise their traditionally recognised ways of life.
Early in the sixteenth century there were several surges 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.
|Symbols|| ||Basic Hindu symbolism is involved in the Dharma-shastras, especially in sections dealing with daily rites, offerings, sacrifices, and caste identifying dress, symbols, and marks. An example of caste symbolic dress is the staff that is carried. A brahman has one of bilva or palasa wood that reaches to the end of his hair, a ksatriya has one of vata or khadira wood that reaches his forehead, and a vaisya has one of pilu or udumbara wood that reaches the tip of his nose.|
Symbolic language is used in the Manusmrti. For example, a brahman cannot even greet men who live like cats or men who live like herons (IV, 30).
Symbols are used in punishments in the form of branding marks. Thus for violating a guru's bed the mark of a female part was impressed on the forehead with a hot iron, for drinking the liquor called sura the sign of the tavern was branded on, while for stealing a brahman's gold a dog's foot was branded on and for murdering a brahman a brand symbol of a headless corpse was applied (IX, 237).
|Adherents|| ||All traditionally living Hindus.|
| ||The Dharma-shastras are consulted by those in authority, mainly the brahmans, all over India.|