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date: 19 November 2017


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Dharmaśāstra (‘ treatise on the Law’, ‘ Law code’, ‘ science of dharma’) 

In the widest sense, the term designates not just the literature treated below, but also the Dharmasūtras, and the later commentaries and digests. However, it is most usually applied as the collective name given to a voluminous category of verse literature dealing with Brahmanical dharma. Classified as smṛti, Dharmaśāstra addresses such topics as ācāras (‘rules of conduct’)—the orthodox, and therefore ‘correct’, performance of social and ritual duties (including saṃskāras—life-cycle rituals) in the light of varṇāśramadharma, especially as it applies to the behaviour of brahmins; prāyascittas—reparations for infringements of dharma; and vyavahāra—the civil and criminal law through which kings should administer their justice. The foundation text of this genre, and the direct source of much of the later Dharmaśāstra literature, is the Manusmṛti or Mānava Dharmaśāstra (‘The Law Code of Manu’), whose authority had been established by around the 4th century ce. Another prominent, and more systematic dharma text from this period is the Yājñavalkyasmṛti. From about the 9th century ce onwards, the influence of Dharmaśāstra literature was expanded through commentaries (particularly on Manu and Yājñavalkya), and increasingly through the compilation of systematic Nibandhas or ‘digests’ of dharma from a wide variety of sources. The latter were the main source of the Indian legal system devised by the British in the 18th century; but whether Dharmaśāstra is supposed to be prescriptive in a literal sense, or the expression of an ideal, remains a matter of debate. A valuable modern digest for scholars is P. V. Kane's five volume History of Dharmaśāstra (1930–62). See also Dharmasūtras.

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