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Smriti

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Vedic literature is primarily of two types, sruti and smriti. The Veda is called sruti and is the highest authority. Other texts are called smritis, and they derive authority from the sruti. Sruti is apaurusheya (eternal and authorless), and smritis are the words of seers.

Smritis could be broadly classified as

Vedangas 
subjects required to understand various aspects of the Veda
Upavedas 
arts and sciences
Upangas  
understanding of dharma and debating it
Darsanas 
windows to truth
other sastras (treatises, guidelines)

These are not mutually exclusive classes. For instance, Nyaya and Mimamsa are Darsanas as well as Upangas. Dharma sutras are included in Vedanga Kalpa as well as Dharma Sastras (Upanga).

Contents

Types of Smritis

Based on the nature of knowledge, the smriti literature is of two types: one that expounds sastra and one that outlines codes of conduct. While texts like Manusmriti and Puranas contain both types of knowledge, there are specific texts for specific purposes. Texts like Paniniya Astadhyayi (Vyakarana), Gautama Sutras (Nyaya), Tarka Samgraha (tarka) expound specific sastras. Dharma Sutras and similar literature expound codes of conduct, judiciary etc.

Sutra and Metrical forms

Based on the method of organizing the text, the smriti literature is of two forms: sutra and metrical. Sutra method is a concise way of stating information, where entire text is arranged in a sequence of rules. A rule below borrows context from the above ones, unless stated otherwise. Thus, the size of text reduces considerably because every sutra is not an independent statement and a lot of text common to sutras is thus eliminated. For instance texts like Astadhyayi, Dharma Sutras follow the sutra method.

The non-sutra texts are more descriptive, so each statement is unambiguous in its meaning. These are in sloka (poetry) or prose form, but most of the texts are in sloka form. Examples are Manusmriti and Itihasa Puranas.

Further, a set of sutras slokas or names are referenced with the first word of a beginning sutra and last word of ending sutra along with the count of sutras. This way pointers to huge amount of information is linked to with small text.

Examples:

  1. The alphabet is referred to as "a adi ksha anta", meaning beginning with "a" and ending with "ksha".
  2. The entire procedure for constructing a temple is referred to as "karshanadi pratisthantam", beginning with karshana and ending with pratistha.
  3. The 16 step procedure for worship is called "dhayavahadi shodashopacara", that is the sixteen steps beginning with dhyana and avahana.
  4. The sloka to refer to all the 18 puranas goes:
ma dwayam bha dwayam caiva bra trayam va catustayam ana pa ku ska linga antam

Meaning

  • the names of two puranas start with ma (matsya and markandeya),
  • two with bha (bhavishya, bhagavata),
  • three with bra (brahmanda, brahma, brahma vaivarta),
  • four with va (vamana, varaha, Vishnu, vayu),
  • one each with a (agni), na (narada), pa (padma), ku (kurma), ska (skanda) and linga

(This list varies from another list that includes Siva Purana instead of Vayu Purana in this list).

Goal of Smriti

The smritis aim at outlining and giving a picture of how to live life in a way to fulfill the purpose of life, thus make life meaningful. They also aim at reflecting Vedic worldview in daily life. The functions smritis prescribe regulate life closest to natural laws as seen in the Veda.

Spirit of Dharma Sastras

Dharma Sastra is a guideline that outlines ideal practices. Smriti keeps in mind that real life is not however ideal, and recommends what is best. There is always a deviation from smriti, and the goal is to be as close to it as possible. Common man is always between the two extremes - questioning the smriti and following each principle without fail. What smriti attempts is to direct common man towards giving his best try to follow the smriti. In case of a deviation, smriti also advocates ways how one can correct himself and fall back in line.

This is why, while we find smriti saying what is not to be done, it also says how to deal in cases of things happening otherwise. For instance, having said one should not have extramarital relation, it says what should be legally done in cases of such relation and offspring of such relations (such as property, inheritance). Having said a Brahmin should not drink, it explains how a drunkard should be dealt with in various situations. This shows that while outlining what is best, smriti takes into consideration all combinations in which things can happen (which are in agreement or disagreement with smriti), and explains how to deal with all those situations. Thus smriti is thoroughly founded in life and society and is not an out of the world text. Also, because of the flexibility it thus offers, it applies to all times with the fewest modifications. In fact it should be said that the modifications needed to make smriti suit any kind of times are much smaller than the level of deviation from it otherwise existent in the society (which is deviation for those times itself).

Further, smriti seeks to present with clarity the rights and wrongs of a situation along with dos and don'ts. While describing the actions of most righteous (as in case of Itihasa Puranas) it demonstrates how one can realize ideals in life. It also clarifies the dilemmas and confusions man faces in various life situations and explains what its stand is and why.

Thus smriti is a comprehensive guide to life that defines goals of life, gives methods to achieve them, clarifies where there are confusions, and explains how to stick to those goals and how to correct oneself if one is going wrong in the path. It also outlines social design such as various stages of life, functions of man and woman, various classes/sections of the society, polity, administration, judiciary and polity.