Talk:When Dharmashastra Works were First Composed

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

It is essential to find out when formal treatises of Dharma began to be composed. It is not possible to give a definite answer to this question. The Nirukta[1] shows that the heated controversies had raged on various questions of inheritance, such as the exclusion of daughters by the sons and the rights of the appointed daughter[2]. It is very likely that these discussions had found their way in formal works and were not merely confined to the meetings of the learned. The manner in which Yaska writes suggests that he is referring to the works in which certain Vedic verses had been cited in support of particular doctrines about the inheritance.

It is further a remarkable thing that in connection with the topic of inheritance Yaska quotes a verse, calls it a śloka and distinguishes it from a 'rk'. This makes it probable that works dealing with the topics of dharma existed either composed in the śloka meter or containing ślokas. Scholars like Buhler suggest that these verses were a part of the floating mass of mnemonic verses. The existence of these verses is postulated without very convincing or cogent arguments in his introduction to the Manusmrti.[3]


It is difficult to say when the works on Nirukta[4] were composed. It exhibits controversies about inheritance and quotes a verse śloka from some work on dharmasutras. Gautama and Baudhayana speak of dharmashastra while Baudhayana and Apastamba mention numerous sages who had written an extant work on dharma. Vartika of Kātyāyana and Jaimini speak of dharmashastra while Patanjali highlights on dharmasutrakaras. Dharmashastra works existed prior to Yaska or at least before 600 B. C. and in 2nd century B. C. Dharmasutras had become authoritative with the method of dealing with the whole dharmaśastra literature. It is mentioned in the first dharmasutras, then early metrical smrtis like those of Manu and Yajnavalkya. Later it was versified, then commentaries and digests, such as the Mitakśara, were written on it. The chronology of early writers is very difficult to conclude.

Era of Initiation of Dharmasutra Works

If works dealing with the topics of dharma existed before Yaska, a high antiquity will have to be predicated for them. The relics of works on dharmashastra follows from other significant considerations. It will be seen later on that the extant dharmasutras of Gautama, Baudhayana and Apastamba certainly belong to the period between 600 to 300 B. C. Gautama speaks of dharmashastras and the word dharmasutra occurs in Baudhayana also[5] Baudhayana speaks of a dharmapathaka[6].

Besides that, Gautama quotes the views of others in the words ityeke[7] at numerous places. He refers to Manu in one place and Acaryas in several other places.[8] Baudhayana also mentions several writers on dharma for him by name like Jahghani, Katya, Kasyapa, Gautama, Maudgalya and Harita. He also cites the views of numerous sages such as those of Kanva, Kautsa, Harita and others.

There is a Vartika which elaborates the topics of Dharmashastra. Jaimini also speaks of the duties of a śudra in the dharmasashtra. Patanjali shows that in his days dharmasutras existed and their authority was very high, being next to the commandments of God. He quotes verses and dogmas that have their counterparts in the dharmasutras.

Hence the foregoing discussion establishes that works on the dharmashastra existed prior to Yaska or at least prior to the period 600-300 B. C. In the 2nd century B. C., they had attained a position of supreme authority in regulating the conduct of men.

Contemporary Literature on Dharmashastra

The whole of the extant literature on dharma can be dealt with as follows:

  • First comes the dharmasutras. Some of the works like those of Apastamba, Hiranyakesin and Baudhayana form the part of a larger sutra collection, while there are others like those of Gautama and Vaṣisṭha which do not form part of a larger collection. Some dharmashastras like that of Visnu are in their extant form in comparatively later times in the date than other dharma works; some works like those of Śankha-Likhita and Paithinasi are known only from the quotations.
  • Early metrical smrtis like those of Mann and Yajnavalkya are discussed secondarily. There are many smrti works like those of Brhaspati and Katyāyana that are known only from quotations. There is an existence of the versified smrtis like that of Nārada.
  • The two epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Purāṇas also have played a great part in the development of the Dharmashastra. The commentaries on the smrtis, such as those of Visvarupa, Medhatithi, Vijnanesvara, Apararka, Haradatta should be reviewed next. Then in the last stage, digests on dharma such as the works of Hemadri, Toḍaramalla, Nilakañtha and others should be considered.


It’s very difficult to settle the chronology of the works on dharmasastra, particularly the earlier ones. The present writer do not subscribe to the views of Max Muller [9] and others that works in continuous Anustubh meter which followed sutra works. A general knowledge of the works of that period is so meagre that such a generalization is most unjustifiable. Some works are in the continuous śloka metre, like the Manusmrti, are certainly older than the Viṣṇudharmasutra and probably of the same era of Vaṣisṭhadharmasutra.

One of the earliest extant is Baudhayana dharmasutras which contains long passages in the śloka meter, many of which are quotations. Even the Apastamba has a considerable number of verses in the śloka meter. This renders it highly probable that works in the śloka meter existed before them. Besides a large literature on dharma existed in the times of Apastamba and Baudhayana which has not come down to us. In the absence of that literature, it is futile to dogmatize on such a point.


  1. Nirukta III 4-5
  2. This ritual is called as putrika.
  3. S. B. R. vol. 25 Intro. XC
  4. Nirukta III. 4-5
  5. Baudhayana Dharmasutra IV. 5
  6. Baudhayana Dharmasutra I. i. 9
  7. Baudhayan Dharmasutra II. 15, II. 58, III. I, IV. 21, VII. 23
  8. Baudhayana Dharmasutra III. 36, IV. i8 and 23
  9. H. A. S. L. p. 68