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The Dharma Shastras


The Dharma Shastras include the law codes of Hinduism, both secular and religious (since both were very much inseparable).They deal with three main subjects: codes of conduct, civil and criminal law, and punishment and atonement.

Most important is the Manu Smriti (or Manu Samhita), still consulted in Indian law. It was written by Manu, an administrative demigod (the "ruler of mankind") and the first law-giver. The word "man" is said to derive from Manu. There are fourteen Manus during each creation of the world. The Manu Smriti contains 2,700 verses divided into twelve chapters. Most scholars claim that it was written between 300 and 600 BCE. Other important dharma texts were written by Yajnavalkya, Parashara, and Narada.

The Manu Smriti establishes the Hindu way of life. It specifically outlines the duties of the four varnas and four ashramas. It extols the virtues of the brahmanas, but clearly states that the varna divisions are based on individual merit and capacity rather than birthright. The text also deals with rules of inheritance and adoption, and with law and the science of government.

An illustration of the "blue jackal" from a popular version of the Panchatantra.

Closely related is the Artha Shastra, a text that discusses the science of acquiring wealth and power. One such popular work is the Artha Shastra of Chanakya (also known as Kauntila), who was the prime minister of King Chandra Gupta, reputed to have defeated Alexander the Great.

Chanakya also studied many scriptures and compiled an anthology of popular wisdom in the form of proverbs. It is part of the Niti-shastra, which also includes the famous animal fables of the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha.

Scriptural Passages

"A man should not associate with a woman in a solitary place, not even with his mother; sister, or daughter, for the senses are so strong that they lead astray even a person advanced in knowledge."

Manu Smriti 2.215

Personal Reflection

  • How does the quote from Manu (above) relate to popular opinion today? Is it out of date, or could it be relevant?

  • Do any of the proverbs relate to our experience?

  • Are there any similar proverbs from our own background?

  • What do they really mean?

Related Values and Issues

  • Citizenship

  • Crime and punishment

  • Capital punishment

  • Morality

  • Rights and responsibilities

  • Classless society/equal opportunity

  • Righteous war/chivalry

Verses From Chanakya

  • A pigeon today is better than a peacock tomorrow.

  • The union of even small people can become irresistible. The elephant is tied up with rope made of grass.

  • As the gardener plucks each flower without destroying its root, so should the ruler collect revenue without harming its source.

  • Excessive courtesy should never be trusted.

  • Flies go after open wounds, bees after flowers, good people after good qualities, mean people after faults