Smritis: Way to Realisation

Smritis: The Way to Realisation through Good Conduct
By Swami Samarpanananda
Ramakrishna Mission: Vivekananda Education and Research Institute
Belur Math, Howrah, W. Bengal
YouTube Channel: Indian Spiritual Heritage

What are Smritis?

Every religion has philosophy, rituals, mythology, and code of conduct as the four pillars on which it stands. If any of these four pillars gets neglected, then that religion loses its vitality, and soon it degenerates either into fanaticism, or gets lost into oblivion. The four essential pillars of the Hindu religion are Vedanta (Upanishads), Tantras, Puranas, and the Smritis respectively.

These four pillars of Hinduism, however, have their source and sustenance in the Vedas only. The entire spiritual ideals, religion, and culture of the Hindu race are rooted in the Vedas, which are also known as Sruti. In essence, the Vedas contain the eternal principles, or the universal laws of both the external and the internal nature, and hence they show the ways to attain dharma, artha, kama, moksha -- the four purusartha (goals of life). Since the Vedas were inaccessible to the masses, and also there was a need for an elaboration of the statements made in these works, a new class of scriptures, called Smriti, was born. Thus works like Mahabharata, Ramayana, Purana, Dharma shastras (law books, also known as Smritis) are all Smritis.

The Vedas supply the framework of spiritual life, while the details of spiritual life are filled by the Smritis. So, even though the Smritis are important, they are considered inferior to the Vedas in matters of authority. If per chance a statement of Smriti appears to contradict the Vedas, then the words of Smriti gets overruled.

Smritis mean both the supplementary scriptures (i.e. Puranas, Itihasa etc.), and also the law books like Manu Smriti. Hereafter, this article uses the term Smriti to mean the dhrama shastras (Law books). These Smritis are the systemically arranged dharmas (code of conduct) scattered over the different texts of the Vedas. They supplement and explain the Vidhi (what one should do) and Nisedha (what one must not do) in the Vedas, which when followed properly can lead a person to the ultimate goal of life, which is liberation. These dharma also regulate Hindu national, social, family and individual obligations.

Smritis as Dharmashastra

The Vedas have six auxiliary literature (grammar, prosody etc.) like their limbs (anga), and hence are known as Vedanga. These are considered very important for the study of the Vedas. Kalpa is one of them.

To help the Vedic priests perform the various details connected with a sacrifice, a kind of manual was worked out. With time each Veda had its own handbook of rituals written in a short form (sutra), or in metrical form. They came to be known as Kalpa. Of these Kalpa Sutras, the Srauta Sutras deal with the performance of the public sacrifices, and the Grihya Sutras deal with the ceremonies applicable to the domestic life of a man.

The Dharma Sutras are directly connected to the Grihya Sutras, and deal exclusively with dharma, which is defined as right, duty, law, religion, custom, and usage. The Grihya Sutras prescribe forty ceremonies, known as samskara, for a person. These samskara govern his journey from birth to death. In later times, only sixteen of these remained popular, and in recent times, the number has gone down to ten.

Most of the Dharma Sutras originated in the Vedic schools, but some of them like Gautama Dharma Shastra, and Manu Smriti are independent works, although rooted in the Vedic tradition.

Laws, Commandments, Smritis

Before setting down a law or a constitution, the law maker has to decide the rationale behind those laws. For example, the main purpose behind any social or criminal law is to safeguard the interests of a community, whereas the religious commandments are aimed at making an ordinary person outgrow his savage nature. If there is no higher purpose behind a law, then that law becomes a wall of imprisonment, instead of being the wall of protection.

The most famous code of conduct from ancient times is the code of Hammurabi from Mesopotomia, which was written down in c. 1760 BCE. This work is one of the earliest available set of laws and is also the best preserved work of its kind. The famous sayings like "an eye for an eye" and "an arm for an arm" are based on Hammurabi's Code. Most other sets of laws come from a small geographical area of the Eastern world that had a similar culture and belonged to the same racial group. These sets of laws have a great similarity amongst them, and they seem to have been inspired by a common source. The earlier code of Ur-Nammu (21st century BCE), the Hittite code of laws (ca. 1300 BCE), and Mosaic laws (traditionally ca. 1400 BCE), are examples of this.

Laws given by Moses, more popularly known as Ten Commandments, has played a very important role in the Judeo-Christian world. Similarly the Laws given by Buddha, and Zarathurasthra have played a vital role in shaping the lives of their followers.

Smritis are neither mere law books, nor are they like the constitution of a country, or of an organised society. These are not even commandments, but are shastras, scriptures. Shastra means 'that which governs', and is applied to a book only if it teaches the ways and means to attain mukti, the supreme goal of life. Books like Manusmriti are considered a shastra because they teach how a person who performs his svadharma (duties) faithfully can attain self realisation.

The Celebrated Hindu Lawgivers

The Vedas are believed to be the words of God, channelled through the realisations of the sages. So the sages are not treated as their creators. On the other hand, Smritis are the creation of various sages. The principles of religion that are in the Vedas are unchangeable, but the religious practices that are based upon the social position and correlation have to change with the change in the society. For example, in matters of food, the climatic and other changes make it necessary to change the rules that govern them. Similar is the case with many such habits and practices. For this reason, the Smritis have varied from time to time, and place to place. Thus the Smritis of the various yugas like Satya Yuga and Treta yuga are different from each other. And since they are not absolute, Smritis are treated as secondary in importance to the Vedas.

From time to time, the great lawgivers amended the existing laws that had become obsolete. They made alterations, adaptations, readjustments, additions and deletions to suit the needs of the time so that a person could live his life in accordance with the Vedic ideals, despite the changed conditions.

There are eighteen main Smritis or Dharma Shastras: Manu, Yajnavalkya, Parasara. Vishnu, Daksha, Samvarta, Vyasa, Harita, Satatapa, Vasishtha, Yama, Apastamba, Gautama, Devala, Sankha-Likhita, Usana, Atri and Saunaka. The Gautama Dharma Sutra, belonging to the tradition of Sama Veda is considered to be the earliest of its kind and must have been composed between 600 and 300 B.C. Another famous work, Apastamba Dharma Sutra belongs to Taittiriya recension of Yajur Veda.

Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara are the more celebrated lawgivers of the Hindus. The Hindu society is mostly governed by the laws made by these three great sages. Of them, Manu is the greatest, most authoritative and the oldest lawgiver, and.his work, Manusmriti, is the most famous law book of the Hindus. Yajnavalkya Smriti is next in importance to it. These two works are accepted throughout the country with respect and authority.

Philosophy of the Smritis

There is a very precise and clear philosophy of life, individual and social, behind the scheme of the Smritis. Like any other Hindu philosophy, these works treat the universe as a complete whole and pulsating with life. According to them, the manifestation of that life is not same everywhere: it sleeps in inert objects, is awake in plants, moves in animals, and is self-conscious in men. Man is considered to be the highest expression of life, but he can also evolve culturally (which includes spiritual growth). This evolution is possible through various means, of which the practise of one's dharma (prescribed duties) is the best.

The writers of Smritis accept inequality in the universe as an inviolable fact, and believe that the real equality is possible only at the spiritual level. So, they did not try to found a society on a theoretical possibility of equality, but struggled to work with individuals and groups that they had in hand. Also, they did not believe the inequality amongst men (the castes) to be real or even presumable. But to perform indispensable functions of the society, each person had to be assigned a fixed role according to certain criteria.These criteria were never fixed with the motive of greed or materialistic outlook. Instead, the existing social pattern and also the ultimate spiritual goal was always kept as the guiding principle of every Smriti.

The detailing of rules and laws in the Smritis is based on the validity of Varnashrama, and also on the inviolability of the law of karma, including rebirth. Without these foundations, the Dharma shastras are irrelevant. Hindu Smritis are meaningless for a society that does not accept life after death. They are also useless for people who do not accept the fact of potential equality at the level of spirituality, despite the prevailing inequality at the socio-economic level. Once these facts are accepted, then only a person learns to believe that the good or bad that comes in his life, is the result of his own past actions. To make an improvement from where he belongs, he himself has to make an effort. It is then that he realises the importance of his own freedom to regulate his conduct by rational volitions and power to conquer his impulses. This is where Smritis come to help.

Every religion expects its followers to adhere to the norms set by its scriptures. Gita says that while making a decision one must stick to what the scriptures say, 'Tasmat shastram pramanam te... ' If an individual depends too much on his own judgement regarding correctness of an action, he may then get swayed by the impurities of his mind, and he may ultimately land into serious trouble. Keeping this in view, Smritis codified every possible action of an individual in such a way that he did not have to think for himself what to do and what not to do. By simply obeying the commands of a Smriti, a person can outgrow his human limitations. In turn, the society also becomes stable when a majority practises these codes.

Smritis are not the high preachers of morality, nor do they take up a condescending moral stand by commanding 'Thou shall not...' These are also not like the absurd and cruel laws interpreted and dictated by the degenerates of religion. Rather, the writers of Smritis only codified what was being practised in the society by the majority of people of that period. It was obvious to the sages that to make the society run smoothly, it was necessary for all the members to follow a common code of conduct. So, whenever the society changed its habits and behaviour pattern due to changed circumstances, the sages noted them, and then codified them for everyone to follow. At the same time, they made sure that these laws did not go against the basic principles of the Vedas.

Smritis are older than the Puranas, and are possibly earlier than even the Epics, but they are not treated as sacred as them, nor are they as popular. The religious spirit which reached its acme in the Veda-Samhitas and Upanishads, found its popular expression in the Epics. Even the aspirations of the Indian minds are well articulated in them, but not so much in the Smritis, because these are in the form of legal texts on social conduct. However, the credit for the stability of the Hindu society, and the high moral standards of a Hindu have come entirely due to these Smritis.

Characteristics of Smritis

The chief characteristics of the Smritis can be summed up as:
* They deal with topics under three main heads: acara (rites), vyavahara (dealings), and prayscitta (penances and expiation).
* Both secular and religious laws are discussed, since these have been traditionally considered inseparable in India.
* The duties of the Varnashrama Dharma are discussed in detail. Every individual is assigned a place in the society, and is given an appropriate duty. Compared to this, today's world is a place where everyone is rootless, and where everyone runs from the pillar to the post in search of stability.
* The duties and responsibilities of the king (Raja dharma), rules for taxation, ownership, money-lending etc. have been discussed. Even the most powerful king was kept under check, and was not allowed to become a despot, only because of the influence of these Smritis.
* Duties of women, and also the responsibilities towards them, have been discussed with care. Manusmriti says that 'the gods reside in the house where a woman is treated with respect.'
* Various samskaras (sacramental rites) like upanayana, marriage etc. are discussed. Smritis assert that only by purifying oneself through these rites, a person can become fit for the ultimate realisation of the Self.
* Punishment for various crimes have been recommended. These lawgivers believed that if a person was punished for his crime by the king, then he once again became as pure as ever. In case the guilty escaped the punishment, he had to suffer through various kinds of losses and diseases.
* Rules about food, clothing, cleansing etc. have been discussed.
* Prayascitta, the penances for sins and mistakes other than crimes, have been discussed.

Smritis take a commonsense view of the duties of man. They also object to taking of sannyasa by a person who has not fully performed his obligatory duties towards the world.

These books discuss six kinds of duties: Varna dharma (General caste duties), Ashrama dharma (General duties related to the station of life), Varna-Ashrma Dharma (based on the particular station of a particular caste), Nimitta dharma (penances), Guna Dharma (duties born of a particular position, eg. a king's), and Samanya ( duties common to all). They lay down the laws that regulate national, communal, family and individual obligations in general (Samanya) as well as in particular (Visesha).

One very important concept of dharma developed in these works is the acceptance of a lower kind of dharma in which it is prescribed to act in one way, and a higher kind of dharma where staying away from that very act under certain conditions is considered more meritorious. For example, telling the truth is considered to be meritorious, but not telling the truth (when it is unpleasant) is considered to be more meritorious. Similarly, preaching dharma is meritorious, but not preaching dharma (when it harms or injures others) is considered to be more meritorious.

Manu Smriti

Manusmriti is the oldest and the most authoritative work amongst smritis. The first references of Manu and his heritage occurs in the Rig Veda. The Mahabharata also makes many references of the work by the great lawgiver, but the book is believed to have taken its final shape around second BCE. Considering many pros and cons, it is possible that the work was completed before Buddhism made roots in India.

Manu's statements are considered healthy and acceptable, and hence all later works were based on this work. Many great scholars and sages wrote commentaries on it. According to the Vedas, whatever Manu said is wholesome like medicine. The book was considered so useful that even the South-East Asian countries accepted the norms set by it.

Manusmriti has around 2700 shlokas, arranged in twelve chapters dealing with acara, vyavahara, and prayscitta. It is in the form of dialogue between Manu and his disciple Bhrigu in the presence of many other sages who wanted to know about dharma.

Manu's work begins with the exposition if the universal concept of Hindu philosophy that God alone exists. The Creation begins due to mysterious reasons, but is an act of God. The soul, which in essence is inseparable from God, identifies itself with matter and runs after it through its senses. In the process, it gains virtues and vices which in turn produce good and bad results. With the beginning of this vicious cycle of ignorance--desires--action--ignorance, a soul gets entangled more and more in the trappings of the world. To come out of this cycle, one has to acquire the Knowledge of the Supreme God. This requires purity of mind, which can be attained only through a thorough cleansing of the body, mind and social conduct. To preserve one's purity, a person must steer clear of every kind of contamination. The more a person is pure, the more important he is for the society, and the more he is advanced towards spiritual realisation. The guidelines of keeping oneself pure comes through dharma.

According to Manu, Dharma is to be known through the Vedas, Smritis, conduct of saints, and finally through one's own purified intellect. By following Dharma, one attains perfection. Manu goes into detail on the duties of a student, householder, hermit, monk and king. He also discusses the principles of political administration and the vows and observances to be followed as expiation for the commission of certain sins. From there he goes on to discuss spiritual matters, safety, personal habits, cleanliness, sanitation, ways of conduct, and subjects of common sense.

The great lawgiver accepts that there is hardly any activity that is not prompted by desire (kama), but to act solely on such urge is tamasik (demeaning). It is to curb these base tendencies that dharma was promulgated by the sages. Manu stresses the importance of dharma by saying that one is born alone, one dies alone, and one enjoys the fruits of one's deeds alone. Father, mother, wife, children and friends will not come to one's help in the other world; only Dharma will rescue him. He finally sums up his instructions on dharma by saying that of all dharma, attainment of knowledge of Self is supreme, since that is the only way to attain immortality.

The work of Manu is more than 2500 years old, and yet it approaches such levels of rationality and justice that one is left wonderstruck. His approach towards various issues has one fundamental rule: Quality is more important than quantity. Manu gives tremendous freedom and licenses to the educated and the cultured, but he also demands huge sacrifices from them. While giving privileges to the Brahmins, he repeatedly asserts that a Brahmin who is not devoted to the Vedas and austerities, is not to be treated as a Brahmin, but as a Shudra. Such a fallen Brahmin's privileges etc. are to be at par with a Shudra only.

Manu accepts the existence of customs peculiar to place, class, and families. He advises the conquering king to safeguard and maintain the customs of the conquered people, and yet consolidate his own empire. In contrast, one may look at the various conquering barbarians and the kings, including Alexander, whose first act after victory was to destroy the local culture. Today's India, despite all its diversity, is an integrated country only because the Hindu kings of the past followed the political principles of Manu.

Creation according to Manu

God alone exists. He is eternal, sat (real, because He exists) and also asat (because He is unknowable and indiscernible by the mind and senses). In the beginning the Lord alone existed. He was indiscernible, so there was only divine darkness.

Desirous of Creation, the Lord first created the great elements (sattva, rajas, tamas). He now appeared knowable (by the Yogis), with supreme creative power. This dispelled the divine darkness. He then created the divine waters and placed his seed in them. The waters are called nārah. Since God first resided (ayana) there, He is called Narayana.

That seed became a golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), from which Brahma was born. He stayed meditating in that egg for a whole year (of Brahma), and then he broke it into two by his mere will. Out of those two halves, Brahma formed heaven and earth, and placed sky, oceans etc. in between.

He then created Mahat (cosmic mind) and Ahamkara (cosmic Ego). The rest of creation followed according to the Samkhya/Vedanta principle.

Brahma then created the gods, human beings, the great sages Sadhyas, and yajna --the eternal sacrifice. He then went on to create different kinds of actions and emotions. These followed the same pattern as it was in the previous cycle of creation.

Whatever qualities and emotions he assigned to different beings at the time of the first creation: good or bad, ferocity or gentleness, virtue or sin, truth or falsehood, that clung to them even afterwards to them.

To make the creation go faster, he divided his own body and became half male and half female. From the female he produced Virat. That Virat did tapasya from which Manu was born. Manu also did tapasya to create the first ten Prajapati, who are: Marichi, Atri, Angira, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Pracheta, Vasistha, Bhrigu and Narada.

These Prajapatis created seven other Manus. They also created many other class of beings who had not yet been created.

Commanded by Manu, these great Prajapati also did a lot of tapasya and with the power acquired through that, they created both the immovable and the movable beings according to their karma over series of creation and dissolution.

So the goal of life for everyone is to follow the path of dharma, and get out of the cycle of life and death.


Manu accepts the knowledge of Brahman as the supreme goal of life. The concept of personal God, or Iswara, does not find any place in his outlook towards life, and concepts like God's will, surrender to God, predestination etc. are completely alien to his philosophy. Summing up the process of spiritual realisation he says:
वेदाभ्यासेन सततं शौचेन तपसैव च। अद्रोहेण च भूतानां जातिं स्मरति पौर्विकीम्।
पौर्विकीं संस्मरन्जातिं ब्रह्मैवाभ्यस्यते पुनः ब्रह्माभ्यासेन चाजस्रं अनन्तं सुखं अश्नुते |
 - "By the regular practice of the Vedas, constant internal and external purity, practice of austerity, and by not being inimical towards any being, one gets the memory of past lives. This makes one strive for the knowledge of Brahman. The knowledge of Brahman results in infinite joy for the person." (Manu Smriti 4.148-9)


Manu firmly believes that women have the power to sway the minds of menfolk, irrespective of any existing relationship. So, women needed to be treated with care and caution. License to women to move around wantonly was a dangerous thing for her, her family, and the society.

However, Manu is emphatic about the rights and privileges of women, and treats them with great respect. He also introduces the concept of stree dhan (the property of a wife) which cannot be touched by the husband. Special instructions are repeatedly given for the education of daughters, and the protection of sister, wife and mother.

When Swamiji was in America, a controversy was raging there regarding the rights and privileges of Hindu widows in India. There was a group called Ramabai circle who found fault with everything that India had to say or do about its widows. Unwittingly Swamiji was also sucked into it, but he refrained from making any direct response. Ultimately it was his friend Dr. Lewis G. Janes's, who made a full reply to Mrs. James McKeen, leader of the Brooklyn Ramabai Circle. His reply appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, part of which read:
"Not only that the wife inherits absolutely her husband's property and the use of his real estate during her lifetime, but that her own independent property, if she has offspring, goes to her children instead of to her husband. In case she has no offspring, another section makes her husband her heir; or, when the marriage is irregular, her mother and father inherit her estate instead of her husband.

"Still another section makes it the duty of the king to protect the inherited and other property "of wives and widows faithful to their lords" against all aggressors. "A righteous king must punish like thieves those relatives who appropriate the property of such females during their lifetime" (Manu, viii. 27, 28, 29). And against male relatives who would live on the separate property of females, this malediction is also hurled: "But those male relatives who, in their folly, live on the separate property of women, e.g., appropriate the beasts of burden, carriages and clothes of women, commit sin and will sink into hell" (Manu iii. 52). Thus, not only legal, but religious sanctions of the strongest kind protect the separate estates of Hindu women, be they single, wives or widows."


Before one goes into the issues of Shudra as discussed by Manu, it must be remembered that the book was completed half a millennium before Jesus walked on this earth, and around quarter of a millennium before Julius Caesar considered it fit to call Britain and nearby countries barbarians.

In the time of Manu and earlier, Shudras were mostly the new entrants to Hinduism, who were yet to imbibe the high standards of Brahminical culture. They had not yet given up their basic tendencies of enjoyment and uncleanliness -- two important virtues of an upper caste. These two vices resulted in other personality faults like cruelty, selfishness etc. All this meant that they had not yet become fit to climb the social hierarchy. Hence, they were given all kinds of licenses when it came to enjoying sense pleasure (including meat eating, wine drinking, onion and garlic eating etc.), but were prohibited from reading and listening to the Vedas. Here it may be mentioned that to the sages, the knowledge of the Vedas was something like a copyrighted thing, and so, that knowledge could be imparted only to the right person, on payment of proper fees (dakshina). In other matters, they were treated more or less quite fairly.

Manu mentions that a shudra can attain the highest heaven exactly like a Brahmin simply by practising the good conduct of the Brahmins, and performing five great sacrifices (explained later). The sage also mentions how a child of a shudra woman can become a Brahmin over successive generations.

The Idea of Justice

Manu prescribes different treatment for different kind of persons. For example "The seniority of Brahmins is from (sacred) knowledge, that of Kshatriyas from valour, that of Vaisyas from wealth, abut that of Shudras from age." (MS II.155).

"For a crime of theft, a Shudra should be penalised 8 times, the penalty should be 16 times if he is a Vaishya, 32 times if he is a Kshatriya and 64 times if he is a Brahmin. The punishment can be even 100 times or 128 times if he is a Brahmin. (MS VIII.337-338 )"

"When the punishment for an ordinary citizen is 1 pana, the punishment for those in ruling class should be 1000 pana." (MS VIII.336).

On the other hand, Manu advises not to give the punishment of death to a Brahmin. Instead the convict's head should be shaved in public, which is equivalent to death punishment for him. (MS VIII. 379). After all, greater responsibility comes with greater understanding, and with it comes greater accountability. And, what is accountability without cost?

When most judicial systems of the world like British, French, American and Indian believe in "equality of all before justice", "uniform civil code" and all such great ideals, Was Manu then right in defining law in this partisan way?

Actually Manu particularises morality, instead of generalising it. It is unfortunate that we have come to associate punishment with suffering rather than penance and purification. When punishment is accepted with grace by the punished, it becomes penance for him. In turn, it takes him to the next level of spiritual evolution. This is the principle behind punishment and justice in Manu.

This may seem surprising, or even shocking to all those who have grown up with the popular feeds of the generalised approach to law and justice. 'All are same before the law' has become a truism even to a child, although it has no significance anywhere. When one looks closely at the two approaches of generalisation and particularisation of values, one is bound to feel surprised at the honesty and the insight of Manu, and the sheer dishonesty and hypocrisy of those who take a generalised approach.

Actually, morality, ethics and justice are always practised on the principle of tribe concern, which can also be termed as "in group" ethics, or "tribe ethics". Here tribe means the group to which one intrinsically belongs.

A monk, or a person living alone, away from any tribe, can indeed practise values without ever making any compromise. Mundaka Upanishad instructs spiritual aspirants to stick constantly to truth, tapas, right knowledge, and brahmacharya. But this is difficult for a person who belongs to a "tribe".

This is where Manu's genius comes into play.

At the time of Manu (c. 200 BCE), a large number of outsiders were entering the mainstream Hinduism. Then there were the jatis, which were the sub-sub castes of Hinduism. The whole country had literally lakhs of "tribe", each having its own code of conduct and moral principles. A fisherman would not cheat another fisherman, but would not mind cheating, say, a blacksmith.

Manu put a stop to all that, and, instead, crystallised them into four "tribes", known as the four Varna. The Varna system was already there, and so was the moral principles and the legal system. Manu simply took the entire thing together, juggled them and came up with his Smriti, that did away with the ghetto "tribe" mentality, and broadened the mental horizon of all by forcing people to follow one of the four sets of principles.

Not only that these four sets of morality and justice got rid of the lakhs of "tribe" practices, they also had most laws and principles in common with each other. That is how the idea of "India" was concretised by him.

This code of conduct is essentially a manual of unselfishness. Manu knew that not everyone can be equally unselfish, nor should one expect the same from all. So, there can neither be a uniform civil code, nor can there be same criminal laws for all. Not only that. Even the same person may not act on the same principles of morality on which he had been acting till yesterday.

Manu's greatness lies in his compassionate understanding of a man's weakness. From there stems his ideas of justice.

Yajnavalkya & Parasara Smriti

Next in importance to Manusmriti is Yajnavalkya Smriti. It has 1009 shlokas arranged systematically in three sections. The famous commentary Mitakshara by Vijnaneshwara is considered to be a standard work on this Smriti. Yajnavalkya Smriti is shorter and more liberal, particularly towards women, than Manusmriti. This maturity is also because it was written much later, probably in 5th A.D.

Compared to Yajnavalkya Smriti, Manusmriti is not a systematic treatise. For example, Manusmriti does not have a clear-cut division between religion and law, but being a later work, Yajnavalkya Smriti makes this distinction clear. Similarly, Manusmriti is more like a jumbled work in which the discussion jumps from issue to issue: it may have one shloka on religion, the next shloka on law, the third one on morality, and likewise. On the other hand, Yajnavalkya Smriti is very systematic. The demarcation between legal issues and religious issues by the sage Yajnavalkya is considered by many legal experts to be a great advance over Manusmriti.

Parasara Smriti is noted for its advanced and modernistic views. It deals only with acara and Prayascitta. It also discusses the Apad-dharma (the code during emergency) of the four castes. Madhavacharya wrote a commentary on this work.

Survey of Samskaras -- The Hindu sacraments

The samskaras cover the entire gamut of a Hindu's life: from the moment he is conceived in the mother’s womb, till his death. While commenting on the emphasis laid on samskaras by the Hindus, Max Muller wrote that this discloses "the deep-rooted tendency in the heart of man to bring the chief events of human life into contact with a higher power, and to give to our joys and sufferings a deeper significance and a religious sanctification."

The Hindu sages realised that an artful life requires constant care, culture and refinement, without which one would degenerate and become a savage. The transformation of the wild into the cultured is possible only through taming and training which has been prescribed beautifully by the samskaras (sacraments) over thousands of years. All the samskaras and allied ceremonies are based on the philosophy that life is a progressive cycle through a series of incidents centring around the desire to live, to enjoy, to think, and to retire. It is with this idea that the rituals and sacrifices evolved which were meant to sanctify one's life physically, emotionally, psychically and spiritually.

There are several objectives of samskaras:
* To receive the blessings of the gods, and to stay protected from the evil powers that beset human life at various stages.
* By making the gods happy through samskara, a practitioner hopes to obtain material gains. During some ceremonies prayers are offered to gods for health, wealth, children, intellect etc.
* Performance of some sacraments is used to enhance one's social status and also to get additional privileges. For example, a boy who goes through the sacred thread ceremony, acquires the right to study the Vedas, and also becomes important in the eyes of his peers.
* The samskaras also help in attaining cultural gains. Similarly, some impurity is inherently attached to the pre-natal stage of birth which gets removed through the proper rites.
* Sage Angiras says, "Just as a picture is painted with various colours, so the character of the individual is formed by the proper performance of the samskaras." Gautama says that samskaras, along with certain other noble qualities, take one to Brahman.
* Samskaras are designed to channel the energies of a man towards the creation of a life for him which would be soothing, enjoyable, spiritual, practical, and dignified. It is only thus that both the individual and the society can live in peace and harmony.

History and Sources of Samskaras

The earliest suggestion of samskaras are found in the Rig Veda. Some hymns used during marriage, conception and funeral are from this sacred book. In the Yajur Veda there are references to the tonsure ceremony, which was common to Shrauta or Yāga ceremonies. The Atharva Veda is a rich source of mantras relating to several of the samskaras like marriage, funeral, initiation for Vedic studies etc.

Gopatha Brahmana contains references to Upanayana (sacred thread ceremony). The word Brahmacharya is found in Sathapatha Brahman. Taittiriya Aranyaka contains Mantras for cremation, and Chandogya Upanishad relates how a brahmacharin (novice) is admitted to the gurukula (seminary).

Mention of Gayatri Mantra is made in Brihadaranyaka and other Upanishads. Taittiriya Upanishad contains the famous convocation address by the teacher to his students at the time of their graduation. This Upanishad also has mantras for begetting a learned son, and mantras to be used during funeral ceremonies.

Sodasa Samskara: The Sixteen Sacraments

There are sixteen samskaras that range from conception to funeral ceremonies.

1. Garbhādhāna: The propitious day and time are fixed astrologically for garbhadhana (conception), and the ritual follows a set pattern. The mantras uttered in this samskara are essentially prayers offered to God to help the bride conceive a good son.

2. Punsavanam: This ceremony is performed in the second, third and the fourth month of pregnancy. The meaning and object of this ceremony is to quicken a male child in the woman.

3. Simantonnayana: This is performed during the period between the fifth and the eighth months of pregnancy. Its implications are that the pregnancy be fruitful, the child be endowed with sharp and penetrating intellect, and the child be beautiful like the full-moon.

4. Jātakarma: This ceremony is performed before the umbilical cord of the child is severed. During the ceremony, the father looks at the face of the newly born infant, which at once redeems his debt to his ancestors. A name is also given to the child, in secret, lest his enemies should practice black magic on the child with that name.

5. Nāmakarana: The naming ceremony is performed normally on the tenth or twelfth day after birth. This is a simple ceremony in which the child is given a name. According to Asvalayana ( a great lawgiver), the names of boys should have an even number of syllables. A two-syllable name will bring material prosperity and fame, and a four syllable name will bring religious fame.
The practice of naming children after favourite deities began from the Puranic times. The rise of the Bhakti movement made this practice popular. By naming one's child after gods, one gets the opportunity of uttering God’s name whenever the child's name is called out.

6. Niskramana: The infant is taken out of the house into the climate of fresh air and sunshine for the first time.

7. Annaprāshana: This is the ceremony for the first feeding of cooked rice to the newborn. The object of this ceremony is to pray to gods with Vedic Mantras to bless the child with good digestive powers, good thoughts and talents. It is performed when the child is six months old, which is the right weaning time for a child.

8. Chudākarma: This ceremony of the first tonsure is to be performed in the third year of the male child. It also initiates the maintenance of a ‘Sikha’ (tuft of hair on the head) as a religious necessity after that age.

9. Karnavedha: The piercing of the child’s ear should be done in the third or the fifth year from the date of birth.

10. Upanayana and Vedārambha: The thread ceremony is performed for the male child in the eighth year for Brahmins, eleventh year for Kshatriya, and twelfth year for Vaishya. This ceremony gives the child a second birth (Dwija), as it were, where the Guru (teacher) becomes his father and Gayatri (the great Vedic mantra) becomes his mother. The investiture with the sacred thread entitles the child to study the Vedas and participate in Vedic functions. In essence, the child commences his journey on the road to spiritual life only after this ceremony.
Instructions in the Vedas, known as Vedarambha, begin after this ceremony. The father of the would-be student imparts general information regarding the life of a Brahmacharin (celibate student) and preaches the code of conduct, which are a pointer to the rigours of discipline that a brahmachari was subjected to.

11. Samavartana: Upon completion of studies, the teacher used to hold a graduating ceremony in which instructions were given on how to lead the rest of life. "Speak the truth. Practise Dharma. Do not neglect the study of the Vedas. Having brought to the teacher the gift desired by him, (enter the householder’s life and see that) the line of progeny is not cut off. Do not swerve from the truth. Do not swerve from Dharma. Do not neglect (personal) welfare. Do not neglect prosperity (refers to righteous actions by which wealth is earned). Do not neglect the study and teaching of Vedas."

12. Vivāha: Marriage

13. Grihasthāshrama: Entering the life of a householder

14. Vānaprastha: A person was expected to give up his worldly responsibilities and privileges, and go to the forest to lead a simple and solitary life.

15. Sannyāsa: This is the last stage of a person's life, in which he renounces everything and devotes himself exclusively to the contemplation of Brahman.

16. Antyeshti: The last rites of the dead body are called the Antyeshti Samskara. There is no other Samskara thereafter for this body. This Samskara is also called by the names of Naramedha, Purushmedha etc.

Duties of a householder

The periods of life as a student and householder are full with special injunctions on the performance of ceremonies of different kinds. The prayer called Sandhyavandana, to be performed thrice daily, is obligatory on both the student and the householder. Daily worship of one's chosen deity is an additional duty of the householder.

A very important part of the daily functions of the householder consists of a set of fivefold duties called Pancha-Mahayajnas (five great sacrifices). The first of these is Brahma-Yajna or the sacrifice dedicated to the Vedas and their seers (Rishis) in the form of regular study (Svādhyaya) of the scriptures and the teaching of it to deserving students (Adhyāpana). The second is Deva-Yajna or the sacrifice offered to the celestial in the form of oblations poured into the sacred fire. The third is Pitri-Yajna or libations, etc. offered to the ancestors. The fourth is Manushya-Yajna or the feeding of guests (atithi). The fifth is Bhuta-Yajna or the feeding of animals, especially cows and birds. These five functions are imperatives on every householder and are regarded as great sacrifices (MahāYajnas).

The ceremonies in the names of the dead have also great details, commencing with the rite of cremation and ending in the rites connected with the exaltation of the departed soul to the state of divine attainment.


While explaining the role of the Smritis, Swami Vivekananda said, "The ideal at one end is the Brahmin and the ideal at the other end is the Chandala, and the whole work is to raise the Chandala up to the Brahmin. Slowly and slowly you find more and more privileges granted to them {by the Smritis}. ... Then gradually we find in other Smritis, especially in those that have full power now, that if the Shudras imitate the manner and customs of the Brahmins they do well, they ought to be encouraged. Thus it is going on. (CW, vol 3 -295)"

Going through the succession of the Smritis, one can see that the lawgivers were conscious of the struggle for the upward mobility of the downtrodden through education and achievement. Whenever this mobility became irrepressible, the lawgivers made it legally and morally acceptable to all. It was thus that the yesterday's untouchable became a fit candidate for the knowledge of Brahman, the highest goal of human life.

In recent times Manu Smriti is blamed for creating caste based differences and also for being unfair towards lower castes and women. But most of these critics hardly read him, and those who read him, forget that Manu was just the chronicler and codifier of what existed in the society much earlier than Jesus Christ walked on this earth. Also, considering the fundamental thrust on purity, quality and stability by the Smriti writers, Manu was quite considerate towards all. Quoting Manu out of context, and out of time frame has been an unfair practice by his critics. Rather, Manu should be credited for creating an environment of spiritual growth for all, despite the steel frame of the social order.

Hindus have always been a socially conscious race since prehistoric times. That is how they have survived the tempests of time, attacks of the marauding tribes, temptations of materialism, and a sheer desire for revolution out of boredom. The little defect that the society has today is because proper adjustments were not made during the last thousand years or so. That is why Swami Vivekananda wanted a new Smriti to be written for the present age.