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Dharmasutra parallels; Containing the Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha

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<poem> by Patrick Olivelle

From the Jacket:

The Dharmasutra Parallels presents in a synoptic layout of the passages in the four Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Gautama , Baudhayana, and Vasistha the ideal with the identical topics. The Dharmasutras represents the oldest extant codification of Law in ancient India. A close study to these early legal but also the cultural and religious history of the three or four centuries prior to the common era, a period that saw the beginnings of many of the features that we commonly associate with Indian civilization.

It is clearly possible for scholars to compare passages from these four Dharmasutras without the visual id provided by these Parallels. It is, however, much more difficult. Sometime, one becomes aware of the similarities and divergences in the treatment by different authors of the same topic only when the parallel passages and presented visually on the same page. These Parallels will be an invaluable tool in researching the legal and cultural history of this important period of ancient Indian history.

About the Author:

PATRICK OLIVELLE is the chair, Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the professor of Sanskrit and Indian Religions. Among his recent publications are The Samnyasa Upanisads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (Oxford, 1992), The Asrama System: History of Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution (Oxford, 1993), Rules and Regulations of Brahmanical Asceticism (State University of New York Press, 1994), Upanisads (Oxford 1996), Pancatantra (1997), The Early Upnisads: Annotated Text and Translation (Oxford 1998), The Dharmasutra of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha (Delhi, 2000), and Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-F. (Oxford 2005).


Patrick Olivelle


The Dharmasutras are the four surviving works of the ancient Indian expert tradition on the subject of dharma, or the rules of behaviour a community recognize as binding on its members. Written in a pithy and aphoristic style and representing the culmination of a long tradition of scholarship, the Dharmasutras record intense disputes and divergent views on a wide variety of religious and social issues. These unique documents give us a glimpse of how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society. In this first English translation of these documents for over a century,

Patrick Olivelle uses the same lucid and elegant style of his award - winning translation of Upanisads and incorporates the most recent scholarship on ancient Indian law, society and religion. The fresh editions of the Sanskrit texts presents new manuscript material, variants recorded in medieval commentaries and legal digests, and emendations suggested by philologists.


The Naradasmrti is the most comprehensive basis text on legal procedure in ancient India. The present publication represents the only critical edition of the material smrti published to date. The critical edition is based on the evidence of 47 manuscripts from libraries in India, Nepal, Germany, France, United States and United Kingdom. In addition to the critical edition of the text of the Naradasmrti, Prof. Lariviere has critically edited and translated the incomplete but extremely important commentary of Asahaya. He also provides the reader with summaries of the commentary of Bhavasvamin.

This is the most comprehensive and through examination of any of the basis text on the Indian legal tradition. It establishes a new standard for the scholarly editing of these texts. A standard which, it is hoped, will be taken up by subsequent scholarship on the rich tradition of the dharmasastra.

The first edition of this work was awarded the prestigious CESMEO (Centro Piemontese de Studi sul Medio ed Estremo Oriente, Torino) prize in 1990 as the best book on South Asia.


The Dharmasutras represent the oldest extant codification of Law in ancient India. By “Law’ here I mean both more and less than the general connotation of the term in modern societies. It is more, because it is used as a rough translation of dharma, a term that encompasses customs and moral norms, religious practices and rites, rights and duties of individuals and groups, and much more.1 It is less, because the early codifications were intended to be treatises that expounded norms of conduct rather than actual codes of law that were used in courts. Ancient India did not possess written codes of law that guided the deliberations of courts. The texts on dharma provided at most guidance and guidelines for judges. Nevertheless, these early codifications provide invaluable insight into the customs of various communities and the sociological thinking of the experts who wrote these works.

Lariviere (1997) and Wezler (2004) have argued, convincingly I believe, that the historical source of dharma in the Dharmasastras is not the Veda but “custom” (acara), that is, the normative behavior and practices of various and varied historical communities. Lariviere presents his view of the nature of Dharmasastra clearly: “Let me begin by giving my view of the nature of the dharmasastra literature. I believe that the dharmasastra literature represents a peculiarly Indian record of local social norms and traditional standards of behavior.”

Wezler (2004) agrees completely with this new view of the source of dharma in Dharmasastra: “The dharma of the Dharmasastra ... is, in its essential parts, a record or codification of custom and convention.” In seeing the Veda or some transcendent tradition as the source of dharma, historians of Dharmasastra have bought into the theological position enunciated in most of the Dharmasastras themselves as to the provenance of the dharma that they are teaching thus confusing history with theology.

I refer the reader to my own introduction to the edition and translation of the Dharmasutras (Olivelle 2000) for further details about the texts used in these Parallels and their relative chronology , The texts and the translations used here are from that edition.

A close study of these early legal treatises is essential if we are to understand not only the legal but also the cultural and religious history of the three or four centuries prior to the Common Era, a period that saw the beginnings of many of the features that we commonly associate with Indian civilization. In the area of literature, we see the creation of a new genre of scientific literature that came to be called sastra in fields as diverse as grammar, law, statecraft, and astronomy. The legal sastras were written first in the prose style known as sütra, a pithy and aphoristic style of codifying information first perfected in the grammatical tradition.

The Dharmasutras deal with a similar set of topics. Given that they were composed in different geographical regions and at different historical periods, it is inevitable that their treatment of these topics would vary. The present volume containing these parallel treatments of the same or similar topics arranged across a single page both in the original Sanskrit and in an English translation is intended to facilitate the comparative study of these legal treatises. As a member of a Religious Studies department for many years at Indiana University, I was impressed by and envious of the research tools my colleagues dealing with Biblical material had.

Students of India’s past are about a century behind our colleagues studying western cultural histories. Our research is hindered by the lack of tools that western scholars take for granted. My inspiration for thinking of the possibility of publishing parallels found in the legal texts of India came when my friend and colleague, Paul Sampley, began to work on his Pauline Parallels, containing parallel passages from the letters of the apostle Paul.

Human beings are visual creatures; we work best when our sight encounters in a simple presentation a complex or hidden set of data. This is the reason why graphs and charts are so popular and so effective; they present to the viewer a complex set of numbers in a manner that is easy to grasp.

It is clearly possible for scholars to compare passages from these four Dharmasutras without the visual aid provided by these Parallels It is, however, much more difficult. Sometime, one becomes aware of the similarities and divergences in the treatment by different authors of the same topic only when the parallel passages are presented visually on the same page. This is especially true when a particular topic is discussed at length by one author but passed over in silence by another. Take, for example, the holy and authoritative region called Aryavarta

This is the region where especially virtuous and learned Brahmins live, Brahmins whose conduct and traditions are viewed as authoritative and as providing a valid and indisputable source for knowing the true dharma. This region is discussed and defined by Baudhayana and Vasistha; but Apastamba and Gautama appear to be ignorant of it, for they have nothing to say about Aryavarta in their discussion of the sources of dharma. From this development of a new concept regarding a sacred geography, we can draw important and interesting conclusions regarding the early history of Dharmasastra and the interaction of the Brahmanical community with others, such as the Buddhists, who competed with them for leadership in religious matters.

There are numerous similar examples. Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha deal extensively with excommunication from caste, whereas Apastamba is completely silent. Apastamba and [[]]deal with failure to be initiated at the proper time, while Gautama and Baudhayana are silent. Apastamba alone deals with the topic of a householder returning to studentship, while the other three ignore the subject. Apastamba is opposed to a man either divorcing his wife or having multiple wives, while the others acknowledge this practice. Apastamba and Gautama are silent on the subject of women remarrying when their husbands die or are absent for a long time.

Apastamba ignores completely the different kinds of sons listed by the other three; for him only a natural son born to a wife of the same class is legitimate. He also has nothing to say about the putrika[[]], a daughter designated as a son to provide male descendants for her father, or about adoption, a topic given extensive coverage by the other authors. Vasistha is the only author concerned about meat eating, indicating that he is living at a time when vegetarianism may have been on the rise; the others take meat eating as normal and have nothing to say about it. Baudhayana is the only one to deal with a list of ascetic householders; he also has extensive coverage of other ascetics, such as world renounces and various kinds of forest hermits, indicating that the text may have undergone revisions by groups favorable to the ascetic way of life.

Baudhayana also is the author who discusses in great detail a variety of rites, including bathing, tarpaia, rites for prosperity, and penances. Turning to the king and the administration of justice, Apastamba is the only one to deal with the construction of the royal fort and with gambling and betting, topics treated extensively in the Arthaicistra. With respect to evidence and witnesses, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha have extensive coverage, whereas Apastamba pays only cursory attention to them.

In this sampling I have only pointed out some highlights. Close reading and extensive research are needed to uncover the history that lies behind and beneath these texts. My hope is that these Parallels will become a useful tool in researching the legal and cultural history of this important period of ancient Indian history.

Due to the restrictions imposed by the format it was not possible to include to the texts or the translations. Readers wishing further information on technical matters difficult words and full texts of ritual formulas should consult my edition and translation of these texts.