Smruti Literature – An overview


The Smruti, is not an independent concept, it has its origin in the Dharmashastra. Interestingly, while tracing its background and emergence we reach the Vedas. It involves the Vedas though the related concepts may or may not be so in its actual content, but in its origin.

The Vedas

Ancient India witnessed an emergence and growth of the most sacred, and fundamental texts involving and dealing with various disciplines including sacrifices, sciences, philosophy, chants, morals etc. These were called Vedas (which means wisdom or knowledge). There are four Vedas i.e. Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda. Each of them has its own discipline of concern and is divided into; Samhita, Brahmana, Upanishad, and Aranyaka (respectively means; hymns, rituals theology, philosophy). Vedas are considered as the largest source of Dharma.

The concept of dharma

Dharma is one of the four Purusharthas, and is generally linked with the English term Religion. However, the ancient Indian culture and society used this term in a very vast context. Robert lingat, in his book “the classical law of india”, describes Dharma as; “Dharma is what is firm and durable, what sustains and maintains, what hinders fainting and falling, applied to the universe, dharma signifies the external laws which maintain the world”.

Mr. Lingat, further adds that, it is a sense, related to the conception which Hindus shared with the Iranis that; “the world is not the product of a fortuitous concourse of elements, but is ruled by certain norms and sustained by an order necessary to its preservation.” According to this belief gods are merely its guardians, and the order is an objective inherited by an individual in nature. (lingat.1973.3)

During the Vedic period, the primary laws of the universe were linked and identified with the laws based on the term of sacrifice. However, gradually these acts though remained constant in the minds of the authors of ancient India, the concept of dharma was observed to be more widened. It started involving and dealing with the moral world as well as the physical. It resulted in the norm of ritual turning into the norm of conduct. Dharma is an action which, provided it is conformable to the order of the things, permits man to realise his destiny to the full, sustains him in this life and assures his well-being after death. (lingat.1973.4)

Simplifying the term, we may define the term dharma as; “ A traditional way of conduct, mandatory for people to follow, which helps them to add morality to their lives and also benefits the post-mortal life” The system of Varna, which prevailed in India once upon a time, is closely related to Dharma for its emergence. The system is concerned with religion as well as society. An individual when follows a duty assigned to him, which is “social as much as religious, it provides him with reasons for acting and fulfilling as he functions, his role in the society, it sees man by his work” (Lingat.1973.4)


Referring to the much wider scope of the term Dharma, than merely being interpreted as ‘’religion”, not much difficulty is left in understanding the term Dharmashastra. However it can be interpreted in many ways i.e. as the science of religion (literal translation of the Sanskrit term), the law literature (assuming the possibility of the term translated from the English word law literature) (winterwnitz.1963.575), righteousness science (as encyclopaedia Britannica defines It.) etc.

Emergence of Dharmashastra

The term Dharmashastra is often linked closely with similar texts called Dharma sutras. Mr. Shova Gurung, who has written an article on the dharma sutras, describes them as; Dharma sutras deal with the directions about our domestic, social and religious lives. These originated in the Kalpasutra which is regarded as one of the parts of the Vedas (Vedang). The Dharmashastra succeeded the era of dharma sutras. There are many texts written by ancient Sanskrit scholars such as Gautama, Apastambha, Vasishta etc. which have contributed for the development of sutra literature.

In the post-sutra period, Dharma was studied in special schools, and was no longer kept attached to any particular Vedic school. Gradually, it became a separate branch called as the science of dharma (Dharmashastra), a discipline, entirely and specifically belonging to the relatively systematic teaching of the rule of conduct.

Shastra and Sutra (differences)

Though dealing with a similar discipline both the texts differ primarily in their form or structure of their content. Whereas, the sutras are composed entirely in the form of prose or prose mixed verse, the Shastras are in the form of verses/shlokas.

In the subject matter, Shastras are more extensive and give a larger place to the rules of judicial character. Sutras form part of kalpa and have a close relation with gruhya. They are the manual intended for Brahmins belonging to carana (rule of conduct), having in mind the teachings which should be given to the students. Their authority at least originally did not extend beyond fairly narrow circles; they contain little or no philosophical speculation. They prefer nothing more than the treatise written by ordinary mortals and are based on the tradition of sages including the practices in Vedas.

Shastras, on the other hand are surrounded by legends attributing a mythological origin to them. They are considered to be the words of Brahma, gathered by sages or demigods, and are transmitted in an abridged form for our times. At the same time, they are seen with no relation to any of the schools of Vedas specifically.  (Lingat.1973.73/74)

The  Smruti

Robert Lingat describes smruti as what a sage remembers and transmits to men, the traditions, which he has gathered and which are the authorised means of aquiring wisdom. Smrutis, he adds further, signify a complete portion of the sacred literatures; the vedangas, puranas, epics etc.

The word smruti literally means “what is remembered” and has two senses to be used in. They were written in order to explain and elaborate vedas and their preachings to ordinary people, making them easily understandable and more meaningful. Many of the prominent smruti authors, in their texts have mentioned a certain number of smrutis. For example, Yadhnyawalkya enumerates 20, Prashar- 19, Viratmitrodaya speaks of 18 main, 18 upasmrutis and 21 other smrutis whereas Gautama speaks of 57 smrutis.

Need for the emergence of smrutis

In ancient India, there was a period when the Karma-Kand emerged as a dominant part of the society. Karma kandas are various rituals or sacrifices one is expected to follow or perform in order to fulfil his wishes or to have a gainful and enlightened afterlife. (The term had occupied the first half of the Vedic era and was later succeeded by Dhnyan-kand). Many sutras were written and formed on Karma-kanda; it was hence obvious that the rules and regulations were made on the topics related to the Kanda mentioned above. These rules covered the areas such as; etiquettes, administration, conduct, morals, duties etc.            Also, being a society consisting of various castes, a need was felt to have solutions and a mediator to deal with the conflicts and issues involving caste. These are some reasons why smrutis were formed.

Digests and schools

Suresh Chandra Banerjee in his book “the cultural glory of india” gives a brief account of the digests and schools of these smrutis including their names and the reason why they had developed.

According him, along with a large number of smrutis, there were also a bulk of commentaries hence it was difficult for ordinary people as well as the priests conducting rites and rituals. It is because of this that the need to cut-short the content of various topics dealt by the smrutis and commentaries was felt. The situation resulted in the compositions of digests and essays/nibandhas on different topics. He mentions of six schools to which the writers of these texts belong.

  • Gaudiya or Bengal School- the greatest exponent was Raghunandan (6th century A.D.)
  • Maithili/Bihar school- Candesvara Thakkura (14th century) was considered to be the greatest representative of the school. However, the most popular amongst the scholars belonging to the school was Vidyapati (14th-15th centuries).
  • Varanasi school- Lakshmidhara (12 A.D.) was perhaps the most well-known amongst all.
  • Dakshinatya/south Indian school- Hemadri was the most prolific writer who belonged to the 13th century A.D.
  • Kamrupiya/Assam school- Nilambaracharya was the most well-known digest maker from the school.
  • Orissa School- Prataprudradeva was renowned as the king of Orissa as well as a smruti scholar

Some famous Smrutikaras

  1. Manu- Numerous editions are found of this smruti. He is called the father of mankind in Rugveda and other vedas. Guatam and Apastambha regard him as “Law giver”. The smruti written by him has 12 chapters consisting of verses. it may have been composed before 7 A.D.
  2. Yajnyawalkya– the smruti written by him is one of the most prominent smrutis appreciated by the scholars. It receives favourable opinions especially for its organized structure, where 930 verses are divided into 3 prakaranas and further into Adhyayas according to the topics they deal with. It is said that yajnyawalkya belonged to the period between 100 BC- 300 AD.
  3. Parashar– Yajnyawalkya mentions Parashara in his text. The smruti contains 592 verses divided into 12 chapters. This smruti is probably a recast of an older smruti. The smruti is mainly concerned about the Acara (rule of conduct) and Prayashchitta (expiation). It belongs to the period between 100-500 A.D
  4. Narad– there are two versions of the smruti written by narada on vyavahara (how to behave or deal). The printed version of the text has 1028 verses. The topics dealt by the smruti such as shardhha, acara are found in smrutichandrika. The smruti may be placed between 100-300 A.D.
  5. Bruhaspati– The entire smruti is said to be based upon vyavahara, however we cannot ignore the fact that, the complete text is not yet discovered. It closely follows manu. It can be placed somewhere between 200-400 A.D.
  6. Vyasa– About two hundred verses of vyasa based on vyavahara cited in Apararka, smrutichandrika and other works. Printed compilation ascribed to vyasa in 250 verses. His doctrines closely agree with those written by Narada, Bruhaspati and katyayana. He flourished between 200-500 A.D.
  7. katyayana– his work on vyavahara is not yet discovered, however the collection of his 973 verses with an english translation is written by Dr. P.V. Kane, also the collection of 121 verses of katyayana is done by Prof. Aiyangar. On several points he presupposes Narada. He refers to Bhrigu twenty times. In addition he also refers to Bruhaspati’s views. Some of the views ascribed to Manavas by Katyayana differ from what manu says.
  8. Daksha- his name is mentioned by Yajnyawalkya, also Vishwaroopa quotes him several times. The content of printed version of the smruti contains 220 verses.
  9. Pulastya- an expounder of dharma named in a verse of vruddha yajnyawalkya. Viswaroopa, mitakshara, apararka cite many verses on anhika and sharddha, Danatnakara cites a prose passage of Pulastya. It was composed beween 4-7 century A.D.
  10. Prajapati- he is cited as authority by Budhayana and Vasistha. A compilation in 198 verses ascribed to him. Mitakshara, Apararka and the others quote him on sradhha, asauca, vyavahara ordeals and prayaschitta.
  11. Angiras- he is quoted frequently on all topics except for vyavahara by writers from Viswaroopa. Several compilations on prayaschitta attributed to Angiras. The text published by Mr. A.N. Krishna Aiyangar contains over 1200 verses.
  12. Viswamitra- he is named by Vruddha Yajnywalkya and his verses quoted on all topics except for vyavahara.

An interesting fact about most of the smrutikars mentioned above is that, they are often found in the stories either from Puranas or the great Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. For example, Bruhaspati may not be known to ordinary people for his smruti, but as a person who was the teacher of gods. Similarly Manu is more famous as a character from the story of Matsyavatara. Vyasa is well-known for his Mahabharata, there are many stories based on the life of Vishwamitra (Vishamitra-menaka, his rivalry with Vasishta, his journey from a king to a sage). (Lingat.1973)

Some famous commentaries

  1. Srikara- He was the first writer to propound the view that spiritual merit was the criterion for judging of superior rights to succession. He was probably from Mithila. Flourished between 800-1050 A.D. however it is difficult say whether he wrote an independent digest or a commentary.
  2. Bharuci– His views quoted by Mitakshara on Yajnyawalkyasmruti. He is mentioned as an ancient teacher of Visistadvaita system by Ramanujacharya in his Vedarthasamgraha. He as a philosopher is probably identified with Bharuci the jurist. From the notices in the Sarasvativilasa, Bharuci seems to have commented on the, Vishnudharmasutra. According to Dr. Derrett, Bharuci belonged to somewhere near 700 A.D.
  3. Kamadhenu– An ancient digest is not yet found. It is said to have been quoted by Kalpataru, Haralata and other works. Gopala was the author of the text. The date of kamadhenu is said to be between 1000-1100 A.D
  4. Apararka– He wrote a commentary on Yajnyawalkya smruti. He was a Silhara prince. His commentary was written in about 1125 A.D.
  5. Hardatta– He is famous as a commentator. He explains grammatical peculiarities at a great length. He was a southener and was a devotee of Shiva. Some of his commentaries are Ankula on Apastambagrhya, Anavila on Asvalayanagrhya, Mitaksara on Gautamadhmsutra, Ujwala on Apstambamantrapatha etc.  Hardatta as a writer of commentaries on Dharmashastra is identical with the author of Padamanjiri.
  6. Hemadri– He and Madhava were two outstanding authors from south, to write on the Dharmashastras. His Chaturvargachintamani, is a huge work of an encyclopaedic character. It is projected to contain five sections. It was composed around 1250 A.D.
  7. Kullukbhatta- He was a famous commentator on Manusmruti. He wrote Smrutiviveka of which Asaucasagara, Sraddhasagara and Vidasagara were parts. Flourished between 1150-1300 A.D.
  8. Vidyapati- He was credited with the authorship of 12 works and was famous for his love songs. He made queen Visvasdevi’s work Gangavakyavali faultless and also, supplied textual authorities in support of her propositions. His period may be given as between 1360-1448 A.D.
  9. Shulapani- He was a famous writer from Bengal on dharmashastra. His earliest work was on the Yanjyawalkya smruti; Dipakalika. He held archaic views on inheritance. Durgotsavaviveka is considered to be his latest work. His famous works are; Sradhhaviveka, Dolayatraviveka, Sambandhaviveka etc.
  10. Prakasa- He has done work on vyavahara, dana etc. it is yet to be ascertained whether he wrote an independent digest or not. He is said to have authored a commentary on Yajnywalkya Smruti. The commentary was probably written between 1000-1125 A.D.
  11. Govindraja- He has written a commentary over Manusmruti called smrutimanjiri. Kulluka had criticized Govindraja. His date was somewhere between 100-1100 A.D.
  12. Vijaneshwara- Mitaksharitika written by him has occupied a unique position. He was the most prominent commentator on Yajnyawalkya smruti. (Lingat.1973.)
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