The Āpastamba Dharmasūtra forms part of an enormous Kalpa-sūtra or body of aphorisms, which deals with the teaching of the Veda and of the ancient Rishis regarding the performance of sacrifices and the duties of the twice-born,
and which, being chiefly based on the second of the four Vedas, the Yajur-veda in the Taittirīya recension, is primarily intended for the benefit of the Adhvaryu priests in whose families the study of the Yajur-veda is hereditary.
According to Hindu tradition Āpastamba Dharmasūtra is a very ancient work and collection of rules and duties for different classes of people in Ancient Vedic society, the notoriously famous Varṇāśrama system:
First of all – it means a collection of Laws and Rules for the Vedic Brahmin class and for other classes according to Brahmins.
Āpastamba Dharmasūtra is not the only collection of Laws of this kind – there are other 4-5-6 similar books of Dharmasūtras – collections
which pretend to be among the most ancient and most authoritative attempts to describe the traditions and the way of life around 300-600 BCE in India.
The modern historians also place the dates of Āpastamba Dharmasūtras approximately around 300-600 BCE or more narrowly between 450-350 BCE.
The Āpastamba Dharmasūtra forms part of the voluminous Kalpa-sūtra of Āpastamba containing 30 praśnas (lit., ‘questions’) or books:
1. The first books 1-24 comprise the Śrauta-sūtra.
2. Books 25–6 contain the Mantra-pāṭha or the collections of ritual formulas to be used in domestic rites,
3. and book 27 contains the Gṛhya-sūtra.
4. The two books of our Āpastamba Dharmasūtra occupy books 28–29,
5. and the book 30 contains the Śulva-sūtra, a treatise on principles of geometry needed for the Vedic sacrifice.
Āpastamba belongs to the Taittirīya branch of the Black Yajurveda.
Opinion is divided as to whether the entire Kalpa-sūtra was composed by a single individual.
The Kalpa-sūtra of Āpastamba has been preserved better than most probably because commentaries were written on it at a relatively early date:
Of the several ancient commentaries on the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra, only one survives, that of Haradatta, who wrote commentaries also on Āpastamba’s Gṛhya-sūtra and Mantra-pāṭha and Gautama’s Dharmasūtra.
Haradatta was probably a South Indian, and historians date him to 1100–1300 CE.
This Dharmasūtra is better organized than most:
The first book deals with the Vedic student and concludes with the bath at the conclusion of studentship and the special observances required of a bath-graduate.
Much of Book Two is devoted to the householder, and under this topic Āpastamba deals with matters of civil law such as inheritance.
The book concludes with brief sections on the orders of life (āśramas) and the king, the latter incorporating civil administration including taxation, criminal law, and judicial procedure.
The term dharma may be translated as ‘law’ or ‘duty’, if we do not limit ourselves to its narrow modern definition as civil and criminal statutes but take it to include all the rules of behaviour, including moral and religious behaviour, that a community recognizes as binding on its members.
The subject-matter of the Dharmasūtras, therefore, includes:
- education of the young and their rites of passage;
- ritual procedures and religious ceremonies;
- marriage and marital rights and obligations;
- dietary restrictions and food transactions;
- the right professions for, and the proper interaction between, different social groups;
- sins and their expiations; institutions for the pursuit of holiness;
- the king and the administration of justice; crimes and punishments;
- death and ancestral rites.
In short, these unique documents give us a glimpse - if not into how people actually lived their lives in ancient India, at least into how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society.
Dharma includes all aspects of proper individual and social behaviour as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status, and order of life.
As the Dharmasūtras emerged as a new class of literature, their authors no doubt had to struggle with the task of selecting and organizing their material.
2 factors probably played a role in how they structured their texts:
the target audience and the subject-matter:
The principal audience of these texts was undoubtedly Brahmin males, who were also the principal creators and consumers of all the literature produced in the Vedic branches.
The Brahmin is the implied subject of most rules in the Dharmasūtras.
The subject-matter of the Dharmasūtras is dharma. Although a variety of individual topics are encompassed by that term, including criminal and civil law,
the central focus of these texts is on how a Brahmin male should conduct himself during his lifetime.
Many other topics, such as marriage, inheritance, and women, are also introduced, but more often than not they are discussed in so far as they are related to the Brahmin male.
The text of Āpastamba, which is the best preserved with the least variations, has a total of 1,364 sūtras:
Of these 1,206 (88 per cent) are devoted to the Brahmin,
whereas only 158 (12 per cent) deal with topics of a general nature.
Āpastamba Dharmasūtra has the most straightforward structure:
- initiation and the duties of a student;
- return home and the duties of such a young adult,
- followed by a parenthetical section on the bath-graduate;
- marriage and the duties of household life;
- and finally the king and the administration of justice.
He deals with sons, inheritance, adoption, and the like within the context of the householder.
Penances, on the other hand, are included within the discussion of the young adult who has completed his studies.
This probably reflects the early structure of Dharma texts.
Āpastamba calls the dharmas (plural) he is going to explain ‘accepted customary’ (sāmayācārika), that is, the dharmas that are accepted or agreed upon (samaya) by those who know dharma.
Āpastamba clearly places customary practice at the very heart of dharma; not just any custom, however, but only those accepted by an élite group.
He then goes on to say that the authority is based also on the Vedas, placing it second after the accepted customs as the source of dharma.
It is clear that de facto Āpastamba had a broad conception of custom, because at the end of his treatise he refers to the knowledge of women and Śūdras as part of the totality of our knowledge of dharma and states that one should learn from them the dharmas not contained in his treatise (A 2.29.11–12, 15).
Elsewhere, he says that after a funeral people should ‘do whatever else the women ask them to do’ (A 2.15.9). Now, by definition women and Śūdras cannot be counted among those who know the Veda, for they are explicitly forbidden to learn it.
For Āpastamba, probably, Vedic prescriptions functioned as a check or a negative criterion:
customs of a region or a group are authoritative for those belonging to that region or group provided they are not in conflict with explicit Vedic prescriptions.
The empirical nature of dharma is brought out clearly in his concluding statement:
‘It is difficult to gain mastery of the Law by means of scriptures alone, but by acting according to the markers one can master it.
And the markers in this case are as follows:
he should model his conduct after that which is unanimously approved in all regions by Āryas who have been properly trained, who are elderly and self-possessed, and who are neither greedy nor deceitful’ (A 2.29.13– 14).
He has a very realistic view of the difficulties inherent in finding the dharma:
‘The Righteous (dharma) and the Unrighteous (adharma) do not go around saying, “Here we are!” Nor do gods, Gandharvas, or ancestors declare, “This is righteous and that is unrighteous”.
An activity that Āryas praise is righteous, and what they deplore is unrighteous’ (A 1.20.6–7).
However, not everything found in the Vedas is dharma, at least with regard to contemporary people. Āpastamba notes:
‘Transgression of the Law and violence are seen among people of ancient times. They incurred no sin on account of their extraordinary power.
A man of later times who, observing what they did, does the same, perishes’ (A 2.13.7–9;).
Āpastamba proposes a principle that becomes a cornerstone of later thinking on the sources of dharma: He says that originally all rules of dharma were contained in the Vedas, but now parts of those Vedas are lost.
The theory of the ‘lost Veda’ is used as a hermeneutical strategy to theoretically derive all dharma from the Veda, while in practice providing for other sources.
The customs from which some elements of dharma are derived are actually based on lost Vedic texts, which can be ‘inferred’ from the existence of these customs (A 1.4.8; 1.12.10– 11).
Thus, we have the distinction between:
‘explicit Vedic texts’ (pratyakṣa-śruti) and ‘inferred Vedic texts’ (anumita-śruti).
This hermeneutical principle permitted Āpastamba to recognize the customs among good people as a guide to proper living, that is, as dharma, while maintaining the theological fiction of the Veda as the sole source of dharma.
Gautama Dharmasūtras gives the 3 sources of dharma that become standard in later literature:
1. the Veda and 2. the tradition (smṛti) and 3. practice (ācāra) of those who know the Veda.
Baudhāyana Dharmasūtras explicitly calls Smṛti the second source, and the practice of cultured people (śiṣṭa) the third.
Increasingly, Smṛti comes to refer not to some ‘recollection’ on the part of śiṣṭas but to treatises on dharma, such as the Dharmasūtras, which are often referred to simply as smṛti.
The theological fiction that all Smṛti are based on Vedic texts, whether explicit or inferred, continues to be maintained in the later Brāhmanic tradition.
Scholars have called Āpastamba Dharmasūtras ‘puritanical’.
That may be so from one perspective.
Within the context of the ideas prevalent in his time, however, Āpastamba’s views, especially with regard to sexual morality and women, were innovative and radical:
While others permit Brahmins to have up to four wives, Āpastamba encourages monogamy, forbidding the taking of a second wife if the first is able to participate in ritual activities and bear children.
After the sacred fires have been established, however, there is a blanket prohibition against taking a second wife (A 2.11.12–14).
Āpastamba’s view of women is quite progressive:
A man is not allowed to abandon his wife (A 1.28.19).
He permits daughters to inherit (A 2.14.4).
There can be no division of property between a husband and a wife, because they are linked inextricably together and have joint custody of the property (A 2.29.3).
Thus, a wife may make gifts and use the family wealth on her own when her husband is away (A 2.12.16–20).
Women are upholders of traditional lore, and Āpastamba tells his audience that they should learn some customs from women (A 2.15.9; 2.29.11).
On levirate, that is, the procreation of children by the wife of a deceased husband, Āpastamba is alone in his adamant opposition (A 2.27.2–7),
a position in sharp contrast to the lax attitude of Vasiṣṭha, who permits a woman whose husband is missing for five years to have sexual relations with a relative of the husband or even a stranger.