The shastras in Sanskrit Hindu literature are the textbooks of religious and legal duty. Shastra literally means “rule, command, code of laws, science,” and these works focus on many different subjects, including the three principal goals for human beings: dharma (law), artha (wealth, profit, business, or property), and kama (passion, desire, pleasure). The Dharmashastra concerns dharma, a concept that incorporates the nature of the world, eternal or cosmic law, and social law, applied to rituals and life-cycle rites, procedures for resolving disputes, and penalties for violations of these rules; the Arthashastra concerns economic affairs; and the Kamashastra concerns love generally and pleasure in particular. (The best known of its component works in the Western world is the Kama sutra, though contrary to popular belief, it is not a “sex book”). These texts are composed of books from individual schools of Vedic and Sanskrit commentary, each school often contributing a sutra named for the school. The Dharmashastra includes the following dharmasutras: Gautama, Baudhayana, Apastamba, Vasishtha, Vishnu, and Vikhanas, as well as the metrical Laws of Manu.
The shastras, including the Dharmashastra, are classified as smriti, a word indicating “what is remembered,” as distinct from the Vedas and the Upanishads [q.v.], which are shruti, “what is heard.” The Vedas and the Upanishads are considered to be divinely perceived—that is, the early seers were held to have perceived eternal truths—and the Dharmashastra, as well as other smriti texts, are the thoughts and explanations of Hindu scholars in response to the shruti books. Chronologically, the sutras of the Dharmahshastra follow sometime after the Vedic period, but these works have been notoriously difficult to date. Most scholars agree, however, that the first three sutras from which selections are included in this volume, Gautama, Apastamba, and Vasishtha, fall sometime between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century B.C., while the Laws of Manu probably date from between about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. From the time of their composition, the works of the Dharmashastra have played a significant role in influencing Hindu culture and law. In fact, the shastras were still being cited in cases of legal contracts as late as the mid-19th century in some regions of India.
The Gautama Dharmasutra, the oldest of the texts of the Dharmashastra, probably composed sometime between 600 and 400 B.C., concerns the sources of dharma, standards for both students and the uninitiated, the four stages of life, dietary rules, penance, rules concerning impurity, and many other regulations and rituals for Hindu life. The section presented here concerns impurity and holds that after the burial of a suicide victim who voluntarily sought death, purity (rather than impurity) follows for their relatives.
The Dharmasutra of Apastamba was most likely composed sometime between 450 and 350 B.C. It is an extensive work with many aphoristic verses and meticulously detailed rituals for daily life. Some of the prominent subject matter includes rules about marriage and married life, forbidden foods and dietary regulations, ritual purity, property laws, rebirth, and various penances. This sutra details various methods of self-destruction that will exculpate violators of certain Hindu laws—fornication with the wife of a religious teacher, drinking alcohol, theft, or murder of a high-caste man—and relieve them of their impurity. It also includes contrary rules, including a prohibition of self-killing.
The Vasishtha Dharmasutra was probably written sometime between 300 and 100 B.C. This sutra is known for its sections on adoption, but it also concerns justice, legal testimony, inheritance, interest rates, and other matters of social law. Several issues surrounding suicide are raised in the text, including penances for those who contemplate suicide or fail in an attempt at self-killing; these are unpermitted suicides. As in the Apastamba sutra, which it echoes, suicide can also be an act of expiation for unlawful behavior, restoring one to purity after death.
The Laws of Manu are perhaps the most famous part of the Dharmashastra, composed in the later part of the Epic Period and often given separate recognition because of their unique metrical style. The Laws of Manu articulate extensive regulations for many aspects of Hindu life, including rules governing religious offerings, purifications, rites, and many other religious and social practices. This code, like Hindu thought generally, distinguishes between unpermitted and permitted suicides. In Book V, suicides are grouped with heretics, those who fail to perform the appropriate religious rites, and those of mixed caste: libations may not be offered to them. In Book VI, the code compares the person who is alive to a servant awaiting payment from his master (an analogy also employed by Plato [q.v.], though yielding a differing conclusion), explaining that one should neither “desire to die“ nor “desire to live.” In many of their other passages, however, the Laws of Manu emphasize the value of leaving the body and becoming free of its pains and torment, as well as achieving full liberation from worldliness and desire. Books VI and XI address the means by which the Brahmana or renouncer should separate himself from his body. Based on the teaching of the four stages of life, developed in the text in detail, the Laws of Manu hold that, after one has become old and passed through the three previous stages of life—celibate religious discipleship, married householder status, and, after one’s grandchildren are born, retirement to the forest—one should simply walk in a northeasterly direction—in this version, without food or water—until one dies. It is in this stage that one becomes a sanyasin, achieving the highest level of spirituality. This journey that ends in death is often called “the Great Departure.”
Gautama Dharmasastra Ch. XIV, 9-12; Apastamba Dharmasastra I.9.25, 1-7, 11-12; I.10.28.15-17, tr. Georg Bühler. The Sacred Laws of the Aryas as Taught in the Schools of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasishtha, and Baudhayana. Part I: Apastamba and Gautama. From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 2., Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1897, p. 250; pp. 82-83. Vasishtha Dharmasastra, ch. XX, 13-14, 41-42; ch. XXIII, 14-19. tr. Georg Bühler. The Sacred Laws of the Aryas as Taught in the Schools of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasishtha, and Baudhayana, Part II: Vasishtha and Baudhayana. From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 14. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1882, pp. 104, 108, 119. The Laws of Manu, V (89), VI (29-32, 45, 76-79), XI (91-92), tr. Georg Bühler, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1967 (reprint of the 1886 edition). From The Sacred Books of the East, ed. F. Max Müller, Vol. 25. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1886, pp. 184, 203-204, 207, 212, 449. Online at Gautama and Apastamba; Vasishtha; Laws of Manu.
GAUTAMA SUTRA XIV
(The relatives) of those who are slain for the sake of cows and Brâhmanas (become pure) immediately after the burial . . .
And (those of men destroyed) by the anger of the king . . .
(Further, those of men killed) in battle . . .
Likewise (those) of men who voluntarily (die) by starving themselves to death, by weapons, fire, poison, or water, by hanging themselves, or by jumping (from a precipice).
APASTAMBA SUTRA I.9.25, I.10.28.17
He who has had connection with a Guru’s wife shall cut off his organ together with the testicles, take them into his joined hands and walk towards the south without stopping, until he falls down dead.
Or he may die embracing a heated metal image of a woman.
A drinker of spirituous liquor shall drink exceedingly hot liquor so that he dies.
A thief shall go to the king with flying hair, carrying a club on his shoulder, and tell him his deed. He (the king) shall give him a blow with that (club). If the thief dies, his sin is expiated.
If he is forgiven (by the king), the guilt falls upon him who forgives him,
Or he may throw himself into the fire, or perform repeatedly severe austerities,
Or he may kill himself by diminishing daily his portion of food…
(A man of any caste) excepting the first, who has slain a man of the first caste, shall go on a battle-field and place himself (between the two hostile armies). There they shall kill him (and thereby he becomes pure).
Or such a sinner may tear from his body and make the priest offer as a burnt-offering his hair, skin, flesh, and the rest, and then throw himself into the fire. . . .
. . . But the violator of a Guru’s bed shall enter a hollow iron image and, having caused a fire to be lit on both sides, he shall burn himself.
According to Hârita, this (last-mentioned penance must) not (be performed).
For he who takes his own or another’s life becomes an Abhisasta [outcaste].
VASISHTHA SUTRA XX, XXIII
He who violates a Guru’s bed shall cut off his organ, together with the testicles, take them into his joined hands and walk towards the south wherever he meets with an obstacle (to further progress), there he shall stand until he dies:
Or, having shaved all his hair and smeared his body with clarified butter, he shall embrace the heated (iron) image (of a woman). It is declared in the Veda that he is purified after death. . . .
If a man has stolen gold belonging to a Brâhmana, he shall run, with flying hair, to the king, (exclaiming) ‘Ho, I am a thief; sir, punish me!’ The king shall give him a weapon made of Udumbara wood; with that he shall kill himself. It is declared in the Veda that he becomes pure after death.
Or (such a thief) may shave off all his hair, anoint his body with clarified butter, and cause himself to be burnt from the feet upwards, in a fire of dry cowdung. It is declared in the Veda that he becomes pure after death. . . .
For him who committing suicide becomes An Abhisasta, his blood-relations (sapinda) shall not perform the funeral rites.
He is called a suicide who destroys himself by means of wood, water, clods of earth, stones, weapons, poison, or a rope.
Now they quote also (the following verse): ‘The twice-born man who out of affection performs the last rites for a suicide, shall perform a Kândrâyana penance together with a Taptakrikkhra.’
We shall describe the Kândrâyana below.
A fast of three days (must be performed) for resolving to die by one’s own hand.
‘He who attempts suicide, but remains alive, shall perform a Krikkhra penance during twelve days. (Afterwards) he shall fast for three (days and) nights, being dressed constantly in a garment smeared (with clarified butter), and suppressing his breath, he shall thrice recite the Aghamarshana.’
LAWS OF MANU V, VI
Libations of water shall not be offered to those who (neglect the prescribed rites and may be said to) have been born in vain, to those born in consequence of an illegal mixture of the castes, to those who are ascetics (of heretical sects), and to those who have committed suicide . . .
These and other observances must a Brahmana who dwells in the forest diligently practise, and in order to attain complete (union with) the (supreme) Soul, (he must study) the various sacred texts contained in the Upanishads,
(As well as those rites and texts) which have been practised and studied by the sages (Rishis), and by Brahmana householders, in order to increase their knowledge (of Brahman), and their austerity, and in order to sanctify their bodies;
Or let him walk, fully determined and going straight on, in a north-easterly direction, subsisting on water and air, until his body sinks to rest.
A Brahmana, having got rid of his body by one of those modes practised by the great sages, is exalted in the world of Brahman, free from sorrow and fear. . . .
Let him not desire to die, let him not desire to live; let him wait for (his appointed) time, as a servant (waits) for the payment of his wages. . . .
Let him quit this dwelling, composed of the five elements, where the bones are the beams, which is held together by tendons (instead of cords), where the flesh and the blood are the mortar, which is thatched with the skin, which is foul-smelling, filled with urine and ordure, infested by old age and sorrow, the seat of disease, harassed by pain, gloomy with passion, and perishable.
He who leaves this body, (be it by necessity) as a tree (that is torn from) the river-bank, or (freely) like a bird (that) quits a tree, is freed from the misery (of this world, dreadful like) a shark.
Making over (the merit of his own) good actions to his friends and (the guilt of) his evil deeds to his enemies, he attains the eternal Brahman by the practice of meditation.
VISHNU SMRITI XXV
Now the duties of a woman (are as follows)…After the death of her husband, to preserve her chastity, or to ascend the pile after him.