Srautasutras, Grhyasutras and Dharmasutras
Sutras are short expositions of a basic truth. Each sutra connects to the previous and following thereby forming a chain of truths. Sutras are used to explain procedures of Vedic rituals, procedures of domestic family rites and the procedures of a complete soceity.
The Srautasutras deal with conduct of Vedic rituals. The Grhyasutras deal with domestic family. The Dharmasutras talk about the all encompassing dharma of a society and its procedures. Dharma are the laws of life. Dharmasutras describe the societal laws of life. They offer a great insight into how the Asramas were viewed in their periods.
Over a period, the sutra style of rendition of laws gave way to ‘sloka’ style of rendition. The epics, puranas etc are composed in this sloks style. The legal renditions in this style are called the dharma sAstras or smrti. A well known smrti is manu smrti. Manu Smrti also gives us information how societal laws and how Asramas were viewed in its period.
The four Asramas
Zrama means ‘toil’, ‘fatigue’ etc.. azrama means ‘not toiling’, ‘not fatigued’. Azrama is a way to live without getting fatigued, an ease of way of living. From that it is translated as a place of living (place that makes it easy to live), a hermitage, a stage of life.
There are four Asramas talked about in various scriptures. They are Brahmacharya, Grhasta, vanaprastha and saMnyAsa.
Asramas in Guatama dharma Sutra
Gautama dharma sutra declares starting in 3.1
- He has a choice, some assert, among the orders of ife
- student, householder, mendicant, or anchorite
- The householder is their source, because the others do not produce offspring
Further Gautama dharma sutra declares in 3.36
36 There is, however, only a single order of life,* the Teachers maintain, because the householder’s state alone is prescribed in express vedic texts.
Gautama dharma sutra says that some people claim there is a choice for the Asramas and they can choose any order of life they want. But householder is their source and others do not produce offspring.
Gautama dharma sutra brings in producing offspring as the key function of Grhastha and hence declares that there is NO choice for human beings but to follow the stages of succession.
It further declares that though there are ‘four’ orders actually they are one. The one is householder’s state and that alone is explicitly understood from the Vedic texts according to Guatama Dharma Sutra.
The position that the householder’s life is the only legitimate order for adults is expressed also in Boudhyayana Dharma Sutra 2.11.27. The idea here is not issue a blanket prohibition of other orders, but to forbid any order than a householders for a student who completed Vedic Studies.
Asramas in Baudhyayana Dharma Sutra
Baudhayana dharma sutra states in 2.11.9
- Now, some do indeed posit a fourfold division of this Law. In the absence of a vedic text to support their position, however, the text ‘Four paths . . .’ must refer to rites,
- Namely, Is.t.i sacrifices, animal sacrifices, Soma sacrifices, and ghee offering––*
11 a division enunciated in this verse: Four paths leading to the gods traverse between
heaven and earth. Among these, all you gods, place us on that which brings unfailing prosperity.
12 That division consists of the student, the householder, the forest hermit, and the wandering ascetic.
The Sutra says there are NO four divisions in that, one can choose any of the four. The four paths mentioned are the four sacrifices and not four independent paths that one can take.
It further makes it in clear in 27
27 There is, however, only a single order of life (same as in Gautama Dharma Sutra 3.36), the teachers maintain, because no offspring is produced in the others.
28 With respect to the above position they cite this: ‘There was once a demon named Kapila, the son of Prahla¯da.* It was he who created these divisions in his campaign against the gods. No wise man should pay any heed to them.’
29 In the absence of a vedic text to support their position, the text ‘Four paths . . .’ must refer to rites, namely, Is.t.i sacrifices, animal sacrifices, Soma sacrifices, and ghee offering.
30 Now, this verse is cited in support of their position: “This is the eternal greatness of a Brahmin––he is not made greater or smaller by actions. It is his trail that the self knows; and knowing him, he is no longer stained by sinful actions. (TB 3.12.7–8; cf. B 2.17.7–8)
31 One should respond: A man who knows not the Veda does not at the moment of his death think of that great all perceiving self, by whose power the sun, ablaze with splendour, gives warmth and a father comes to have a father through his son in birth after birth. (TB 3.12.7)
32 These men who rove neither near nor afar, who are neither Brahmins nor pressers of
Soma––they master speech and with evil speech spin their thread without understanding,
like a spinster. (RV 10.71.9)
33 There are innumerable texts that refer to the debts that people incur, such as: ‘Through offspring, O Fire, may we obtain immortality’ (RV 5.4.10; TS 188.8.131.52); and ‘At his very birth, a
Brahmin is born with a triple debt––of studentship to the seers, of sacrifice to the gods, and of offspring to the ancestors’ (TS 184.108.40.206).
34 Study of the triple Veda, studentship, procreation, faith, austerity, sacrifice, giving gifts––those who perform these dwell with us. Anyone who praises other things becomes dust
There is only one order of life. There are no four orders. In that order there are four stages. In these stages Householder is the stage that makes the order in reality as it only produces offsprings and support others.
People who claim that there are four orders are demons (kapila, son of prahlAda) who fight against the gods according to this Sutra.
Yes people often claim ‘four paths’ mentioned in Rg Veda refers to four independent orders. But it is not. It refers to four sacrifices.
Some people also quote the vedic verse that says brAhmana is not made greater or smaller by actions and claim that a brAhman can go to any stage. But we quote them the Rg Vedic texts which proclaim that a brAhman has three debts at birth and one of it is to ancestors to produce offsprings. One who does not do it, does not fullfill the debt.
Only a man who knows the Veda fulfills all the debts and at the time of death realizes the Self.
Baudhayana dharma sutra states in 2.17
- Next, we will explain the procedure of renunciation.*
- Some say: ‘From that very state, remaining chaste, he goes forth’
- Alternatively, it is meant for S´a¯lı¯nas and Ya¯ya¯varas who are childless.
- Or else, a widower may undertake it, or someone who has settled his children in their respective duties.
- Some prescribe renunciation for people over 70
- or for a forest hermit who has retired from ritual activities
According to Baudhayana, people who renunciate are those who are widowers, childless, who has settled children in their duties, people of age above 70 or who are in Vanaprastha (who no longer perform the rituals as in Grhastasrama).
Asramas in Vasishta Dharma Sutra
Vasishta Dharma Sutra says in 7.1
- There are four orders of life:
- student, householder, forest hermit, and wandering ascetic
- After studying one, two, or all the Vedas, a man who has not violated his vow of chastity
may live in whichever of these he prefers
Vasishta Dharma Sutra refers to Manu Smrti. Hence it should be later to Manu Smrti. Manu Smrti in itself says all the Asramas should progress one by one. But the later day Vasishta Dharma Sutra says that a student can go to any of the other three orders, if the student has maintained the vow of Chastity.
But Vasishta Dharma Sutra also says grhasta is the best of all the orders. In 8.14 it says
14 A householder alone offers sacrifices; a householder performs austerities. Of all the four orders, the householder is the best.
15 As all rivers and rivulets ultimately end up in the ocean, so people of all the orders ultimately end up in the householder. (This is same as in the Manu Smrti)
16 As all living beings live dependent on their mothers, so all mendicants live dependent on
While Vasishta Dharma Sutra claims Grhastha is the best of the order, source of all other orders, it does not, like the Baudhayana or Gautama Sutra, say that the orders have to be in sequence. It allows a student to move to other orders.
Asramas in Apastamba Sutra
Apastamba sutra states this in 2.21.1
1 There are four orders of life: the householder’s life, living at the teacher’s house, the life of a sage, and that of a forest hermit.
2 If a man remains steadfast in any of these, he attains bliss.
3 A common prerequisite for all is to live at the teacher’s house following one’s initiation
4 and all are required not to abandon vedic learning.
5 After he has learnt the rites, he may undertake the order that he prefers
The rites mentioned here are the householder’s rites. After been a Grhastha according to this sutra, one can be a sage (saMnyAs) or a forest hermit (vani).
Further it states in 2.23.3
3 (view of opponents) Now they quote a couple of verses from a Purana
4 “The eighty thousand seers who desired offspring went along the sun’s southern course. They obtained cremation grounds”
5 The eighty thousand seers who did not desire offspring went along the sun’s northern course. They, indeed, attained immortality.
6 Such is the praise of those who live celibate lives.
7 And further, these are men who make whatever they want happen by their mere thought,
8 for example, producing rain, bestowing children, seeing what is far away, moving as quickly as thought, and others of this sort.
9 Therefore, on the basis of vedic testimony and visible results, some claim that these orders of life are superior.
10 [author’s view] It is the firm view of the most eminent scholars of the triple Veda, however, that the Vedas are the ultimate authority. The rites using rice, barley, animals, ghee, milk, and potsherds and involving the participation of the wife that are prescribed in the Vedas must be performed with the loud and soft recitation of ritual formulas, they hold, and any practice opposed to those rites is devoid of authority.
11 With regard to the statement about ‘cremation grounds’, on the other hand, that passage enjoins the funerary rites at the death of those who have performed many sacrifices.
12 Thereafter, the Vedas declare, they obtain an eternal reward designated by the term ‘heaven’.
Some people claim celibate lives are superior. The celibate lives are Brahmacarya, Vani and saMnyasi. But Apastamba says Veda are the ultimate authority and based on the three vedas, the household of Grhasta is superior and all other practices of other orders are devoid of any authority.
In fact grhasta who produce offsprings enjoy the funerary rites and they obtain an eternal reward.
24 1 The scriptures declare, moreover, that immortality consists of offspring: ‘In your offspring you are born again. That, O mortal, is your immortality’ (TB 220.127.116.11).
2 Furthermore, we can see with our very eyes that the son is a distinct clone of the father himself. One can even see that they are identical, only the bodies are distinct.
3 And the sons, as they continue to perform the prescribed rites, increase the fame and
heavenly life of their departed ancestors.
4 Each subsequent generation does the same for those that preceded it.
5 They dwell in heaven until the dissolution of creation.
6 ‘At the new creation, they serve as the seed’, says the Bhavisya Purana.
7 And there is also the declaration of Prajapati:
8 Study of the triple Veda, studentship, procreation, faith, austerity, sacrifice, giving gifts––those who perform these dwell with us. Anyone who praises other things becomes dust
By offspring we are born again and the rites continue to be performed and the heavens continue to be rewarded. Prajapati deems that study of the three vedas, studentship (brahmacarya, learning), procreation, faith austerity, sacrifice, giving gifts (grhasta) – those who perform these dwell with us.
This means only grhasta reaches the heaven. Anyone who praises other things becomes dust and perishes.
Asramas in Manu Smrti
Manu Smrti declares this starting in VI.87
“The student, the householder, the hermit and the ascetic, these four separate orders, which all spring from householders
“But all these orders assumed successively in accordance with the institutes, lead the brAhmana who acts by the preceding to the highest state”
“And in accordance with the precepts of Veda and Smrti, the householder is declared superior to all of them, for he supports the other three”
“As all rivers great and small find a resting place in ocean, even so men of all orders find protection with householders”
Manu Smrti declares all the four orders have be to be assumed successively in accordance with the established laws and the brAhmana goes from preceding to the next higher state.
Which is the superior of all the Asrama..? It is Grhastha. Why.? Because brahmacarya, vanaprastha and saMnyAsa get protection from the Grhasta. Grhasta gives refuge to other three orders and hence supreme. In fact for this reason only every brAhamana must go through these stages successively.
Manu Smrti, all through declares these four stages to be in sequence of each other and declares the grhasta stage as the Supreme stage of life.
As could be seen, most of the dharma sutras prescribe and laud grhasta stage of Asrama. They also explicitly prohibit skipping it or some prohibit skipping the order. Only Vasistha dharma sutra allows going to any order, but again speaks highly of grhastha, calling it the source of all the orders. Baudhayana prohibits it totally and specifies exemptions. Manu Smrti and Apastamba completely prohibit skipping grhastasrama.
- Dharmasutras – The law codes of Ancient India – A new translation by Patrick Olivelle , Oxford World classics, 1999
- The Laws of Manu – Translated by G. Buhler, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1886
More posts by this author:
- The zUdras of Purusha Suktam
- The Eternal Varna Asrama Dharma – Part 5
- Obscenity in Apastamba sUtras..??
- Brhadharanyaka Upanishad – Sloka 1.4.15 and 16
- Marriage mantras in grhya sutras