Manusmriti, a text composed in the second century, is known for upholding the fourfold division of society in the form of varnas. However, this classification is not exclusive to Manusmriti. Rather, it is a common feature, actually an integral part, of the whole of the Dharma literature.
The earlier Dharma texts, known as Dharmasutras, were composed in the style of aphoristic prose called sutra. The four of these Dharmasutras, ascribed to Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vashistha respectively, survive in the modern times. The earliest of these, the Apastamba Dharmasutra, was composed in the third century BCE.
Dharmasutras mention varnas in a matter of fact way. “There are four classes: Brahmin, Kṣatriya, Vaiśya, and Śūdra,” declares Apastamba. This is followed immediately by a verse that makes the varna hierarchy clear: “Among these, each preceding class is superior by birth to each subsequent.”
Vashistha cites the famous Rig Vedic Purusha sukta hymn to explain the origin of varnas: “His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Kṣatriya; his thighs are the Vaiśya; and from his feet the Śūdra was born.”
Dharmasutras were composed by Brahmins belonging to various Vedic schools. Therefore, study of Vedas is given an immense importance in these texts. Vashistha says, “Brahmins who are not learned, who do not teach, or who do not maintain the sacred fires become equal to Śūdras.”
The study of Vedas was confined to the first three varnas. Apastamba says, “Those who are not Śūdras and are not guilty of evil deeds may undergo initiation, undertake vedic study, and set up the sacred fires; and their rites bear fruit.”
According to Dharmasutras, a Brahmin should be initiated in the Vedic studies at the age of eight, Kshatriya at the age of eleven and Vaishya at twelve (corresponding to the number of syllables in each foot of the metre used in their initiation— Gayatri, Tristubh and Jagati respectively). Baudhayana says, “Before the cord of Muñja grass is tied, they do not impose any ritual observances on a child, for until he is born through the Veda, he is equal to a Śūdra in conduct.”
Vedic recitation is supposed to be suspended if a Shudra is within earshot or sight.
Gautama reserves the harshest punishment for the Shudras who dare to go anywhere near the Vedas: “If he listens in on a vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac; if he repeats it, his tongue shall be cut off; if he commits it to memory, his body shall be split asunder.”
Even though Kshatriyas and Vaishyas can study Vedas, only a Brahmin has the right to teach. Dharmasutras specify what occupations can be taken up by each varna. Studying the Vedas, offering sacrifices, and giving gifts are the occupations common to all twice-borns. Brahmins have three additional occupations—officiating at sacrifices, teaching the Vedas and receiving gifts. Only Brahmins have the right to receive gifts. The dharma specific to a Kshatriya is the protection of his subjects by the use of weapons, while a Vaishya can engage in agriculture, trade, animal husbandry, and lending money on interest. Shudras are supposed to serve the upper three varnas.
The servitude of the Shudras is reiterated throughout the texts. Baudhayana, for instance, says, “If a Śūdra comes as a guest, he should employ him in some work.” Shudras were also employed as servants in the houses of the twice-born.
“Those who are unable to sustain themselves through the Law proper to their class may resort to the livelihood of the class immediately below theirs but never to that of a class above theirs,” says Vashistha. And according to Apastamba, “People of all classes enjoy supreme and boundless happiness when they follow the Laws specific to them.”
Dharmasutras also prescribe differential punishment depending on the varna of the criminal and the victim. “When a man belonging to the Kshatriya or lower class kills a Brahmin, he should be executed and all his property confiscated,” states Baudhayana. On the other hand, a Brahmin is almost never subjected to corporal punishment. For example, Baudhayana says, “Everybody except a Brahmin is subject to corporal punishment for adultery.”
The Shudras generally face the most stringent punishment for a crime or something that is perceived as a crime by the Dharmasutras. Apastamba says, “If a Śūdra hurls abusive words at a virtuous Ārya, his tongue shall be cut out. If, while he is speaking, walking on the road, lying in bed, or occupying a seat, a Śūdra pretends to be equal to Āryas, he should be flogged. If a Śūdra kills a man, steals, or appropriates land, he should be executed and his property confiscated.”
The worth of human life depends on what varna one belongs to. Apastamba says, “If someone kills a Kṣatriya, he should give a thousand cows to erase the enmity, a hundred if he kills a Vaiśya, and ten if he kills a Śūdra.” This dictate most probably refers to a Brahmin because when the varna is not explicitly mentioned, Dharmasutra verses assume a Brahmin male as their subject. Patrick Olivelle, a foremost authority in the field of Dharma studies, says, “The Brahmin is the implied subject of most rules in the Dharmasutras.” He cites Apastamba as an example: “The text of Apastamba, which is the best preserved with the least tampering, has a total of 1,364 sutras. 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.”
Dharmasutras and later composed Dharmashastras (Manu, Yadnyavalkya, Vishnu, Narada, etc) form an important canon of Brahmanic literature. The numerous commentaries on these texts and Dharma digests from the medieval era attest to this fact. One of them—Yadnyavalkya Smriti—even became the basis for Hindu personal law under the British colonial government.
While appreciating the literary qualities and technical finesse, the Brahmin-centric world view and the subhuman treatment of Shudras, Chandalas and women intrinsic to these texts is sometimes ignored. However, we must read these texts critically because the caste and gender-based oppression sanctioned by them, is far from over even after two millennia.[All quotations from ‘Dharmasutras: A New Translation,’ Oxford University Press, 1999)