Smritis – An overview

संस्कृतसाहित्ये स्मृतेः महत्वम्

Sruthis and Smritis

स्मृतिः श्रुतिः हरेः आज्ञा says ऋषि: वाधूल: pointing out that the Smritis and Shrutis are created by the command of Hari or Sriman Narayana. श्रूयते अनेन इति श्रुतिः i.e., That which is heard is Shruti. स्मर्यते अनेन इति स्मृतिः i.e., That which is remembered is Smruti. It recollects the important points of the Vedas and provides us in a concise manner.

Purpose of Smritis

Vedas contain विधि and निषेध i.e., ordained actions and prohibited actions. The Smritis are the commentaries by the Rishis on the Vedic injunctions. श्रुतिस्तु वेदो विज्ञेयो धर्मशास्त्रं तु वै स्मृतिः | Gautama refers to Smruti as the essence of Dharma. These scriptures explain how to practice Dharma, the importance of adhering to it, and the ill-effects of not following the principles of Dharma.

The need for Smritis

The Vedas are the Shrutis. They are the most authoritative of all the scriptures. While the Vedas are अपौरुषेय – not written by man, the Smritis are written by Rishis.  This being the case, it is very important to understand the need for creating these Smritis. The roles and responsibilities of the different members of the society of that particular times are explained in the Smritis. It provides for some changes in the actions to be performed, according to the requirement of times, without contradicting the Vedic injunctions. So Smriti text can be written any number of times, depending on the need of the times. But it should not be against the dicta of the Shruti, which elaborate the fundamental Dharma of the mankind.

Validity of the Smritis

Vedas are स्वतः सिद्धप्रमाण – these propositions are self-evident and they do not require any external proof for their correctness. Though Smritis are written by individuals, it is also accepted to be correct since it is based on the Vedas. आप्तवाक्यप्रमाण – It is considered to be correct because it is the words of those Rishis who are concerned with our welfare.  आप्तवाक्यं शब्दः।  The words of our well-wishers is to be taken as the truth as per Shabda Pramaana. When there is वक्त्रानुकूल्य, श्रोतानुकूल्य and प्रसङ्गानुकूल्य i.e., when the disposition of speaker, the disposition of the listener and the atmosphere are conducive, whatever is being said has to be taken as आप्त वाक्यम् – the well-wisher’s advice and they ought to be followed.

Characteristics of the Smriti Authors

The Smriti authors explain the Vedic ideals without any misinterpretations. The Smritikaaras had the intention to lead their disciples in the right path and elevate them to higher levels. आचिनोति आचरत्यपि आचार्यः – An Aacharya acquires knowledge and carries out his actions based on the acquired knowledge.  He has unity in thoughts, words and action. ऋषिः is a gnaani. He sees oneness in humanity – सर्वंखल्विदं ब्रह्म | He shows the direction to all the human beings. मार्गदर्शी महर्षिः | There is no selfish interest in him. He is concerned about everyone. Since each person’s life is unique, the Rishi considers everyone and provides the appropriate guidance.

The Tone of the Smritis

The Smritis contain the advice of a guru to his disciples. So these are considered as शासन – the rules that need to be adhered to. Among the three types of classification of the scriptures as Prabhu Sammita (stated with an authority), Mitra Sammita (stated in a friendly manner) and Kaantaa Sammita (stated in a loving way), the Smritis come under Prabhu Sammita as these are like the orders of the master that need to be obeyed, failing which there would be punishment. So, whether one likes or not, the injunctions stated in the Smritis are to be carried out, at least due to the fear of the punishment. भीतारग्निर्धावतिमृयुर्धावति पञ्चम एति |  Things are happening in a specific order in the world because of the fear of the consequences.

The Style of the Smritis

Usually the Smritis are in Gadya or Prose form. There are a few which are in Padya or Poetry form set to specific Chandas. There are also Smritis which are in Champu style – i.e., a combination of Gadya and Padya.

Important Smritis

There are 37 important Smritis. Some of the popular Smritis are: Manu Smriti, Yagnavalkya Smriti, Narada Smriti, Parashara Smriti, Brihaspati Smriti and Katyayana Smriti. There are also many other Smritis like Daksa Smriti, Angirasa Smriti, etc. The Smritis are mostly named after the authors or writers – the one who collates and documents the work.

The Subject Matter of the Smritis

There are many topics that have been repeatedly covered in many Smritis or even multiple times within the same Smriti due to the significance of the matter of consideration. We will see some of the main topics in this assignment.


One such aspect which has gained the prominence among the subjects dealt with in the Smritis is Varnaashramadharma. The duties to be carried out by the people belonging to different Varnaas are the Varna Dharma. Similarly, the duties to be carried out by the people considering their present phase of life are the Ashrama Dharma.

According to our scriptures, everyone is a Shudra at birth – जन्मना जायते शूद्रः | Only when the person gets initiation into studies, by the Upanayana Karma, he takes his second birth as a Brahmin. Sri Krishna mentions in the Gita (4.13) – “चातुर्वर्ण्यं मया सृष्टं गुणकर्मविभागशः”. The Varna is determined based on the predominant quality namely Sattva, Rajas or Tamas; and the nature of work undertaken by the person for his livelihood. This is not to be confused with the present day caste system that is based on heredity.

Pancha Maha Yagna

Different Smritis elaborate about the Panch-Maha-Yagnas. Though there might be slight variations, those are mostly taken to be Deva Yagna (worship of Gods and demi-gods), Pitru Yagna (worship of one’s forefathers), Manushya Yagna (worship of fellow humans), Bhuta Yagna (worship of other beings), and Brahma Yagna (worship of knowledge).

Runa Trayam

The three debts or ऋणत्रयम् are पितृ-ऋण, देव-ऋण and गुरु-ऋण | The Smritis elaborate on these types of debts, how they are to be repaid, what is the parihaara or remedy in the event of not fulfilling the debts. In काश्यपस्मृति, condensing the information that is present in the other Smritis, Kashyapa says  – देवपितृमनुष्यभूतब्रह्मयज्ञानुपसेवमानः | According to him, Smritis mainly deals with these topics – the types of the Yagnas (to the god, parents, human beings, other beings and towards knowledge) and the way to do upaseva of these Yagna.

The Duals  द्वन्द्वः

The Smritis also deal with some dual concepts or Dvandvas which are extremely important like the two eyes. Some of them are

  1. सत्य – धर्म or सत्य – निष्ठा Truth & Righteousness
  2. न्याय – दण्ड Honesty and punishment.
  3. यजन – याजन Doing Yagna and getting others to do it.
  4. अध्ययन – अध्यापन Studying and teaching.
  5. दान-परिग्रह Giving and receiving charity.

Three types of Karmas

अवश्यं अनुभोक्तव्यं कृतं कर्म शुभाशुभम् | Whether it is the good fortune or the bad fortune, it has to be experienced. The karmas are classified as Sanchita Karmas (accumulated works), Prarabdha Karmas (ripe or fructuous actions), and Kriyamana or Agami Karmas (current works).

Types ojk,f Dharma

The actions to be undertaken are stated as Dharma. The different types of Dharma and Karmas are सामान्यधर्म (General), विशेषधर्म (Specific to the person), आपद्धर्म (when in distress), नित्यकर्म (Daily), नैमित्तिककर्म (occasional), काम्यकर्म (with a specific objective) and  मोक्षधर्म (for self-realisation). Aapad Dharma are the actions that can be performed in case of a distress. The Smritis deal with this in detail. The Smritis clarify which situation can be considered as Aapad or being in distress to ensure that people do not abuse the liberty given only for exceptional situations. When carrying out all the actions, the person should always keep in mind that the ultimate goal is the Moksha Dharma and progress towards this highest goal of self realization.


General laws that govern humanity are covered in these Smriti literatures. It is based on the Vedas, and these were written by recollecting the Vedic literature. The duties and responsibilities to be carried out at different phases of life and in different circumstances are covered in the Smritis. It elaborates the activities to be performed as per the phases of life or the four Ashramas. If we want to have an integrated society and work in a united manner, a set of common principles that are respected by all people is required. These literatures were not written for a specific community. These were called as Maanava Dharma and are applicable to the entire humanity.

If Vedas are the solid gold, the Smriti texts are the golden jewels minted at different times to suit the trend of the present times.  This flexibility in undergoing change according to the changing times is the beauty of the Vedic literature. This is the reason that Vedas and the Sanaatana dharma have stood the test of time. It would have been a dead literature if it had been rigid. There is scope of change in the Smritis according to the current needs of the people. Thus the greatness of Smritis is that they are important for the protection of the human race. The adherence to Smriti is a wonderful concept that has to be preserved and practiced in the society for the sake of humanity. As suggested by Vivekananda we need a new Smriti for the present century. “As time rolls on, more and more of the Smritis will go, sages will come, and they will change and direct society into better channels, into duties and into paths which accord with the necessity of the age, and without which it is impossible that society can live.”

Source: Vidyadaanam (  –  Classes by Dr. Gururaja Rao and by Dr. Vanitha Ramaswamy


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