Dharmashastra is a generic name for that literature which lays down norms of individual and social behaviour in a Hindu religious society. The book under review, as the name indictes, is a companion volume on Dharmashastra and contains material that would be helpful in the study, in this regard.
The sages of yore codified customs, as well as individual and social behaviour patterns, and this literature came to be called as Smritis. This literature is categorically different from the literature of the Vedic period known as Shrutis, a more sacrosanct literature, which defies mutation. The Smritis are more pliable and reflect customs of a particular period. Shrutis have over-riding authority.
Dharmashastra is a sum total of all the teachings in Smritis and commentaries thereon, which form the core of Hindu law throughout the ages. It was a remarkable exercise on the part of Maha Mahopadhyaya Dr P.V. Kane to have compiled a detailed History of Dharmashastra Literature in five volumes running over 7544 pages.
The purpose of Prof. Banerji’s book is somewhat limited. It aims at presenting such material as would facilitate a more detailed study of Dharmashastra by providing a brief background material and all the necessary indices of names and works, referred to in Dharmashastra literature. Thus, the book provides all that is necessary for an in depth study of Dharmashastra.
The book opens with a brief introduction dealing with the land and the people, the meaning of Dharma, both as per the early and later writers. This gives in a nutshell the contents of Prachina and Navya Smritis.
The second chapter deals with political, social and religious background of Dharmashastra. The author believes that the ‘poltical conditions mould the society of a country to a considerable extent, the society, in its turn, plays an important role in shaping the literature, religious and profane’ (p. 9). So after surveying the historical conditions in the Vedic age, the author describes the same, in the Epic and Puranic periods. Here, the Brahmanical religion was imperilled mainly by two factors, viz., Buddhism and Tantrism (p. 31) ‘womenfolk and Shudras embraced in droves.’ Buddhism upheld ethics rather than the bloody ritual practices of sacrifices. As a counteraction, the Brahmanical society composed Puranas to attract the laity from the folds of Buddhism. Puranas provided a simplistic religion of (Puranic) mantras and vratas. These were linked with material well being of an individual. The spate of Puranic literature over the centuries gave a popular base to religion.
While the third chapter deals with the Authors of Dharmashastra, alphabetically, the fourth deals with their works. Both the chapters taken together serve as an index to the entire Dharmashastra literature.
The fifth and the last chapter, running over 68 pages presents the results of the critical study of the author, of the Smritis in general. The treatment is topical. Here, the author says that ‘some important social practices obtaining now, have lost their original significance and form, sometimes influenced by superstitions and covetousness of the sacerdotal class’ (p. 99). He cites the instances of Upanayana and Shraddha and the incongruence of their performance in the old fashions. The author further examines position of women and the custom of Sati. He refers to Ishvarchandra Vidyasagara’s views on Sati and his citation of Parasara Smriti V. 30, in support of widow remarriage. Levirate (Niyoga) has been discussed. The question of untouchability and Euthanasia are also discussed. The author has also expressed on socialistic trends in Manusmriti and has discussed basic juridical principles.
The book contains eleven appendices which supplement the contents of the book. The glossary and index will prove useful for lay readers.
The author has taken care not to enter in polemics in Dharmashastra. His eye was on referencial material and he has succeeded in presenting the same with clarity. A publication of this sort was very much needed. The author deserves to be congratulated for an excellent execution of the job. The paper and the printing are good.