Yajnavalkya-smriti (Vyavaharadhyaya)—Critical study

by Kalita Nabanita | 2017 | 87,413 words

This page relates ‘Positions of the Brahmanas and the Shudras’ of the study on the Vyavaharadhyaya of the Yajnavalkya-smriti: one of the most prominent Smritis dealing with Dharmashastra (ancient Indian science of law), dating to the 1st century B.C. The Yajnavalkyasmriti scientifically arranges its contents in three sections: Acara (proper conduct), Vyavahara (proper law) and Prayashcitta (expiation). Vyavahara deals with judicial procedure and legal system such as substantive law and procedural law.

Chapter 3.2a - Positions of the Brāhmaṇas and the Śūdras

The Brāhmaṇas being the highest order among principal varṇas of ancient Indian society and the Śūdras as the lowest order, hold different positions. The distinctions or inequalities between the foremost caste and the lowest caste of the society need consideration to know about the progress and advancement of the society. In any legal system, the position of the members of the different castes furnishes the thoughts and feelings of the community, because the socio-economic forces prevailing in a particular society, play a vital role while framing the rules and regulations of that society.

The Brāhmaṇas use to enjoy special privileges and immunities as a result of their superior position in the society, which may be observed in the Vyavahārādhyāya of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti. It is made a legal obligation on the part of the King to erect suitable buildings in the city and to settle there the Brāhmaṇas, versed in the three Vedas. Moreover, they are provided with livelihood and asked to observe or protect their own dharma.[1] Dharma in this context refers to the rules regarding varṇas and āśramas, which are dictated in the Vedas and the Smṛtis.[2] The Brāhmaṇas are given the right to free access to any places, as if, those are their own, for the purpose of collecting grass, sacrificial fuel and flowers.[3] Thus, they are protected from being prosecuted for the offence of theft.

The rule regarding treasure of unknown ownership, found hidden, also known as treasure trove (nidhi) is also exceptionally favourable towards the Brāhmaṇas. If the treasure trove is found by the king, then half of it is to be given to the Brāhmaṇas, and when a learned Brāhmaṇa comes by it, he can keep the whole nidhi. Any other person, except them, having found the treasure trove, the king should take one sixth of that treasure trove.[4] Though this meaning is apparent in the text of Yājñavalkya, yet according to the Mitākṣarā, the king should give one sixth of it to the finder and should keep himself the remaining treasure trove.[5]

In the matter of administration of justice, the Brāhmaṇas are allowed to assist the king.[6] Further, the person, i.e. the Principal Judge, should be a learned Brāhmaṇa, who is appointed to administer justice, when the king is unable to attend due to his other duties.[7] Vijñāneśvara makes it clear that in the absence of a learned Brāhmaṇa, the king may appoint a Kṣatriya or a Vaiśya with the same quality, but not a Śūdra.[8] Therefore, it is observed that the Brāhmaṇas get privilege to take active part in judicial functions along with the ruler.

In the Vyavahārādhyāya of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti, varṇa discrimination is distinct in case of administering divine ordeals between the Brāhmaṇas and the Śūdras. The ordeal by balance, which is the easiest form of all the ordeals, is prescribed for the Brāhmaṇas and on the other hand, the Śūdras are subjected to the severest form of ordeal, i.e. by poison weighing seven barleycorns.[9] In case of the ordeal tulā, the person undertaking it, is not in any danger or threat to life of the person going through it. The Brāhmaṇas are also preferred while paying off the debt to other castes, when the creditors belong to different castes.[10] Another special privilege enjoyed by the Brāhmaṇas is that even non-invitation of neighbouring Brāhmaṇas, on the exequal occasions or the like has been considered as an offence, punishable with a fine of ten paṇas.[11]

The penal provision of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti is not harsh to the Brāhmaṇas and some privileges are allowed to them. They are endowed with immunities and exemption. In this regard, the position of the Brāhmaṇas and the Śūdras before the time of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti should be traced, for which, the rules contained in the Manusmṛti deserve consideration. The extreme form of supremacy is advocated for the Brāhmaṇas, against the categorically unfair expressed treatment towards the Śūdras in the Manusmṛti. The laws of the Manusmṛti are hostile to the Śūdras specifically. In accordance with Manu, a Brāhmaṇa witness requires taking oath by his veracity, but a Śūdra has to swear by imprecating on his own head the guilt of all grievous sins.[12] The manner of administration of oath for a Śūdra in court of law is most humiliating of all. Yājñavalkya has mentioned a general oath for all witnesses without any reference to the particular caste of the witnesses.[13] Manu generally ordains severe punishment for Śūdras, offending against the persons of superior varṇas. He lays down that due to the law origin of a Śūdra, when he insults any one of the three upper castes with gross invective, should have his tongue cut off.[14] On the contrary, a Brāhmaṇa is liable to be fined with fifty, twenty five and twelve paṇas for defaming a Kṣatriya, a Vaiśya and a Śūdra respectively.[15]

Yājñavalkya has not prescribed such kind of discriminatory behaviour towards the Śūdras, rather ordains fine for a similar offence, which varies depending upon the caste of the offender and the victim.[16] However, it is significant to note that in the Gautmadharmasūtra, no fine is provided for a Brāhmaṇa, abusing a Śūdra, which indicate that at that time it might not have been considered at all as a crime.[17] It appears that the disabilities and the subordination of the Śūdras, during the time of the Dharmasūtras have deteriorated their position to more destructive height than other three castes. The Gautamadharmasūtra, which is believed to be the oldest of this kind, contains provisions that the ears of the Śūdras are entitled to be filled with molten tin or lac for listening the Vedic recitation, for repeating it, his tongue is to be cut off and if he memorises, then his body shall be split asunder.[18]

In the Vyavahārādhyāya of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti, there is not any repressive law against a Śūdra disputing with the Brāhmaṇas, or against the Śūdra learning or owning property and so forth. However, the Brāhmaṇas, still continue to enjoy some kind of favourable laws compared to other castes. Yājñavalkya has prescribed the general law for all non-Brāhmaṇas but not only to Śūdra that a non-Brāhmaṇa should be deprived of his limb, through which he inflicts pain on a Brāhmaṇa.[19]

Manu prescribes that a Śūdra having intercourse with an unguarded woman of twice born has to lose his offending part, and if he commits the same offence with a guarded twice born woman then he loses his life.[20] He advocates special exemption for the Brāhmaṇas ordaining tonsure of head in case of which, other caste have to suffer capital punishment.[21] On the other hand, when the Brāhmaṇas have intercourse with the woman of a Brāhmaṇa, a Kṣatriya, a Vaiśya or a Śūdra, he is made to pay fine in ascending order.[22] Manu makes a claim for the Brāhmaṇas, that intends to place them above the criminal punishment. According to him, a Brāhmaṇa should not be killed for whatever crimes he commits, rather he should be vanished without wound on him and with all his property.[23] The king is warned that he should never think of imposing death penalty on a Brāhmaṇa, as killing of him is known to be the greatest crime on the earth.[24]

In the matter of adultery, Yājñavalkya too maintains the principle of varṇa legislation. However, it is not prejudiced to the Śūdras. He has prescribed the punishment for various kinds of adultery in a uniform way, that when it is committed with a higher caste woman by lower caste man then death is the penalty. Higher form of pecuniary penalty is ordained when committed with woman of same caste and middle or lowest form of fine is to be paid, if committed with a woman of lower caste.[25] An exception is provided by Yājñavalkya, in case, when a woman of inferior caste is forcibly defiled, then the hands of the offender should be lopped off.[26] Thus, Yājñavalkya conforms to corporeal punishment even for upper castes such as the Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya though in accordance with the above mentioned provisions, the Brāhmaṇas get immunity from the capital punishment. Yājñavalkya prescribes branding and banishment for the Brāhmaṇa as penalty for theft but several modes of corporal punishments are recommended for other castes.[27] It may be noticed that Yājñavalkya in this respect has treated the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya and the Śūdra with equal status or at par.

On many contexts, views of the commentators are significant to understand and to detect the changes, which have taken place in the society. They very often try to project the idea of later time, i.e. of their time along with the view of the writer of the original work. Hence, the comments of the Mitākṣarā, may expose the changing position of the castes in the society from the earlier time. Manu, claiming the supremacy of the Brāhmaṇas, declares that even a Brāhmaṇa of ten years is like the father to a Kṣatriya of a hundred years old.[28] The Gautamadharmasūtra has also announced that the king rules over all, except the Brāhmaṇas.[29] The Mitākṣarā commentary quoting the above-mentioned text of the Gautamadharmasūtra expresses that it is intended to be eulogistic only, hence it should not be supposed in consequence that the Brāhmaṇas are exempted from punishment but the king has the power to punish them in appropriate cases.[30] Viśvarūpa quotes a passage of Kātyāyaṇa which lays down death sentence for a Brāhmaṇa in case of certain offences such as, destruction of foetus, theft, assault of the Brāhmaṇa women with weapon and killing of innocent women.[31]

In the Vyavahārādhyāya of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti, an offence related to the Śūdras is mentioned, which reveals the social taboos that the Śūdras are subjected too. It emphasises on each of the castes to follow their own livelihood as permitted by the Śāstras. Therefore, if a Śūdra secures his livelihood by falsely displaying the marks of a Brāhmaṇa then it is considered as an offence punishable with a fine of eight hundred paṇas. It may be presumed that due to the privilege and covetable position enjoyed by the Brāhmaṇas in the society, some of the members of the Śūdra caste might have pretended to be the Brāhmaṇa to receive the advantage of that caste by exhibiting the false signs of the Brāhmaṇas.[32] The Mitākṣarā explains that a Śūdra with the object of getting a meal, exhibits or puts on the sacred thread and other marks of a Brāhmaṇa. Regarding the punishment, it is important to note that the commentator has mentioned two views of two unknown or unnamed Smṛtis. According to one view, a mark resembling the sacred thread should be carved on his body by means of a heated pin. The view of the other Smṛti is that the Śūdra, who wears the marks of the twice born should be punished corporally.[33]

Thus, Yājñavalkya has not advocated cruel punishment to the Śūdra as prescribed of these Smṛtis, cited by the commentators. One of the rules of the Vyavahārādhyāya suggests that certain items of foods are forbidden for the Śūdras like the members of the higher varṇas, i.e. the Brāhmaṇas, the Kṣatriya and the Vaiśyas. He prescribes that the person who falsely makes a Brāhmaṇa to partake the prohibited food is liable to pay the highest form of monetary punishment. In case of Kṣatriya, for the similar offence, the punishment is second form, that committed to Vaiśya attracts lowest amercement, and when a Śūdra is caused to eat prohibited food then the punishment incorporated is half the first amercement.[34] The above discourse shows the pre-eminent position of the Brāhmaṇas and the disadvantaged position of the Śūdras. However, the critical and comparative examinations of the penal treatment indicate the gradual declination of the privileges, concessions, influence and supremacy of the Brāhmaṇas. On the contrary in course of time, the position of the Śūdras has improved in the society.

The Manusmṛti and the Dharmasūtra of Gautama, etc., basically bring the distinction between the three upper varṇas and the Śūdras. It seems that the upper varṇas are led by the Brāhmaṇas and the lower varṇas by the Śūdras. At that time, the Brāhmaṇas enjoyed high social status and claimed undue privileges, contrary to their position with the Śūdras. In most of the provisions of Manu, the general attitude of intense hostility towards the Śūdras may be observed. These are directed to the Śūdras offending against the Brāhmaṇas. It suggests the bitter relation between the highest and the lowest varṇas. Therefore, the Śūdras had to suffer a lot. K. P. Jayaswal remarks that Manu’s hostility to the Śūdra is primarily towards the learned and the controversialist Śūdra, claiming equality and freedom.[35]

The provisions of the Vyavahārādhyāya of the Yājñavalkyasmṛti and the commentaries on this work inform some improvement in the legal and political status of the Śūdras and to some extent, it has retained their social position. The opposition shown in the penal behaviour earlier between the Śūdra and the three upper, castes led by the Brāhmaṇas, is shifted to an equal order of increase among the four varṇas. In many aspects, where the privileges of the Brāhmaṇas are retained, the Śūdras are not differentiated from the Kṣatriya and the Vaiśyas, but all these three varṇas are mentioned by using one term as non-Brāhmaṇas. Most of cruel corporal punishments and draconian measures of Manu towards the Śūdras for their suppression are either omitted or replaced with pecuniary punishment. The claim to sovereignty and complete immunity of the Brāhmaṇas from penal provisions is ignored by Yājñavalkya. The favours shown to the Brāhmaṇas do not appear to be excessive, in comparison to what they have enjoyed earlier. He has restricted the privileges and concessions to some extent, giving due consideration to social and political environments. The Yājñavalkyasmṛti, thus reflects these developments and the signs of change in the position of the Brāhmaṇas and the Śūdras in the society. The former is brought under the purview of the law, which is declared to be the supreme of all, whereas the status of the Śūdras has been tactfully improved as has never been.

Footnotes and references:


rājā kṛtvā pure sthānaṃ brāhmaṇānny asya tatra tu/ traividyaṃ vṛttimadbrūyātsvadharmaḥ pālyatāmiti// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.185


…varṇāśramanimittaḥ śrutismṛtivihito bhavadbhiranuṣṭhīyatāmiti tānbrāhmaṇānbrūyāt/ Mitākṣarā, Ibid.


dvijastṛṇaidhaḥ puṣpāṇi sarvataḥ sarvadāharet// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.166


rājā labdhavā nidhiṃ dadyāddvijebhyo’rdhaṃ dvijaḥ punaḥ/ vidvānaśeṣamādadyātsa sarvasya prabhuryataḥ// itareṇa nidhau labdhe rājā ṣaṣṭhaṃśamāharet/ aniveditavijñāto dāpyastaṃ daṇḍameva ca// Ibid., 2.34-35


itareṇa tu rājavidvadbrāhmaṇavyatiriktena avidvadbrāhmaṇakṣatriyādinā nidhau labdhe rājā ṣaṣṭhāṃśamadhigantre datvā śeṣaṃ nidhiṃ sayamāharet/ Mitākṣarā, Ibid.,2.35


Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.1


Ibid., 2.3


… sarvadharmavit brāhmaṇo na kṣatriyādirniyoktavyo vyavahāradarśane/… evaṃbhūtabrāhmaṇāsaṃbhave kṣatriyaṃ vaiśyaṃ vāniyuñjīta naśūdram/ Mitākṣarā, Ibid.


tula strībālavṛddhāndhapaṅgubrāhmaṇarogiṇām/ agnirjalaṃ vā sūdrasya yavāḥ sapta viṣasya vā// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.98


dattvā tu brāhmaṇāyaiva nṛpatestadanantaram// Ibid., 2.41


brāhmaṇaprātiveśyānāmetadevānimantraṇe// Ibid., 2.263.


satyena śāpayedvipraṃ kṣatriyaṃ vāhanāyudhaiḥ/ gobījakāñcanairvaiśyaṃ śūdraṃ sarvaistupātakaiḥ// Manusmṛti, 8.113


Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.73-75


ekajātirdvijātīṃstu vācā dāruṇayā kṣipan/ jihvāyāḥ prāpnuyācchedaṃ jaghanyaprabhavo hi saḥ// Manusmṛti, 8.270


Ibid., 8.268


cf., Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.206-207


na śūdre kiṃcit// Gautamadharmasūtra, 12.13


atha hāsya vedamupaṣṛṇvatastrapujatubhyāṃ śrotrapratipūraṇam// udāharaṇe jihvācchedaḥ// dhāraṇe śarīrabhedaḥ// Ibid., 12.4-6


viprapīḍākaraṃ chedyamaṅgamabrāhmaṇasya tu/ Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.215


śūdro guptamaguptaṃ vā dvaijātaṃ sarvṇamāvasan/ aguptamaṅgasarvasvī guptaṃ sarveṇa hīyate// Manusmṛti, 8.374


mauṇḍyaṃ prāṇāntako daṇḍo brāhmaṇasya vidhīyate/ itareṣāṃ tu varṇānāṃ daṇḍaḥ prāṇāntako bhavet// Ibid., 8.379


Ibid., 8.378, 385


na jātu brāhmaṇaṃ hanyātsarvapāpeṣvapi sthitam/ rāṣṭrādenaṃ bahiḥkuryātsamagradhanamakṣatam// Ibid., 8.380


na brāhmaṇa vadhādbhūyāndharmo vidyate bhuvi/ tasmādasya vadhaṃ rājā manasā’pi na cintayet// Ibid., 8.281


Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.286, 287, 289


yadyakāmāṃ kanyāṃ valāṃ valātkāreṇa nakhakṣatādinā dūṣayati tadā tasya karaścchettavyaḥ/ Mitākṣarā, Ibid., 2.288


cauraṃ pradāpyāpahṛtaṃ ghātayodvividhairvadhaiḥ/ sacihnaṃ brāhmaṇaṃ kṛtvā svarāṣṭrādvipravāsayet// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.270


brāhmaṇaṃ daśavarṣaṃ tu śatavarṣaṃ tu bhūmipam// pitāputrau vijānīyādbrāhmaṇastu tayoḥ pitā// Manusmṛti, 2.135


rājā sarvasyeṣṭe brāhmaṇavarjam// Gautamadharmasūtra, 11.1


na ca rājā sarvasyeṣṭe brāhmaṇavarjam iti gautamavacanānna brāhmaṇādaṇḍyā iti mantavyam/ tasya praśaṃsārthatvāt/ Mitākṣarā on Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.4


garbhasya pātane steno brāhmaṇyāṃ śastrapātane/ aduṣṭāṃ yoṣitaṃ hatvā hantavyo brāhmaṇo’pi hi// Kātyāyaṇa quoted by Viśvarūpa on Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.281


vipratvena ca śūdrasya jīvato’ṣṭaśato damaḥ// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.304


tathā yaḥ śūdro bhojanārthaṃ yejñopavītādīnī brāhmaṇaligāni darśayati teṣāmaṣṭaśato damaḥ/…śrāddhabhojanārthaṃ puṇaḥ śūdrasya vipraveṣadhāriṇastaptaśalākāyā yajñopavīvadvapuṣyālikhet iti smṛtyantaroktaṃ draṣṭavyam/ vṛttyarthaṃ tu yajñopavītādi brāhmaṇaliṅgadhāriṇo vadha eva/ drijātiliviginaḥ śūdrānghātayet iti smaraṇāt/ Mitākṣarā, Ibid.2.304


abhakṣyeṇa dvijaṃ dūṣya daṇḍa uttamasāhasam/ madhyamaṃ kṣatriyaṃ vaiśyaṃ prathamaṃ śūdramardhikam// Yājñavalkyasmṛti, 2.296


Jayaswal, K.P., Manu and Yājñavalkya, pages91-92

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