Importance of Smrtis in Indian Tradition

  • By Swami Alokananda
  • September 22, 2022
  • This essay includes what are Smrtis and who wrote them, Duties of a King, 4 stages of life, Manu and Swami Vivekananda on women.

Original in Bengali: Swami Alokananda

Translated into English: Kumari P Usha

What are Smṛtis?

Anubhutam priyadinam arthanam cintanam smtih; the word smti means to bring the knowledge of past experience and fruits of actions like happiness back to memory. In Indian religious parlance, the codes of conduct composed by Manu and others are called ‘smti’. The rishis or seers possessing knowledge by direct experience, inspired the common people in religious life through scriptures like Vedas and sastras.

The Vedas are ‘apauruṣeya’, that is, not composed by any particular individual. They are a collection of sacred sounds or mantras directly revealed to the ancient sages. However, smtis are composed by those who are authoritative in Vedic texts. These religious texts are called smtis because they are composed based on or remembering the sruti or Vedas. The Manu Samhita (2.6) says:

वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलं स्मृतिशीले च तद्विदाम् ।
आचारश्चैव साधूनामात्मनस्तुष्टिरेव च ॥

The entire gamut of the Vedas, Manu and others who are adepts in them, their 13 codes of conduct, codes for leading righteous lives leading to spiritual satisfaction-these form the basis of smtis.

Yajnavalkya Samhita (1.7) says:

श्रुति:स्मृति:सदाचार: स्वस्य च प्रियमात्मन:।

सम्यक् सङ्कल्पज:कामो धर्ममूलमिदं सताम् ॥

The explanation of this verse is as follows:

Vedas are srutis; smṛtis are behavioural codes composed by Manu and others; ‘sadacara means snan-sandhya (bathing and devotions or prayers), Japa (repetition of the God’s Name), Homa (sacrifices), Deva-puja (worship of the gods), Atithya (hospitality to guests), Vaisvadeva Karmas (performance of rites and rituals)-these form the six basic codes of religious life.

Manu and other composers of smtis hold that these codes of conduct prescribed by the Vedas are essential for a good and righteous life. Thus, it is said in the Manu Samhita: srutiṣṭu vedo vijneyo dharmaśastrantu vai smtih; Vedas are srutis and smtis are codes of conduct or laws. Both are religious scriptures.

The Vedas comprise mantras revealed to sages during meditation. But for all practical guidance, it was necessary to put their essential teachings in writing. Hence the sages remembered the essential codes and composed texts for guiding the society.

During Vedic Age, the Vedaṅgas (six limbs of Vedas) were composed. They are: sikṣa (education); kalpa (principle and most ancient scriptures); vyakaraṇa (grammar); chandas (metre); jyotiṣa (astrology); and nirukta (etymology). The other authoritative books are Srautasutra, Gṛhyasutra, and Dharmasutra. The Kalpasutra, which is a part of the Vedaṅga, is popularly known as Srautasutra.

The texts of Srautasutra, composed by Katyayana and others, deal with Vedic sacrifices, rites and rituals. These Srautasutras offer necessary guidelines for arranging and performing prescribed Vedic rituals and ceremonies. Gṛhyasutra deals with householders’ duties and responsibilities. The Dharmasutra sets contemporary rules of conduct, prescriptions and prohibitions. In due course, the Gṛhyasutra and Dharmasutra-both came to be referred to as ‘Smarta-sutra’.

Though srutis are eternal, for all practical implementation, necessary changes need to be made according to changing times and situations. Hence with regard to place-time-perspective, the upholders of righteousness in society (dharma-vetta) recall to memory the religious codes prescribed in the srutis; bring about necessary changes in them; and compose smṛtis. Verses in Śabdakalpadruma (an Encyclopaedia of Sanskrit words) say that smṛti contains 28 behavioural codes (laws). Hence, it is also well known as ‘Aṣṭaviṁśati Tattwa’.

One can find names of twenty smṛti texts in Yajnavalkya Samhita. They are Manu, Atri, Vishnu, Harita, Yajnavalkya, Ushana, Angira, Yama, Apastamba, Samvarta, Katyayana, Brihaspati, Parasara, Vyasa, Sankha, Likhita, Daksha, Gautama, Satatapa, and Vasishtha. In addition to these, we find many printed works as well. They are Prajapati Smṛti, Laghu shankha Smṛti, Sankha Likhita Smṛti, Ushanas Samhita, and the like. During the 16th century, Raghunandana Bhattacharya brought out a smṛti famously known as ‘Raghunandana Smṛti’ which has been widely accepted within Bengal. While Raghunandana’s opinion is accepted only by Bengali Hindus, ‘Mitakṣara’ composed by Vijnaneswar is accepted throughout the rest of India. 

Generally speaking, though Smṛtis written by Manu, Yajnavalkya, and Parasara have gained acceptance over time everywhere, there is presently a need for composition and adaptation of a new smṛti.

Manu Samhita consists of twelve chapters.

The first chapter deals with the creation, the four Varnas (division of society into brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra according to their capability and occupation) and four Ashramas (stages of brahmacarya, garhastya, vanaprastha, and sannyasa) and the rules to be followed by them. The 2nd chapter speaks of the proof of religion. In the 3rd chapter, the rules pertaining to marriage, death, and ceremonies connected with them are described. The 4th chapter discusses rules for householders, and the 5th chapter contains rules regarding food—prescribed and prohibited, and rules of cleanliness (sauca). In the 6th chapter, we find a description of vanaprastha (stage of life where one retires to the forest to lead a contemplative life), and Yati and Sannyāsa (the life of an ascetic and the all-renouncing monk). We find codes of conduct for a king and rules for governance in the 7th chapter. The 8th chapter is about debt, charity, and punishment. The laws of conduct and responsibilities of men and women including property rights are described in the 9th chapter. The 10th chapter discusses the rules of anuloma (acceptance) and pratiloma (non-acceptance)—especially with regard to marriages, castes, and offspring. Prayascitta or atonement for sins or crimes committed is the subject matter of the 11th chapter. Obtaining rebirth according to one’s karma (actions) in the present birth and the attainment of moksha or liberation is the subject of the 12th chapter.

Yajnavalkya Samhita comprises of three chapters-the first one discusses codes of virtues; the second, way of life; and the third, ways of atonement or penance. Other Samhitas too are mostly written on the same lines.

Though the smṛtis are seen in the Vedic literature, they came to be organised only about 1500 years ago.

The date of Manu Samhita is a contentious issue.

While Sir William Jones contends that Manu lived between 1250 to 500 BCE, other Western scholars opine it to be of between the first and fifth century AD. According to Indian scholars, Manu lived between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. It is said that Yajnavalkya Samhita also dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD. Since other Samhitas draw some of their their conclusions from the Manu Samhita, it may be concluded that Manu Samhita was composed much earlier.

Role of Smṛtis in the Hindu Way of Life

Though the religious traditions of Hindus are based on the Vedic scriptures and the srutis, the smṛtis hold a significant place in governing the Hindu way of life. Let us now discuss some of the important fields where the smṛtis play a pivotal role.

Human is divine by nature. Brahman is the source of all that exists. Hence everything is divine and is Brahman. Since human is gifted with mind and intelligence, one has the power to think and discern. He or she cannot act merely according to one’s tendencies or instincts and hence can evolve into the Divine. But to attain this state, one needs to perform sadhana or religious practices. Adherence to laws, rules and regulations, and the competence of the individual - these are essential requisites for this. Hence, the smṛtis have divided the society into varnas (classes) and ashramas (stages in life) thereby guiding all to achieve the goal of life.

Purusha Sukta states that from the Virat Purusha’s (Cosmic Being) face emerged the brahmana; from his arms, the kshatriya; from thighs, the vaishya; and from feet, the shudra. Though society is divided according to the actions (karma) and qualities (guṇas) of individuals, they emerge out of the limbs of the Cosmic Being and hence possess the nature of the Cosmic being. The Upanishadic words ‘Sarvam khalvidam Brahma; everything is Brahman’ is echoed here.

It is believed that various divisions were created by the Svayambhu (the First Born) himself for the governance of society. Accordingly, the smṛtis organised codes and rules for the smooth functioning of society. The section of society to which one belongs is determined by one’s functions and responsibilities. The brahmana who excels in the study of scriptures, religious, and spiritual practices was given the task of inspiring the society along the righteous path according to prescribed guidelines. Courageous, brave and powerful men responsible for protecting the country were classified as kshatriyas. The vaishyas took the onerous task of managing finances through business and commercial activities. The shudras assisted the above classes by contributing physical labour.

Though the responsibilities of different sections of individuals varied, no work was possible without mutual co-operation. Where differences eventually gave rise to hatred, smṛtis upheld the dignity of each one of them in order to bring about compatibility:

एवं यः सर्वभूतेषु पश्यत्यात्मानमात्मना ।
स सर्वसमतामेत्य ब्रह्माभ्येति परं पदम् ॥

He who thus perceives the Self through the Self, in all beings, becomes equal towards all and attains the highest state, Brahman (Manusamhita, 12.125).

Ashramas and Varnas

The goal of the Hindu way of life is ‘moksha’ (liberation) from the cycle of birth and death. To attain liberation through the practice of self-discipline, four stages (Ashramas) were established: Brahmacarya, Garhastya, Vanaprastha, and Sannyasa. This system was in practice right from the Vedic Age. The period of formal education is Brahmacarya, the period when one undertakes various activities as a householder is Garhastya, life of retirement or selfless service is Vanaprastha, and spiritual life in pursuit of the highest goal called moksha is Sannyasa.

Brahmacarya is the primary stage of life. In this stage, good education and purity form a strong edifice for future life. To attain physical, mental, and spiritual advancement, one has to undergo twelve years of discipline and grow into a healthy, strong, and efficient citizen with the power of discernment and right understanding.

When persons become capable of discernment, they enter grihasthasrama. From such people is born the future generation.

Since the other ashramas depend on them for support, their responsibility in building a strong society is all the more. Along with righteous living and attainment of liberation, they have to fulfil their desires and duties through righteous means. Their responsibilities include establishing a sound society through purity, austerities, performance of ceremonies for the dead ancestors, and educating children.

Later on, handing over the responsibility of one’s family to wife and children, an individual retires from householder’s life to vanaprasthasrama. We find instances in the scriptures, where women like Anasuya, Lopamudra, and others followed husbands to vanaprasthasrama to lead an austere life. In this stage, an individual, not being connected with the other ashramas, is expected to engage oneself in severe austerities to attain moksha, the final goal of human life.  Lastly, the sannyasasrama paves way for the attainment of freedom from all cares in this very life and in the end, giving up his mortal frame, such an individual merges with the Supreme Self to attain final liberation.

Varnas (classification of society according to occupation) and ashramas (the stages of human life) are inter-related. That is why Yaska says in his Nirukta:

जन्मना जायते शूद्रः संस्कारात् भवेत् द्विजः।

वेद-पाठात् भवेत् विप्रः ब्रह्म जानातीति ब्राह्मणः॥

One is a Shudra by birth. By purificatory rituals, he becomes a dvija (twice born). Through the study of Vedas, he becomes a vipra (virtuous and wise). But he will become a true brahmana only on realising Brahman, the ultimate Reality.

Thus, the varnas and ashramas described in the smṛtis play an important role in advocating moksha as the ultimate goal of human life.

Position of Women

Followers of Bodhayana Smṛti considered women to be weak and deprived them of their rightful status in society. Men who did not wish to give women their due share in property became patrons of this policy. The scriptures, however, direct that sacrifices and ceremonies performed for an individual’s ascendance to heaven were to be performed only in the company of his wife. 


The eighteen members to be present during a yajna (fire sacrifice) include the wife of the yajamana (a ritual patron who enjoys equal rights in the performance of the sacrifice). In fact, upholding the dignity of women, Manu instructs that women should be held in high esteem in society:

यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः ।
यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ॥

Where women are honoured, there the gods rejoice; where, on the other hand, they are not honoured, there all rites are fruitless (Manusamhita, 3.56).

From the rites and penances prescribed in the smṛtis for the atonement of sins like adultery and the like, we may infer that such vices prevailed even in the ancient society. To protect women from the foreigners, seclusion and other practices came into being in due course. When dharma or righteousness is lost, adharma or immorality would reign. That is why the smṛtis advocate that women need to be protected.

पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने ।
रक्षन्ति स्थविरे पुत्रा न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ॥

The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence (Manusamhita, 9.3).

The prevailing conditions of society during that time made the above practice necessary.

Otherwise, we would never have great women personalities like Gargi and Maitreyi of the Vedic Age; Madalasa of the Pauranic age; the mother of Maharana Pratap, Shivaji’s mother Jija Bai, Rani Bhavani, Rani Durgawati, Rani Ahalyabai, and Rani Laxmibai of the historic times. 

Manu insists on educating women: ‘Kanyapyavam palaniyasikṣaniyatiyatnatah; the unmarried girls should be protected and educated ’. 

We can recount here some of the sayings of Swami Vivekananda who upheld the greatness of women in modern times:

1.‘There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.’ (Complete works of Swami Vivekananda (CW), 6.328).

2.‘There is no hope of rise for that family or country where there is no estimation of women, where they live in sadness’ (CW, 7.215).

3. ‘As sons should be married after observing brahmacharya up to the thirtieth years, so daughters also must observe brahmacharya and be educated by their parents’ (CW, 5.26).

Character-building education which brings about all-round development of an individual is essential. The mind is to be developed and expanded. Not only does education elevate women, it also reduces the disparity between men and women and enables the latter in decision-making. This would, in the long run, facilitate them to give birth to lesser number of off springs thereby improving their health. Most women live in villages and are illiterate. They are poverty stricken and are victims of deception. To elevate them, education is indispensable.

Duties of a King in Smṛti

To cross the limits of prescribed codes of conduct is a sin that calls for punishment or atonement. Penances are prescribed by the composers of smṛtis in order to give the sinner an opportunity to reform. Though punishments meted out seem to be too stringent, cruel and sometimes barbarous, it is to be remembered that they had come into being as necessitated by the conditions prevailing at that time. A system of punishment is followed in the present times as well. Had it not been so, there would be chaos in society leading to total destruction of human civilisation. Taking into account the importance of law and order, Katha Upanishad (2.3.3) declares:

भयादस्याग्निस्तपति भयात्तपति सूर्यः ।
भयादिन्द्रश्च वायुश्च मृत्युर्धावति पञ्चमः ॥

From fear of Him, Fire burns; from fear shines the Sun; from fear run Indra and Air, and Death, the fifth.

The duties and responsibilities of a king find a detailed discussion in the 8th and 9th chapters of Manusmṛti and also in the 2nd chapter of Yajnavalkya Samhita. Just as citizens are expected to be loyal to the king, so also a king has certain duties toward his subjects. Since the king’s treasury and all that pertains to his kingship (crown) are protected by the subjects, it is the duty of a king to work for their welfare and happiness. The ruler and the subjects have to protect each other. Manu says: 

सर्वतो धर्मषड्भागो राज्ञो भवति रक्षतः ।
अधर्मादपि षड्भागो भवत्यस्य ह्यरक्षतः ॥

To the king who protects (his people) accrue the sixth part of the spiritual merit of all persons; and the sixth of their demerit also accrues to him, if he protects them not (Manu Smṛti, 8.304).

The importance of smṛtis with regard to the duties of a king cannot be underestimated. The Yajnavalkya Samhita deals in detail issues like legal procedure, loans and their repayment, division of property, right to authority, disbursement and receipt of salary, punishment for the use of abusive language, and the like. The existence of laws regarding them enables the smooth running of society. Since the corpus of the smṛtis is diverse, the most ancient smṛti which has come down to us from the past, is to be accepted.


Upholders of Righteousness

As upholders of righteousness, the smṛtis direct us to follow many laws, rules, and codes. It is the virtue that protects a human and accompanies one even after death. The advocates of ethics (Hitopadesha) say: ‘Eka eva suhṛddharmo nidhanenapyanuyati yah; virtue is the only companion which follows one even after death. Teachings of virtue or righteousness are, therefore, eternal.

Manu Samhita (4.138, 160, 137) states about eternal religion:

सत्यं व्रूयात् प्रियं व्रूयात् मा व्रूयात् सत्यमप्रियम् ।

 प्रियञ्च नानृतः व्रूयादेष धर्मः सनातनः॥

 सर्वं परवशं दुःखं सर्वमात्मवशं सुखम् ।

 एतद्विद्यात् समासेन लक्षणं सुखदुःखयोः॥

 नात्मानमवमन्येत पूर्वाभिरसमृद्धिभिः।

 आमृत्योः श्रियमान्वच्छेन्नैनां मन्येत दुर्लभाम् ॥

One shall speak what is true; and he shall say what is agreeable; he shall not say what is disagreeable; nor shall he say what is agreeable, but untrue; this is the eternal law.

‘That which is dependent on others is painful; all that is dependent on oneself is pleasing; one shall know this to be, in short, the definition of pleasure and pain.

‘One shall not despise himself by reason of former failures. Until death, he should seek fortune, and he should never think fortune as unattainable.’

Eternal religion takes one along the path of righteousness and liberates one from all disasters. So, in praise of Dharma, Manu says:

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः।

तस्माद्धर्मो न ह्न्तव्यो मा नो धर्म हतोह्वधीत् ॥  

Justice, being violated, destroys. Justice, being protected, protects. Therefore, justice must not be violated, lest violated justice destroys us. Hence, judge carefully (Manu Smṛti, 8.15).



To conclude, leaving behind the Age of Manusmṛti and others, we have entered a new age called the Cyber Age. The requirements of the present Age make it necessary to bring about changes in the smṛtis.

In this connection, Swami Vivekananda had once told his brother disciple: ‘Pesan (Sw. Vijnanananda), the old smṛtis are now obsolete… we now have to write a new Smṛti.’ A prophet that he was, Swamiji could clearly see before his eyes two national sins—trampling of women and oppression of the poor in the name of caste, to be the causes of India’s degradation. 

Though the Laws of Manu and others respect and empower women and lower sections of people, adverse conditions made it necessary to follow the age-old smṛtis, thus impeding the growth of society. Hence, based on the experiences and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, the very personification of Vedas, Swami Vivekananda, one of the saptarṣis (seven sages) gave a new smṛti to the world. Consciously or unconsciously, the new smṛti has been set in motion worldwide. For the empowerment of women and the downtrodden as well as to guide society in varied domains, Swamiji has left behind his lectures, letters, and other works. It is a matter of great joy that a book ‘Vivekananda Smṛti’ a compilation based on his teachings has recently been published.

Thus, we see that from Manu up to Swami Vivekananda, the smṛti literature has played a vital role in protecting and nurturing Indian culture.



This article was first published in the September 2022 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe

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