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definition - Smriti

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Smriti (Sanskritस्मृति, SmṛtiIPA: [s̪mr̩.t̪i] ?) literally "that which is remembered," refers to a specific body of Hindu religious scripture, and is a codified component of Hindu customary law. Smṛti also denotes non-Śruti texts[1] and is generally seen as secondary in authority to Śruti. The literature which comprises the Smrti was composed after the Vedas around 500 BCE. Smrti also denotes tradition in the sense that it portrays the traditions of the rules on dharma, especially those of lawful virtuous persons. This is understood by looking at traditional texts, such as the Ramayana, in which the traditions of the main characters portray a strict adherence to or observance of dharma (the same however need to be understood as experiences rather than binary haves or have-nots).[2]


  Role of Smriti within Hindu law

Smriti is the second source of authority for dharma. The first source of dharma is Sruti: the Vedas or Revelation. With regards to Hindu law, scholars have commonly translated Smriti as “tradition”. Although Smriti is also considered a written source; it differs from Sruti in that Smriti does not have divine origins. Smriti’s literal translation, “to remember” explains this. In a sense, Smriti consists of the memories of wisdom that sages have passed on to their disciples. These memories consist of traditions. It is these memories that make up the second source of dharma and consequently have been recorded to become a written source; commentaries such as Laws of Manu, for example. The Smrti texts have become a binding of “sacred literature” which includes the six Vedangas, the Ithihasas : the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as, the Puranas [3] It is within all of these works that the rules of dharma remain and are passed down. However, Smriti is still only considered a second authority after Sruti and becomes relevant only when Sruti provides no answer.

  • There are two important sides of Smriti: Smriti as Tradition and Smriti as Texts. Smriti as Tradition consists of Smriti as memories. It is from these memories that the rules of dharma are preserved and passed down. Conversely, Smriti as Texts refers to the notion of Traditional Texts. These consists of mostly the dharmasastras and are described as literature which has been “inspired by the smrti”.[4]

  Smriti as Tradition

The history of smrti begins around 500 BCE. Some scholars argue that the original meaning of smrti differs from the medieval Sanskrit commentators’ understanding of smrti. This is understood by looking at passages where the word smriti appears. It is from the context in which the word is used that scholars find evidence for a switch in the meaning and understanding of the term. The present general understanding of smrti consists of non-Vedic literatures that portray the rules of dharma; for example, the Dharmasastra, Itihasa, and Purana. Some scholars argue that this general understanding is inaccurate.[5] The view of Smriti as literature, specifically that of Dharmasastra texts, has created this notion of Smriti as Traditional texts. However, some scholars argue that the original meaning of Smriti was used to refer to tradition in its simplest understanding and not to texts.[6] This process looks at the textualization of tradition and examines passages where smrti refers to literature in contrast to passages where there are no connections between smrti and literature. The earliest texts where the term smriti is used are also examined. By a process of looking at the context of what is being stated within the passage, a scholar is able to better derive the correct definition. Scholars also argue about Smriti in terms of it meaning “specifically ‘Brahmanical tradition’”.[7]

  Smriti as Texts

The smṛtis are metrical texts. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of texts that fall into this category and it is remarkable how consistent the topics and reasoning used in these texts are. Though the smṛti texts acknowledge variability in regional religious and legal practices, their principal concern is to explain dharma. This unity of purpose led to a standardization of topics dealt with by the texts, even though the texts still exhibit differences between them. Whether these differences can be attributed to differences in the provenance or time period of the texts, to ideological or other disagreements between authors, or to some other factor is an issue open to debate.

The most famous and the earliest known smṛti text is the Laws of Manu, which dates to approximately the first century AD. The Laws of Manu, or Mānavadharmaśāstra, has recently been critically edited and translated by Patrick Olivelle (2004, 2005). His introduction and translation are perhaps the best starting points for understanding the nature of Dharmaśāstra and its contents. A major piece of the Hindu law tradition is, however, not represented in the main body of this translation, but rather in its footnotes – namely, the commentarial or scholastic tradition that took texts like the Laws of Manu and explained and elaborated upon them in an unbroken tradition that extended at least up to the time of the British and in some ways beyond. Similar to other scholastic traditions of religious law, the Dharmaśāstra commentators' first concern was to explain the sacred legal texts precisely, with careful attention to word meanings, grammatical structures, and principles of legal hermeneutics.

  Styles of Memorization

Prodigious energy was expended by ancient Indian culture in ensuring that these texts were transmitted from generation to generation with inordinate fidelity.[8] For example, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently "proof-read" by comparing the different recited versions.

  • Forms of recitation included the jaṭā-pāṭha (literally "mesh recitation") in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order.[9] The recitation thus proceeded as:
word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; ...
  • In another form of recitation, dhvaja-pāṭha[9] (literally "flag recitation") a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:
word1word2, word(N-1)wordN; word2word3, word(N-3)word(N-2); ...; word(N-1)wordN, word1word2;
  • The most complex form of recitation, ghana-pāṭha (literally "dense recitation"), according to (Filliozat 2004, p. 139), took the form:
word1word2, word2word1, word1word2word3, word3word2word1, word1word2word3; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3word4, word4word3word2, word2word3word4; ...

That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the Ṛgveda (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings.[9] Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).

  See also


  1. ^ "Smriti". http://www.hindupedia.com/en/Smriti. 
  2. ^ Davis, Jr. Donald R. The Spirit of Hindu Law. Ch. 1.
  3. ^ Lingat, Robert. 1973. Ch. 1, pp. 9–10.
  4. ^ Lingat, Robert. 1973. Ch. 1, pp. 13.
  5. ^ Brick, David. 2006. pp. 287.
  6. ^ Brick, David. 2006. pp. 301.
  7. ^ Brick, David. 2006. pp. 295.
  8. ^ (Staal 1986)
  9. ^ a b c (Filliozat 2004, p. 139)


  1. Brick, David. “Transforming Tradition into Texts: The Early Development of Smrti.” ‘‘Journal of Indian Philosophy’’ 34.3 (2006): 287–302.
  2. Davis, Jr. Donald R. Forthcoming. The Spirit of Hindu Law.
  3. Filliozat, Pierre-Sylvain (2004), "Ancient Sanskrit Mathematics: An Oral Tradition and a Written Literature", in Chemla, Karine; Cohen, Robert S.; Renn, Jürgen et al., History of Science, History of Text (Boston Series in the Philosophy of Science), Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 254 pages, pp. 137-157, pp. 360–375, ISBN 9781402023200, http://www.springerlink.com/content/x0000788497q4858/ 
  4. Lingat, Robert. 1973. The Classical Law of India. Trans. J. Duncan M. Derrett. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Rocher, Ludo. “Hindu Conceptions of Law.” ‘‘Hastings Law Journal’’ 29.6 (1978): 1284–1305.
  6. Staal, Frits (1986), The Fidelity of Oral Tradition and the Origins of Science, Mededelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie von Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde, NS 49, 8. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company, 40 pages 

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