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Yajnavalkya Smriti – What Is It All About – Contents

Yajnavalkya Smriti is a code of conduct laid down by Sage Yajnavalkya, who is one of the most illustrious and pious among the great Vedic sages. It is known that he is credited with having promulgated Shukla Yajurveda. He received the knowledge found in Yajnavalkya Smriti from Surya, the Sun God as per Satapatha Brahmana XIV.9.4.33.  It belongs to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Paraskara Grihyasutra, both belonging to Shukla Yajurveda. The smriti has a few valuable commentaries, like Mitakshara, Balakrida, Chandrika Aparaka and that by Vishwarupa, of which Mitakshara is the most critical and authoritative. The whole of Yajnavalkya Smriti is composed. The whole of Yajnavalkya Smriti is composed in classical anustubh meter. The Niranyasagara edition contains 1009 verses, Thivunanthapuram edition gives 1003 and Anandashrama edition contains 1006 verses. According to J Jolly, the time of Yajnavalkya Smriti, is the 4th century CE, while P.V.Kane fixes time between 100 – 300 CE.

It is obvious that Yajnavalkya Smriti is later than Manusmriti, the first of its kind. But Yajnavalkya’s work is more systematic than that of Manu. His views are more modern and advanced. The arrangement of the subject matter is more concise and clear. He treats almost all subjects found in Manusmriti and even agrees with Manusmriti on many points. Yajnavalkya divides the work into approximately three equally long sections – customs, laws and expiations.

Yajnavalkya tries to abridge Manusmriti and presents it with a progressive outlook on society. Manu is silent about the rights of inheritance of the widow or an issueless person and gives only a vaguely expressed order of succession, while classes of heirs are given in a regular order. Regarding begetting a son from a widow through a kinsman, Manu (IX 59-68) severely condemns it, while Yajnavalkya (I.68-69) favors this system. Manu also condemns gambling, while Yajnavalkya would have it under state control and make it a source of income to the king (II 202-203). However, there are other matters which Yajnavalkya Smriti treats at much greater length.

The contents of Yajnavalkya Smriti may be briefly summarized –

The chapter on customs has 13 sub-sections containing 368 verses. These sub-chapters describe – 14 vidyas, sources of dharma, different samskaras, duties of brahmacharin, period of student hood; marriage, forms of marriage; inter caste marriage, duties of wife; five great yajnas, grihastha dharma, snataka dharma; rules about prohibited and allowed food and drink, purification of various materials, various gifts; procedure and kinds of shraddhas, propitiatory ceremonies as regards Vinayaka and nine grahas; rajadharma – topics related to king and kingdom.

The chapter on laws has 25 subsections which explain definition of laws, rules and procedure, conflict of Dharmasastra and Arthashastra, title and possession; gradation of courts, finding of goods, treasure-trove, deposit of money, punishment of perjury, ordeals of balance, partition; 12 kinds of sons, succession to a sonless man, reunion, exclusion, husband’s power over wife’s stridhana, boundary disputes, invalidity of gift, service rules, nonpayment of wages, gambling and prize fighting; separation and slander, review of judgment, etc.

The chapter on expiations has six subsections which focus on these points – rules on various impurities; various stages if fetus, various organs in the body, pure atman, moksha, kinds of gunas, means of atma yajna, purpose of expiation, names of hells, moral sins, sins of killing animals of various sorts, ten yamas and niyamas, rewards of reading Smriti etc.

While expounding these subjects, Yajnavalkya agrees very closely with Vishnu Dharma sutra and Paraskaragrihya sutra. Similarly, there is a close correspondence between Kautailya’ Arthashastra and Yajnavalkya Smriti.

Yajnavalkya Smriti also deals with philosophical teachings like dharma, atma, etc. The text deals with embryological and anatomical subjects (III.72, 108-109) which shows the author’s deep knowledge of physical science. Yajnavalkya quotes frequently mantras from Shukla Yajurveda. While discussing the science of Yoga, he says that he received this knowledge from Aditya (Sun God) – ‘jneyam caranyakoham yadadityadavaptavan (III.110).