The Eight Ātma-guṇas of Gautama-dharma-sūtra (Part 1)

Kalpa is one of the six Vedāṅgas (limbs of the Vedas).[1] The traditional view is that without the help of these Vedāṅgas, the real meaning of the Veda cannot be deciphered. The etymological expansion of the word ‘kalpa’ is ‘kalpante vā anena vedāḥ’ – it helps us understand the Vedas correctly; it ensures that we execute the Vedas in the right manner.

Kalpa is categorized into four groups: Dharma, Gṛhya, Śrauta, and Śulba.[2] All these groups have treatises that are written in the sūtra form. In the history of India’s cultural literature, sūtras hold a unique place. ‘Sūcanāt sūtramityāhuḥ’—sūtras are that which indicate—is the etymological expansion of the word ‘sūtra.’ These sūtras indicate the essence of those śāstras (sciences) by emphasising on their ultimate meaning. The characteristic traits of the sūtra literature have been defined in the following verse:

sāravadviśvatomukham |
sūtraṃ sūtravido viduḥ ||

(Sūtras are called so because they have the following qualities: few letters, i.e. aphoristic in nature; unambiguous; contain the essence of the śāstra; comprehensive and universal; without superfluous words; and free from error.)

Every śākhā (branch) of the Veda has its own kalpa-sūtra. But we have not been able to find all the kalpa-sūtras of all the śākhās of the Veda. Thus (since many are not found), in various branches, whatever kalpa-sūtras are available, we accept them at face value without contradicting it, and trying to harmonize what is said and what is left unsaid (says Jaiminī). We have thus accepted the sūtra literature. Further, Kumārila-bhaṭṭa in his Tantra-vārtika (1.3), gives the following explanation (for this dichotomy) –

śākhāntaragatān vidhīn |
kalpakārā nibadhnanti
sarva eva vikalpitān ||
jaimineścāpi sammataḥ |

Just as various research scholars have opined, the Gautama-dharma-sūtra is an extremely ancient work. Primarily these sūtras have been associated with the Rāṇayanīya śākhā of the Sāma-veda. These sūtras have formed the basis for the works of Bodhāyana, Vasiṣṭha, and other sūtrakāras (composers of sūtras) as well as Manu, Yājñavalkya, and other smṛtikāras (composers of digests) – we know this based on the acknowledgements given by those later authors to the Gautama-dharma-sūtra. Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda (Ādi Śaṅkara) in his sūtra-bhāṣya also alludes to the Gautama-dharma-sūtra.

In this manner, the topic that we are going to discuss is taken from a treatise, the contents of which have been widely accepted (over the years), and it is also something that has been accepted as beneficial to everybody; it is a work of great integrity. Keeping this in mind, we can proceed in our study.

Dharma[3] is of different kinds like Varṇa-, Āśrama-, Rāja-, Mokṣa-, Viśeṣa-, and Sāmānya-.[4] Of these various dharmas, the scope of sāmānya-dharma is extensive and it applies to a lot of people, for they are a set of universal values. They are not restricted to merely a particular varṇa, jāti, or region. It is something that is applicable to all human beings, it is appropriate for everyone to follow, and it is a guiding principle for everybody.

Manu famously says:

dhṛtiḥ kṣamā damo’steyaṃ
śaucamindriyanigrahaḥ |
dhīrvidyā satyamakrodho
daśakaṃ dharmalakṣaṇam ||

(Manu-smṛti 6.92)

Fortitude, forbearance, control of the mind, not stealing, cleanliness, restraining the sense organs, intellect, learning, integrity, and freedom from anger – these ten qualities are the traits of dharma as explained by the great ṛṣi (seer) Manu.[5]

Various commentators on the Manu-smṛti including Medhātithi, Sarvajñanārāyaṇa, Kullūka, Rāghavānanda, Nandana, Rāmacandra, Maṇirāma, Govindarāja, and Bhāruci have given the following commentary on these ten characteristics or qualities that make up dharma.

1. Dhṛti (fortitude) – steadfastness, calmness, contentment, adherence to svadharma (one’s inherent nature), methodical execution of tasks, happiness, etc.

2. Kṣamā (forbearance) – forgiveness with a balanced mind, helping even one who causes harm, tolerating dichotomy, not giving way to mental agitation, etc.

3. Dama (restraint) – freedom from the arrogance that arises due to learning, freedom from pride, enduring the pain of austerities, abstinence from perversion of mind, not being attracted to sensual pleasures, assiduous practice aligned to śāstras (in this case, it can mean specific area of study), etc.

4. Asteya (not stealing) – non-covetousness of another’s property, non-acceptance of anything that doesn’t belong to one, abstinence from hoarding, etc.

5. Śauca (cleanliness) – purity of thought-speech-deed, cleanliness within and outside, hygiene in food, etc.

6. Indriya-nigraha (control of senses) – aloofness from material pleasures, freedom from indulgences, abstinence from the forbidden, setting a boundary for comfort, moderation in consumption, etc.

7. Dhī (intellect) – holistic wisdom, unequivocal thoughts, clear understanding of fundamental concepts, wisdom and discernment that arises from study, etc.

(In some textual variants, instead of dhī, we find hrī, which literally means ‘shame’ but implies ‘being ashamed of engaging in evil deeds,’ ‘abstinence from wickedness,’ etc.)

8. Vidyā (knowledge) – knowledge of Self, meditating on the Self, awareness of one’s true nature, worshiping a personal deity with attributes, erudition, study of Veda, etc.[6]

9. Satya (truth) – describing things as they are, speaking what has been learnt by being true to oneself (and at the same time not causing harm to others), etc.

10. Akrodha (freedom from anger) – not getting angry, gentleness, non-injury, not being hassled even when the results don’t match the desires, etc.

Manu describes these traits again, in yet another verse, as part of the sāmāsika-dharma, or the common guidelines for all:

ahiṃsā satyamasteyaṃ
śaucamindriyanigrahaḥ |
etaṃ sāmāsikaṃ dharmaṃ
cāturvarṇye’bravīnmanuḥ ||

(Manu-smṛti 10.63)

Non-injury, truth, non-stealing, cleanliness, and restraint of sense organs are the traits that are applicable to people of all varṇas.

It is noteworthy that Medhātithi’s commentary on this verse goes – ‘Samastasya manuṣyabhedajāteruktaṃ na brāhmaṇādi jātivibhāgena,’ stating that the word ‘sāmāsika’ does not apply merely to the people of the four varṇas but to the whole of humankind. Further, expanding on the concept of ahiṃsā, Medhātithi gives a practical interpretation that clarifies Manu’s stance. He says that since absolute non-violence is impossible in daily life (i.e. we cannot abstain from causing injury during our day to day activities), ‘Ye jīvikā hetutayā vadhyatvenoktāstato’nyatrāhiṃsā,’ stating that violence beyond what is imperative for the sustenance of life alone is considered as a sin (and not all violence). 

Likewise, in the Yājñavalkya-smṛti as well, the common guidelines for all have been put forth right at the beginning:

dānasvādhyāyakarmaṇām |
ayaṃ tu paramo dharmo
yadyogenātmadarśanam ||

(Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.8)

While it is true that pūjā (worship; yajña is reverence towards the magnificent, undertaking all activities with selflessness and awareness of Self), sadācāra (good conduct), dama (restraint), ahiṃsā (non-injury), dāna (charity), sadvidyābhyāsa (good learning and sustained practice) are the fundamental tenets of human dharma, realizing one’s own Self through the path of vaidika-yoga (by gaining purity of mind through karma-yoga followed by śravaṇa-manana-nidhidhyāsana[7] of the jñāna-yoga) is the ultimate dharma.[8]

This is the reason our conception of sāmānya-dharma has gained wide popularity as follows:

tapassatyaṃ dhṛtiḥ kṣamā |
alobha iti mārgo’yam
dharmasyāṣṭavidhassmṛtaḥ ||

In this verse, dharma is shown to be of eight forms – yajña (ritual, worship), adhyayana (study), dāna (charity), tapas (penance, effort), satya (truth), dhṛti (fortitude), kṣamā (forbearance), and alobha (absence of greed), thereby visualizing it in a far broader sense with greater magnanimity. Therefore, this philosophy of sāmānya-dharma of Sanātana-dharma should be understood as a symbol of the betterment of all humans. This is a great value that is at once timely and eternal.

To be concluded in the next part.

This is the first part of a two-part English translation of an essay by Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh from his remarkable cultural anthology ‘Hāsu-Bīsu.’ Thanks to Dr. Ganesh for his thorough review of the translation.



[1] The others being Sikṣa (phonetics, phonology), Vyākaraṇa (grammar), Chandas (prosody), Nirukta (Semantic etymology), and Jyotiṣa (astronomy, astrology).

[2] Of the fourfold division of Kalpa, dharma-sūtras deal with rituals, duties, and responsibilities at a societal level; gṛhya-sūtras deal with household rituals and duties; śrauta-sūtras deal with rituals and worships of the Vedas; and śulba-sūtras contain details of the construction of the altar for yajña (Vedic fire ritual).

[3] In a broad sense, dharma refers to the principle of sustainability that helps the individual and society strike a balance between kāma (desire, enjoyment) and artha (the means to fulfil that desire, wealth). It is the universal compromise; it is a global ethic. In a more generic sense, the word ‘dharma’ has several meanings including principle, moral, law, righteousness, path, and nature.

[4] Varṇa-dharma deals with the specific rules, privileges, and responsibilities pertaining to different social strata. Āśrama-dharma deals with how we should lead different periods of time in our lives – as students, as householders, as retired folk, etc. Rāja-dharma deals with the roles and responsibilities of a ruler. Mokṣa-dharma pertains to the ultimate release or liberation. Viśeṣa-dharma includes a specific set of rules applicable in a particular framework. Sāmānya-dharma is a universal set of human values applicable to everyone, at all times.

[5] We may consider a similar verse:

ahiṃsā satyamasteyaṃ
śaucamindriyanigrahaḥ |
dānaṃ damo dayā śāntiḥ
sarveśāṃ dharmasādhanam ||

(Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.122)

Non-injury, integrity, non-stealing, cleanliness, control of the senses, charity, restraint, compassion, and peace are all the means to dharma.

[6] Medhātithi opines that dhī corresponds to the knowledge of karma (karma-jñāna) and vidyā corresponds to the knowledge of brahman (brahma-jñāna).

[7] Śravaṇa refers to ‘listening’ (to the great seers, to the foundational works). Manana refers to ‘contemplating’ (on mantras, on specific thoughts). Nidhidhyāsana refers to ‘meditating’ (with complete awareness, with great intensity).

[8] In this context, we must clarify one thing; it pertains to the personal and social scope/sense of our dharma. Although the varṇa-, āśrama-, guṇa-, and viśeṣa-dharmas are applicable at a personal level, their sustenance depends on the society.

The fourfold aspects of our dharmaĀcāra (primarily pertaining to the transcendental; socio-religious practices, customs, traditions, etc.), Vyavahāra (primarily pertaining to the materialistic; law, business, administration, etc.), Prāyaścitta (goes together with ācāra; acceptance of one’s mistakes, repentance, undertaking vows, etc.), and Daṇḍa (goes together with vyavahāra; punishment, rehabilitation, etc.) – bear witness to the harmony between the personal and social spheres. However, mokṣa-dharma or nivṛtti-dharma (path of liberation, path of renunciation) is entirely personal. This is the reason for the firm conviction that one should renounce the world for the sake of the Self (ātmārthaṃ prithivīṃ tyajet). The modern (‘rationalists’) need not complain about the absence of the notion of ‘equality’ (samānatā) in the principles that apply equally to all (sāmānya-dharma) because when those principles are practiced, equality is an inherent value. We must always remember that our notion of equality is compatible with the lofty goal of ‘Sarvabhūtasthamātmānaṃ sarvabhūtāni cātmani’ (Bhagavad-Gītā 6.29) – ‘(The yogi) sees the ātman (Self) in all beings and all beings in the ātman.’



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Raghavendra G S is currently pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Science. He is a Sanskrit poet and a keen student of classical literature in Sanskrit and Kannada.


Hari is an author, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Hindu scriptures, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.