The Eight Ātma-guṇas of Gautama-dharma-sūtra (Part 2)

In the present context, it would not be incorrect to say that the various expositions on sāmānya-dharma in the myriad smṛti texts have its origin in the conception of the eight ātma-guṇas in Gautama-dharma-sūtra, the fundamental kalpa-sūtra text. The kalpa-sūtras are the primary sources for dharma-śāstra and the foremost of the ancient dharma-śāstra texts is the one composed by Gautama; it is not an exaggeration to say that the eight ātma-guṇas conceptualized by him forms an extraordinary aspect of our ancient way of life.

The ātma-guṇas that are discussed in the eighth chapter of the first section of the Gautama-dharma-sūtra represents the phala-śruti (conclusion, ultimate reward, result) of the various discussions on varṇa- and āśrama- dharmas in the ācāra-kāṇḍa section. Sage Gautama begins his exposition on the eight ātma-guṇas after discussing at length the sixteen popular saṃskāras (refinement, rite of passage, sacrament, etc.) and several other related and complementary saṃskāras that finally adds up to forty:

1. Garbhādhāna
2. Puṃsavana
3. Sīmantonnayana
4. Jātakarma
5. Nāmakaraṇa
6. Annaprāśana
7. Caula
8. Upanayana
9-12. Four Vedādhyayana vratas – Prājāpatyavrata, Saumyavrata, Āgneyavrata, and Vaiśvadevavrata
13. Snāna (a part of Samāvartana)
14. Sahadharmacāriṇīsaṃyoga (i.e. Vivāha)
15-19. Five mahā-yajñas – Brāhmayajña, Devayajña, Pitṛyajña, Bhūtayajña, and Manuṣyayajña
20-26. Seven pāka-yajña-saṃsthās that a gṛhasta or householder performs in the gṛhyāgni Aṣṭakā, Pārvaṇa, Śrāddha, Śrāvaṇī, Āgrahāyaṇī, Caitrī, and Āśvayujī
27-33. Seven haviryajña-saṃsthās that a gṛhasta or householder performs in the tretāgniAgnyādhāna, Agnihotra, Darśapūrṇamāsa, Āgrayaṇa, Cāturmāsya, Nirūḍhapaśubandha, and Sautrāmaṇī
34-40. Seven soma-yajña-saṃsthās that a gṛhasta or householder performs in the tretāgniAgniṣṭoma, Atyagniṣṭoma, Ukthya, Ṣoḍaśī, Vājapeya, Atirātra, and Aptoryāma

The Antyeṣṭi doesn’t appear as a part of this list.[1] These forty saṃskāras are to be performed by dvijas (lit. ‘twice-born’ and represents those initiated into Vedic learning through the upanayana saṃskāra).

If these saṃskāras take place in the proper order, the performer attains internal purity and attains the mental framework for the pursuit of philosophy – this is a commonly accepted notion. However, Gautama says, ‘Yasyaite catvāriṃśatsaṃskārā na cāṣṭāvātmaguṇā na sa brahmaṇaḥ sāyujyaṃ sālokyaṃ gacchati’ (GDS 1.8.25) – ‘one who has undergone all the forty saṃskāras but lacks the eight ātma-guṇas will not attain either oneness with brahman or proximity to the divine.’ Further, he declares, ‘Yasya tu khalu saṃskārāṇām ekadeśo’pyaṣṭāvātmaguṇā atha sa brahmaṇaḥ sāyujyaṃ sālokyaṃ cagacchati gacchati’ (1.8.26) – ‘one who has undergone but a few of the forty saṃskāras but is endowed with the eight ātma-guṇas attains oneness with brahman or proximity to the divine.” This is a magnanimous pronouncement that instils hope among people of all varṇas as well as people outside the varṇa framework, who might not have undergone any of the sixteen saṃskāras (let alone forty).

Let us now take a look at the eight ātma-guṇas that Gautama lays such emphasis on. The aphoristic line ‘Dayā sarvabhūteṣu kṣāntiranasūyā śaucam anāyāso maṅgalamakārpaṇyamaspṛheti’ (1.8.24) comprises of dayā sarvabhūteṣu (compassion to all living beings), kṣānti (forbearance), anasūyā (freedom from envy), śauca (cleanliness), anāyāsa (freedom from over-exertion), maṅgala (auspiciousness), akārpaṇya (freedom from misery), and aspṛha (freedom from greed).

One can clearly understand the import of these traits upon reading Haradatta’s commentary Mitākṣara[2] on the Gautama-dharma-sūtra:

1. Dayā

yaddhitāya śivāya ca |
vartate satataṃ hṛṣṭaḥ
kṛtsnā hyeṣā dayā smṛtā

Understanding all living and non-living beings as one understands oneself; always interacting with them whole-heartedly and happily; seeking their welfare, prosperity, and well-being is Compassion.

The quality of compassion as explained here is much more comprehensive than the notion of non-violence that is seen in the Buddhist, Jain, Christian, and other religious traditions. In the other religious traditions the trait of non-violence or non-injury is a prohibitive value. But here it is a constructive value: extending one’s own self to encompass all creation; seeking welfare and goodness (this is the inner fulfilment that is beyond material gains, what can also be called as ‘prosperous,’ ‘auspicious,’ ‘propitious,’ or ‘excellent’); and being honourable in thought, word, and deed. Besides, this includes the whole universe with all its moving and stationery beings.

2. Kṣānti

akṛṣṭo’bhihato va’pi
na krośenna ca tāḍayet |
aduṣṭo vāṅmanaḥkāyais-
sā titikṣā kṣamā smṛtā

Not whining; not complaining; not opposing or attacking; and not getting angry in thought, word, or deed, even when subjected to force or violence – indeed that is patience, that is forgiveness, and that is Forbearance.

Apart from showing compassion at all times, when one is expected to endure – in thought, word, and deed – the troubles wrought upon by opponents, then such a quality transcends the framework of non-violence and non-injury and enters the all-encompassing realm of patience and motherly affection.

3. Anasūyā

yo dharmamarthaṃ kāmaṃ ca
labhate mokṣameva ca |
na dviṣyāttaṃ sadā prājñaḥ
sā’nasūyā smṛtā budhaiḥ

Looking with the eyes of prudence at another’s prosperity in the realms of dharma, artha (wealth, cause, motive), kāma (desire, pleasure, passion), and finally mokṣa (liberation, salvation, release), and not letting jealousy arise is true Freedom from envy.

All the possible facets of a person’s success that might lead eventually to envy have been laid out as part of the fourfold system of puruṣārtha (goals of human life). Hence one should not be jealous of any facet of any person – this is a great teaching.

4. Śauca

dravyaśaucaṃ manaḥśaucaṃ
vacikaṃ kāyikaṃ tathā |
śaucaṃ caturvidhaṃ proktaṃ

According to the wise, Cleanliness is applicable in four spheres – materials, mind, speech, and body.

Material cleanliness and bodily cleanliness apply to our external world and the environment around us. Mental cleanliness applies to the internal world. Cleanliness of speech, however, applies to both internal and external worlds. Hence cleanliness must be always understood as something that relates to our inner world, our outer world, inner and outer worlds simultaneously, and the external environment. This principle of all-pervading cleanliness involves the five organs of action (hands, legs, mouth, anus, genitals), five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin), and all objects connected to them, as well as the fourfold internal organs (mind, consciousness, intellect, and ego).

5. Anāyāsa

yadārambhe bhavet pīḍā
nityamatyantamātmanaḥ |
so’nāyāsaḥ prakīrtitaḥ

When the undertaking of an activity consistently leads to physical and mental trauma, it is appropriate to let go of it – even if the activity is sanctioned by dharma. This is the quality of Freedom from over-exertion.

This is an extremely important component of the eight traits. The composers of the śāstras show great compassion towards the hardships that the common man endures. If a situation arises where one is unable to adhere to the dictates of the dharma-śāstras due to some genuine reason or due to extreme burden, then he need not feel guilty of committing a mistake. Here we find a convincing support for that.[3] Further, to many modern (‘rationalists’) who accuse sanātana-dharma of being too rigid and over-exertive, this is a fitting reply.

6. Maṅgala

praśastācaraṇaṃ nityam-
apraśastavivarjanaṃ |
etaddhi magalaṃ proktaṃ

Always adhering to the worthwhile and renouncing the worthless is the quality of Auspiciousness.

This component is largely associated with sagacity and wisdom. This requires a firm adherence to dharma and a complete rejection of adharma. This trait is extremely important for purity at a personal and societal level.

7. Akārpaṇya

āpadyapi ca kaṣṭāyāṃ
bhaveddīno na kasyacit |
samvibhāgaruciśca syāt-

Using one’s wisdom to avoid becoming miserable in times of adversity; realizing what is appropriate (without losing direction, without being tainted); and thus being peaceful without anxieties is the trait of Freedom from misery. This can be connected with aparigraha – the quality of not desiring for anything that one is not entitled to.

What is defined here as Freedom from misery, can be identified with the noble skills of courage, inner fulfilment, contentment, and harmony. For peace to prevail in the world, this is an essential trait. We may define this as a self-fulfilling quality arising from the ability to discern between right and wrong.

8. Aspṛha

viṣayeṣu sadā naraḥ |
paradravyābhilāṣaṃ ca
sā’spṛhā kathyate budhaiḥ

Freedom from greed refers to getting rid of dissatisfaction in all matters, not coveting another’s wealth and being completely content.

This is complementary to the trait of Freedom from misery. This is not merely keeping away from desiring another’s wealth or assets but also involves avoiding a sense of dissatisfaction with whatever one owns.

Further, this suggests that one should appropriately put to use whatever he owns and live life with joy.

The vision of the ṛṣi Gautama has given us these noble values, applicable to all human beings without any distinctions. He places these values higher than the various saṃskāras and offers a path to attain mokṣa. No amount of respect to this great seer suffices. We can conclude by praying that such (open-minded) enquiry takes place as part of our dharma-śāstra studies.


This is the second 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] Some commentators take Snāna and Samāvartana separately, thus giving a total of forty-one saṃskāras; some others suggest that the forty-first saṃskāra is Antyeṣṭi.

[2] The eight verses that provide a commentary on the eight ātma-guṇas could be the composition of Haradatta or someone else. But since Haradatta has not referred to anyone while presenting these verses, it would not be incorrect to guess that Haradatta himself composed them.

[3] One must observe another important aspect here. It is the question: If one commits a sin or an act of adharma unknowingly, then does that come back and haunt him after his death? One of the characteristics of the quality of Freedom from misery is to stay away from such unwarranted guilt. Further, dharma should not antagonize anyone. The Mahābhārata says, ‘Avirodhāttu yo dharmaḥ sa dharmaḥ’ – ‘one of the important aspects of dharma is that of non-opposition.’ According to Manu (Manu-smṛti 12.37), this is one of the qualities of an individual with the nature of sattva (benign goodness). He says, ‘Yanna lajjati cācaran’ – ‘undertaking an activity that one need not be ashamed of’ but instead can seek solace from – this is another facet of the trait of Freedom from over-exertion.



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 keen student of classical literature in Sanskrit and Kannada. He is one of the contributing editors of Prekshaa.


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 35+ books, mostly related to Indian culture. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

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