Chapter 12 – Escape Clauses in the Shastras

By Quinn


In Sanskrit, shastra means “a text, or a teaching, or a science” (309). The shastras were written by the upper class, for the upper class and laid out rules for how society should work. The shastras were written in a time of political chaos in which there were no great dynasties, and the Kushanas came down into the Indus plane and created an empire ruled by Kanishka. While there was lots of converting to Buddhism, Kanishka did support other religions as well. When the Hindus responded to challenges from the Buddhists, they not only wanted to “reclaim dharma from dhamma, but to extend it” (308). Now the dharma-shastras dictated rules for all of life. As the Kushanas eventually weakened, the Shakas continued to be in power until the mid fifth century CE.

The first topic Doniger mentions that the shastras define is the caste system. The shastras combined the varna and jati in sketching out how the castes originated from the mixing of previously established castes. Another big topic the shastras explore is how animal to human relationships should work. The shastras explain the rules for not only when it is acceptable to eat meat, sacrifice meat, kill animals, but also how animals should be used as punishment. Next to be explored it the four main vices: gambling, women, drinking, and hunting (in descending order according to the artha-shastra). The shastras define the punishments for breaking the rules and how the addiction to vices should be controlled. Doniger then moves into discussing the part of the shastras that consists of the roles for women and marriage, as well as sexuality in general. The chapter ends with a discussion on how the shastras were probably interpreted and used at the time it was published.

Dharma-Shastra (


One thing I found very interesting in this chapter is the fact that Doniger talks about the content of the shastras throughout the entire chapter and then in the end mentions that the rules laid out were probably not followed. She says, “idealism, rather than realism, asserts itself in the framework of the shastras” (335). They way she presents the shastras and the rules they outline is misleading. Doniger made it seem like those rules are the law of land when in actuality they were probably not followed that closely. This brings we to wonder whether we should put more emphasis on textual evidence rather than archaeological evidence when studying civilizations of the past. The texts that we find may only be the ideal image of how society worked, instead of actually portraying how people went about their daily life.

I also found all the contradictions in the shastras a little troubling. It is completely logical that there would be contradictions when someone is trying to define moral laws generalized to an entire society, but I feel like the author(s) would have had a stronger sense of which way was right if he was going to include it in the shastras. For example, many parts of the shastras mentioned by Doniger mention “sexual freedom for women” or “a strong advocate for women’s sexual pleasure,” but then still say women are one of the worst vices for men and should not be able to have any personal wealth. The shastras appear to be very sound in their rules for life, but at a closer look, there are many times were the very rule set out is completely contradicted.

I do however think Doniger mentions one good explanation of why there are so many contradictions in the shastras. She explains that “ideally, you should not sleep with your bother’s wife or kill a Brahmin or accept a bride-price; but there are times when you cannot help doing it, and then Manu is there to tell you how to do it” (334). This explanation could seem plausible for some instances, but are there not some laws that should not be broken no matter what? Are there are crimes in which there is no equal punishment? Why would there be such an extensive book of rules if people do not use them?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does the role of animals, specifically in relation to vegetarianism or sacrifice, compare to the other works we have discussed so far?
  2. Why do you think there are so many contradictions in the Shastras and can you explain using one specific example from the chapter?
  3. Do you think the way Doniger presents and talks about sex in this chapter makes her seem “sex-obsessed”?

4 thoughts on “Chapter 12 – Escape Clauses in the Shastras

Add yours

  1. Dear Quinn: With regard to your next-to-last paragraph, it looks like there is some confusion here regarding the attitude toward women by the authors of the Shastras. It was specifically Manu in the Dharma-shastra who regarded females as corrupt and restricted their rights to autonomy or property; Manu infamously declared that woman should never have independence and that even the wife of a despicable man has no right to leave her husband, lest she be “reborn in the womb of a jackal” for abandoning him (325-327). In contrast, Vatsyayana in his Kama-sutra was the author who advocated that a man should care for his female partner’s pleasure no less than his own; Vatsyayana also addressed sections of his book toward female audiences, such as young women contemplating how to get a good husband (328-329).

    With regard to Question #3 on whether Doniger’s presentation in this chapter qualifies her as “sex-obsessed,” I would say she is not. In my view, Doniger is simply pointing out in an inquisitive, receptive way some thematic content within the various Shastras which deals frankly with varieties of marriage, intimacy, or sexuality. In particular, it caught my eye how she noted that Vatsyayana had his own voice regarding gender norms or same-sex intimacy, in comparison with attitudes found elsewhere in Classical Hinduism (Doniger’s term here). Whereas earlier Sanskrit authors had dismissed those they deemed kliba or “emasculated men,” Vatsyayana spoke instead of a “third nature” and appeared nonjudgmental toward different types of people whom we might today call either LGBT or gender-neutral (332-333).

    I could add that the treatment of sexuality within Hindu literatures or religious art perhaps only looks “sex-obsessed” from the perspective of cultures that had long been shaped by Christianity. There were even some Victorian authors (I need not name any names) who felt that some Hindu discourses on sexuality were a breath of fresh air compared to the sense of taboo or repression toward the subject that historically existed in Europe.


  2. The beginning of chapter 12 gives a brief overview of the overarching social climate of the period between empires. Doniger states that “the formulation of encyclopedic knowledge acknowledged the diversity of opinion on many subjects, while at the same time, some, but not all, of the shastras closed down many of the options for women and the lower castes” (305). She also mentions that as other groups of people started to move in and influence the way that things were being governed, there was some tightening of “some aspects of social control” (305). I think the oppression and disregard for women can be seen in this aspect of the shastras. This tightening of control was necessary in order for the Brahmins to stay at the top. Hence, the way they treated women might not have been the best.

    I do want to comment on the notion of vegetarianism as well. Given the fact that cows are seen as sacred animals in India today, the ideals of the Kama-sutra (that eating meat is an ordinary part of life) must not have prevailed. There is a weird back-and-forth argument though between what dharma really means, and if vegetarianism should be practiced. In my opinion, I think it is one of those things that contributes to societal control. If the leaders of a group of people dictate what they can and cannot eat, they have power over how they make other choices. i think that it is pretty ridiculous to think though, that vegetarianism should be the only way of life. I am a vegan myself, but I think that the poverty, and food deserts in particular, play a large role in shaping diets of certain groups of people. If the only food available to consume in a village is cow meat, then eat it for crying out loud! Starvation trumps ethics in these cases — at least in my opinion.


  3. I think there is too many contradiction because there is no one Truth but truths. Like we discussed in class about parampara all these stories have been passed on for a long time and using the example of whisper game I think people end up with a lot of different possible answers and hence the contradictions.
    Taking example for instance about how a wife can sleep with her husband’s wife once to produce a “male heir” it specifically says that it needs to be avoided as much as possible but if it is “apad”(emergency) then it is taken as an apad-dharma then a sin. But Manu keeps mentioning that this should not be done but at the same time if it had to then the wife should not enjoy it and should be very very careful.

    Another example would be if the husband dies, in order to avoid the wife to sleep with someone the wife have to die/burn with the husband (Sati pratha) but if the wife dies then the husband can do anything.
    This pratha was banned not too long ago in Nepal (1920)


  4. I think the contradictory nature of not only the Shastras, but throughout the texts that we have studied thus far, have been very brow raising and radically changed how I ponder not only Hinduism, but many other religions and spiritualities. binitarajbhandari, I liked your reference to parampara and the telephone whisper game in helping contextualize these apparent hypocrisies and contradictions. With that said, it is important to keep in mind that these texts were man (both in the sense of mankind and male) written, and therefore inherently flawed. Connecting the idea of double standards and contradictions to chapter 10, Violence in the Mahabharata, I think of Ashoka renouncing war and preaching a peaceful lifestyle- with the exception of wartime slaughtering, which he already did- and in preserving the life of all living being- with the exception of peacocks and deer, which he found delicious. It is easy for people in positions of power to bend the rules without repercussions, but still have a set of expectations for anyone beneath them to follow. Of course anyone who can get away with a white-collar crime will take full advantage of that, just as in modern Western society cocaine usage is a white collar crime where crack usage has a much greater punishment because it is a blue collar crime, associated with lower classes. The same legislators who may be engaging in cocaine usage are perpetuating the “war on drugs,” targeting people of color to assert their own privilege.


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