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