In the whole range of Sanskrit literature Dharma is one of
the few words with a comprehensive meaning. It is a word that means variously: sacred law,
duty, justice and religious merit. It also denotes any act, which can give heavenly bliss
and ultimate liberation to the human soul. In ordinary usage it has a wider meaning, as
it includes the customs and practices of any caste or community. Hence the special manuals
of the sacred law are called Dharma Sastras or law-books; they
fall under the category of Smriti literature, i.e., and 'traditional records.
These law-books have governed and moulded the life and evolution of
the, Hindu community from age to age. These are, traditionally, supposed to have their
source in the Rig-Veda, but a survey of the entire literature will show how little is the
connection of these sacred laws with the Vedas. Among religious and legal
their place is only next to the Grhya- Sutras or the laws of domestic rituals. The
lawgivers have described these common Iaws of society, only after describing the
Srauta and Grhya-Sutras.
Of these treatises the Dharma-Sastra of Gautama has been taken to be
the earliest law-book; for both Baudhayana and Vasishtha, who are also reckoned among the
earliest, quote Gautama as their authority, and an entire chapter of Gautama appears in
Baudhayana, which has been borrowed in turn by Vasishtha.