Sources of Hindu Law: Notes

Discuss the sources of Hindu Law.

Hindu Law
From thousands of years, people living in the Indian subcontinent have been leading their lives by following the guidelines and concepts given in the Vedas. These guidelines have evolved into rules followed by the people and enforced by the rulers and have thus become de facto law. In these modern times, the same laws have been retrofitted to suit present conditions and have been codified in the form of several acts of which the important ones are – Hindu Marriage Act 1955, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act 1956, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act 1956, and Hindu Succession Act 1956.

Application of Hindu Law
A precise definition of Hinduism does not exist. Hence, it is impossible to define fixed criteria for determining who is a Hindu. So a negative definition of ‘who is not a Hindu’ is used. Further, in this land, several religions have been born and they follow the same customs and practices. So it cannot be said that Hindu Law can be applied only to people who are Hindus by religion. Due to these reasons, in general, the following people are considered to be Hindu with respect to the application of Hindu Law.

  1. Hindu by Religion – A person who is Hindu, Jain, Bauddha, or Sikh by religion. In Shastri v Muldas SC AIR 1961, SC has held that various sub-sects of Hindus such as Swaminarayan, Satsangis, and Arya Samajis are also Hindus by religion because they follow the same basic concept of Hindu Philosophy. Converts and Reconverts are also Hindus. SC, in the case of Peerumal v Poonuswami AIR 1971, has held that a person can be a Hindu if after expressing the intention of becoming a Hindu, follows the customs of the caste, tribe, or community, and the community accepts him. In Mohandas vs Dewaswan board AIR 1975, Kerala HC has held that a mere declaration and actions are enough for becoming a Hindu.
  2. Hindu by Birth – A person who is born to Hindu parents. If only one parent is a Hindu, the person can be a Hindu if he/she has been raised as a Hindu. In Sapna vs State of kerala, Kerala HC,  the son of Hindu father and Christian mother was held to be a Christian.
  3. Persons who are not Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Parsee by religion.
  4. Persons who are not governed by any other religious law will be governed by Hindu Law.

Origins of Hindu Law
It is believed that Hindu law is a divine law. It was revealed to the people by God through Vedas. Various sages and ascetics have elaborated and refined the abstract concepts of life explained in the Vedas.

Sources of Hindu Law
Sources of Hindu Law can be divided into two parts – Ancient and Modern.

1. Ancient Sources
Before the codification of Hindu Law, ancient literature was the only source of the law. These sources can be divided into four categories:

A. Shruti
Shruti means “what is heard”.  It is believed that the rishis and munis had reached the height of spirituality where they were revealed the knowledge of Vedas. Thus, shrutis include the four Vedas –  rig, yajur, sam, and Atharva along with their Brahmanas. The Brahmanas are like appendices to the Vedas. Vedas primarily contain theories about sacrifices, rituals, and customs. Some people believe that the Vedas contain no specific laws, while some believe that the laws have to be inferred from the complete text of the Vedas.  Vedas do refer to certain rights and duties, forms of marriage, the requirement of a son, exclusion of women from an inheritance, and partition but these are not very clear-cut laws.  

During the Vedic period, society was divided into varns and life was divided into ashramas.  The concept of karma came into existence during this time. A person will get rewarded as per his karma. He can attain salvation through “knowledge”. During this period the varna system became quite strong. Since Vedas had a divine origin, the society was governed as per the theories given in Vedas and they are considered to be the fundamental source of Hindu law. Shrutis basically describe the life of the Vedic people.

The Vedic period is assumed to be between 4000 to 1000 BC. During this time, several pre-smriti sutras and Gathas were composed. However, not much is known about them today. It is believed that various rishis and munis incorporated local customs into Dharma and thus multiple “shakhas” came into existence.

B. Smruti
Smriti means “what is remembered”.  With smritis, a systematic study and teaching of Vedas started. Many sages, from time to time, have written down the concepts given in Vedas. So it can be said that Smritis is a written memoir of the knowledge of the sages. Immediately after the Vedic period, a need for the regulation of society arose. Thus, the study of Vedas and the incorporation of local culture and customs became important. It is believed that many smritis were composed in this period and some were reduced into writing, however, not all are known. The smritis can be divided into two – Early smritis (Dharmasutras) and Later smritis (Dharmashastras).

The Dharmasutras were written from 800 to 200 BC. They were mostly written in prose form but also contain verses. It is clear that they were meant to be training manuals of sages for teaching students. They incorporate the teachings of Vedas with local customs. They generally bear the names of their authors and sometimes also indicate the shakhas to which they belong.
Some of the important sages whose dharmasutras are known are Gautama, Baudhayan, Apastamba, Harita, Vashistha, and Vishnu.
They explain the duties of men in various relationships. They do not pretend to be anything other than the work of mortals based on the teachings of Vedas, and the legal decisions given by those who were acquainted with Vedas and local customs.

Gautama – He belonged to Sam veda school and deals exclusively with legal and religious matters. He talks about inheritance, partition, and stridhan.

Baudhayan –  He belonged to the Krishna Yajurved school and was probably from Andhra Pradesh. He talks about marriage, sonship, and inheritance. He also refers to various customs of his region such as marriage to his maternal uncle’s daughter.

Apastamba – His sutra is most preserved. He also belonged to Krishna Yajurveda school from Andhra Pradesh. His language is very clear and forceful. He rejected prajapatya marriage.

Vashistha – He was from North India and followed the Rigveda school. He recognized the remarriage of virgin widows.

Dharmashastras were mostly in metrical verses and were based of Dharmasutras.  However, they were a lot more systematic and clear. They dealt with the subject matter in three parts

  • Aachara : This includes the theories of religious observances,
  • Vyavahar : This includes civil law.
  • Prayaschitta : This deals with penance and expiation.

While early smrutis dealt mainly with Aachara and Prayaschitta, later smrutis mainly dealt with Vyavahar. Out of many dharmashastras, three are the most important.

This is the earliest and most important of all. It is not only defined the way of life in India but is also well known in Java, Bali, and Sumatra. The name of the real author is not known because the author has written it under the mythical name of Manu, who is considered the first human. This was probably done to increase its importance due to divine origin. Manusmriti compiles all the laws that were scattered in pre-smriti sutras and gathas.
He was a brahman protagonist and was particularly harsh on women and Sudras.  He holds local customs to be most important. He directs the king to obey the customs but tries to cloak the king with divinity. He gives importance to the principle of ‘danda’ which forces everybody to follow the law.
Manusmriti was composed in 200 BC.

There have been several commentaries on this smruti. The main ones are Kalluka’s Manavarthmuktavali, Meghthithi’s Manubhashya, and Govindraja’s Manutika.

Yajnavalkya Smriti
Though written after Manusmruti, this is a very important smruti. Its language is very direct and clear. It is also a lot more logical. He also gives a lot of importance to customs but holds the king to be below the law. He considers law to be the king of kings and the king to be only an enforcer of the law. He did not deal much with religion and morality but mostly with civil law. It includes most of the points given in Manusmriti but also differs on many points such as the position of women and Sudras. He was more liberal than Manu.
This was composed in around 0 BC.

Vijnaneshwar’s commentary ‘Mitakshara’ on this smruti, is the most important legal treatise followed almost everywhere in India except in West Bengal and Orissa.

Narada Smriti
Narada was from Nepal and this smriti is well preserved and its complete text is available. This is the only smriti that does not deal with religion and morality at all but concentrates only on civil law. This is very logical and precise. In general, it is based on Manusmriti and Yajnavalkya smriti but differ on many points due to changes in social structure. He also gives a lot of importance to customs.

This was composed in 200 AD.

C. Commentaries and Digest: 
After 200 AD, most the of work was done only on the existing material given in Smritis. The work done to explain a particular smriti is called a commentary. Commentaries were composed in the period immediately after 200 AD. Digests were mainly written after that and incorporated and explained material from all the smruitis. As noted earlier, some of the commentaries were, manubhashya, manutika, and mitakshara. While the most important digest is Jimutvahan’s Dayabhag that is applicable in the Bengal and Orissa area.
Mitakshara literally means ‘New Word’ and is the paramount source of law in all of  India. It is also considered important in Bengal and Orissa where it relents only where it differs from dayabhaga. It is a very exhaustive treaty of law and incorporates and irons out contradict existing in smritis.

The basic objective of these texts was to gather the scattered material available in preceding texts and present a unified view for the benefit of society. Thus, digests were very logical and to the point in their approach. Various digests have been composed from 700 to 1700 AD.

D. Customs
Most of the Hindu law is based on customs and practices followed by the people all across the country. Even smritis have given importance to customs. They have held customs as transcendent law and have advised the Kings to give decisions based on customs after due religious consideration. Customs are of four types:

  1. Local Customs – These are the customs that are followed in a given geographical area.  In the case of Subban vs Nawab, Privy Council observed that a custom gets its force due to the fact that due to its observation for a long time in a locality, it has obtained the force of law.
  2. Family Customs – These are the customs that are followed by a family for a long time.  These are applicable to families where ever they live. They can be more easily abandoned than other customs. In the case of Soorendranath vs Heeramonie and Bikal vs Manjura, Privy Council observed that customs followed by a family have long been recognized as Hindu law.
  3. Caste and Community Customs – These are the customs that are followed by a particular cast or community. It is binding on the members of that community or caste. By far, this is one of the most important source of laws. For example, most of the law in Punjab belongs to this type. Custom to marry brother’s widow among the Jats is also of this type.
  4. Guild Customs – These are the customs that are followed by traders.

Requirements for a valid custom

  1. Ancient: Ideally, a custom is valid if it has been followed for hundreds of years. There is no definition of ancientness, however, 40yrs has been determined to be ancient enough. A custom cannot come into existence by agreement. It has to be existing for a long before. Thus, a new customer cannot be recognized. Therefore, a new form of Hindu marriage was not recognized in Tamil Nadu.
    In the case of Rajothi vs Selliah, a Self Respecter’s Cult started a movement under which traditional ceremonies were substituted with simple ceremonies for marriage that did not involve Shastric rites. HC held that in modern times, no one is free to create a law or custom, since that is a function of legislature.
  2. Continuous: It is important that the custom is being followed continuously and has not been abandoned. Thus, a custom maybe 400 yrs old but once abandoned, it cannot be revived. 
  3. Certain: The custom should be very clear in terms of what it entails. Any amount of vagueness will cause confusion and thus the custom will be invalid. The one alleging a custom must prove exactly what it is.
  4. Reasonable: There must be some reasonableness and fairness in the custom. Though what is reasonable depends on the current time and social values.
  5. Not against morality: It should not be morally wrong or repugnant. For example, a custom to marry one’s granddaughter has been held invalid.
    In the case of Chitty vs. Chitty 1894, a custom that permits divorce by mutual consent and by payment of expenses of marriage by one party to another was held to be not immoral.  In the case of Gopikrishna vs. Mst Jagoo 1936, a custom that dissolves the marriage and permits a wife to remarry upon abandonment and desertion of husband was held to be not immoral.
  6. Not against public policy: If a custom is against the general good of the society, it is held invalid. For example, the adoption of a girl child by nautch girls has been held invalid. In the case of Mathur vs Esa, a custom among dancing women permitting them to adopt one or more girls was held to be void because it was against public policy.
  7. Not against any law: If a custom is against any statutory law, it is invalid. Codification of Hindu law has abrogated most of the customs except the ones that are expressly saved. In the case of Prakash vs Parmeshwari, it was held that law mean statutory law.

Proof of Custom
The burden of proving a custom is on the person who alleges it. Usually, customs are proved by instances. In the case of Prakash vs Parmeshwari, it was held that one instance does not prove a custom. However, in the case of Ujagar vs Jeo, it was held that if a customer has been brought to the notice of the court repeated, no further proof is required.
existence of a custom can also be proved through documentary evidence such as in Riwaz-i-am. Several treaties exist that detail the customary laws of Punjab.

Usage and Custom
The term custom and usage is commonly used in commercial law, but “custom” and “usage” can be distinguished. A usage is a repetition of acts whereas custom is the law or general rule that arises from such repetition. A usage may exist without a custom, but a customer cannot arise without a usage accompanying it or preceding it. Usage derives its authority from the assent of the parties to a transaction and is applicable only to consensual arrangements. A custom derives its authority from its adoption into the law and is binding regardless of any acts of assent by the parties. In modern law, however, the two principles are often merged into one by the courts.

Modern Sources
Hindu law has been greatly influenced by British rule. While it might seem that the British brought with them the modern concepts of equity and justice, these concepts existed even in dharma shastras albeit in a different form. Narada and Katyayana have mentioned the importance of dharma (righteousness) in delivering justice. However, we did not have a practice of recording the cases and judgments delivered. So it was not possible to apply stare decisis. This process started the British rule.

The following are the modern sources of Hindu law:

1. Equity, Justice, and Good conscience
Equity means fairness in dealing. Modern judicial systems greatly rely on being impartial. True justice can only be delivered through equity and good conscience.  In a situation where no rule is given, a sense of ‘reasonableness’ must prevail. According to Gautama, in such a situation, the decision should be given that is acceptable to at least ten people who are knowledgeable in shastras. Yagyavalkya has said that where ever there are conflicting rules, the decision must be based on ‘Nyaya’.
This principle has been followed by the privy council while deciding cases.

2. Precedent
The doctrine of stare decisis started in India from the British rule. All cases are now recorded and new cases are decided based on existing case laws.Today, the judgment of SC is binding on all courts across India and the judgment of HC is binding on all courts in that state.

3. Legislation
In modern society, this is the only way to bring in new laws. The parliament, in accordance with the needs society, constitutes new laws. For example, a new way of performing Hindu marriages in Tamil Nadu that got rid of rituals and priests was rejected by the SC on the basis that new customs cannot be invented. However, TN later passed an act that recognized these marriages.
Also, most of the Hindu laws have now been codified as mentioned in the beginning.

Critical Comments
In the past, due to the vast size of the country, various kinds of customs prevailed. Further, due to a lack of effective communication, there were several contradictions between the practices and the judgment delivered. Thus, the country went on the way to being divided. Instead of becoming the law of the land (lex-loci), Hindu Law became the law of a person. However, this can only be an excuse for the past. Today, because of media and communication, judgment delivered in one place is felt in another. A practice or custom followed in a village can be repugnant to people in cities. We must take advantage of this situation and put the country on the course of a unified law. Instead of being a country of personal laws, we should true have a single law of the land. Time is ripe for implementing article 44. This will ensure the future unity and integrity of our country.

Keywords: Sources of Hindu Law, Concept of Marriage Under Hindu Marriage Act 1955, Sources of Hindu Law Definition, Concept of Marriage in India, Sources of Hindu Law Under HMA, 1955, Concept of Marriage: Sacramental or Contractual

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