Hindu Marriage: Yajnavalkya and his Enduring Smriti

Yagyavalkya or Yajnavalkya was a rishi who was born in the Dwapar Yug. He was the disciple of Vaishampayana, who in turn was a disciple of Ved Vyasa. Yagyavalkya was also the preceptor of King Janak of Videha. Videha's Capital was Mithila. Sita was commonly known as Maithili or Vaidehi –names derived from the names of her father's kingdom and its Capital. Janak himself was also known as Videha. Sita and her father Janak predated the Janak who was Yajnavalkya's student by many centuries. There were in fact more than 50 Janaks who ruled over Videha.

Yagyavalkya learnt the Krishna Yajurveda from his guru. The guru was upset with Yagyavalkya once and told him to return all his knowledge, which he did. Then he decided to find a divine guru since he was disappointed with his previous, human, guru. He propitiated Lord Surya through his penances and requested him to give him knowledge. The Sun god gave him knowledge of those portions of the Yajurveda which were unknown to humans before him. This part of the Yajurveda is known as the Shukla Yajurveda, or the white Yajurveda.

The sage grew in fame after this episode, and with time came to be known as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Hinduism. His works are numerous, and he is most remembered for his dialogue with Maitreyi (one of his two wives), his dialogue with King Janak, the Yajnavalkya Samhita, the Yajnavalkya Smriti, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Yajnavalkya Upanishad, and his dialogue with Gargi. Incidentally Gargi and Maitreyi are well-know to people in Delhi, as two of Delhi University's colleges for women.

This work has far surpassed the importance of Manu Smriti and the other three main smritis, viz. Parashar Smriti (deemed to be relevant for the Kali Yug), Gautam Smriti (deemed to be relevant for the Treta Yug), Sankha Smriti or Sankha-Likhita Smriti (relevant for the Dwapar Yug). Since Manu Smriti has been deemed to be relevant for the Satya Yug, no Yug is left for the Yajnavalkya Smriti. However, most of Hindu tradition today is based on the Yajnavalkya Smriti. To paraphrase Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vidyarnava from his authoritative translation, the reason for the prevalence of the Yajnavalkya Smriti is its superior organisation and structure (Vidyarnava, R.B.S.C., Yajnavalkya Smriti: Mitaksara and Balambhatta, 1918, Allahabad).

The smriti has a chapterised progression from Achara (literally "conduct", concerning religion and religious practices and law) and Vyavahara (literally "behaviour", concerning civil and criminal law) to, finally, Prayashchita (literally "atonement", concerning sins and their rectification) (Katju, M., speech delivered at Gulbarga University, 2004, Gulbarga).

Much of Yajnavalkya's work is derivative. He has relied upon the Manu Smriti, several Puranas, and a few other smritis like the Narada Smriti, Vishnu Smriti, and the smritis named above. He repeats a lot of the things which were said by Manu in his smriti, but he is tentative about one of his regressive and repetitive recitations, viz. the prohibition of widow remarriage, as ordained by Manu. He reiterates the eight forms of marriage described by Manu and earlier sources. He permits issueless women to have sexual relations with men in the event of and after their husbands' deaths. Such physical relations are permitted only with a brother or a cousin of the husband or a man from his clan. However he forbids any further sex once a child is born out of such relations.

Yajnavalkya permits sons of second wives and of widows (conceived in the manner described above) to inherit the property of their fathers if 'superior' sons are not available. He has therefore moved one step forward from Manu in the direction of liberal laws. This was an important point in the history of India as it recorded a progression in society's codified attitudes for the first time. This gave impetus to future thinkers who could now see that progress was indeed possible. This was especially important for 'Shudras' and Women, because they were the most oppressed groups and Yajnavalkya gave them a slight push forward. Due to the respect which Yajnavalkya came to gain, this progress acquired irrefutable acceptability.

A major boost to Yajnavalkya's eminence was provided by the penning down of the Mitakshara Code by Vigyaneshwara of the Chalukyan emperor's court at the cusp of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This work, along with the Dayabhaga written by Jimutvahana, became the operative text for Hindu law in India for the next one thousand years –to be replaced substantially though not completely by the series of Acts relating to Hindu marriage, succession, adoption, and property promulgated by the Parliament of India within ten years of independence.

Vigyaneshwara was drawn to write it because of the conciseness of this smriti. Although the Mitakshara was a mere (if it can be called that) legal commentary on the Yajnavalkya Smriti, it eventually came to work like the codification of a codification. The writing of this commentary provided a solid foundation for Hindu Law to enable it to withstand the vicissitudes of the second millennium after Christ's birth. It was born in southern India but spread to all parts of the country (and beyond, with the passage of time).

You may wish to read an article about Hindu Marriage: Origin and Persistent Traits and/or and article about Hindu Marriage: Earliest Codification - Manu and Manu Smriti and/or an article about Hindu Marriage during Muslim Rule and/or an article about Hindu Marriage: Progress under British Rule.

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 15th December 2013
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