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The text most likely dates to the Gupta period, between roughly the 3rd and 5th centuries. There is some debate as to whether it is to be placed in the earlier or later part of that time span. Arguments for particular dating are based on the concise, sophisticated vocabulary found throughout the text and on the use of certain terms such as nāṇaka (a coin), and references to Greek astrology (which has been known in India since the 2nd century; see Yavanajataka). The argument arises when considerations are made as to who was exchanging the nāṇaka and when the level of Greek thought which the author understood is brought into question. The text became a well-known member of the dharmaśāstra tradition by the last few centuries of the first millennium CE.
The Yājñavalkya Smṛti consists of 1,010 ślokas (verses). The text is laid out as a frame story in which the sages of Mithila approach Yājñavalkya and ask him to teach them dharma. The majority of the text is then Yājñavalkya's description of dharma, divided into three subtopics: Ācāra (proper conduct), Vyavahāra (judicial procedures) and Prāyaścitta (penance).
It is clear that the text draws heavily on the Manu Smrti, sometimes directly paraphrasing passages. There are influential deviations from the Manu Smrti as well, especially with regard to statecraft and jurisprudence.
1. Pioneered the structure which was adopted in future dharmaśāstric discourse:
- a)Divided dharma into fairly equally weighted categories of:
- b)Subdivided these three further by specific topics within the major subject heading.
2. Added to the model of Legal Procedure:
- Yājñavalkya portrayed evidence as hierarchical, with documents receiving the highest consideration, then witnesses, and finally the five types of ordeals.
3. Restructured the Courts:
- Yājñavalkya distinguished between courts appointed by the king and those which were formed by communities of intermediate groups. He then portrayed these courts as a part of a system of hierarchical appeals.
- Forest hermits and renouncers are discussed within the section regarding penance (prāyaścitta). In previous texts, description of ascetics followed the discussion of Brahmins and framed them in opposition to householder Brahmins. The placement of ascetic orders within penance remained in subsequent texts following the general acceptance of the Yājñavalkya Smṛti.
- Increased attention was given to a description of Mokṣa, dwelling on meditation and the transience of the worldly body. There is even an in-depth, technical discourse based on a medical treatise of the time.
- Lingat 1973: 98
- This debate is mostly between the two scholars, Patrick Olivelle (who argues the text must have been composed during the latter part of this timeframe) and PV Kane (who favors an earlier date).
- Winternitz 1986: 599-600
- Olivelle, "Literary History," p.20
- Olivelle, "Literary History," p. 21
- In opposition to the previous focus on oral traditions.
- Olivelle, "Literary History," p. 22
- Olivelle, Patrick. "Dharmasastra: A Literary History"
- Winternitz, Maurice (1986). History of Indian Literature. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 81-208-0056-7.
- Lingat, Robert (1973) [originally published in French in 1967]. The Classical Law of India. Translated from French with Additions by J.D.M.Derrett. Berkeley: Univ of California Press. ISBN 9781882239085.
- Nath Dutt, Manmatha (2005). Yajnavalkyasmrti: Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes, Introduction and Index of Verses. New Delhi: Parimal Publications. ISBN 81-7110-273-5.
- Hindu Law and Judicature : from the Dharma-Sástra of Yájnavalkya 1859 English translation