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For the 1996 film, see Shastra (film).

Shastra (शास्त्र, IAST: Śāstra, IPA: [ʃaːst̪rə]) is a Sanskrit word that means "precept, rules, manual, compendium, book or treatise" in a general sense.[1] The word is generally used as a suffix in the Indian literature context, for technical or specialized knowledge in a defined area of practice.[2]

Shastra has a similar meaning to English -logy, e.g. ecology, psychology, meaning scientific and basic knowledge on particular subject. Examples in terms of modern neologisms include bhautikashastra "physics", rasayanashastra "chemistry", jīvashastra "biology", vastushastra "architectural science", shilpashastra "science of mechanical arts and sculpture", arthashastra "science of politics, economics"[3] and nitishastra "compendium of ethics or right policy".

In Western literature, Shastra is sometimes spelled as Sastra.[4]


"Shastra" commonly refers to a treatise or text on a specific field of knowledge. In early Vedic literature, the word referred to any precept, rule, teaching, ritual instruction or direction.[1] In late and post Vedic literature of Hinduism, Shastra referred to any treatise, book or instrument of teaching, any manual or compendium on any subject in any field of knowledge, including religious.[1] It is often a suffix, added to the subject of the treatise, such as Yoga-Shastra, Nyaya-Shastra, Dharma-Shastra, Koka- or Kama-Shastra,[5] Moksha-Shastra, Artha-Shastra, Alamkara-Shastra (rhetoric), Kavya-Shastra (poetics), Sangita-Shastra (music), Natya-Shastra (dance) and others.[1][2]

In Buddhism, a "shastra" is often a commentary written at a later date to explain an earlier scripture or sutra. For example, Yutang Lin says that a text written by him and not given by Buddha, cannot be called a "Sutra"; it is called a "Sastra". In Buddhism, Buddhists are allowed to offer their theses as long as they are consistent with the Sutras, and those are called "Sastras."[6]

In Jainism, the term means the same as in Hinduism. An example of Jaina Shastra is the 12th-century Yoga Shastra of Hemchandracharya.[7]

Shastra is sometimes the root of compounded Sanskrit words. A custodian of Shastra, for example, is called Shashtradhari (Sanskrit: शास्त्रधारी).[8]

References in the early texts[edit]

The term is found in several passages of the Rigveda (2nd millennium BCE), such as in hymn VIII.33.16.

नहि षस्तव नो मम शास्त्रे अन्यस्य रण्यति ।
यो अस्मान्वीर आनयत् ॥१६॥

— Rigveda 8.33.16, [9]

In this Rigvedic verse, the term means rule or instruction. The Maitri Upanishad (mid to late 1st millennium BCE), similarly, mentions the materialist Charvakas and Brihaspati who disagreed that the Vedas are a treatise of knowledge, proposing relativism instead, in the following passage:[10]

बृहस्पतिर्वै शुक्रो भूत्वेन्द्रस्याभयायासुरेभ्यः क्षयायेमामविद्यामसृजत्
तया शिवमशिवमित्युद्दिशन्त्यशिवं शिवमिति वेदादिशास्त्रहिंसकधर्माभिध्यानमस्त्विति

The term is found in other Upanishads as well as in Bhagavad Gita such as in verses 15.20, 16.23-16.24, and 17.1.[12]

The Ṛigvedaprātiśākhya (11.36; 14.30) uses the term Shastra to refer to the prātiśākhya tradition. Kātyāyana, Patañjali and Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī use the term. Similarly, the Vedāṅgajyotiṣa uses the term to refer to astronomical treatises. The term vedāṅgaśāstrāṇām, refers to the śāstra of the Vedāṅgas.

The term "śāstra" is found in Yaska's Nirukta (1.2, 14), where the reference is to Nirukta (etymology). An early use of the term śāstra with reference to the literature on dharma is found in the vārttika of Kātyāyana, who uses the expression dharmaśāstra[13]

Chronology and authenticity[edit]

Shastras are predominantly post-Vedic literature, that is after about 500 BCE. However, it is unclear when various Shastras were composed and completed. The authenticity of the manuscripts is also unclear, as many versions of the same text exist, some with major differences. Patrick Olivelle, credited with a 2005 translation of Manu Dharma-sastra, published by the Oxford University Press, states the concerns in postmodern scholarship about the presumed authenticity and reliability of manuscripts as follows (abridged):[14]

The MDh (Manusmriti) was the first Indian legal text introduced to the western world through the translation of Sir William Jones in 1794. (...) All the editions of the MDh, except for Jolly's, reproduce the text as found in the [Calcutta] manuscript containing the commentary of Kulluka. I have called this as the "vulgate version". It was Kulluka's version that has been translated repeatedly: Jones (1794), Burnell (1884), Buhler (1886) and Doniger (1991). (...) The belief in the authenticity of Kulluka's text was openly articulated by Burnell (1884, xxix): "There is then no doubt that the textus receptus, viz., that of Kulluka Bhatta, as adopted in India and by European scholars, is very near on the whole to the original text."
This is far from the truth. Indeed, one of the great surprises of my editorial work has been to discover how few of the over fifty manuscripts that I collated actually follow the vulgate in key readings.

— Patrick Olivelle, Manu's Code of Law (2005)[14]

The literature of late 1st millennium BCE such as Arthashastra,[15] and Shastras of various fields of knowledge from the early 1st millennium period is of great interest as it helped the emergence of diverse schools and the spread of Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism in and outside South Asia.[3][16][17]

The shastras are both descriptive and prescriptive. Among the various Shastras, Manu's code of law has been among the most studied as the colonial British government attempted to establish different laws in British India based on Sharia for Muslims and Manu's code of law for all non-Muslims.[18][19][20]

The shastras are not consistent or a single consensus documents. Dharma-sastras, for example, contain opposing views and contradictory theories. This is in part because they represent an ideal of human behaviour, while at the same time recognising the need to account for likely failings. The shastras do not present life as it was lived. Rather they reveal an idea of what life should be, seen from a Brahmin perspective. The shastra texts constitute one of the great bodies of literature of the ancient world.[21]


Sutras are another genre of Indian texts that emerged in the 1st millennium BCE, particularly after the 600 BCE.[22] A "Sutra" denotes a distinct type of literary composition from Shastra, because the former uses short aphoristic statements, with technical terms where every syllable is distilled to express the essential key points. In contrast, a Shastra may be in prose or poetic meter, but it has more details and explanations. An example of a Sutra is Patanjali's Yogasutras considered a classic Hindu treatise, while an example of Shastra is the Hemachandra's Yogasastra considered a classic Svetambara Jainism treatise, both on Yoga.[23]

"Sutra" (literally "binding thread") is a Sanskrit term referring to an aphorism or group of aphorisms. It was originally applied to Hindu philosophy, and later to Buddhist canon scripture. Some scholars consider that the Buddhist use of "sūtra" is a mis-Sanskritization of Prakrit or Pali sutta, and that the latter represented Sanskrit sūkta, "well spoken", "good news", which would also resolve as sutta in Pali.[citation needed]

Shastras and Sutras are among the numerous other genre of literature that has survived from ancient and medieval India. Other genre include Vedas, Upanishads, Vedangas, Itihasa, Puranas, secondary reviews and commentaries called Bhasyas and short riddles or poetry that is gnomic or didactic Subhashitas.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Monier Williams, Monier Williams' Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, Article on zAstra
  2. ^ a b James Lochtefeld (2002), "Shastra" in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. 2: N-Z, Rosen Publishing, ISBN 0-8239-2287-1, page 626
  3. ^ a b Boesche, Roger (January 2003). "Kautilya's Arthaśāstra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India". The Journal of Military History. Society for Military History. 67 (1): 9–37. doi:10.1353/jmh.2003.0006. ISSN 0899-3718. 
  4. ^ JDM Derrett (1973), Geschichte, Volume 1, Series Editor: Jan Gonda, Brill, ISBN 978-9004037403, pages 34-36
  5. ^ Alex Comfort and Charles Fowkes (1993), The Illustrated Koka Shastra: Medieval Indian Writings on Love Based on the Kama Sutra, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0684839813
  6. ^ The Unification of Wisdom and Compassion Dr. Yutang Lin
  7. ^ Amritlal Savchand Gopani (1989), The Yoga Shastra of Hemchandracharya: A 12th Century Guide to Jain Yoga, Prakrit Bharti Academy, OCLC 21760707
  8. ^ disctionary meaning of Shastradhari
  9. ^ Rig Veda ऋग्वेदः मण्डल ८ Wikisource
  10. ^ a b Max Muller, Maitri Upanishad 7.9, Oxford University Press, page 342
  11. ^ Maitri Upanishad 7.9 Wikisource
  12. ^ Sanskrit: इति गुह्यतमं शास्त्रमिदमुक्तं मयानघ । एतद्बुद्ध्वा बुद्धिमान्स्यात्कृतकृत्यश्च भारत ॥ १५-२०॥;
    English Translation: Winthrop Sargeant (2009), The Bhagavad Gita: Twenty-fifth–Anniversary Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0873958318
  13. ^ Olivelle, P. (2006). Explorations in the Early History of the Dharmaśāstra in P. Olivelle (ed.) Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, New York: Oxford Unuiversity Press, ISBN 0-19-568935-6, p.169
  14. ^ a b Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 353-354, 356-382
  15. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2013), King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India: Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra, Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199891825, pages 30-32
  16. ^ Robert Lingat (1973), The Classical Law of India, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520018983, page 77;
    Steven Collins (1993), The discourse of what is primary, Journal of Indian philosophy, Volume 21, pages 301-393
  17. ^ Keay, John, India, A History, New York, Grove Press, 2000
  18. ^ Rudolph, Susanne Hoeber; Rudolph, Lloyd I. (August 2000). "Living with Difference in India". The Political Quarterly. Wiley. 71 (s1): 20–38. doi:10.1111/1467-923X.71.s1.4. 
  19. ^ Gaborieau, Marc (June 1985). "From Al-Beruni to Jinnah: Idiom, Ritual and Ideology of the Hindu-Muslim Confrontation in South Asia". Anthropology Today. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1 (3): 7–14. doi:10.2307/3033123. JSTOR 3033123. 
  20. ^ Pollock, Sheldon, From Discourse of Ritual to Discourse of Power in Sanskrit Culture, Journal of Ritual Studies 4:2, 1990, 315-45
  21. ^ Doniger, Wendy, The Hindus, An Alternative History, Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-959334-7 pbk
  22. ^ Arvind Sharma (2000), Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195644418, page 205-206
  23. ^ Olle Quarnström (2002), The Yogaśāstra of Hemacandra: A Twelfth Century Handbook of Śvetāmbara Jainism, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674009349
  24. ^ Ludwik Sternbach (1973), Subhashita - A forgotten chapter in the histories of Sanskrit literature, in Indologica Taurinensia, Torino, Vol I, pages 169-254