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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: February 2013

Karma and Rebirth in the Dharmaśāstras



The beginning of the twelfth book of the Manusmṛti is explicitly devoted to “the ultimate retribution for (their = the four castes') deeds” (MDh 12.1) or “the decision concerning this whole connection with actions” (MDh 12.2). This topic is, again explicitly, concluded at 12.82ab: “All the results, proceeding from actions, have been thus pointed out.” MDh 12.82cd introduces a related but different topic: “those acts which secure supreme bliss to a Brāhmaṇa,” which is concluded at 12.107ab: “Thus the acts which secure supreme bliss have been exactly and fully described.” I shall take the first of these passages in “the most important Dharmaśāstra” as the basis for the following discussion. I shall supplement it with data from other passages in Manu and compare these with similar passages from other texts, in order to reconstruct the theory of karma and rebirth as it appears in Dharmaśāstra literature. On the other hand, I shall exclude from this study all data from later commentaries. In addition to the fact that much of this literature, insofar as it relates to karma, remains unpublished, it is not possible at this point to present a balanced picture even of the printed commentaries in the field of dharma.

MDh 12.1–82 exhibits a strange mixture of general considerations on karma and saṃsāra, on the one hand, and different systems of reincarnation, on the other. One gets the impression that passages which originally belonged to a variety of sources —or were independent units— have been collected by the compiler of the Manusmṛti and put together in succession, often without the slightest transition.