APERENNIAL CHALLENGE in the study of law in medieval India concerns the encounter of scholastic legal discourse and local and regional practices of law. Composed over a period of roughly two thousand years, the notoriously ahistorical Sanskrit textual corpus called dharmaśāstra contains systematized discussions of all major legal topics, codified and elaborated through centuries of scholastic commentary and compilation. Datable, locatable evidence for the practice of law in similar topical areas and over a similar length of time, however, is either scarce, nonexistent, or unstudied. Indologists have approached this divide in several ways, ranging from naïve acceptance of the scholastic corpus as evidence of historical practice to the total rejection of the texts as a fantasy of luxurious Brahmins.
The present article takes up the use of documents as a revealing focus for approaching the encounter of text and practice in the laws of medieval India (ca. 600–1500 CE, though no one agrees about these limits). The range of written material available from medieval India may be roughly classified into three groups: 1) texts, substantial writings by eponymous authors of uncertain dating that contain treatises or original works of literature, theology, law, science, and so forth, generally preserved on palm-leaf, or later paper, manuscripts that were continually recopied; 2) inscriptions, short and medium-length writings by notable political figures and donors that record a specific event, giving the relevant names, places, and inscribed on durable substances such as stone or copper; and 3) documents, typically short records of particular transactions, agreements, contracts, and so on that specify the parties’ names, the materials involved, and other transactional details, written on less durable materials such as palm leaf, birch bark, or prepared fabric and rarely recopied. Within the last group, many types of “document” are spoken about and sometimes copied into “texts” in the special sense above, though we do not have preserved examples of all types outside of the texts. From the other side, the types of historical documents actually known from medieval India far exceed the categories described in dharmaśāstra or in other textual sources.
The focus here will be a fresh translation of the description of documents in the twelfth-century digest of Hindu law called the Smṛticandrikā, (Moonlight on the Laws) and its possible historical value.