The Householder Debates in the Dharmasūtras: An Initial Puzzle

The Householder Debates in the Dharmasūtras: An Initial Puzzle

The dharmasūtras of Gautama and Baudhāyana argue that only the householder is legitimate. Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha, in contrast, argue against the claim that the householder is less legitimate than the other āśramas. For Gautama and Baudhāyana, the householder is the best of the āśramas. For Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha, the householder is just as good as the other āśramas.

Despite this difference, the dharmasūtra authors advance many of the same arguments in favor of the householder. One argument cites the householder’s performance of sacrifices (ĀpDh 2.23.10, BDh 1.10.26, 2.11.33, VaDh 8.14). A second praises the householder for having children (GDh 3.3, ĀpDh 2.24.3, BDh 2.11.27, 33, 2.16.5, 9, VaDh 8.11, 8.15). A third argument notes that the householder provides material subsistence to those who depend on him – including the student, forest dweller, and renunciate (VaDh 8.16).

According to Patrick Olivelle, these texts count payment of the three debts as the central consideration in favor of the householder. The three debts include the debt of vedic study to the ṛṣis, a son to ancestors, and the performance of sacrifices to the gods. In discussing Baudhāyana, Olivelle says,

Baudhāyana’s argument would go something like this. There are express vedic injunctions requiring every man to beget offspring. Baudhāyana himself says that there are an innumerable number of such texts, and cites two… The second is the Taittirīya Saṃhita (6.3.10.5) passage on the three debts. One of these debts, of course, is that of a son, a debt that one owes to one’s ancestors. Since a person can beget offspring legitimately only as a householder, these texts implicitly enjoin everyone to become a householder (89).

Śruti enjoins payment of the three debts to ṛṣis, ancestors, and gods. Since only the householder has children, only the householder might pay the three debts. The householder is superior to the other āśramas for this reason.

Gautama might be taken to advance the same basic argument. Like Baudhāyana, he notes that only the householder has children (GBh 3.3), and that the householder is explicitly enjoined by the Vedas (GBh 3.36). His point might be that only the householder pays the three debts in accord with vedic injunctions.

While Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha claim that all four āśramas are equally legitimate, their references to the householder having children and performing sacrifices seem central to their arguments for his status. Vasiṣṭha repeats the claim that the householder is “the best of the four āśramas” (VaDh 8.14) – even though it contradicts his official position (VaDh 7.1-2) – in the context of praising the householder for performing sacrifices and having children (VaDh 8.14-15).

These arguments might seem to imply that the dharmasūtra authors derive the householder’s legitimacy from his fulfillment of obligations to others, and his contributions to the prosperity of family and community. In paying the debt to ancestors, the householder has a son who will perform the śrāddha ceremony after he is no longer able to do so. The performance of the śrāddha ceremony, in turn, guarantees that seven generations of ancestors greatly enjoy heaven (BDh 2.16.9, ĀpDh 2.24.3). The householder satisfies the gods by performing sacrifices. The gods, in turn, satisfied by these sacrifices, ensure the general prosperity.

If the householder’s legitimacy derives from his contributions to the welfare of others, then the position of Gautama and Baudhāyana should seems well-justified. Since the householder benefits others in a wide range of ways that the other āśramas do not, only the householder is legitimate.[1] The position of Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha, in contrast, requires an explanation. If the householder benefits others in a wide range of ways that the other āśramas do not, how can all four āśramas be equally legitimate?

I can think of a couple of answers that might seem initially promising. I’ll consider these two replies here, and raise doubts about their plausibility. In my next post, I will outline a novel suggestion.

First, it might be that Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha take the householder to sacrifice his own well-being in securing the prosperity of others. Yes, the householder benefits others in a wide range of ways that the other āśramas do not. The other āśramas, however, attain a higher state of personal prosperity – and this personal prosperity balances the lost benefits to others. On this reading, Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha weigh personal benefits against the benefits that accrue to others, and conclude that they are equivalent.

This reading seems contradicted, however, by passages in both texts that suggest that all four āśramas attain the highest level of well-being. Āpastamba claims that there is general agreement that any virtuous āśramin might attain “everything” (sārva) (ĀpDh 1.23.6). In another verse, he says that a person engaged in any of the four āśramas attains bliss (kṣema) (ĀpDh 2.21.2). Vasiṣṭha claims that so long as he is virtuous, the brāhmaṇa attains brahmaloka, regardless of his āśrama (VaDh 10.31, Cf. 8.17, 9.12). If the householder attains the same level of personal prosperity as the permanent student, forest dweller, and renunciate, however, then the reasons that weigh in favor of the householder clearly outweigh those that weigh in favor of the other āśramas. So Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha should count the householder as the best of the āśramas.   

A second possibility is that Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha count the householder as superior to the other āśramas after all. Remember that Vasiṣṭha claims that the householder is the best of the four āśramas (VaDh 8.14), even though it contradicts his more explicit statement that all four are equally legitimate (VaDh 7.1-2). Perhaps the latter, rather than the former, is his true position. This reading, however, is not supported by commentaries or contemporary scholars. So some other solution is needed.

Works Cited

Āpastamba Dharmasūtra in Olivelle 2003.

Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra in Olivelle 2003.

Gautama Dharmasūtra in Olivelle 2003.

Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra in Olivelle 2003.

Olivelle, Patrick. 2003. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).

__________. 1993. The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religions Institution (Oxford: OUP).


[1] The permanent student and forest dweller might perform certain sacrifices. Only the householder, however, performs the full range of sacrifices, including those that require the participation of a wife (ĀpDh 2.23.10).

About Chris Framarin

Chris Framarin is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. He is the author of Hinduism and Environmental Ethics: Law, Literature, and Philosophy (Routledge 2014) and Desire and Motivation in Indian Philosophy (Routledge 2009).

7 Replies to “The Householder Debates in the Dharmasūtras: An Initial Puzzle”

    • Hi Elisa. Thank you for your question. The apparent inconsistency that I mentioned, between counting the āśramas as equal and praising the householder as the best of the āśramas is only implicit in Āpastamba. He asserts the equality of the āśramas three times (ĀpDh 2.21.1, 5, 2.24.14), but doesn’t advance the standard claim that the householder is the best of the āśramas. Haradatta does not problematize Āpastamba’s position in his commentary to the relevant verses. The inconsistency is still at least implicit in Āpastamba, however, since he praises the householder for having children, and so on.

      There are no ancient or classical commentaries on Vasiṣṭha, and Olivelle considers Kṛṣṇapaṇḍita’s 19th century commentary unhelpful (1993: 346). Olivelle himself does not note the more explicit contradiction in Vasiṣṭha. He counts Vasiṣṭha’s praise of the householder at VDh 8.14-17 as consistent with the mere refutation of the opposing view, according to which the celibate āśramas (and the renunciate in particular) are superior to the householder (93). I’m looking into Kṛṣṇapaṇḍita, and will post more if he notes this problem…

      • Thank you, Chris. It seems a crucial moment in intellectual history, in which the ritual paradigm starts to be challenged. The gṛhastha is the key āśrama from a ritual point of view, but ascetical movements challenge this perspective… The texts you mention might try to find a balance?

        • Hi Elisa,
          In continuing to think through this, it seems clear to me that Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha, in particular, are an especially interesting pair. Only they face the puzzle I outline. Once the shift to the “classical” system occurs – as in Manu – there is no need to maintain the equality of the āśramas. (Manu asserts the superiority of the householder twice [MDh 3.78, 6.89]). Although I suppose a certain form of the puzzle/question arises in that context too. Thanks for your input and interest…

  1. What is Vasiṣṭha’s exact wording for the claim you render as the four being “equally legitimate”? And “best”? Depending on what words are being rendered, it’s possible that something could still be the best of four options that are equally legitimate, if a significant distinction between legitimacy and goodness is allowed. That sort of thing is often the first place I look when I see an apparent contradiction like this.

    • Thank you for the suggestion, Amod. I think it’s technically possible that Vasiṣṭha means to say that the four āśramas are all permissible, but that the householder is nonetheless better than the others. This would be a consistent position, and there is nothing in the texts (that I see yet) that certainly precludes it.

      I don’t think there is textual support, however, to prefer this interpretation over Olivelle’s. Olivelle, again, only takes Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha to argue aggressively for the householder “for good measure” (1993: 91). In other words, he takes them to overstate the case for the householder, but only to establish his equality.

      Vasiṣṭha begins by stating that there are indeed four āśramas (7.1) – contrary to Gautama and Baudhāyana. He then claims that a person who has completed their preliminary studentship “might live in that [āśrama] which he chooses” (7.3). This might be taken to imply that all choices are equally valid, and therefore, that all four āśramas are equally valid.

      Having reviewed the roles of the student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate, however, Vasiṣṭha concludes that “the householder is best (viśiṣyate) among the four āśramas” (8.14). I don’t think a closer look at the word ‘best’ helps solve the puzzle I outline. It might be that Vasiṣṭha doesn’t really mean that the householder is the best (as Olivelle claims), but that interpretation would have to derive from his previous (apparent) claim that all four āśramas are equal. It cannot be derived from the sense of the word viśiṣyate.

      Āpastamba, too, states that there are indeed four āśramas, and claims that a person who has completed their preliminary studentship “might undertake that [āśrama] which he desires” (2.21.3). At the end of his refutation of the opponent (who claims that the celibate āśramas are best), he says that even if a person in another āśrama might attain some supernatural powers by means of tapas, “nonetheless, [there would be] no superiority (jyaiṣṭhyam) of that [āśrama] among the āśramas” (2.24.14).

      So one possibility is to take Vasiṣṭha’s claim that the householder is best to be an exaggeration or overstatement of the case – as Olivelle does. Another would be to take Vasiṣṭha to say that a person might choose any of the four āśramas, but that the householder is still the best choice. Again, I don’t know that there is clear evidence for this latter view. In my follow-up post, I’ll argue that the framework for the debate in Baudhyāyana and Āpastamba supports a third interpretation…

  2. Pingback: The Householder Debates in the Dharmasūtras: Another Solution – The Indian Philosophy Blog

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