The Householder Debates in the Dharmasūtras: Another Solution

In a post here last week, I argued for an initial puzzle in the dharmasūtras of Āpastamba and Vasiṣṭha. Both authors argue that the four āśramas are equally legitimate. Their arguments for the importance of the householder, however, seem to imply that the householder is actually superior to the other three āśramas. This apparent contradiction is especially pronounced in Vasiṣṭha, who says explicitly that the householder is the best of the four āśramas (VaDh 8.14), despite endorsing the view that all four āśramas are equally legitimate (VaDh 7.1-3).

I initially reviewed two possible solutions to this problem, and argued that they are implausible. In my replies to comments, I elaborated on what Olivelle says about this passage, and addressed a separate suggestion from Amod. In this post, I argue for the interpretation that I (currently!) take to be the most plausible.

In both Baudhāyana and Āpastamba, the debates over the status of the householder appear in the context of their replies to the purvapakṣin. In Baudhāyana, the passage begins with the opponent arguing that all four āśramas lead to the same goal of unending prosperity (ajyānim ajītim) (BDh 2.11-12). This, again, contradicts Baudhāyana’s own view, since he claims that only the householder is legitimate. In Āpastamba, the relevant passage begins with the opponent’s claim that the celibate āśramas attain immortality at death, while the householder only attains rebirth (ĀpDh 2.23.4-5). The opponent also claims that members of the other three āśramas might develop supernatural abilities, including the ability to manifest objects by mere thought (saṃkalpasiddhi), telepathy (dūre darśana), and so on (ĀpDh 2.23.8). These considerations imply that the householder is inferior to the other āśramas, contrary to Āpastamba’s view that they are equal.

The replies of both Baudhāyana and Āpastamba cite many of the arguments I mentioned in my last post. Baudhāyana defends the view that only the householder is legitimate by noting that the householder has children (BDh 2.11.27, 33, 34), performs sacrifices (BDh 2.11.34), and pays the three debts to ṛṣis, ancestors, and gods (BDh 2.11.33). Āpastamba makes many of the same points. Only the householder has offspring (BDh 2.24.1) and performs sacrifices (BDh 2.23.10). Only the son of the householder benefits ancestors in heaven by performing the śrāddha ceremony(BDh 2.24.3), and so on.

Again, 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. Within these discussions, however, both authors repeatedly emphasize that the householder himself prospers from fulfilling his obligations. Baudhāyana explains that the householder “wins worlds with a son, attains immortality by a grandson, and then, with the grandson of a son, rises above even heaven” (BDh 2.16.6). He notes that the seven generations of ancestors that the father benefits by having a son include the father himself. “The person who attains a good son saves seven subsequent [generations] and seven antecedent [generations] from fault and fear – six others and the seventh, himself” (BDh 2.16.9). His point is that having a son benefits the ancestors and the householder alike. Other verses state that a person becomes free (vimukto) only by paying the three debts to ṛṣis, ancestors, and gods (BDh 2.16.4-5). Since only the householder pays the three debts, only the householder might attain freedom. Āpastamba’s reply to the opponent notes that the prosperity and immortality that the renunciate seeks are attainable by having children. “Immortality consists of offspring (prajātimamṛtam)” (2.24.1-2), and the father prospers both from performing sacrifices himself (2.16.1) and from the sacrifices that his son, grandson, and so on perform (2.24.3-6). The result, for the householder, is “the highest, unending fruit called heaven (paramanantyaṃ phalaṃ svargyaśabdaṃ)” (2.23.12).

When these broader arguments are seen in the context of a response to the pūrvapakṣin, the claims about the householder’s own prosperity should seem central. The fact that the householder benefits ṛṣis, gods, ancestors, and others does not, by itself, constitute a reply to the opponent’s claim that the prosperity of the other āśramas exceeds that of the householder. After all, it might be that the householder contributes greatly to the well-being of others, but only by sacrificing his own welfare. Indeed, this, presumably, is just the opponent’s point. The householder forsakes optimal prosperity by dedicating his life to the fulfillment of his obligations to others, rather than his own.

Baudhāyana and Āpastamba refute this view, but only by outlining the great benefits that accrue to the householder himself as a result of fulfilling his obligations. Since Baudhāyana counts only the householder as legitimate, his point is that the householder attains optimal prosperity – by means of fulfilling his obligations – but the other three āśramas do not. Āpastamba, in contrast, counts all four āśramas as equally legitimate, because all four attain the highest level of personal prosperity. The householder’s path to prosperity essentially involves his fulfillment of obligations to others; the paths of the other āśramas do not.

If this is Āpastamba’s position, then his references to the benefits that the householder provides to ṛṣis, ancestors, gods, and others make good sense, even in the context of a reply to the opponent’s claim that the householder does not attain optimal personal prosperity. His primary point in citing the householder’s fulfillment of obligations is to explain how the householder personally prospers in doing what he does. In the context of his direct reply to the opponent, references to the welfare of others is secondary.

At the same time, the householder is presumably praiseworthy for the prosperity that he produces for others. Vasiṣṭha explicitly says that the householder is the best of the āśramas in the context of a concise review of the benefits that the householder provides to others.

“The householder alone sacrifices. The householder performs austerities. Of the four āśramas, certainly the householder is best. As all rivers end up in the ocean, thus all [people] end up in the householder. As all living beings live having depended on their mothers, thus all renuciates live having depended on the householder” (VaDh 8.14-16).

The householder performs sacrifices and austerities. Members of all four āśramas return to the householder (as their father) in rebirth, and when they are born, their householder father supports them. The other āśramas provide no equivalent benefits. The householder is superior to the other āśramas in this sense. As a further result of benefitting others, the householder attains the same great prosperity that the other āśramas might attain. The householder is equal – but not superior – to the other āśramas in this second sense.

Works Cited

Primary Sanskrit Texts

Dharmasūtra of Āpastamba in Olivelle 2003.

Dharmasūtra of Baudhāyana in Olivelle 2003.

Dharmasūtra of Vasiṣṭha in Olivelle 2003.

Edited Volume

Olivelle, Patrick (ed.). 2003. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama,

         Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).

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).

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