Three Debts and Five Sacrifices

My last two posts focused on some of the considerations that the dharmasūtra authors cite in support of the householder āśrama. As I mentioned, the householder’s payment of the three debts is central to these considerations. In this post, I consider some of the differences between the householder’s payment of the three debts and his performance of the five great sacrifices, with a focus on the Mānavadharmaśāstra.

The first three beneficiaries of the five great sacrifices are the same as those to whom the three debts are paid – namely, the ṛṣis, ancestors, and gods. Some of the sacrifices parallel the actions that constitute payment of the corresponding debts. By reciting the Vedas, the householder both pays the debt to ṛṣis and performs the sacrifice for ṛṣis. By offering oblations to the gods, the householder both pays the debt to gods and performs the sacrifice for gods.

This might be taken to imply that the first three of the great sacrifices reference the same set of obligations as the three debts; the two lists differ only insofar as the five sacrifices add people and living beings more generally to the explicit list of beneficiaries.[1] This interpretation might seem further supported by similarities between the five sacrifices and the early formulation of four debts in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB To the standard list of three debts that later texts adopt from the Taittirīya Saṃhitā (TS, the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa adds the debt of hospitality to people. This debt seems to correspond to the fourth sacrifice – the sacrifice of food to people. Olivelle suggests that the fifth sacrifice – to all living beings – might have been an extension – and then division – of this fourth debt (Olivelle 1993: 54). In the Mahābhārata, Paṇḍu cites the same four debts (MBh 1.111.12).[2]

This interpretation of the two lists of obligations in Manu, however, is implausible for a number of reasons. First, Manu never equates the five sacrifices and the three debts. Second, Medhātithi, who otherwise shows an eagerness to read the five sacrifices into passages that do not mention them (Me 3.77-78), does not equate or connect the five sacrifices with the three debts either.

A third reason to think the two lists of obligations are distinct is that a person might fulfill one set of obligations without fulfilling the other. Most obviously, a person might pay the three debts without offering hospitality to guests, and without offering sustenance to living beings more generally. Additionally, a person might perform the śrāddha ceremony for ancestors – and thereby perform the sacrifice to ancestors – but not fulfill his debt to ancestors by having a son, or vice versa.[3]

Fourth, Manu claims that the five sacrifices and the three debts serve to eliminate different forms of demerit. Twice he describes the performance of the five sacrifices as a means to avoid the demerit that accrues to a person as a natural result of worldly life. Having ascribed the five sacrifices to the householder at MDh 3.67, Manu explains that

the householder has five slaughterhouses, the use [of] which binds [him]: fireplace, grindstone, broom, mortar bowl, and water bowl. With the goal of the undoing of all of these, the five great sacrifices were arranged by the great ṛṣis for the householder [to perform] daily (MDh 3.68-69).[4]

Here Manu says that the five sacrifices allow the householder to avoid the negative, personal consequences of the harm that he inevitably causes as a householder. In warming his home, preparing food, consuming food and water, and so on, the householder causes a wide range of harms to living beings. In performing the five sacrifices, he removes any demerit that he has accrued as a result, and hence, avoids the eventual suffering that would otherwise result from perpetrating these harms.[5]

A later verse explains that even especially egregious wrongs might be undone by performing the five sacrifices. “The daily recitation of the Vedas, the performance of the five great sacrifices according to one’s ability and patience quickly destroy wrongs, even those that arise from great wrongs” (MDh 11.246).[6] Among the great wrongs are the murder of a brāhmaṇa, and sleeping with the wife of one’s guru, which normally result in the loss of varṇa (MDh 9.235, 11.55). 

As Olivelle argues, fulfillment of the three debts also eliminates guilt (1993: 48-49). This guilt, however, is not a result of past harms. While Manu never says this explicitly, other seminal texts standardly attribute the three debts to a person simply in virtue of being born.[7] So while there might be some overlap between the actions that constitute the performance of the five sacrifices and those that constitute payment of the three debts, the difference in the intentions of these obligations is significant. The five sacrifices aim to remove blame for actions that a person has personally performed in the past. The three debts, in contrast, aim to remove an innate blame that is independent of past actions.

Another apparent difference is that a person remains under the obligation to perform the five sacrifices even after leaving the householder āśrama. Verses 6.4-5, again, state that the forest dweller, too, performs the five sacrifices. Manu states no such requirement, however, with regard to the three debts. On the contrary, it counts the three debts as paid in full by the time the householder becomes a forest dweller. All of this suggests that the three debts and the five sacrifices are importantly distinct from one another.

Works Cited:

Primary Texts

Mahābhārata. V. S. Sukthankar, et. al. (eds). 1927-1959. Mahābhārata (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute).

Mānava Dharmaśāstra. Patrick Olivelle (ed.). 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra (Oxford: OUP).

Manubhāṣya, Medhātithi. Jayantakrishna H. Dave (ed.). 1972-1985. Manu-smṛti with Nine Commentaries by Medhātithi, Sarvajñanārāyaṇa, Kullūka, Rāghavānanda, Nandana, Rāmachandra, Manirāma, Govindarāja and Bhāruci, volume II (Adhyāyas 3-4) (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan).

Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. Albrecht Weber (ed.). 1997. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa in the Mādhyandina-Śākhā, with extracts from the commentaries of Sāyana, Harisvāmin and Dvivedaganga (Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series).

Taittirīya Saṃhitā. Bhaṭṭabhāskaramiśra, et. al. (eds.) 1986. Taittirīyasaṃhitā (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).

Vasiṭḥa Dharmasūtra. Patrick Olivelle (ed.). 2000. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass).        

Secondary Material

Davis, Donald R. Jr. 2010. The Spirit of Hindu Law (Cambridge: CUP).

Lubin, Timonty. 2018a. “The Vedic Student” in P. Olivelle (ed.) The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra (Oxford: OUP).

__________. 2018b. “Daily Duties: āhnika” in P. Olivelle (ed.) The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra (Oxford: OUP).

Madan, T. N. 2003. “The Householder Tradition in Hindu Society” in Gavin Flood (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford: Blackwell).

Malamoud, Charles 1996. “The Theology of Debt in Brahmanism” in David White (trans.) Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India (Delhi: OUP).

Olivelle, Patrick. 1993. The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution (Oxford: OUP).



[1] T. N. Madan seems to equate the debts and sacrifices when he says,

The scope of sacrifice was vast with cosmo-moral significance and included the three (or five) daily obligations of the householder in redemption of the “debts” mentioned in vedic literature. These number three in some texts and five in others: the debts to gods, seers, and fathers, and additionally to all men and nonhuman creatures (292).

Also see Timothy Lubin (2018b: 185).

[2] In two other passages, the Mahābhārata cites five debts (12.281.9-11, 13.37.18). In neither passage, however, do the debts align precisely with the five sacrifices. The first passage lists gods, guests, servants, ancestors, and the self. The second lists gods, ṛṣis, ancestors, brāhmaṇas, and guests.

[3] This might be true even if the most basic reason to have a son is the continuation of the śrāddha ceremony after the death of the father.

[4] pañca sūnā gṛhasthasya cullī peṣaṇy upaskaraḥ / kaṇḍanī codakumbhaś ca badhyate yāstu vāhayan // tāsāṃ krameṇa sarvāsāṃ niṣkṛty arthaṃ maharṣibhiḥ / pañca klṛptā mahāyajñāḥ pratyahaṃ gṛhamedhinām //

[5] Manu outlines a practice that accomplishes the same goal for the ascetic, and elaborates some of the unintentional harms caused simply by drinking, walking, and breathing (6.68-72).

[6] vedābhāso ‘nvahaṃ śaktyā mahāyajñakriyā kṣamā / nāśayanty āśu pāpāni mahāpātakajāny api //

[7] The claim from the Taittirīya Saṃhitā that “just being born, a brāhmaṇa is born with three debts (jāyamāno vai brāhmaṇas tribhir ṛṇavā jāyate brahmacaryeṇarṣibhyo yajñena devebhyaḥ prajayā pitṛbhya /)” ( is repeated at Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra 2.11.33, Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra 11.48, and elsewhere. Donald R. Davis Jr. (2010: 71) and Timothy Lubin (2018a: 110), following Charles Malamoud (1996: 100), refer to these debts as “congenital debts” (2018a: 110).

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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