The Gautama Dharmasūtra has come down as a separate treatise without any connection to a larger Kalpa-sūtra.
According to Hindu tradition Gautama Dharmasūtra is a very ancient work and collection of rules and duties for different classes of people in Ancient Vedic society, the notoriously famous Varṇāśrama system:
First of all – it means a collection of Laws and Rules for the Vedic Brahmin class and for other classes according to Brahmins.
Gautama Dharmasūtra is not the only collection of Laws of this kind – there are other 4-5-6 similar books of Dharmasūtras – collections
which pretend to be among the most ancient and most authoritative attempts to describe the traditions and the way of life around 300-600 BCE in India.
Traditionally, Gautama has been associated with the Sāmavēda:
This connection is supported, among other factors, by the fact that the 26th chapter on penance is taken from the Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa belonging to the Sāmavēda.
The Gautama Dharmasūtra does not contain the praśna (Book) division found in the texts forming part of the Kalpa-sūtras. Its division into chapters resembles the internal division of the later Smṛti.
There are two extant commentaries on Gautama Dharmasūtra by Maskarin and Haradatta:
Maskarin can be assigned to – 900–1000 CE and is therefore older than Haradatta, who also commented on Āpastamba.
It appears that Haradatta has made extensive use of Maskarin’s commentary, a usage that would amount to plagiarism if it was done today.
The term dharma may be translated as ‘law’ or ‘duty’, if we do not limit ourselves to its narrow modern definition as civil and criminal statutes but take it to include all the rules of behaviour, including moral and religious behaviour, that a community recognizes as binding on its members.
The subject-matter of the Dharmasūtras, therefore, includes:
- education of the young and their rites of passage;
- ritual procedures and religious ceremonies;
- marriage and marital rights and obligations;
- dietary restrictions and food transactions;
- the right professions for, and the proper interaction between, different social groups;
- sins and their expiations; institutions for the pursuit of holiness;
- the king and the administration of justice; crimes and punishments;
- death and ancestral rites.
In short, these unique documents give us a glimpse - if not into how people actually lived their lives in ancient India, at least into how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society.
Dharma includes all aspects of proper individual and social behaviour as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status, and order of life.
As the Dharmasūtras emerged as a new class of literature, their authors no doubt had to struggle with the task of selecting and organizing their material.
2 factors probably played a role in how they structured their texts:
the target audience and the subject-matter:
The principal audience of these texts was undoubtedly Brahmin males, who were also the principal creators and consumers of all the literature produced in the Vedic branches.
The Brahmin is the implied subject of most rules in the Dharmasūtras.
The subject-matter of the Dharmasūtras is dharma. Although a variety of individual topics are encompassed by that term, including criminal and civil law,
the central focus of these texts is on how a Brahmin male should conduct himself during his lifetime.
Many other topics, such as marriage, inheritance, and women, are also introduced, but more often than not they are discussed in so far as they are related to the Brahmin male.
The text is composed entirely in prose, in contrast to other surviving Dharmasūtras which contain some verses as well.
The content is organized in the aphoristic sūtra style, characteristic of ancient India's sutra period. The text is divided into 28 Adhyāyas (chapters), with cumulative total of 973 verses.
Among the surviving ancient texts of its genre, the Gautama Dharmasūtra has the largest portion (16%) of sūtras dedicated to government and judicial procedures.
Gautama (1.1–2) gives the 3 sources of dharma that become standard in later literature:
1. the Veda and
2. the tradition (smṛti) and
3. practice (ācāra) of those who know the Veda.
In connection with Āpastamba Dharmasūtras it was mentioned that not everything found in the Vedas is dharma, at least with regard to contemporary people. Āpastamba said:
‘Transgression of the Law and violence are seen among people of ancient times. They incurred no sin on account of their extraordinary power.
A man of later times who, observing what they did, does the same, perishes’ (A 2.13.7–9;).
Here we find similar words also in Gautama Dharmasūtra, which says:
Transgression of the Law and violence are seen in great men.
They do not constitute precedents, however,
on account of the weakness of the men of later times.
When injunctions of equal force are in conﬂict with each other, there is an option. (G 1.3-4)