The ancient law-books dealt with domestic, social and religious life, including directions for the ruler. Civil and criminal law naturally were a considerable part, but crimes were also offences against the moral law, and there were elaborate instructions for expiation of sins in general, as well as general directions for purification of conduct.
There are six major law-books extant today, and over thirty less important ones; others are known from the fact that they are quoted in later works.
The Apastamba Law-book is thought to be the oldest of them all, dating from 600-300 B.C. in its present form. In this earliest text there is not much about the formal rituals which developed later, and more stress is laid on right personal behaviour. This law-book emphasizes faith as the guiding principle of all religious action; it condemns such motives as name and fame, even saying that where these exist, the result of religious action may be a positive loss of merit. Prayers morning and evening, some offering to the gods, to men, and to animals must be practised every day. The offerings to men consist of charity according to one’s means.
Many of the rules show considerable human feeling. Whereas some early systems of law tend to assume the guilt of one arrested – why otherwise should he have been taken up? – Apastamba lays it down clearly: ‘where there is a doubt, no punishment.’ Theft was punished severely, but where a starving man has taken food to save his life, Apastamba lays it down that there is no penalty. In this book there are indications that the position of women and the lower castes was much higher than it later became; this is thought to be a pointer to a very early date, as is the declaration that beef may be eaten.
Like the other law-books, Apastamba’s work lays emphasis on the importance of meditation. He indicates that even worldly activities are not completely successful without meditation, and he makes it of supreme importance for the path of liberation, namely knowledge of Self. The later law-books like the famous work of Manu pay the same attention to meditation – ‘let him, concentrating his mind, fully recognize in the Self all things, both the real and the unreal.’ Apastamba in the Chapter of the Self had said: ‘the seer meditating, seeing everything in the Self, will not be deluded; and whoever sees the Self alone in everything, he is Brahman, glorious in the highest heaven.’
That these were not only words is confirmed by the account of the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, who lived in India about 300 B.C., not too long after the composition of the Law-book of Apastamba. He says that the philosophers in India practise endurance, and will remain a whole day in one posture without moving. Megasthenes, who was a historian, would have been familiar with something similar in the life of Socrates, who is described as sometimes passing into a state of meditation during which he did not move for long periods. There was even a tradition that Socrates came into touch with Indian thinkers; a fragment is preserved by the historian Aristocles, and later by Eusebius, who give an account of how an Indian met Socrates in Athens and asked him what was the character of his philosophy. When Socrates replied that it was an investigation into human life, the Indian laughed and said, ‘You cannot fix your gaze on human truth without a knowledge of the divine.’