This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Radhakrishnan Puthenveetil. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

A Deeper Look At Manusmriti To Understand Why Students At JNU Burned It In Protest

More from Radhakrishnan Puthenveetil

By Radhakrishnan Puthenveetil

Editor’s note: On 8th March this year, a few students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, including former and current members of ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) burnt a copy of the Manusmriti to “protest against ‘derogatory verses‘ in the Hindu religious text”. After being served a show-cause notice by the Vice-Chancellor of the University, three of the students have stated that there was nothing wrong in their actions. In response to the VC’s question, the author has presented an excerpt from his book ‘Religion, Caste And State’ (Rawat, 2007). 


manusmriti_burning_2_resized“To set up a law-book of the kind of Manu means to concede to a people, the right, henceforth, to become masterly, to become perfect – to be ambitious for the highest art of living. To that end, the law must be made unconscious: this is the purpose of every holy lie.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In words ascribed to Manu, India’s social and moral order was ‘divinely ordained’ for the welfare of ‘mankind’. In reality, however, it has been characterised by extreme forms of caste and gender prejudices, injustices and indignities, and the division of the society into privileged and disabled, revered and despised, and so on, all aided and abetted by his injunctions. These injunctions, supposedly part of the ‘eternal truths’ on the creation of the ‘universe’, expressed for the first time in human language, are in Manusmriti, one of the first Sanskrit works to be translated into any European language, among others, English in 1794, German in 1797, French in 1833, and Portuguese in 1859.

Going by its translation by Georg Buhler in 1886, Manusmriti starts with a pompous account of its origin from Brahma, as revealed to Manu and by Manu to the sages, and proceeds to ‘Manu’s account of the creation’ as expounded by Bhrigu, one of his ten ‘mind-born’ sons. In this account, as mentioned by Buhler, Bhrigu first gives the theory of the Manvantaras (period of the seven Manus), the Yugas (the four ages of the ‘world’, Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali), and other divisions of time, and a description of the order of the creation, next describes the duties of the four chief castes (Varnas), then passes to an encomium of Brahmanas and the sacred law of Manu, and winds up with an enumeration of the contents of the work ‘exactly as it was revealed to him’.

doniger
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty.

Going by its translation by Wendy Doniger and Brian Smith, consisting of 2,685 verses on topics such as the duties of the various castes and individuals in different stages of life, the proper way for a righteous king to rule, the appropriate relations between men and women of different castes, and of husbands and wives, birth, death, karma, rituals, rebirth, and redemption, Manusmriti is, in sum, “an encompassing representation of life in the world – how it is, and how it should be lived.”

Doniger and Smith would have it that in the tradition of Western scholarship, there is no work that has had such great fame and has for centuries been considered to be as authentic as Manusmriti. Notwithstanding this claim, like many other religious works, it has to be understood in the sense in which Nietzsche characterised it.

For one thing, as Buhler observed, while “the marks of its being a school-book, intended for the instruction of all Aryas, are unmistakable,” surrounded by fictitious traditions, legends either grown up spontaneously or fabricated, the arguments in support of its authenticity and authoritativeness are extremely weak; more so, when in the ‘floating traditions’ of the Hindus, Manu himself appears in many forms: as Brahma, as his incarnation, as a great sage, as the first king of men and the ancestor of kings, as the father and progenitor of mankind, as founder of its social and moral order, and so on.

For another, as Doniger and Smith have asserted, like all other works we have from ancient times in India, it was composed not only by ‘priests’ (Brahmins) but to a large extent for priests, “embedding within a conceptual structure that encompassed the universe as a whole, their self-appointed role as the minds and mouths of ancient India” and “the priestly vision of what human life should be,” with the priest as “the paradigmatic human being, the most complete and perfect representative of the species, a metonym for the “real human”.”

Manusmriti’s story of the origin of creation had made even a devout Hindu like Mahatma Gandhi “incline somewhat towards atheism” as he admitted in his autobiography. Its story of Brahma delivering the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, through his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet respectively, is the miracle of a male, whether a godhead, a mystic or a monster, delivering his ‘seeds’ through his own body rather than through the ‘soil’. If real, this would have brought cheer to many women, who, as Bernard Shaw said, resent the burden of motherhood being unequally distributed.

While its account of the creation itself is so inane, that of the created is more so, characterised by highly arbitrary and particularised caste, gender, and context-specific rules, centring on the supremacy of Brahmins:

Among other things Manusmriti has it that as the Brahmana sprang from Brahma’s mouth (the purest part of Brahma’s and by analogy, man’s body, which is stated to be pure above the navel), as he was the first born and possesses the Veda, his very birth is an eternal incarnation of the sacred law, he is a deity even for gods, be he ignorant or learned is a great divinity, he is the highest on earth, and the lord of all created beings and of the whole creation.

Asserting ad nauseam the excellence of his origin, his exclusive possession of the Veda, the earthly rewards for both, and the existence of the rest of mankind as his entourage, alone would not have ensured the supremacy of the Brahmin. That probably explains attempts, as Doniger and Smith have noted, to extend its reach to all people and all situations.

Teaching and studying the Veda, sacrificing for themselves and for others, and making and receiving gifts are the duties and occupations ordained for the Brahmanas; protecting the people, making gifts, sacrificing for themselves, studying the Veda, and abstaining from attaching themselves to sensual pleasures are of the Kshatriyas; and tending cattle, making gifts, sacrificing for themselves, studying the Vedas, trading, lending money, and cultivating land are of the Vaisyas. Serving meekly these three twice-born castes alone is the duty and occupation ordained for the Sudras who have only one birth, and hence have no right to fulfil the sacred law of Aryans (the twice-born).

Among these duties and occupations, teaching the Veda, protecting the people, trading, and serving the Brahmins are the most commendable for the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras respectively. Teaching the Veda, sacrificing for others, and accepting gifts are forbidden to the Kshatriyas and Vaisyas; leave alone the once-born Sudras.

Punctuating these duties and occupations are the numerous prejudices, perversions, paradoxes and contradictions in the long-arm of the law of Manu, his ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for the four chief castes, for the ‘mixed-castes’, outcasts, and for women:

Let the Brahmana take even the whole of a treasure-trove when he finds it: for whatever exists in the world is his property. Let him restrain the Kshatriya when he becomes overbearing in any way towards him, for the Kshatriya sprang from him. Let him confidently seize the goods of his Sudra slave, for that slave can have no property.

Let him not recite the Veda in a village where a corpse lies, in the presence of a man who lives unrighteous as a Sudra, while the sound of weeping is heard, and in a crowd. Let him not explain it to a Sudra or dictate to him a penance, for doing these both will sink into the Asmavrita hell. Let him, even in times of dire distress, rather die with his knowledge than sow it in barren soil; for, sacred learning is his treasure, to be delivered only to a Brahmana whom he knows to be pure, of subdued senses, chaste, and attentive, and not to a scorner.

Let the king after rising early in the morning, worship learned Brahmanas and follow their advice. Let him, in order to acquire merit, honour Brahmanas in every way even if they are employed in mean occupations, and honour those returning from their teacher’s house after studying the Vedas, for each of them is a great divinity. Let him bestow on them jewels of all sorts and presents at various sacrifices, for that money which is given to them is his imperishable treasure which can neither be lost nor taken away by thieves or foes. Let him, when he finds a treasure-trove, give one-half to Brahmanas and place the other half in his treasury. Let him fine the Kshatriya one hundred panas, and the Vaisya 150 to 200 panas, and punish the Sudra corporally for giving pain to Brahmanas. Let him order the Vaisyas and Sudras to discharge their ordained duties, for if these two castes swerved from their duties they would throw this whole world into confusion. Let him order a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, to do servile work, for he was created to be the slave of Brahmana, and even if emancipated by his master, he is not released from servitude, since that is innate in him.

Though there is no fifth caste according to Manusmriti, it refers to several ‘mixed-castes’ which first emerged from the union of the three twice-born castes with women of the next lower castes, and gradually multiplied into many more castes of lower origin through a variety of crossbreeding. Of these, the most despised are Chandalas, the ‘fierce’ or lowest untouchables. Manusmriti often clubs these debased castes with Sudras, despised animals, and women for its contempt and discriminatory rules against them.

Manusmriti’s treatment of women as the most honourable at one extreme and the most hideous at the other betrays serious contradictions in its perception of women, and an extreme form of male chauvinism, and misogynism.

Instances of the former are the prescriptions for the initiated and for members of the household. Among other things, the initiated is required to address a woman who is the wife of another man and not a blood-relation as ‘lady’ (bhavati) or ‘beloved sister’; to honour his mother, described as the image of the earth venerable a thousand times than the father, and a host of other women like his teacher’s wife, sisters, elderly relatives of both mother and father, by clasping and embracing their feet, saluting them, and so on. The prescription for members of the household are that fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desire their own welfare, must honour and adorn women of the household, and honour them on holidays and festivals with gifts of ornaments, clothes, and dainty food; for, where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased, where they are not honoured no sacred rite yields, where women live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes, and the houses on which women, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely as if destroyed by magic.

Though destitute of virtues and good qualities, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, a faithful wife must constantly worship a husband as a god. No sacrifice, vow, or fast must be performed by women apart from their husband; if a wife obeys her husband, she will, for that reason alone be exalted in heaven.

Second and most important, the portrayal of women as seducers and social evils:

Women must particularly be guarded against evil inclinations, however trifling they may appear. Through their passion for men, mutable temper, natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded. Day and night they must be kept in dependence by males of their families. By a girl, by a young or even an aged woman, nothing must be done independently even in her own house. A woman must be subject to her father in childhood, husband in youth, and sons when her ‘lord’ is dead. It is the nature of the women to seduce men, lead astray not only a fool, but also even a learned man, and to make him a slave of desire and anger. One should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister, or daughter.

Despite its highly spurious nature, how a work of ‘holy lies’, probably composed around the beginning of the Christian era to continue the socio-cultural hegemony of a ‘masterly class’, purportedly a minuscule group of Aryan invaders, came to be conjured up as the pivotal text of the dominant form of Hinduism, is still a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. How, as Doniger and Smith have noted, under the British, it “became instrumental in the construction of a complex system of jurisprudence in which “the general law” was supplemented by a “personal law”;” and how it has persisted well into the present as the ‘revealed canons’ of Hinduism, still hanging like a millstone round the neck of every Indian, is a greater riddle.

Having suffered for centuries its ‘unconscious injunctions’ and discovered that far from being ‘sacred’ and ‘divine’ it is a well-organised fraud perpetrated on the bulk of the society, the group by which and for which it was supposedly composed has been under attack for at least a century now, especially in the peninsular India during the non-Brahmin movement, and at the height of the self-respect movement by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker. Periyar’s attack on Brahminism had turned into violent and vitriolic attacks and utterances against the Brahmins, with his reported calls for forcibly breaking their ‘threads’ and cutting their ‘tufts’, and for ‘dealing with’ a Brahmin first when one is faced with him and a snake.

More importantly, as against its erstwhile paramount supremacy as the sacred law, as a highly provocative symbol of a repressive caste system, apart from and even as part of the attempts at the annihilation of caste by persons like B.R. Ambedkar, Rammanohar Lohia, and Periyar, Manusmriti has been condemned and consigned to flames repeatedly, as during the recent anti-Mandal agitations.

As a glossy edition of such a work (by Doniger and Smith) is again on sale, despite having the fire-god Agni as its frontispiece as though to protect it from further flames, the temptation of its victims and adversaries to burn it again could be irresistible.

This time, however, better sense should prevail. For, it is the first authoritative English rendering of this century, and the first to set the ‘unadulterated’ text of Manusmriti in a highly lucid and readable narrative form, as a free, frank, and forthright exposure of the misdeeds of Manu and his minions. As such, it should be read and reread, not for the centuries-old obeisance to Manu and the high and mighty of contemporary India’s caste society, but for helping his victims overcome their continuing oppression and exploitation by the caste system, and preventing them from falling into the trap of Hindutva set by Manu’s new avatars, the Advanis and Malkanis, and from their ongoing attempts at resurrecting Manu and re-establishing the old order as he ordained through their violent and vociferous claims for a Rama temple at Ayodhya, a Krishna temple at Mathura, and so on.

You must be to comment.
  1. rabi

    ok your stand is somewher right can the same people can do the same thing with koran. Because koran alse discrement woman,and non muslim also and i say you pepole can not.We can improve our relegious thought but we can not destroy the religion like hitler .because if we cut root then it will die.can you put your thought in islam.

  2. Jiten Kohli

    the critics have picked lines to find fault instead of understanding full para. Manusimiriti has divided section of society in four parts based on work they are assigned as per their caliber and not by the birth. The complete study of a book provide its intention in summarizing and not picking one or two lines to find fault. In such way none of the sacred book of any religion can be dropped for acceptance or as guide to take on. Even the scholars who are bearing drums in criticizing particular section of society lack the truth understanding or dropped by them. How the writers of Ramayana and Mahabharata are treated as brahmin? Even now the scholar, Ministers, or highup of society still calling themselves from Dalit section or cheating the nation and society on the whole. These scholars must learn that if they wish to serve the poor and depressed section of society they must leave the benefits of reservation quota after attaining this scholar status, must work for uniform civil code instead of dancing as puppet on the political tunes for their own geasy loaf.

  3. lakshay

    Manusamriti wasnt written in 2015… Time it was written there was no freedom of speech, no equality,no rules,…the person doing such things should be shameful for such act….there is no word like slave in text….only thing written is brahmin are given duties to teach…so other caste must learn teachings from brahmin and apply those teaching to their work….bhagvat geeta says that humans are made to serve the human in 1 or another way, there is god within human beings….manu describe that brahmin should be treated in a godly way by other caste…but in todays world its pity to see how u guys mislead other with hatred words like slave…..shame JNU shame

More from Radhakrishnan Puthenveetil

Similar Posts

By Love Matters India

By Bidisha Bhatacharya

By Nandini Sharma

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below