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).
“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’.
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.