Manusmriti can be literally translated to “reflections of Manu”. It is an ancient text that acted as a code of conduct for human society. This article covers the origin of Manusmriti, the chronology of its books, its role in the caste system, the laws that it provides for women finally its relevance in today’s age.
The Manusmriti was written around 200 CE. Its origin has been attributed to the creator Brahma who is then said to have passed it on the first human, Manu. The text was further shared with Bhrigu, the first teacher who later passed it on to many other sages.
While Vedas are called shruti meaning that which is heard and is a timeless divine text, Manusmriti is a smriti or that which is recollected and is a work of man. This work is subject to changes in time, place and participants.
In the Hindu culture, it is believed that four goals must be pursued in order to lead a meaningful life. These are dharma or being socially responsible, artha or generating and distributing wealth, kama meaning indulging in pleasure and finally moksha that refers to detachment from material things. The knowledge relating to each of these goals when compiled is called shastra. Thus, there is a dharma-shastra, artha-shastra, kama-shastra, and moksha-shastra.
Among the dharma-shastras, Manusmriti is considered unique due to its presentation as a holy text that begins with the origin of the world, the varnas, the laws relating to each varna, the management of adversities and ends with the conclusions of human life. Ever since its composition, the Manusmriti has been regarded as the foremost dharma-shastra, which overshadows all other law books (Pattanaik 2017).
The Manusmriti is divided into twelve books. Books one to six form the first section. The first book describes the tale of how the great Sages approached Manu and asked him to elaborate upon the dharma of each caste. Manu replied by relating how Brahma created the world and his own birth as Brahma’s child. Manu further described his own creation of the Great Sages who then issued seven other Manus that were tasked with creating and recreating the world during the destruction of the cosmos. The second book explains the sources of dharma, describes various sacrifices and purificatory ceremonies and details the proper conduct required of a Brahmanical student. Books three to five are assigned to the second stage of life of the dvija or twice-born. Here he gets married and becomes a householder. The third book talks about marriage, spousal duties, the performance of daily rituals and hospitality rules. The fourth book is concerned with the Brahmanical way of life and deals, especially with diet. The fifth book talks about pollution and purification and the last verses are devoted to the duties of women. The sixth book relates to the last two stages of life, namely as a hermit and mendicant monk (Hooker 1978).
The second section comprising of books seven to twelve is where the great originality of the Manusmriti lies. Book seven is dedicated largely to politics of power. It deals with topics such as the ruler and subject, punishment, taxes, war, government and policies to be imposed on neighbouring states. This book also categorizes the various types of disputes brought to a royal court into eighteen types. The next two books are concerned with the resolution of private disputes via justice dispensed by the king. They attempt to enumerate the various kinds of disputes that could arise and the different litigations required for each one. Book nine lays out the different duties of husbands and wives along with the rules of inheritance. The next book is concerned with the mixing of various varnas. Book eleven describes in detail gifts to be made to the needy along with penance and expiation. The last book is religious and philosophical in nature and closely resembles the first one (Hooker 1978).
The Caste System
The Manusmriti plays an important role in the justification of the caste system as the basis of order in society. It recognizes four varnas, Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras along with their unique roles in the preservation of dharma (V n.d.).
Blood purity and occupational purity are given the highest importance within this text. A total of 2685 verses of the Manusmriti are utilized for the laying down of rules relating to caste order. Of these, 130 verses are directly related to securing blood purity through sex and marriage and another 50 deal with occupational purity. Since Brahmins are the guardian of the varna system, they are charged mildly compared to Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras after committing crimes of a similar nature. However, blood purity is a notable exception to this norm. A Brahmin that had intercourse with a female from a lower caste was fined one thousand panas and in case he wed a woman belonging to the shudra caste, he lost the rank of a Brahman. Thus, Manu was immensely focussed on blood purity and made no special exception for Brahmins (Prasad 2008).
Further examination of the Manusmriti reveals that the occupations mandated for each varna followed a distinct pattern. The Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were assigned non-manual and non-productive occupations. For example, a Brahmin would only serve God through the conduction of religious rituals and the teaching about God. He was not expected to use his hands to grow food grains or raise cattle. Similarly, a Kshatriya’s duty was to rule and protect the people under his territory. Shudras were assigned the task of serving the higher varnas through the production of goods for their consumption. But the Shudras (today’s Other Backward Classes) were a part of the varna order and thus had some chance of infiltrating into the occupation of the higher varnas. In times of distress, the top three varnas could also engage in occupations authored for Shudras, but at the cost of lowering their social status. On the other hand, outcastes or Dalits were assigned completely manual jobs that were described impure in nature. (Prasad 2008).
Laws for Women
The Manusmriti is famous for its myriad of derogatory comments and views of women. It promotes many paternalistic and patriarchal views that are regressive in nature and yet still looked up to in today’s age. A few such views have been described below.
The Manusmriti discourages men from marrying women who do not have a brother or whose parents are not well known socially. Moreover, it suggests that men only marry those women that are free from bodily defects, have beautiful names, soft limbs and small teeth. Further, the Manusmriti goes on to state that young girls must be in the custody of their father; women must remain in the custody of their husbands and widows under the custody of their sons. Thus, in no circumstance should a woman be allowed to assert her independence. In the event a woman tears her hymen before marriage, she should instantly shave her head or get two fingers cut off and made to ride on a donkey (Goswami 2017).
Relevance in Today’s Age
Most laws that were proposed by Manu to govern society are reflections of the conditions and values of a previous age. The Manusmriti acknowledges gender and social inequalities as the natural conditions of human existence. The laws promote a patriarchal society vesting the authority to regulate women in men. It is important to understand that many aspects of the Manusmriti cannot and must not be applied in today’s world since the social conditions have drastically changed. Our current laws aid women in taking charge of their own lives. Furthermore, the laws of Manu that governed the occupation and mobility of people according to their caste, are discriminatory by society’s standards now. Hence, the Manusmriti might be viewed as archaic but it still has historical value. Those studying Hinduism must read about it to understand the way of life of ancient India and how its influence on the modern world (V n.d.).
Goswami, S. (2017). ‘If A Woman’s Hymen Tears, Her Head Will Be Shaved’: Manusmriti And The Hindu Woman. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/10/the-upper-caste-hindu-woman/
Hooker, M. B. (1978). The Indian-Derived Law Texts of Southeast Asia. The Journal of Asian Studies, 37(2), 201–219. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2054162
Pattanaik, D. (2017). What exactly is the Manusmriti? Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.dailyo.in/lifestyle/
Prasad, C. B. (2008). Markets and Manu: Economic Reforms and Its Impact on Caste in India. CASI Working Paper Series No. 08-01. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://casi.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/research/Markets%2Band%2BManu%2B-%2BChandra%2BBhan%2BPrasad.pdf
V, J. (n.d.). Manusmriti the Laws of Manu – Introduction. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.hinduwebsite.com/