Why I read the Manusmriti
A few months back, there was a debate on Facebook regarding the Manusmriti, the ancient Indian law book which was the basis of Hindu law during the British era, and which substantially influences Hindu attitudes today. Having read parts of it in translation, I minced no words in denouncing it as a toxic document; whereupon a Hindu apologist took it upon himself to denigrate my views, saying that since I had not read the book in the original Sanskrit, I had no business trashing it. He himself claimed to have read it in the original and claimed that it had been misrepresented. Of course he was gaslighting, but I was in no position to call his bluff. So I decided that the only thing would be to read it in the original.
Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a Sanskrit-Malayalam dictionary, I set out to search for an edition of the book with a translation side-by-side. I chanced upon one immediately on the Internet Archive. Further research shows that it is essentially the same as the George Buhler translation (sans commentary) of the so-called Calcutta manuscript with the commentary of Kulluka, considered one of the authoritative texts by many scholars (though its authenticity had been questioned in postmodern times). Whatever be the case, this was the one in circulation since colonial times, so I decided to go with it.
The attempt here is to understand, from the original verses, what Manu said. However, Manu is a mythical character; and one must assume that the text must have been compiled across the ages by various people, as is the case with most ancient Indian texts. So my analysis here focuses on how this compendium of laws have impacted the Indian society, rather than whether it was officially “prescribed”.
The Influence of Manu on Indian Society
Indian society is caste-ridden and patriarchal. And Manusmriti is an instruction manual on how to implement the above. Throughout its verses, two things are reiterated time and again – the superiority of Brahmins versus the inferiority of the “lower” castes, and the total inconsequentiality of women as human beings. Even with all the internal contradictions, these two ideas stand out.
When I started sharing my reading experience on one of the reader’s groups on FB, a section of the members took fierce exception. It was their contention that as a leftist, I was intentionally maligning Hinduism based on a text that no Hindu follows; that the Manusmriti was a straw man of the left to tarnish the lofty ideals of Hinduism. Against this, my argument was simple. No doubt India contains much lofty thought (as laid out in the Upanishads) and the world’s greatest epics; but Indian society was and is one of the most non-egalitarian systems ever implemented in practice. Hardly a day passes without some report about upper-caste atrocities on Dalits (former “untouchables”), for the crime of willing to stand up to their social superiors. And this apparently enjoys the patronage of the Hindu Right.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the feeder organisation of the ruling BJP, was a staunch supporter of Manu’s laws. They vehemently opposed India’s secular constitution when it was implemented, through the organisational mouthpiece, The Organiser, on 30 November, 1949:
“The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it. The drafters of the constitution have incorporated in it elements of British, American, Canadian, Swiss and sundry other constitutions. But there is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it…in our constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”
The RSS ideologue and the inventor of “Hindutva”, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was an unashamed apologist for Manu.
“Manusmriti is that scripture which is most worship-able after Vedas for our Hindu Nation and which from ancient times has become the basis of our culture-customs, thought and practice. This book for centuries has codified the spiritual and divine march of our nation. Even today the rules which are followed by crores of Hindus in their lives and practice are based on Manusmriti. Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law”
So the argument that Hindus do not follow Manusmriti do not hold water. They may not have read the text; but most orthodox ones do follow the caste laws as well as keep the patriarchal attitudes. And for the right-wing, it is the Bible.
Onward with the review.
After going through text, I am sceptical whether these can be called “laws” – they seem more to be religious and ritualistic norms to be followed by communities. Since in ancient India, civil society was virtually dictated to by the rules of caste, these may have been followed either in full or part: we have no way of knowing. However, it does inform Indian sensibilities to a great extent today.
The document comprises twelve chapters, each containing various number of verses. The first chapter is basically a creation myth, somewhat akin to what is mentioned in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda; about an omnipotent being who sacrifices himself to produce the universe. This being, called the Swayambhu (“Self-created”), is Manu himself; and he, in the original form of an egg, splits into two to produce heaven and earth, land and water, male and female, all corporeal and incorporeal beings as well as the mind and the spirit. This chapter is enjoyable and poetic, but one does suspect its presence here is to give mythic legitimacy to the caste hierarchy. The verse produced below which has resulted in most of the anger against this document, is illustrative.
1.31. But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds he caused the Brahmana, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.
1.88. To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying, sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).
1.89. The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;
1.90. The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.
1.91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.
The hierarchy is thus established: the supreme being himself creates the castes and assigns their duties. And just in case anyone has a doubt, the superiority of the Brahmin is reiterated later on.
1.96. Of created beings the most excellent are said to be those which are animated; of the animated, those which subsist by intelligence; of the intelligent, mankind; and of men, the Brahmanas;
1.97. Of Brahmanas, the educated; of the educated, the ones who have attained wisdom; of those, those who perform; of the performers, those who know the Brahman.
1.98. The very birth of a Brahmana is an eternal incarnation of the sacred law; for he is born to (fulfil) the sacred law, and becomes one with Brahman.
1.99. A Brahmana, coming into existence, is born as the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings, for the protection of the treasury of the law.
1.100. Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana; on account of the excellence of his origin the Brahmana is, indeed, entitled to all.
Thus it is very clear that the superiority of the Brahmin is by birth, and not by actions, as claimed by apologists – at least in the Manusmriti. And later he goes on to say that it is the duty of a Brahmin to go forth and teach these laws to everyone, thus endorsing the caste’s supremacy in social justice.
Chapter 2 – 6
These chapters are about the four ashramas of Hindu life: that of the student, called brahmacharya; the householder, called garhastya; the forest-dweller, called vanaprastha; and the ascetic, called sanyasa. It seems it applies mostly only to Brahmins living in northern India called “Aryavarta”, as the other castes are only mentioned in passing. These chapters detail the rituals people are supposed to follow, and the dire consequences which will happen, if they don’t. It contains some good stuff regarding the respect one should give teachers and parents, the joys of simple vegan living, the need to respect guests, and the respect that must be provided women – spoilt, however, by blatant misogyny, contradictions and just plain silliness.
I really liked the following verses:
2.226. The teacher is the image of Brahman, the father the image of Prajapati (the lord of created beings), the mother the image of the earth, and an (elder) full brother the image of oneself.
2.227. That trouble (and pain) which the parents undergo on the birth of (their) children, cannot be compensated even in a hundred years.
2.228. Let him always do what is agreeable to those (two) and always (what may please) his teacher; when those three are pleased, he obtains all (those rewards which) austerities (yield).
2.229. Obedience towards those three is declared to be the best (form of) austerity; let him not perform other meritorious acts without their permission.
2.230. For they are declared to be the three worlds, they the three (principal) orders, they the three Vedas, and they the three sacred fires.
See here that the mother is also included, as deserving of respect: at odds with Manu’s usual mistrust of women.
But in the self-same chapter we find:
2.213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this (world); for that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females.
2.214. For women are able to lead astray in (this) world not only a fool, but even a learned man, and (to make) him a slave of desire and anger.
2.215. One should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister, or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man.
Similarly, the famous verse which apologists quote, to show how Manu respected women:
3.56. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.
This is followed by a number of verses on the proper upkeep of women, keeping them happy, giving them dresses, jewellery and what-not – because:
3.57. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.
3.58. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.
However, this is all done because:
3.59. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes, and (dainty) food.
3.60. In that family, where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, happiness will assuredly be lasting.
3.61. For if the wife is not radiant with beauty, she will not attract her husband; but if she has no attractions for him, no children will be born.
Misogyny strikes again! Women, it seems, are honoured only as baby-producing machines. And it continues:
5.147. By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.
5.148. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.
5.149. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; by leaving them she would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.
5.150. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure.
5.151. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory).
5.154. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.
5.155. No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.
Even after the death of the husband, the widow is to remain faithful to his memory.
5.156. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.
5.157. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by (living on) pure flowers, roots, and fruit; but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.
5.158. Until death let her be patient (of hardships), self-controlled, and chaste, and strive (to fulfil) that most excellent duty which (is prescribed) for wives who have one husband only.
The man can, of course, remarry!
5.168. Having thus, at the funeral, given the sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, he may marry again, and again kindle (the fires).
I will not dwell further on these chapters. They are not “laws”, but rather, rituals and social etiquette Brahmins are supposed to follow. I guess the elaborate rituals of Brahmins for all ceremonies stem from this text, though being a non-Brahmin, I can’t say for sure.
I seriously doubt whether anyone would be able to follow the austerities prescribed for vanaprastha and sanyasa – I think they must have been practised rarely, if at all.
I will close my review of these chapters with one blatant contradiction which strengthens my belief that this text must have been edited across the years.
5.48. Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to (the attainment of) heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun (the use of) meat.
5.52. There is no greater sinner than that (man) who, though not worshipping the gods or the manes, seeks to increase (the bulk of) his own flesh by the flesh of other (beings).
Good stuff, isn’t it? Bolsters our idea of Hinduism as an essentially pacifist and refined religion. But then, we find this immediately afterwards…
5.56. There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.
A person cannot have such a change of mind in the space of four verses!
Chapter 7 – 8
These chapters enumerate the duty of kings – and here we do find something akin to the “laws” that all of us familiar with: about civil disputes and criminal proceedings. These chapters are quite detailed in how a king must settle land and domestic disputes; how much fines and levies he should impose; what punishments, corporal and otherwise, he must mete out. The instructions are as exhaustive and dry as a modern-day law manual.
The king is supposed to rule by an iron hand: the famed “danda-neethi” where fear of punishment ensures a just society. Manu writes:
7.18. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment (to be identical with) the law.
7.22. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find; through fear of punishment the whole world yields the enjoyments (which it owes).
The king is also supposed to be brave and warlike, and always ready to fight. He should always be steadfast in battle.
7.103. Of him who is always ready to strike, the whole world stands in awe; let him therefore make all creatures subject to himself even by the employment of force.
Even though he wants the king to be a tough disciplinarian and warmonger, Manu wants him to stay away from all vices, be fair in battle, and never oppress his people.
7.111. That king who through folly rashly oppresses his kingdom, (will), together with his relatives, ere long be deprived of his life and of his kingdom.
7.112. As the lives of living creatures are destroyed by tormenting their bodies, even so the lives of kings are destroyed by their oppressing their kingdoms.
7.144. The highest duty of a Kshatriya is to protect his subjects, for the king who enjoys the rewards, just mentioned, is bound to (discharge that) duty.
So much for the good stuff. But throughout these instructions to royalty, one thing is reiterated again and again – Brahmins are the best among creation and they have to get preferential treatment, and must be protected at all times. Those who go against them must be dealt with very severely.
7.88. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honour the Brahmanas, is the best means for a king to secure happiness.
8.267. A Kshatriya, having defamed a Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred (panas); a Vaisya one hundred and fifty or two hundred; a Sudra shall suffer corporal punishment.
8.268. A Brahmana shall be fined fifty (panas) for defaming a Kshatriya; in (the case of) a Vaisya the fine shall be twenty-five (panas); in (the case of) a Sudra twelve.
8.270. A once-born man (a Sudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin.
8.271. If he mentions the names and castes (jati) of the (twice-born) with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth.
8.272. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their Dharma, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.
8.279. With whatever limb a man of a low caste does hurt to (a man of the three) highest (castes), even that limb shall be cut off; that is the teaching of Manu.
8.280. He who raises his hand or a stick, shall have his hand cut off; he who in anger kicks with his foot, shall have his foot cut off.
8.281. A low-caste man who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed.
8.282. If out of arrogance he spits (on a superior), the king shall cause both his lips to be cut off; if he urines (on him), the penis; if he breaks wind (against him), the anus.
8.283. If he lays hold of the hair (of a superior), let the (king) unhesitatingly cut off his hands, likewise (if he takes him) by the feet, the beard, the neck, or the scrotum.
While such are the stringent punishments for “low-caste” people for presuming to go against their betters, it is vastly different in the case of Brahmins.
8.379. Tonsure (of the head) is ordained for a Brahmana (instead of) capital punishment; but (men of) other castes shall suffer capital punishment.
8.380. Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he have committed all (possible) crimes; let him banish such an (offender), leaving all his property (to him) and (his body) unhurt.
8.381. No greater crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana; a king, therefore, must not even conceive in his mind the thought of killing a Brahmana.
However, here also Manu surprises with his contradictions. In one place, he says no one is free from punishment and even increases the punishment based on the caste!
8.337. In (a case of) theft the guilt of a Sudra shall be eightfold, that of a Vaisya sixteenfold, that of a Kshatriya two-and-thirtyfold,
8.338. That of a Brahmana sixty-fourfold, or quite a hundredfold, or (even) twice four-and-sixtyfold; (each of them) knowing the nature of the offence.
But there is no doubt about the social level of the Sudra:
8.413. But a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, he may compel to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmana.
8.414. A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?
8.416. A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property; the wealth which they earn is for him to whom they belong.
8.417. A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of the Sudra; for, as he can have no property, his master may take his possessions.
And the women? They have absolutely no voice in this society; they cannot bear witness; cannot even talk to a male without the charge of adultery being laid on them. They are little more than property. But it is the next chapter, which describes the relationship between man and wife, that wins all awards for misogyny hands down.
Manu’s concept is that the male is the seed and the female is the field: and her only duty in life is to keep herself pure for receiving and nurturing the seed, and producing a fine (male) offspring worthy of his father. Here are a few verses to give you a flavour of Manu’s idea of “woman”:
9.2. Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.
9.3. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.
9.13. Drinking (spirituous liquor), associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping (at unseasonable hours), and dwelling in other men’s houses, are the six causes of the ruin of women.
9.14. Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; (thinking), ‘(It is enough that) he is a man,’ they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly.
9.15. Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded in this (world).
9.16. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation, to be such, (every) man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them.
9.17. (When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) bed, (of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct.
In all the verses that follow regarding nuptial laws and disputes, the status of the woman as a “baby-machine” is constantly stressed. I have quoted only a few choice ones above.
In the middle of the chapter, once again the sage starts rambling, talking about the duties of the king and how he must never ever cause displeasure to a Brahmin:
9.313. Let him not, though fallen into the deepest distress, provoke Brahmanas to anger; for they, when angered, could instantly destroy him together with his army and his vehicles.
9.314. Who could escape destruction, when he provokes to anger those (men), by whom the fire was made to consume all things, by whom the (water of the) ocean was made undrinkable, and by whom the moon was made to wane and to increase again?
9.315. Who could prosper, while he injures those (men) who provoked to anger, could create other worlds and other guardians of the world, and deprive the gods of their divine station?
9.316. What man, desirous of life, would injure them to whose support the (three) worlds and the gods ever owe their existence, and whose wealth is the Veda?
9.317. A Brahmana, be he ignorant or learned, is a great divinity, just as the fire, whether carried forth (for the performance of a burnt-oblation) or not carried forth, is a great divinity.
9.318. The brilliant fire is not contaminated even in burial-places, and, when presented with oblations (of butter) at sacrifices, it again increases mightily.
9.319. Thus, though Brahmanas employ themselves in all (sorts of) mean occupations, they must be honoured in every way; for (each of) them is a very great deity.
This theme gets repeated again and again as the text progresses. And let there be no doubt – Brahmins are superior by birth, and not by karma! Though a Brahmin may lose caste due to bad karma, a Sudra will never get into a higher caste – other than in his next birth.
These two chapters delineate the caste duties, and the various punishments one suffers in this world and the next, for not carrying them out, and also the penances for saving oneself: and also, the constant insistence on the excellence of Brahmins. It is quite interesting from another viewpoint, however – here Manu explains the origin of various castes, ostensibly created by the “mixing of the varnas”. It is an exercise in permutation and combination that sets the mind reeling by the time one reaches the second page. For anyone interested in an enumeration, Dr. Ambedkar does a fine job in Riddles of Hinduism.
What interested me here especially was the description of the so-called “unclean” castes – mostly the forerunners of modern-day Dalits. The following verses were illustrative:
10.51. But the dwellings of Kandalas and Svapakas shall be outside the village, they must be made Apapatras, and their wealth (shall be) dogs and donkeys.
10.52. Their dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place.
10.53. A man who fulfils a religious duty, shall not seek intercourse with them; their transactions (shall be) among themselves, and their marriages with their equals.
10.54. Their food shall be given to them by others (than an Aryan giver) in a broken dish; at night they shall not walk about in villages and in towns.
10.55. By day they may go about for the purpose of their work, distinguished by marks at the king’s command, and they shall carry out the corpses (of persons) who have no relatives; that is a settled rule.
10.56. By the king’s order they shall always execute the criminals, in accordance with the law, and they shall take for themselves the clothes, the beds, and the ornaments of (such) criminals.
I am reminded here of the “Harijan Bastis” commonly found in North India, a space outside the village the Dalits are supposed to live, and not “pollute” the higher castes who reside there. This seems to be historical justification for their plight.
The last chapter seems to be an attempt to create a philosophical underpinning to the law-book. It talks about the three “gunas” (qualities) which make up all beings on earth: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It also talks about the atman as the “purusha” pervading all beings. But this is “philosophy lite”, as the main aim is to declare the excellence of the Vedas.
12.95. All those traditions (smriti) and those despicable systems of philosophy, which are not based on the Veda, produce no reward after death; for they are declared to be founded on Darkness.
12.96. All those (doctrines), differing from the (Veda), which spring up and (soon) perish, are worthless and false, because they are of modern date.
The Manusmriti may not be a text that has any religious significance for a Hindu: in fact, it may not have been implemented in full or part any time. But in its hidebound casteism, its atrocious treatment of Dalits and women, it mirrors the mind of modern Indian society in practice. One only needs to scan through any Indian newspaper or one’s FB feed – through the stories of atrocities perpetrated on Dalits and women raped and humiliated – to see the ghost of Manu dancing gleefully on our sacred soil.
It is high time we exorcised it.