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Explained: What is the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text recently under controversy?

The Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, recently criticised the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text, over its gender bias. Her remarks came while delivering the keynote address at the B R Ambedkar Lecture Series organised by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on Monday (August 22).

Pandit said that the Manusmriti has categorised all women as “shudras”, which is “extraordinarily regressive”. She also referred to recent case in which a Dalit boy in Rajasthan was allegedly beaten by his teacher for touching a water pot, and subsequently died due to his injuries.

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Referring to Ambedkar’s landmark “Annihilation of Caste”, she said, “If Indian society wants to do well, annihilation of caste is extraordinarily important…I don’t understand why we are so emotional of this identity that is very discriminatory, very unequal. And we are ready even to kill somebody to protect this so-called artificially constructed identity.”

What is Manusmriti?

The Mānavadharmaśāstra, also known as Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu, is a Sanskrit text belonging to the Dharmaśāstra literary tradition of Hinduism. Composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, the Manusmriti is written in sloka verses, containing two non-rhyming lines of 16 syllabus each.

The text is attributed to the mythical figure of Manu, considered to be ancestor of the human race in Hinduism. There has been considerable debate between scholars on the authorship of the text. Many have argued that it was compiled by many Brahmin scholars over a period of time. However, Indologist Patrick Olivelle (Manus Code Of Law: A Critical Edition And Translation Of The Mānava Dharmaśāstra, 2005) argues that Manusmṛiti’s “unique and symmetrical structure,” means that it was composed by a “single gifted individual,” or by a “strong chairman of a committee” with the aid of others.

What is the text about?

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The Manusmriti is encyclopedic in scope, covering subjects such as the social obligations and duties of the various castes and of individuals in different stages of life, the suitable social and sexual relations of men and women of different castes, on taxes, the rules for kingship, on maintaining marital harmony and the procedures for settling everyday disputes.

At its core, the Manusmriti discusses life in the world, how it is lived in reality, as well as how it ought to be, according to Wendy Doniger and Brian Smith (The Laws of Manu, 1991). They argue that the text is about dharma, which means duty, religion, law and practice. It also discusses aspects of the Arthashashtra, such as issues relating to statecraft and legal procedures.

According to Olivelle, the aim of the text is to “present a blueprint for a properly ordered society under the sovereignty of the king and the guidance of Brahmins.”

It was meant to be read by the priestly caste and Olivelle argues that it would likely have been part of the curriculum for young Brahmin scholars at colleges, and would have been referenced by the scholarly debates and conversations on the Dharmasastras at that time.

What is its significance?

According to Doniger and Smith, “by the early centuries of the Common Era, Manu had become, and remained, the standard source of authority in the orthodox tradition for that centrepiece of Hinduism, varṇāśrama-dharma (social and religious duties tied to class and stage of life)”.

They argue that it was a very significant text for Brahmin scholars — it attracted 9 commentaries by other writers of the tradition, and was cited by other ancient Indian texts far more frequently than other dharmaśāstra.

European Orientalists considered the Manusmṛiti to be of great historical and religious significance as well. It was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into a European language, by the British philologist Sir William Jones in 1794. Subsequently, it was translated into French, German, Portuguese and Russian, before being included in Max Muller’s edited volume, Sacred Books of the East in 1886.

For colonial officials in British India, the translation of the book served a practical purpose. In 1772, Governor-General Warren Hastings decided to implement laws of Hindus and Muslims that they believed to be “continued, unchanged from remotest antiquity,” according to Olivelle. For Hindus, the dharmasastras were to play a crucial role, as they were seen by the British as ‘laws,’ whether or not it was even used that way in India, he writes.

Why is it controversial?

The ancient text has 4 major divisions: 1) Creation of the world. 2) Sources of dharma. 3) The dharma of the four social classes. 4) Law of karma, rebirth, and final liberation. The third section is the longest and most important section. The text is deeply concerned with maintaining the hierarchy of the four-fold varna system and the rules that each caste has to follow. For the author of the text, the Brahmin is assumed to be the perfect representative of the human race, according to Doniger and Smith, while Sudras, who are relegated to the bottom of the order, are given the sole duty of serving the ‘upper’ castes. Some verses also contain highly prejudicial sentiments against women on the basis of their birth.

There are many verses in the text that are considered controversial, including a few mentioned below:

Chapter 8, sloka 21: “When a Sudra interprets the Law for a king, his realm sinks like a cow in mud, as he looks on helplessly”

Chapter 8, sloka 129: “Even a capable Sudra must not accumulate wealth; for when a Sudra becomes wealthy, he harasses Brahmins.”

Chapter 8, sloka 371: “When a woman… becomes unfaithful to her husband, the king should have her devoured by dogs in a public square frequented by many.”

Chapter 5, sloka 148: “As a child, she must remain under her father’s control; as a young woman, under her husband’s; and when her husband is dead, under her sons’. She must never seek to live independently”

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Chapter 2, sloka 13: “It is the very nature of women here to corrupt men. On that account, prudent men are never off guard in the presence of alluring young women.”

(Above slokas cited from Manu’s Code of Law, translated by Patrick Olivelle and Suman Olivelle, 2004)

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On December 25, 1927, Dr B R Ambedkar had famously burned the Manusmṛiti, which he saw as a source of gender and caste oppression.

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