Saturday, 9 March 2013

Setting the record straight on Manusmriti

Please welcome guest writer*  Rohit Viswanath.  Rohit is a public affairs professional with Edelman India.  He has been a journalist in the past and was the recipient of the CNN Young Journalist of the Year Award in 2006. He holds a Master's degree in International Relations and a Bachelor’s degree in Ancient Indian Culture. He is interested in Indian religious thought and Sanskrit literature. He has participated in the archaeological excavations at Gilund, an Indus-Sarasvati valley civilisation site in Rajasthan. 

In a series of articles, Rohit will be sharing his views on Manusmriti with us. And in the coming weeks, we hope to hear more from him about his experiences at the archaeological dig at Gilund. Absolutely fascinating! To interact with Rohit, please leave a comment on the blog. 

Manusmriti: Setting the record straight

The Manusmriti is a favorite punching-bag of modern day critics of Indian society. Most of their points of criticism, however, lack objectivity. They do not take into account the fact that the Manusmriti belongs to a different age and hence must be seen in that context. The critics (or liberals as they call themselves), symbolize the collective Indian soul that is yet to recover from the sense of inferiority that centuries of colonial rule has resulted in. India’s colonial masters exploited every tool at their disposal (including the usage of selective portions of the Manusmriti) to justify their racial superiority to subjugate the Indian masses.

The British left behind not just their language but also bequeathed to us an academic system that promotes the same biases. Contemporary liberals who see Manu through the same lens are a product of this system. Their want to disassociate themselves from the heritage that belongs to them and their vehement attack on the Manusmriti is means to this larger goal. The vilifying of ancient institutions like the Manusmriti also has a boomerang effect that causes the alienation of our souls even further.

Manu, the author of Manusmriti, is disparaged by these liberals primarily because he gave legal and social sanction to the caste hierarchy. He is said to have established the subservience of the lower castes and women. They do not understand that Manu did not give any new laws. He only codified existing practices. On reading the text, hence, one can find extremely contradictory injunctions. Some of them can be quoted to prove exactly the opposite of what the liberals contend. For eg. While 5.148 says, “By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house” (बाल्या वा युवत्या वा वृद्धया वापि योषिता स्वातन्त्र्येण कर्तव्यं किम् चिद्कर्यं गृहेष्वपि I ), 5.150 says, “she must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure,” (सदा प्रह्रष्टया भाव्यं गृहकार्ये ......चमुक्तहस्तया I ) insinuating that she not only must independently manage the household but also astutely handle expenses.

Similarly, while on one hand the Manusmriti states, “One occupation only the Lord has prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes,” (1.91 एकमेव तु शूद्रस्य प्रभुः कर्म समादिशत् एतेषामेव वर्णानां शुश्रूषामनसूयया I ), on the other it has also shown extra consideration for Sudras and has provided that members of the dvija varnas (upper castes) should display unqualified respect to an aged Sudra, even though he may be illiterate. (2. 137….मानार्हः शूद्रोऽपि दशमीं गतः ). The notion is further dispelled by 2.238, “He who possesses faith may receive pure learning even from a man of lower caste, the highest law even from the lowest, and an excellent wife even from a base family. (2.238 श्रद्दधानः शुभाम् विद्यमाददितावरदपि I अन्यादपि परम् धर्मं स्त्रीरत्नं दुष्कुलादपि I )

Every age has its own social standards and it is unfair to use contemporary yardsticks to judge the past. With this in mind, even a cursory examination of the treatise is enough to show that contrary to what is commonly understood, the Manusmriti is guided by compassion towards all rather than inhuman discrimination. Sir William Jones, in his preface to the first ever English translation of the Manusmriti, says, “A spirit of sublime devotion, of benevolence to mankind, and of amiable tenderness to all sentient creatures, pervades the whole work.”

The present series is an attempt at setting the record straight. It aims at establishing the context to Manusmriti, giving the correct information on Manu and the Manusmriti, at carrying out an objective appraisal of the treatise by removing misgivings about it, and thus at creating a balanced opinion about it. I would however add the caveat that I am no Sanskrit expert and have just some rudimentary knowledge of the language. I will be heavily drawing from the English translation of the Manusmriti by G Buhler. I am grateful to scholars- Dr Bibek Debroy and Ms. Rohini Bakshi, for the enthusiasm with which they welcomed this humble endeavor. They have graciously agreed to be my guide and to vet the translations & interpretations against the original Sanskrit.

*The views of guest authors are their own and do not represent the intent of this blog. Whether I agree or disagree with guest writers, I respect their right to believe what they do, and their right to express their view. 


Anonymous said...

Manusmrity is a very reactionary and dangerous book. It is the worst exmple of casteism codifying one set of rules for the upper castes and another for lower one. Whosoever was the author of this book cannot hide behind the fact that He was only following existing customs and prejudices. No wonder the present lawmakers of India completely ignore the guidance given by Manu.


Ninad Varkhede said...

Your efforts to unearth the thoughts and ideas from Manusmriti are really appreciable. All the best for your endeavor.

I am totally in accord with what you said in paragraph 1 and 2.

But, Manusmriti do not mention or state lower or higher caste. "Chaturvarnya" system stated in it is according to the qualities of particular group of people and not their caste or birth.

In ancient periods all had right to learn Vedas, even women learnt Vedas (e.g. Maitreyee, Gargi). These women contributed significantly to the Indian Philosophy. Society in the Vedic period was that much liberal and free thinking. People from every group were respected.

Anyway, we are eager to hear from you in near future....

Rohit said...

Dear Anonymous,
thanks for your comments. While I respect your opinion, I beg to differ on every count. Whether Manu's code on caste division was rigid or dynamic is open to debate, but it definitely is not a hierarchic and exploitative arrangement. He did not categorize castes as higher or lower. It was a system in in which the duties of each are interlinked with those of others. In was to knit the society together. There was no room in it for jealousies and rivalries to arise.

Antariksh said...

Saw this blog on sanskrit today. I am interested to improve my sanskrit and hope to be regular visitor.

Btw Your comment on conduct of women is an eyeopener and reminds one that common sense should not be left when judging scriptures.

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