Laws of Manu

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The Manusmriti, better known in English as the Laws of Manu (Sanskrit - Manava Dharma Shastra) is the ancient Hindu code of conduct for domestic, aocial, and religious Life. Traditionally accepted as one of the supplementary arms of the Vedas, the Laws of Manu is one of the standard books in the Hindu canon, and a basic text for all gurus to base their teachings on. This 'revealed scripture' comprises 2684 verses, divided into twelve chapters presenting the norms of domestic, social, and religious life in India (circa 500 BCE) under the Brahmin influence, and is fundamental to the understanding of ancient Indian society.

Contents

Background

The ancient Vedic society had a structured social order where the Brahmins were esteemed as a highest and the most revered sect and assigned the holy task of acquiring ancient knowledge and learning. The teachers of each Vedic schools composed manuals in Sanskrit, known as 'sutras', pertaining to their respective schools for the guidance of their pupils, which were highly venerated by the Brahmins and memorized by each Brahmin student.

The most common of these were the 'Grihya-sutras', dealing with domestic ceremonies, and the 'Dharma-sutras', treating of the sacred customs and laws. These extremely complicated bulk of ancient rules and regulations, customs, laws and rites were gradually enlarged in scope, written aphoristically and set to musical cadence and systematically arranged to constitute the 'Dharma-shastras'. Of these the most ancient and most famous is the Laws of Manu, the Manava Dharma-shastra, a 'Dharma-sutra' belonging to the ancient Manava Vedic school.

Genesis

It is believed that Manu, the ancient teacher of sacred rites and laws, is the author of Manava Dharma-shastra. The initial canto of the work narrates how ten great sages appealed to Manu to pronounce the sacred laws to them and how Manu fulfilled their wishes by asking the learned sage Bhrigu, who had been carefully taught the metrical tenets of the sacred law, to deliver his teachings. However, equally popular is the belief that Manu had learnt the laws from Lord Brahma, the Creator, and so the authorship is said to be divine.

Speculated Dates of Composition

Sir William Jones assigned the work to the period 1200-500 B.C., but more recent developments state that the work in its extant form dates back to the first or second century A.D. or could be even older. Scholars agree that the work is a modern versified rendition of a 500 B.C. 'Dharma-sutra,' which no longer exists.

Structure and Content

The first chapter deals with the creation of the world by the deities, the divine origin of the book itself, and the objective of studying it. Chapters two to six recounts the proper conduct of the members of the upper castes, their initiation into the Brahmin religion by sacred thread or sin-removing ceremony, the period of disciplined studentship devoted to the study of the Vedas under a Brahmin teacher, the chief duties of the householder - choice of a wife, marriage, protection of the sacred hearth-fire, hospitality, sacrifices to the gods, feasts to his departed relatives, along with the numerous restrictions - and finally, the duties of old age. The seventh chapter talks of manifold duties and responsibilities of kings. The eighth chapter deals with the modus operandi in civil and criminal proceedings and of the proper punishments to be meted out to different caste. The ninth and the tenth chapters relate the customs and laws regarding inheritance and property, divorce and the lawful occupations for each caste. Chapter eleven expresses the various kinds of penance for the misdeeds. The final chapter expounds the doctrine of karma, rebirths and salvation.

References to homosexual sex

The Manusmriti includes mention of homosexual practices, but only as something to be regulated. Though homosexuality was considered a part of sexual practices, it was not always well accepted. There were punishments prescribed for homosexual behaviour.

For instance, the verse referring to sexual relations between an older woman and a virgin (woman) reads"...a woman who pollutes a damsel (virgin) shall instantly have (her head) shaved or two fingers cut off, and be made to ride (through the town) on a donkey", suggesting a severe punishment. However, the verse referring to sexual relations between two virgins suggests a relatively milder punishment – "...a damsel who pollutes (another) damsel must be fined two hundred (panas), pay the double of her (nuptial) fee, and receive ten (lashes with a) rod".

These provisions, quoted out of context, seem against lesbianism, but in fact they are concerned not with the gender of the partners but with the loss of virginity that rendered a young woman unworthy of marriage. For instance, the punishment for a forced sex act between a man and a woman states "...if any man through insolence forcibly contaminates a maiden, two of his fingers shall be instantly cut off, and he shall pay a fine of six hundred (panas)", which seems more severe in comparison to the punishment prescribed for the same act between two virgins.

Sex between non-virgin women incurred a very small fine, while homosexual intercourse between men was sought to be censured by a prescription of a bath with one's clothes on, and a penance of "eating the five products of the cow and keeping a one-night fast"- the penance being a replacement of the traditional concept of homosexual intercourse resulting in a loss of caste.

The discrepancy in treatment may have been due to the text's non-equal views on males and females, considering that the Manusmriti is the same scripture that has stated that the status of woman in the society is the same (or even lower than) that of a man’s land, his cattle and other possessions.

Criticism

Present-day scholars have criticized the work significantly. The rigidity in the caste system and the contemptible attitude towards women are not acceptable today. The almost divine reverence shown to the Brahmin caste and the despicable attitude towards the 'Sudras' (the lowest caste) is objectionable. The Sudras were forbidden to participate in the Brahmin rituals and were subjected to severe punishments whereas the Brahmins were exempted from any kind of reprimand for crimes. The practice of medicine was prohibited to the upper caste. Women were considered inept, inconsistent, and sensual and were restrained from learning the Vedic texts or participating in important social functions. They were kept in abject subjugation all their lives.

Translations

• The Institutes of Manu by Sir William Jones (1794). The first Sanskrit work to be translated into a European tongue. • The Ordinances of Manu (1884) begun by A. C. Burnell and completed by Professor E. W. Hopkins, published in London. • Professor George Buhler's Sacred Books of the East in xxv volumes (1886). • Professor G. Strehly's French translation Les Lois de Manou, forming one of the volumes of the "Annales du Musée Guimet", published in Paris (1893). • The Laws of Manu (Penguin Classics) translated by Wendy Doniger, Emile Zola (1991)

References

  • "Laws of Manu or 'Manava Dharma Shastra'" by Subhamoy Das at About.com:[http ://hinduism.about.com/od/scripturesepics/a/laws_of_manu.htm]

Further Reading

The Laws of Manu: Full Text Translation by G. Buhler The Human Being in the Eye of the Hindu: Caste System in Hinduism What Is Dharma?