Manu Smriti: locating dharma and adharma in the light of modernity

A fair estimation of Manu is only possible when comparatively estimated from the vantage point overlooking the social position of the marginalized in ancient and medieval cultures across the world.

The Manu Smriti, the ancient treatise on dharma has been the subject of enormous traditional pre-modern veneration and immense modernist revulsion. The more than 2000-year-old text whose antiquity rivals the oldest legal systems in the world was in the 20th century interpreted as a manual of grave social oppression of women and lower castes while upholding upper caste especially Brahmanical privilege. Patrick Olivelle (2006) in the introduction to his critical rendering of the Manu Smriti observes that ‘In India itself during the 20th century Manu became a lightning rod for both the conservative elements of the Hindu tradition and the liberal movements intent on alleviating the plight of women, low caste and outcaste individuals’. In 1927 during the Mahar Satyagraha, B R Ambedkar publicly denounced the statutes of Manu, rejected the old smriti and demanded the enactment of a new one for a new India heralding a just social order (Keer, 1955). Copies of the Manu Smriti were also confined to flames by his followers. Ambedkar after two decades would go on to become the chief architect of India’s new constitution and infusing it with liberal and progressive ideals. These included the enactment of a progressive Hindu code bill which permitted divorce and greater property rights to Hindu women, and a policy of positive discrimination in order to ensure social justice and upliftment of the historically oppressed in Indian society. However, the practice of burning of copies of Manu’s text have continued unabated as a popular means of registering social and political protest to this day for supposedly combating the idea of ‘Manuvad’ or casteist tyranny. Those who indulge in desecrating and burning the book of  Manu Smriti  justify their actions by suggesting that not only are the roots of casteist discrimination and an unjust social order based upon the ideas of Manu but they still serve as active source of inspiration for expressly sanctioning casteist and gendered violence in Indian society. The burning of the text never received significant opposition from most Hindu traditionalists despite in their belief in dharmasastra literature as a significant Hindu text probably out of old Hindu tolerance, nonchalance or even fear. However, the unabated opposition to the the Manu Smriti in the 21st century by its detractors who persist in book burning in an age when the text has but lost all social, political, cultural and religious relevance for most Hindus, especially amongst those who traditionally had engaged with the text, either ritualistically or intellectually reveals a pernicious agenda which seeks to manipulate the modern Hindu’s aversion and antipathy for its alleged textual contents into some form of “secular” verdict against Hinduism itself.

In this article, we argue that the cessation of Hindu intellectual engagement with the Manu Smriti has meant that specific verses from the text divorced from their social and historical context have been used to promote anti-Hindu worldviews through school and undergraduate level textbooks even certain columnists have used the text to draw false equivalence with the tyranny inspired by fundamentalism of non-Indic religions. Ultimately, this invariably promotes a morbid philosophy of progressive Hindu deracination while creating caste schisms through a simplistic narrative of shudra victimhood and Brahmanical hegemony ignoring the underlying, often complex social reality which determined social stratification and hierarchy in pre-modern India.

Was the dharmasastra a legal instrument?

The presence of coercive power to punish transgression is indispensable for implementation of laws. Hindu apologists often insist that the Manu Smriti is a smriti text, which by its very nature is liable to be change with the vicissitudes of time and reorientation of society. This they claim differentiates it from Islamic law like Sharia, which is deemed immutable until the end of time by the fundamentalists, which greatly impedes the process of legalistic reform in Islamic societies. Such a defensive viewpoint not only uncritically admits to the contents of dharmasastra being entirely a source of tyranny and oppression against marginalized populations, but concedes the position of the dharmasastra as being a source of positive law in Ancient and Medieval India, which was upheld by the coercive power of the state.

Shashi S Sharma in his work ‘Imagined Manuvad: The Dharmasastras and their interpreters’ highlights the ironical lack of ‘coercive authority’ being the definitive hallmark of all dharmasastra literature. Sharma persuasively argues that the possibility of the presence of punitive authority vested in an upper caste Brahmanical social elite by the early medieval period is very unlikely since ‘The sharia ruled; Islamic rulers occupied the throne; Muslim qazis dispensed justice; the state encouraged people to quit their Hindu faith, but Manusmriti somehow continued to define caste, and the followers of the caste system refused to throw off the yoke of Hindu servitude.’  Persian ruthlessly displaced Sanskrit in the Sultanate court while certain Islamic theologians poured opprobrium on the Brahmins who were identified as a source of ‘strength for idolators’ and the principle obstacle to the rapid Islamicization of the country. The only privilege, which the Brahmins retained as per law was an exemption from payment of the jizya (protection tax levied against non-Muslim dhimmis under Islamic governments) which too was lost under the administration of the bigoted Firuz Tughlaq, who dismissed the counter protests of the fasting Brahmins whose share of the discriminatory tax was ultimately paid by the lower caste Hindus, who could not endure the suffering of their upper caste brethren!  Similarly, the Bahmani ruler Muhammad I during a general massacre of non-combatant Hindus of Vijayanagara slaughtered four hundred thousand Hindus including ten thousand Brahmin priests (Sastri: 2006, p. 222).

Sharma further insists that ‘Works like the Dharmasastras, it seems have nothing to do with the creation and perpetuation of the caste system, much less with the oppressive and discriminatory nature of the system’ (2005, p. 193). Caste therefore at least by the late medieval period was a self-regulating societal institution which did not require any royal or legal coercion for its operation. Medieval Bhakti saints condemned untouchability, but they blamed the practice on contemporary social institutions and false caste pride (not unlike the ancient Buddhist criticism of caste) and did not recognize any tyrannical legal mechanisms perpetuating caste based discrimination.

Not only were the dharmasastra texts devoid of royal or legal coercive authority, Sharma explains that in case of Manu even the aspiration for gaining coercive power is lacking, which is evident from the reluctance of Manu to proscribe meat eating despite his principled belief in abstention from meat eating being a most desirable and spiritually rewarding trait (MS 5.56). Instead, Manu while banishing the association of sin with eating meat, drinking wine and sexual desire, credits their abeyance with spiritual merit.

The mistaken belief in the dharmasastra being a source of positive law with juridical power is also rooted in the 18th century happenings when the British colonialists under Warren Hastings employed the dharmasastra literature especially the Manu Smriti under the aegis of learned Brahmins in codifying and creating a common Hindu legal system. Unfortunately, this was contrary to the didactic spirit of the dharmasastra texts, which according to Sharma (2005) were ‘records of customary practices (and) merely descriptive, those injunctions that suggest adoption of a particular course of action are only advisory or pedagogic, without any legal of penal implication.’ (p. 190) This is evident, since Manu himself cites acara or establish conduct of communities to be taken into account while determining the appropriate course of dharma and the safeguarding of such customs as a mandatory obligation on the part of the king, even if they were to be in conflict with his own (MS 1.118, 8.41, 8.46). Furthermore, Manu is sympathetic to the individual sense of ‘what is agreeable to one’s soul or good conscience’ as a source of dharma (MS 4.12). Clearly, the etymology of dharma in such contexts is other than law. Hence, the view of the likes of the Indologist Wendy Doniger, who in her translation of the Manu Smriti (1988) liberally uses the word law as a synonym for dharma clearly violates the mandate of the text.

For over 1500 years, the world of dharmasastra literature has commended Manu as its foremost, even inviolable authority. The making of the Manu Smriti itself was a process which took centuries during which the text was subject to persistent editing with incorporation of views of authors shaped by their divergent socio-cultural milieu and their own biases, which explains the often, irreconcilable contradictions, which appear throughout the course of the text. To instantiate, the principle of niyoga (levirate), property rights of women and the acceptance of sudra wives by upper caste males are cited with both approval and disapproval in the body of the same text. This undermines the value of the text as some legal manual and instead corroborates the assertion of the statements capturing the established custom of different eras when societal norms underwent transformation while some older customs lost their moral sanctity.

The idea of justice in the Manu Smriti

Manu gives primacy to righteousness as the highest embodiment of dharma. Since for Manu, Dharma is alone what remains when the body perishes (MS 8.17), it acquires both an immanent and transcendental character exemplified by the utterance,

“Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah” (MS 8.15)

Justice, being violated, destroys; justice, being preserved, preserves: therefore, justice must not be violated, lest violated justice destroy us.’

Hence, Manu emphatically denies dharma as a vehicle for vengeance and retribution. Further, he lays emphasis on ahimsa or non-violence, truth and persuasive dialogue as grounds for attaining dharma (MS 4.138, 4.139, 10.63). This makes a significant departure from then contemporary dominant global worldview,s which promoted the pursuit of legally authorized retaliation (lax Talionis or an eye for an eye) as the most gratifying means of gaining justice. For Manu the miscarriage of justice is a cause for regression – both societal and individual. The need to uphold dharma with unfailing conscientiousness is then a collective duty of society and its failure associated with the persistence of injustice subverts the good society and threatens its very existence.

A secondary corollary of Manu’s principle of justice is the overarching emphasis of Manu in protecting the weaker sections of society. Anterior to Manu, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad explains Dharma as that ‘through which a very weak man can hope to prevail over a very strong man.’ Similarly, Manu expects the king to solemnly protect the rights, property and safety of widowed, diseased and barren women and suitably punish those who attempt to usurp their property (MS 7.28, 7.29).

Since, the punitive authority or danda is vested in the king, Manu ordains the king to be also subject to the dharmic principle despite paying some lip service to the divine right theory. Manu formulates the necessary attributes for the application of danda being primarily freedom from vices of desires by being rooted in truth and purity at all times (MS 7.45, 7.47, 7.50). Being wary of an unprincipled despot abusing the power of danda, Manu cautions the king that any punishment should be inflicted only after due deliberation since its improper application ‘destroys everything’ (MS 7.19). Manu strives for a balance of power by subjecting the king to the wisdom of his Brahmin ministers, and emphasizing a king’s supreme duty in protecting his tax paying subjects against war and aggression (MS 7.144) failing which he ‘sinks into hell’ (MS 7.307). These didactic attempts at limiting the sovereign power also hint at the futility of identifying the text as a legally binding instrument.

Manu’s sense of ahimsa also argues for a principled, pacifist approach towards settling disputes and war only as a last resort, since the outcome of war is often uncertain and it causes avoidable misery (MS 7.198, 7.1999). Further, Manu provides moral sanction for wars only when rulers subscribed to a code of war ethics consistent with yuddha-dharm,a which included the absence of use of poisonous arms, protection of noncombatants and non-killing of prisoners of war (MS 7.90-7.94).  It is doubtful whether all such lofty ideals were actually translated into practice in the battlefield, but certainty they hint towards the existence of a society, which anticipated and cherished modern notions of human rights, peace and disarmament.

Manu also anticipated some concepts of modern jurisprudence. He urged the state to drop witnesses, who had a conflict of interest in the case (MS 7.78) or turn hostile (MS 7.83).

In an age of Buddhistic ascendancy with its glorification of monasticism, Manu exalts the householder as the dharmic citizen on whom depends all others for sacred knowledge, food and protection (MS 3.78, 6.90).  Manu justifies the need for samskaras or sacraments as a basis of spiritual transformation and self-realization (MS 2.26, 2.27, 2.28).  All in all, Manu’s cosmic vision encapsulates a holistic worldview where there is no place for despondency, defeat, pessimism, life negation and other-worldliness since:

‘One should not allow one’s spirit to be frustrated by earlier failures; till death one should not disregard oneself; till death one should strive for prosperity and should never consider it difficult to attain’ (MS 4.137).    

Gender and justice in the Manu Smriti

The Manu Smriti is often considered to be a misogynist work. For instance, Wendy Doniger in her introduction to the translation of the Manu Smriti ridiculed Friedrich Nietzsche’s assessment of the text as being women friendly in contrast to the Bible. Doniger reproduced several verses to support her view that Manu Smriti oppressed women without explaining what exactly a brilliant mind like Nietzsche found in Manu, which gave rise to his supposedly erroneous view. This simplistic and uncritical exchange with a long dead philosopher sums up the passions, which Manu can generate even in an otherwise prolific scholar. Similarly, the late R C Majumdar, a pre-eminent historian of India known for his objective and fearless assessment of the Islamist tyranny in medieval India and a non-hagiographic portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement found Manu ‘giving expression to some general sentiments about women which are most dishonourable and humiliating to the class as a whole, and to which it is difficult to find a parallel in a book held in respect by a large section of humanity.’ (HCIP, Vol II, 2001, p. 563) Majumdar like Doniger also lacked the sensitivity and nuance to assess the text as a product of its time or attempt comparative readings. This is important, since highly misogynistic readings are easily possible with many non-Hindu religious texts too. Moreover, the position of women in the Greek civilization which was nearly contemporaneous with Manu was disappointing despite their civilizational claims to high philosophy, science and democracy. Aristotle compared women to slaves and explained their predicament to that of ‘deformed males’. Plato was more sympathetic to women, but believed them to be inferior to men in all tasks (Annas, 1976). He had no respect for motherhood and preferred the abolition of the nuclear family. Plato also proposed a humiliating communism of wives and state arranged cohabitation. Nevertheless, no modern writer had suggested rejecting the vast corpus of Aristotle and Plato and their definitive contribution to Western philosophy and civilization so much so that all their philosophy was explained as a ‘footnote to Plato’ merely because of their misogynistic injunctions against women.

The Manu Smriti is situated in a patriarchal world with an obvious gendered visualization of society. Under such circumstances, the presence of misogynistic and discriminatory verses against women especially adjudged from a modern viewpoint is not unexpected. Yet, the second chapter of the Manu Smriti declares that honour, respect and ensuring the lasting happiness of women were vital societal attributes, which were required not just because the women as a class were in need of protection (which was important) , but because it was essential for attaining prosperity by their male kin and the making of a just and humane society. Manu sincerely emphasizes the need for all male relatives (fathers, brothers, husbands and brother in laws) to honour the women of the household, if they ‘desire their own welfare’ (MS 3.55) since those homes where women were not honored or where women lived in grief were unable to prosper and came to ‘perish completely’ (MS 3.57, 3.58). It is again the ‘radiance of the women of the family’ which brings honour upon households (MS 3.62). Reflecting on the verse, Sharma aptly reasons that ‘Oppression of women obviously is not the sure means of making them radiant, therefore no family would have dared to do anything that would detract from the rights of their womenfolk’.

Manu further believes that ‘In that family, where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, happiness will assuredly be lasting’ (MS 3.60), which suggests that for him, mutual respect and not unquestioned obedience or submission on the part of wife were the foundation of a harmonious marital relationship.

Finally, Manu staunchly links the indispensability of honouring women to the fulfillment of all dharmic obligations by exclaiming that ‘Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards’ (MS 3.56). It is the evaluation of such verses, which probably impressed Nietzsche regarding Manu’s wisdom since such liberal views on women were lacking in most of the religious texts of the Semitic faiths.

Manu’s critics often latch upon a solitary verse (5.148) which has been translated by the German Indologist Buhler as  “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 is not fit for independence”. This is alleged to be an acute instance of Manu’s misogyny who supposedly denies all agency to a woman from her youth to old age. Such an interpretation is flawed and on the testimony of the traditional Sanskrit scholar Ramanuja Devanathan derived from a “wrong translation which misinterprets the true import of the verse…which ordains menfolk that “no women should be left unprotected”. This is corroborated from Manu’s injunctions which makes demands of the king, the protector of the realm, to ‘punish like thieves’ those Brahmins who deceive helpless widows and abandoned women (MS 4.196).

Moreover, the dependence of the mother on her son in this verse when read in conjunction with Manu’s exalted status of a mother (a mother is 1000 times more venerable than a father – MS 2.145) posits it as one placing the onus of protection and support for each woman until her death upon her closest male relationship rather than a statement expressing a generalized fear of liberated women. While, Manu is painfully conscious of men in society, who believe that women should be controlled and subject to their authority, but he dissents against the possibly dominant narrative in an old patriarchal universe by unequivocally asserting that “women are well guarded of their own accord, by themselves, not by confining them to home, or keeping a watch on them through spies and servants” (MS 9.12). All in all, that these questions on gender and freedom were being raised and actively debated in times of such antiquity actually indicates the high moral standard of Indian civilization. In contrast, a truly misogynist verse would read like the one attributed to the ancient Greek Demosthenes;

‘We have courtesans for our pleasure, concubines for the requirements of the body, and wives to bear us lawful children and look after the home faithfully’ (Adamson: 2014)

Of the other ‘evidence’ projecting Manu as a misogynist, verses addressed to young men probably in the stage of the Brahmacharya ashrama of life  (incidentally, Manu comments extensively on the four Ashramas) warning them against the temptations held by women who could ‘lead astray’ both ‘fools’ and ‘learned men’ (MS 2.212, 2.213) are not exceptional, since several Puranic tales refer to the seduction of ascetics by beautiful maidens on the bidding of the demigods like Indra and the consequent loss of their spiritual energies (tapas) and power (siddhi).

Manu’s views of marriage have also been subject to criticism for encouraging child marriage among females, prohibition of widow remarriage, permitting marriage involving forced abduction and accepting polygamy. While some of Manu’s views on marriage are ostensibly regressive, the underlying socio-political reality of the period of the composition of the text around the time after the fall of the great Mauryan empire, when the country was frequently over-run by invaders like the Scythians and the Kushanas leading to lawlessness contributed to the contraction of the marriage age for girls. This conjecture receives support from Manu’s injunctions on child marriage among females being qualified as appropriate only in times of ‘apad dharma’ or social and political emergencies. Furthermore, Manu made a spirited argument against solemnizing undesirable marriages by asserting that a ‘maiden though marriageable should rather stay in her father’s house until death, rather than ever (marry) her to a man destitute of good qualities’ (MS 9.89) Similarly, Manu supports females finding their own suitors in case their fathers are unable to do so (MS 9.90).

Manu recognizes the prevalence of eight forms of marriage among the various ethnicities and communities. Although Manu is dismissive of two of those involving forcible abduction, which were the Raksasa and Paisacha forms, which were likely to have increased in times of political instability and greater lawlessness, he grants them social acceptance especially among non-Brahmins probably to protect the women and their children from further societal stigma. Meanwhile in a daring evolution of medieval Hindu attitudes towards women in the face of excesses by early medieval invaders, the resumption of postpartum menstruation was deemed to purify like ‘refined gold’ even those women who were raped, impregnated against their will and consequently gave birth to illegitimate children (Atri Samhita: 192). Unfortunately, such liberal standings could not be universalized and by the colonial period had been cast off in the darkest recesses of the Hindu mind.

Marxist historians like Thapar often obsessed with the “gifting” of women as wives in the Brahma and Daiva forms of marriage and assume no consent of the women were involved in the process. Such interpretations ignore Manu’s frank injunctions to fathers to ‘regard one’s daughter as the highest object of tenderness; hence if one is offended by her, bear it without resentment’ (MS 4.185). Manu does not unequivocally remark on the autonomy of daughters in choosing their husbands but neither does he explicitly state that the daughter’s preferences and volition should be overridden by parental choices. A historian’s nuanced vision should also consider verses stating ‘The wife being a gift from the gods, she ought to be supported to the end of her life’ (MS 9.95) in order to comprehend that the metaphor of gift or dana associated with the giving away of the bride is not a negative exhortation unless narrowly viewed from the prism of modern feminist consciousness devoid of its cultural context. Furthermore, Manu’s explicit clarifications that the ‘gift of daughters’ is most desirable only in case of Brahmins while in other castes ‘mutual consent’ should be the preferred foundation of marriage (MS 3.35) debunks the notion of Manu arbitrating marriages without consent.

Manu further declares ‘Offspring, (due performance of) religious rites, faithful service, the highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss for the ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone’ (MS 9.28), which renders a man without a wife and offspring to be ‘incomplete’ (MS 9.45). Under such circumstances, it comes as no surprise that Manu is fundamentally against the practice of polygamy, which remained a vital feature of Indian civilization among the majority of its Hindu populace except for kings and princes and certain Brahmin communities in Bengal. This is evident from observations of foreign travelers like the 16th century traveler Pietro Della Valle, who observed in his notebooks that Hindus ‘take but one wife and never divorce her till death except in case of adultery’. Manu too provides exceptions to the rule of monogamy, which included a long barren wife or one without sons for 11 years, but qualifies these injunctions with another, which subject the husband to the wife’s consent before taking another wife (MS 9.82).

Another problematic aspect of Manu’s injunctions especially to modern sensibilities is his resolute stand against the dissolution of marriage through divorce. The idea of marital incompatibility as a ground for divorce was not a popular feature of the Hindu way of life for over two millennia although Kautilya did permit separation through mutual consent.  In a subtle irony, Manu’s view on the indissolubility of marriage rests upon an injunction denying husbands powers to abandon their wives through any means (MS 9.46). Manu similarly expects wives to be faithful to their husbands and revere them even if they were devoid of virtues (MS 9.154). Manu includes a relatively liberal provision by permitting wives to leave their husbands if they are impotent, alcoholics, criminals, rendered outcastes, suffering from incurable diseases or is absent from his home for a period greater than three years (MS 9.76, 9.79). Manu is also intolerant of adultery and demands exceptional hyperbole punishment for offenders (irrespective of their gender), which is unlikely to have been translated into practice. One may tentatively conclude that Manu’s views on marital indissolubility and adultery even when conservative is largely not discriminatory against women.

Manu does urge widows to not take a second husband, lead a reclusive and self-disciplined life while assuring such selfless conduct to be a pathway to eternal bliss (MS 5.162-5.172).  Even among those widows who don’t have children, Manu implores them against remarriage just for the sake of offspring by drawing attention to celibate ascetics who could attain the highest heavens. Manu’s views against widow remarriage could then be appropriately considered as ‘injunctions that suggest adoption of a particular course of action (which) are only advisory or pedagogic, without any legal or penal implication.’ (Sharma: 2005, p. 190)

The one major drawback in Manu’s attitude towards women, which may be objectively validated is the denial of Vedic education to women by considering the class of women as a whole devoid of the necessary intellectual rigour to acquire power through mantras and participate in Vedic exegesis. Historically, women like Gargi and Maitreyi adjudged philosophical debates in the age of the Upanishads while the Mahabharata has the example of Sulabha who skillfully argued against Janaka’s orthodox positions with respect to women. Even Yama upholds Vedic education for women, but exempts them from the physically demanding requisites involving wearing deerskin, growing matted hair and begging the meals (Leslie: 1989). Similarly, the thread ceremony (upanayanam), which was common for both sexes in the Vedic age was restricted only for males in the Smritis. Manu considers marriage to be an agreeable substitute for upanayanam in case of women, which hints at the effective lowering of the marital age of women due to the deteriorating law and order situation in a society being overrun by foreign invading forces (MS 2.67).  Through such marriage, the husband acquired the function of the guru and the wife as the student which permitted transmission of some degree of sacred and secular knowledge between husband and wife. The medieval Mimansa philosopher Mandana Mishra’s wife Bharati was considered a highly-accomplished scholar who is legendarily said to have participated in the debate between her husband and Sankara, the Advaitic philosopher whose outcome led to the conversion of the former into an Advaitin. Despite the decline in female educational attainments through the ages, the cunning extrapolation by certain Marxist historians that the absence of Vedic learning signified the total absence of any learning among ancient Indian women is historically untenable since accomplished Hindu female scholars were produced centuries after Manu’s injunctions against Vedic entitlements for women. Manu himself promotes acquisition of wisdom from all, irrespective of their caste and gender (MS 2.244). Furthermore, compared to contemporaneous Greek and Roman women, educational standards of Hindu women were arguably of a relatively higher standard.

Sharma too after a careful scrutiny of the sources ‘wonders why these teachings of Manu on the privileges, rights and positions of women are not cited as its basic teachings. If these be the values that Manu has fixed for Hindu families, he should be feted in the seminars of gender activists, rather than being criticized for few references regarding women living under the protection of their fathers, husbands and sons.” (Sharma: 2005, p. 184)

A more pertinent criticism of the Dharmasastra literature is the clubbing of the entire class of women with shudras, who were confined to the lowest social order. Unfortunately, this sense of ritual inferiority of women and shudra pervades the Smriti literature. The Bhagawad Geeta (9: 32) itself testifies to the social dominance of this view when Krishna assures Arjuna of the efficacy of his path, which liberated (moksha) its diligent practitioners including ‘women and shudras’.

The Brahmin and the Shudra in the Manu Smriti: inventing hegemony?

Aristotle defended the institution of slavery in Ancient Greece while Plato is nonchalant regarding its existence. Both did not advance modern notions of egalitarianism and equality before law. Manu like his Greek counterparts defended slavery (MS 4.253) and inequality (MS 4.225). The Greek ambassador to India, Megasthenes observed the absence of slavery India, which in the historian R C Majumdar’s considered estimation was due to ‘probably (being) misled by the humane treatment accorded to the slaves in India, which offered such a striking contrast to their lot in Greece’.

Manu’s code is indeed steeped in an iniquitous worldview which subscribes to Brahmanical privilege and discrimination against Shudras. The Vedic Purusa sukta conceptualized all the four varnas to be part of a common sacred order without any inklings of inequality. On the other hand, Manu imposed a radical hierarchy based on the abstract notions of ritual purity by considering those originating below the navel of the Purusa to be of impure birth and of lower social standing. Manu’s social order has since been subject to colourful imaginings where the tyrannical Brahmin subjects the vast Shudra population to deplorable persecution through connivance with the upper caste rulers. The historical evidence for upholding such a simplistic vision of the past is debatable for the following reasons:

First, Manu sanctions Brahmanical privilege resting upon his belief in their moral and ethical superiority who is expected to ‘befriend all creatures’ (MS 2.87).  For Manu, a Brahmin is ordained to do ‘good for the world’ (MS 1.102), but it is subject to considerable limitations. While Manu lauds the Brahmin as the ‘incarnation of dharma’ (MS 1.98) who should aspire for the collective evolution of society, he simultaneously subjects them to restrictions on the intake of food (absence of meat eating), occupation (denial of usury and trade in common items like milk), marriage and learning. Manu differentiates among Brahmins by grading them on the basis of their Vedic learning, inner wisdom and their spiritual accomplishments (MS 1.97, 2.139-2.140). In contrast, a verse attributed to Manu suggests a Brahmin devoid of the knowledge of the Veda to be as useful to society as is an impotent man to a beautiful woman. Hence, Manu denies even water to a Brahmin unlearnt of the Veda. Manu is not hesitant in being highly critical of Brahmins who indulge in fraud by deceiving Shudras and women and condemns them into hell and reception of scorn from people of all varnas (MS 4.196-4.197). He further demands of Brahmins the highest moral and ethical character with perfect equanimity – ‘A Brahmana should always fear homage as if it were poison; and constantly desire (to suffer) scorn as (he would long for) nectar’ (MS 2.162). In a similar vein, Manu (MS 4.186) ‘says that even if a brahman is in dire need and is eligible to accept gifts, he should avoid repeated discourse to it because this eminence and brilliance that he has acquired from the Vedas are quickly extinguished by the acceptance of dana’ (Sharma: 2005, p. 186)

Second, the internal evidence of the text is replete with instance, which suggests Manu despite his aversion to Shudra culture was respectable towards efforts in their integration with the mainstream and did not opt for their dehumanization. Manu unlike the xenophobic social orders which frequently dominated the ancient and medieval civilizational landscape, rejected the idea of racism. He condemned Brahmins deviating from their moral, religious and ethical code in search of livelihood to lapse to the state of the Shudra. Theories of racism are incompatible with the idea of individual regression. Therefore, for Manu, the Varnas do not represent a separate biological order, but a hierarchized psychologically conditioned state of being, albeit, with hereditary transmission potential. Manu thus absolves Shudras from mundane rituals and rites and consequently, the sense of sinfulness (MS 10.126) since he believes them to be at the lowest rung of the social order. Manu understands that if a life of a person, irrespective of his varna (including shudra) can be saved by uttering a falsehood let that be preferable to the truth in such cases (MS 1.04). Manu accepts marriage of shudra females with upper caste males (MS 3.44). Manu concedes that ‘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 an outcaste’ (MS 2.240, 2.238). Manu considers praiseworthy individuals to possess good qualities irrespective of their varna (MS 2.136-2.137). The eminence of Valmiki and Vyasa testifies to the overarching social belief in virtue not being limited to individuals from the higher varnas. Manu encourages Shudras who desire to gain spiritual merit to imitate the sacred practices of virtuous men of the other varnas (MS 10.127). He enjoins women and sudras to freely indulge in activities, which provides them happiness and pleasure (MS 2.223). ‘Non-violence, constant adherence to truth, non-thieving, being pure, and keeping the senses in control constitute the idea of common dharma for all the four varnas’ (MS 10.62). This verse reflects Manu’s inclusive worldview where the shudras are considered an integral and holistic part of society.

Third, the penal provisions, which are discriminatory against Shudras as mentioned in the Manu Smriti were probably never actualized in practice. Manu in a series of half a dozen verses exhorts the king to inflict blood curdling punishments upon shudras for transgressions like utterance of sacred mantras, defamation or physical assault upon Brahmins. Nevertheless, historical memory of oppression of shudras either in the form of written records, oral sources and traveler accounts until the 19th century is minimal, and certainly never in a form or image as derived from a literal textual reading of the Manu Smriti and allied texts.

Moreover, Marxist and subaltern historians despite their prejudice against Hindu civilization have struggled to locate primary sources of caste based oppression in ancient and medieval India. In contrast, Al Beruni, the 11th century Muslim traveler to India observed the peaceful and harmonious residence of different communities within the same villages. The origin of several Hindu-Buddhistic royal dynasties were among individual belonging to the lower Varnas, which rejects the view of the Shudras as a completely oppressed social order. Under such circumstances, was there a blurring of distinction between what is interpreted as ‘punishment’ as actually a hyperbolic demand for voluntary ‘penance’ is a conundrum warranting further exploration.

The Manu Smriti also records verses, which hint at physical intimidation like spitting and urination directed against the Brahmins by the Shudras (MS 8.281). Sharma suggests that the acute literary violence of the text to be an outcome of the unstable social order were  ‘Many societies were uprooted, many political entities were destroyed, religious institutions were threatened and the religio-cultural stability of the Aryan society faced a most serious challenge from these alien shudras (Yavanas and Sakas)….The weight of evidence suggests that when a Dharmasastra text suggests exclusion of sudras from Vedic studies and upanayan, prescribes harsh punishment for disrespect and infringement, it refers mostly to such hostile alien groups as the Sakas, Greeks, Parthians, Iranians and Hunas’ (p. 219). The problematic aspect of this argument is that 2000 years even after such “alien shudras” had become assimilated within the Hindu fold, the Dharmasastra attitudes towards acquisition of Vedic knowledge by the Shudras did not reflect any radical departure from that of Manu except that demands for corporal punishment in case of transgressions became rarer although new grounds for socio-economic discrimination especially untouchability took root in Hindu society. The inability of the Dharmasastra writers especially those extending into the medieval period in ending their ‘literary’ oppression and hostility against the Shudras while enabling a generous reconciliation for social transformation paved the path for the decay and eventual cultural irrelevance of all dharmasastra and their interpreters with the advent of modernity.

Ultimately, a fair estimation of Manu is only possible when comparatively estimated from the vantage point overlooking the social position of the marginalized in ancient and medieval cultures across the world. The victims of the transatlantic slave trade, European feudalism and Hindu subjects in medieval India (under Islamist rulers) experienced severe modes of discrimination, which were not only theoretical, but also brutally actualized in practice. There were often no avenues for integration with dominant society, women were treated as spoils of war while slaves and serfs were usually deprived of legal marital rights. The comparison of Manu in the light of such practices is then drawing an utterly false equivalence especially when ignoring all that is humane and just within the body of the same text.


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