ladies
 
Manu Smriti’s profound understanding of Sexuality can counter sexual violence

By using Manu Smriti as a punching bag for all that we think is wrong in Indian society, we miss out on a tremendous learning and perhaps the only answer we have to tackle the increasing incidence of sexual crime at its root – taming the mind.

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” – Ayn Rand

When we look at Manu Smriti (an ancient Indian legal text on code of conduct) through the eyes of feminism and gender studies, two seemingly contradictory views burst forth. One, the loud voices of the modern day feminist, who gasp and squeal at the verses, which translated literally read

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

– (taken from Chapter 2)

The other voice is of those, who try to defend Manu Smriti by presenting the seemingly opposite view about women, written in the same breath that wrote the above lines:

  1. No father who knows (the law) must take even the smallest gratuity for his daughter; for a man who, through avarice, takes a gratuity, is a seller of his offspring.
  1. Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire (their own) welfare.
  1. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.
  1. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.
  1. The houses on which female relation are not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.
  1. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes, and (dainty) food.

– (taken from Chapter 3)

Each view that speaks against or for the verses written in Manu Smriti conveniently ignores the other and generally do not comment about the seemingly opposite view. But this won’t do. To understand something holistically, we need to be able to explain all that seems contradictory. And a mere translation of the verses, however scholarly, might fall short.

In this write-up, we will take a peek into what might be the spirit behind Manu Smriti and how sexuality was understood in ancient times. Whether you are a man or a woman, comprehending what Manu Smriti writes about women requires more than a fair bit of honesty regarding sexuality and its impact on the human mind.

Are these contradictions?

If yes, which version is right with respect to what it conveys about women?

If not, how do we make sense of the seemingly opposite views about women?

I will admit that my own journey in making sense of this was not an easy one. Nowhere could I find interpretations that were satisfactory, perhaps because the interpreters often looked outside themselves rather than within, for answers. The rigidity in belief systems, be it ideological or feministic, keep us from getting to the bottom of the issue and we end up justifying what we don’t fully understand.

Through the frustration of not being able to understand the seemingly negative views about women, the thing that kept me going was my own positive experiences of being a woman in India. It simply didn’t make sense that a land that still worships the feminine in so many ways could instruct men to disrespect women. So, unlike most feminists who would arrive at a strong conclusion based on a few verses written in Manu Smriti, I continued searching for answers.

A big Aaha! moment arrived, when I read Sri Swami Sivananda’s book “Practice of Brahmacharya”. The book left me fuming in the first half and laughing out loud towards the end. Sample this,

The initial pages of the book where he addresses, men who wish to pursue Brahmacharya, he writes thus about cultivating Vairagya (detachment or renunciation),

“Sit down and think, calmly and honestly, what beauty there is in a woman whose body is composed of flesh, bones, nerves, fat, marrow and blood. Where is the beauty in the same woman when she becomes old? Look at the condition of the eyes and the body of a woman after an attack of fever for seven days! What is the state of her beauty? Where is the beauty if she does not take bath for a week? The stink is abominable. Look at the senile woman aged eighty five who is sitting at the corner, with rotten eyes, shrunken cheeks and skin! Analyze the parts of a woman, realize their true nature.”

But soon after this, he addresses women who might want to take up Brahmacharya. And here comes the almost child-like innocence, with which he writes to women,

“Ladies should not be offended when they read these lines…… I only want to impress upon both the sexes the force and the glory of Brahmacharya and the evil effect of lust. I have great regard and admiration for women…….. Brahmacharya should be practiced by both men and women. Women also can keep a mental picture of the component parts of the body of a male in order to create in themselves disgust for the physical body of a male and to develop Vairagya.”

For most mortal beings, the most difficult thing to go beyond, is sexual desire. Controlling the mind and going beyond sexual urges is not an easy task and requires tremendous practice. Books such as Swami Sivananda’s and compilations like Manu Smriti, equips young men with techniques that will help them tame the mind and its desires.

Raja Yoga – scientific techniques of controlling the mind

As part of my work on educating adolescents on sexuality, I understood a few things about the way in which a young boy’s mind works. Boys, aged 10 and 11 years have already watched porn. Many of them admitted to being infatuated with a classmate and even asked “Tell me how I can convince her to do what I say (sexually)”. By the way, I am referring to boys from government schools in villages and small towns. I will leave it to you to imagine what the situation will be like in urban private schools where boys have a lot more exposure.

The methods of most educators revolve around moral policing, value education, forcing boys to say that they respect women, instilling fear of God and finally inducing fear of the law and punishment. I think most educators know that none of these methods work when young men are sexually charged. But in the absence of better ideas, we continue employing methods that have no results. These methods at best result in artificial suppression of desire for a while. Such suppression can actually result in the opposite effect of uncontrolled sexual deviations once unleashed, as we have all been witnessing in recent cases of bizarre rapes and sexual abuse of young children.

Sex is in the mind. Unless the mind is calmed, no amount of repression or suppression of sexual desire will work. Rape and sexual abuse first happen in the mind, perhaps multiple times, before it is actually executed. Most criminals sincerely believe that what they did is not wrong. If they did not believe that, their mind would never permit them to commit the offense. In such people, we clearly see how the mind has run amok and made the person a slave to it. So, the biggest enemy we need to tackle is the mind.

Ancient Indian sages like Patanjali and Manu understood this better than any modern book on psychiatry or criminal psychology. Not only did they understand the finer aspects of the mind and how it works, they also provided scientific techniques to gain mastery over the mind, from the gross to the subtle. One such piece of amazing work is Raja Yoga, which prescribes 8 steps, or scientific methods, to bring the mind under one’s control, viz.,

  1. Yama — non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-receiving of any gifts
  2. Niyama — cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study, and self-surrender (to God)
  3. Âsana, or posture
  4. Prânâyâma, or control of Prâna
  5. Pratyâhâra, or restraint of the senses from their objects
  6. Dhâranâ, or fixing the mind on a spot
  7. Dhyâna, or meditation, and
  8. Samâdhi, complete absorption in the consciousness

The mind is explained beautifully by Swami Vivekananda, when he explains the technique of simply sitting still and observing the mind, in his lecture on Raja Yoga.

“….when you watch the mind, the mind’s tendency is to watch the observer. You watch the mind and the mind watches you – the mind becomes conscious of your watching. The mind is just like a child that stops its mischief when it is being watched……….therefore if you watch the mind, the mind becomes careful, slowly calms down by mere watching. That is why observe, be a witness, but don’t be a victim.”

 

I laud the honesty and profound understanding of human psychology in Manu Smriti, because it does not deny basic human tendencies. It takes into account the difficulties of a regular human being and provides practical methods to counter it. So, what technique did Manu suggest to tame the mind of young men, who would find it difficult to control sexual urges?

Restraint through Aversion

I will use a simple example to explain one of the techniques used in Indian texts to initiate men on the path of Brahmacharya and detachment.

If you had to give up your favourite sweet because you were diagnosed with diabetes, what would you do? In all probability, you would find a way to convince yourself that you no longer like the sweet. Your friends might help you out by attaching negative thoughts to that sweet and describing it in such a way that you no longer find it appealing.

Although it seems too simple, a very similar method is used to help aspiring Brahmacharis to go beyond their bodily desire for women. I later found that this is a technique described in Raja Yoga and is called Pratyahara – the technique of controlling thoughts with opposite thoughts to learn restraint. The method of practising restraint through aversion is for amateurs, who find it difficult to become aware of the ways of the mind. The opposite, i.e. getting rid of negative thoughts using positive thoughts is also prescribed in Pratyahara.

Once a person has learnt to restrain the mind, higher levels such as Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are introduced to help the person let go off all emotions including aversion and desire, to experience higher levels of reality. That’s why in a seasoned Brahmachari’s demeanour, we find neither aversion nor desire towards women.

Creating aversion in the mind of the attacker is one of the techniques taught in modern self-defence training for women. Women are taught that creating disgust by vomiting or by urinating during an attempt to rape, could create aversion in the mind of the rapist and give her a chance to get away.

So, we see that Manu’s verses to young men are intended to help them practice restraint and prevent harm to women. The lines written in Manu Smriti can be best understood when we understand, who is the audience being addressed in it. Chapter two, where we see the seemingly negative references to women, are meant for students and unmarried men, who are guided in the path of Brahmacharya through simple techniques that can tame the mind. Chapter three where we see the positive reference to women, are meant for householders and married men, who are capable of understanding respect. Thus, we see that the verses about women are not a contradiction. In the first case, women are safeguarded by teaching young men how to control their sexual urges. In the second case, women are protected by enforcing the idea that a family that doesn’t respect the female relatives, will suffer.

In Manu Smriti, never is there a denial of human desire and basic instinct. Instead, it shows the way to tame it in order to reach higher levels of realization.

Manu’s understanding of sexual abuse and incest

In the verse “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” Manu Smriti, boldly and honestly talks of incest. Feminists use this verse to say how narrow minded Manu was to think that one’s own mother, sister or daughter can be thought of inciting sexual desires in a man.

As part of my work as a counsellor, I have dealt with cases of girls, who were sexually abused by their biological father, of siblings, who are sexually drawn to each other, and of girls, who felt that they caused the abuse because they enjoyed being touched by the abuser, who was a trusted relative. The most difficult part of helping the victim was making them overcome the enormous guilt associated with incest. The nature of sexual abuse is that the abuser grooms the victim to think that he/she is in fact responsible for making it happen. This guilt is a big reason why abuse is underreported. In a society where even feminists find it hard to accept that incest happens, imagine how much more difficult it is for a victim of incest to overcome it.  To make them realize that their body has a mind of its own, and to get them to not punish themselves, is the hardest thing.

So, it is indeed refreshing to know that so many years ago, the great Indian Sage Manu recognized sexual attraction that breaks social norms and warned men of incest. By putting it out there, Manu brings awareness to men about the possibilities of getting trapped in sexual relationships, which are filled with guilt. It is also amazing that instead of targeting women and telling them that they brought it on (which we hear so often now-a-days), Manu addresses men.

Raja Yoga tells us that you can’t change anybody; therefore you have to change yourself. So the verses in Manu Smriti do not preach to women. Instead, it asks men to control themselves. Isn’t this what every feminist demands in those candle-light protests – “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell the men not to rape”? Well, thousands of years ago, Manu did just that.

By using Manu Smriti as a punching bag for all that we think is wrong in Indian society, we miss out on a tremendous learning and perhaps the only answer we have to tackle the increasing incidence of sexual crime at its root – taming the mind.

References:

  1. Manu Smriti
  2. Complete works of Swami Vivekananda
  3. The Practice of Brahmacharya – Sri Swami Sivananda
  4. Meditation as a Spiritual Culmination. Raja Yoga Lectures by Swami Sarvagatananda

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

sjs@gmail.org'
Sinu Joseph is the Managing Trustee of Mythri Speaks Trust and works on issues pertaining to women and children