Understanding Manu Smriti-I: Women and Freedom

The much touted verse of misogyny in Manusmriti, actually has nothing anti-women in it.

पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने ।

रक्षन्ति स्थाविरे पुत्राः  न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ।। (Manu Smriti.9.3).

Almost everybody knows this verse from Manu Smriti for its misinterpreted meaning. This verse, which is often explained as denying women independence, has been touted as the ultimate proof of misogyny in Hinduism. Yet, a thorough reading of the verse will reveal how the true import of the verse has been twisted and misinterpreted.

Let us now try to understand the true import of the verse.

First, the context. Manu says this verse, when enumerating the righteousness or duties of men and women in the 9th chapter. He categorically says “now I will speak about the Dharmas to be followed, when they (husband and wife) are united and when they are away from each other, due to travel etc., of those men and women when following the path of Dharma” (M.S.9.1). Thus, the duty of husband and wife, in otherwords, the duty of householders forms the context of the verse.

Let us now look at the translation of the verse 9.3. It is often translated thus: “Father should protect in Kaumara-hood (before marriage), husband should protect in youth, sons should protect in old-age and thus, the women do not deserve independence”.

Here,  the word रक्षति has been translated as “should protect”, though it actually should have been translated as “protect” in simple present tense. This has been done following the spirit of the verse as explained in the commentaries. Medhatithi, one of the well acclaimed commentator on Manusmriti, for example, explains रक्षतीति भवन्तिः लिङर्थे छान्दसत्वात् ततो रक्षेद् इति विधेयप्रत्ययः। This means that simple present “रक्षति”  is to be treated as “potential mood’ i.e. in the form of an order. So, it is the imperative duty or obligation of the father, husband and the son that they should protect women in various periods of life. In other words, the verse is enunciating the duties of men, with respect to women.

The last sentence of this verse, which is often translated as “women do not deserve independence”, is subjected to intense criticism in present times. But, this is a wrong translation and misinterprets the true import of the verse. Let us see how the commentators explain this portion. Medhatithi explains the portion as “न स्त्री स्वतन्त्र्यम् अर्हति इति उच्यते । न अनेन सर्वक्रियाविषयम् अस्वातन्त्र्यम् विधीयते । किं तर्हि न अस्वतन्त्रा=अन्यमनस्कता स्वात्मसंरक्षणाय प्रभवति शक्तिविकलत्वात् स्वतः”, meaning “here non-independence should not be taken as in all matters related to women, but as women are not able to protect themselves due to their nature of physical structure, they are to be protected”.

In another commentary, Sarvanarayana explains it as “पिता रक्षति कन्यादूषणादेः” i.e. father should protect her from the dishonour/defacement/molestation, etc. Raghavananda, yet another commentator on Manusmriti, explains the last portion as “स्वातन्त्र्यं रक्षितृरहितत्वम्”- “स्वातन्त्र्यम् means (women should not be left) without a protector”. Thus, the correct translation would be “no women should be left unprotected”. That is, the verse is enjoining the duty of making sure that the women are unmolested and protected on the menfolk.

Hence, it is clear that the translation “women do not deserve independence” is not the true sense of the verse and it has been wrongly interpreted hitherto by those, who did not study and understood this verse rightly.

Further, Ms. Terry Brown in her book ‘Essential Teachings of Hinduism’, underscores the significance of women in Hinduism as “In Hinduism, a woman is looked after not because she is inferior or incapable, but on the contrary, because she is treasured. She is the pride and power of the society.  Just as the crown jewels should not be left unguarded, neither should a woman be left unprotected.  If there are costly jewels, we do not throw them here and there like brass vessels. Costly material is protected”. She explains and rightly interprets in her commentary on Manusmriti that “न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति” does not mean that woman should be a slave.  Instead, when she is a young girl, she requires the protection of the father.  When she is married, she requires the protection of the husband.  When she ages further, the husband would be still older and she will also not be in a position to take care of herself, so the sons will take care of her.  In other words, the responsibility of protecting women lies with the menfolk.

Moreover, Manu says earlier in fifth chapter बाल्ये पितुर्वशे तिष्ठेत् पाणिग्राहस्य यौवने। पुत्राणां भर्तरि प्रेते न भजेत्स्त्री स्वतन्त्रताम्।॥ (M.S.5.148). Here also he talks about the protection of the women and not leaving them unprotected. This is further supported by Narada Smriti, which says “पक्षद्वयावसाने तु राजा भर्ता स्त्रियां मतः”, meaning, If nobody is there to protect women on both sides (her father and in-laws), it is the duty of the King to take care of women. In Smriti Chandrika also it is said रक्षेत्कन्यां पिता विन्नां पतिः पुत्रास्तु वार्धके। अभावे ज्ञातयस्तेषां न स्वातन्त्र्यं क्वचित्स्त्रियाः॥ Here also it is explicitly said that father should protect her, when she is a “kanya”; then the husband; and during the old age, the sons should ensure her safety, if no sons are there, then the blood relations of her husband must provide her safety.

In Mahabharata also the same concept is explained by Ashtavakra, when a woman requests him to marry her. Ashtavakra, a sage known for his penance and character, says पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने । पुत्रश्च स्थाविरे काले नास्ति स्त्रीणां स्वतन्त्रता ॥ (M.B.13-20-21 in Dana-Dharma-Parva), pointing out how he cannot marry her without permission from those who protect her, since, women are protected by father, husband, and children in their childhood, youth, and old age, respectively. Here also “non-independence” has been used in the sense of “never unprotected”. This is further clarified by the commentator Neelakantha, who while explaining the verse 14 of the same chapter- “नास्ति स्वतन्त्रता स्त्रीणाम्”- says: “नास्ति इति। अप्रदत्तां त्वां न कामये”, meaning “I will not wish you even in mind without being given (by your protectors)”.

In Katyayana Smriti it is said “सौदायिके सदा स्त्रीणां स्वातन्त्र्यं परिकीर्तितम्” (K.S.106). “Always women have independence in property”. The emphasis on “सदा स्त्रीणां स्वातन्त्र्यम्” clearly shows that women have all the independence. In another context in Mahabharata, Pandu says to Kunti: “नातिवर्तव्य इत्येवं धर्मं धर्मविदो विदुः। शेषेष्वन्येषु कालेषु स्वातन्त्र्यं स्त्री किलार्हति।। (M.B.1-122-26). Here, Pandu asks Kunti to get children by using the power of Mantra she got as “upadesha” from Durvasa. Though, the context here is entirely different, the wrords: “Women do not violate to love her husband during ‘ritukala’ and in other times they are independent”, shows that women had independence.

Therefore, it is clear that the much touted verse of misogyny, actually has nothing anti-women in it. Instead, it is enjoining upon men to make sure women are protected and not molested in any manner.

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The author is a traditional scholar and is the former Vice Chancellor of Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Rajasthan Sanskrit University, under the Government of Rajasthan. He is currently working as Principal, Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, Deemed University.