Amidst the ongoing JNU controversy, the news of a few rebellious ABVP activists burning Manusmriti as a mark of protest, for allegedly being ‘anti-woman’, at the JNU campus posed a serious question before me. Although it is not for the first time and it will, in the foreseeable future, not be the last time that Manusmriti was burnt as a mark of protest against so-called Brahminism whenever the Leftist forces are a stakeholder in any protest. It has to be said that such acts, of burning a copy of Manusmriti or any other scripture belonging to any faith, does fall well within the realm of the freedom of expression which has been evolved as one of the most crucial human rights over the past few decades.
Having said that, one does have the right to question the rationale behind such protests, for a protest just for the heck of it is nothing more than a lamentable exercise of thoughtless and needles show of strength. We have witnessed a ramped up surge of such protests ever since a government of the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance has been elected on May 16, 2014.
Now coming to the rationale, the most potent argument to be dished out in support of such protests is that the Manusmriti is an allegedly misogynistic and anti-dalit scripture which supposedly advocates the Brahminical supremacy. Of those who come up with such frivolous arguments, few have even actually attempted to read up the content of Manusmriti. Also it is another matter that an overwhelming majority of Brahmins today say that Manusmriti has never been discussed in their homes or they’ve never heard of it before political stunts such as burning copies of Manusmriti started taking place.
So, why are they keen on burning copies of Manusmriti, a scripture which is neither followed nor discussed even by Brahmins who are accused of imposing the Brahminical supremacy through that very scripture? Or, like some suggest, will the anti-Hindu forces relent and stop making vicious attacks on Hindu scriptures if Hindus publicly disown Manusmriti, a scripture which is neither followed nor discussed by Hindus? The answer to both the questions is a big NO. We must understand that the real target is not Smritis but the Shrutis themselves and hence if Hindus cede even an inch they will lose the ground forever.
Some background on the Manusmriti
Manusmriti is the popular name of the work, which is officially known as Manava-dharma-shastra. It is attributed to the legendary first man and lawgiver, Manu.
- Of over fifty manuscripts of Manusmriti which are now known, the earliest discovered, most translated and presumed authentic version since the 18th-century has been the “Calcutta manuscript with Kulluka Bhatta commentary”. However, modern scholarship states that this presumed authenticity is false. The various manuscripts of Manusmriti discovered in Bharat being inconsistent with each other, and within themselves, raise concerns of its authenticity, insertions and interpolations made into the text in later times.
- It is variously dated to be from 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE, and it presents itself as a discourse given by sages Manu and Bhrigu on topics such as duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and others.
- It was one of the first Sanskrit texts translated during the British rule of Bharat in 1794, by William Jones, and used to formulate the Hindu law by the colonial government.
- The text’s fame spread outside Bharat, long before the colonial era. The medieval era Buddhist law of Myanmar and Thailand are also ascribed to Manu, and the scripture had an influence in past Hindu kingdoms in Cambodia and Indonesia as well.
- Most scholars consider Manusmriti a composite scripture produced by many authors put together over a long period of time.
The core values of Manava-dharma-shastra
There are 2669 verses in the modern version of Manusmriti (some scholars claim that the original text had around 100,000 verses). Manusmriti covers four broad areas in its 12 chapters viz. creation of the world, source of dharma, the dharma of the four social classes, law of karma, rebirth, and final liberation.
While most of the Left-liberal commentators repeat ad-infinitum a few verses which align with their Hinduphobic agenda, they overlook the core of the scripture. Some hidden facets of Manusmriti are as follows:
- The structure and content of Manusmriti suggest it to be a document predominantly targeted at the Brahmins (priestly class) and the Kshatriyas (ruling class). The scripture dedicates 1,034 verses, the largest portion, on laws for and expected virtues of Brahmins and 971 verses for Kshatriyas. The statement of rules for the Vaishyas (merchant class) and the Shudras (artisans and working class) in the scripture is very brief.
- Rules of Action for a King (7.1 – 9.324) contains 960 verses, including description of institutions and officials of state, how officials are to be appointed, tax laws, rules of war, the role and limits on the power of the king, and long sections on eighteen grounds for litigation, including those related to non-delivery under contract, breach of contract, non-payment of wages, property disputes, inheritance disputes, humiliation and defamation, physical assault, theft, violence of any form, injury, sexual crimes against women, public safety, and others; the section also includes rules of evidence, rules on interrogation of witnesses, and the organization of court system. Fair taxation guidelines are described in verses 7.127 to 7.137.
- Manusmriti lays out the laws of a just war, stating that first and foremost, a war should be avoided by negotiations and reconciliations. If war becomes necessary, states Manusmriti, a soldier must never harm civilians, non-combatants or someone who has surrendered, that use of force should be proportionate, and other rules.
- Manusmriti lists the recommended virtues to be, “compassion, forbearance, truthfulness, non-injury, self-control, not desiring, meditation, serenity, sweetness and honesty” as primary, and “purification, sacrifices, ascetic toil, gift giving, vedic recitation, restraining the sexual organs, observances, fasts, silence and bathing” as secondary.
- Manusmriti has numerous verses on duties a person has towards himself and to others, thus including moral codes as well as legal codes.
- Manusmriti in verses 3.55-3.56, declares that “women must be honored and adorned”, and “where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no sacred rite bears any fruit.”
- Verses 9.72-9.81 allow the man or the woman to get out of a fraudulent marriage or an abusive marriage, and remarry; the text also provides legal means for a woman to remarry when her husband has been missing or has abandoned her.
- Manusmriti provides a woman with property rights to six types of property in verses 9.192-9.200.
The concluding verses of Manusmriti state,
एवं यः सर्वभूतेषु पश्यत्यात्मानमात्मना।
स सर्वसमतामेत्य ब्रह्माभ्येति परं पदम् ॥
(He who thus recognizes in his individual self (atma), the universal atma that exists in all beings, becomes equal-minded towards all, and enters the highest state, Brahman.)
Mahatama Gandhi had said, “I hold Manusmriti as part of Shastras. But that does not mean that I swear by every verse that is printed in the book described as Manusmriti. There are so many contradictions in the printed volume that, if you accept one part, you are bound to reject those parts that are wholly inconsistent with it. (…) Nobody is in possession of the original text.” A Louis Jacolliot translation of the Calcutta version of “Law of Manu” was reviewed by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche deemed it “an incomparably spiritual and superior work” to the Christian Bible.
In order to comprehend Manusmriti, it is essential to view the scripture in a correct perspective. While protesting against it, people often forget that neither Manusmriti is the jurisprudence in Bharat, nor is any demand being made to enforce a jurisprudence based on Manusmriti on the people of Bharat. The fact that Manusmriti is a scripture of historical importance and not a relevant contemporary document blunts all the arguments of those who burn copies of that scripture in order to express their ‘solidarity’ with the feminist cause or the dalit cause. It has been almost 70 years since we gave a constitution to ourselves, and it can always be amended if found lacking in running our affairs smoothly.
Secondly, being a historical document, any commentary on the Manusmriti must weigh upon the prevalent circumstances when Manu composed his Manusmriti. It being the first ever legal text, Manusmriti marks a milestone of our glorious civilization. It is a benchmark to which we shall compare our social progressivity and be proud of the miles we have traversed from Manusmriti to reach where we are today… So what if someone finds Manusmriti primitive or obsolete in today’s context? Just because today we possess advanced missile technology, is it fair to mock or abuse Von Braun and his V2 rockets? Or is it fair to denigrate the ingenuity of Von Braun just because the missile technology has evolved to what it is today?
To sum up, even if one finds anything objectionable in Manusmriti, s/he can at least find solace in the fact that unlike other faiths, Hindus are not pressing on enforcement of any particular Canon Law; rather they have pledged to adhere to the secular constitution the people of Bharat gave to themselves. Those who squander their efforts and energy in burning copies of Manusmriti, which is neither followed nor discussed anymore, should make some real efforts in woman empowerment and uplifting those who are oppressed and marginalized. Let’s move beyond theatrics and photo-ops.
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