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Manusmriti

  • Published
    26th Aug, 2022
Context

The Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, recently criticised the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text, over its gender bias.

About
  • In keynote address at the B.R. Ambedkar Lecture Series, organised by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in New Delhi, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, JNU’s first woman V-C, said that according to “Manusmriti, women have no designated caste”.
  • She said that the Manusmriti has categorised all women as “shudras”, which is “extraordinarily regressive”. 

Manusmriti:

  • The M?navadharma??stra, also known as Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu, is a Sanskrit text belonging to the Dharma??stra literary tradition of Hinduism.
  • Composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, the Manusmriti is written in sloka verses, containing two non-rhyming lines of 16 syllabus each.
  • Many have argued that it was compiled by many Brahmin scholars over a period of time.
  • However, Indologist Patrick Olivelle (Manus Code of Law: A Critical Edition And Translation Of The M?nava Dharma??stra, 2005) argues that Manusm?iti’s “unique and symmetrical structure,” means that it was composed by a “single gifted individual,” or by a “strong chairman of a committee” with the aid of others.
  • The Manusmriti is encyclopedic in scope, covering subjects such as
  • the social obligations and duties of the various castes and of individuals in different stages of life,
  • the suitable social and sexual relations of men and women of different castes,
  • on taxes,
  • the rules for kingship,
  • on maintaining marital harmony and the procedures for settling everyday disputes
  • It has been argued that the text is about dharma, which means duty, religion, law and practice.
  • It also discusses aspects of the Arthashashtra, such as issues relating to statecraft and legal procedures.

Its significance:

  • According to Doniger and Smith, “by the early centuries of the Common Era, Manu had become, and remained, the standard source of authority in the orthodox tradition for that centrepiece of Hinduism, var???rama-dharma (social and religious duties tied to class and stage of life)”.
  • It was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into a European language, by the British philologist Sir William Jones in 1794.
  • Subsequently, it was translated into French, German, Portuguese and Russian, before being included in Max Muller’s edited volume, Sacred Books of the East in 1886.
  • For colonial officials in British India, the translation of the book served a practical purpose.
  • In 1772, Governor-General Warren Hastings decided to implement laws of Hindus and Muslims that they believed to be “continued, unchanged from remotest antiquity,”

Why is it controversial?

  • The ancient text has 4 major divisions:
    1. Creation of the world.
    2. Sources of dharma.
    3. The dharma of the four social classes.
    4. Law of karma, rebirth, and final liberation.
  • The third section is the longest and most important section. The text is deeply concerned with maintaining the hierarchy of the four-fold varna system and the rules that each caste has to follow. 
  • There are many verses in the text that are considered controversial, including a few mentioned below:
  • Chapter 8, sloka 21: “When a Sudra interprets the Law for a king, his realm sinks like a cow in mud, as he looks on helplessly”
  • Chapter 8, sloka 129: “Even a capable Sudra must not accumulate wealth; for when a Sudra becomes wealthy, he harasses Brahmins.”
  • Chapter 8, sloka 371: “When a woman… becomes unfaithful to her husband, the king should have her devoured by dogs in a public square frequented by many.”
  • Chapter 5, sloka 148: “As a child, she must remain under her father’s control; as a young woman, under her husband’s; and when her husband is dead, under her sons’. She must never seek to live independently”
  • Chapter 2, sloka 13: “It is the very nature of women here to corrupt men. On that account, prudent men are never off guard in the presence of alluring young women.”

Do You Know?

On December 25, 1927, Dr B R Ambedkar had famously burned the Manusm?iti, which he saw as a source of gender and caste oppression.

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