Also known as the Manu Samhita, Manu Smrti, or Manava Dharma Shastra, The Laws of Manu form the basis of what has been called “the most authoritative and influential text of ancient Indian laws” (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu addresses social, moral, and legal questions, and has gradually gained precedence in Hinduism. Scholars disagree as to its exact age, most commonly placing its original publication date between 200BCE to 400CE. Hindu tradition states that it was dictated by a visionary named Manu to a group of seers, or rsi. This means that The Laws of Manu is not sruti literature, but smrti, or “remembered” literature.
The Laws of Manu is divided into sections dealing with different aspects of Hindu life. One of the most well-known sections deals with the roles of women in society. The Laws of Manu takes a firm stance in rejecting the independence of women and places them firmly in subjugation to their fathers, brothers, or husbands. “By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house,” states The Laws of Manu (Muller 1886:195). It describes how a woman should behave if she is a daughter, sister, wife, or widow, and urges chastity and self-sacrifice. Wives must be cheerful, clever, and clean; even the names of women must be pleasing and auspicious (Muller 1886:35). They must also respect their husband in the manner of a god-husband, or patideva, regardless of his actions. Because of the perceived patriarchal position of The Laws of Manu, it has attracted modern critics. Barbara Ramusack (2005) writes of the authorization of “patriarchal, patrilineal, patrilocal family structures,” while Lisa Lassell Hallstrom (1999) describes The Laws of Manu’s “need to control women.”
Ramusack (1999) also says that the Laws “represent the effort of brahmans [sic] to impose their ideals as the dominant practice in Hindu society.” This is certainly true; the Laws firmly establish the boundaries between the Hindu classes, or varnas. The four main varnas described in the text are the brahmins, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras. The Laws of Manu goes even further than these four, describing the various categories of people that arise due to inter-class marriages. The first three varnas are the “twice-borns,” while the sudras (the lowest of the four varnas) are “once-borns.” Each varna has different duties and must follow a different dharma. The Laws of Manu goes into great detail regarding the correct dharmic action for each class. Brahmins, the priestly class, are commanded to teach, study, and sacrifice, while ksatriyas are ordered to bear arms as the warrior class (Muller 1886:419). Vaisyas should pursue trade or agriculture, and sudras should look for employment serving the upper varnas. A sudra can serve the brahmins, ksatriyas, or vaisyas, but only serving the brahmins will “bear him fruit”(Muller 1886:429). Even the personal names of Hindus should be influenced by their varna; brahmins should be given names that are auspicious and happy, ksatriyas should be given powerful names connected with protection, vaisyas should have names evoking wealth, and sudras should have names denoting service (Muller 1886:35).
In addition to providing a background of class duties, The Laws of Manu also provides a description of the stages of life. The studentship stage, or brahmacarya, can last anywhere from nine to thirty-six years, during which time the Vedas are studied. After this stage, the householder stage can then be entered. This is known as the grhastha stage. Marriage is an essential part of the householder stage, and criteria for a suitable wife are described at length in the Laws. A good candidate has male children in their family, neither too much body hair nor too little, no obvious health problems, and is not named after a constellation, tree, mountain, or bird (Muller 1886:76). Men should look to their own caste when finding a first wife, and then take their next wives from the lower classes. While we have seen that some of the views found in The Laws of Manu are patriarchal, in this section the text states that “women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law” (Muller 1886:85). After the householder stage is complete and a Hindu man has grandchildren (and possesses white hair and a wrinkled face), he may enter the next stage, vanaprastha, and become a forest-dweller. A forest-dweller lives a simple life in the wilderness privately reciting the Vedas (Muller 1886:199). After spending some time in this manner, a man is ready to enter the fourth stage of life and become a renouncer, “abandoning all attachment to worldly objects” (Muller 1886:205). This last stage is the samnyasin stage.
While The Laws of Manu provides a framework for society, it also deals with theological issues, such as the Creation. According to The Laws of Manu, before the Creation there was merely darkness. Out of the darkness arose “the divine self-existent,” or Svayambhuva, which compelled the universe with “irresistible” power (Muller 1886:3). According to Manu, this force is indiscernible and cannot be comprehended by human beings. This force wished to create beings from its own body, and so created water and planted its seed. This seed grew into a golden egg out of which sprung Brahman, a manifestation of Purusa. Brahman remained in the egg for a year, and then mentally divided the egg into the heavens and the earth (Muller 1886:6). He himself was divided, with the different varnas sprouting from his different body parts.
The concept of time is also discussed in The Laws of Manu. The text describes the different yugas, or ages, and tells how virtue steadily decreases in each age. Our current age, the Kali Yuga, is one of “liberality alone” (Muller 1886:24). Men live shorter lives and the end of the world will come relatively soon. The Laws of Manu states that the distinction between varnas is necessary to maintain the order of this fragile universe.
The Laws of Manu is a very important work, but it has not always been viewed as the most important dharmic text in Hinduism. According to Asma (2013), “traditional Indian culture has not recognized a one-size-fits-all universal moral code.” The Laws of Manu had competition in the form of other legal and moral codes, like those of King Asoka (304-232 BCE) (Bhatia & Sharma 363). The Laws of Manu contains ancient materials, and is generally regarded as a compendium of knowledge regarding contemporary moral codes, rather than an original work (Muller 2011:161). The section on time, for example, shares verses with the Mahabharata (Trautmann 189).
The question of authorship regarding The Laws of Manu is debated. According to the text itself, there are seven Manus, all sons of the aforementioned Svayambhuva (Trautmann, 188). Every age has its own Manu. The Manu of this age heard the moral code from Brahma, the Creator, and then taught it to the rsis. Among these rsis was Bhrigu, who is said to have transcribed them.
While we cannot know for certain how old The Laws of Manu is, or who its exact author was, it is safe to say that it is one document that has influenced many aspects of Hindu life today.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Asma, Stephen T. (2013) Against Fairness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bhatia, Vijay K. and Rajesh Sharma (2008) “Language and the Legal System.” In Language in South Asia. Braj B. Kachru, Yamuna Kachru, and S. N. Sridhar (eds.). New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 361-376.
Doniger, Wendy (1991) “Why Should a Priest Tell You Whom to Marry? A Deconstruction of the Laws of Manu.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 44 (March): 18-31.
Doniger, Wendy (1992) “Rationalizing the Irrational Other: ‘Orientalism’ and the Laws of Manu.” New Literary History 23 (Winter): 25-43.
Doniger, Wendy (1999) “Eating Karma in Classical South Asian Texts.” Social Research 66 (Spring): 151-165.
Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell (1999) Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982). New York: Oxford University Press.
Muller, F. Max (2011) Theosophy or Psychological Religion: The Gifford Lectures Delivered before the University of London in 1892. New York: Cambridge University Press. Originally published in 1893.
Muller, F. Max (ed.) (1886) The Laws of Manu. Oxford University Press.
Ramusack, Barbara N. (1999) “Women in South Asia.” In Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History. Barbara N. Ramusack and Donna Marie Wulff (eds.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 15-76.
Ramusack, Barbara N. (2005) “Women and Gender in South and Southeast Asia.” In Women’s History: In Global Perspective. Bonnie G. Smith (ed.). American Historical Association. pp. 101-138.
Trautmann, Thomas R. (1995). “Indian Time, European Time.” In Time: Histories and Ethnologies. Diane Owen Hughes and Thomas R. Trautmann (eds.). Michigan:University of Michigan Press. pp. 167-200.
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Article written by Kaylyn Cudrak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.