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The Manusmriti (or "Laws of Manu", Sanskrit Manusmṛti मनुस्मृति; also known as Mānava-Dharmaśāstra मानवधर्मशास्त्र), is the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism.
The text presents itself as a discourse given by Manu, the progenitor of mankind to a group of seers, or rishis, who beseech him to tell them the "law of all the social classes" (1.2). Manu became the standard point of reference for all future Dharmaśāstras that followed it. According to Hindu tradition, the Manusmriti records the words of Brahma.
The Sanskrit text was edited in 1913 by P.H. Pandya and in 1920 by J.R. Gharpure. The text was first translated into English (from manuscripts) in 1794 by Sir William Jones.
Date and context
The text shows the obvious influence of previous Dharmasutras and Arthashastras. In particular, the Manusmriti was the first to adopt the term vyavaharapadas. These eighteen "Titles of Law" or "Grounds for Litigation" make up more than one fifth of the work and deal primarily with matters of the king, state, and judicial procedure. The dharma class of texts were noteworthy because they did not depend on the authority of particular Vedic schools, becoming the starting point of an independent tradition that emphasized dharma itself and not its Vedic origins.
A range of historical opinion generally dates composition of the text any time between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Most scholars consider the text a composite put together over a long period of time, although Olivelle (2010) argues that the complex and consistent structure of the text suggests a single author or redactor, who would have lived during the time of the formation of classical Hinduism in reaction to the decline of Buddhism in Northern India, during the time of the later Kushan Empire.
After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there was a period of uncertainty that led to renewed interest in traditional social norms. In Thapar's view, "The severity of the Dharma-shastras was doubtless a commentary arising from the insecurity of the orthodox in an age of flux."
The original treatise consisted of one thousand chapters of law, polity, and pleasure given by Brahmā. His son, Manu, learns these lessons and proceeds to teach his own students, including Bhrigu. Bhrigu then relays this information in the Manu Smriti, to an audience of his own pupils.
This original narrative was subdivided later into twelve chapters. There is debate over the effects of this division on the underlying, holistic manner in which the original treatise was written. The book is written in simple verse as opposed to the metrical verse of the preceding dharmasutras. Manu also introduced a unique “transitional verse” which segued the end of one subject and the beginning of the next.
The treatise is written with a frame story, in which a dialogue takes place between Manu’s disciple, Bhrigu, and an audience of his own students. The story begins with Manu himself detailing the creation of the world and the society within it, structured around four social classes. Bhrigu takes over for the remainder of the work, teaching the details of the rest of Manu’s teachings. The audience reappears twice more, asking first to ask about how Brahmins can be subjected to death, and second to ask the effects of action.
This Table of Contents comes from Olivelle's translation of the Manu Smriti and provides the transitional verses between each subject:
- 1. Origin of the World (1.1-119)
- 2. Sources of the Law (2.1-24)
"I have described to you above succinctly the source of the Law, as also the origin of this whole world. Learn now the Laws of the social classes." (2.25)
- 3. Dharma of the Four Social Classes (2.25-11.266)
- 3.1 Rules Relating to Law (2.25-10.131)
- 3.1.1 Rules of Action in Normal Times (2.26-9.336)
- 188.8.131.52 Fourfold Dharma of a Brahmin (2.26-6.97)
"I have explained to you above the fourfold Law of Brahmins, a Law that is holy and brings imperishable rewards after death. Listen now to the Law of kings." (6.97)
- 184.108.40.206 Rules of Action for a King (7.1-9.325)
"I have described above in its entirety the eternal rules of action for the king. What follows, one should understand, are the rules of action for the Vaiśyas and Śūdras in their proper order." (9.325)
"I have described above the splendid rules of action for the social classes outside times of adversity. Listen now to the rules for them in the proper order for times of adversity." (9.336)
- 3.1.2 Rules of Action in Times of Adversity (10.1-129)
"I have described above the entire set of rules pertaining to the Law of the four classes. Next, I will explain the splendid rules pertaining to penance." (10.131)
- 3.2 Rules Relating to Penance (11.1-265)
"You have described this Law for the four classes in its entirety, O Sinless One! Teach us accurately the ultimate consummation of the fruits of actions." (12.1)
- 4. Determination Regarding Engagement in Action (12.3-116)
"Bhrgu, the son of Manu and the very embodiment of the Law, said to those great seers: ‘Listen to the determination with respect to engagement in action.’" (12.2)
- 4.1 Fruits of Action (12.3-81)
"I have declared to you above all the fruits arising from actions. Listen now to these rules of action for a Brahmin, rules that secure the supreme good." (12.82)
- 4.2 Rules of Action for Supreme God (12.83-115)
"I have explained to you above all the best means of securing the supreme good. A Brahmin who does not deviate from them obtains the highest state." (12.116)
Nature and purpose
The Manusmriti is compiled with a focus on the "shoulds" of dharma rather than on the actuality of everyday practice in India after the decline and collapse of the Maurya Empire. Still, its practical application should not be underestimated. Through intermediate forces such as the instruction of scholars, the teachings did indeed have indirect effect on major segments of the Indian population. It is also an invaluable point of common reference in scholarly debates.
It seems likely that the book was written in a manner which was very mindful to the dangers facing the Brahmin community during a time of much change and social upheaval. A renewed alliance between the Brahmin and Kṣatra communities is clearly a goal reflected in the introduction of the vyavahārapadas. The emphasis which this topic receives can be seen as an offering of solidarity from the religious community to the ruling class.
There are numerous classical commentaries on the Manusmṛti written in the medieval period.
Bhāruci is the oldest known commentator on the Manu Smṛti. Kane places him in the late 10th or early 11th century, Olivelle places him in the 8th century, and Derrett places him between 600-650 CE. From these three opinions we can place Bhāruci anywhere from the early 7th century CE to the early 11th century CE. The surviving portion of Bhāruci's commentary that we have today deals mostly with the duties of the king and whether or not the king can be a source of dharma.
Medhātithi is one of the most famous commentators on the Manu Smṛti, and there is some debate regarding the location in which he was writing, but scholars such as Buhler, Kane, and Lingat tend to believe he was from Kashmir or the area around Kashmir. The exact date that Medhātithi was writing is also unclear, and he has been placed anywhere between about 820 and 1050.
Modern reception and controversy
The Manusmrti is considered an important source for the sociological history of ancient and medieval India. Since it forms the basis of the traditional Hindu caste system, it has been subject to much criticism and controversy, having been attacked by colonial scholars, modern liberals, Hindu reformists, Dalit advocates and feminists.
The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by the European philologists. It was first translated into English by Sir William Jones. His version was published in 1794. British administrative requirements encouraged their interest in the Dharmashastras, which they believed to be legal codes. In fact, these were not codes of law but norms related to social obligations and ritual requirements. According to Avari:
The text was never universally followed or acclaimed by the vast majority of Indians in their history; it came to the world's attention through a late eighteenth-century translation by Sir William Jones, who mistakenly exaggerated both its antiquity and its importance. Today many of its ideas are popularised as the golden norm of classical Hindu law by Hindu universalists. They are, however, anathema to modern thinkers and particularly feminists.
The "Law of Manu" was cited favorably by Friedrich Nietzsche, who deemed it "an incomparably spiritual and superior work" to the Christian Bible. He observed that "the sun shines on the whole book" and attributed its ethical perspective to "the noble classes, the philosophers and warriors, [who] stand above the mass." However, he also criticized it for its abusive treatment of the chandala, claiming that "this organization too found it necessary to be terrible."
Surendra Kumar, who counts a total of 2,685 verses, finds that only 1,214 are authentic, the other 1,471 being interpolations on the text. In reply to the criticism of the sudra caste, the verses critical of the sudras and women are considered to be later interpolations, but not later than Adi Shankara (7th-8th century CE). The law in Manu Smriti also appears to be overtly positive towards the Brahmin (priest) caste in terms of concessions made in fines and punishments. The stance of the Manu Smriti about women has also been debated. While certain verses such as (III - 55, 56, 57, 59, 62) glorify the position of women, other verses (IX - 3, 17) seem to attack the position and freedom women have. The education of women is also discussed in the text. Certain interpretations of Verse (IX - 18) claim that it discourages women from reading Vedic scriptures. Verse (II - 240), however, allows women to read Vedic scriptures. Similar contradictory phrases are encountered in relation to child marriage in verses (IX - 94) and (IX - 90).
In his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India, Architecture of the Indian Constitution Dr. B. R. Ambedkar asserted that Manu Smriti was written by a sage named Brigu during the times of Pushyamitra of Sangha in connection with social pressures caused by the rise of Buddhism. However, historian Romila Thapar considers these claims to be exaggerations. She writes that archaeological evidence casts doubt on the claims of Buddhist persecution by Pushyamitra. Support of the Buddhist faith by the Sungas at some point is suggested by an epigraph on the gateway of Bharhut, which mentions its erection "during the supremacy of the Sungas" Hinduism does not evangelize.
A prominent Hindu revivalist and reformist Swami Dayananda Saraswati held the text to be authentic and authoritative. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami,. The founder of the modern day Hare Krishna Movement in the west has said "...Even up to today, those who are Hindu follow the Manu-samhita." Other admirers of the text have included Annie Besant, P.D. Ouspensky, Pandurang Shastri Athavale and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Friedrich Nietzsche is noted to have said "Close the Bible and open the Manu Smriti. It has an affirmation of life, a triumphing agreeable sensation in life and that to draw up a lawbook such as Manu means to permit oneself to get the upper hand, to become perfection, to be ambitious of the highest art of living." Contra Nietzsche, W.A. Borody has coined the phrase "sublimation-transmogrification logic" to describe the underlying 'state of mind' lying behind the ethical teaching of the Manu Smṛti—a 'state of mind' that would have found Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian Übermensch abhorrent, and a 'state of mind' or 'voice' that has always been radically contested within India's various philosophical and religious traditions.
Editions and translations
- The Institutes of Hindu Law: Or, The Ordinances of Manu, Calcutta: Sewell & Debrett, 1796.
- Translation by G. Bühler (1886). Sacred Books of the East: The Laws of Manus (Vol. XXV). Oxford. Available online as The Laws of Manu
- Olivelle, Patrick (2004). The Law Code of Manu. New York: OUP. ISBN 0192802712.
- Olivelle, Patrick (2005). Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-17146-2.
- Pranjivan Harihar Pandya (ed.), Manusmriti; With a commentary called Manvarth Muktavali by Kullooka Bhatt, Bombay, 1913.
- J.I. Shastri (ed.), Manusmriti with Kullukabhatta Commentary ([year needed], reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 9788120807662.
- Ramacandra Varma Shastri, Manusmr̥ti: Bhāratīya ācāra-saṃhitā kā viśvakośa, Śāśvata Sāhitya Prakāśana, 1997.
- e.g. Flood 1996:56 and Olivelle 2005.
- Olivelle(2004), p. xx.
- For the dharmashastras, including Manu Smriti, as the starting point for an independent tradition not dependent on Vedic origins, see: Hopkins, p. 74.
- For composition between 200 BCE and 200 CE see: Avari, p. 142. For dating of composition "between the second century BCE and third century CE" see: Flood (1996), p. 56. For dating of Manu Smriti in "final form" to the 2nd century CE, see: Keay, p. 103. For dating as completed some time between 200 BCE and 100 CE see: Hopkins, p. 74. For probable origination during the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, see: Kulke and Rothermund, p. 85. For the text as preserved dated to around the 1st century BCE. see: Encyclopedia Britannica, retrieved 2013-10-08
- For significance of post-empire social uncertainty as a factor in the development of the Code of Manas, see: Kulke and Rothermund, p. 85.
- Tharpar (2002), p. 279.
- Olivelle(2004), pp. xxi-xxii.
- Olivelle(2004), pp. xxvii.
- Olivelle(2004), p. xxv.
- Olivelle(2004), pp. xxviii-xxix.
- Olivelle(2004), p. xxli.
- Olivelle, Literary History, p. 19.
- Kane, P. V., History of Dharmaśāstra, (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975), Volume I, Part I, 566.
- Olivelle, Patrick, "Dharmaśāstra: A Literary History", 29.
- Kane, P. V., History of Dharmaśāstra, (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975), Volume I, Part II, 583.
- For objections to the work by feminists, see: Avari, pp. 142-143.
- For Manu Smriti as one of the first Sanskrit texts noted by the British and translation by Sir William Jones in 1794, see: Flood (1996), p. 56.
- For British interest in Dharmashastras due to administrative needs, and their misinterpretation of them as legal codes rather than as social and ritual texts, see: Thapar (2002), pp. 2-3.
- Avari, p. 142.
- Friedrich Nietzche, The Antichrist (1888), 56-57.
- Friedrich Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols (1888).
- Surendra Kumar, Vishuddha Manusmriti, (Arsh Sahitya Prachar Trust, Delhi, Fourth Edition), p. 5.
- Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India
- Romila Thapar, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press (1960) p. 200.
- John Marshall, "An Historical and Artistic Description of Sanchi", from A Guide to Sanchi, citing p. 11. Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing (1918). Pp. 7-29 on line, Project South Asia.
- K. V. Rao, Socialism, Secularism, and Democracy in India, pp. 28-30. Nagendra K. Singh, Enforcement of Human Rights in Peace and War and the Future of Humanity, p. 35. Martinus Nijhoff (1986) ISBN 9024733022
- The Light of Truth, Chapter 4
- Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Chapter 16 Text 7 - "...Even up to today, those who are Hindu follow the Manu-samhita..."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, vol. 1.
- W.A.Borody, "The Manu Smṛti and Neo-Secularism," International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol I, No. 9 (Special Issue, July, 2011) 
- Flood, Gavin (1996). An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43878-0.
- Hopkins, Thomas J. (1971). The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Keay, John (2000). India: A History. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3797-0.
- Kulke, Hermann; Rothermund, Dietmar (1986). A History of India. New York: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 0-88029-577-5.
- Thapar, Romila (2002). Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24225-4.
- "The Laws of Manu". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Olivelle, Patrick (2010). "Dharmasastra: A Literary History". In Lubin, Timothy; Krishnan, Jayanth; and Davis, Jr., Donald R. Law and Hinduism: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521716260.