This was an argumentative essay I did as part of my Political Thought(2018) course . Since this is quite a controversial topic I hope that I’ll have some constructive criticism here.
Manu has been at the forefront of political debate with “Manuwaadi” being used a pejorative. The Manusmriti has been considered the theoretical basis for the detested caste system (Newar, 2016). Manu is considered to be the Father of Man (Ranjan, 2013) in Hindu mythos. Thus he is both the first king and a sage who codified the laws by which Hindu society is organized. However, there is significant cause to declare that he is not an ideal lawgiver.
There are three arguments which will illustrate why Manu is not an ideal lawgiver viz. social inequality, treatment of women and inconsistency.
2.1 Social inequality
Manu describes a four-fold division of society into 4 classes; Brahmins (the priestly class), Kshatriyas (warrior class), Vaishyas(the producer class), Shudras( serving class) (Ranjan, 2013). Each varna has a set of obligations and privileges increasing with an increase in social status with an emphasis on duties (Dwivedi, 2011). Shudra’s punishments are on an average more brutal than the other twice-born varnas, with prescriptions for corporal violence against them even for verbal defamation as evidenced by the following.
A once-born man (a Sudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin.” (8.270)
Manu justifies this as being the natural state of things due to the need to preserve Rta (Order)and the will of Brahman (Ranjan, 2013). This cruel system cannot be rationally justified by appeals to divine authority.
2.2 Status of Women
Manu’s views on women and their status are reprehensible (Rao, 2007) by modern standards. Lineage was transferred through the father, so maintaining caste purity necessitated control over women’s sexuality (as evidenced by 5.161) leading to the demonization of their sexuality. (Chakravarthy, 1993).
“By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.” (5.147)
Thus, a woman is little more than a man’s slave.
In Manu’s view, justice is the proper application of punishment to the guilty (Rao, 2007), in the absence of which the judges will be punished in the afterlife (Meena, 2005). Thus punishment should be proportionate to guilt. Yet in (8.337-8.338) Manu writes as follows.
“337. In (a case of) theft the guilt of a Sudra shall be eightfold, that of a Vaisya sixteen-fold, that of a Kshatriya two-and-thirtyfold, 338. That of a Brahmana sixty-four-fold, or quite a hundred-fold, or (even) twice four-and-sixty fold, knowing the nature of the offence.”
Thus an increase in social position corresponds to an increase in guilt and therefore should have increased punishment (Rao, 2007). This would contradict the increase in the punishment of Shudras as mentioned in (8.271)
“With whatever limb, a man of a low caste does hurt to (a man of the three) highest (castes), even that limb shall be cut off: that is the teaching of Manu.”
There are a few refutations offered in defence of Manu. These are that social stratification is a necessity and that there have been interpolations in the text.
3.1 Social Inequality is Just
Hindu society is considered to be a kinship society (Naik, Christian Brotherhood and Hindu Kinship Communities, 2017) as opposed to an egalitarian Christian brotherhood community. Naik advances the argument that the scriptures can provide for a radical critique of liberalism and its values of liberty, equality and fraternity (Naik, Hindu Political Thought: Liberal, Conservative and Reactionary, 2017) since Hindu society has been forced into modernity, not of its own choosing. Let us compare Manu and Plato, two of the great in-egalitarian lawgivers. While inequality may be good in itself, Plato ensures that his philosopher-kings treat their inferiors “as fellow-citizens” (Plato, 2016) and Manu brutalizes them (Ranjan, 2013). If the Shudras are irrational, as are the producing class in The Republic, why is there this excessive reliance on punishment (Meena, 2005), as opposed to Plato’s founding myth? (Sabine, 2007)
The Arya Samaj has advanced the argument that there has been an adulteration of the content of the Manusmriti over the years (Newar, 2016). This argument cannot be refuted and is in fact strengthened by Section 2.3 of this essay. There may indeed be a number of fake Manus using the original Manu to advance their social standing. However, in the absence of an alternative, this version of the text has to be considered original.
Manu cannot be considered an ideal lawgiver, even if one accepts the need for social inequality. His doctrine brutalizes women and Shudras unduly while being inconsistent in its principles. Even if the system is meritocratic, its treatment of social inferiors is unnecessarily brutal, while conceding that the first Manu may not have intended this. That being said, however, the burning of the Manusmriti is wrong, since its analysis of the dharma of the ruler and on the primacy of justice are worth replicating in contemporary India. After all, as Manu declared,
“Nectar may be taken even from poison, good advice even from a child; good conduct (may be learnt) even from a foe; and gold (may be taken) even from an impure source.” (2.239)
Chakravarthy, U. (1993, April 3).
Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class
and State. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 579-585.
Dwivedi, D. V. (2011). THOUGHTS FOR HUMAN
RIGHTS IN VEDIC TRADITION. The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol.
72, No. 1, 19-31.
Meena, S. L. (2005). RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN
STATE AND DHARMA IN MANUSMRITI. The Indian Journal of Political Science,
Vol. 66, No. 3, 575-588.
Naik, A. (2017, February 7). Christian
Brotherhood and Hindu Kinship Communities. Retrieved from Truth and
Naik, A. (2017, January 17). Hindu
Political Thought: Liberal, Conservative and Reactionary. Retrieved from
Truth and Falsify:
Newar, S. (2016). The Dalits of
Hinduism. Agniveer Press.
Plato. (2016). The Republic. New
Ranjan, R. (2013). Ancient Indian
Political Thought and Institution. Bengaluru: Centrum Press.
Rao, K. S. (2007). VEDIC IDEALS AND INDIAN
POLITICAL THOUGHT. The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 68, No. 1,
Sabine, G. H. (2007). A History of
Political Theory. New Delhi: Surjeet Publications.