Manusmriti the Laws of Manu

Jayaram V

Manusmriti, translated as “The Laws of Manu” or “The Institutions
of Manu,” is the most important and authoritative Hindu Law Book
(Dharmashastra), which served as a foundational work on Hindu law
and jurisprudence in ancient India at least 1500 years. Until the
modern times, it was the standard reference for adjudicating civil
and criminal cases by both the rulers who patronized Vedic faith
and the people who practiced Hinduism. Hinduism has many law books.
Of them, Manusmriti is certainly the most popular and authoritative
work.

Manu in Hindu tradition is considered to be the first of Brahma’s
sons and a progenitor of human race. Therefore, it is difficult
to determine the age of Manusmriti. The laws of Manu might have
been known to the Vedic people for a long time before they were
codified into their present form sometime during the post Vedic
period. The work that we have today as Manusmriti might have reached
its final form through the contribution of many by 200 CE.

The people of ancient India believed in the order and regularity
of the world as the manifestation of God’s will and intent, and
the clear victory of the divine forces over the demonic. Hence,
the laws governing the conduct of individuals and the order and
regularity of Hindu society were formulated by many scholars and
sages in ancient India since the earliest times. Their works are
today available to us as 18 Dharmashastras, of which the work of
Manu (Manusmriti) is considered the most important and widely used.
Unlike the Vedas, the Hindu Law Books fall into the category of
intellectual or scholarly works (smritis). They are distilled and
codified through observation, experience, analysis, and the study
of the Vedas, keeping in view the best interests of the humanity
and society. Hence, they are not entirely without the flaws of humans.
They are also not free from caste or racial bias. Hence, they are
vulnerable to criticism from the modern standpoint.

Manusmriti projects an ideal society and ideal human conduct
as the basis to establish an orderly society and divine centered
life. To promote those ideals and enforce divine will, it proposes
numerous laws to minutely govern human life and conduct as applicable
to each individual according to her or his social class, duties
and responsibilities. Their purpose is to inculcate discipline,
provide a basis for the rulers to enforce lawful conduct, and ensure
the orderly progression of the world through righteous conduct and
observation of obligatory duties by individuals who have chosen
for themselves the life of a householder, or that of a renunciant.
The power to enforce the laws is carefully distributed among the
rulers and the guardians of society who assist him in decision making.
Manusmriti recognizes the corrupting and deluding influence of power
over the mind and cautions the kings to exercise their judgment
with great care to avoid sinful karma and harmful consequences for
themselves and for the world.

The laws that were proposed by Manu to govern human conduct and
society reflect the conditions, needs and values of the times in
which they were formulated. Most of them do not fit into the present
day value system. They acknowledge prevailing social and gender
inequalities as natural conditions of human existence, and propose
laws to govern the behavior of individuals without providing scope
for any changes that time may bring in the conditions of society
or the lives of people. Hence, today you may find many laws of Manu
archaic, outdated, and even primitive. The laws favor a paternalistic
society and family system, vesting the authority to regulate them
with men, and proposing rather a subordinate status and subservient
role to women. They also betray a clear lack of trust in the integrity
and sexual choices of women, thereby suggesting that they should
always be guarded by men and should never be left alone in the presence
of men outside their families. At the same time, they do not ignore
or undermine the role of women in family and domestic matters, and
urge men to treat them with honor and respect and not let them suffer.

The British who ruled India used Manusmriti as the standard to
settle disputes among Hindus with regard to matters of inheritance,
family disputes, marriage, and royal succession. Some Hindu scholars
believe that the British found in the Manusmriti a useful tool to
promote their interests or perpetuate the social divide among the
Hindus to consolidate their power. There is also a criticism that
for a long time Manusmriti served the interests of privileged classes
and justified the oppression of women and the lower castes, as they
prescribed unequal laws for different castes based upon their status
in society.

Manusmriti acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the
basis of order and regularity of society. It clearly recognizes
four classes of people (Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras),
and their respective roles in the preservation of dharma. Brahmanas
and Kshatriyas are given many privileges and greater leniency in
matters of punishment for misconduct, while Sudras are given the
least number of privileges but the harshest of punishments even
for minor misdemeanors. Hence, it is important to study Manusmriti
with an open mind to understand its historical and religious significance
in the evolution of Hinduism from its early days to its present
form.

It is difficult to apply the laws of Manu in today’s world since
the conditions that exist now are very different from those when
they were formally codified. For example, our current laws do not
permit gender bias or the imposition of restrictive law upon women
or their freedom to choose their marriage partners, their profession
or their ways of life. Similarly, the laws governing the conduct
of people according to their caste or occupation are discriminatory
by today’s standards and cannot be enforced. Despite such problems
and limitation, Manusmriti has historical value. Students of Hinduism
still need to study it to understand the way of life in ancient
India and how people governed their lives with their help.

Since Manusmriti is the most important Hindu Law Book
and its study is necessary to understand the historical progress
of Hinduism and Hindu society, we have brought to you the entire
translation of the scripture which you can access from the following
links.

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