The Manu Smriti, or Mānavadharmaśāstra, is a work of Hindu law and ancient Indian society. It is also known as the Laws of Manu. It is one of the 19 Dharmasastra, which are part of the Smriti literature. It is considered the oldest and one of the most important texts of this genre. Some of these codes of conduct pertain to the caste system and discuss the stages of life for "twice-born" males (the āśrama system). The Manusmrti explains itself as a discourse given by Sage Manu (the legendary progenitor of mankind) to the original Vedic poets called rishis, who begged him to enlighten them on the topic. There are 2,684 verses divided into 12 chapters.
Dharmaśāstra is a genre of Sanskrit texts and refers to the śāstra, or Hindu branch of learning, pertaining to dharma, religious and legal duty. The voluminous textual corpus of Dharmaśāstra is primarily a product of the Brahmanical tradition in India and represents the elaborate scholastic system of an expert tradition. Because of its sophisticated jurisprudence, Dharmaśāstra was taken by early British colonial administrators to be the law of the land for Hindus in India. Ever since, Dharmaśāstra has been linked with Hindu law, despite the fact that its contents deal as much, or more, with religious life as with law. In fact, a separation of religion and law within Dharmaśāstra is artificial and has been repeatedly questioned. Dharmaśāstra is important within the Hindu tradition—first, as a source of religious law describing the life of an ideal householder and, second, as symbol of the summation of Hindu knowledge about religion, law, ethics, etc.
A range of historical opinion generally dates composition of the text any time between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. The dating is significant because the work was written during the period when brahminical tradition was seriously threatened by non-Vedic movements. The Manu Smriti and other dharmashastras and the views of society that they represent were brahminical responses to those threats. 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 dharma class of texts were also 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.
The Manusmrti derives its authority with reference to the Vedas, though few, if any, of the contents of most Dharmaśāstra texts can be directly linked with extant Vedic texts. Traditionally, its content been divided into three major topics: 1) ācāra, rules pertaining to daily rituals, life-cycle cites, and other duties of four castes or varnas 2) vyavahāra, rules pertaining to the procedures for resolving doubts about dharma as well as rules of substantive law categorized according the standard eighteen titles of Hindu law, and 3) prāyaścitta, rules about expiations and penances for violations of the rules of dharma.
Since the Manusmrti attempts to delineate the duties and requirements of the Vedic caste system, as well as the religious rites and rituals of Hinduism as expressed during the classical period, its contents are considerably comprehensive. Found within its corpus of materials are detailed rules on a vast variety of subjects from pollution rites surrounding the menstruation of women to the requisite duties of a king regarding how to conquer, rule, and wield power. Since the Hindu concept of dharma (order, law, duty, right conduct) was comprehensive in its scope, the Manusmrti covered all aspects of human life in its effort to regulate personal and interpersonal behavior within traditional Hindu society. To get a sense of its breadth of content, one merely needs to look at its list of contents, which includes the following topics:
Each of these areas is elucidated in the Manusmrti to provide rules and regulations for the different genders and castes in Hinduism. These rules governed Hindu society for thousands of years until they were slowly eroded by the impact of Muslim invasions and western colonialism. Both historically, legally, and sociologically, the Manusmrti remains an important source for sociological, political and historical studies of Indian civilization.
The Manu Smriti is one of the most heavily criticized of the scriptures of Hinduism, having been attacked by colonial scholars, modern liberals, Hindu reformists, Dalit advocates, feminists, and Marxists. Much of its criticism stems from its unknown authority, as some believe the text to be authoritative, but others do not. There is also debate over whether the text has suffered from later interpolations of verses.
The Bhagavad Gita contradicts many statements in Manu Smriti, including the fixture of one's varna at birth, and has always been accorded a higher authority by the people in daily life.
The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by the British. It was first translated into English by the founder of indology, 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 popularized as the golden norm of classical Hindu law by Hindu universalists. They are, however, anathema to modern thinkers and particularly feminists."
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 (seventh-eighth century C.E.). 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, Dalit leader 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.
However, not all Hindus agree with the criticisms of the text, or the assertion that the Manu Smriti is not authoritative. Some prominent Hindu figures, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, hold the text to be authentic and authoritative. 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."
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