Laws of Manu or Manava Dharma Shastra

Ancient Hindu Code of Conduct for Domestic, Social, and Religious Life

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The Laws of Manu - Penguin Classics translated by Wendy Doniger, Emile Zola (1991). Penguin Books

Traditionally accepted as one of the supplementary arms of the Vedas, Laws of Manu or Manava Dharma Shastra is one of the standard books in the Hindu canon, and a basic text for all gurus to base their teachings on. This 'revealed scripture' comprises 2684 verses, divided into twelve chapters presenting the norms of domestic, social, and religious life in India (circa 500 BC) under the Brahmin influence, and is fundamental to the understanding of ancient Indian society.

Background to the Manava Dharma Shastra

The ancient Vedic society had a structured social order where the Brahmins were esteemed as a highest and the most revered sect and assigned the holy task of acquiring ancient knowledge and learning. The teachers of each Vedic school composed manuals in Sanskrit, known as 'sutras', pertaining to their respective schools for the guidance of their pupils, which were highly venerated by the Brahmins and memorized by each Brahmin student.

The most common of these were the 'Grihya-sutras', dealing with domestic ceremonies, and the 'Dharma-sutras', treating of the sacred customs and laws. These extremely complicated bulk of ancient rules and regulations, customs, laws, and rites were gradually enlarged in scope, written aphoristically and set to musical cadence and systematically arranged to constitute the 'Dharma-shastras'. Of these, the most ancient and most famous is the Laws of Manu, the Manava Dharma-shastra, a 'Dharma-sutra' belonging to the ancient Manava Vedic school.

Genesis of the Laws of Manu

It is believed that Manu, the ancient teacher of sacred rites and laws, is the author of Manava Dharma-shastra. The initial canto of the work narrates how ten great sages appealed to Manu to pronounce the sacred laws to them and how Manu fulfilled their wishes by asking the learned sage Bhrigu, who had been carefully taught the metrical tenets of the sacred law, to deliver his teachings.

However, equally popular is the belief that Manu had learned the laws from Lord Brahma, the Creator, and so the authorship is said to be divine.

Speculated Dates of Composition of the Laws of Manu

Sir William Jones assigned the work to the period 1200-500 B.C., but more recent developments state that the work in its extant form dates back to the first or second century A.D. or could be even older. Scholars agree that the work is a modern versified rendition of a 500 B.C. 'Dharma-sutra,' which no longer exists.

Structure & Content of the Laws of Manu

The first chapter deals with the creation of the world by the deities, the divine origin of the book itself, and the objective of studying it. Chapters two to six recounts the proper conduct of the members of the upper castes, their initiation into the Brahmin religion by sacred thread or sin-removing ceremony, the period of disciplined studentship devoted to the study of the Vedas under a Brahmin teacher, the chief duties of the householder - choice of a wife, marriage, protection of the sacred hearth-fire, hospitality, sacrifices to the gods, feasts to his departed relatives, along with the numerous restrictions - and finally, the duties of old age.

The seventh chapter talks about manifold duties and responsibilities of kings. The eighth chapter deals with the modus operandi in civil and criminal proceedings and of the proper punishments to be meted out to a different caste. The ninth and the tenth chapters relate the customs and laws regarding inheritance and property, divorce and the lawful occupations for each caste. Chapter eleven expresses the various kinds of penance for the misdeeds. The final chapter expounds the doctrine of karma, rebirths, and salvation.

Criticisms of the Laws of Manu

Present-day scholars have criticized the work significantly. The rigidity of the caste system and the contemptible attitude towards women are not acceptable today. The almost divine reverence shown to the Brahmin caste and the despicable attitude towards the 'Sudras' (the lowest caste) is objectionable.

The Sudras were forbidden to participate in the Brahmin rituals and were subjected to severe punishments whereas the Brahmins were exempted from any kind of reprimand for crimes. The practice of medicine was prohibited to the upper caste. Women were considered inept, inconsistent, and sensual and were restrained from learning the Vedic texts or participating in important social functions. They were kept in abject subjugation all their lives.

Translations of Manava Dharma Shastra

The Institutes of Manu by Sir William Jones (1794). The first Sanskrit work to be translated into a European tongue.
The Ordinances of Manu (1884) begun by A. C. Burnell and completed by Professor E. W. Hopkins, published in London.
• Professor George Buhler's Sacred Books of the East in xxv volumes (1886).
• Professor G. Strehly's French translation Les Lois de Manou, forming one of the volumes of the "Annales du Musée Guimet", published in Paris (1893).
The Laws of Manu (Penguin Classics) translated by Wendy Doniger, Emile Zola (1991)