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Laws of Manu or 'Manava Dharma Shastra'

Ancient Hindu Code of Conduct for Domestic, Social, and Religious Life
By Subhamoy Das, About.com Guide
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The Laws of Manu - Penguin Classics translated by Wendy Doniger, Emile Zola (199
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Traditionally accepted as one of the supplementary arms of the Vedas, Laws of Ma
nu 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 do
mestic, social, and religious life in India (circa 500 BC) under the Brahmin inf
luence, 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 ac
quiring ancient knowledge and learning. The teachers of each Vedic schools compo
sed manuals in Sanskrit, known as 'sutras', pertaining to their respective schoo
ls 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 ceremon
ies, and the 'Dharma-sutras', treating of the sacred customs and laws. These ext
remely complicated bulk of ancient rules and regulations, customs, laws and rite
s were gradually enlarged in scope, written aphoristically and set to musical ca
dence 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 a
uthor of Manava Dharma-shastra. The initial canto of the work narrates how ten g
reat sages appealed to Manu to pronounce the sacred laws to them and how Manu fu
lfilled their wishes by asking the learned sage Bhrigu, who had been carefully t
aught the metrical tenets of the sacred law, to deliver his teachings. However,
equally popular is the belief that Manu had learnt the laws from Lord Brahma, th
e 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 mo
dern 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 divin
e origin of the book itself, and the objective of studying it. Chapters two to s
ix recounts the proper conduct of the members of the upper castes, their initiat
ion into the Brahmin religion by sacred thread or sin-removing ceremony, the per
iod 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, prot
ection 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 of manifold duties and responsibil
ities of kings. The eighth chapter deals with the modus operandi in civil and cr
iminal proceedings and of the proper punishments to be meted out to different ca
ste. The ninth and the tenth chapters relate the customs and laws regarding inhe
ritance and property, divorce and the lawful occupations for each caste. Chapter
eleven expresses the various kinds of penance for the misdeeds. The final chapt
er expounds the doctrine of karma, rebirths and salvation.
Read the Full Text Translation of Manu Smriti
Criticisms of the Laws of Manu
Present-day scholars have criticized the work significantly. The rigidity in the
caste system and the contemptible attitude towards women are not acceptable tod
ay. The almost divine reverence shown to the Brahmin caste and the despicable at
titude towards the 'Sudras' (the lowest caste) is objectionable. The Sudras were
forbidden to participate in the Brahmin rituals and were subjected to severe pu
nishments whereas the Brahmins were exempted from any kind of reprimand for crim
es. The practice of medicine was prohibited to the upper caste. Women were consi
dered inept, inconsistent, and sensual and were restrained from learning the Ved
ic texts or participating in important social functions. They were kept in abjec
t subjugation all their lives.
Translations of Manava Dharma Shastra
The Institutes of Manu by Sir William Jones (1794). The first Sanskrit work to b
e 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 (199
1)
Suggested Reading
The Laws of Manu: Full Text Translation by G. Buhler
The Human Being in the Eye of the Hindu: Caste System in Hinduism
What Is Dharma?
Discussion Forum
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