Thursday, December 01, 2011

Memoirs of Manu

I read Judith Butler’s ‘Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity’ (1990) seven or so years ago. I don’t know how much I understood, but I was suitably impressed. Now, recently, I met some, a literature teacher, who was going gaga over Ms Butler. And I thought we have gotten over feminism, and the whole business of subversion, that we have evolved. Apparently, we haven’t. Especially in the Academic. We still have the same old icons to look up to.

Anyway, the point is not Ms Butler. She is wonderful. The point is feminism in India. Have we done enough other than establishing the fact that our grandfathers were the villains and our grandmothers were the victims? Where does Women’s Lib movements stands today? Is the liberation done?

I don’t know. The other day, I was thinking of Manu, the mythic person who allegedly wrote the famous ‘Manusmriti’ (Memoirs of Manu), the text that created the so called Indian tradition as we know it, from the caste division to the subjugation of the woman. The text is in the heart of any debate on minority rights, and we have no clues who even wrote it. And, most of us in the modern times who have studied the text, from Raja Rammohan Roy to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, has read the text in English, not in original Sanskrit. And there are different version of the Sanskrit text.

It was translated to English as the Laws of Manu in 1794 by Sir William Jones, an English Orientalist and judge of the British Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta. Recently, it was translated, with an introduction and notes, by Wendy Doniger with Brian K Smith (New York: Penguin Books, 1991). Doniger and Smith describe the work as “a pivotal text” for a number of reasons: “More compendiously than any other text, it provides a direct line to the most influential construction of the Hindu religion and Indic society as a whole....Over the course of the centuries, the text attracted nine complete commentaries, attesting to its crucial significance within the tradition, and it is cited in other ancient Indian texts far more frequently than any other dharma-shastra (it has been estimated that between a third and a half of Manu is in the Mahabharata, though it is not certain which was the source and which the borrower)" (xvii-xviii).

According to Hindu tradition, the Manusmriti records the words of Brahma. By attributing the words to supernatural forces, the text takes on an authoritative tone as a statement on Dharma, in opposition to previous texts in the field, which were more scholarly. This text was composed probably around the beginning of the Common Era, and is known in Sanskrit as the Manavadharmashastraor the Manusmriti. The Imperial Gazetteer speaks of its fame and wide acceptance as a source of the theory of caste. Dr. Ambedkar treats it as the key text that justifies and describes the caste system. The classic translation of this text is The Laws of Manu, translated, with extracts from seven commentaries, by Georg Buehler, who was himself a British colonial administrator in Bombay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1886; reprint edition: New York: Dover Books, 1969).

A range of historical opinion generally dates composition of the text any time between 200 BCE and 200 CE. After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there was a period of uncertainty that led to renewed interest in traditional social norms.

The original treatise consisted of one thousand chapters of law, polity, and pleasure given by Brahma. His son, Manu, learns these lessons and proceeds to teach his own students, including Bhrigu. Bhrigu then relays this information in the Manu Smriti, to an audience of his own pupils.

This original narrative was subdivided later into twelve chapters. There is debate over the effects of this division on the underlying, holistic manner in which the original treatise was written. The book is written in simple verse as opposed to the metrical verse of the preceding dharmasutras.

The treatise is written with a frame story, in which a dialogue takes place between Manu’s disciple, Bhrigu, and an audience of his own students. The story begins with Manu himself detailing the creation of the world and the society within it, structured around four social classes. Bhrigu takes over for the remainder of the work, teaching the details of the rest of Manu's teachings. The audience reappears twice more, asking first about how Brahmins can be subjected to death, and second to ask the effects of action.

The following is the Table of Contents comes from Olivelle’s translation of the Manu Smriti
1. Origin of the World
2. Sources of the Law
3. Dharma of the Four Social Classes
3.1 Rules Relating to Law
3.1.1 Rules of Action in Normal Times Fourfold Dharma of a Brahmin Rules of Action for a King Rules of Action for Vaisyas and Sudras
3.1.2 Rules of Action in Times of Adversity
3.2 Rules Relating to Penance

The Manu Smriti is written with a focus on the "shoulds" of dharma rather than on the actuality of everyday practice in India at the time. Still, its practical application should not be underestimated. Through intermediate forces, such as the instruction of scholars, the teachings did indeed have indirect effects on major segments of the Indian population. It is also an invaluable point of common reference in scholarly debates.

The "Law of Manu" was cited favorably by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who deemed it "an incomparably spiritual and superior work" to the Christian Bible. He observed that "the sun shines on the whole book" and attributed its ethical perspective to "the noble classes, the philosophers and warriors, [who] stand above the mass." However, he also criticized it for its abusive treatment of the chandala, claiming that "this organization too found it necessary to be terrible." (And we know Nietzsche as a misogynist, who famously said the only job of a woman is to procreate.)

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, 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 evangelise.

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.

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