Manusmriti are also called Manava-dharma-shastra (“The Dharma Text of Manu”), is the most authoritative of the books of the Hindu code, Dharma-shastra in India. Manu-smriti is the popular name of the work “Manava-dharma-shastra”. It is attributed to the legendary first man and lawgiver, Manu.
The Manu-smriti prescribes to Hindus their dharma i.e., the set of obligations incumbent on each and everyone as a member of one of the four social classes (varnas) and engaged in one of the four stages of life (ashramas). It contains 12 chapters of stanzas. It deals with cosmogony, the definition of the dharma; the sacraments, initiation, and the study of the Vedas (the sacred texts of Hinduism); marriage, hospitality, funeral rites, dietary restrictions, pollution, and means of purification; the conduct of women and wives; and the law of kings. The text makes absolutely no categorical distinction between the religious laws and practices and secular laws. It has influence on all the aspects of Hindu thought, particularly the justification of the caste system, has been profound.
Structure of Manusmriti
The ancient version of the text has been divided into twelve Adhyayas (chapters), but the original text had no such division. The text covers different topics, and is very unique among the ancient Indian texts in using “transitional verses” to mark the end of one subject and the start of the next subject. The text can be broadly divided into four sections and each section further divided into subsections:
- Creation of the world
- Source of dharma
- The dharma of the four social classes
- Law of karma, rebirth and final liberation
The text is composed in metric Shlokas (verses), in the form of a dialogue between a teacher and the disciples who are eager to learn about the various aspects of dharma. The first 58 verses are attributed by the text to Manu, while the remaining more than two thousand verses are attributed to his student Bhrigu. The subsections are as follows-
Sources of the law
The Dharmasya Yonih (Sources of the Law) has twenty-four verses and one transition verse. These verses state what the text considers as the proper and just sources of law:
वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलं स्मृतिशीले च तद्विदाम् । आचारश्चैव साधूनामात्मनस्तुष्टिरेव च ॥
Translation 1: The whole Veda is the (first) source of the sacred law, next the tradition and the virtuous conduct of those who know the (Veda further), also the customs of holy men, and (finally) self-satisfaction (Atmana santushti).
Translation 2: The root of the dharma is the entire Veda, and (then) the tradition and customs of those who know (the Veda), and the conduct of virtuous people, and what is satisfactory to oneself.
वेदः स्मृतिः सदाचारः स्वस्य च प्रियमात्मनः । एतच्चतुर्विधं प्राहुः साक्षाद् धर्मस्य लक्षणम् ॥
Translation 1: The Veda, the sacred tradition, the customs of virtuous men, and one’s own pleasure, they declare to be the fourfold means of defining the sacred law.
Translation 2: The Veda, tradition, the conduct of good people, and what is pleasing to oneself – they say that is four fold mark of dharma.
This section of Manusmriti, like other Hindu law texts, includes fourfold sources of Dharma, which include Atmana santushti (satisfaction of one’s conscience), Sadachara (local norms of virtuous individuals), Smriti and Sruti.
Determination of Karmayoga
This section is in a different style than the rest of the text, raising questions whether this entire chapter was added later or not. While there is evidence that this chapter was extensively redacted over time, however it is unclear whether the entire chapter is of a later era.
4.1 Fruits of Action (12.3-81) (section on actions and consequences, personal responsibility, action as a means of moksha – the highest personal bliss).
4.2 Rules of Action for Supreme Good (section on karma, duties and responsibilities as a means of supreme good).
The closing verses of Manusmriti declares,
एवं यः सर्वभूतेषु पश्यत्यात्मानमात्मना । स सर्वसमतामेत्य ब्रह्माभ्येति परं पदम् ॥
He who thus recognizes in his individual soul (Self, Atman), the universal soul that exists in all beings,
becomes equal-minded towards all, and enters the highest state, Brahman.
The structure and the contents of the Manusmriti suggest it to be a document targeted at the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. The text dedicates 1,034 verses, the largest portion, on laws for and expected virtues of Brahmin Class and 971 verses for the Kshatriya Class. The statement of rules for the Vaishyas and the Shudras in the text is brief.
On virtues and outcast
Manusmriti lists and recommends virtues in many verses. For example, one verse recommends non-violence towards everyone and temperance as key virtues, while other verse preaches that all four varnas must abstain from injuring any creature, abstain from falsehood and abstain from appropriating the property of others.
In other discovered manuscripts of Manusmriti, including the most translated Calcutta manuscript, the text declares that the ethical precepts under Yamas such as Ahimsa (non-violence) are paramount while Niyamas such as the Ishvarapranidhana meaning contemplation of personal god are minor, and those who do not practice the Yamas, however obey the Niyamas alone become outcasts.
Significance of Manusmriti
On personal choices, behaviours and morals
Manusmriti has numerous verses on duties that a person has towards himself and towards others, thus including moral codes as well as the legal codes.
Personal behaviours covered by the text are quite extensive. For example, verses from 2.51to 2.56 recommend that a monk must go on his begging round, collect food and present it to his teacher first and then eat. Manusmriti states that one should revere food and without disdain, but never overeat, as eating too much harms the health of a person. The text also states that work becomes without effort when a man contemplates, undertakes and does what he loves to do and when he does so without harming any creature.
Numerous verses relate to the practice of meat eating, how it causes injury to the living beings, how and why it is evil and the morality of vegetarianism. The text however, balances it’s moral tone as an appeal to one’s conscience.
On rights of women
Manusmriti offers an inconsistent and conflicting perspective on women’s rights. The text, for example, declares that a marriage cannot be dissolved by a woman or a man, yet, the text, allows either to dissolve the marriage. The text allows the man or the woman to get out of a fraudulent marriage or an abusive marriage, and remarry, the text also provides a legal mean for a woman to gwt remarried when her husband has been missing or has abandoned her.
It preaches chastity to widows and opposes a woman marrying someone outside her own social class. In other verses, Manusmriti preaches that as a girl, she should obey and seek protection of her father, as a young woman her husband, and as a widow her son and that a woman should always worship her husband as a god. Manusmriti declares that women must be honored and adorned, and where women are revered, there the gods rejoice, but where they are not, no sacred rite bears any fruit.
Simultaneously, the text enumerates numerous practices such as marriages outside one’s varna, such as between a Brahmin man and a Shudra woman, a widow getting pregnant with a child of a man she is not married to, marriage where a woman in love elopes with her man, and then grants legal rights in these cases such as property inheritance rights, and the legal rights of the children so born. The text also provides for a situation when a married woman may get pregnant by a man other than her husband, and to conclude that the child’s custody belongs to the woman and her legal husband, and not to the man she got pregnant with.
Manusmriti provides all women with rights to property with six types of property. These include those which she received at her marriage, or as gift when she eloped or when she was taken away, or as token of love before marriage, or as gifts from her biological family, or as received from her husband subsequent to marriage, and also from inheritance from deceased relatives.
On statecraft and rules of war
Manusmriti discusses the duties of a king, what virtues he should have, what vices he must avoid and the text identifies precepts to be followed in selecting ministers, ambassadors and officials, as well as the characteristics of well fortified capital. Manusmriti also lays out the laws of just war, stating that first and foremost, war should be avoided by negotiations and reconciliations. If war becomes necessary, states Manusmriti, a soldier must never harm civilians, non-combatants or someone who has surrendered, that use of force should be proportionate, and other rules. Fair taxation guidelines are described in verses.