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The Laws of Manu and What They Would Mean for Citizens of the Hindu Rashtra

Subhashini Ali
Nov 10, 2020
The Manusmriti extols and reinforces every form of birth-based inequality – social, economic and gender.

Newly-minted BJP leader, Khushbu, led a procession of women in Chennai recently in protest against the withering remarks about the Manusmriti made by Tamil Nadu Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief Thirumavalavan, in an online webinar. Significantly, this was the first public demonstration by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in defence of the Manusmriti. The Sangh Parivar seems to be changing course in favour of an aggressive avowal of commitment to this ancient text.

An indication of this came on the first anniversary of the dismemberment of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and the reading down of Article 370 and Article 35A. This brutal attack on the rights of the Kashmiri people is sought to be used to alter the demography of the only Muslim-majority state in India and is an important step towards the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra of the Sangh Parivar’s dreams.

Steps towards creating a Hindu Rashtra

On the August 5, 2020, the bhoomi pujan for the Ram temple to be built on the ruins of the Babri Masjid was conducted and that this event was actually laying the foundation of the Hindu Rashtra itself was very apparent. On this occasion, Mohan Bhagwat, Sarsanghchalak of the RSS, recited the following shloka:

एतद् देशप्रसूतस्य सकाशादग्रजन्मनः । स्वं स्वं चरित्रं शिक्षेरन् पृथिव्यां सर्वमानवाः ll139ll {2.20}

From a first-born (i.e. a Brahmana), born in that country
Let all men on earth learn their respective duties.

(Chapter 1, page 73, Manusmriti, edited and corrected by Dr. Surendra Kumar, published by Arsh Sahitya Prachar Trust, Delhi, certified by the RSS as the authentic edition.)

Brimming with confidence gained from political developments after 2014, Bhagwat not only gave an indication of the direction in which India would now move but, by reciting a shloka from the Manusmriti that extols the Varnashrama Dharma, established what the wellsprings of this direction were.

On November 30, 1949, four days after the ratification of the Indian constitution, the Organiser had opined:

“The worst thing about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bhartiya about it … there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat…To this day his (Manu’s) laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

Electoral compulsions forced the Sangh Parivar to abstain from public espousal of the Manusmriti for the next seven decades. This would have alienated large sections of Indian society and stymied its political advances. It did, however, continue to voice its basic disagreement with the constitution demanding the deletion of both ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ from the Preamble. During the Vajpayee government, a committee to recommend necessary changes in the Constitution was set up but it proved to be a damp squib.

After BJP victories in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Sangh Parivar has moved with the speed and cunning of a barracuda to attack and weaken the constitutional institutions needed for transforming Indian society into a more equal and just one. It has used the twin weapons of a brute majority and ever-deepening, ever-widening communal polarisation to implement laws and policies that have impacted most adversely those who are denied all rights and can make no claims to equality: women, Dalits, backward castes and Adivasis.

This advance towards a Hindu Rashtra is being viewed with concern and alarm by many but, as far as large numbers of the majority community are concerned, they feel that only members of minority communities will be threatened while they themselves will be guaranteed some kind of a privileged status.

Also read: Why Project Hindu Rashtra Is Likely to Fail

The Laws of Manu

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the Laws of Manu that will mould and set the course of the Hindu Rashtra. These laws extol and reinforce every form of birth-based inequality – social, economic and gender; inequalities that are inescapable and unchangeable. Professions too are determined and to be followed according to one’s birth i.e. by the caste into which one is born.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Since professions are ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, the unequal who performs the unclean work are the objects of contempt, disgust, hatred and unending violence. Any attempt to adopt a profession allocated to another social group is to be treated as a cardinal sin to be severely punished. The violent opposition of the upper castes to the reservation of ‘their’ jobs being granted to the backward castes and Dalits is evident from the fact that the present government is curtailing this reservation in multiple ways, and it thus becomes comprehensible in this context. Both yearn for a return to the traditional form of ‘reservation’ sanctioned by the Manusmriti.

Almost every shloka of the Manusmriti is devoted to preserving inequality. Transgressions of caste boundaries that result in progeny of mixed caste are to be severely punished. A society in which the numbers of such people is allowed to increase is said to descend into bestiality, chaos and worse. In order to preserve caste purity, women are to be secluded and denied any agency. Their lives and movements have to be circumscribed and controlled from infancy to old age.

Equality before the law – a cardinal principle of our constitution and of modern jurisprudence – has no place in the Manusmriti. Here an offender is punished not only in accordance with his or her caste, but with the caste of his or her victim also being taken into account. For the committing of similar crimes, dissimilar punishments are to be meted out.

A few shlokas culled from the voluminous text will suffice to bolster these claims.

(All quotations are from the recent publication, The Law Code of Manu, Patrick Olivell, Oxford World Classics. They are all present in Dr. Surendra Kumar’s Hindi/Sanskrit edition).

In its very first chapter, Creation, the Manusmriti says, “For the growth of these worlds, moreover, he (the Creator) produced from his mouth, arms, thighs and feet, the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra”. Dalits do not find any place within Varnashrama Dharma; they are the ‘outcastes’.

Apologists of the caste system claim that it was originally based on aptitude not birth, but the Manusmriti gives short shrift to this. It gives very precise instructions for the conduct of the male infants of the twice-born. While their threads should be of varying quality, the most superior is reserved for the Brahmin, the next in quality for the Kshatriya and the most coarse thread is reserved for the Vaisya. Sudras, being ‘once-born’, are excluded from this ritual.

The names to be given to these infants are also differently graded:

‘For the Brahmin, the name should connote auspiciousness; for a Kshatriya, strength; for a Vaisya, wealth and for a Sudra, disdain…’ (chapter 2, shlokas 30, 31, 32). Since there is no possibility of infants displaying particular aptitudes and talents, these shlokas are proof of Manusmriti ordaining birth-based inequality.

The author gives evidence to show that the text was produced between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, around the turn of the millennium. Olivelle says in on page xiii of his Introduction, “We can isolate at least three socio-political elements that provide the background to the composition of the Manusmriti. The major element is certainly the historical reality and especially the historical memory of two or three centuries later of the Maurya state and especially of Asokan political, social and religious reform. Asoka was certainly a Buddhist, whether he was anti-Brahmanical is debatable. One thing that his reforms did was to displace the Brahmin from his privileged position within the social structure. The special relationship between the political power and the religious establishment represented by the Brahmins was broken…”

Also read: Ulterior Motive of ‘Love Jihad’ Laws Is to Drive Muslims Out of the Social Ecosystem

Rules for women

Contrary to claims made that women enjoyed great freedom and equality in ancient India, the Manusmriti states: (chapter 5, shlokas 148, 149) “Even in her own home, a female – whether she is a child, a young woman or an old lady – should never carry out any task independently. As a child, she must remain under her father’s control, as a young woman, under her husband’s; and when her husband is dead, under her sons.” Shloka 154 adds, “Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust, and totally devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god.”

While women must remain faithful to their husbands, alive and dead, a widower is advised that, “After he has given his sacred fires to his predeceased wife at her funeral, he should marry a wife again and establish anew his sacred fires.” (shloka 168, chapter 5).

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Chapter 8, shloka 416 removes all ambiguity by stating: “Wife, son and slave – all these three, tradition tells us, are without property.  Whatever they may earn becomes the property of the man to whom they belong.”

The seclusion of women, the insistence of their being married immediately on entering puberty and the stern norms of chaste behaviour laid down for them are necessary to maintain caste-purity and the Varnashrama Dharma itself.  For men, the rules are different and their exploitation of women is justified: (chapter 3, shlokas 12,13). “At first marriage, a woman of equal class is recommended for twice-born men; but for those who proceed further through lust, these are, in order, the preferable women. A Sudra may take only a Sudra woman as wife; a Vaisya, the latter and a woman of his own  class; a Kshatriya, the latter two and a woman of his own class; and a Brahmin, the latter three and a woman of his own class.”

Also read: As the Hindu Rashtra Project Rolls on, It’s Time to Consider What the End Goal Is

Caste hierarchies

The Manusmriti extols both caste and class hierarchies which, in turn, reinforce each other. It prescribes stringent punishments for transgressing the boundaries of birth-based professions which, if allowed, will have terrible consequences. Chapter 8, shlokas 21, 22 say:  “When a Sudra interprets the Law for a king, his realm sinks like a cow in mud… the entire realm, stricken with famine and pestilence, quickly perishes when it is teeming with Sudras, overrun by infidels and devoid of twice-born people.”

Chapter 8, shloka 410, says, “A king should make Sudras engage in the service of twice-born people”, and shlokas 413, 414, say “the Sudra was created by the self-created one solely to do slave labour for the Brahmin. Even when he is released by his master, a Sudra is not freed from his slave status for that is innate in him; and who can remove it from him?”

Chapter 8, shloka 129: “Even a capable Sudra must not accumulate wealth;  for when a Sudra becomes wealthy, he harasses Brahmins.”

Representative image. Photo: YouTube

Chapter 10, shlokas 51 to 56, say: “Candalas and Svepacas, however, must live outside the village… Their property consists of dogs and donkeys, their garments are the clothes of the dead, they eat in broken vessels, their ornaments are of iron… A man who follows the Law should never seek any dealing with them…They depend on others for food and it should be given in a broken vessel. They must not go about in villages and towns at night; they may go around during the day to perform some task at the command of the king, wearing distinguishing marks. They should carry away the corpses of those without relatives… They should always execute those condemned to death…”

The ‘twice-born’ too are forbidden to adopt professions reserved for castes lower than their own. This is an interesting pointer to the way in which caste and class collapse into each other when boundaries of profession are transgressed. Members of the upper-castes who feel that within the Hindu Rashtra their status in the social hierarchy will be assured need to understand that the Manusmriti itself insists that once they have become part of the working and farming classes, they automatically forego their claims to superior social status.

Chapter 8, shloka 418: “The King should strenuously make Vaisyas and Sudras perform the activities specific to them; for when they deviate from their specific activities, they throw this world into confusion.” Shloka 162 states: “He (the King) should treat Brahmins who are cattle herders, traders, artisans, performers, servants or money lenders just like Sudras.”

Chapter 10, shloka 92: “By selling meat, lac, or salt, a Brahmin falls immediately from his caste; by selling milk, he becomes a Sudra in three days.”

Chapter 10, shloka 95, 97: “Far better to carry out ones own Law imperfectly than that of someone else’s perfectly; for a man who lives according to someone else’s Law falls immediately from his caste”.

Also read: The Hand-Made’s Tale: What Does a Hindu Rashtra Mean for the Indian Fashion Industry?

Manusmriti and punishment

In the preservation of inequality, the Manusmriti leaves no stone unturned. It prescribes an unequal system of justice which the Hindu Rashtra will most certainly adopt since already we are seeing instances of its emulation.

The text has many shlokas that deal with this. The killing of a Brahmin is repeatedly described as the most grievous sin. For example, chapter 11, shloka 307, says: “By wanting to hurt a Brahmin, a man goes to hell – if he threatens him, for one hundred years, if he strikes him, for one thousand years.”

The killing of members of other castes, however, are to be punished in different ways. Chapter 11, shloka 127, says: “One-quarter the penance for the murder of a Brahmin is prescribed by tradition for the murder of a Kshatriya; one-eighth for the murder of a virtuous Vaisya; and one-sixteenth for the murder of a Sudra.” In the same vein, chapter 8, shloka 267, 268, state: “For assailing a Brahmin, a Kshatriya ought to be fined 100, and a Vaisya 150 or 200 but a Sudra ought to suffer corporal punishment. A Brahmin should be fined 50 for abusing a Kshatriya, 25 for abusing a Vaisya and 12 for abusing a Sudra.”

The worst punishments are prescribed for the Sudras and Dalits. Chapter 8, shlokas 270 to 272, say: “If a ‘once-born’ man hurls grossly abusive words at ‘twice-born’ men, his tongue shall be cut off for he originated from the lowest part. If he invokes their names and castes with disdain, a red hot iron nail ten fingers long should be driven into his mouth. If he arrogantly gives instruction on the Law to a Brahmin, the king should pour hot oil into his mouth and ears.” (This last shloka gives credence to the fact that Vedic and Shastric learning is forbidden to the Sudras and Dalits.)

Jadavpur university students at a protest over the death of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras, in Kolkata, October 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

The killing of a cow is considered a grievous crime. Chapter 11, shlokas 40 to 47, assign it to the same category as many crimes the punishment for which is the loss of caste. Some of the crimes that it is given equivalence with are rape and murder of a Vaisya, Kshatriya, Sudra and a woman. The crime of killing a cow, however, elicits greater punishment than for these murders. In this context, the lynching of Muslims accused of eating cow meat or killing cows or even being engaged in cow trading, can be directly linked to belief in the Manusmriti.

The complete immunity enjoyed by Brahmins is unambiguously stated at the very end of chapter 11, Penances, in shloka 162: “Even if he has slaughtered these three worlds and even if he has eaten food of anyone at all, no sin taints a Brahmin who retains the Rig Veda in his memory…”

It is alarming that government policies, drastic changes made in laws and faulty administration of justice in the last six years bear the imprint and taint of the Manusmriti. The recent changes made in laws that safeguarded important rights of workers and farmers should be seen in the Manusmriti disdain for physical labour and strong commitment to defending the exploitation of the ruling classes.

The Manusmriti’s attitude towards women finds greater resonance among those ruling our country today than in the past. Lack of concern for women’s security and open defence of ‘twice-born’ rapists is now brazen. They echo shlokas of the text dealing with relationships between men and women of equal and different castes that seem to justify both the violation of women’s rights and their physical violation.

Chapter 3, shlokas 24 to 26 of the text, describe eight types of marriage, some of which justify abduction and assault in the name of ‘consent’. One form of ‘marriage’ stands out for its unilateral assertion of brutality. This is the ‘fiendish’ method of marriage. According to shloka 24, this method which is recommended only for Kshatriyas, occurs “when someone violently abducts a girl from her house as she is shrieking and weeping by causing death, mayhem and destruction, it is called the ‘fiendish procedure’”.

This description of a horrifying deed, taken from a 2,000-year-old text, mirrors the recent Hathras atrocity in which a young Valmiki woman died of the wounds inflicted on her, but only after giving testimony despite the fact that her tongue had almost been completely cut off, to having been gang-raped by four ‘twice-born’ men of the Kshatriya community.

That 2,000-year-old text seems to have provided the government of Uttar Pradesh the sanction to do everything in its power to protect the ‘twice-born’ accused and to deny justice to the victim.

Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

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