Manu Smriti: Many perspective

By Shyam Bhandari

 

Manu Smriti is one of the many Sanskrit classics, which have enriched mankind in almost all areas of human endeavor: philosophy, science, literature, linguist, sex, medicine, astrology, history, numerals, mathematics.

Unfortunately, these were beyond the reach and comprehension of the common people.  Among all these only one, Manu Smriti is controversial, due to its Chaturvarna caste structure which all rulers let it sustain for 3000+ years!

Compiled and scripted in 200 AD. Manu Smriti is a very complex, creative, contradictory, and controversial commentary on the social structure and human behavior of people in India. It lasted unchallenged for almost three millennia.

It is an encyclopaedic coverage of behavior and duties of kings, women, wives, and each caste. Rituals at birth and death, philosophy of rebirth and karma, taxations, punishments for law breakers etc.

According to some scholars, the social, cultural, and political disunity created by the caste system is one of the many reasons why Indians succumbed to foreign aggressions. India has achieved a lot in the last 75 years to restore its prestige. Thanks to leaders and reformers like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Bajpai, Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, and many others. Still the challenges remain.

Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956) an eminent scholar and jurist was born an untouchable. Ambedkar was the architect of free India’s constitution which was adopted in 1950. Ambedkar and Nehru facilitated the passage of “Hindu Code Bill” which outlawed untouchability, empowered women and changed Hindu succession laws.

This fourfold Varna or caste structure of Sage Manu has many perspectives:

Four castes

Sage Manu’s four heredity castes called Suvarna excluding ‘Avarna’ are: Brahmins: Priests, teachers, authors of scriptures; Kshatriya: Kings, rulers, warriors; Vaishyas: Traders, moneylenders, farmers; and Shudras: labors and all who serve the other three castes.

Four Origins

 

According to Manu the origin of each caste from the Primeval Person are: Brahmins from his mouth, Kshatriyas from arms, Vaishyas from thighs and Shudras from feet. This clearly manifests the hierarchical structure of people in Manu Smriti where Brahmins (priests) are put on the top, followed by Kshatriya, Vaishyas and Shudras.

Fourfold Division of Labor

Supporters of Manu have justified his Chaturvarna caste structure as division of labor concept. If that was the intent, teachers, intellectuals, priests, irrespective of birth, are Brahmins. Likewise, Rulers, defense personnel, administrators, policemen irrespective of birth are Kshatriya. Traders, moneylenders, industrialists, bankers irrespective of birth are Vaishyas and farmers, artisans, servants are Shudras. In this scenario, no caste would be superior to the other caste or Varna, and the hereditary right to caste would not have prevailed for almost 3,000 years!

Fourfold ageing or ashrams 

Sage Manus aligned each Varan or caste to a fourfold aging process (Varnashrama). These phases are Brahmacharya (studentship, service to others = Shudra phase), Grihastha (householder, family focused = Vaishya phase), Vanaprastha (Hermit, forest-dweller = Kshatriya phase) and Sanyasi (asceticism, meditation, spiritual pursuit = Brahmin phase).

Editor’s Note (Take note in highlight): 

The original mythical primeval person in Indian mythology did not have Kashtriya as arm but it was a later inclusion. Thus, readers are always advised to refer to the original Sanskrit text and quality translation before making any view about the ancient Indian philosophy, which was based on scientific rules but mostly lost in translation over the centuries.

Shyam Bhandari is a Professor Emeritus of Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, USA. Email: [email protected]

Image courtesy of (Image: The Dharma Dispatch)

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