The Manusmriti (मनुस्मृति), also known as the Manava-Dharmasastra or Laws of Manu, is one of the many legal texts and constitutions among the many Dharmasastras of Hinduism. In ancient India, the sages often wrote their ideas on how society should run the manuscripts. The metrical text is in Sanskrit, is variously dated to be from the 2nd century BCE to the 3rd century CE, and it presents itself as a discourse given by Manu (Svayambhuva) and Bhrigu on dharma topics such as duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and others.
The title Manusmriti is a relatively modern term and a late innovation, probably coined because the text is in verse form. The over-fifty manuscripts discovered of the text never use this title but state the title as Manava Dharmasastra (मानवधर्मशास्त्र) in their colophons at the end of each chapter. In modern scholarship, these two titles refer to the same text.
What is Manusmriti?
The origin of Manusmriti is attributed to Brahma, the creator, who passes it on to the first human, Manu, who passes it on to the first teacher, Bhrigu. Later, Bhrigu passes it on to other sages. Since its composition, Manusmriti was seen as the foremost dharma-shastra, overshadowing all other law books.
It presents itself as a document that compiles and organizes the code of conduct for human society. It came into being roughly 1,800 years ago, around the period that saw yagna-based Vedic Hinduism transform into temple-based Puranic Hinduism.
Many assume Mansumriti to be the law book of Hindus, something like the Sharia is for Muslims, the Church Dogma for Catholic Christians, or the Constitution of India. It is not.
Background to the Manusmriti
The ancient Vedic society had a structured social order in which the Brahmins were esteemed as the highest and the most revered sect and assigned the holy task of acquiring ancient knowledge and learning — the teachers of each Vedic school composed manuals written in Sanskrit about their respective schools and designed for the guidance of their pupils. Known as ‘sutras,’ these manuals were highly revered by the Brahmins and memorized by each Brahmin student.
The most common of these was the ‘Grihya-sutras,’ dealing with domestic ceremonies; and the ‘Dharma-sutras,’ treating the sacred customs and laws. The complicated bulk of old rules and regulations, customs, laws, and rites were gradually enlarged in scope, transformed into aphoristic prose, and set to musical cadence, then systematically arranged to constitute the ‘Manusmriti.’ 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.
Chronology of Manusmriti
2nd or 3rd century CE
Scholars shifted the chronology of the text to between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Olivelle adds that numismatics evidence, and the mention of gold coins as a fine, suggest that the text may date to the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
Revisions and editions
Most scholars consider the text a composite produced by many authors put together over a long period. However, the text version in modern use, according to Olivelle, is likely the work of a single author or a chairman with research assistants.
Manusmriti relies on two shastras
Manusmriti, Olivelle states, was not a new document, it drew on other texts, and it reflects “a crystallization of an accumulated knowledge” in ancient India. The root of theoretical models within Manusmriti relies on at least two shastras that pre-date it: artha (statecraft and legal process), and dharma (an ancient Indian concept that includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and others discussed in various Dharmasutras older than Manusmriti).
The foundational texts of Manusmriti include many of these sutras, all from an era preceding the common era.
The text covers different topics and is unique among ancient Indian texts in using “transitional verses” to mark the end of one subject and the start of the next. The text can be broadly divided into four, each of different lengths. and each 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.
They 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. Olivelle lists the subsections 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 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. — Manusmriti 2.6
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. — Manusmriti 2.12
This section of Manusmriti, like other Hindu law texts, includes fourfold sources of Dharma, states Levinson, which include Atmana santushti (satisfaction of one’s conscience), Sadachara (local norms of virtuous individuals), Smriti, and Sruti.
Dharma of the four Varnas
- 3.1 Rules Relating to Law (2.25 – 10.131)
- 3.1.1 Rules of Action in Normal Times (2.26 – 9.336)
- 18.104.22.168 Fourfold Dharma of a Brahmin (2.26 – 6.96) (contains the longest section of Manusmriti, 3.1, called Dharmavidhi)
- 22.214.171.124 Rules of Action for a King (7.1 – 9.324) (contains 960 verses, includes a description of institutions and officials of the state, how officials are to be appointed, tax laws, rules of war, the role and limits on the power of the king, and long sections on eighteen grounds for litigation, including those related to non-delivery under contract, breach of contract, non-payment of wages, property disputes, inheritance disputes, humiliation and defamation, physical assault, theft, the violence of any form, injury, sexual crimes against women, public safety, and others; the section also includes rules of evidence, rules on the interrogation of witnesses, and the organization of court system)
- 126.96.36.199 Rules of Action for Vaiśyas and Śūdras (9.326 – 9.335) (shortest section, eight rules for Vaishyas, two for Shudras, but some applicable laws to these two classes are discussed generically in verses 2.26 – 9.324)
- 3.1.2 Rules of Action in Times of Adversity (10.1 – 11.129) (contains revised rules on the state machinery and four varnas in the times of war, famine, or other emergencies)
- 3.1.1 Rules of Action in Normal Times (2.26 – 9.336)
- 3.2 Rules Relating to Penance (11.1 – 11.265) (includes rules of proportionate punishment; instead of fines, incarceration or death, discusses penance or social isolation as a form of punishment for certain crimes)
Verses 6.97, 9.325, 9.336, and 10.131 are transitional verses. Olivelle notes instances of likely interpolation and insertions in the notes to this section, in both the presumed vulgate version and the critical edition.
Determination of Karmayoga
The verses 12.1, 12.2, and 12.82 are transitional verses. This section is in a different style than the rest of the text, raising questions about whether this entire chapter was added later.
- 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 (12.83-115) (section on karma, duties, and responsibilities as a means of supreme good)
The closing verses of Manusmriti declare,
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. — Manusmriti 12.125, Calcutta manuscript with Kulluka Bhatta commentary
The text dedicates 1,034 verses, the largest portion, to laws for and expected virtues of Brahmins, and 971 verses for Kshatriyas. The statement of rules for the Vaishyas (merchant class) and the Shudras (artisans and working class) in the text is extraordinarily brief.
On virtues and outcasts
Manusmriti lists and recommends virtues in many verses. For example, verse 6.75 recommends non-violence towards everyone and temperance as key virtues, while verse 10.63 preaches that all four varnas must abstain from injuring any creature, abstain from falsehood and abstain from appropriating the property of others.
Manusmriti lists the recommended virtues
Similarly, in verse 4.204, states Olivelle, some manuscripts of Manusmriti list the recommended virtues to be, “compassion, forbearance, truthfulness, non-injury, self-control, not desiring, meditation, serenity, sweetness and honesty” as primary, and “purification, sacrifices, ascetic toil, gift giving, Vedic recitation, restraining the sexual organs, observances, fasts, silence and bathing” as secondary.
A few manuscripts of the text contain a different verse 4.204, according to Olivelle, and list the recommended virtues to be, “not injuring anyone, speaking the truth, chastity, honesty and not stealing” as central and primary, while “not being angry, obedience to the teacher, purification, eating moderately and vigilance” to desirable and secondary.
In other discovered manuscripts of Manusmriti, including the most translated Calcutta manuscript, the text declares in verse 4.204 that the ethical precepts under Yamas such as Ahimsa (non-violence) are paramount while Niyamas such as Ishvarapranidhana (contemplation of personal god) are minor, and those who do not practice the Yamas but obey the Niyamas alone become outcasts.
Significance of Manusmriti
On personal choices, behaviors, and morals
Moral and legal codes
Manusmriti has various verses on duties a person has towards himself and others, thus including moral and legal codes. Olivelle states that this is similar to the modern contrast between informal moral concerns about birth out of wedlock in developed nations, along with simultaneous legal protection for children who are born out of wedlock.
Personal behaviors covered by the text are extensive. For example, verses 2.51–2.56 recommend that a monk must go on his begging round, collect alms food and present it to his teacher first, then eat. One should revere whatever food one gets and eat it without disdain, states Manusmriti, but never overeat, as eating too much harms health.
In verse 5.47, the text 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.
Morality of vegetarianism
Numerous verses relate to the practice of meat eating, how it causes injury to living beings, why it is evil, and the morality of vegetarianism. Yet, the text balances its moral tone as an appeal to one’s conscience, states Olivelle.
For example, verse 5.56 as translated by Olivelle states, “there is no fault in eating meat, in drinking alcohol, or in having sex; that is the natural activity of creatures. Abstaining from such activity, however, brings the greatest rewards.”
On rights of women
Manusmriti offers an inconsistent and internally conflicting perspective on women’s rights. The text, for example, declares that a marriage cannot be dissolved by a woman or a man, in verses 8.101–8.102. Yet, the text, in other sections, allows either to dissolve the marriage.
For example, verses 9.72–9.81 allow the man or the woman to get out of a fraudulent marriage or an abusive marriage, and remarry; the text also provides legal means for a woman to remarry when her husband has been missing or has abandoned her.
Chastity to widows
It preaches chastity to widows such as in verses 5.158–5.160 and opposes a woman from marrying someone outside her own social class as in verses 3.13–3.14. In other verses, such as 2.67–2.69 and 5.148–5.155, Manusmriti preaches that as a girl, she should obey and seek the 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.
In verses 3.55–3.56, Manusmriti also 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”. Elsewhere, in verses 5.147–5.148, states Olivelle, the text declares, “a woman must never seek to live independently”.
The text also provides for a situation when a married woman may get pregnant by a man other than her husband, and dedicates verses 8.31–8.56 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 a woman with property rights to six types of property in verses 9.192–9.200. These include those she received at her marriage, or as gifts when she eloped or when she was taken away, as tokens of love before marriage, as gifts from her biological family, or as received from her husband subsequent to marriage, and also from inheritance from deceased relatives.
Flavia Agnes states that Manusmriti is a complex commentary from a women’s rights perspective, and the British colonial era codification of women’s rights based on it for Hindus, and from Islamic texts for Muslims, picked and emphasized certain aspects while it ignored other sections. This construction of personal law during the colonial era created a legal fiction around Manusmriti’s historic role as scripture in matters relating to women in South Asia.
On statecraft and rules of war
Chapter 7 of the Manusmriti discusses the duties of a king, what virtues he must have, and what vices he must avoid. In verses 7.54–7.76, the text identifies precepts to be followed in selecting ministers, ambassadors, and officials, as well as the characteristics of well-fortified capital.
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 7.127–7.137.
Significance and role of Manusmriti in history
Manusmriti in ancient and medieval India
David Buxbaum states, “in the opinion of the best contemporary orientalists, it [Manusmriti] does not, as a whole, represent a set of rules ever actually administered in Hindustan. It is in great part an ideal picture of that which, in the view of a Brahmin, ought to be a law”.
Donald Davis writes, “there is no historical evidence for either an active propagation or implementation of Dharmasastra [Manusmriti] by a ruler or any state – as distinct from other forms of recognizing, respecting and using the text. Thinking of Dharmasastra as a legal code and of its authors as lawgivers is thus a serious misunderstanding of its history”. Other scholars have expressed the same view, based on epigraphical, archaeological, and textual evidence from medieval Hindu kingdoms in Gujarat, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu while acknowledging that Manusmriti was influential to the South Asian history of law and was a theoretical resource.
Manusmriti outside India
The Dharma-sastras, particularly Manusmriti, states Anthony Reid, were “greatly honored in Burma’s (Myanmar) – Wareru Dhammathat, Siam (Thailand), Cambodia and Java-Bali (Indonesia) as the defining documents of the natural order, which kings were obliged to uphold.
The medieval era derived texts and Manusmriti manuscripts in Southeast Asia are, however, quite different than the “vulgate” version that has been in use since its first use in British India. The role of the extant Manusmriti as a historic foundation of law texts for the people of Southeast Asia has been very important, states Hooker.
Manusmriti in British India
Prior to the British colonial rule, Sharia (Islamic law) for Muslims in South Asia had been codified as Fatawa-e-Alamgiri, but laws for non-Muslims – such as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis – were not codified during the 600 years of Islamic rule. With the arrival of British colonial officials, Manusmriti played a historic role in constructing a legal system for non-Muslims in South Asia and early Western perceptions about ancient and medieval Indian society.
Comparison of Manusmriti with other dharmasastras
Along with Manusmriti (Manava Dharmasastra), ancient India had between eighteen and thirty-six competing Dharma-sastras, states John Bowker. Many of these texts have been lost completely or in parts, but they are referred to in other ancient Indian texts suggesting that they were influential in some regions or times.
According to Ghose and other scholars, evidence suggests that Yajnavalkya Smriti was the more referred-to text than Manu Smriti in matters of governance and practice. This text, of unclear date of composition but likely to be a few centuries after Manusmriti, is more “concise, methodical, distilled and liberal”.
The Manusmriti has been subject to appraisal and criticism. Among the notable Indian critics of the text in the early 20th century was B. R. Ambedkar, who held Manusmriti responsible for the caste system in India. In protest, Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti in a bonfire on 25 December 1927. While Ambedkar condemned Manusmriti, Mahatma Gandhi opposed the book burning. The latter stated that while caste discrimination was harmful to spiritual and national growth, it had nothing to do with Hinduism and its texts such as Manusmriti.
Gandhi argued that the text recognizes different callings and professions, defines not one’s rights but one’s duties and that all work from that of a teacher to a janitor is equally necessary, and of equal status. Gandhi considered Manusmriti to include lofty teachings but a text with inconsistency and contradictions, whose original text is in no one’s possession. He recommended that one must read the entire text, and accept those parts of Manusmriti which are consistent with “truth and ahimsa (non-injury or non-violence to others)” and the rejection of other parts.
First translated by Sir William Jones
The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by European philologists. It was first translated into English by Sir William Jones. In fact, states Romila Thapar, these were not codes of law but social and ritual texts.
A Louis Jacolliot translation of the Calcutta version of “Law of Manu” was reviewed by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
In his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India, leader B. R. Ambedkar asserted that Manu Smriti was written by a sage named Brigu during the times of Pushyamitra of Shunga in connection with social pressures caused by the rise of Buddhism. However, historian Romila Thapar considers these claims to be exaggerations.
Thapar writes that archaeological evidence casts doubt on the claims of Buddhist persecution by Pushyamitra. Support of the Buddhist faith by the Shungas at some point is suggested by an epigraph on the gateway of Bharhut, which mentions its erection “during the supremacy of the Shunga’s”.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati
Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj, held the text to be authentic and authoritative. Other admirers of the text have included Annie Besant.
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Frequently asked questions
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|What is Manusmriti?
The origin of Manusmriti is attributed to Brahma, the creator, who passes it on to the first human, Manu, who passes it on to the first teacher, Bhrigu, who passes it on to other sages. Since its composition, Manusmriti was seen as the foremost dharma-shastra, overshadowing all other law books.
|Which is the chronology of Manusmriti?
Later scholars, shifted the chronology of the text to between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Olivelle adds that numismatics evidence, and the mention of gold coins as a fine, suggest that the text may date to the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
|Who first translatedManusmriti into English?
The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by European philologists. It was first translated into English by Sir William Jones. In fact, states Romila Thapar, these were not codes of law but social and ritual texts