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Durable Link to this BlogTuesday, April 27, 2004

Code of Manu

Manusmriti (Code of Manu)

Code of Manu occupied a very important place in the life of Indians for more than two thousand years. There were other sages prior to Manu who laid down rules and regulations for a householderís religious and family life. But Manusmriti codified for the first times all existing norms propounded by earlier law-makers. Besides code of conduct for an average citizen, it deals with educational method, kingís duties, laws of governing a state, royal treasury, taxation, sources of revenue, jurisprudence, protection of environment, crimes and punishment. In short, all aspects that governed state and society in ancient India have been included.

Sage Manu, sole survivor of the big deluge referred to in Vedas is credited with creation of the habitable world after the deluge. Hence it became normal to ascribe all authoritative works to Manu, Father of Mankind to make it universally acceptable. "Whatever Manu says becomes medicine" - was the general belief. As was the practice, it is composed in verse form and aphoristic style. This leaves vast scope for different interpretations.

This is what happened. Over centuries, many commentaries on Manusmriti appeared, trying to gave relevant and contemporary touch. It had all India relevance and became a compulsory subject of study for the administrators and elite class. Due to foreign invasions from time to time India suffered political instability and it was a hard task for the concerned class to keep the society from disintegrating. We find narrower interpretation of Manuís laws in medieval times. Ancient practices like niyoga were given up under the pretext that they were 'Kalivarjya' ('not in use in Kali age'). Fortunately most of the originally composed text consisting of 2684 verses remain intact.

Whoever codified in the name of Manu the existing work he had good idea of the vastness of this subcontinent consisting of innumberable tribes, sects, communities, races and their requirements. That is why a king is advised to study astutely, rules and norms of different communities (8.41). He is also directed to frame administration to suit changing clime, region and time, with due care and respect to faiths and beliefs of social groups (8.46). This dictum pursued by rulers led to non-interference in clan-life and tribal life most of the time.

Many statements in Manusmriti are outrageous. Especially the condemnation of shudra class in disgusting terms is sickening. But the universal acceptance of this work shows that many of the conditions, mentioned were in existance.

Till independent India had its own constitution, views of Manu in certain legal, religious and social matters was in vogue. In fact, the British administrators tried to follow his version in many legal matters. Even native rulers were advised to do the same.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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