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Manu-Smriti — The Code of Manu

Manu Smriti is the popular name of the work, which is officially known as Manava dharma shastra, is the central source of the later Brahmanical Hinduism. The Manu Smriti (smriti = remembered law) (also called Laws of Manu, the Law-Books of Manu, nor Manu Samhita, Manava Dharma Sastra, or Institutes of Manu) commonly known as the Code of Manu, is a well known law-book that is the earliest of all the post-Vedic writings, and is chief of the works classified as Smriti. The Code of Manu is a compilation of laws reflecting Hindu thought in the Buddhist period, preserved in a metrical recension, or survey.

It contains 2685 verses, and is evidently not the work of one man, but the production of many minds. It gives the observances of a tribe of Brahmans called Manavas, who probably belonged to a school of the Yajur (or black) Veda, and lived in North-West India not far from Delhi. It was written in a period later than the Vedas when the Brahmans had obtained the ascendancy, but its deities are those of the Vedas and not of the Epics and Puranas — so it occupies a middle place between the Vedas and the Puranas.

It is the foundation of Hindu Law — a collection or digest of current laws and creeds rather than a planned systematic code. It is frequently quoted to-day in law courts, and by Hindus in all cases where the customs of Hindu society and the observances of caste are under question. In it the four main castes are clearly defined and their duties and obligations laid down, and the whole system of rules and regulations is instituted by which the Brahmans sought to perpetuate an organised caste-system in subordination to themselves.

After eliminating the purely religious and philosophical precepts, the greater number of its rules fall under the following four heads:

  1. Achara, 'immemorial practices.' These, in fact, include all the observances of caste, and are regarded as constituting the highest law and highest religion.
  2. Vyavahara, 'practices of law and government,' embracing the procedure of legal tribunals, rules of judicature, and civil and criminal law.
  3. Prayas-chitta, 'penitential exercises,' rules of expiation, both of the sins of this present life—especially sins against caste—and the effects of offences committed in previous bodies.
  4. Karma-phala, 'consequences of acts,' good or bad, as leading to reward in heaven or punishment in various hells and involving repeated births through numberless existences until the attainment of final beatitude.
This is one of the most remarkable books that the literature of the whole world can offer. It not only presents a picture of the usages, manners, and intellectual condition of an important part of the Hindu race at a remote period, but some of its moral precepts are worthy of Christianity itself.

The Manu Smriti or Hindu code of Manu is of uncertain date. There was a wide divergence of opinion among 19th Century Oriental scholars as to the date of the Manu Smriti, or Laws of Manu. Max Muller and his followers, who at times seemed to bend all their energies to the task of proving that everything in Hinduism was of comparatively recent origin, claimed that the Laws of Manu were compiled in the fifth century AD. Their arguments were based upon certain passages which allude to customs and religious rites known to be modern. But it can easily be shown that all such passages may have been later interpolations of the Brahmins, while, on the other hand, the bulk or greater part of the work seemed to others to be undoubtedly archaic in character.

Prof. Monier Williams, of Oxford, says: "Sir William Jones held that Manu's book was drawn up in about the year 1280 BC. Mr. Elphinstone placed it 900 years BC. Possibly some parts of it may represent laws and precepts which were current among the Manavas at the later date, but no one would now assign so early a date to the actual compilation of the Code. Nor can it, I think, reasonably be placed later than the fifth century BC." There is here a trifling difference of a thousand years in the estimates of two such good authorities, even, as Max Miiller and Monier Williams, to say nothing of the earlier writers quoted, who affirm a still higher antiquity for Manu.

In the 19th century the Code of code of Manu in its present form was widely thought to date from about the fifth century BC, though portions were thought to probably be much older, about 1000 BC. More recently, scholars have gravitated to the view that the Manu-Samhita, probably dates in its earliest form from about 500 BC, with the texts standardized between 200 BC and AD 200.

Brahmanism would seem to have first originated among Aryan colonists who established themselves between the valleys of the Indus and the Ganges about a thousand years after the Aryan conquest of the Panjab. While confined to the Panjab, the Aryas still remained a Vedic people, but on crossing over into the valley of the Ganges, they gradually became Brahmanical Hindus. The original country of the Brahmans extended, according to the Code of Manu, along the slopes of the Himalayas between the Sarsuti and Kagar: "Between the two divine rivers Saraswati [Sarsuti] and Drishadwati [Kagar] lies the tract of land [about 100 miles N.W. of Delhi] which the sages have named Brahmavata, because it was frequented by the gods."

The collection of laws and precepts commonly called " The Code of Manu" is the oldest and most celebrated of many books of the law that were compiled for the purpose of giving more definiteness to the vague injunctions of the Vedic hymns. It is a compilation of the customary law, and exhibits the social organization which the Brahmans, after their successful struggle for the supremacy, had established in the Middle Land of North India. No doubt ultimately it worked its way to acceptance with the entire Hindu community; and certainly in the end it not only secured for itself a high place in popular estimation and a degree of reverence only second to that accorded to the Veda, but it became, moreover, the chief authority as a basis of Hindu jurisprudence."

The laws of Manu were the result of a series of attempts to codify the usages of some not very extensive center of Brahmanism in Northern India, — a metrical digest of local customs condensed by degrees from a legendary mass of 100,000 couplets (slokas) into 2684. They may possibly have been reduced to their final form of a written code with a view to securing the system of caste against the popular movement of Buddhism, and to thus giving a rigid fixity to the privileges of the Brahmans.

The Brahmans early saw the importance of codes of law, and of ascribing to them a divine origin. The Brahmans claimed for their laws a divine origin, and ascribed them to the first Manu, or Aryan man, 30 millions of years ago [the word Manu is from the Sanskrit root man, to think], who sprang from Swayam-bhu, the "self-existing" [identified with Brahma]; and by others to the Manu of the present period, the seventh Manu, or Vaivaswata, the son of Vaivaswat, the sun. In the Hindu mythology the name belongs to the fourteen Praja-patis, or forefathers of all creatures, each of whom presides over the destinies of men for a period, called a Manwantara, of 4,320,000 years. In the Rig-Veda Vaivaswata is the father of the Aryas and the whole human race; and it has been conjectured that his name was applied by its compilers to the Code of Manu to reconcile the Brahmanfcal law to the Aryan Kshatriyas.

The conception of Manu as the first man, the father of the Vedic Aryans, if not of the whole the human race, finds sufficient expression in the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Subsequently, in the Brahmanic period he is said to have been warned by a fish to build a ship, in which ho ultimately escaped from a great flood; a legend which bears a curious resemblance to the Mosaic tradition of Noah and the deluge. Brahmanical code has been ascribed to Manu, and is still known as the Institutes of Manu. This association of the name of the Vedic Manu with the Brahmanical code may have arisen from the desire to assert the remote antiquity and divine authority.

The distinction between the Vedic and Brahmanic ages is seen in the distinction between the Vedic conception of Manu as the first man, and the Brahmanic conception of Manu as the divine lawgiver. The conception of Manu as the first man, the father of the Vedic Aryans, if not of the whole the human race, finds sufficient expression in the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Subsequently, in the Brahmanic period he is said to have been warned by a fish to build a ship, in which ho ultimately escaped from a great flood; a legend which bears a curious resemblance to the Mosaic tradition of Noah and the deluge. From these circumstances the famous Brahmanical code has been ascribed to Manu, and is still known as the Institutes of Manu. This association of the name of the Vedic Manu with the Brahmanical code may have arisen from the desire to assert the remote antiquity and divine authority but it may also have been deemed expedient to recommend that law to the worshippers of the Vedic deities, by referring its origin to the time-honored progenitor of the Vedic Aryans.

The connection of the Vedic Manu with the Brahmanical law is accompanied by another significant fact. The so-called "Institutes of Manu" are the expression of an important compromise in religious history; being, in fact, a compromise between the worship of the Vedic deities and the worship of the god Brahma, between whom an opposition amounting almost to an antagonism seems at one time to have prevailed. The compilers of the code have certainly spared no pains to uphold the worship of the god Brahma above that of the Vedic deities; but at the same time they have found it necessary to recognize Vedic rites and institutions to an extent which imparts a two-fold character to a large portion of the code; one referring to the Vedic period, and the other to the Brahmanic period. At the same time, however, the compromise has evidently been carried out by Brahmans, who have done their best, as in the MahaBharata and Ramayana, to Brahmanize every Vedic tradition.

The code of Manu is separated from the Vedic era by a series of Brahmanical developments. The Vedic worship was simply the natural expression of the gratitude of men for their daily bread; who, before sitting down to their meals, instinctively offered of the meat and drink before them to the gods from whom they believed these blessings came. In the Code of Manu these oblations of food and wine are superseded, or overlaid by an elaborate ritual of essentially a sacrificial and propitiatory character. But the Vedic gods are not yet so completely set aside as in the Puranas, although they are all rigidly subordinated to Brahma, the especial deity of the Brahmans. Nor again is there in the Code of Manu any indications of that wholesale absorption of the pantheon of the aboriginal races of southern India which, as the later Puranas show, was gradually forced on the Brahmans. The Code is on analogous grounds proved to be also older than the Ramayana and Mahabharata, in their present form, for it makes no allusion to the Kshatriya heroes Rama and Krishna, who are declared in the Itihasas to be incarnations of Vishnu.

The seventh chapter supplies a systematic contemporary account of the social and religious institutions of ancient India. The village system it describes is the permanent endowment of the traditionary arts of India. Each community is a little republic, and manages its own affairs, so far as it is allowed, having rude municipal institutions perfectly effectual for the purposes of self-government and protection. Its relations with the central Government are conducted by a headman, and its internal administration by a staff of hereditary officers, consisting of an accountant, watchman, money-changer, smith, potter, carpenter, barber, shoemaker, astrologer, and other functionaries, including, in some villages, a dancing girl, and a poet or genealogist. This whole chapter is of the deepest interest. The form of government it enforces is in marked contrast with the feudal type of the original Vedic traditions to be found running through the Brahmanical revisals of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. All traces of patriotism and of the sentiment of devotion to the common weal, and of loyalty to great national leaders, which certainly characterised the Vedic Aryas of India, and which are essential to the preservation of the liberties and independence of states and empires, have been eliminated from the sacerdotal system of Manu. It recognises only the narrow interests of the family, the village, and, in a very limited degree, except among Brahmans, the caste.

The origin and progress of the caste-system in India is of course difficult to trace, though the caste system was absent in the early Rig Vedic society. It was only in the Vedic Age, the time of the Smritis which can be placed between 1000 and 500 BC, that the caste system became institutionalised and rigid. The chief architects of this rigid stratification of society were the authors of the Manu-Smriti. The restrictions upon inter-marriage, inter-dining and occupations which are the essential characteristics of a caste system are amply present in the Manu-Smriti. Hindu society is divided into four classes which are termed varnas. It is said in Manu Smriti (X, 97) "It is better to do one's own duty (dharma) badly than another's well."

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