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A time travel to denounce women’s subjugation (Part 1)

Violence against women in any form is condemnable. One of the fundamental reasons behind this violence is said to be the unequal power relationship between men and women. It’s a worldwide problem and no country including India has been able to escape its evil clutches. As another International Women’s Day passes by, we engage ourselves in the annual ritual of expressing concern about the issue. However, it’s baffling that at times whenever any such violence occurs, many feminists and pseudo-feminists start lambasting Manusmriti for the ordeal! I remember when sometime back, Kavita Krishnan in The Indian Express declared, “One cannot be a feminist in India if you are not fighting the Manusmriti”. Really?! I am wondering whether Manu is really the ‘fall guy’ or the matter is far more complicated? And if we still keep referring to Manu, aren’t we forever on a time travel to the past and dragging the feminist movement backward?

Confusion creeps in right from the title of the text as it is known by two different names: Manusmriti or Manavadharmashastra. The first title omits the key word ‘dharma’ which subsumes English concepts of ‘religion’, ‘duty’, ‘law’, ‘right’, ‘justice’ and ‘practice’. Unlike shastra, smritis are recollected works relating to law and social conduct and often orally transmitted across the generations. The original text was possibly written in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. but different parts of the text were added during different periods.

Devdutt Pattanaik cautions us against equating Manusmriti as a law book of Hindus with the Sharia law of Muslims, or something in the nature of the Constitution of India. It is predominantly a model code of conduct consisting of 2,685 verses, collated by Brahmins, mainly for Brahmins and possibly for other upper caste communities, especially the Kshatriyas. It is one of several dharmashastra texts but undoubtedly the most popular one. It was among the first Sanskrit works to be translated into any European language. Sir William Jones, one of the founding fathers of modern Indology, commissioned the translation of this work into English in 1794. Subsequently, it was translated into other European languages like French, German, Portuguese, Russian, etc. In fact, it startled the orientalists to the richness and antiquity of Hinduism. There are many versions of Manusmriti discovered in India and it is hard to tell as to which is the authentic one. The Calcutta manuscript with Kulluka Bhatta’s commentary is presumed to be authentic. Although Jones had made genuine efforts to learn Sanskrit, he never claimed to be an expert in the language, and for the translation, he relied on the pandits who were said to have their own influence on the original text. Texts were translated or rewritten hugely with Anglo-Brahminical bias.

Wendy Doniger and Brian Smith further note that only a small part of Manusmriti, which are generally regarded as late additions to the work, can only be called ‘law’, as we understand. The rest of the code is a wholesome manifestation of life in the world. Nevertheless, verses dedicated to women and lower castes have emerged as the most controversial ones while others have been almost forgotten.

Hence, it is certain that Manusmriti is the culmination of the work of several authors but popular wisdom has credited it to someone named ‘Manu’. It has created a great deal of problems in attributing the real authorship to the text. According to the Hindu mythology, Manu is the first man, the spiritual son of Lord Brahma. He is the name of a mythological king who is believed to be the ancestor of the human race, someone whom we can refer to as ‘Indian Adam’. The Sanskrit term for ‘human’ is manava, which means ‘of Manu’ or ‘children of Manu’. This probably explains the alternative name of the text. In later Hinduism, Manu is the title or name of fourteen mystical Kshatriya rulers of earth who continue to rule successively as the head of mythical dynasties when the universe is born anew. The present universe is under the reign of the 7th Manu named Vaivasvata. The Vishva Hindu Parishad also rejects the authenticity of the available Manusmriti and its connection with Manu.

Possibly because of several versions and commentaries, there are apparent contradictions in the text. While there are verses that speak about mutual love and respect between husband and wife, emphasize on the importance of treating women with dignity, discourage bride-price, encourage women’s education, approve limited consequences of the relationship of women outside marriage, allow women’s right to divorce, remarriage and property under certain circumstances; other verses punish women for inter-caste relationships, preach women chastity, denounce women’s promiscuous nature, and even indirectly accuse them for probable incest relationships. It also advises women to be obedient and dependent on their male members. Although it appears that Manu advocated for a protectionist structure through such dependency idea, many feminists consider it as ‘oppression’ through the present-day lens. Scholars apprehend that various restrictions on women including the issue of remarriage of wives and widows are subsequent insertions.

While theoretically, Manusmriti has remained an ideal priestly view of life in Hinduism for centuries, there is no evidence of the same being put into practice in legal courts even in the ancient era or Islamic period. Diverse customary practices took over. E.g., North Indian upper castes exercised a stricter control over women and their sexuality compared to the lower castes and the Dravidian regions. Before the advent of the British, local councils and village panchayats administered such varied customary practices in the adjudication process.

Flavia Agnes further adds that Buddhism and Jainism were successful in gliding the society away from the structure of Brahminical superiority and Sanskrit orthodoxy. Nonetheless, varied customary practices among Hindu communities created confusion and hardship for the British administration. Therefore, the colonial power reversed the trend and tried to introduce a concept of institutionalized religious structure akin to the Anglo-Saxon Christianity, which brought the smriti law into prominence. This became the origin of today’s Hindu law with Brahminical and Anglo-Saxon influence. To conclude, it was the British who created a legal fiction in the form of an alien and higher caste system of law to be implemented upon a pluralistic society.

Read part II

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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