Manusmriti also known as Manav Dharmashastra is the textual tradition of ancient Vedic sanatan Dharma or Hinduism as we call it today.
The text comes as a discourse given by Rishi Manu to a congregation of rishis who beseeched him to guide them how to face calamities after the legendary great floods in Brahmavarta (pralaya) some ten thousand years ago. They asked him to guide them towards an organised life with guidelines for all the social classes.
Manusmriti is the compilation of dialogue between Rishi Manu and Bhrigu in approximately 2685 shlokas, and was first translated in English in the year 1794 by Sir Williams Jones, a judge in the British Supreme Court in Kolkata.
Before moving on to how manusmriti has been misinterpreted and misrepresented let’s have a look at the background of this scripture. As mentioned earlier the setting happens to be sometime after the great flood or Pralay, somewhere from 1500 BCE to 500 AD. It was the time after the last ice age for which we have enough scientific evidences available now.
According to some historians, out of 2685 verses of manusmriti, only 1214 are authentic and rest were added eventually by “upper caste” Hindus who wanted their control and supremacy. Two most controversial aspects of manusmriti has been- Caste system and position of girls or women in society. Let’s try and dig into these further.
Caste system as described in Manusmriti-
Manusmriti is often (mis)quoted when it comes to caste division in Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma, mainly oppression of Shudras by upper caste Brahmins. Strangely no one ever mentions that Manusmriti comes from an era when birth based caste system never existed. In fact NONE of the Hindu scriptures has ever mentioned birth-based caste system. Sage Manu has based his formula for caste division from Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda.
Whenever manusmriti is quoted by liberals to prove how it promotes caste system, the verse quoted is
लोकानां तु विवृद्धि-अर्थं मुख-बाहु-ऊरु-पादत: ।
ब्राह्मणं क्षत्रियं वैश्यं शूद्रं च निरवतर्यत् ।।
And it means “For the sake of prosperity of the worlds he created the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Shudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs and his feet”. Liberals often stop here without giving any further explanation. Well the explanation goes as- the Brahmin from mouth because he is the scholar the teacher, Kshatriya from his arms as he is the warrior the protector, vaishya from thighs as he is the merchant and farmer taking care of our food and clothes and Shudra from feet as he is the one who does the work which doesn’t need brain.
The following verses prove that manusmriti DID NOT propagate caste-by-birth
न भोजनार्थ स्वे विप्र: कुल-गोत्रे निवेदयेत् ।
भोजनार्थ हि ते शंसन् वान्ताशी-इत्युच्यते बुधै: ।।
(One who eats by glorifying his gotra or family is considered an eater of his own vomit)
शुद्रो ब्राह्मणताम् एित ब्राह्मणश् च-एित शूद्रताम् ।
क्षत्रियाज् जातम् एवं तु विद्याद् वैशयात् तथा-एव च ।।
(Brahmin can become Shudra and Shudra can become Brahmin and same is true for Kahatriyas and Vaishyas) -clearly proves there was never a caste system by birth.
There are numerous shlokas in manusmriti that state that a person from upper caste can fall to lower caste because of his deeds and similarly someone from lower caste can rise up to upper caste.
न तिष्ठति तु य: पूर्वां न-उपास्ते यश् च पश्चिमाम् ।
स शूद्रवद् बहिष्कार्य: सर्वस्माद् दिव्जकर्मण: ।।
(A person who does not worship the Supreme God at least twice everyday should be considered a Shudra)
न-अभिव्याहारयेद् ब्रह्म स्वधानिनयनाद् ऋते ।
शूद्रेण हि समस् तावद् यावद् वेदे न जायते ।।
(He who has not been initiated with teachings of the Vedas is a Shudra)
उत्तमान् उत्तमान् एव गच्चन् हीनांस् तु वर्जयन् ।
ब्राह्मण: श्रेष्ठताम् एति प्रत्यवायेन शूद्रताम् ।।
(A Brahmin is the one who squires brilliance through company of noble person but if he keeps bad company he becomes a Shudra)
These verses not only prove that caste system was not birth based but also that Brahmin was the one who was scholarly and Shudra was the uneducated one. As per manusmriti, being Brahmin is a qualification one has to earn.
स्वाध्यायेन व्रतैर् होमैस् त्रैविध्वेन-इज्यया सुतै: ।
महायज्ञैश् च यज्ञैश् च ब्राह्मी-इयं क्रियते तनु: ।।
(The body is fit to be called Brahmin only through study of scriptures, discipline, noble and selfless deeds, fulfilling duties and responsibilities, knowledge of science, meditation and charity)
यथा काष्ठमयो हस्ती यथा चर्ममयो मृग: ।
यश् च विप्रो अन्-अधीयानस् त्रयस् ते नाम बिभ्रति ।।
(An uneducated Brahmin is equivalent to an elephant made of wood or a deer made of leather. They are fake namesake and not real)
Let’s now look at few examples which prove that birth based caste never existed in Sanatan Dharma and Varna system was completely merit based.
Matanga was son of a Chandal but became a Brahmin
Ravan was son of Pulatsya Rishi but became a rakshasa
Rishi Vishwamitra was a Kahatriya who became Brahmin whereas his sons later became Shudra
Vidur was son of a Shudra servant but became a Brahmin and minister
Rishi Vatsya was a Shudra who became Brahmin
Parishadh son of King Daksha became a Shudra & later did rigorous tapasya to achieve salvation
Satyakam was son of a prostitute but became a Brahmin
Rishi Ailush was son of a prostitute. He had researched Vedas and made many discoveries. He was made an Acharya
Rishi Shaunak was born in Kahatriya family but became Brahmin and as per Vishnu Puran his sons belonged to all four Varnas
Trishanku was a king, in fact ancestor of Bhagwan Ram, but became a Chandal
Talking of caste system and Manusmriti, another propaganda that has been circulated even today is that, manusmriti advocates ill treatment of Shudras. Let’s look at this verse here-
Never disrespect or deny rights of a person who is handicapped, uneducated, aged, poor or belongs to a lower caste. Never judge anyone on these parameters.
वैश्य-शूद्राव् अपि प्राप्तौ कुटुम्बे अतिथि-धर्मिणौ ।।
भोजयेत् सह भृत्यैस् ताव् आनृशंस्यं प्रयोजयन् ।।
(If a Shudra or Vaishya come as guests, the family should feed them with due respect)
These are just few examples of what manusmriti talks about, while what is propagated is sheer lie and misinterpretation, which is mostly deliberate.
Part-1 of my attempt to explain how manusmriti has been repeatedly misinterpreted and abused by certain people to peddle their agenda of demonising Sanatan Dharma and dividing Hindus.
Picture Credit: www.hindi.webdunia.com
About the Author
Sona Roy (@Sona2905) is Strong believer in right wing ideology, avid traveller, photographer, occasional writer, interested mainly in history, architecture and studying ancient Indian scriptures