Why Manusmriti is the symbol of the caste system for anti-caste reformers

The text in a way sums up Brahmanic ideology in the starkest terms and, therefore, it has become a rite of passage for anti-caste leaders to attack Manusmriti.
VCK protest for ban on Manusmriti
VCK protest for ban on Manusmriti
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After actor-turned-politician Khushboo Sundar took objection to Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief Thol Thirumavalavan’s remarks regarding women’s treatment in Manusmriti, it sparked a controversy in Tamil Nadu. Khushboo’s remarks were in response to a short, edited clip of Thirumavalavan’s speech that was being circulated on social media and it led to a number of cases being filed against him. The VCK came out on the streets on October 24 to demand a ban on the book.

Manusmriti holds an important place in the Brahmanic tradition. Vinoba Bhave, the spiritual successor of Mohandas Gandhi, admitted that Manusmriti had verses that endorsed social inequalities. But the acknowledgement did not compel him to reject the text. He instead claimed that the unsavoury portions were later interpolations and once we were to get rid of them, we would realise that what Manu stood for was “not social inequality but good order”.

Manu, the apocryphal author of Manav Dharma Shastra (another, more accurate title of Manusmriti), was fanatical in his support for the fourfold varna division of society and subjugation of women. However, this text enjoyed immense critical attention and popularity in the Brahmanic tradition. Brahmanic scholars have written more commentaries on this treatise than any other Dharmashastra. Brihaspati Dharmashastra, which was composed a few centuries after Manusmriti, says that Manu is the authority, and any text contradicting Manu has no validity. Patrick Olivelle, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin who prepared a critical edition of Manusmriti, calls it the “premier Dharmashastra in Indian history”.

Manusmriti holds a canonical place in the two millennia history of Brahmanic texts and, therefore, even though this lawbook embarrasses the proponents of Brahmanic Hinduism, such as Gandhi, they find it hard to openly disavow it. On the other hand, the more orthodox take immense pride in the technical finesse of what is considered the highest achievement in ‘Hindu law’. Indian courts have referred to Manusmriti multiple times while passing judgments, and the architect of India’s Constitution, Bhimrao Ambedkar, has often been described as a ‘modern Manu’ by many people without any sense of irony.

Ambedkar had famously burned Manusmriti in the Mahad convention on December 25, 1927, the event now celebrated by many anti-caste activists as ‘women’s liberation day’. Jotirao Phule (1827-1890) had criticised Manusmriti multiple times in his writings. He calls it ‘harsh and biased’, and says that the fraud of casteism was given shape to by Brahmin ancestors in the ‘filthy texts’ of Dharmashastras, such as Manusmriti. For many anti-caste reformers, Manusmriti is the symbol of the caste system and the subjugation of lower castes and women. This text in a way sums up Brahmanic ideology in the starkest terms and, therefore, as Meena Kandasamy says, it has become a rite of passage for anti-caste leaders to attack Manusmriti, Thirumavalavan being the latest.

However, Manusmriti is not alone in advocating varna vyavastha and the secondary status of women, nor is it the first. Manusmriti is preceded by Dharmasutras, the law texts composed in the style of aphoristic prose called sutra as opposed to the poetic style of slokas in Manusmriti. The Dharmasutras explain the origin of varnas by citing the famous Purusha Sukta in the Rig Veda: “His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Kṣatriya; his thighs are the Vaiśya; and from his feet the Śūdra was born.” (Vasistha chapter 4, verse 1 and 2)

Similarly, from Baudhayana chapter 3: It is not possible for women to act independently. Her father takes care of her in her childhood; her husband takes care of her in her youth; and her son takes care of her in her old age. A woman is not fit to act independently.

The Dharmasutras also make it clear that Shudras do not have the right to study the Vedas, nor do women. People often cite Manusmriti while pointing to the harsh punishment that the Shudras were supposed to receive if they made attempts to learn the Vedas but we find similar injunctions in Dharmasutras as well. For example, Gautama Dharmasutra says (chapter 12), “If he [a Shudra] listens in on a vedic recitation, his ears shall be filled with molten tin or lac; if he repeats it, his tongue shall be cut off; if he commits it to memory, his body shall be split asunder.”

Dharmasutras lay out what occupations are suitable for what varna and what their duties are. The secondary status of Shudras and women is made explicit on every page of these texts. The various rules for Chandalas show us that they were supposed to be treated as outcasts whose touch and sight was ‘polluting’ to the twice-born, especially Brahmin men. Baudhayana chapter 11 says: If someone touches a man who sells the Veda, a sacrificial post, an outcaste, a funeral pyre, a dog, or a Cāṇḍāla, he should take a bath.

Heterosexual marriage between man and woman of the same varna is idolised in the Dharmasutras while mixing of the varnas is forbidden. Marriages in the reverse order (pratiloma) in which the woman belongs to a higher varna than the man are especially singled out for strict punishment. In chapter 4, verse 1, Gautama says: A householder should marry a wife who comes from the same class as he, who has not been married before, and who is younger than he.

The severity of punishment for various crimes depends on what varna the accused belongs to, and Brahminicide, or the murder of a Brahmin man, is considered the biggest crime. Keeping with this strong opinion against Brahminicide, a Brahmin man is never supposed to face capital punishment no matter what the crime. Baudhayana chapter 18, verse 17 says: A Brahmin, clearly, is not subject to capital punishment for any crime.

Thus, though the exact details may differ, Manusmriti shared similar concerns and a similar outlook as its predecessors, the Dharmasutras, and also greatly inspired the succeeding Dharmashastras.

The endorsement of varna vyavastha and secondary status of women are the crux of Brahmanic ideology that pervades through all the Sanskrit texts in this tradition, including the epics and the Puranas. Many Puranas cite Dharmashastras verbatim in their didactic portions. Therefore, when anti-caste activists criticise the ‘premier Dharmashastra’, they are essentially protesting against Brahminism as a whole as Manusmriti is the most evocative representative of this ideology.

Tejas Harad is a social and political commentator.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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