Historical and Archaeological Findings in News

Manusmriti: the controversial ancient Sanskrit text


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Manusmriti

Mains level: Not Much

The Vice Chancellor of a renowned university recently criticized the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text, over its gender bias.

What is the news?

  • The VC said that the Manusmriti has categorised all women as shudras, which is extraordinarily regressive.

What is Manusmriti?

  • The Mānavadharmaśāstra, also known as Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu, is a Sanskrit text belonging to the Dharmaśāstra literary tradition of Hinduism.
  • Composed sometime between the 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, the Manusmriti is written in sloka verses, containing two non-rhyming lines of 16 syllabus each.
  • The text is attributed to the mythical figure of Manu, considered to be ancestor of the human race in Hinduism.
  • There has been considerable debate between scholars on the authorship of the text.
  • Many have argued that it was compiled by many Brahmin scholars over a period of time.
  • However, Indologist Patrick Olivelle argues that Manusmṛiti’s “unique and symmetrical structure,” means that it was composed by a “single gifted individual,” or by a “strong chairman of a committee” with the aid of others.

What is the text about?

(A) Social aspects

  • The Manusmriti is encyclopaedic in scope, covering subjects such as the social obligations and duties of the various castes and of individuals in different stages of life.
  • It seeks to govern the suitable social and sexual relations of men and women of different castes, on taxes, the rules for kingship, on maintaining marital harmony and the procedures for settling everyday disputes.
  • At its core, the Manusmriti discusses life in the world, how it is lived in reality, as well as how it ought to be.

(B) Political aspects

  • They argue that the text is about dharma, which means duty, religion, law and practice.
  • It also discusses aspects of the Arthashashtra, such as issues relating to statecraft and legal procedures.
  • The aim of the text is to present a blueprint for a properly ordered society under the sovereignty of the king and the guidance of Brahmins.
  • It was meant to be read by the priestly caste and Olivelle argues that it would likely have been part of the curriculum for young Brahmin scholars at colleges.

What is its significance?

  • By the early centuries of the Common Era, Manu had become, and remained, the standard source of authority in the orthodox tradition for that centrepiece of Hinduism, varṇāśrama-dharma (social and religious duties tied to class and stage of life)”.
  • Indologists argue that it was a very significant text for Brahmin scholars — it attracted 9 commentaries by other writers of the tradition, and was cited by other ancient Indian texts far more frequently than other dharmaśāstra.

How did colonists consider this text?

  • European Orientalists considered the Manusmṛiti to be of great historical and religious significance as well. It was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into a European language, by the British philologist Sir William Jones in 1794.
  • Subsequently, it was translated into French, German, Portuguese and Russian, before being included in Max Muller’s edited volume, Sacred Books of the East in 1886.
  • For colonial officials in British India, the translation of the book served a practical purpose.
  • In 1772, Governor-General Warren Hastings decided to implement laws of Hindus and Muslims that they believed to be “continued, unchanged from remotest antiquity.
  • For Hindus, the dharmasastras were to play a crucial role, as they were seen by the British as ‘laws,’ whether or not it was even used that way in India.

Why is it controversial?

  • The ancient text has 4 major divisions: 1) Creation of the world. 2) Sources of dharma. 3) The dharma of the four social classes. 4) Law of karma, rebirth, and final liberation.
  • The third section is the longest and most important section.
  • The text is deeply concerned with maintaining the hierarchy of the four-fold varna system and the rules that each caste has to follow.
  • Then, the Brahmin is assumed to be the perfect representative of the human race.
  • While Shudras, who are relegated to the bottom of the order, are given the sole duty of serving the ‘upper’ castes.
  • Some verses also contain highly prejudicial sentiments against women on the basis of their birth.
  • There are many verses in the text that are considered highly controversial.

Dr. Ambedkar and Manusmriti

  • On December 25, 1927, Dr B R Ambedkar had famously burned the Manusmṛiti, which he saw as a source of gender and caste oppression.
  • However, he widely acknowledged that Manusmriti is NOT a religious decree but a social doctrine, manipulated since centuries to normalize oppression of the population.


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