Posted by Sreyashi Ghosh
Every time, while writing commentaries on ancient Indian texts, especially Manusmriti, I am faced with a dilemma which in the words of Andy Williams, can be described as where do I begin? Indian literature is replete with texts listing the dos and don’ts with regard to every aspect of life. With 79.8% of the population following Hinduism (2011 Census), most texts are ‘Hindu’ texts, though texts belonging to various religions are found in our multi-religious Indian society.
Traditional Hindu texts can be classified into Srutis and Smritis. Prior to the arrival of the printing, lessons in Hinduism were verbally transmitted (learning by hearing or Sruti) by the sages to their disciples through an immaculately preserved system of Gurukul and these lessons were later recorded in the form of Vedas, Upanisads and others.
Smritis refer to something that is remembered or written like the Itihasas, Manusmriti, Puranas. Vedas are the earliest texts composed in Vedic Sanskrit. Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva are the four Vedas. Each of which is further subdivided into Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aryanakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices) and Upanishads (text on meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).
Vedas are the oldest, believed to be composed around 1000-500 B.C and transmitted orally. Vedanga marks the beginning of the post-Vedic literature. Manusmriti or Manava Dharmashastra, finds eminence as an ancient legal text, though there are disagreements among scholars and historians regarding the actual date of when Manusmriti surfaced.
According to some scholars, Manusmriti was established by the 5th Century C.E, but regardless of the time of its first appearance, Manusmriti has remained colossally influential in determining the structure and the function of Indian society. As a text, Manusmriti is divided into 12 adhyayas or lessons and the four broad themes that emerge from the text are – the creation of the world, sources of Dharma, the dharma of the four social classes and the law of Karma, rebirth and the final liberation.
Manusmriti has been upheld as the ultimate guide to lead a moral life, the digressing of which is to be treated with serious negative sanctions. So detailed is the text, that it covers all aspects of the lives of people belonging to all social strata. Many scholars are of the opinion that the text has been compiled by not one but many writers.
Manusmriti details the role to be performed by the four varnas – The Brahmins, The Kshatriyas, The Vaishyas and The Shudras, though he spends only 10 verses detailing the role of the last two. It lays down the behaviour and moral codes to be followed by the superordinate and the subordinate. It also details the duties to be performed by the women within the household (totally disregarding the possibility of women making a mark in the world outside the domain of the private sphere).
Manusmriti has been single-handedly responsible for the derogatory position accorded to women in the post-Vedic period. The watertight dichotomization of the public and private sphere and the confinement of the women in the former has found its requisite justification in a text like Manusmriti. The ubiquitous presence of women in Hindu texts can never be overlooked.
Manusmriti has been single-handedly responsible for the derogatory position accorded to women in the post-Vedic period.
Women have always been regarded as the guardians of dharma, custodian and transmitter of patriarchal values. The Vedas and Upanishads are replete with anecdotes of how gods and sages from time immemorial have created, used and controlled women for their own benefits and other’s destruction. Manusmriti imparts detailed knowledge of the rites and duties to be performed by married women and being subservient to her husband tops the list.
Vilification of women has been highlighted by portraying the woman as a dependent and vile creature requiring constant protection and guidance – initially by the father or brother and later by the husband and son. The unabashed elevation of the patriarchal values is shown in the fact that men (especially Brahmins) have been instructed not to accept food from women without a husband.
There is hardly any discourse noticeable on the unmarried women in the text as an unmarried menstruating woman is seen as a threat to the social equilibrium and a source of religious pollution. The verbatim translation of some of the passages in Manusmriti by Patrick Olivelle with regard to the duties of the married women towards her husband states-
The man to whom her father or, with her father’s consent, her brother gives her away- she should obey him when he is alive and not be unfaithful to him when he is dead. The invocation of blessings and the sacrifice to Prajapati are performed during marriage to procure her good fortune; the act of giving away is the reason for his lordship over her.
In season and out of season, in this world and in the next, the husband who performed the marriage consecration with ritual formulas always gives happiness to his woman. Though he may be bereft of virtue, given to lust and totally devoid of good qualities, a good woman should always worship her husband like a god.
For a woman, there is no independent sacrifice, vow or fast; a woman will be exalted in heaven by the mere fact that she has obediently served her husband. A good woman, desiring to go to the same world as her husband, should never do anything displeasing to the man who took her hand, whether he is alive or dead.
After her husband is dead, she may voluntarily emaciate her body by eating pure flower, roots, and fruits; but she must never mention even the name of another man. Aspiring to that unsurpassed Law of women devoted to a single husband, she should remain patient, controlled, and celibate until her death.
Untold thousands of Brahmins who have remained celibate from their youth have gone to heaven without producing offspring to continue their family line. Just like these celibates, a good woman, though she be sonless, will go to heaven when she steadfastly adheres to the celibate life after her husband’s death.
When a woman is unfaithful to her husband because of her strong desire for children, she is disgraced in this world and excluded from the husband’s world. No recognition is given here to offspring fathered by another man or begotten on another’s wife; nor is it taught anywhere that a good woman should take a second husband.
When a woman abandons her own husband of lower rank and unites with a man of higher rank, she only brings disgrace upon herself in the world and is called ‘a woman who has had a man before’. By being unfaithful to her husband, a woman becomes disgraced in the world, takes birth in a jackal’s womb, and is afflicted with evil diseases.
A woman who controls her mind, speech, and body and is never unfaithful to her husband attains the world of her husband, and virtuous people call her a ‘good woman’. By following this conduct, a woman who controls her mind, speech and body obtains the highest fame in this world and the world of her husband in the next.
The injunctions above have shaped or deformed the status of women in Indian society to a great extent. The categorization of women as ‘good’ or ‘defiled’ have been established with unmistakable clarity in the passages like the one above.
Apart from the dependent status accorded to women, Manusmriti is also responsible for the commencement of the varna (later, the varnas got subdivided into castes which got further subdivided into jatis) system in India, with Brahmins elevated to the highest rank followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras.
The acute misogyny preached in every page of the text cannot be missed. Women have been projected as not only dependent but a major source of grief to the family if not controlled with proper stringency. The few ways of channelizing a woman’s energy so that she is not inclined to engage in adultery and any form of diatribe is to compel her to cook, clean and look after household goods.
Another verbatim, blood boiling translation of the text regarding women states-
They (women) pay no attention to beauty, they pay no heed to age; whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He’s a man!’ Lechery, fickleness of mind and hard-heartedness are innate in them; even when they are carefully guarded in this world, therefore, they become hostile towards their husbands.
Recognizing thus the nature produced in them at creation by Prajapati, a man should make the utmost effort at guarding them. Bed, seat, ornaments, lust, hatred, behavior unworthy of an Arya, malice, and bad conduct – Manu assigned these to women.
The social opprobrium of the women continued with Manusmriti suggesting that women should concentrate on the tasks they are good at i.e, bearing and rearing the progeny. Interestingly, Hinduism assigns four ashramas for the men to follow – Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyas, where the women’s inclusion and mention is seen only in the Grihastha ashrama.
The social status of woman – both in the present birth and beyond depends on the accurate and adroit fulfillment of the household tasks and duties towards her husband. With the derogatory portrayal of women, the demonising of people belonging to the non-dominant castes and establishing Brahmins as the highest authority deserving all the societal privileges, Manusmriti has explicitly promoted child marriage and dowry too – “A 30-year-old man should marry a charming girl of 12 years or any girl of 8 years – sooner, if his fulfilling the Law would suffer.”
Manusmriti has explicitly promoted child marriage and dowry too.
Despite the incessant lambasting of women and people belonging to non-dominant castes, Manusmriti has always remained the backbone of Indian patriarchal and caste structure. Situating the gender problem within the caste structure, the way Manava Dharmashastra has done, resulted in the rise of the discourse on intersectionality which states that gender discrimination is not a unilinear phenomenon that the occidental gender theories have promulgated.
Patriarchy in India is a problem adulterated by the caste-class nexus to a great extent, making the production of a metanarrative a difficult and convoluted task. Critical appraisal of ancient texts like Manusmriti is an imperative to make women realize that they are the prisoners of historically contrived shackles.
That makes me end this with two questions – why is there no such categorization applicable to men and even if there is how come ‘bad boys’ tag is not socially stigmatized the way ‘defiled women’ is? And how is there a complete invisibility of the male counterpart of ‘seductress’ and ‘temptress’ in the ancient texts and portrayal of men as the unsuspected victim of feminine charm? Will the defenders of the traditional Indian texts and scriptures please step up and answer?
- Buhler, G. (1886). Manusmriti: The Laws of Manu. Trans. G. Buhler, 25.
- Chakravarti, U. (1993). Conceptualising brahmanical patriarchy in early India: Gender, caste, class and state. Economic and Political Weekly, 579-585.
- Chakravarti, U. (1995). Gender, caste and labour: Ideological and material structure of widowhood. Economic and Political Weekly, 2248-2256.
- Olivelle, P. (Ed.). (2004). The law code of Manu. Oxford University Press, USA.
Sreyashi Ghosh is a senior research fellow at Indian Statistical Institute Kolkata. Her hobbies include travelling, reading and dissecting patriarchy either through speech or writing. Her talents include calling a spade a spade. She can be followed on Facebook.
Featured Image Credit: Raja Ravi Varma