The Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, recently criticised the Manusmriti, the ancient Sanskrit text, over its gender bias. Her remarks came while delivering the keynote address at the B R Ambedkar Lecture Series organised by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
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.
What is the text about?
- The Manusmriti is encyclopedic in scope, covering subjects such as the social obligations and duties of the various castes and of individuals in different stages of life, 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. 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 it would likely have been part of the curriculum for young Brahmin scholars at colleges, and would have been referenced by the scholarly debates and conversations on the Dharmasastras at that time.
What is its significance?
According to Doniger and Smith, “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)”.
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.
- For the author of the text, the Brahmin is assumed to be the perfect representative of the human race, while Sudras, 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.