Of the Priests, By the Priests, For the Priests

Having just accomplished one of my life’s aims, I ask myself whether it was really worth it. I have just finished reading The Laws of Manu. I can’t think of any endeavour more single-minded, more self-serving and more ruthlessly successful in its purpose. It tells us why we Hindus still have the caste system in India, why we are so besotted with religion and why women are third-class citizens in our society.

I read the Penguin Classics edition of The Laws of Manu in my father’s library translated by professor and scholar Wendy Doniger and Brian K Smith. I had written about her Hindu Myths in a blog post long ago. I had already read and heard so much about the laws of Manu, that you could argue I should have been prepared for its contents. And in a way, I was.

What I was not prepared for are the inherent contradictions and the fact that it is a set of strictures written not merely to organize our lives but to regulate it. To regiment it. In her detailed introduction to the book, Wendy Doniger writes about how the laws of Manu establish the authority of the Veda.

“One of the most strategic moves made in Manu and other texts was a full equation of priestly authority and Vedic authority, of ‘God’ and the priestly ‘forefathers’, of revelation and tradition. Not only did it have the effect of further bolstering the claims of the priesthood to social supremacy; it also made possible perpetual revelation via the mouths of the class mythically envisioned as the mouth of the creator. Interpretation and revelation were wholly conflated in the person of the ‘learned priest’.”

Who then, was Manu and who were the people who wrote these laws, to “mythically envision the mouth of the creator”? It is often believed that Manu, son of lord Brahma, considered the creator of the universe in Hindu mythology wrote these laws. But other commentators, according to Ms Doniger, are of the view that these laws were written by several priests, including Manu, and that they represent the views of the priestly class as to how life ought to be lived in Hindu society.

Let us for a moment leave Hindu mythology aside and consider historical facts. It is by now well-established that the Aryans who invaded India around 1500 BC were not organized into any religion or society. Indeed, they had never known an urban, settled society or way of life and are responsible for destroying the Indus Valley civilization which had existed for centuries before their arrival. The Aryans were also non-vegetarians at the time and believed in asserting human supremacy over animal life. They spoke a strange new language, Sanskrit, and wrote as well as practiced the strictures of the Vedas. In practice, they were an aggressive, violent people who believed in animal sacrifice and several other elaborate rituals.

In other words, the Aryans were no more than a large horde of people with very tribal instincts when they came to India. They were not led by any great king or emperor in their invasion of the country. Yet, they drove people out of the ancient Indus Valley towns and urban settlements and began establishing themselves as a new race.

Organised religion and Hinduism came much later. And with it, the gradual preference for vegetarianism among the Aryans, although The Laws of Manu prescribes animal sacrifices in Yagnas in several instances. Indeed, the story of creation according to Hindu mythology, with which the Upanishads begin, is the Ashwamedha, or the horse sacrifice. Further, the Hindu belief of Karma lays down how your next life will be determined by the way you live this one; bad karma condemns you to be reborn as some animal or the other. In fact, the true Aryan is a person always referred to as the “twice-born”.

And who decided all this? A class of priests who wrote The Laws of Manu millennia ago and by which laws we still try to conduct our lives today. Reading The Laws of Manu, it becomes very clear that the priestly authors had huge vested interests in prescribing these strictures. One is constantly confronted with passages and sections that seek to place the priests above everyone else.

Did you think that the king was almighty in the world of the Vedas? No, he was ordained to become king by undertaking the transformational ritual or samskara, and Hindu mythology is full of stories of kings who met their demise at the hands of priests, as Ms Doniger informs us in chapter 7 of the book. Were one’s parents above priests? No, because with the Vedas as the final arbiter of how life should be lived, the teacher of the Vedas is considered a truer parent than even the biological parent, as mentioned in chapter 1.

“Between the one who gives him birth and the one who gives him the Veda, the one who gives the Veda is the more important father; for a priest’s birth throughout the Veda is everlasting, both here on earth and after death.”

Is it any wonder then that the priests of the Vedic age put themselves at the top of the pyramid they created of four varnas or classes of people? That all of society was organized around four classes or castes as we know them today, with Brahmins at the very pinnacle because they were the privileged “learned ones” who could teach the Vedas? That life was also organized into four stages, with strict prescriptions for how people should conduct themselves in each: as a student of the Veda, as a householder, a forest-dweller or an ascetic and finally as a hermit anticipating death, or the next life.

The laws are also cleverly devised to reinforce the undisputed position of the priest and the higher-ranking classes. For example, in chapter 4, after a section on whose food one should not eat, Manu lists the consequences of doing so. The graded system of these and the values they have been assigned are too glaring to ignore.

“The food of a king takes away brilliant energy; the food of a servant (takes away) the splendour of the Veda; the food of a goldsmith, longevity; that of a leather-worker, fame. The food of a manual labourer kills off the progeny (of the man who eats it); that of a washerman saps his strength… the food of a doctor is pus, the food of a woman who runs after men is semen, the food of a money-lender is excrement and the food of an arms dealer is dirt.”

The laws are also cleverly formulated to allow us restorations and ways to make amends for the error, or offence committed. And these, likewise, come graded corresponding to the level of the offence by class of people. In chapter 3, where Manu talks of the four laws of marriage, he also tells us how the sons born of such marriages can restore or save previous generations.

“If a son born to a woman from a Brahma marriage does good deeds, he frees from guilt ten of the previous ancestors who came before him. ten later descendants and himself as the twenty-first. A son born to a woman who has had a marriage of the gods frees seven ancestors and seven descendants. A son born to a woman of the marriage of the sages frees three of each and a son born to a woman who has had a marriage of the Lord of Creatures frees six of each.”

You might have noticed that they are all sons. And that’s hardly surprising because Manu’s laws accord no position to women in society. They are simply there to be taken by husbands or given by fathers, because their only purpose in life is to procreate. In fact, in chapter 1 Manu’s Laws states that women are wanton creatures.

“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women. It is not just an ignorant man, but even a learned man of the world, too, that a wanton woman can lead astray when he is in the control of lust and anger.”

That is not all, there are entire chapters and sections of chapters on how women are to be treated, what kinds of wives to accept in marriage, her independence or lack of it, why she needs to be guarded, and the like. All of it is meant to keep women submissive and under the man’s thumb. In chapter 5, Manu says:

“A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in her own house. In childhood, a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth, under her husband’s and when her husband is dead, under her sons’. She should not have independence.”

The detailed prescriptions of Manu extend to how menstruating women must be treated, what to eat and what to avoid, down to even telling people where not to urinate. Shockingly, the strictures also specify sexual relations between priests and women as well as the practice of “appointing women” – allowing women to marry their husband’s brother, if the couple have no progeny, or if the husband dies.   

One of the aspects of The Laws of Manu that I find most disconcerting is that classes of people (varnas) could be determined on the basis of birth as an immutable fact of life. Inter-caste and inter-community marriage was of course proscribed, as were the interactions between them. Little wonder, BR Ambedkar burnt a copy of The Laws of Manu as a sign of protest against the unfairness of the caste system in India. While drafting India’s constitution, he ensured that there were special reservations made for the backward classes which he thought would be required for another 50 years or so. As India commemorates her 75th year of independence, we realise that we still have a very long way to travel to achieve caste parity. 

The other aspect is, of course, Manu’s entire attitude towards women. This too has seriously hampered women’s education, working lives and career growth in India. In recent years, women’s labour force participation rate in India has plummeted to all-time lows, despite greater growth of the middle classes. And even as we educate our girls, we do so to increase their value in the marriage market.

Finally, what The Laws of Manu tells us is that as a people, we Hindus still conflate mythology with history and both with religion. For even the Greeks had a mythology, but they never confused it with religion, even less with history. In fact, they had their Titans before they had their Gods and both had to engage in battles for the Gods to eventually gain supremacy. Greek gods did not decide kings either, and governing was to that extent secular.

I also find it strangely cruel that The Laws of Manu has no rules for charity or compassion for the poor and less privileged. Surely, such an elaborate and detailed codex with even chapters on how kings should govern ought to have thought about how the poor are to be treated. But perhaps in the varna system, that is too much to expect. On the contrary, I found several instances where the poor, including servants, sickly, the differently-abled and lepers are to be shunned as outcastes. Quite in contrast with the Bible and its passages on Lazarus.

Strangely, though, Nietzsche was very taken in by Laws of Manu, or so Wendy Doniger would have us believe. It is in comparing Laws of Manu with Christianity that Nietzsche finds greater comfort with the former, seeing it as an affirmation of respect for the human race. How Nietzsche could reconcile with the fact that Laws of Manu pre-ordains life for man at birth, from which there is no escape is something I find at odds with his thinking on will and power.

And finally, I cannot conclude this piece, especially when comparing Hindu thought with Western thought, without mentioning AK Ramanujan’s disagreement with the view that Manu is inconsistent. In his view, one has to view every statement of Manu’s in the context in which it was intended to be read. Wendy Doniger mentions a piece by Ramanujan titled Is There an Indian Way of Thinking that appeared in Contributions to Indian Sociology (1989), which I happened to find online and read.

Those of you who would like to read it, may click the link below.

The fact that there is a context tells me one thing: Laws of Manu was not written for the world we live in now and will encounter in the future. It is time to bury it.

The featured image at the start of this post is of a Mewar miniature painting of Matsya and Manu, circa 1840, from Wikimedia Commons 

Post Script: I should once again mention that I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this book, even if it is in my father’s library. Indeed, parts of it reek of mischief by the unprofessional idiots at Perfect Relations and BBDO India who have been meddling in publishing as well, among other things.

Various books are sent or given to my father through his friend in Goa, as if we don’t already have enough at home. And I have discovered meddling even in some of my books, while my luggage was in storage for several months at the packers and movers’ warehouse in Chennai while I returned to my parents in Goa, around 17 years ago.

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