What Are the Ancient Hindu Laws of Manu?

A Hindu Code of Conduct for Domestic, Social, and Religious Life in India

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The Laws of Manu (also called the Manava Dharma Shastra) is traditionally accepted as one of the supplementary arms of the Vedas. It is one of the standard books in the Hindu canon and a basic text upon which teachers base their teachings. This 'revealed scripture' comprises 2684 verses, divided into twelve chapters presenting the norms of domestic, social, and religious life in India (circa 500 BC) under the Brahmin influence, and it is fundamental to the understanding of ancient Indian society.

Background to the Manava Dharma Shastra

The ancient Vedic society had a structured social order in which the Brahmins were esteemed as a highest and the most revered sect and assigned the holy task of acquiring ancient knowledge and learning — the teachers of each Vedic school composed manuals written in Sanskrit about their respective schools and designed for the guidance of their pupils. Known as 'sutras,' these manuals were highly revered by the Brahmins and memorized by each Brahmin student.

The most common of these were the 'Grihya-sutras,' dealing with domestic ceremonies; and the 'Dharma-sutras,' treating the sacred customs and laws. The extremely complicated bulk of ancient rules and regulations, customs, laws, and rites were gradually enlarged in scope, transformed into aphoristic prose, and set to musical cadence, then systematically arranged to constitute the 'Dharma-Shastras.' Of these, the most ancient and most famous is the Laws of Manu, the Manava Dharma-shastra—a Dharma-sutra' belonging to the ancient Manava Vedic school.

The Genesis of the Laws of Manu

It is believed that Manu, the ancient teacher of sacred rites and laws, is the author of Manava Dharma-Shastra. The initial canto of the work narrates how ten great sages appealed to Manu to recite the sacred laws to them and how Manu fulfilled their wishes by asking the learned sage Bhrigu, who had been carefully taught the metrical tenets of the sacred law, to deliver his teachings. However, equally popular is the belief that Manu had learned the laws from Lord Brahma, the Creator—and so the authorship is said to be divine.

Possible Dates of Composition

Sir William Jones assigned the work to the period 1200-500 BCE, but more recent developments state that the work in its extant form dates back to the first or second century CE or perhaps even older. Scholars agree that the work is a modern versified rendition of a 500 BCE 'Dharma-sutra,' which no longer exists.

Structure and Content

The first chapter deals with the creation of the world by the deities, the divine origin of the book itself, and the objective of studying it.

Chapters 2 through 6 recounts the proper conduct of the members of the upper castes, their initiation into the Brahmin religion by a sacred thread or sin-removing ceremony, the period of disciplined studentship devoted to the study of the Vedas under a Brahmin teacher, the chief duties of the householder. This includes the choice of a wife, marriage, protection of the sacred hearth-fire, hospitality, sacrifices to the gods, feasts to his departed relatives, along with the numerous restrictions—and finally, the duties of old age.

The seventh chapter talks about manifold duties and responsibilities of kings. The eighth chapter deals with the modus operandi of civil and criminal proceedings and of the proper punishments to be meted out to different castes. The ninth and the tenth chapters relate the customs and laws regarding inheritance and property, divorce, and the lawful occupations for each caste.

Chapter eleven expresses the various kinds of penance for misdeeds. The final chapter expounds the doctrine of karma, rebirths, and salvation.

Criticisms of the Laws of Manu

Present-day scholars have criticized the work significantly, judging the rigidity of the caste system and the contemptible attitude toward women as unacceptable for today's standards. The almost divine reverence shown to the Brahmin caste and the despicable attitude towards the 'Sudras' (the lowest caste) is objectionable to many. The Sudras were forbidden to participate in the Brahmin rituals and were subjected to severe punishments, whereas the Brahmins were exempted from any kind of reprimand for crimes. The practice of medicine was prohibited to the upper caste.

Equally repugnant to modern scholars is the attitude toward women in the Laws of Manu. Women were considered inept, inconsistent, and sensual and were restrained from learning the Vedic texts or participating in meaningful social functions. Women were kept in abject subjugation all their lives.

Translations of Manava Dharma Shastra

  • The Institutes of Manu by Sir William Jones (1794). The first Sanskrit work to be translated into a European tongue.
  • The Ordinances of Manu (1884) begun by A. C. Burnell and completed by Professor E. W. Hopkins, published in London.
  • Professor George Buhler's Sacred Books of the East in 25 volumes (1886).
  • Professor G. Strehly's French translation Les Lois de Manou, forming one of the volumes of the "Annales du Musée Guimet", published in Paris (1893).
  • The Laws of Manu (Penguin Classics) translated by Wendy Doniger, Emile Zola (1991)
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Das, Subhamoy. "What Are the Ancient Hindu Laws of Manu?" Learn Religions, Sep. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/laws-of-manu-manava-dharma-shastra-1770570. Das, Subhamoy. (2021, September 8). What Are the Ancient Hindu Laws of Manu? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/laws-of-manu-manava-dharma-shastra-1770570 Das, Subhamoy. "What Are the Ancient Hindu Laws of Manu?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/laws-of-manu-manava-dharma-shastra-1770570 (accessed May 29, 2023).