The Laws of Manu | Origin, Times, Author

The Laws of Manu | Origin, Times, Author
/Continuation from full Index + Intro of The Laws of Manu online/

At the period of creation of the Manu Smriti the Vedas had firmly established their position, the dharma-writers had come to a definite opinion regarding the eternity and infallibility of the Vedas.

The sages who established new sciences and philosophy but who did not join the heresy were received with very great veneration among the public.

Sciences like mathematics, astronomy, and medicine had assumed a semi-sacred character, as they were supposed to be based on the Vedas, and as such could not have been neglected by a dharma-writer.

People followed not dharma alone, but all Śāstras, of which Dharma was one:

A shrewd scholar must have easily noticed that the incorporation of principles of other sciences into dharma would lead naturally to dharma’s supremacy.

The science or philosophy of ritual and Sacrifice also had come into existence:

The different schools of dharma were at variance, Purāṇas with their characteristic doctrines were coming forth, the doctrine of Buddhism had gained hold on the minds of the people.

The authority of the Vedas and the habit of referring to the authority of books also was questioned, if not discredited, and consequently the application of the doctrines of philosophy or some kind of reasoning was becoming absolutely necessary.

Not only the condition of literature and development of thought called forth a readjustment of dharma, but new social problems were coming forth which were making such a task necessary.

New races and tribes were coming into contact with the standard population of Madhyadeśa; the proper relation to be maintained toward them was to be treated by a work on dharma.

New institutions were rising; economic conditions were becoming more complex; the ideas regarding purity and pollution were becoming more and more extravagant.

All these facts were excuse and motive for a new work on Laws.

The motives of the author.

The motives with which the writer of Manu Smriti appears to have been affected are mainly

1. a respect for tradition, which included Vedas, Smriti, and other sacred or semi-sacred literature; and

2. a sense of inadequacy of the injunctions of the past; and

3. a desire for a more systematic arrangement, with some principles or philosophy in view.

But these were not the only motives which influenced our writer:

The book of this author, as well as those of all other writers of dharma, were influenced by the inherent weakness of the politics of the country.

The country was divided into numerous tribes, nations, or states; it was only when a powerful monarch would rise that a large part of the country would come under one head.

In these conditions, a positive law which would be obeyed by all people could not have been thought of.

The thankless task of guiding the people and of preventing them from doing wrong fell, to a large extent, on spiritual authority, as the political authority was unfit for their share of the burden.

More than this, for the welfare of the people the princes also were to be advised with reference to their own conduct, since they, without proper guidance, would have misused their authority.

But with such a huge task before the Brāhmaṇas, what power did they have?

All that they had to rely on was their knowledge of the sacred literature, for which all people had high respect. Therefore, all that they could do to prevent improper conduct was to condemn it in strong language on the authority of the Vedas.

Again, the education of the people was very poor:

Although the sciences and philosophies could develop, and did develop, without the art of writing, or at least without any extensive use of it, they could by no means be popular.

Learning was confined to a small class of people who developed their mental powers very highly, while the masses were ignorant.

The masses could not have been guided either by utility or by abstract moral principles. They were to be compelled to follow righteous conduct, either through the terrors of the regal sceptre or of hell. 

All these facts had a determinate relation with the motives of the writer:

When a dharma- writer tells us that a certain action leads to hell or to such and such torments for the wrongdoer or his forefathers, it should by no means be considered that the writer was always a fool to think so, but only that he found it necessary to say so.

The motives of the writer of the Laws of Manu are important to understand not only to enable us to get at the facts more accurately, but also to better understand the personality of the writer:

The author of a book which enjoyed such universal prestige in India should not suffer condemnation without reason.

Place of the work in legal literature.

The Laws of Manu is a conversion of Manava-dharma-sūtra, which itself belonged to the Maitrāyaṇīya school of Black Yajur Veda.

Dharma sūtras date from 600 to 300 B. C. They were manuals of conduct belonging to different branches of Vedas. Manava-dharma-sūtra must have been a similar book, compiled at some time when other sūtras were compiled.

All these sūtras were of local validity, sectarian, unsystematic and incomplete. With the growth of society, a more comprehensive book, free from the defects mentioned, became necessary.

Nature of dharma.

It has already been said that Manava-dharma-shastra is a work on dharma. In order to interpret the book properly, we should first consider the nature of dharma.

The science of Dharma first evolved as a division of Kalpa sciences which dealt with sacrifices and ceremonial, and which were divided into

Śrauta sūtras (aphorisms which treat of the duties of a sacrificer),
Grihya sūtras (sūtras teaching the duty of a householder) and
Dharma sūtra (which teach the duties of a citizen).

The field which should be occupied by Dharma in contrast with those of Śrauta and Grihya was not sharply defined. Subjects treated by Dharma sūtra of a certain school are treated by Grihya sūtras of another school and vice versa.

Dharma had various shades of meanings. It meant law proper, rule of right, morality religion, innate quality, justice, and above all, duty.

Later on, the meaning was restricted, and the ideas which were grouped under dharma became more and more definite.

In Buddhist literature the word “dharma” (dhamma), besides its common meaning, was also used technically in a philosophical sense, the elucidation of which is unnecessary for our present purposes.

In Brahmin literature the word “dharma” probably kept its field, but the different ideas which were denoted by it came to be better distinguished from one another.

So dharma was divided into three branches:

1. Āchāra dharma (“usages,” rules of custom and ceremony);

2. Vyavahāra dharma, or law proper, and

3. Prāyaśchitta dharma (rules regarding atonement and penances).

During the time of Mānava-dharma-śāstra, the threefold division was in the state of incubation,

while in Yājñyavalkya’s times, these divisions appear to have been already made, as he has adopted this threefold division in his well-known smriti.

The writers like Nārada and Brihaspati expound Vyavahāra dharma only, and we have a number of writers treating one or other of the three divisions.

These few facts will enable the reader to understand that the word “dharma” has a long history of its own and one almost entirely different from that of die word “law,” the use of which in place of dharma would simply increase the confusion in the science.

Though the word has undergone various changes of meaning, one original idea contained in it was never lost sight of: Dharma never implied an order or command but a moral duty.

The expounder of dharma was not the king but the priest:

The king could not make or unmake dharma. It was absolute, eternal and unchangeable, while the priests were simply revealers or expounders.

Sharing the nature of what we may call law, were the orders of the king of more or less permanency, but the king was supposed to issue them in accordance with dharma.

As we know that the meaning of the word changed quite often, it is necessary for us to understand how the word was used by the writer of this sacred smriti.

Fortunately he has discussed this subject in his own work.

The author has given his own ideas on dharma in the introductory verses of the second chapter. He says:

Dharma is something that is followed by learned men and assented to by the virtuous. It should be followed with the idea that the observance will bear fruit sometime, though it is preferable to follow it irrespective of reward.

He who persists in discharging his duties in the right manner, reaches the deathless state.

Vedas are the first source of dharma, next come Smriti, and then the virtuous conduct of those who know the Veda and customs of the holy men, and finally “self-satisfaction.” (This word carries a meaning similar to the word “conscience.”)

When two statements of the Vedas contradict each other any course of action may be followed.

This explanation was enough for those who lived in India at the time when our text came to be written, but modern readers, who have forgotten the ideas and feelings which once prevailed, need some more explanation.

It was already said that dharma was not what may be called positive law:

Dharma was not a command of a political superior, but was in practice the advice, of a spiritual superior.

The expounder of dharma was not merely a jurisprudent but was primarily a teacher:

This notion appears to be quite marked in the Laws of Manu too:

There we find the writer advising his reader what things would bring happiness to the latter and what will not.

In order to elucidate the rules he often enters into elaborate discussion of the reasons for the respective statements, and shows their rationality.

Another peculiar feature of dharma is law of preference, e. g.:

A dharma writer would first give advice to the effect that everybody should marry in his own Varṇa;

and again he would say that marrying a woman of lower Varṇa is permissible, while marrying one of higher Varṇa is never permissible. He would moreover urge that no Brāhmaṇa should marry a Śūdra woman.

There is something in the language of the book which will show clearly the fact that the rules given are precepts more than anything else.

In India it is quite customary for a Brahmin to tell his son that to drink wine or to speak a lie is a greater sin than a murder and he would illustrate what he said by a story from a Purāṇa.

This should not be construed that the Brāhmaṇa does not understand the gravity of murder; it is rather merely a popular way of expressing the gravity of a certain action, by comparing it with actions the gravity of which is well recognized.

We find statements of this nature and similar other exaggerated statements scattered all over the book.

Maintenance of Dharma.

— How was dharma maintained?

The ceremonial part of dharma which was necessarily performed with the aid of Brāhmaṇas was easily maintained, e. g.: The determination of the proper time for initiation of a certain caste. Here the Brāhmaṇa was the person with whom the decision lay.

Again the king was supposed to maintain dharma which the priest may declare to him.

There was in general an understanding among the people, that dharma would be maintained not only by the kings, but also by the gods.

The masses thus obeyed a large number of injunctions of dharma to avoid terrors of the future life:

The transgressor would go to one or more of the twenty-one hells (IV, 87-90) or would be condemned to be born in the womb of lower animals (III, 104) or barbarians.

Not only himself but his ancestors (III, 64-5, 92) or their manes (VI, 249) and descendants also would suffer. Adversity and diseases (XI, 49) would harass them who adhered to conduct not approved of by dharma as retribution for their sins.

A theory was already current that whatever a man enjoyed or suffered was a result of his own actions:

His bad actions would bear him bitter fruit, whether they were done openly or concealed either in that birth or in the one next preceding.

Not only was he dissuaded from bad life by the terrors of possible retribution but he was also persuaded into a meritorious life by promises of birth in a family of a Brāhmaṇa or of a king, promises of absolution, of heaven, of expiation of sins of himself and also of his ancestors.

So peculiar a system to regulate the conduct would not have been complete without what was called Prāyaśchitta or penance:

This was primarily intended to expiate impurity, and to guard against retribution resulting from disapproved conduct. Punishments as well as penances had a power to free a man from guilt.

When a man suffered a punishment for his wrong act, that wrong act would not affect his future, either in this world or the next, or in this life or the next.

But punishments were too inadequate for the fulfilment of dharma:

These penances were a necessary institution, to make amends for bad actions, of which the king did not take any notice, and also for offenses done secretly or remaining unpunished for various reasons.

Closely allied with these penances were austerities (Tapas), which if accumulated would guard a man from the chance of catching guilt in case he did wrong. These austerities became fruitless if the injunctions of dharma are broken.

The terrors of hell, the probability of having low birth, the penances, the likelihood of austerities being exhausted, the punishment by the king,

all these were not enough to prevent a man from breaking the injunction of dharma.

More terrible than all these was excommunication, which was intended to compel a man to observe the tribal or scriptural dharma.

The method of excommunication did not differ very much in the times of our writer from what it is today:

Excluded from all fellowship at meals, excluded from all sacrifices, excluded from instruction and matrimonial alliance, abject and excluded from all religious duties, let him wander over this earth.

These people should be cast off by their paternal and maternal relations, and would receive neither compassion nor salutation; that is the teaching of Manu (ix, 238-9).

Date of the author.

Certain facts that can be gathered concerning the personality of the author now deserve our attention. The first question is the one regarding the date of the author.

Arguments for the date of the author.

In the Laws of Manu there are references about the treatment of the mixed castes regarding Andhras, Yavanas, Shakas Pahlavas, Lichchivis and Chinas, which prove to be of great importance to us.

Manu Smriti describes Andhras as a tribe formed by the intermixture of Vaidehaka men and Karavara women, and thus gives them a very low place, and says that they stayed outside the village and assigns them slaughter of wild animals as their duty or occupation (x, 36, 48).

This description is very significant. He not only denies them the position of a Kshatriya but ranks them very low. Such a thing could not have happened when Andhras were in the ascendant:

Since the death of Ashoka Andhras were rising steadily, so that in the year 27 B. C. they took control of Pātaliputra. We are not certain as to how long the Andhra power lasted in the North.

In the year 113 A. D., when Gautamīputra Shatakarni, who was an Andhra monarch, describes in his inscriptions his prowess and territories, the inscriptions show that he did not have any possession in the North at that time.

It is possible that the Andhras may have been a ruling tribe in the South and a writer in the North may not have given them a very high place,

but even such a thing does not seem probable as long as the Andhras were very powerful in the South, and well known in the country.

But only when a dynasty was declining, as this was about 200 A. D. (it ended in fact in 227 A. D.), such a thing could be written safely, and a doctrine of this kind regarding the great nation in the South could have received currency.

We again have Yavanas or the Greeks mentioned as a warrior tribe, which has become Śūdra, by not consulting the Brāhmaṇas. Probability of their mention falls within the period 327 B. C. (the date of Alexander's invasion) to 350 A. D.

Vishnu Purāṇa testifies the existence of Yavanas along with Shakas as a warrior class, after the fall of the Andhras in the year 227 A. D.

But in the year 350 A. D. in the inscription of Samudra Gupta, we hear of Shakas and Pahlavas, but we do not hear of Yavanas.

Shakas, Yavanas, and Pahlavas are mentioned together by Gautamīputra in his inscriptions, as early as 113 A. D.; thus the period of the close association of the names of these foreigners falls within 113-350 A. D.

We now come to Lichchivis:

The Gupta dynasty which prided itself on their descent from Lichchivi on the mother’s side rose into importance in 320 A. D. After that date, to put down Lichchivi as a Vrātya tribe was not possible.

We want a period when all that our text wrote regarding Andhras, Shakas, Yavanas and Pahlavas was possible, and such a period cannot be any other than 227-320 A. D.

The author’s home.

This is not hard to determine. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the writer was a Brāhmaṇa of Magadha.

He manifests a good acquaintance with this region, and very little with others. Even a glance at the list of the castes he has given would be enough to convince us of this.

Either from ignorance or some specific motive, he does not mention any caste or tribe in Southern India, except the Dravidas and Choda (who were too well known to be forgotten or slighted), though such castes or tribes were at least as numerous in the South as they were in the North.

He treats of castes like Khasas and Karaṇas (quite insignificant in the history of the period), and even speaks of Lichchivis who were only a clan.

There are castes like Mallas  mentioned herein, while castes of those names are found in Bengal; but it is uncertain whether they are the same.

He speaks of nationalities like Pauṇḍrakas and Udras, which are but people of two parts of Bengal, the former are identified with modern Pods.

Many of the peoples whom he speaks of have not yet been identified with any present caste, e. g. Pukkasas, Veṇas, Chunchus.

Among the peoples he speaks of who were away from his district we find Medas, Avantyas, Vaidehakas, Daradas, but such tribes are too few.

But if we consider the tribes near Magadha mentioned by him we have Nishadas, Kaivartas, Chandalas, Lichchivis, Paundras, Karaṇas, Khasas, etc.

It is true that he makes a mention of Shakas, Yavanas, and Pahlavas who lived mainly in Western India, far from the place of the writer, but it must be remembered that they were foreign tribes, who were making their existence felt all over India.

His mention of the Chinese is very significant; it is highly probable that many Chinese had visited the country as pilgrims since the introduction of Buddhism into China, and the conversion of the Chinese emperor to Buddhism in 67 A. D.

The usual route of these pilgrims was along the side of the river Ganges. Those pilgrims who have left records and passed along this way are known to us i.e. Fahien (399 A. D.) Hiouen Thsang (629) I-Tsing (671-695).

On account of such pilgrims, the writer must have felt the necessity of laying down a rule, for guidance in the treatment of the representatives of the nation whom he well knew to be adherents of a heresy.

He would have been perfectly willing to call these people Kshatriyas had they only paid homage to Brāhmaṇas.

Our author of The Laws of Manu was more than learned, he was a man with good intentions.

There are many passages in the text which appear to us ridiculous and unjust, but we need not condemn the author hastily for that reason, and should bear in mind that he was bound to respect the tradition.

He mixes up his own sentiment quite often with the injunctions, and those sentiments indicate that he was a man kind-hearted, paying more regard to virtue than to forms, lover of moderation, and trying to be fair to other castes.

More than this. We find him a progressive man:

Thus there were various antiquated rules which were valid once, but which shock our present ideas of morality and equity. These he either contradicts or treats as restricted in their application, or explains in some novel manner.