ANTI-HINDU POLITICIANS, especially from Tamil Nadu, quote from the Manusmriti to attack Hinduism and the caste system as if it were the basis of the Hindu religion. It is not. Smriti means “recollections” or that which is remembered, a class of Hindu literature based on human memory. Smriti literature elaborates, interprets, and codifies Vedic thought but, being derivative, is not authoritative, unlike the Vedas. Smriti includes the six Vedangas (grammar, meter, phonetics, etymology, astronomy, and rituals), the Puranas, the two great epics of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata, texts on dharma, artha, kama and moksha and the bhashyas. Later, smriti came to refer particularly to the texts relating to law and social behaviour, such as the Manusmriti. Smriti is a derived secondary work and is considered less authoritative than any shruti in Hinduism. There are 20 smritis, of which those by Narada, Parashara, Yajnavalkya, and Manu are the best-known. The Manusmriti was the first Sanskrit text studied by European philologists and was translated and published in English by Sir William Jones.
Smritis are distinct from the Vedas, which are considered to be shrutis or that which is heard, the product of divine revelations. Shruti is the most revered body of sacred literature. Shrutis were revealed to and transmitted by earthly sages, as contrasted to smriti, or those laws that are remembered by ordinary human beings. The shrutis include the four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva— the Brahmanas or ritual treatises, Aranyakas or the Forest Books and the Upanishads, philosophical elaborations on the Vedas that form the basis of later Hindu philosophy and theology, including Buddhism and Jainism, whose origins may be found in the Upanishads.
Manu probably lived between 200 and 400 CE. Manu’s “memories” are a record of the social life and ideas of his times, and probably did not affect the collective life of the people. There is no evidence or record of their impact on society in India. In fact, Manu was probably not even a single individual: the name appears 14 times, from Manu, the first human who was the mind-born son of Brahma, to Manu who saved the fish in Vishnu’s Matsya avatar, to Manu, author of the Dharma Shastra.
A smriti is changeable with the times and is a compilation of the laws and social mores of the times when it was written. There are several versions of each smriti. Smritis were fluid and were freely rewritten by anyone in ancient and medieval Hindu tradition.
Smritis contributed to the exposition of the Hindu dharma but has always been far less authoritative than the shrutis, the Vedic corpus. Each era has its smriti and it is ridiculous to quote the belief and lifestyles of people who lived 1,600–1,800 years ago as authoritative laws today.
So, what is today’s relevant smriti? It would be the Indian Constitution. It lays down the laws by which the country and society are governed. BR Ambedkar could be named as the 21st author of a smriti, the latest Manu
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Mahatma Gandhi argued that the Manusmriti recognises different callings and professions, defining not one’s rights but one’s duties and that all work, from that of a teacher to a janitor, are equally necessary and of equal status. He considered Manusmriti to include lofty teachings, but a text with inconsistency and contradictions, whose original text is in no one’s possession. At the time of writing the Manusmriti and even much later, caste was flexible and depended on one’s profession. It became rigid much later. In fact, the Census of 1901, which focused on religion and caste, was a confusing mix of varna and jati names, with many people not knowing either their caste or its ranking. Although literature stipulates four vertical caste divisions, in reality, there are several parallels jatis with unspecified positions.
So, what is today’s relevant smriti? It would be the Indian Constitution. It lays down the laws by which the country and society are governed. BR Ambedkar could be named as the 21st author of a smriti, the latest Manu. Article 15 of the Constitution of India forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. The terms “Scheduled Caste” and “Scheduled Tribe” are recognised in the Constitution of India. The Constitution has outlawed the practice of untouchability. Under Article 340 of the Constitution, it is obligatory for the government to promote the welfare of the OBCs. These are the laws that matter.
Like the earlier smritis, the Constitution, too, is fluid, with 105 amendments as on October 2021, since it was first enacted in 1950. There are three types of amendments to the Constitution of India. The first type of amendment includes those that can be passed by a “simple majority” in each House of Parliament. The second type of amendment includes those that can be effected by Parliament through a prescribed “special majority” in each House. The third type of amendment includes those that require, in addition to a “special majority” in each House of the Parliament, ratification by at least half of the state legislatures. The fact that there are so many contradictions and inconsistencies in the Manusmriti implies similar amendments and additions were done to Manu’s text.
Dravidian politicians keep quoting Manu on caste but what he said was long ago. Today, we are living in a so-called casteless society and if we want people to forget the caste system, we must stop talking about it. The more politicians talk about caste, the more people are becoming aware of it. Thevars versus Dalits, Vanniyars versus others, Vokkaligas versus Lingayats, Reddys versus Naidus, and so on: the inter-caste political battles are increasing by the day. When I was in school, we were not aware of our own caste, nor those of our classmates. In Tamil Nadu, and probably in most other states, parents have to fill in the child’s caste on the admission form—a government requirement— which brands the children for life. When the government notice came to our schools, asking us to obtain each child’s caste, two pairs of Scheduled Caste parents came to see the principal, objecting strongly. “We put our child in your school because there is no mention of caste,” they said, “so why are you doing this now?” “It is the government, not us,” was her weak reply.
Instead of quoting Manu’s contribution to the caste system 1,800 years ago, our politicians could contribute to the removal of the system by ignoring a person’s caste. The caste certificate can be a separate document used for obtaining special benefits, but not publicised. Unfortunately, there are too many vested interests who want to keep the caste system going. They will never let caste be forgotten. And they will continue to blame Manu, who lived 1,800 years ago, for the caste system.
About The Author
Nanditha Krishna is a historian and an environmentalist, and director of the CPR Institute of Indological Research in Chennai. She has co-written Madras Then Chennai Now (2014)
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