THE FOURTH CHAPTER of the Manusmriti gives rules in regard to ways of finding a living, pursuit of scholarship, abstention from certain kinds of food and drink and the general manner of living. Manu lays down a nugget of timeless wisdom in this pithy verse: “He who would be happy should practise cheerful self-control and contentment as regards the desire for wealth, etc. An attitude of the opposite kind is the root of misery.”
Two more verses from this chapter act as guides to the contemporary world populated by all sorts of self-help books and expensive courses that really teach nothing.
(i) For the sake of earning a living, one should not, in any circumstances, resort to the common ways of the world. One should live in the straightforward, guileless, pure way of life devoted to the pursuit of Brahman.
(ii) Do not humiliate yourself by thinking of past deficiencies and failures. Strive after good fortune until your death. You should never think success is unattainable.
The fifth chapter is about causes of death, about prohibited foods, about ceremonial purity, personal cleanliness, cleansing or purifying agents, about funeral and other rites and finally about the virtues of a wife.
The sixth chapter is for the guidance of the Vanaprastha or the forest recluse — his food, his studies, his disciples, and his constant devotion to Vedantic teaching. When the householder observes wrinkles on his body and his hair grown white and has seen his grandsons, he should seek a sanctuary in the forest.
The seventh chapter celebrates the Rajadharmas. This is one of the most significant and illuminating chapters of the Manusmriti. It deals in great detail with the office of the king including its authority and its duties. Minute instructions are given as to how the king should keep his passions under control, cultivate virtue and promote public welfare. How Ministers should be chosen, how they should be watched and checked and how State policy should be shaped. Principles of taxation and war strategy are discussed. The king should invariably secure the collaboration of worthy ministers and take counsel with the public.
Many verses are devoted to bringing out the supreme importance of the king to the people and the solemn responsibilities of his office. He is exhorted to put himself under a rigorous discipline and study the science of politics and economics as well as metaphysics and logic.
Here is Manu’s list of the qualifications for a person wishing to be part of government and politics:
(i) Military commandership, governance, judgeship and sovereignty over all the world are offices for which the fit person is he who has understood the Vedas and the Sastras.
(ii) As a fire that has grown strong can burn up even green trees, the man who has mastered the Veda can burn up the sins that may accrue to him from association with worldly activities.
(iii) He who has taken refuge in the Vedas can have no taste or inclination for sinful deeds. An activity burns the person who acts from ignorance or illusion and not the person who acts from knowledge.
Incidentally, this also is an answer to those who would condemn worldly activity in a person who is a Jnani or seeks Jnana (knowledge of Brahman). There is no necessary antagonism between Karma and Jnana. On the other hand, society’s best interests require that the Jnani of all persons, should be the citizen to take charge of its affairs.
The eighth chapter, which is also the longest, concerns itself with legal principles and judicial administration. Here are some of the subjects that it deals with: The constitution of the court; the qualifications of judges; the eighteen varieties of litigation — both civil and criminal; witnesses and evidences; fixing boundaries of land of estates and procedures appropriate to each case are set out in detail. Justiciable civil matters include the following: title to property, interest on loans, partition and inheritance and the right to sell or gift away property. Criminal matters include the following: defamation, theft, assault, adultery, gambling and desperadoism (Sahasikata).
Punishable offences include the following: cart-drivers who hurt others by their rashness or negligence and the owners of such carts, and of those who are cruel to bird and beast.
(i) The ninth chapter continues the topic of conjugal relations. Here is a remarkable pronouncement: “A full man is a triple personality made up of his wife, himself and their progeny. Accordingly, the wise hold that the same person as is the husband is the wife as well.”
Men and women are each but a half of an entity. The threshold of the homestead is the divider of functions between the two, the man managing the world outside and the woman ordering the world inside. Hence the larger freedom for him and the greater solicitude for her.
(ii) Rights of inheritance: of both sons and daughters and of other relatives of several kinds and several degrees are defined. Impartible estates and gains of learning are among the items of property.
(iii) Offences of certain other kind such as gambling and destruction of property are made punishable.
There were not only the four principal Varnas but also many intermediate Varnas. There were, in addition, tribes and clans. Manu has elaborated rules as to the inter-relations among these several groups and their relative statuses. From these rules four inferences seem warranted: (i) that intermixture among Varnas had been taking place (10.40–55) (ii) that Manu was nevertheless concerned to maintain purity and discouraged promiscuity (10.57–61) (iii) that a gradual improvement in status was coming about for hybrids and outsiders (Bahyas) (10.62–65) (iv) that no definite conclusion had been reached, in the great discussion among the sages, as to the relative status of the soil and the seed in the case of the mixed-born.
My reading is that the time of the composition of the Manusmrti was one of inter-social fluxion and growth. Conditions had not become rigid. The leaders of the community were engaged in cautiously enlarging their boundaries and admitting into the fold new elements of population in accordance with the degree of their approximation to accepted standards of refined social behaviour.
In which age the process of assimilation ceased and why or how, it is not easy even to guess. And not only did the inter-flow of Varnas into one another stop, but each Varna hardened its borders and went in the opposite direction of ramifying within itself as sects and sub-sects. If the need at one time was for expansion, the need later on was for localisation. The names of many sub-varnas and sub-sects are associated with their geographical locale. The basic consideration perhaps was one of hereditary continuity.
The eleventh chapter defines various kinds of sin and fall from rectitude and prescribes penalties and penances. The penalties take the form of gifts to be given, fasting, denouncing the fallen and practising austerities prescribed. The humane feeling of Manu comes to the fore when he lays down both the spirit and forms of expiation:
(i) The form of expiation should be fixed after considering both the capacity of the person to bear and the degree of his or her lapse.” Manu characteristically says that Tapas is the highest form of penitential austerity.
(ii) The austerity for the Brahmana is the pursuit of knowledge (Jnanam); for the Kshatriya it is the protection of the country; for the Vaishya, the proper austerity is to be engaged in agriculture and trade; and for the Shudra, it is rendering the service that society needs.
The best Tapas thus, is to keep the mind and all its faculties fully absorbed in objective activities, which, while being natural and therefore comparatively easy to the man, promote general wellbeing and happiness for the whole society.
Manu, or Bhrgu speaking to us in the name of Manu, sums up the teaching in the twelfth chapter.
The human has three organs of self-expression — mind, speech and body. To keep the three under watch and control is to obviate sinning. Good or bad is to everyone the present need for the past deed. This logic of Karma is the chain that binds the Jiva and drags it through body after body according to the proportions of the good and the bad in its previous earthly record.
Prompting the three organs of action, there are three inner impulsions of nature (Gunas) brought over from the past: Sattva, the good; Rajas, the activistic; and Tamas, the blinding. These impulsions must be brought under control. The way to do this is in a sixfold discipline: “Study of the Vedas, austerities, cultivation of knowledge of the Atman, control over senses, non-cruelty, and propitiating the Guru — these lead to the highest of the good.”
This concludes the chapter-wise summary of the Manusmriti. The subsequent episodes of this series will offer a multidimensional analysis of the immortal work in the words of DVG.
To be continued
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