ACCORDING TO POPULAR TRADITION, MANU lived in the part of North India called Brahmavarta, situated between the rivers Sarasvati and Drshadvati, a tract of land he singles out for praise as the home of traditions of worthy conduct. He was a married man and had children. He delighted in music and was proficient in medicine. He performed Yajnas, and taught a large number of pupils. He lived for seventy-one Yugas.
Manusmriti is a work of 2,684 verses arranged in twelve chapters. The style is simple, direct, forcible and compact. Before proceeding to deal with the chapters, I should like to draw attention to a canon of judgment applicable to such a book.
No book — not even one acclaimed as great by universal and long-established opinion — can be totally free from matters meant for its own time and its own place. Even the Veda, the utterance of divine inspiration, has flowed down to us through the channels of human speech. It is in a single country’s language, and the geography and the astronomy in it suggest traces of locality and date.
When that is so, the Manusmrti cannot be conceded a status superior to the influences of place and time. A great many of the rules in it must be taken to have had only a contemporaneous validity. They must seem to us obsolete.
However, the greatness of Manusmrti is that, side by side with the antiquated, there is so much in it that belongs to all time and all mankind. It is this universal and enduring part of it that should chiefly engage our attention, even as in Plato’s Republic or any other celebrated work of antiquity. In considering Plato’s Republic, what we should take note of is its philosophy of values more than the mechanical means it suggests for those ideals.
Similarly in the case of Manu, what should command our allegiance is his scheme of values. Provided we keep those values, it can be no disloyalty to Manu on our part to alter the institutional mechanism as required by our time in a manner which is not repugnant to the scheme of values.
At this point, it is appropriate to recall that Manu himself contemplates change and reform in the external mode of Dharma: “One body of rules and practices is prescribed for the age (Yuga) called Krta; another for Treta and another for Dvapara. A different body of rules and usages is recommended for the age of Kali. The forms of Dharma vary in accordance with the limitations (shrinkage) of the Yuga.” (1.85)
It may be noted that there is unanimity among the Smrtikaras or law-givers on this point: that no law or code can be the same for all time, and that the substance-material of Dharma should be put in fresh moulds to suit the conditions of changed times. The important requisite is that the substance of Dharma should not be lost.
It is to that inner principle of Dharma that we have to direct our eye. And here, in defining for us what the substance of Dharma consists of, the Manusmrti stands next only to the Veda.
सर्वभूतेषु चात्मानं सर्वभूतानि चात्मनि ।
समं पश्यन्नात्मयाजी स्वाराज्यमधिगच्छति ॥ (12.91)
“He who, seeing himself equally in all beings and all beings equally in himself, offers up his ego as a victim in the sacrifice (of the acts of living), earns for himself the bliss of union with the self-existent glory of the Brahman.”
Dharma is the process of discipline for the body and the senses and the mind which makes this realisation of the same all-pervasive Atman in every being possible for man. It is a slow, gradual process that calls for continued patience and endurance.
The first chapter deals mainly with cosmogony, the history of the Manusmriti and the general sketch of the polity in view. Manu is represented as having been approached by Rshis for enlightenment about the respective duties of the four varnas and the intermixed varnas.
(i) In his reply, Manu outlines the history of creation; the Self-existent One; the Creator Brahma; the gods; the great elements; time and its divisions; passions of desire and anger; men and women; beasts and birds; plants and herbs; and beings of all kinds and their characters. We have the caution that Dualism (Dvandva) which is the root of all conflict and trouble in the world, is an integral part of the process of creation.
(ii) The work also traces the line of teachers of Dharma from Manu’s father Brahma to his son Bhrgu who is the final promulgator of the Code to us.
(iii) Manu finally declares that Dharma is not static, but evolutive. Dharma has a particularist (Vishesha) side as well as a general (Samanya) side.
(i) The second chapter lists the authoritative sources of the knowledge of Dharma:
“Listen to that Dharma or the Law of the Virtuous Life which is followed by the learned, who are at all times free from both hatred and partiality and which besides is approved of by the heart.”
“The whole of the Veda is the root source of law, so also the recollection (tradition) and conduct of those who know the Veda; then the practices of the good and the godly; and, finally, the satisfaction of one’s own conscience.”
The part assigned to both the heart and the reasoning faculty is worthy of note.
(ii) The rest of the second chapter relates to the ceremony of initiation of the Dvija boy into Vedic studies called Upanayana, the qualifications of the teacher, disciplines for the student, the methods of study, manners towards superiors and certain connected sacraments.
Brahmacharya should ideally take thirty-six years: twelve years for each of the three Vedas. But it may be curtailed to a half or a quarter. In any case, it should last till the study is completed. Then, with the teacher’s permission, the student returns to his parents’ home and settles down married to a girl chosen on grounds of family, good health and agreeableness of person.
Then the duties of the householder and the rituals prescribed to him are detailed. He should make five sacred offerings every day: to the Veda, to the Pitrs, to the Devatas, to the natural elements and to humans. In this connection, the following precepts are highly noteworthy.
(i) Food should be shared: “He eats nothing but sin who cooks food for his own sake only.”
(ii) The householder occupies a preeminent place in society: “The Brahmachari, Vanaprastha and Sanyasin are supported with food and facilities for their devotions by the householder alone. He therefore is to be ranked as of the very first order.”
(iii) Manu was a man of sensitive domestic affection. This is suggested by what he says of marital happiness: “In that family in which the husband is always pleased with the wife and the wife similarly with the husband, good fortune fixes her abode for all time.”
To be continued
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