The Manusmriti Special Series: DVG’s Guide to Understanding the Manusmriti

The first episode of a series on correctly understanding the Manusmriti drawn from D.V. Gundappa's treatise titled "The Code of Manu."
The Manusmriti Special Series: DVG’s Guide to Understanding the Manusmriti
Sandeep Balakrishna


THE MANUSMRITI IS AMONG THE MOST REVILED WORKS in public discourse both in India and the world. The revulsion stems from a variety of wrong reasons foremost of which is its macabre politicisation by colonial European “scholars.” What was regarded as a sacred work for millennia has today been reduced to the status of an arsenal which continues to be used against the very spiritual civilisation, culture and society that it sculpted. The other reasons include but are not limited to half-baked knowledge from which arises faulty understanding. In fact, there are not even a handful of people in the world who have read the Manusmriti cover to cover but persist in pronouncing arrogant verdicts on it. The amount of damage that these and similar phenomena have inflicted on the Hindu civilisational inheritance and the Sanatana social security blanket is truly incalculable. 

Bharatavarsha is truly the land of the Smritis, which number in hundreds, which have been composed over at least three millennia, right up to the dawn of European incursions. However, it is curious that only the Manusmriti has been singled out for relentless and sustained mangling. 

In many respects, the continuing erosion of the vitals of Bharatavarsha has a parallel in the manner in which the Manusmriti has been marred in the very psyche of the Hindu society. A defaced psyche births and breeds inferiority complex. Which is why even the most learned Hindu scholars shy away from discussing the Manusmriti in the public space with the solemnity and respect that it commands. The colonial, Nehruvian and Marxist narratives woven around it can only be characterised as a narrative of terror: the person who honestly discusses the Manusmriti does so at his own peril.

Ever since the colonial European “scholars” began studying and misinterpreting the Manusmriti, there was no dearth of Indian scholars who countered their mischief but the scene drastically altered after India attained “independence.” The story of how ideology-driven and politically-minded “scholars” destroyed the pristine Sanatana scholarship nurtured during the era of the Modern Indian Renaissance is well-known. One debilitating consequence of this destruction is the fact that Bharatavarsha stopped producing scholars of a similar stature. Like they did in other areas of the Hindu National Life, the colonial British used the Manusmriti as yet another tool to maintain their regime. Demonising it served their purpose. What excuse did “independent” India have to perpetuate the same evil? 

Long story short, scholars, thinkers and writers on the Manusmriti fall in four broad categories. The timeframe in which these categories fall is the last hundred and fifty years.  

To the first category belong the scholars known as the traditionalists: Vidvans and Pandits who have had a thorough and untainted Gurukula education. In a sense, they may be called the sincerest and purest upholders and defenders of the Manusmriti. We will return to this later in this series.

The second can broadly be called the optimal-hybrid category: scholars who have had the Gurukula education and the so-called English or “modern” education. To this class belong luminaries like Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane, D.V. Gundappa and others. 

To the third category belong the confused. They genuinely admire and respect their Sanatana roots but are unable to overcome the mutilation caused to their psyche by a thorough “modern” education. Thus, the Manusmriti makes them uncomfortable. Arguably, their admiration for their Hindu roots is a product of their cultural upbringing at home from an early age.   

The fourth category comprises absolute and unvarnished vandals: the usual suspects that include veteran vandals like Ashis Nandy, Romila Thapar, Ramachandra Guha & Co. They are beneath contempt to offer further commentary.

THE OPTIMAL-HYBRID CATEGORY OF HINDU SCHOLARS AND THINKERS AND WRITERS on Hindu Smritis evoke our interest and adulation. Topping this list unarguably, is Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane. That he was also one of the stalwarts of the Modern Indian Renaissance is unsurprising. His analysis and treatment of the Manusmriti in the History of the Dharmasastra is truly phenomenal for its sweep, its mastery over technical detail, the majesty of its historical depth and the manner in which he has contextualised it for the Hindu society of the early-to-mid twentieth century. In the English language.

The other stalwart who has accomplished a similar feat albeit in a different way is the iconic D.V. Gundappa. Also in English. For people who find P.V. Kane’s exposition daunting, DVG’s treatise on the Manusmriti is an enchanting and nifty guide. As it should be. In its original form, it was a lecture he delivered on August 25, 1960 as part of the lecture series titled Great Books of the World at the Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore. It was titled, The Code of Manu. 

DVG’s treatise on the Manusmriti is perhaps the clearest, simplest and the most accessible to the proverbial common man. The manner in which he has condensed the voluminous work without sacrificing its comprehensiveness is a superb model for aspiring writers and scholars. Even as he gives the ennobling essence of the Manusmriti, DVG has simultaneously fortified all the key flanks on which it has been attacked. As we finish reading it, it dawns on us that this exposition did not originate merely on DVG’s intellectual plane; its source fount is located beyond and is far deeper than intellect and reason. 

Starting with this essay, we begin a week-long series titled The Manusmriti Special Series, providing excerpts from The Code of Manusmriti in a spirit of public interest. The invaluable and lasting quality of the exposition deserves wider reach. Among other things, it beams a corrective and curative light on the mass of confusion and perfidy surrounding the narrative around Manusmriti. Such treatises also instil cultural self-confidence in the Hindu psyche.   

The full treatise is available in the seventh volume of Selected Writings Of D. V. Gundappa published by the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore. All the volumes can be ordered as a set online as well.           

DVG prefaces The Code of Manu with a thunderbolt-like declaration of the primacy and sanctity of the Manusmriti as one of the most ancient and greatest sourcebooks of the world teaching ethics, harmony and justice. 

Note: Slight formatting changes have been made for emphasis. 

Happy Reading!

The Code of Manu

The Code of Manu, popularly known among Hindus as Manu-smrti or Manu-dharma-shastra (or Manava-dharma-shastra), is an authoritative sourcebook of Hinduism on its practical side. It is the oldest systematic treatise known to the world on the ethics of community living and the science of social organization. Apart from this distinction of antiquity, it commands respect as indicating a scheme of life based upon the appreciation of what life means in its origin and its destiny. Those who would assign the highest place among man’s studies to books which concern themselves with the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of the soul and its welfare, would have no hesitation in placing the Veda at the head of the list of the world’s greatest books; and the Smrti of Manu derives its title to respect from its being a complement to the Veda. The two are indeed but one book, the Veda enunciating the philosophy and Manu prescribing the discipline. 

The Veda maybe described as the substantive and the Manusmrti as the adjectival part of the Hindu law of life. In view of the universal validity of the essential principles of that law, it should be no exaggeration of value to rank the Veda and the Manu-smrti among the great books not of India only, but of the whole world. They are among the most precious treasures of the literary heritage of all mankind. 

To be continued

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