The Philosophy of Equality in the Manusmriti

In this brilliant episode, DVG breaks down the Manusmriti's philosophy of equality on five planes.
The Philosophy of Equality in the Manusmriti

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The Philosophy of Equality in the Manusmriti

A LAW DIVESTED OF ITS SANCTIONS IS A DEAD LETTER. When the last Kshatriya king vanished from the face of the earth, all Smrtis lost their operative authority. The king was the heart-centre of their polity as well as its crown. To uphold and protect the Smrti polity was the supreme duty of the Kshatriya. His writ ran throughout the length and breadth of the land. It was in effect, the writ of Manu. When the Kshatriya was gone, Manu became a sepoy with both his arms cut off. No court need listen to him today and no council or cabinet need notice him. He may therefore well be left to rest in the tranquil retreats of the obsolete. 

But our reformers are no easy forgivers. They must keep themselves busy and cannot let go even a dead horse unflogged. Is not Manu an old offender against equalitarianism? Why should there be even a few people left drawing inspiration for life and conduct from that antiquated law-book? I have no wish to argue with such objectors. 

However, those of us that are concerned about the rights of the question in itself may pause to examine the ideology of equalitarianism which is taken to have its chief adversary in Manu. 

Equality may be conceived of in four or five senses: (1) the naturalistic (2) the idealistic (3) the political (4) the social and (5) the economic. I shall submit a brief word on each. 

(1) The Naturalistic 

The American Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal.” Are they? Are there two human beings each equal to the other in all particulars of body and mind? Some qualities or attributes are no doubt common to all humans. But there are differences in all properties of body and mind between one man and another. Who made these differences? Nature. Nature is as full of inequalities as of equalities. Equality in human society is a state to be thoughtfully conceived and continuously sought after by man. It is one form of conquest of Nature.

(2) The Idealistic 

The idealistic sense of equality is that the inmost spiritual (Adhyatmic) essence of everyone is the same as the innermost principle of all living beings. That one’s attitude towards another should fundamentally be one of complete self-identification. This is more than mere equalitarianism. The word equality implies the presence of two or more distinct persons. The idealistic view of existence does not see two or more at all. Since all is one to it, the question of equalizing cannot possibly arise. Of this idealistic type of equality, Manu is not an opponent, but an advocate.

Equal concern for the welfare of all living beings is the ethic that logically issues from the Vedic postulate about the all-pervasiveness of Parama-Atman. This is really spiritual equality.

Paradoxically, this idealistic equalitarianism can fulfil itself on the practical plane only in ways adopted to the external inequalities imposed by Nature both directly and through acts of man. Equality is an achievement of civilization. Equality comes of culture, not by nature.

(3) The Political

Political equality consists in the State and its institutions being the same to one and all. Laws should be uniform and their administration even-handed for all. This, in one word, is justice. We have seen that justice is nothing else than Dharma in one of its vital aspects. Law and its institutions, in meting out punishment for crime and reward for merit, should operate with certain and uniform incidence, paying due regard to circumstance. So also the usages and conventions of society to which he is accustomed. 

The very word Dharma implies unslumbering and unswerving allegiance to the   Tattva or intrinsic condition or truth of things. Therefore, it tolerates no deviation from the course indicated by the facts and factors of the case. Thus, concession to the weak and special help to the backward are not only not ruled out, but are actually called for by Dharma or justice. Compassion is not external to justice, but an integral part of it. Manu is not to be accused here.

(4) Social Status 

The social aspect of equality requires that there should be no hierarchical divisions or functional gradations among the various classes or groups in a community. Such a stratiform arrangement of society as professions and services is not a feature peculiar to India. Plato found it in his country and accepted it as vital to his ideal polity. Other ancient societies outside India had it. Shakespeare devoted some pages in Troilus and Cressida to the bemoaning of its disappearance.

The peculiarity of India’s case is that she recognized two facts of nature as unalterable and also as helpful to the formulating of a law for the good life: (i) natural variety in human types and (ii) the law of heredity.

It is here that Manu grates upon the ear of the s-called moderns. Manu’s Vedic predecessors and Pauranic successors have all taken (i) the multiplicity of functions and talents in society and (ii) the inescapability of heredity as facts of nature fundamental to the economy of society. 

Heredity transmits genes. Genes determine character and aptitude. Character and aptitude constitute one’s fitness for a place in the service of the community. If each line and each level of service should be at its possible best, the surest way is to take advantage of facts of Nature in framing our scheme of functions.

We have seen that the first meaning of the word Dharma is the inborn quality or the natural faculty and capacity of a person. The Veda declares that nature’s laws are the first laws in creation and that all Dharma should be based thereon. Such a law is that of heredity.

We should not also forget that diversity and difference in talents and temperaments serve another important purpose. They make each man realize how  necessary others are for his good life. If gifts and capacities were uniformly distributed throughout society, nobody need look at his neighbour, and any kind of society. 

Self-sufficiency is apt to lead to self-isolation which is not Dharma. Dharma is mingling one’s life with the lives of fellow-humans and therein practising the discipline of self-abnegation as the means to a higher self-realization. It is the interdependence of men upon one another that brings home to man the sense of the unity of all life. Hence is Nature’s inequality a part of her design to help in man’s self-discovery.

(5) The Economic Status

In the sense of economic status, equality requires that employer and employee should meet at the same level for bargaining about wages and other terms of service. Frankly, this is a field not even contemplated by Manu.

If we would be fair and accurate, we must note that Manu differs from the moderns not as regards the ideal of equality, but as regards the fact of inequality. How can we abolish that fact? Inequality is the work of Nature brought about through heredity, environment, geography and climate. 

The way to improvement for a man suffering from the existence of an inequality is not in denouncing his current position but in performing the duties of that position as best as he can. It should be noted that in Manu’s scheme of social values, there is no service that can be called unworthy or mean. It is the quality of service and not rank that matters. A butcher carrying on his trade in accordance with the code of Dharma is a higher unit of society than a Brahmana preferring the work of a more remunerative but un-Brahmanical office.  There is true equality then because he will have gone through an effective discipline of the soul.

Thus, the question of equality or inequality is to be viewed not from the standpoint of only the individual, but from that of the service necessary for the well-being of the community as a whole. 

To be continued

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