THE WHOLE OF MANUSMRITI IS PERVADED by one thought — the thought of the world as a playground of the spirit and of man’s life as a quest after the spirit. The body is both an instrument and an impediment. Divesting the body of its impedimental character and not rejecting the instrument is the purpose of Dharma.
Life must be lived, but lived to good purpose; and that purpose is achieved not by pampering the bodily hungers, but by rationing their food. Through such regulation of the life of the body, its impedimental character is eliminated, and the quest then makes good progress. To the serious student of life’s values, there can be nothing terrifying in this; and there should be to him a great deal that is encouraging and strengthening.
This frankly is a bitter medicine for the palate of the modern man. He imagines that the good of life is good eating and good gadding about. In the eyes of Manu, such moderns are in a morbid condition, and they need medicine. If only they would summon patience and introspection enough to take the medicine for a while, they will come to find that it is not a bitter drug, but sweet ambrosia.
THERE IS NOTHING IN MANU ABOUT WHICH ONE NEED BE APOLOGETIC. He has his traducers, and they are in high places too. But I do not think it necessary to take serious notice of them. We all know of a party in South India which pleased itself some time ago by the ceremonious burning of Manu’s book in public. We have also read of the tearing off of its pages literally to pieces on the floor of parliament in Delhi by an angry member.
A few days ago, a Frenchman (a friend of mine) gave me an instance of how far prejudice wedded to ignorance can go in being slanderous. That Frenchman is a student of Hindu philosophy and culture. He has been learning Sanskrit and visiting centres of Hindu learning and enlightenment.
On his way to Delhi from Bombay, he found for a fellow-passenger in the train a certain member of parliament. My friend had apparently been expressing himself in enthusiastic terms about Hinduism and its institutions to his Indian companion. As the train passed by an industrial town, he noticed a large colony of coolie hutments and asked the parliamentarian whether government was doing anything about slums. Our politician burst out: “It is all Manu. It is all the work of Manu.” It is clear that our compatriot did not know that there were and even today are slums in countries where the voice of Manu never reached.
If I were within talking distance of the politician, I should make bold to tell him that the responsibility for slums belongs, not to Manu in any sense or degree, but to James Watt and Richard Arkwright, inventors of steam engine and spinning jenny. Industrialism is the parent of the slumland; and its offspring are really of two classes: one grovelling in hutments, and another revelling in saloons.
The medicine for both is in such educational and moral reforms as are indicated by that heightened view of life and its purposes which Manu posits as his starting point. This view is that life is lived not on one plane, but on two planes, the physical and the super-physical; that the visible realities of the world have their roots in an invisible field of reality. That the right ethic for the world is to be derived from an understanding of that super-world which is the unapparent foundation and support of our familiar fields of being and moving.
Manu exalts the Brahmana above other varnas. He assigns special honours and special privileges and special immunities to the Brahmana. This does look inequitable on the surface. But it must be remembered that he assigns special vows, special responsibilities and special restrictions of freedom to the Brahmana.
If bodily punishment for lapse is less severe, the punishment for the mind is far more severe than for others. The special treatment is in the interests of the special function allotted to the Brahmana.
Why are special immunities and privileges of various kinds granted to members of parliament, ministers, judges, military officers and certain other classes of public servants in our democratic day? Because they are concessions necessary if the functionaries should perform their functions with their heart in the duty and in an atmosphere of public confidence and prestige. If they should render something to the public, there is something which the public should render to them while they are at work. When the public honours a public functionary, the public does a thing to promote their own interests.
Whether the Brahmana who gives himself that name merely by virtue of his birth is entitled to what Manu recommends for the Brahmana is an altogether different question. Manu is not ambiguous here. Again and again he declares that the Brahmana who tries to exploit his varna coming from his birth is to be counted as far worse than one fallen. Such a Brahmana is ridiculed as a Dharma-dhvajin: the bearer of Dharma’s flag.
It should be firmly borne in mind that Manu is mainly concerned not with what is due to the Brahmana, but with what is due to the community as a whole. The Brahmana is an incident in the scheme of Dharma, though an incident of the highest significance to the community. Incident and consequence are both to be evaluated from the point of view of the whole of which the Brahmana is but a part.
To assail Manu in our day is to beat the still air, for he is no longer an active force in the life of the State. When he was a living force, it was by virtue of the Kshatriya ruler who had accepted him as superior to himself and to his assemblies of subjects and ministers. Manu was then the living Voice of God.
Manu counts today only in the eyes of a thinning class of people:
(i) who have faith in the existence and potency of a nonphysical background to life on earth
(ii) who accept the significance of ancient usage and traditional ritual to the evolution of the soul, and
(iii) who regard society not as a haphazard phenomenon, but as an organism in continuous evolution, by an inner law of its own being, drawn from a long-extending past.
To those who have no care for spiritual values in human life and for historical continuity in social development, Manusmrti can be of no interest except as a museum piece.
To be continued
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