By Nithin Sridhar
Today, Manu Smriti is a very maligned and abused scripture. It is largely considered as being violent and discriminatory and is often accused of being biased against women and lower castes. More importantly, Manu Smriti is a favorite tool in the hands of anyone who wants to accuse Hinduism of perpetrating the most heinous crimes in the world. It is a pet weapon of the Secular-Liberal-Outrage-Brigade (SLOB) who bash Hinduism and Hindu practices left and right using Manu Smriti.
The latest person to use Manu Smriti to bash Hinduism for current social conditions is a well-known journalist Rana Ayyub. She tweeted yesterday connecting Manu Smriti with the issue of suicide of Rohith Vemula thus:
Though, the suicide of Rohith Vemula is very troubling, and it must be properly investigated, the unnecessary dragging of Manu Smriti into the issue could be nothing but a deliberate ploy to bash Hinduism and portray it as being castiest and discriminatory by using Manu Smriti as a tool.
The truth is Manu was one of the earliest sages who propounded in depth about various aspects of Dharma (righteous duty) and how people should discover and practice their own Swadharma (personal righteous duty). His work comes under the corpus of Smriti literatures that were imparted by various ancient Sages that intends to help people in understanding the essence of Vedas and implementing them in everyday life. Thus, Hindu tradition holds both Vedas and Smriti as valid sources of knowledge about Dharma, though Vedas reign supreme in case of any contradiction.
Now, coming to Manu Smriti, it is a very large scripture with more than 2500 verses divided into 12 chapters. Narada Smriti gives an interesting account about how the original Manu Smriti was around 100,000 verses and it was later successively abridged into 12,000, 8000, and 4000 slokas.
If we are to accept this traditional account, then the Manu Smriti available to us is very incomplete even with respect to the final abridged form of 4000 slokas. In other words, many important aspects of Dharma as well as the nuance and explanations of various contexts may have become permanently lost. This sufficiently explains why Manu Smriti at places appears problematic. But, just because it appears problematic and inconsistent on a literal reading at a few places, it does not mean the whole scripture is violent or discriminatory in nature. We have a wide number of Dharmic literature, using which a wholesome view on Dharmic issues may be arrived at.
It is also important to remember that Hindu scriptures are known to have various layers of meaning even for a single word. There is a well-known story in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, which clearly brings out this fact. When the gods, the humans, and the demons approached Lord Brahmaa with a request to teach them. He taught them the syllable 'Da'. The Gods understood it as 'Dama' or Self-restraint and attained fulfilment. The Humans understood it as 'Datta' or Charity and attained fulfilment and the demons understood as 'Daya' or 'Compassion' and attained fulfilment. Though, the word imparted was one, to each group it had a different meaning and application. This episode clearly establishes how any verse, any instruction in Hindu scriptures must be properly understood with respect to the context as well as the audience to whom the verse is addressed to.
Such being the case, how valid are the claims of left-liberal brigade who cherry pick a few verses using some faulty translations without ever deeply examining scriptures? Have people like Rana Ayyub undertaken years of deep study in Sanskrit and Smriti literature? Have they attained expertise and competence in the scriptures to pass moral judgments on them? It is quite clear that their snide remarks on Manu Smriti are not based on Pandityam (academic and spiritual scholarship) but are politically motivated.
Rana Ayyub tweets a verse supposedly taken from Manu (supposedly because she does not mention Manu in the tweet, but mentions him in the next tweet, as shown above), which says if a Shudra intentionally listens to chanting of Vedas, he should be punished by pouring molten lead into his ears. This, along with a link containing similar cherry-picked verses are used by her as evidence for Manu Smriti propagating Caste discrimination and violence.
A simple cross-checking would have revealed that such a verse does not exist in Manu Smriti at all! It is a verse actually from Gautama Dharma Sutra (12.4) and not Manu. Let's ignore this lack of proper research on her part for a moment and consider the verse in question.
This meaning of the verse usually given can serve as an ideal example of how not to interpret a scripture! The verse literally taken indeed speaks about pouring molten lead into the ears of Shudras who intentionally hear the scriptures despite of being prohibited from doing it. But, is this the true meaning of the verse? Adi Shankara who quotes the verse in his Brahmasutra Bhashya (1.3.38), cites the verse to simply show that Shudras do not have the competency to listen to the Vedas or understanding them because they do not undergo various Samskaras (ritual ceremonies) that is aimed at making people mentally pure enough to chant Vedas, generate proper energy associated with the mantras, understand their meanings and teach correct meanings to others. Shudras, whose mind are more directed towards mundane life and responsibilities and thus are not free of greed, anger, etc. do not have required qualifications that will make them competent to chant, learn and teach the Vedas.
Thus, the so called punishment mentioned in Gautama Dharma Sutra is not literal, instead it must be understood as a simple prohibition of Vedic chanting to Shudras, owing to the difference in their inner temperaments and life's responsibilities. Just as parents often prohibit their children from doing certain actions by telling them they will punish them and thus try to keep their children safe, similarly this verse has to be understood as an exaggeration to make people understand that certain austerity, rules, and inner temperaments are required to practice Vedas and those who do not have them should not disturb/obstruct others.
Let's for a moment, assume that the injunction is indeed literal. Even then, if one were to understand the verse in its proper context and with regard to the times they were composed, a different picture will emerge. Consider punishment for rape and such crimes given in Manu and other smritis. It is highly severe from today's worldview. Yet, severe crimes were punished severely in ancient times. When read in this context, Gautama's verse clearly states that the punishment was for those who intentionally heard the Vedas, despite of knowing that they are prohibited and hence committing a wrong action. Hindu scriptures clearly speak about how Vedic mantras are infused with energy that materially and spiritually uplift entire society. It is Svadharma (personal duty) of Brahamanas to chant Vedic mantras and perform Vedic rituals for the welfare of the whole society, including Shudras. The spiritual responsibility of Shudras, who themselves are not eligible for Vedas, lies with Brahmanas who perform it for the whole society. So, obviously, if a person willingly tries to interfere and cause obstruction to Vedic recitation or ritual performances, which had been undertaken for sake of entire society, he will be punished severely for causing great harm to society. So, even by assuming the literal meaning to be true and placing it in proper context and times, it is obvious that there is neither discrimination against the lower classes, nor any violence being propagated by the said verse. Instead, it must be understood as a punishment prescribed for an intentional violation of a rule that resulted in great harm to society.
Therefore, it is obvious that the charge of Manu Smriti or other Smritis propagating violence on Shudras does not hold. It is a case of mischievous misinterpretation carried out to achieve political goals.
It may be asked, why should anybody consider explanations provided above as valid? As an extension, it may also be asked, who decides what exactly the meaning of a particular verse is? Who has Adhikara (competency) to decide whether the verse is allegorical or literal, whether it is discriminatory as held by Rana Ayyub or it is not discriminatory as explained above? The answer is simple.
The Adhikara (competency) to properly explain our Hindu scriptures lies with our Hindu Acharyas, who have devoted their lives in understanding Dharma and practicing them. Adhikara also lies with those people who have studied these scriptures in-depth employing proper means of Shraddha (conviction and faith) and Viveka (discerning intellect).
A mere academic reading of the scripture, or worse cherry picking from them as done by the left-liberal brigade does not make them competent to sit in judgment on Hindu scriptures. Anybody who is truly interested may either take to keep studying in a proper prescribed manner, or may consult those who have done so.
To truly understand Hindu scriptures, they must develop a certain level of mental purity and approach the scripture with Shraddha and Viveka. Shraddha does not mean blind faith. It refers to an inner conviction regarding the sincerity of the composer of the scripture and regarding the scripture being a valid source of knowledge. Viveka refers to the sharp discrimination intellect that can separate the wheat from the chaff, the essence from the outer injunction. The importance of Shraddha is depicted in the very first few verses of Manu Smriti, wherein various sages respectfully approach Manu to learn from him in an attitude of humbleness and mental surrendering, which are characteristics of Shraddha.
Without this inner conviction, surrendering, and power of discernment, one will always end up superimposing one's own pre-conceived notions on the scriptures without letting the scriptures to impart insights that reveal their true meaning. It is for this reason that Manu Smriti (2.16) says that only those who have undergone various Samskara rituals have eligibility to study Manu Smriti. These Samskara rituals impart on the individual various inner qualities like compassion, forbearance, freedom from anger, purity, quietism, auspiciousness, freedom from avarice, and freedom from covetousness (Gautama Dharma Sutras- 8.22-25).
So, obviously those who do not have even a little Shraddha and these other qualities, will always end up misinterpreting the scriptures based on their own presumptions or political compulsions. It must also be noted that these Smritis are scriptures meant to teach people how to lead their lives, how to achieve happiness, how to solve problems. These scriptures are not political tools to be used for achieving selfish goals. It is indeed a sad commentary on current Indian society that most of the people are satisfied with cherry picking and misusing scriptures to achieve their own political ends. This is more so with SLOBs, who have so much loathing for Hinduism that they neither have regard for the sacredness of the scriptures nor have care of knowing the truth in the scripture.
If these left-liberals who use Manu Smriti to bash Hinduism about every social problem in the current society, had any real care and concern for solving the present day problems, there are hundreds of Hindu scriptures and other books written by Hindu ancestors, which may help in finding solutions to today's problems- be it caste discrimination, poverty, or corruption.
Yet, they ignore Gita, they ignore Upanishads, they ignore Arthashastra, they even ignore those non-controversial portions of Manu Smriti that has useful instructions, and focus solely on few cherry picked verses that could be used to undermine Hinduism. It is high time that the anti-Hindu propaganda run by the left-liberal brigade is exposed and thoroughly countered. (Photo: Wikipedia)