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Sunday, July 11, 1999
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Was Manu really a villain?
By Manohar Malgonkar

A get-rich-quick scheme that needs to be given a fair trial is to set up a bookshop which keeps large stocks of books that are in constant demand by people who want to burn them in public bonfires.

What sort of books? Satanic Verses, Kitty Kelly’s ‘Unauthorised’ biographies and family histories, the Memoirs of Casanova?

Those, maybe. But they’re really not much in demand in India, and such zest as did exist for burning them has petered out. Of late the No 1 best sellers among books bought for burnings is a Sanskrit volume called Manava Dharmashastra.

The first reaction on reading this will be one of disbelief for whoever has so much as heard of book called Manava something or the other? Moreover it’s in Sanskrit and it is difficult to believe that there are still people who can read Sanskrit.

There are hardly a handful of old fogeys who’re around who can read Sanskrit. So why should anyone want to buy a book that nobody can read?

You got me wrong there. People don’t buy the Manava Dharmashastra or The Laws of Manu as it is also called because they want to read it, they buy it because they want to burn it — in public bonfires. There are political rallies at which burning the book is part of the ritual — an essential part.

You might say that people have a right to get worked up about The Laws of Manu but I, for one, have always thought of him as a man of profound scholarship... A true intellectual.

You might say that this just shows that men of high learning too can be villains. Did he or did he not formulate the caste system? Was not Manu responsible for segregating society into castes? No wonder The Laws of Manu are only fit to be burned in public bonfires.

This , in essence, is the charge against Manu, and the reason why a book ascribed to his authorship is thought to be fit only for the fate of witches- public burnings.

But does Manu deserve such treatment? The facts, such as they are, don’t support such condemnation.

For one thing, Manu just could not have been the person who compiled this treatise called The Laws of Manu. The Oxford History of India believes that the laws were put together between the year 200 B.C and 200 A.D. Manu himself is said to have lived in the third century A.D.

The treatise is in verse form, comprising as many as 2,684 couplets, divided in twelve chapters. Manu, who may have held some high office during the Gupta empire, may have been the person who ordered its writing. As King James I, did for the Bible.

It is , of course, quite likely that someone pouring over all those verses, looking for derogatory allusions to a class or calling, will find a few in Manu, but the process will also reveal that the authors are fairly evenhanded in dealing out censure to all classes of society. After all, a book attempting to formulate the rules and rituals of a complex religion, its lists of rights and wrongs and do’s and don’ts, is bound to contain statements which will hurt the feelings of some sections of the population. The thing to bear in mind about The Laws of Manu is that they were compiled to serve a desperate need of the times.

Before Manu, there just was no book setting out the rules of the Hindu religion. There were the Puranas or mythology. At the time these laws were ordered to be compiled —-at the beginning of the Christian era—-Hinduism, the religion of the land, was itself on shaky grounds, threatened by the simpler, straight forward, street-level appeal of Buddhism. The compilation of the Manav Dharmashastra, was Hinduism’s attempt to put its acts together, as it were. As though to say, look, this is what we stand for. This is what it means to belong to the Hindu religion.

In other words, a compendium of the principles and practices of Hinduism as they had evolved since prehistoric times. And that included the system of castes, or class, or varna. Manu himself or, for that matter, the panel of scholars who compiled the treatise, neither invented the caste system nor did they extol it; they merely described it as faithfully as possible.

"The institution of caste is peculiar to India and is the most vital principle of Hinduism dominating social eye, manners, morals and thought," The Oxford History of India tells us.

Hinduism boasts that its rules make it a secular faith. It does not practice conversion, it does not even permit it. It has rules for driving out heretics, but none for letting outsiders into the faith.

This rigidity is believed to have been the genesis of the caste system. It was Hinduism’s own method of resolving a vital problem of the times when the society was largely tribal and tribes were constantly at each other’s throats. In these endemic battles, the victors took over all that belonged to the losers: their houses, their fields, their cattle, their jewels, their wives and daughters.

But, as a rule, all the menfolk of a conquered land were killed. The caste system was devised —-or itself evolved — as a less horrifying alternative to mass slaughter. The victors absorbed the conquered people into the structure of their faith, but at a subordinate level.The Great Khans who conquered vast stretches of Asia, as also Arab warriors of Islam, rarely spared the menfolk of conquered territories; the Aryans who conquered and settled in India, resorted to the expedient of the caste system.

Which is not to say that it was a just system. Sure it went against the grain of human rights. Then again, if the caste system served some sort of a social need of ancient times, the burning of The Laws of Manu, too, can be said to serve just as vital a need for the section of the population who had suffered because of the caste system.

I, personally, have no quarrel with that argument. The point of my argument is at, Manu himself was not quite the despicable man he is thought to have been. And if today,1700 years later, his name still serves as a focus for a movement educated to the uplift of the deprived classes, why, I have a feeling that Manu himself would have offered copies of his book for burning.Back

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