Manu Smrithi or Manu's dharma shasthra formed the bed rock of righteous living for centuries. In recent times, people have questioned the topicality or the applicability of the laws therein to one's life ; one could possibly view this change as yet another handiwork of Kali ! - falling moral standards or rising selfishness, in short, the decay of dharma. This however does not mean that all the tenets contained therein can be wished away, or the observations of Manu be not taken note of. More so because the Hindu culture, loosely defined as a way of life, is based on the Vedas, and Manu Smrithi is derived from amongst other sources, the four Vedas. As Burgess put it: " ..... the ethical ideas, the religious and spiritual beliefs that were at work in the heart of the Vedic society; not only (created) seeds of philosophy but also laid foundation..... for expression in the Laws of Manu .... ' The Law of Manu - the best known secondary scripture (stresses) observance of all duties as being vital since it influences one's status in a future life.' Let us briefly familiarise ourselves with the contents and other aspects of Manu before studying the Smrithi itself under important headings.
1. Who is Manu?
Manu, the 'progenitor of mankind, was the first king of the solar race, and the Law-giver' ; that is, a patriarch who embodied the twin role of ruler and spiritual teacher. The Veda says: 'what Manu says is medicine' - "just as Paanini established grammar so did Manu the 'Indian conduct' for all. Manu, who was proficient in Vedas and Vedangas was the son of Vivasvath (a name for Soorva). Maim's influence lot confined to India but extends to the whole of south- east Asia where Manu Smrithi is adopted.
2. The sources! origin
According to Manu the sources of the smrithi (defined l set 'recollections', by the holy sages of antiquity, of the divine precepts regarding the duty of man') are based on whole Veda or tradition - the customs of holy men etc. The four Vedas and their auxiliaries (Vedangas), which are Central' and 'inspired' form the foundation of the smrithi.
'Customs which are like written codes, considered a source of law, have to a certain extent been embodied in the codes' observes a western author.
3. Opening chapter! Creation
According to the opening verses, the great sages approached Manu and addressed to him thus :
tvamekho hyasya sarvasya vidhaanasya swayambhuh I
achinthya syaprameyasya kaarya thathvartha vith prabho "
[You indeed understand and know the secret of this by-itself- created world and its workings: please do let us know the full details.]
Agreeing to reveal the primordial truth of creation, manu says: Tearing asunder the unimaginable darkness, the lord created the world of five elements. The creator, when awake, activates this world and while lying down supine (not meaning 'sleeping') renders it 'null' (laya). Chathurmukha Brahma composed this dharma shaasthra and taught it to me first, I, in turn, taught it to Mareechi. Now, Bhrigu Muni who will teach you, has studied the shaasthra comprehensively.
Thus the task of revealing the shaasthra fell on Bhrigu.
4. The Vastness :
The smrithi deals with subjects like creation of the Universe, computation of Chathurmukha Brahma's one day, various types of marriage, details of various yajnas / purifying acts related to diverse occasions, cleanliness, diet, good manners, remarriage, 'aashrama' dharmas, sadhanas to achieve 'moksha', manthras to overcome sins arising out of dealings and duties of ministers / kings, legal matters, protection of women, etc., etc.
Creation of the world aashrama dharmas are the principal subjects from 2nd to 6th chapters. Art of war and the rules of government are treated in the 7th chapter. The 8th and 9th chapters deal with 'vyavahaara' or the laws proper. The 1Oth, 11th and 12th chapters talk about duties of various castes / penances / transmigration of soul, etc. The number of slokas add up to 2684 and are contained in 12 chapters : the smallest chapter has 97 slokas and the longest 420 slokas.
5. Other Dharma Shaasthras / Translations
The Dharma Shaasthra other than Manu's, which is important, is known as Naaradha Dharma Shaasthra. Same type of subjects have been covered but in different divisions ; Yaaganavalkya's 'aachaara' is also to be mentioned - but Manu Smrithi is the most systematic. Besides the dharma shaasthras, there are dharma soothras of Aapasthamba, Baudhaayana, Gauthama, Vashishta etc., They are all composed in aphoristic style.
It is interesting to note that the British Government had instituted collections of 'customs of Hindus', known as The Laws and customs of Hindu castes' (A. Steele).
Manu Dharma Shaasthra attracted translations by Western authors and the earliest one dates back to 1794 (Sir William Jones) and there is also a French translation (1893).
It is indeed quite remarkable and noteworthy that . Manu holds 'grihasthaashrama' in high esteem, considering it a 'jyesta ashrama', as it sustains all the other 'aashramas', like Brahmachaarin, sanyaasa and others who cannot sustain themselves.
yathaa nadheenadhaah sarve saagare yaanthi samashthithim
tathaiva aashraminah sarve grhasthe yaanthi samashthithim
'Just as rivers and streams find their refuge in the ocean, so also the members of all aashramas or social orders (such as brahmachaarin, student, vaanaprasthin, ascetic, sannyaasin and monk) find their refuge in the grahastha.,
6. Laws of Manu,.
Western authors / commentators are at pains to point not all the things contained in the Smrithis are Laws out that (institutions of sacred Law) and to that extent the Smrithi cannot be generalised as 'Laws of Manu'. To support this view they state that the 8th and 9th chapters are the only ones which relate to Law in the proper sense of the word (codification of the religions and secular law), known as Vyvahaara.
While I was on an extended holiday in the US recently, I could not have done better than familiarising myself with a lofty work like Manu Smrithi. My view about the Manu Smrithi before I laid my hands on it was that while it may have fashioned a Hindu's life style for generations, it did not call for dire urgency to read, as it had slowly but surely lost relevance to present times. This view had emerged due to some articles I had read about it - they had dubbed it as being totally inapplicable or of little use and as someone opined 'one could even take it with a pinch of salt' ! It is rather unfortunate that one gets misled sometimes.
I admit, there are vast portions or sections in the smrithi which bear little or no relation to present day environment but if one decides to make a systematic study of the smrithi, one will be simply amazed at the vast panorama of subjects and circumstances which have been treated or found mention leading to formulation of various tenets or laws. Wouldn't one be interested to know Manu's observations on creation of the Universe, transmigration of soul; or the karmaphala in terms of birth one takes depending on his sins or good deeds - aren't these as relevant as they were centuries ago? Or consider the type of disputes, man-to-man dealings or man-woman relationships and the problems thereof - they are very similar to happenings taking place around us even to-day; or one's interest in male progeny and Manu's tips for the same! One will be simply marvelled or dumbstruck at the cross-section of each subject and its treatment - types, tenor, punishment or outcome.
In order to present the portions relevant to present times Or the portions that one cannot or should not miss knowing Or studying, I have used my utmost discretion and care in selection of subjects or clubbing Manu's observations on a single subject found in two or three chapters. I have done away with quite a few subjects of doubtful applicability to present times. Interestingly the topics, 'yours truly' has chosen call the Smrithi are quite "topical" ....:. means 'holding relevance even to present' times'.
I do hope that the reader appreciates that a great work like Manu Smrithi may not lend itself to out-of-turn reading and an effort has been made to make it as short, and readable as possible and it is hoped that at least a few readers might go further from here to study the full version of the Smrithi with original text and explanations. I have used what may be termed 'a writer's licence' to present the vast work under convenient headings and clubbed matter belonging to common subjects which are treated by Manu in more than one chapter.
I thank Ms. Sudha for the attractive DTP type setting and Mr. Sharada Prasad for the timely printing. I also thank Mr. Kiran for the attractive cover design.
I cannot adequately thanks His Holiness Sri Sri Rangapriya Swamiji for His kindness towards me. He has given an excellent 'Srimukham' serving as foundation for this book.
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