The Laws of Manu
Translated by Georg Bühler. (1)
Glimpses at what others harvested
IN INDIAN mythology Manu is the first man and the legendary author of an important Sanskrit code of law, this book. It's also called Manu Samhita and Manu-smriti.
The name Manu is linked to the verb "think." Manu is known as the first king. Most rulers of medieval India traced their genealogy back to him.
In the old Indian story of the great flood, Manu looks like Noah in some respects, and like Adam in others. The tale:
Manu was warned by a fish he had been kind to, that a flood would destroy the whole of humanity. So he built a boat as the fish advised. When the flood came, he tied his boat to the fish's horn and was safely steered to a resting place on a mountaintop. When the flood receded, Manu was the sole human survivor. He then performed a sacrifice: He poured butter and sour milk into the waters. After a year a woman was born from the waters. She announced herself as "the daughter of Manu." These two then became the ancestors of a new human race that filled the earth.
Ancient law-books formed the basis of Hindu law. First among them is the Laws of Manu from around 1500 BCE.
Manuals on dharma (right behaviour, law and such things) is heavy stuff. There are just as severe rules of conduct as in the Old Testament here and there, if not stricter. Ancient Hindu manuals
- proclaim duties of people at various stages of life (studenthood, householdership, retirement, and asceticism);
- bring dietary regulations; describe offenses and expiations minutely;
- systematise rights and duties of rulers;
- discuss purification rites, funerary ceremonies, forms of hospitality, and daily oblations;
- bring up juridical matters.
Laws of Manu has 2,694 stanzas in 12 chapters. It deals with interesting cosmogony, definitions of what is right and fit (dharma), the sacraments, initiation and Vedic study, forms of marriage, hospitality and funerary rites, dietary laws, pollution and purification, rules for women and wives, royal law, many sorts of juridical matters, and also more religious matters, which include donations, rites, the doctrine of karma ("giving-back"), the soul, and punishment in many sorts of hells.
Thus, law in the juridical sense is embedded in old religious law and practice. The framework for the notions and rules meted out, is the ancient model of a four-class society. There were only three such classes (castes) in the still older and most revered Vedic times, however, and likewise in the "twin culture" in ancient Iran. The bottom class was not into the stratified model back then.
The influence of the Dharma Shastra (Law Book) of Manu has been enormous, as it provided Hindu society with its practical morality. For large parts of the Indian subcontinent, Manu's text, mediated by its commentaries, has been the law.
(1) The ancient work by the law-giver Manu. The complete text in 12 chapters. Sacred Books of the East, Volume 25. Words in round brackets were added by Bühler.