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Yoga Vasistha

Manusmṛti (written also as Manusmriti or Manusmruti) (Sanskrit: मनुस्मृति), also known as Mānava-Dharmaśāstra (Sanskrit: मानवधर्मशास्त्र), is the most important and earliest metrical work of the Dharmaśāstra textual tradition of Hinduism.[1] Generally known in English as the Laws of Manu, it was first translated into English in 1794 by Sir William Jones, an English Orientalist and judge of the British Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta.[2] The text presents itself as a discourse given by Manu, the progenitor of mankind to a group of seers, or rishis, who beseech him to tell them the "law of all the social classes" (1.2). Manu became the standard point of reference for all future Dharmaśāstras that followed it.[3]

According to Hindu tradition, the Manusmriti records the words of Brahma.[4] By attributing the words to supernatural forces, the text takes on an authoritative tone as a statement on Dharma, in opposition to previous texts in the field, which were more scholarly.[5]

Date and context

The text shows the obvious influence of previous Dharmasutras and Arthasastric work. In particular, the Manu Smriti was the first to adopt the term vyavaharapadas. These eighteen Titles of Law or Grounds for Litigation make up more than one fifth of the work and deal primarily with matters of the king, state, and judicial procedure.[5] Though most scholars had previously considered the text a composite put together over a long period of time, Olivelle has recently argued that the complex and consistent structure of the text suggests a single author. However, no details of this eponymous author's life are known, though it is likely that he belonged to a conservative Brahmin caste somewhere in Northern India.[3]

A range of historical opinion generally dates composition of the text any time between 200 BCE and 200 CE.[6] After the breakdown of the Maurya and Shunga empires, there was a period of uncertainty that led to renewed interest in traditional social norms.[7] In Thapar's view, "The severity of the Dharma-shastras was doubtless a commentary arising from the insecurity of the orthodox in an age of flux."[8]

The dharma class of texts were noteworthy also because they did not depend on the authority of particular Vedic schools, becoming the starting point of an independent tradition that emphasized dharma itself and not its Vedic origins.[9]


The original treatise consisted of one thousand chapters of law, polity, and pleasure given by Brahmā. His son, Manu, learns these lessons and proceeds to teach his own students, including Bhrigu. Bhrigu then relays this information in the Manu Smriti, to an audience of his own pupils.[10]

This original narrative was subdivided later into twelve chapters. There is debate over the effects of this division on the underlying, holistic manner in which the original treatise was written.[11] The book is written in simple verse as opposed to the metrical verse of the preceding dharmasutras. Manu also introduced a unique "transitional verse" which segued the end of one subject and the beginning of the next.

The treatise is written with a frame story, in which a dialogue takes place between Manu's disciple, Bhrigu, and an audience of his own students. The story begins with Manu himself detailing the creation of the world and the society within it, structured around four social classes. Bhrigu takes over for the remainder of the work, teaching the details of the rest of Manu's teachings. The audience reappears twice more, asking first about how Brahmins can be subjected to death, and second to ask the effects of action.[12]

Table of Contents

This Table of Contents comes from Olivelle's translation of the Manu Smriti and provides the transitional verses between each subject:[13]

1. Origin of the World (1.1–119)

There are no transitional verses for this section

2. Sources of the Law (2.1–24)

"I have described to you above succinctly the source of the Law, as also the origin of this whole world. Learn now the Laws of the social classes." (2.25)

3. Dharma of the Four Social Classes (2.25–11.266)

  • 3.1 Rules Relating to Law (2.25–10.131)
  • 3.1.1 Rules of Action in Normal Times (2.26–9.336)
  • Fourfold Dharma of a Brahmin (2.26–6.97)

"I have explained to you above the fourfold Law of Brahmins, a Law that is holy and brings imperishable rewards after death. Listen now to the Law of kings." (6.97)

  • Rules of Action for a King (7.1–9.325)

"I have described above in its entirety the eternal rules of action for the king. What follows, one should understand, are the rules of action for the Vaiśyas and Śūdras in their proper order." (9.325)

  • Rules of Action for Vaiśyas and Śūdras (9.325-36)

"I have described above the splendid rules of action for the social classes outside times of adversity. Listen now to the rules for them in the proper order for times of adversity." (9.336)

  • 3.1.2 Rules of Action in Times of Adversity (10.1–129)

"I have described above the entire set of rules pertaining to the Law of the four classes. Next, I will explain the splendid rules pertaining to penance." (10.131)

  • 3.2 Rules Relating to Penance (11.1–265)

"You have described this Law for the four classes in its entirety, O Sinless One! Teach us accurately the ultimate consummation of the fruits of actions." (12.1)

Nature and Purpose

The Manu Smriti is written with a focus on the "shoulds" of dharma rather than on the actuality of everyday practice in India at the time. Still, its practical application should not be underestimated. Through intermediate forces, such as the instruction of scholars, the teachings did indeed have indirect effects on major segments of the Indian population. It is also an invaluable point of common reference in scholarly debates.[14]

It seems likely that the book was written in a manner which was very mindful of the dangers facing the Brahmin community during a time of much change and social upheaval. A renewed alliance between the Brahmin and Kṣatra communities is clearly a goal reflected in the introduction of the vyavahārapadas.[15] The emphasis which this topic receives can be seen as an offering of solidarity from the religious community to the ruling class.

Commentaries on Manu

There have been numerous commentaries written on the Manu Smṛti. Some of the major commentaries are listed below:


Bhāruci is the oldest known commentator on the Manu Smṛti. Kane places him in the late 10th or early 11th century,[16] Olivelle places him in the 8th century,[17] and Derrett places him between 600–650 CE.[17] From these three opinions we can place Bhāruci anywhere from the early 7th century CE to the early 11th century CE. The surviving portion of Bhāruci's commentary that we have today deals mostly with the duties of the king and whether or not the king can be a source of dharma.


Medhātithi is one of the most famous commentators on the Manu Smṛti, and there is some debate regarding the location in which he was writing, but scholars such as Buhler, Kane, and Lingat tend to believe he was from Kashmir or the area around Kashmir. The exact date that Medhātithi was writing is also unclear, and he has been placed anywhere between 820CE and 1050CE.[18]

Economic ideas

The economic ideas found in Manusmriti have been traced by Ratan Lal Basu.[19]

Views and criticism

The work is considered an important source for sociological, political and historical studies. Manu Smriti is one of the most heavily criticized of the scriptures of Hinduism, having been attacked by colonial scholars, modern liberals, Hindu reformists, Dalit advocates, feminists,[20] Marxists and certain groups of traditional Hindus, namely Smartas. Much of its criticism stems from its unknown authority, as some believe the text to be authoritative, but others do not. There is also debate over whether the text has suffered from later interpolations of verses.

In northern/southern India Vaishnavism and Shaivism were the common religious traditions, and the teachings of the Manu Smriti was not as widely followed or well-known.

In 300 BCE, Megasthenes wrote that the people around the Mathura region worshipped "Hercules". Also Faxian did not mention anything about rigid-ness of the varna systems. Chanakya, the author of Arthashastra, never mentioned any social laws prevailing in the society during the first integrator and Mauryan Emperor Chandragupta's reign.

The Manu Smriti was one of the first Sanskrit texts studied by the British. It was first translated into English by the founder of indology, Sir William Jones. His version was published in 1794.[21] British administrative requirements encouraged their interest in the Dharmashastras, which they believed to be legal codes. In fact, these were not codes of law but norms related to social obligations and ritual requirements.[22] According to Avari:

The text was never universally followed or acclaimed by the vast majority of Indians in their history; it came to the world's attention through a late eighteenth-century translation by Sir William Jones, who mistakenly exaggerated both its antiquity and its importance. Today many of its ideas are popularised as the golden norm of classical Hindu law by Hindu universalists. They are, however, anathema to modern thinkers and particularly feminists.[23]

The "Law of Manu" was cited favorably by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who deemed it "an incomparably spiritual and superior work" to the Christian Bible. He observed that "the sun shines on the whole book" and attributed its ethical perspective to "the noble classes, the philosophers and warriors, [who] stand above the mass."[24] However, he also criticized it for its abusive treatment of the chandala, claiming that "this organization too found it necessary to be terrible."[25]

The law in Manu Smriti also appears to be overtly positive towards the Brahmin (priest) caste in terms of concessions made in fines and punishments. The stance of the Manu Smriti about women has also been debated. While certain verses such as (III – 55, 56, 57, 59, 62) glorify the position of women, other verses (IX – 3, 17) seem to attack the position and freedom women have. The education of women is also discussed in the text. Certain interpretations of Verse (IX – 18) claim that it discourages women from reading Vedic scriptures. Verse (II – 240), however, allows women to read Vedic scriptures. Similar contradictory phrases are encountered in relation to child marriage in verses (IX – 94) and (IX – 90).

In his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India, Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar asserted that Manu Smriti was written by a sage named Brigu during the times of Pushyamitra of Sangha in connection with social pressures caused by the rise of Buddhism.[26] However, historian Romila Thapar considers these claims to be exaggerations. She writes that archaeological evidence casts doubt on the claims of Buddhist persecution by Pushyamitra.[27] Support of the Buddhist faith by the Sungas at some point is suggested by an epigraph on the gateway of Bharhut, which mentions its erection "during the supremacy of the Sungas"[28] Hinduism does not evangelize.[29]

However, not all Hindus agree with the criticisms of the text, or the assertion that the Manu Smriti is not authoritative. Some prominent Hindu figures, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati[30] and A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami,[31] hold the text to be authentic and authoritative. Other admirers of the text have included Annie Besant, P.D. Ouspensky, Pandurang Shastri Athavale and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Friedrich Nietzsche is noted to have said "Close the Bible and open the Manu Smriti. "It has an affirmation of life, a triumphing agreeable sensation in life and that to draw up a lawbook such as Manu means to permit oneself to get the upper hand, to become perfection, to be ambitious of the highest art of living"[32] Contra Nietzsche, Nipissing University philosophy professor W.A. Borody has coined the phrase "sublimation-transmogrification logic" to describe the underlying 'state of mind' lying behind the ethical teaching of the Manu Smrti—a 'state of mind' that would have found Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian Übermensch abhorrent, and a 'state of mind' or 'voice' that has always been radically contested within India's various philosophical and religious traditions.[33]


  1. See Flood 1996: 56 and Olivelle 2005.
  2. Jones's translation is available online as The Institutes of Hindu Law: Or, The Ordinances of Manu, Calcutta: Sewell & Debrett, 1796.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Olivelle, "Literary History", p. 16.
  4. Olivelle(2004), p. xx.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Olivelle, Literary History, p. 17.
  6. For composition between 200 BCE and 200 CE see: Avari, p. 142. For dating of composition "between the second century BCE and third century CE" see: Flood (1996), p. 56. For dating of Manu Smriti in "final form" to the 2nd century CE, see: Keay, p. 103. For dating as completed some time between 200 BCE and 100 CE see: Hopkins, p. 74. For probable origination during the second or 3rd centuries AD, see: Kulke and Rothermund, p. 85. For the text as preserved dated to around the 1st century BCE. see: Encyclopædia Britannica Concise,, retrieved 2007-06-24 
  7. For significance of post-empire social uncertainty as a factor in the development of the Code of Manas, see: Kulke and Rothermund, p. 85.
  8. Thapar (2002), p. 279.
  9. For the dharmashastras, including Manu Smriti, as the starting point for an independent tradition not dependent on Vedic origins, see: Hopkins, p. 74.
  10. Olivelle(2004), pp. xxi–xxii.
  11. Olivelle(2004), pp. xxvii.
  12. Olivelle(2004), p. xxv.
  13. Olivelle(2004), pp. xxviii–xxix.
  14. Olivelle(2004), p. xxli.
  15. Olivelle, Literary History, p. 19.
  16. Kane, P. V., History of Dharmaśāstra, (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975), Volume I, Part I, 566.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Olivelle, Patrick, "Dharmaśāstra: A Literary History", 29.
  18. Kane, P. V., History of Dharmaśāstra, (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1975), Volume I, Part II, 583.
  19. Ratan Lal Basu & Rajkumar Sen, Ancient Indian Economic Thought, Relevance for Today, Rawat Publications, New Delhi (2008). ISBN 81-316-0125-0
  20. For objections to the work by feminists, see: Avari, pp. 142–143.
  21. For Manu Smriti as one of the first Sanskrit texts noted by the British and translation by Sir William Jones in 1794, see: Flood (1996), p. 56.
  22. For British interest in Dharmashastras due to administrative needs, and their misinterpretation of them as legal codes rather than as social and ritual texts, see: Thapar (2002), pp. 2–3.
  23. Avari, Burjor. India, the ancient past: a history of the Indian subcontinent from c. 7000 BC to AD 1200. New York: Routledge, 2007. p. 142.
  24. Friedrich Nietzche, The Antichrist (1888), 56–57.
  25. Friedrich Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols (1888).
  26. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in India
  27. Romila Thapar, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press (1960) p. 200.
  28. John Marshall, "An Historical and Artistic Description of Sanchi", from A Guide to Sanchi, citing p. 11. Calcutta: Superintendent, Government Printing (1918). Pp. 7–29 on line, Project South Asia.
  29. K. V. Rao, Socialism, Secularism, and Democracy in India, pp. 28–30. Nagendra K. Singh, Enforcement of Human Rights in Peace and War and the Future of Humanity, p. 35. Martinus Nijhoff (1986) ISBN 9024733022
  30. The Light of Truth, Chapter 4
  31. Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Chapter 16 Text 7 – "...Even up to today, those who are Hindu follow the Manu-samhita..."
  32. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, vol. 1.
  33. W.A.Borody, "The Manu Smrti and Neo-Secularism", International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol I, No. 9 (Special Issue, July, 2011) [1]