Print edition : August 04, 2017

ABVP office-bearers who left the student outfit citing differences over the BJP’s handling of the JNU row burn a copy of Manusmriti in New Delhi on August 3, 2016. Photo: PTI

The RSS’ cultural affiliate is planning to bring out a sanitised version of Manusmriti without the harsh references to women and Dalits, but scholars are sceptical about the intentions behind the move.
  • 2/213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.
  • 3/17. A Brahman who marries a Shudra woman, degrades himself and his whole family, becomes morally degenerated , loses Brahman status and his children too attain status of shudra.
  • 13/18. The offerings made by such a person at the time of established rituals are neither accepted by God nor by the departed soul; guests also refuse to have meals with him and he is bound to go to hell after death.
  • 3/240. Food offered and served to Brahman after Shradh ritual should not be seen by a chandal, a pig, a cock, a dog, and a menstruating women.

--Prescriptions from Manusmriti, an ancient law book with 2,690 verses, said to be the word of Brahma, and authored by a man who used the eponym Manu.

SOME of these rigid codes may not make it to the public domain in the coming days, but other less controversial suggestions doubtlessly will if the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) cultural affiliate, Sanskar Bharti, has its way, The organisation is trying to come up with a sanitised version of Manusmriti by removing some of the rules of conduct that offend women and Dalits, keeping in mind the modern-day notions of gender equality and discrimination against the marginalised sections of society. The organisation, in coordination with the Union Ministry of Culture, plans to organise seminars, festivals and deliberations in order to change the perception that Manusmriti is necessarily anti-Dalit and anti-women and, after sustained research, hopes to come up with a please-all version of the code book. Manusmriti, which is said to date back to circa 200 B.C., is a set of rules for society, reiterating the watertight, hierarchical caste structure. It is believed to be the fountainhead of the varnaashram dharma, the four stages of human life a devout Hindu is told to strive for. There have been many versions of Manusmriti, each of which was written after a gap of hundreds of years, thus making it subject to interpretation and criticism. The proposal to revive Manusmriti stems from a book, Bharat Gaatha, penned by Dr Surakant Bali, an RSS follower. Bali claimed that Manusmriti was a work from memory, and hence open to interpretation and variation.

However, an attempt to revive the book has gone awry. Some scholars claim that Manusmriti is not the work of one individual. Rather the text was composed across 400 years. Some even claim that in Hindu scriptures there are 14 Manus and none of them exhibited any literary prowess to put together a treatise of socio-legal order. Some quote Dayananad Saraswati in their defence. They wonder, too, about all the fuss about producing a sanitised version of the book. Among them is the former professor of history of Allahabad University, R.K. Singh, who defends the idea of women’s protection said to be propagated by Manusmriti. “It is wrong to believe that women are subjugated by Manusmriti. It only said that when a girl is young she is under the protection of her father. As a grown-up lady, she is under the protection of her husband. In old age, her son looks after her. What is wrong with that? If you see the incidents of rape and assaults on women these days, you will agree that this injunction is for women’s safety. It does not curb their freedom.”

He believes that “regarding subjugation of women in Manusmriti, it would be better appreciated if the relevant verses are read in a coordinated and objective manner rather than by picking up isolated phrases”.

The renowned historian D.N. Jha has distanced himself from such pious sentiments. “The composition of the text stretches over centuries [200 B.C. to A.D. 200] and is not authored by one person. The text we have now is full of contradictions because Brahmins have made interpolations from time to time. Even if the explicit anti-Dalit and anti-woman passages are deleted, the inherent bias of the text cannot be removed. If the RSS wants to make it woman-friendly or Dalit-friendly, it should think of rewriting the text de novo but then it won’t remain Manusmriti. It will become Modismriti,” he says.

The veteran historian Harbans Mukhia, known for his outspokenness, states: “The question whether Manusmriti will be relevant in today’s age assumes that being anywhere around two millennia old the text would possibly have lost its relevance in the 21st century, aspirational India; this is problematic. It is one of the foundational texts of the Brahminical order of Hindu society. Even as Hindu society, like others, has seldom totally conformed to any overarching vision and even as it has been evolving over centuries, the Brahminical vision has held its sway. Hence, immense discrimination against lower castes and women as prescribed by Manu, the lawgiver. Therefore, it remains an important course of understanding Hindu society, past and present.”

Would Manusmriti as the guiding principle of social life not run parallel to the Constitution? Would there not be two competing visions? “Yes, indeed, such is firmly the case. The proponents of Hindutva have frequently expressed their abhorrence of the Constitution, which grants equality to everyone irrespective of all other markers of one’s identity, and voices have been raised to throw the Constitution into the dustbin and install the Manusmriti as the genuinely Indian law to govern India. The voices have become more voluble with the installation of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government, and they imitate the Islamic state model,” says Mukhia.

However, keeping in mind the modern-day principles of gender equality, would not a sanitised Manusmriti be fine? “How safe can the Manusmriti be made? That is the problem with Hindutva guys, the problem of inequalities which is the foundational principle of Manusmriti and the demands of equality that are the foundational principles of 20th and 21st century societies. In their view, all they need to do is to tinker with some of the most strident prescriptions of inequality and discrimination and everything will be hunky-dory. The vision of a highly hierarchical social organisation is at the heart of Manusmriti. It is not at the margins which can be suitably revised,” says Mukhia.

But is not the suggestion of a revised version of the book itself an admission of the limitations and anomalies of the book? Jha agrees: “The RSS may have been thinking of reworking Manusmriti for quite some time. If it does, it will be a major assault on our Constitution. The Manusmriti is not relevant in today’s India. It goes against the basic features of our Constitution, revised or otherwise.”

Mukhia chips in: “For all you know, the Sangh Parivar might even announce that it recognises some of the little shortcomings of the grand law book and is willing to amend it if it can replace the Constitution. Its chief target is the principle of equality of all enshrined in the Constitution. M.S. Golwalkar had proposed in ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ the denial of franchise to some section of Indian society, that is, the minorities. That is what rankles them most. India must return to the golden age when a Dalit would be harshly punished if his passing shadow fell on a Brahmin’s body! And a mlechha would remain way out of the sight of a pure Aryan, and women would produce lots of children. Didn’t we hear a few months ago a celibate sadhu advising Hindu women to produce 10 children each? Or was it a Taliban speaking? Anyway, ‘revising’ a two-millennia-old sacred text because of your current politics? Is that how history is going to be rewritten?”

Talking of history being rewritten, revising Manusmriti is part of the same exercise, very much in tune with the RSS philosophy of confining women to homes. R.K. Singh says: “I don’t know the purpose the revised version of Manusmriti will serve. Evaluation or relevance of any book has to take into account the time, place and circumstances in which it was written/composed. Evolution of human society and societal values is a dynamic process and evaluation of the book has to be seen in that perspective. If you can read Dayanand Saraswati or Satyarth Prakash, you will realise there are many interpolations, many interpretations, each at variance and conflict with the other. Today, Manusmriti needs rational interpretation. We must understand that through centuries, certain words and instances got changed. Most scriptures were inherited through word of mouth. Even Dayanand Saraswati challenged the originality of the text. The new version has to be authenticated by scholars for it to have any credibility. What is needed is unbiased and objective study and research of the whole thing by eminent unattached scholars and social historians.”

The text Dr B.R. Ambedkar publicly set fire to in December 1927 and, more recently, the book former members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad consigned to flames following the BJP’s handling of the Jawaharlal Nehru University issue may just be back in the public psyche, to begin with.