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Contextualising Manu as a ‘hireling’: A Critical Analysis of Chapter VII in the Manusmriti

Contextualising Manu as a ‘hireling’: A Critical Analysis of Chapter VII in the Manusmriti

Somnath Pati

“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 perfect, to be ambitious of the highest art of living.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche (attributed)

Finding Manu’s verses “inspiring” and acting as a clarion call for the human spirit to strive for excellence, V. Raghavan evokes the aforementioned quote to describe the relevance of the Manavadharmasastra. Perhaps, in this context, the polymath Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar strikes out what he calls a distinction between Nietzsche and Manu, which he characterises as follows:

“If there is any difference between Manu and Nietzsche it lies in this. Nietzsche was genuinely interested in creating a new race of men which will be a race of supermen as compared with the existing race of men. Manu on the other hand was interested in maintaining the privileges of a class who had come to arrogate to itself the claim of being supermen. Nietzsche’s supermen were supermen by reason of their worth. Manu’s supermen were supermen by reason of their birth. Nietzsche was a genuine disinterested philosopher. Manu on the contrary was a hireling engaged to propound a philosophy which served the interests of a class born in a group and whose title to being supermen was not to be lost even if they lost their virtue.”

The period in which the Manavadharmasastra was composed has been widely estimated, through several arguments backed by the socio-historical references provided in the text, to be around the time of the 2nd century CE. As a ‘codified’ text of rules/obligations, the Manavadharmasastra has maintained a historic legitimacy of being considered as a ‘legal authority’ up to some extent, in the domain of “Hindu Law.” The geographical contours of South and Southeast Asia, with a history of shared cultural transactions in the past, recognize a distinctive similarity as “the name of Manu was authoritatively associated with the laws of many countries.” Desai’s reference to the Manu figure “on the façade of the legislature building in Manila” is apt, in this regard, and except for the fact that the Old Senate Hall has been renamed and the figure has been accommodated at the National Museum of the Philippines, it still regains its place with 15 other historical figures to “represent great lawmakers and moralists of history ranging from antiquity and Biblical times to the twentieth century”.

Closer home at Jaipur, however, a statue of Manu has gauged the depths of troubled waters and yet stands. Much aligned to the purposes of ‘casteist Hindu thought,’ the statue was erected at the premises of the Rajasthan High Court, by a judicial forum and subsequently, ‘protected’ by the ‘Hindu right-wing’ militant organisations, which consider Manu as the progenitor of ‘Hindu Law and Justice.’ Inviting much wrath and outrage, the culmination was in the final episode of 2018, when two Ambedkarite women activists climbed upon the statue and smeared it with black paint, as an ‘act of protest.’ The eminent Whig legal historian Henry Maine might have used a hasty generalisation while using the term “religious oligarchies of Asia”, but his approach to the Manavadharmasastra is something which has occurred to be of particular interest to me. He characterises the “Laws of Menu” as “a recent production” in the “relative progress of Hindu jurisprudence” and is quite sharp with his assertion that it is “a Brahmin compilation”, which, he argues, “does not, as a whole, represent a set of rules ever actually administered in Hindostan.” Maine contends that the Manavadharmasastra was “an ideal picture” which would have to be consistent and compliant with the “view of the Brahmins” and “ought (Maine’s emphasis) to be the law.” Maine’s argument leads us towards the interrogation of the existence of a ‘social order’ in which the Manavadharmasastra was conceived and subsequently shaped. Combining these several aspects in a critical study, I have referred to a specific section of the Manavadharmasastra, which is “Chapter VII” in the general contents’ structure of the text, to understand the document further, through the lens of pursuing it as a source of ‘social history.’ Hence, I have used Patrick Olivelle’s work titled, “Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra,” for the purposes of this essay.

The Chapter specifically deals with the “Law for the King,” to establish a certain “conduct” which is expected of him, which will in turn enable him to “attain the highest success.” Manu attributes and invokes a ‘cosmic’ explanation to explain the “origin of the king.” The association of ‘divinity’ with the figure of the king can be noted where he is referred to as an amalgamation of the “eternal particles” from the “eight guardian deities of the cardinal points.” Manu cautions against “disrespect” to the king, discouraging scepticism/criticism, and demands a sense of complete obedience to his decisions, as disobeying his word (whether “favourable or unfavourable”) would lead to the eventual destruction of that individual. Hence, in explaining the ‘origin of the king,’ Manu envisions the imposition of a ‘social order’ where the king’s ‘divinity’ allows no scope of deviation from the complete authority which he demands.

A buzzword which has gained traction with the ‘upper caste’ supporters of the Yogi Adityanath regime is “Danda,” and to support the acts of the latter, the former attempt to justify that justice is served quickly by the ‘Dande ki Sarkaar.’ While this may acquire the justification for use of ‘violent methods,’ the underlying connotations as an association with the rigid principles of ‘justice,’ represented by a man who wears a brand of dangerous ‘upper caste’ Hindu nationalist thought on his sleeves, are quite apparent. The word “Danda” has been referenced in the Manavadharmasastra, as well. Manu is rigid in his treatment of those who deviate from the supposed ‘social order,’ with the duty of the king to uphold ‘Dharma’ (which is probably expressed as ‘Law’, in this regard) and enforce “Danda” or ‘punishment’ upon the defaulters. ‘Punishment’ has been personified as a ‘divine element’ which the king needs to administer properly, for the protection of the ‘social order.’ Manu expresses the fears of a possible ‘anarchic’ society, on account of the king’s negligence/inability to administer ‘punishment,’ with utmost concerns of dismantled sacrificial paraphernalia (a symbol of uprooting Brahmanical dominance in ritualistic ceremonies), an ‘ownership system’ in disorder (which was a ‘hereditary’ ownership and mode of ‘accumulation’ for the Brahmins), and a “revolt,” by the “social classes” which “would become corrupted.”

Apart from the adherence to the ‘Law’ expected from each ‘social class, the king being the “protector of people” has also been advised “to show compassion” towards the Brahmins. No wonder, in the contemporary scenario, rape-convict Brahmins are released from prisons on the basis of such justifications. Manu expects the king to seek knowledge of the Vedas from those who have mastered it, inculcating within him the pertinent virtue of “discipline” which can either catapult him to ‘glory’ or ‘drown’ him, and further goes on to list a total of 18 “vices that result in grief,” with ten emanating out of “pleasure” and the remaining eight out of “wrath.” Manu launches a stringent criticism and cautions the king against indulgence in ‘sensual pleasure,’ as it might result in the dereliction of his duties, which could threaten the very existence of that established ‘social order.’

Even though the king has been strongly recommended to appoint “seven or eight counsellors” to manage the state of everyday affairs in the kingdom, along with advice on important matters, such as “alliances,” “war,” “revenue,” and “security,” the primary position enjoyed on all matters was that of a Brahmin, without whose advice and essential consultation the king was not supposed to arrive at any eventual decision. A sense of classification in the “appointment of officials” is discernible, and Olivelle’s interpretation helps us to understand this better, as the Manavadharmasastra instructs the king on “appointing the honest to financial affairs; the brave from illustrious families to the army; the honest to mines and factories; and the timid to the interior of residence.” This would probably indicate the assessment of “virtue” in individuals as a determinant for their appointment, apart from the ‘social privilege’ (“illustrious families”) they invariably possessed. Similarly, Manu establishes the significance of a royal “envoy,” as the future of socio-political establishments hinges upon him; and apart from the requirement of ‘virtues’ and ‘physical attributes’ in his appointment, an expertise in the “Treatises” and the background of an “illustrious family” are prerequisites, which can further aid us to interpret the dominance of select socially-privileged individuals dominating such offices. After specifying the heavily guarded “hill fortress” as the most suitable settlement for the residence of the king, Manu is again quite categorical in the context of marriage, as he instructs the king to marry a woman of the “same class”, endowed with features of ‘physical attractiveness.’ The emphasis on ‘donation’ to Brahmins has been valued and justified as an act “far superior to oblations made in the fire,” with a promise of ‘reward’ for the king in the afterlife, on account of his virtue of “generosity” and the “excellence” of his Brahmin beneficiaries.

Manu internalises the very notion of ‘masculinity,’ while elaborating on the ‘ethics of combat.’ This aspect is also represented in the part where he instructs kings not to turn back from wars and to fight till the end. Manu strongly proclaims that the warrior/king is not to be engaged in combat with “an effeminate man,” “a naked man,” and without any pretence, Manu definitely pronounces the “pre-emptive share” of ‘war booties’ (as diverse as “women” and “livestock”) for the king and the rest to be ‘distributed’ among his soldiers, for that is the ‘Law of the Kshatriya,’ and he should not ‘deviate’ from it. The Manavadharmasastra also suggests extensive ‘militarization’ of the regime, so that “enemies” are “subdued.” Manu also refers to the “wages” which are ought to be paid as “daily allowance,” for “women in the royal service” and “menial servants”; and this “allowance” might suggest a form of ‘basic subsistence’ for those engaged in it, as Olivelle particularly notes the term “bhaktaka,” being a probable reference (from the root-word “bhat,” implying rice) to “wages paid in rice or other food-stuffs.” Manu proposes elaborate measures for “taxation” and also asks the king to be ‘moderate’ and ‘balanced’ while approaching the subject. At the same time, he strongly discourages the taxation of those learned in the Vedas, which is a clear indication that the Brahmins ought to be exempt from the whole system of ‘taxation’ that their ‘representative’ himself proposes. Manu’s references here for the king on “adjudicating lawsuits” and “protection of the subjects,” as distinct topics, might suggest the possibility that the period of this particular composition might have been a witness to ‘turbulent’ social dynamics, which could lead to the expectation of an ‘eruption’ in ‘social hostilities.’

Manu prescribes the ideal daily “routine” for the king by classifying it within the three categories of “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Evening,” and the subsequent sections deal with it. As a part of the ‘Morning Routine,’ the Manavadharmasastra stereotypes certain classifications of people in the society as ‘social delinquents,’ and considers that the king should have them “removed” while discussing the affairs of his kingdom with his counsellors. Rather unsurprisingly, Manu generalises women as ‘betrayers’ of “secret plans,” and shows a sense of ‘social disgust’ towards the physically and mentally ‘deficient,’ as well. The Manavadharmasastra also offers an elaborate ‘political strategy’ which is distinct from the Arthasastra in several aspects but is quite the same in others. While describing the strategies of war, it is interesting when one comes across Olivelle’s critical rendition of the “six divisions of his army” (same as in the Arthasastra), which also includes “foresters,” and this might indicate their continuing relevance in the social composition of the king’s army. A point of departure is the treatment of the ‘recognition’ or ‘importance’ attached to the three “rewards” of a ‘political alliance’: “ally,” “money,” and land,” by the Arthasastra and the Manavadharmasastra; and in this, each of the texts considers “land” and “ally,” respectively, to be of the highest value, which might altogether indicate the trends of ‘social necessities’ for the particular period of their compositions. Yet again, Manu’s association of ‘eminence’ with individuals from certain territories, such as “Kurus, Matsyas, Pancalas, and Surasenas” and the emphasis on their physical strength to project a ‘warrior-like image’ is quite apparent. The essential act prescribed for the king, after his ‘victory,’ is the “grant” of “exemptions” to the Brahmins. In considering the comparative relevance of things and people in the life of a man, Manu considers the “wife” to be more precious than the “wealth,” and the life of the man to be more precious than that of his wife and wealth, both.

After the elaborate description of the everyday transactions of affairs as a part of the “morning routine,” Manu further prescribes an “afternoon routine” for the king, where he proceeds to “lunch” after a thorough examination of the food (for the threat of being poisoned) and “women” who are supposed to “wait on him attentively with fans, water, and perfume.” The elements of ‘suspicion’ attached here with women is another reflection of how Manu portrayed and painted women as ‘insecurities’ of the ‘social order.’ At the end of the day, as a part of the “evening routine,” the king is expected to retire to his “private quarters” for dinner, “escorted by women,” and after the completion of his dinner, ‘recreational’ sources of entertainment are organised for him. This ends his day, as he is prescribed to sleep early and then, wake up to repeat the ‘routines.’ Amusing as it may sound, Manu started the chapter in a rather different tone of strong advocacy for abstinence from ‘sensual pleasures,’ for the king.

The Manavadharmasastra has been at the centre of many critical debates in not only the Indian, but also the global “public sphere.” As a source of ‘social history,’ it describes several aspects of the ‘idealised’ hierarchical social order, as envisioned by the composer(s) of the text. While the vested interests of the ‘privileged upper-caste(s)’ are definitely intended, at the same time, the text is also an expression of their ‘anxieties’ with regard to ‘disruption’ in the society. Disruption, in this case, meant the challenge(s) of assertion and resistance by the ‘lower castes.’ Collaborating with the ‘Kshatriya king’ and associating him with the ‘divine’ is a ‘symbiotic benefit’ for the Brahmin beneficiaries who gain much in return. This ‘collaboration’ ensures the hegemony of a select few, whose ideas of exclusion and subjugation marginalise the ‘disempowered’ who are sacrificed to maintain the status quo. In more than one way, this formula has been in circulation, even in the contemporary period with which we are currently confronted.


Somnath Pati (@rebel_academic) is a former postgraduate scholar of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He owes his sincere acknowledgement for the unconditionally constant encouragement, support, and love to Jitendra Suna, Nirban Ray, Krishna Kumar, and Vinod Kumar, all independent researchers/research scholars from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, without whom this research article would not had been possible.