Q. I read some really horrible things from a Hindu book called the Manusmriti [Manu-samhita], which contains the class-conscious rules of varnasrama dharma. One of the most egregious of these rules is that women should never be given freedom. They are meant to be always under the control of men. Furthermore, I read that Srila Prabhupada is among the few modern gurus who accept this book as authoritative. When I read all this I became so terribly sad as I had the greatest belief in Prabhupada, but now this belief is shattered. My question is how any person with a conscience can accept this frightful book as authoritative? Do you accept Manusmriti as authoritative?
A. Thought to be the oldest of the dharma-sastras, the Manusmriti is often described as the law book of ancient Hindu society. The text deals with four subjects: the origin of the world, the sources of dharma, the rules of the four varnas (social orders) and four asramas (spiritual orders), and karma-yoga. The laws found therein are obviously not modern. Thus to be fair, they should not be compared to modern laws, but rather to socio-religious rules that pertain to an ancient culture.
The laws of Manu made sense to religious people living centuries ago in India, and if we had lived in that bygone culture it is unlikely that we would have found the text unacceptable. Nor would adherence to its essential precepts have inhibited our spiritual progress. Why? Because for the most part dharma-sastras such as Manusmriti address relative socio-religious concerns, and true spirituality transcends such concerns. However, while Manusmriti stresses socio-religious life, it does so with a view to help qualify humanity for the pursuit of essential spirituality. Thus there is a thread of spiritual truth that runs through it that applies to all times. Ultimately this thread is what was important to Srila Prabhupada, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Paramahansa Yogananda, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (a former president of India), and other spiritual and religious leaders who often spoke highly of the text. Even Nietzsche said, “Put down the Bible and pick up Manusmriti.” (The Will to Power, Vol.1)
Though Srila Prabhupada more readily identified with social standards of times gone by, some of which fit better with the words of Manusmriti, in practice he embraced whatever in his judgment was helpful for performing and disseminating Krishna bhakti, some of which did not conform to the injunctions of the dharma-sastras. That some of Manusmriti’s centuries-old injunctions do not resonate with people living in our times is to be expected. For that matter, no Hindus today adhere to the text more than in some small part, and most scholars believe that the laws of Manu were never universally enforced anywhere in India.
Still, practically all Hindu historians and teachers accept its authenticity in the same sense that Srila Prabhupada did, as one of the authentic texts of the Hindu dharma-sastras. In doing so they promote what they consider appropriate in Manusmriti and more or less disregard the rest. The founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a noteworthy 19th century campaigner for women’s rights, cites Manu’s laws hundreds of times in his writings. In his opinion, verses highly critical of women and the lower classes (sudras) are not Vedic at all but interpolations introduced later by the corrupted brahminical class. Another scholar, Dr. Surendra Kumar, claims that out of a total of 2,685 verses in the present Manusmriti, only 1,214 are authentic or can be confirmed by the Vedas, the other 1,471 being interpolations.
Therefore, in consideration of its overall content and the culture in which it was written, it would be inappropriate for a Hindu to disrespect Manusmriti in its entirety. Better one should try to understand it in terms of its historicity and its spirituality, knowing full well that religious laws are often relative to time and circumstance. Indeed, many injunctions in our times accepted as appropriate by the religious and secular alike will likely be considered inappropriate by future generations.
By contrasting the Manusmriti with books and beliefs from other ancient cultures, one can see that it is hardly unique in its strictures against women. For example, in classical Athens, the city heralded as the birthplace of democracy, women took no part in the democratic process. After marriage they were largely confined to the women’s section of the house and were forbidden to eat with or speak to men other than their husbands. The Minnesota State University Museum tells it like this: “The status of Athenian woman in Greek society was minimal. By comparison to present-day standards, Athenian women were only a small step above slaves by the 5th century B.C.” About teaching women to read and write, the Greek playwright Menander wrote, “What a terrible thing to do! Like feeding a vile snake on more poison.” Other authors and philosophers had similar quips about women. Summing up the Athenian view of women, Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle, student of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great, wrote, “The male is by nature superior and the female inferior…the one rules and the other is ruled.”
Therefore, as we appreciate the positive contribution of other ancient books and leave aside the rest, we should similarly appreciate the Manusmriti. In this light, the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is no friend of Hinduism, says: “Yet, with all this [restrictions on women, etc.], the ethical teachings of the ‘Laws of Manu’ is very high, embracing almost every form of moral obligation recognized in the Christian religion.”
Furthermore, although Manusmriti, like other patriarchal religious law books of its time, does prescribe the subservience of women to men, it condemns men who are derelict in their duty to care for and protect the women under their jurisdiction. Manu also glorifies women considerably, and taken in context with his rules to honor and never violate women, his laws pertaining to them seem progressive in comparison to those of many other ancient cultures. For example, Manusmriti (3:55-57) says, “Those who seek great prosperity and happiness should never inflict pain on women. Where women are honored, in that family great men are born, but where they are not honored, all acts are fruitless. Where women pass their days in misery and sorrow because of the misdeeds of their husbands, that family soon entirely perishes, but where they are happy because of the good conduct of their husbands, the family continually prospers.”
Most importantly, Sri Krishna explains in Srimad Bhagavatam (11.20.9) that one is obliged to adhere to the smriti of the dharma-sastra only to the extent that one has not awakened faith in hearing and chanting about him. This is also the conclusion of Bhagavad-gita as Krishna emphatically tells us therein to forego the dharma-sastra and take exclusive shelter of him: sarva dharman parityaja mam ekam saranam vraja (Bg 18.66).
Thus a soul surrendered to Krishna (saranagata) need not be concerned with dharma-sastra. One serious about Krishna bhakti need only be concerned with the smriti of the Vaisnavas, such as Hari-bhakti-vilasa. Furthermore, this should be done under the guidance of a guru competent to advise one which injunctions therein apply to one’s situation. No sect of Gaudiya Vaisnavas that I know of follows all the injunctions of Hari-bhakti-vilasa. Rather than trying to follow everything in Hari-bhaki-vilasa verbatim, one should under good guidance extract its essential principles and apply them to life in the modern world according to time and circumstance.
As Gaudiya Vaisnavas are taught to take the essence from Hari-bhakti-vilasa, those treading the karma-marg should be encouraged to embrace the essence of Manusmriti’s injunctions rather than try to follow the letter of its law, which would be impossible to do in today’s world anyway. For that matter, in essence the dharma-sastra ultimately points in the direction of Hari-bhakti, for the perfection of adherence to dharma is determined by the extent to which such adherence satisfies Hari (God): samsiddhir hari tosanam.
Finally, regarding varnasrama dharma, it is not about taking away people’s freedom. It is ultimately about freeing people from material existence. By studying the precepts of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, which could very well be considered the New Testament of Hinduism, one can understand varnasrama dharma and at the same time be in a position to transcend it altogether in the context of the culture of prema dharma, the path of love.