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Laws of Manu, The

Compendium of ancient sacred laws and customs held in the highest reverence by the orthodox adherents of Brahma

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Manu, the Laws of.—”The Laws of Manu” is the English designation commonly applied to the “Manava Dharma-sastra”, a metrical Sanskrit compendium of ancient sacred laws and customs held in the highest reverence by the orthodox adherents of Brahmanism. The Brahmins themselves credit the work with a divine origin and a remote antiquity. Its reputed author is Manu, the mythical survivor of the Flood and father of the human race, the primitive teacher of sacred rites and laws, now enjoying in heaven the dignity of an omniscient deity. The opening verses of the work tell how Manu was reverently approached in ancient times by the ten great sages and asked to declare to them the sacred laws of the castes, and how he graciously acceded to their request by having the learned sage Bhrigu, whom he had carefully taught the metrical institutes of the sacred law, deliver to them this precious instruction. The work thus pretends to be the dictation of Manu through the agency of Bhrigu; and as Manu learned it himself from the self-existent Brahma, its authorship purports to be divine. This pious Brahmin belief regarding the divine origin of the “Laws of Manu” is naturally not shared by the Oriental scholars of the western world. Even the rather remote date assigned to the work by Sir William Jones, 1200-500 B.C. has been very generally abandoned. The weight of authority today is in favor of the view that the work in its present metrical form dates probably from the first or second century of the Christian era, though it may possibly be a century or two older. Most of its contents, however, may be safely given a much greater antiquity. Scholars are now pretty well agreed that the work is an amplified recast in verse of a “Dharma-sutra”, no longer extant, that may have been in existence as early as 500 B.C.

The sutras were manuals composed by the teachers of the Vedic schools for the guidance of their pupils. They summed up in aphorisms, more or less methodically arranged, the enormously complicated mass’ of rules, laws, customs, rites, that the Brahmin student had to know by heart. Every Vedic school of importance had its appropriate sutras, among which were the “Grihya-sutras”, dealing with domestic ceremonies, and the “Dharma-sutras”, treating of the sacred customs and laws. A fair number of these have been preserved, and form part of the sacred Brahmin literature. In course of time, some of the more ancient and. popular “Dharma-sutras “were enlarged in their scope and thrown into metrical form, constituting the so-called “Dharma-sastras”. Of these the most ancient and most famous is the “Laws of Manu“, the “Manava Dharma-sastra”, so called, as scholars think, because based on a “Dharma-sutra” of the ancient Manava school. The association of the original sutra with the name Manava seems to have suggested the myth that Manu was its author, and this myth, incorporated in the metrical “Dharma-sastra”, probably availed to secure the new work universal acceptance as a divinely revealed book.

The “Laws of Manu” consists of 2684 verses, divided into twelve chapters. In the first chapter is related the creation of the world by a series of emanations from the self-existent deity, the mythical origin of the book itself, and the great spiritual advantage to be gained by the devout study of its contents. Chapters two to six inclusive set forth the manner of life and regulation of conduct proper to the members of the three upper castes, who have been initiated into the Brahmin religion by the sin-removing ceremony known as the investiture with the sacred cord. First is described the period of studentship, a time of ascetic discipline devoted to the study of the Vedas under a Brahmin teacher. Then the chief duties of the householder are rehearsed, his choice of a wife, marriage, maintenance of the sacred hearth-fire, sacrifices to the gods, feasts to his departed relatives, exercise of hospitality. The numerous restrictions, also, regulating his daily conduct, are discussed in detail, especially in regard to his dress, food, conjugal relations, and ceremonial cleanness. After this comes the description of the kind of life exacted of those who choose to spend their declining years as hermits and ascetics. The seventh chapter sets forth the divine dignity and the manifold duties and responsibilities of kings, offering on the whole a high ideal of the kingly office. The eighth chapter treats of procedure in civil and criminal lawsuits, and of the proper punishments to be meted out to different classes of criminals. The next two chapters make known the customs and laws governing divorce, inheritance, the rights of property, the occupations lawful for each caste. Chapter eleven is chiefly occupied with the various kinds of penance to be undergone by those who would rid themselves of the evil consequences of their misdeeds. The last chapter expounds the doctrine of karma, involving rebirths in the ascending or descending scale, according to the merits or demerits of the present life. The closing verses are devoted to the pantheistic scheme of salvation leading to absorption into the all-embracing, impersonal deity.

The “Laws of Manu” thus offers an interesting ideal picture of domestic, social, and religious life in India under ancient Brahmin influence. The picture has its shadows. The dignity of the Brahmin caste was greatly exaggerated, while the Sudra caste was so far despised as to be excluded under pain of death from participation in the Brahmin religion. Punishments for crimes and misdemeanors were lightest when applied to offenders of the Brahmin caste, and increased in severity for the guilty members of the warrior, farmer, and serf caste respectively. Most forms of industry and the practice of medicine were held in contempt, and were forbidden to both Brahmins and warriors. The mind of woman was held to be fickle, sensual, and incapable of proper self-direction. Hence it was laid down that women were to be held in strict subjection to the end of their lives. They were not allowed to learn any of the Vedic texts, and their participation in religious rites was limited to a few insignificant acts. Guilt involving penances was attributed to unintentional transgressions of law, and there was a hopeless confusion of duties of conscience with traditional customs and restrictions in large part superstitious and absurd. Yet, with all this, the ethical teachings of the “Laws of Manu” is very high, embracing almost every form of moral obligation recognized in the Christian religion.

The “Laws of Manu” is accessible to modern readers in a number of good translations. It was published in English dress under the title, “The Institutes of Manu”, by Sir William Jones in 1794, being the first Sanskrit work to be translated into a European tongue. This version is still recognized as a work of great merit. In 1884 a very excellent translation, begun by A. C. Burnell and completed by Professor E. W. Hopkins, was published in London, with the title, “The Ordinances of Manu”. Two years later appeared Professor George Buhler’s able version with a lengthy introduction, constituting volume XXV of the “Sacred Books of the East”. In 1893 Professor G. Strehly published in Paris a very elegant French translation, “Les Lois de Manou”, forming one of the volumes of the “Annales du Muse Guimet”.


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