On Manu

One of the most reviled person, but is it correctly or through the interpretations, and that too selective? 

The Manu Samhrita or the Laws of Manu are the laws that were to be followed by the civil. It simply tells us –  do this, don’t do this, if you do this this would be the punishment etc.

If I talk into the management literature, the Vedas are the ultimate, which are the Vision, Mission and Objective statements. In political terms, they are the constitution of the nation. But like any of these above documents, they are too abstract and need interpretations in easy day to day language. In the organisation how many know of the vision mission policy statements? How many have read even a paragraph of the constitution of their own nation? I assume it would be only a handful. But still we do follow, to what we think best, the company’s policies, or the nation’s constitution. 

How and why? It is because of the re-translation of these documents into the guides and the laws.  We have in our company the department procedures, work procedures, instructions, standing-orders, all of these are derived by the company’s basic documents (the statutes also are which the company has to adhere to). In the external context we have the various statutes and laws which defines which are the activities penalised, and which are the activities one should perform.  

This is necessary since obviously none of us, or most of us, would have the time or the intention to go through all the various activities we should perform and the ones we should never, so that the ultimate objective (of the company, nation, civilisation) are met.

There are another set of documents, which helps the common people to get the gist of the matter, by humanification of the abstracts and also various moral stories. These form the base of Purans. How much of those in Purans were factual and how much were myth are obviously open to debate and in fact the debate itself is immaterial, since these are symbolical. But whether historical or stories, they served the purpose. Once upon a time there was a person X who did this and though he went scot free but later when he faced Almighty, he had to take the punishment. This story would be better understood by me, than a simple statement don’t harm another person, “Sarve  bhavantu sukhinah..”. And that’s the reason that the so called “Bhavishya Puran” itself is open to debate, and in my humble opinion is a concocted one. The name itself is an oxymoron Bhavishya = future, Purana = Ancient (tale).

In any of the other puranas or similar literature, rarely the future is predicted, and when it is, it is with the same reason as the in the ones talking of the past. In the past a Duryodhana did this and was so punished. But in future there might come a time, when there would be all living in their own glass palaces and refuse to throw or even make a shy at throwing stone at others. That is envisaged, and to avoid that situation from occurring, the various documents tell us of the second deluge or Apocalypse or the Kalki Avatar, when that situation occur, and be forewarned so that it doesn’t.

Whether those warnings are helping or not is of course controversial (it isn’t but I thought I will go soft), since all of us (through generations) assume, this generation, of my life time, might have reached the tipping point, but the actual rolling down and then reaching to the bottom would take place during next, or next to next generation. May be not me but still there are some people alive who would ensure that on the top there is just a bit of a plateau. Of course the person of whom we think as such crisis avoider might think the same about me.

One of the best similar example, probably, is of the global warming. We all seem to know that in the decade or so that I have left of my life at the maximum, or even the people in twenties, who may have say half a cent, the global warming won’t reach the stage to become life threatening. So let us live our life. If once in a while Badrinath, Chennai or the Euro-freeze takes place, let it happen, as far as it’s not to me who is amongst the dead. Anyway no one could prove that these are result of the global warming and nothing else.

This is a general thought process any one would follow. As far as it is to someone else, and not me, why should I suffer (inconvenience). When it is really with me, there may really be no more suffering. If I survive, still I may not blame the cause, but others (the fury was nature’s, but what did the Government do?). Why should I ask the inconvenient question that of late why the nature is becoming so furious? Then I might have to keep my AC at a minimum usage level, use public transports or even may be Bicycles. 

Coming back to the topic,  After the Constitution (Vedas, Upanishads) and the explanatory notes (Puranas) we have the actual written down dos and don’ts. Like the Penal Codes, various Laws and statutes and Acts, here too we have a guidelines (say Kautilya’s Arthashastra) or Laws (Manu Samhrita) or even the linguistic (Panini).

One of the interesting parts of the Manu Samhrita is its self contradictions, in many areas especially in case of women. There had been lot of literature (even printed, including one I have from the penguin) on this, where the two contributors themselves interpret the gists a bit differently. 

As we know in the ancient ages the women were given prime position, even above men. The Adi Shakti, from whom the Tri Murti were formed was a feminine figure, which later manifested itself into the consorts of the three. Thus for all practical purposes the six, the Trimurti’s and their consorts were the six facets of the single Ultimate. Angry but easily forgiving father, the benign but defending mother, the guardian and protecting, the provider of nourishment, the biological contributor and the one who provides the knowledge, including those of the fine arts and crafts. All these as per the original philosophers, who formulated the path, the Dharma, joined together into a feminine form (no controversy about the gender) the Adi Shakti, Mahamaya, Jagadmaba (mother of the universe), whatever we may decide to call Her.

The place of women was defined in the ancience, in forms of the guidelines “The home where the bride is not respected (worshipped?) …”. And also unlike what we do/ think now, the choice of the husband (if) was left to them. What is swayamvara if they didn’t have the right? They were even given the full freedom to remain spinster, if they wished. This guidelines were critical, due to the physical frailty and hence the chance of dominance by physical power.  

All the things slowly deteriorated, and the flower, which the males think of the other gender, slowly came down from the head (as the blessing) to neck, as equal and then to feet, since the men started thinking (and the women agreed) that they are their Swami, God, and hence the place of the flower, offering, should be on their feet.

In terms of Rabindra Nath “I am Chitrangada, the daughter of the greatest of the Kings. If you worship me and keep me at an high alter, I am not she. If you keep me below your feet by denigrating me, I am not she either. If you agree to keep me by your side, in pleasure as well as in difficulties, then only you would be able to win me.”  to Arjun when he courts her.  

Of course he hasn’t always been so equal for example “Phulo gandho nibedono bedono sundoro, Maloti tabo charoney pronota” has the wife/ lover on his feet, pleading not to leave. Even if it is for the ultimate departure (the lyrics signify that).

Anyway over the ages the denigration had reached almost the ultimate level. There are many social and psychological reason which might have resulted in this fall in society standard, and major role I assume was the physical and the gene-pool propagation aspects. Since all the animals indulge in that, so the humans thought why not we too?

Talking of the contradictions in the Manu Samhrita, why should they come in? It had been of course explained by the scholars, that the Manu wasn’t a Manu, but a series of them, over generations, who could have written, re-written, modified, added, deleted the laws. Isn’t that what takes place even today, the laws get amended, revised, overhauled or completely changed, based on the situation prevalent at the time? 

I suppose exactly that’s what was going on, as the society changed over time, the laws had to be amended to keep pace with it and it might have been OK upto certain extent, but that after a certain time stopped and then onwards the things stagnated.

The society didn’t stop changing but the governing laws did. So the things that were acceptable at a given moment, became unacceptable, ludicrous or seemingly even criminal at another moment of time. Some due to scenario itself, some due to interpretations.  And when there were contradictions in two set of laws, we always take the one which suits us best. That’s what was being done with these sets of laws too. Even today when we try to make a denigration of it, we look at the ones that suits us best, conveniently glossing over the other ones which might have meant an entirely separate meaning.

That is a human tendency. When I look at any piece of  printed (or celluloid), I have made a prejudgement already, it would be “Like” or “Dislike” nothing in between.  I might as well press the button before reading it. So there is nothing too strange about it. When I read it, with selective bias, I read the lines which go according to my opinion, and dismiss the one that run contrary to it. Even that won’t have been really that bad, but there are times when I prefer to misinterpret. The trouble with Sanskrita is that a particular word, to its context, might have many more meanings than it usually is with other languages, and that is more compounded by the pithy and symbolic way these Shlokas are usually written.

In this context there is an interesting Shloka, (I have to retrace it), but let me recount by memory about the much maligned (and sacred for some) Sati Pratha. It goes something like this,

And then the woman, would ascend the funeral pyre where lay her husband, and then from there she would be recalled by her husband’s brother or any other person that wishes (or she wishes) to be wedded to.

Now whether if she didn’t want to be re-wedded could she come down or not I don’t recall. But this much is enough for the context. It made me think over on another angle.

We know/ believe that the fire is the ultimate purifier through it actions and gets rid of the sin, and also the past? So this symbolical going on pyre with the husband was it a symbolism that was meant (and later misinterpreted)? It might have meant that the wife should now completely get rid of her past, with her now departed husband, and start life afresh? This logic (without the fire episode) gets a lot of support in other places which indirectly hints on remarriages, including to widows. The most of the Sati Pratha supporters draw on two examples, one of Sati herself and the other of Madri. Sati anyway didn’t commit Sati due to her husband’s death, He being immortal, despite thoroughly poisoned. It was unable to bear the insults heaped on him, she went into spontaneous combustion (the scientific term). As far as Madri is concerned, that is a totally different aspect, she was guilty of his death, so she probably had done it as a penance. Kunti didn’t, nor did her mother (and step-mother) in laws, Ambika and Ambalika, nor did her grand-mother in law, Satyavati. They didn’t remarry, but they didn’t even go on pilgrimage, till Pandu and Dhritarashtra were grown up. Only then the three went on Sanyas. So the history really isn’t replete with the great women who had gone for the ritual. Now if a woman thinks herself akin to Madri, the prime cause of her husband’s death then of course…

When I look in Ramayana, especially amongst Vanara it becomes very interesting. Despite all our modern age thinking, the Vanaras were not Monkeys just like Rakshasa were not the demons. The Vanaras were the forest dwelling people. Their King was Vali and Queen Tara, and son Angada. Vali’s younger brother Sugreeva too was married, his wife was Ruma, though I don’t recall any offsprings mentioned. May be they were kids and not fightable, hence retained at home, unlike the young and brave Angada. When due to some confusion, Sugreeva presumed Bali dead, in a fight with one of the rakshasas (Mayavi), he came back and married his widow (Tara). 

There was nowhere mentioned that it was something uncalled for (Bibhishana too married Mandodari after Ravana’s death). Then when alive Vali came back furious at the (assumed) treachery of Sugreeva, and exiled him, he took revenge by marrying Ruma, Sugreeva’s wife. This is where the commentators became vociferous. With the husband exiled but alive,  marrying his wife wasn’t treated to be an acceptable practice. In fact it was considered one of the major sins, which turned the table against Vali. Had Sugreeva been dead or had discarded (or by) his wife, or any of the classes which permits remarriage (only one class I don’t know, the impotency, that too probably since he didn’t have any children of his own) then none would have talked, as they didn’t when Sugreeva married Tara, though under mistaken belief. When Vali came back and reclaimed his wife Tara or when he actually died, killed by Lord Rama (and hence cursed by Tara) Sugreeva once again remarried Tara. No points were raised by any one. Only the Ruma- Vali was questioned, due to the husband being alive and there were no mutually agreed separation, only forced.

It again shows the widow remarriage and not Sati, was the common practice that was at that time. To the brother in law, preferably, but that too was due to obvious reason, the property dispute. The scriptures mention that the child would belong to the mother and thereby would claim the share of her husband’s property. If he is the heir of the throne like Angad, with no one else in the succession line and then Tara marries someone else, say a neighbouring prince? To avoid that, may be they preferred that the material (i.e. successor) of the home should remain officially at home, and hence the owner, the mother should too. What would be the most definite way to avoid any of her future adventure than by marrying her, but with a rider of course, if she wishes? 

Coming back to Manu (or the multiples of them). Who were they? Were each of the Manu a single person or a committee like of today who look at the rules and acts and then amend them? I believe it was the committee approach who debated on the current Codes and then modified them based on the current sociological situation, as they perceived. Due to this probably different portions were revised or deleted at different sittings and so we find the difference in their authorship.

But if the committee sat, how often they will? Definitely the sociological differences will not be very significant every year, requiring a code revision. Normally it takes a generation or so, unless the society is very dynamic like today. Of course there is a reason of the high dynamism, the connectivity and cross cultural mix, none of which existed back then. Only migration will be through occasional travellers and the effect of them would slowly percolate in the local fabric. In that case how many years it will be to go for a review and how many years for a revision? 

My guess is 12 and 144. Twelve for stock taking and minor corrections and 144 for a revision where the changes had become so significant that it called for a reformulation of strategy. This numbers are not brough from imagination,… oh well to be frank they are from imagination. 

It relies on the basic assumption that it was a committee sitting, all of whom had to be expert on the constitution (that is Veda’s and Upanishads). The majority of the committee members had to be brought together at the same venue where they would deliberate on the current scenario. They have to decide upon how to reformulate the laws so that the scenario do not worsen, while maintaining the basic constitution. 

Were those the Kumbha fairs? Once in every 12 years at a particular zone, all the four zones spread over so that the local corrections are done based on the situation at each region? After every 144 years, during Maha Kumbha, all the four zones would come together, discuss their regional problems and corrections. Then they would rewrite the Penal Codes so that for some time, it becomes the unadulterated common practice across. It would also look at various local corrections and debate on them, some might be accepted in the Red Book, some would be discarded, and the offending region have to roll them back? May be a wild guess, but were the Kumbhas meant only for religious discourse? The scheduling and timing would ensure attendance. A lot of others say the rulers etc would also be interested in the debate, since it would be them, who would have to implement these the moment the bills were passed by the legislative committee. 

Who knows what went on thousands of years back in those Kumbhas till they became a ritual.