The Laws of Manu – date of publication uncertain but believed to be about 200 BC - was a hybrid moral-religious-law code and one of the first written law codes of Asia. In spite of its age, it has sustained paramountcy in the Hindu culture. It was also the code of conduct for inter-caste relationships in India.
"Manu sat reclined with his attention fixed on one object, the Supreme God when divine sages approached him and after mutual salutations in due form, delivered the following address: "deign, sovereign ruler, to apprise us of the sacred laws in their order...."
Thus begins §1 of Chapter 1 of the Laws of Manu, Son of Brahma.
Also spelled "Menu" and "the Ordinances of Menu" or the Manu Code, this article uses the more common word "Manu" and the The Laws of Manu.
This ancient Hindu law code of India, collectively called "Smirtu", was unique in many ways but two stand out.
- It is the best known of India, and one of the oldest written legal code in the world; and
- It combined rules of law sprinkled between many moral rules, the latter predicated on a firm belief in reincarnation and a formal caste system.
Experts are unable to agree as to the date that the Laws of Manu were published but 200 BC seems to be the most common date given.
Ironically, though The Laws of Manu gives India standing as having one of the oldest written legal codes, the legal tradition it is issue from avoided written law as long as possible so as (1) to accommodate adaptability in the law and (2) to not limit the discretion to be exercised by the uppermost class, the high priests and judges of the Hindu religion, otherwise known as the Brahmins.
The opening verses (there are 2,694 in total) of the Manu read like Genesis, describing how the world and man was formed. The context is of a mythical Adam-like deity called Manu who was implored by "the great seers ... to tell us truly in order the rules of all the castes" - the parable portrayed in the canvass pictured
Manu had a divine companion animal, a bull, called Dherma, a genius of abstract justice.
So revered was the Laws of Manu that one Hindu legal theorist (Vyasa) remarked that: "the code of Menu ... ought never to be shaken by arguments merely human."
First born, according to the chronology presented in Manu, was: "... Brahma, the grand parent of all the worlds" (the similarity to the Biblical Adam has always fascinated historians).
The first Brahma, called "Vdea", the parable goes, then went on, apparently, to create the lower castes (in order): Brahmins, Ksatriya (also Ksatra or Kashatriya, warriors and the royal family), Vaicya (or Vaishya, the farmers) and the lowest caste of all, the Cudra or Shudra.
Intermarriage was legal - except with a Shudra.
There was even a totally disentitled subgroup: the Dasyu, who were below the Shudra and included thieves, condemned murderers, other criminals and servants.
An ancient Indian proverb stated that:
"Know that the relationship between a Brahmin ten years of age and a Ksatriya (who is) a hundred years old is as that of a father to a son, but of these two, it is the Brahmin who is the father."
The first part of the Laws of Manu continues with detailed rules related to hygiene and the like, leading William Jones, in his 1869 book, to appropriately preface his edition with the legal proverb: "Laws are of no avail without manners."
This feature of the Laws of Manu caused the British Privy Council, in a 1899 case, to remark that lawyers ought to exercise: "... great caution in interpreting books of mixed religion, morality and law...."
An extract: "Having slept and sneezed and having eaten and spit, and having told lies, ... one should rinse the mouth."
The Laws of Manu assured the continued existence of the inherent unfairness of the caste system and an even worse fate for women:
"In her childhood, a girl should be under the will of her father. In her youth, of her husband. Her husband being dead, of her sons. A woman should never enjoy her own will.
"Though of bad conduct or debauched, or even devoid of good qualities, a husband must always be worshipped like a god by a good wife."
According to the Laws of Manu, there are several recognized forms of marriage:
- The bride is given to a Brahmin to recognize the latter’s greatness;
- The bride is abducted by a Ksatriya. Sometimes, the abduction is acted out only for the Ksatriya to prove his manhood to his peers – the bride secretly consented to it;
- The most common form of marriage, where the bride is purchased; and
- Those rare cases where both parties consent to a marriage.
It is only after eliminating any "threat" from women, and favouring the higher castes, that the Laws of Manu delves into traditional law.
Speaking eloquently of the art of trial and of evidence, the Laws add:
"As the hunter directs his step by the blood drops of the beast, so should the king direct the course of justice by mans of inference.
"Abiding by the rule of legal suits, let the king examine the truth, the thing himself, the witnesses, the place, the time and the form.
"In all cases of violence, theft, illegal intercourse with women, and injury by word or by deed, one need not examine the witnesses very carefully.
"He who does not speak when the judge says "speak", or does not prove what he has said; he who does not know what comes first and what comes last – these all lose their law suit."
"Worthy persons of all castes may be made witnesses. The king must not be made to serve as witness ... nor a Brahman, nor a Dasyu, ... nor an old man, nor a child, nor one man alone, nor a man defective in the organs of sense.
"Testimony may be given, when other witnesses are not forthcoming, even by a woman, a child, or an old man, or by a slave."
Penalties could be severe and a good case made for mouth wash:
"A slanderer, a foul-smelling nose, a false informer, a foul-smelling mouth, a stealer of grain: the loss of a limb.
"A horse thief: lameness."
Much of the Laws of Manu speak of purging even serious crimes by some act such as murmuring a certain saying a prescribed number of times at dawn. Other penalties, which ought to attract the attention of defence counsel everywhere, are stated to be promised to the offender - not in this life but in the next!
As William Jones wrote in 1869, the Laws of Manu:
"... contains ... many beauties which need not be pointed out and many blemishes which cannot be justified or palliated. It is a system of despotism and priestcraft, both indeed limited by law but artfully conspiring to give mutual support."
But although no longer the only Hindu law code, Manu is recognized as being paramount in the event of conflict between it and any other Smirtu.
- Hopkins, Edward, The Ordinances of Manu (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1891).
- Jones, William, Institutes of Hindu Law or the Ordinances of Manu, (London: Wm H. Allen & Co., 1869).
- Kolff, Dirk, "Early Law in India" in The Law’s Beginnings (The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003) pages 11-22.
- Sri Balusu Gurulingaswami v. Sri Bulusu Ramalskashmamma 26 IA (English Law Reports, Indian Appeals) 113 (1899)
- The Laws of Manu online (as of March 16, 2008) at sacred-texts.com/hin/manu.htm