As promised, here’s a review of that hot mess, the Mānava dharmaśāstra, commonly called the Laws of Manu. I don’t have a picture of Manu, who was mythical anyway, so here is a picture of a brahmin teaching.


The tame lion is a nice touch


Two thousand years ago, the Indians wrote manuals (śāstra) for everything: metallurgy, theater, grammar, and so on. Some of the most important were those dedicated to the three drives of human life: dharma (righteousness, merit, law), artha (worldly success, ambition, politics), and kāma (love, desire). Thus the Dharmaśāstra (treatise on virtue), Arthaśāstra (treatise on success / statecraft), and Kāmasūtra (book on love).

There are several Dharmaśāstras, the best known are attributed to the sage Yājñavalkya and to the first man / first king, Manu. For convenience I’ll call the author Manu (especially as we have no other name to give him). The book is also known as the Manusmriti, but that’s a newer term.  Manu was one of the first Sanskrit books known in the West— it was translated in 1794 by William Jones (most famous for his Indo-European quote).

The British rather unfortunately took it as an actual law code and attempted to base Hindu law on it. This is a bit like taking Plato’s Republic as your constitution. As Patrick Olivelle (the translator of the modern version I read) points out, Manu (and Kauṭilya) were writing in a time when northern India was frequently ruled by śūdras (the lower class), by Buddhists, or by out and out mlecchas (barbarians).  Their description of a dominant brahmin class which even the kṣatriya kings deferred to, and where “heretics” could be forced to live outside the town walls, was an archaizing fantasy.

The book itself

Of the three books— the Dharmaśāstra, Arthaśāstra, and Kāmasūtra— the latter is by far the most appealing to modern tastes. There’s an awful lot of sex in it, of course, but its portrait of the idle rich man-about-town (nagaraka) is something we can recognize today, and it’s surprisingly fair to women.

And Manu is by far the least appealing. The book is not a law code at all; it’s a manual of morality for brahmins. It starts with a hefty cosmological introduction, then proceeds to the meat: six chapters of detailed rules for the life of a brahmin, from birth to death. There’s one chapter on kings (assumed to be kṣatriyas), and two on law proper.  Finally there’s a chapter on complications of class, and one on penances.

Oh, by the way, it’s all in verse— which is one of the reasons the book was cited and read for centuries. In Indian culture, poetry was more authoritative and more memorable. I’m happy however that the translation is in prose.


From a distance of thousands of yojanas and two millennia, it’s hard to say how realistic a text is, but just based on the level of detail, it’s evident that Manu knows his brahmin procedures, but little about statecraft. His section on kings is far inferior to Kauṭilya’s; it’s mostly a collection of vague, unworldly encouragements:

When kings fight each other in battle with all their strength, seeking to kill each other and refusing to turn back, they go to heaven. When he is engaged in battle, he must never slay his enemies with weapons that are treacherous, barbed, laced with poison, or whose tips are ablaze with fire.

In contrast Kauṭilya will very frankly tell you when to fight, when to negotiate, when to undermine with spies, and when to surrender; and give you recipes for poisons and how to find spies to apply them.

Strikingly, though there is an awful lot about brahmins and kṣatriyas, but the section addressed to vaiśyas (merchants and farmers) is half a page, and that for śūdras (servants) is one paragraph, and it just tells them to obey happily. (The first three classes are all dvijas or twice-born; the second birth is a ceremony where they receive a sacred thread. Dvija men are entitled to study the Vedas and are generally on top in society.)

In earlier times there was some fluidity in class, but by Manu’s time it was strictly hereditary. You could lose class but never rise.

Now, Kauṭilya accepts the basic system, but never puts great emphasis on it, and almost never gives supernatural sanction to his laws. Manu is a believer and a defender, and everything has a religious reason for it. There is a panicky edge to Manu’s treatment of śūdras; as Olivelle says, for him they’re the Enemy. The Nanda and Maurya dynasties— the first empires in India— were said to be śūdras, which seemed to the Manus of the times as a horrible inversion of how things should be. (It’s not hard to see a parallel in racist horror at having a black president.)

Most societies have class systems, but few have theologized them so completely. All evils can be blamed on past lives. Unattractively, Manu calls the mentally retarded, the blind, the deaf, and the deformed “despised by good people”— they have these handicaps because of their sins in previous lives.

Just as bad is Manu’s horrible misogyny.  For him, women have an unquenchable lust: “Whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He is a man!’”  Women are never supposed to be independent; even if they are married to a villain they should “worship him as a god”.  They are not allowed to hear the Vedas. Their very nature is “lust, hatred, behavior unworthy of an Ārya, malice, and bad conduct.”

On the plus side, Manu is a window into a different worldview. Perhaps the most attractive feature of his ethics is the rejection of power and comfort as the supreme goals. Though in his ideal world the brahmins had special legal protections and should be supported by the state, he does not really give them secular power. They are supposed to study, teach the other twice-born, offer sacrifices, and generally be holy.  Ideally they should not even serve in government. They are supposed to be calm and not arrogant, generous, and deferent to their own teachers. When they retire— when their sons have sons— they are supposed to give up all their possessions and live as an ascetic in the forest. (At the same time, the ideal is not entirely ascetic: a man is supposed to be a “householder” for most of his life, happily married and earning a living.)

Every society has a “default class”, whose interests are assumed to be identical to that of the nation. For medieval Europe it’s the aristocrat; for America it’s the businessman; for imperial China it was the scholar-official. And for ancient India it was the brahmin. (Of course, the default class is never actually typical or ideal. But it says something about the society to look at its norms. You can also try to read between the lines and picture the counter-norms: these defaults are always erected in contrast to a less-trusted Other.)

If all you want is a review, you can stop here. I’m going to go through my marginal notes and point out things I found interesting.


If you are interested in ritual and everyday practice, Manu is the book for you. For instance:

The feet of his brother’s wife of the same class, he should clasp every day; but the feet of the wives of his paternal and maternal relatives, only after returning from a journey.

This is in the epics, too: touching the feet as a gesture of respect. In the Rāmāyaṇa, when Sītā is kidnaped, Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa find her shoes. Lakṣmaṇa makes a point of mentioning that he knows what Sītā’s feet (and footwear) look like, but not her face— a nice point of idealized etiquette.

“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men.” Just what a moralist would say; but the context is how to treat the young wife of one’s guru. Seems like an indirect stab at the guru!

Manu is quite finicky about wives for brahmins:

He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb; who is sickly; who is without or with too much bodily hair; who is a blabbermouth or jaundiced-looking; who is named after a constellation, a tree, a river, a very low caste…

There is a somewhat strange classification (also found in Kauṭilya) of types of marriage:

  1. Brāhma: a man gives a girl to a “man of learning and virtue”
  2. Divine: a man gives his daughter to a priest as a reward for officiating a sacrifice
  3. Seer: a man gives his daughter in return for the gift of a steer and cow
  4. Prājāpatya: a man gives a girl merely with an exhortation
  5. Asura (antigod): a man acquires a bride by paying her and her family
  6. Gāndharva (celestial being): a man and woman have sex and then get married (out of love)
  7. Rakṣasa (demon): a man abducts a woman
  8. Paisāca (ghoul): a man rapes a sleeping or drugged woman

Manu rules out 5 and 8. Brahmins are supposed to rely on 1-4; 6 and 7 are lawful for  kṣatriyas. For what it’s worth, Kauṭilya describes 7 as more of an abduction which is all right if everything is smoothed out with the woman and her parents; Manu describes it in blood-curdling terms (a man “abducts a girl from her house as she is shrieking and weeping, by causing death, mayhem and destruction”).  Kauṭilya also has no problem with bride-price, which Manu finds immoral. (The cattle in 3 are OK.)  Manu but not Kauṭilya forbids remarriage, and Manu doesn’t even mention the possibility of a women divorcing her husband.

Manu lists “entering a king’s service” as a source of disrepute and ruin, along with neglecting the Vedas, engaging in trade, and having sons only with śūdra wives. However, when he comes to advising kings on picking counselors, he wants him to choose a “sagacious and distinguished Brahmin”!

After an offering, you signal to your guests that it’s time to leave by saying “Please, stay around.”  A nice example of paradoxical politeness!

Many of the rules are hard to fathom. A good brahmin is not supposed to look at your reflection in water, or run in the rain. He should never dance or play an instrument. If he sees a rainbow, he should not point it out to other people. He should not urinate on ashes. He cannot give a śūdra leftovers or teach him the law; more bafflingly, he is not to give him advice. No twice-born should eat onions, leeks, garlic, or mushrooms, or sell meat, lac, or salt, on pain of losing his class.

Brahmins at this time could eat food as part of a sacrifice. If you get the urge to eat meat and no sacrifice is at hand, Manu advises making a fake animal out of butter or flour.

The ideal retirement:

He should roll on the ground or stand on tiptoes all day; spend the day standing and the night seated… surround himself with the five fires int he summer; live in the open air during the rainy season; and wear wet clothes int he sinter— gradually intensifying his ascetic toil.

When you’re done with life, you could walk northeast, subsisting on nothing but water and air, till you dropped dead. To help motivate your detachment, he provides a meditation on the body:

Constructed with beams of bones, fasted with tendons, plastered with flesh and blood, covered with skin, foul-smelling, filled with urine and excrement, infested with old age and sorrow, the abode of sickness, full of pain, covered with dust, and impermanent— he must abandon this dwelling place of ghosts.

A king, however, should “meet his death in battle.”

Where Kauṭilya says that a treasure trove is shared with the king, Manu says this is only true for non-brahmins— because the world belongs to them.

A rare improvement on Kauṭilya: a son is not obliged to pay his father’s debts if they were due to gambling or drinking.

If a śūdra “hurls grossly abusive words” at a dvija, his tongue should be cut off.  And if he hears the Vedas being recited, hot metal is to be poured in his ears.  It’s permitted to simply “seize property” from a śūdra.  Yeesh.

There was a custom of levirate marriage: if a man dies without sons, his wife could sleep with his brother, and any son born would be attributed to her husband. Manu accepts this custom but he doesn’t like it; he says the brother-in-law should have sex with her only once a month, and only till she bears a son. An alternate method for a sonless man was to designate a daughter as a “female-son”, so that her son becomes his heir.

A king should exile all heretics, gamblers, entertainers, and liquor sellers. (The unreality for this rule is shown by the fact that Kauṭilya offers rules for regulating all of these… not to mention employing some of them as spies.)

For some reason, the ancient writers really really dislike goldsmiths. Manu says that a dishonest goldsmith should be cut to pieces with knives. A man who steals precious gems will be reborn as a goldsmith.

Though agriculture was lawful for vaiśyas, and for brahmins if they had no other work, it was ethically dubious: “the plough with an iron tip lacerates the ground as well as creatures living in it.” Of course, you needed these people to have something to eat, but at least you could keep them at arm’s length.

A brahmin or kṣatriya should not lend money at interest. However, it’s permitted to do so if the recipients are “evil men”. Due diligence on this must have been interesting.

At one point Manu describes homosexuality as causing a man to lose class— but at another he prescribes a relatively simple penance for it: subsisting for one day only on cow’s products— ghee, milk, urine, and dung. (It’s not clear if you have to consume them all, or you get a choice, but heck, it’s only one day.)

There is a section which mentions castes per se— jāti. They are described as the result of various inter-class marriages— which is entirely absurd as history, but can be taken as an attempt as classification or hierarchy.  Even so, he only describes a handful of castes, not the several thousand that exist today.

The penance section is weird. He often gives excruciating penances— then adds a much easier alternative.  E.g. if a twice-born man drinks liquor, he can drink boiling-hot liquor. Or drink boiling cow urine until he dies. Harsh. Or he can simply eat broken grain or oil-cake at night for a year.  If he has sex with an elder’s wife, he can kill himself by lying on a hot metal bed or by castrating himself.  Or live on gruel and sacrifice-food for three months. In both cases a further alternative is simply to recite certain Vedic hymns. I guess the technique is similar to the Christian doctrine of presenting the wages of sin as death and torment in hell— then remarking that you avoid all that by Christ’s sacrifice. Ritual is there for taming a frightening world.

There’s a rather amusing list of what animals you’ll be reborn as for various thefts. If you steal linen, you will be a frog. If you steal household utensils, you will be a wasp.  Stealing salt leads to life as a cricket.