The book of mine which I use the most is The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. Enough, in fact, that my paperback copy is getting too worn. So I created a hardcover edition!


Lulu charges more than I’d like, but on the other hand I can put it on sale! So for now, you can pick it up for $28.76. That’s less than it costs to go out for dinner! And heck, I’ve put the hardcover Language Construction Kit on sale too.

I also took the opportunity to update the text, correcting a few embarrassing errors. Also, the latest copy of Word, amazingly, can hold the whole book in memory at once without crashing. So I was able to add the first few chapters to the index.

Go buy a few!

I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?


If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.

Latest book: The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry, edited and translated by Ahmed Ali. I think I can reuse the illo of Babur and Humayun here, since Babur was probably reciting some verse.  In Persian, not Urdu, I know.


Ali is a great guide– knowledgeable, enthusiastic, tolerant, a font of details.  What he isn’t (warning: my opinion) is a great translator. He’ll introduce a poem or a poet, rhapsodic over just how wonderful and beautiful they are, and it just kind of washes over me.  At random, here’s (most of) a ghazal by Mir Taki Mir, who is said to be the greatest of the 18C Urdu poets:

For days the thought of parting
Had haunted my afflicted breast
Now it was pain, and now a wound
At times a blow, at times a thrust.

At dawn the happy happy world
Was no less kind than on the night
Of sorrow, for the lamp was turned
To smoke, the moth reduced to dust.

Yet if annihilated was
The heart, it was but just as well,
For sometimes it was with the heat
Of love a burn, sometimes a hurt.

…If ever you chance to pass that way
O breeze, then tell her: Faithless one,
But sad and lonely Mir alone
Was in your garden a prickly thorn.

Part of it is because of the type of poetry I like, which is: very little.  I find classic English poetry excruciatingly dull, and I really kind of hate traditional meter, traditional poetic diction, and what seems like a thick overcoat of sentiment. And for the most part Ali seems to translate from Urdu into just that style of poetry.  Alert readers who like poetry: is this great stuff that I happen to be immune to?

(I like Chinese poetry much more.  It’s quick and visual, and not much given to repetition or sentimentality.  Also, I’m sure the Urdu poems are great in Urdu, which is why I’m blaming poor Mr. Ali.)

Still, it has its moments.  Some I am saving for the book, but I’ll give a few interesting bits that didn’t fit in.  There’s one long poem, by Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, that’s highly entertaining; it’s the complaint of a man whose horse is an utter disaster.  Here’s the final stanza:

Thanks be at last my earnest prayer was heard,
And I could manage to reach the battlefield
Somehow, and with a warlike cry I made
To fight. But as a Maratha came to meet
Me, the lean beast, abject, dry as a bone,
Put me to utter shame and mean disgrace.
I egged it on with kicks and shouts in vain,
And charged on foot like a child without the mount.
Then in my helpless and apathetic state
I bolted from the scene of action, shoes
In hand, the steed in my arms, in shameful haste.

Another long poem by Mir Ghulam Hasan, retelling an epic, is interesting for having a description of the hero rather than just the heroine:

But when at last they came quite near
They saw a youth so comely, fair,
Of age about sixteen, in truth,
Nights of longing, days of youth.
Over his lip soft down showed new
Which shamed the heavens’ clear blue.
Nimble of body, strong of limb,
Fresh of face, both tall and slim,
His whole appearance like a mirror
Showing the garden of goodness, hair
So elegant, proud its every tress,
Glowing with health and youthfulness.
Wise of look and sharp of eye,
Forehead full of bravery.

Finally, on the emo side, here’s part of a poem by Momin Khan Momin on the death of his beloved.

Autumn has tarnishes the beauty of the rose,
Faded are the cheeks that once has glowed,
Who in the house had never thought it right
To go unveiled, is carried through the streets.
The head that was as cypress held erect
Now low is laid, gone all its wantonness.
The eyes of the beauty who was breath of my breath
Who dreamed with me my dreams, are closed in death.




If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.



The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.


This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

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.



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