Manusmriti is one of the most criticized scripture of India and this criticism mostly comes because it propagates caste system in India. But as wise people have said, before criticizing anything first try to understand it. So, with that motivation, I will be putting up articles on Manusmriti, where I will be clarifying a lot of things regarding what has been said in Manusmriti. In this first article I would like to clarify a few issues in terms of the translation of Manusmriti, I think this will clarify a lot of confusion with regards to the text.
Manusmriti is a text which was originally composed in Sanskrit, thanks to the Macauley’s education system, most modern educated Indians cannot understand Sanskrit. This is especially true for the people who are the most critical of Manusmriti. These same people criticize Sanskrit as an oppressive language and therefore refuse to learn it. Due to this most modern educated Indians read a translation of Manusmriti and that is where bulk of the problem with Manusmriti lies. Now, do not get me wrong, I am not saying that Manusmriti is a blameless text with nor flaws at all. There are a lot of flaws in the text, which is natural as the text was composed for a society of a different time period. For those of you who might be thinking that I am defending Manusmriti, let me very clear, there are some serious flaws in Manusmriti, even with correct translation, and I am completely against basing our current constitution on it. But I would also like to point out that, when you read Manusmriti in Sanskrit, it does not appear as evil as it appears when you read the translation.
Somewhere in history the original text was definitely interpreted pretty badly. Now, who did this wrong interpretation is not clear to me, but someone somewhere has definitely misused Manusmriti. So, with that in mind let me go over a few very serious crimes that have been committed while translating Manusmriti.
Varna and Jati being translated as Caste
This is a very serious mistake that has been committed in most Manusmriti translations. We must understand that Varna and Jati are not the same, they are two different ideas. Varna translates as color and the idea to be conveyed through varna is that of a quality. People are different and have different preferences. Some people like intellectual pursuits while like monetary pursuits. This difference arises from difference in the mental and physical make up of people. This difference in the attitude of different people has been classified as Varna, where Brahmanas are intellectually oriented people, Kshatriyas are power oriented people, Vaishyas are business-oriented people and Shudras are people who like freedom from responsibility.
Jati on the other had is your tribe. People in one Jati can trace back their ancestry to a particular family or a particular region from where they all came. The difference between the two can be explained very well with my examples itself. I am a Yadav, so my Jati is Ahir, my ancestry can be traced back to Mathura from where the Yaduvansh and my ancestry can be traced back to Yadu who was the son of Yayati. Traditionally the occupation of Yadavas have been cow herders, which as an occupation will belong to Shudra Varna, but there have been very powerful Yadava kings in history, which is the occupation belonging to Kshatriya. So, you can see there is a very big difference between Jati and Varna. The correct translation of Varna should be quality, while the correct translation for your Jati should be your tribe. There has been no idea of caste in India at any point of time. We will discuss this in detail in a future video.
Dvija, Vipra, Acharya & Brahmin all translated as Brahmin
In the translation of Manusmriti, the word Dvija, Vipra, Acharya and Brahmana all are translated Brahmin. This is a very serious mistake that creates a lot of confusion in terms of interpreting the message of Manusmriti. Let’s go by each of these terms one by one.
Dvija actually means twice born, which means such as person has been initiated into a knowledge tradition. This initiation is his second birth, therefore the term twice born. Anybody who is initiated into any knowledge tradition is a dvija, it doesn’t matter in which family or Jati he/she is born.
Acharya actually means a teacher. The teacher can be anyone who is knowledgeable in his subject and has the qualification to impart his knowledge to others who are still learning.
Vipra is a wise person who is learned in the Shastras. Anybody who has completed his/her education in any knowledge tradition is called a Vipra.
Finally, we have the Brahmana, who is someone who is learned in the Vedas and has realized Brahm the underlying reality of this universe. Brahmana in the truest sense is the Enlightened soul who has attained nirvana. These individuals are the same as the Bodhisattvas in Buddhist tradition.
There is no mention anywhere in Manusmriti that Brahmana is particular race of individuals which is superior to others and that and who are also called Vipras, Acharyas and Dvijas. Anybody who translates the text with this mindset will of course translate the text incorrectly as his/her initial assumption itself is flawed.
Shudra, Vrishala & Antyaja, all translated as low caste
This is the third grave mistake that I see in the translations of Manusmriti, where they translate Shudra, Vrishala and Antyaj all as Shudra. This is quite misleading.
Shudra is a quality, anybody who is illiterate is a Shudra, it doesn’t matter in which family he/she is born. Another word that can be used for Shudra is Ekjati or once born person, who has not been initiated into any knowledge tradition. One more thing that you must understand about Shudra is that he is not a low born person, Shudra is also considered an Arya, that is a noble person.
Vrishala on the other hand is someone who is not of a noble birth, so Vrishala is someone who belongs to a family of low status. You must note here that this indeed is something which is related to your birth, so those who say that the laws of Manusmriti has nothing to do with your birth are not exactly right. There are laws related to your birth in Manusmriti, however these laws are based on certain assumptions that we will discuss in the later videos.
Antyaja is someone who belongs to the tribes involved in lowly occupations, such as washerman, fisherman or attendant to women etc.
The difference between these three is significant. Equating all the three to a person of low caste is a big mistake which creates a lot of confusion.
You must understand that interpreting law is a field in itself, where words are chosen very carefully. Same thing applies to Manusmriti, it’s a law book and each and every word in it must be interpreted very carefully, otherwise the meaning of the law is lost. Unfortunately, this has not been done in the translations. When I read the translation of Manusmriti, it seemed to me as if the translator had already had a picture of Indian society in mind and then translated each and every shloka from that point of view. Now nobody here is claiming that a traditional Indian system was egalitarian where everybody had equal opportunity, but the pictures that often gets portrayed in the translation is as if the varnas were a race-based system, where one race called the Brahmins dominated over the native race of lower Varnas, is very farfetched. That said I have seen that a lot of people defend Manusmriti by saying that Varna system had nothing to do with birth, this assertion is also not completely true. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
If you read Manusmriti in Sanskrit and with a neutral mindset then you will see that Manusmriti is just a normal text written according to the social conditions of that period. It is not a text which is completely egalitarian, but it is also not a text which is brutally oppressive to a certain class of the society. It is just a reasonable set of rules prescribed for the welfare of an ancient society which saw this world differently from us.
Originally published at https://stoicsadhu.com on October 18, 2020.