Manusmriti (MS) is an ancient legal text or ‘dharmashastra’ of Hinduism. It describes the social system from the time of the Aryans. This country had, by all accounts, an advanced civilisation and culture at the time, dating back to 3500 BC, even to 6000 or 8000 BC, according to some historians. Its people were peace-loving, mainly occupied in agriculture and trade. They were easy prey for the marauding Aryans.
Although there is not much information about the social system, religion and language of the time, it is undisputed that at least for 2,000 years before the invasion by the Aryans, this country was inhabited by people who were far more advanced, one could say even urbanised, peaceful and relatively prosperous. However, almost all historians have written the history of this land as if there was no civilisation before the Aryans.
Caste and prejudice
The result of this disregard, deliberate or otherwise, was that in the eyes of generations of Indians, the history of this land starts with the arrival of the Aryans. This “original sin” has led to many distortions, myths, untruths and half-truths. The gods and heroes of the Aryans were foisted on the locals, and the enemies of the Aryans became their enemies, even though they might have been their gods and heroes. Since dharma or religion is nothing but the mores and practices of society, this can be said to be the first forcible mass religious “conversion” in history.
The Aryans devised a social system which would ensure that they would always remain at the top, own all the wealth and command all the power. They made Sanskrit, which was alien to the natives, the language of daily life and commerce. Their mastery over the language naturally made them leaders in society, arbiters and interpreters of all aspects of life.
Once their superiority had been established, they divided the people into four hierarchical groups called castes, assigning to each their duties and obligations. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, in that descending order of status and privilege, were assigned, based on birth, duties and obligations which were fixed for life, watertight, immutable. Marriage between them was not permitted, nor could they eat together.
The Brahmins were the super-lords with exclusive privileges, and the other castes were assigned duties necessary for their protection and preservation. The Kshatriyas were to protect and defend the land, the Vaishyas were to produce food by tilling the land and tending the animals and plants, and also to trade in the produce, and the Shudras were to serve as menials.
Of course, the duties performed by the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas benefitted them, and the Shudras also served the other three castes, but that was incidental. No physical labour was assigned to the Brahmins who were assigned the tasks of thought and speech, while the others were relieved of such onerous responsibilities.
Though the MS declares that the Kshatriyas and the Vaishyas had a right to learn, they had no right to teach. The learning imparted to these two castes by the Brahmins was very different from what the Brahmins themselves received by virtue of their “superiority”. But even that stopped after some time and it was only during British rule that education was made accessible to all, with the exception of women, from any caste, including Brahmins.
The MS also prohibited foreign travel, deeming it an irreligious act. This ensured that people remained in isolation, with no exposure to other systems of thought and practice. The social system favoured by the MS was governed by the doctrine of inequality – between caste groups, between man and man and between man and woman.
The Brahmins were presumed to be guiltless, and could do no wrong, and if any of them did, the offender was to be let off with light punishment. Even the corrupt Brahmin was deemed worthy of respect. As Bhudev, or god on earth, even the king paid him obeisance.
Divide and rule
The Aryans devised the caste system with two objectives. Once they had secured and concentrated power in their hands, they divided the rest of society into various social groups with conflicting interests, antagonistic to each other.
Without this, the Aryans, who were few in number, could not have gained the upper hand. They put themselves on top of the food chain as Brahmins. To cement this, they also conferred a divine sanction on it by claiming that it was ordained by Lord Brahma.
This policy of divide and rule resulted, over a period of time, in more than 6,000 sub-castes, all birth-based, socially isolated from and inimical to each other. A hierarchical system also naturally meant that those on the lowest rung would always remain subjugated and exploited. This fertile terrain for intolerance, mistrust and disunity, the seeds of which were sown so long ago, is still tilled by political parties today.
The rise of Jainism and Buddhism
These two faiths, born in sixth century BC, were the first challenge to the Manuwadi system, forcing it onto the back foot. Buddhism reigned in this land for about a thousand years, and under the benign leadership of Emperor Ashoka, spread to neighbouring countries where it thrives even today. Jainism was also embraced by a substantial section of society, posing a threat to Manuwad.
Later, during the rule of Chandragupta Maurya, an aggressive movement for the revival of Hinduism started, and thousands of Buddhists and Jains were killed and their places of worship destroyed. What is deliberately glossed over by Manuwadi historians is that, just as the Aryans looted and plundered the locals when they came, those who came after them did exactly the same. This point seems to be conveniently forgotten by the Hindutvavadis of today, who claim to be the descendants of Aryans, and never tire of talking about the marauding acts of Muslim invaders.
Islam and Christianity
The advent of Islam, first through trade on the Western coast in the eight century AD, and later through the Mughal invasion in the latter half of the 16th, was a way out for the oppressed classes. Most of those who converted were Shudras. There were some from the other castes as well, including Brahmins. But these were individual cases, and the reasons were more material.
Contrary to current propaganda, not more than 5% of the Muslims in this land are forcible converts. In other words, they were all inhabitants of this land before the invasion of the Aryans, and part of the same Manuwadi social system as the rest. They called the others “Hindus” or those who live on the banks of the river Sindhu (the letter ‘S’ being pronounced by them as ‘H’). The word “Hindu” is thus of foreign origin.
The conversion to Islam during the Mughal period which lasted for about 250 years, was followed by the conversion to Christianity during the British regime of about 150 years. It was mostly the lowest caste who converted for economic reasons and a few others for status and power. These conversions were mostly voluntary with just a few cases of coercion.
The conversion to Islam was large in number. Most of the converted Muslims gained both in status and power, and even became landlords. They were concentrated in certain western, northern and eastern regions of the country. There were, consequently, frequent religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in these regions which ultimately led to the Partition of the country on August 15, 1947.
Thus, the casteism of the Manuwadi social system, now formally called the Hindu religion, created an irreparable rift in an otherwise homogenous society, and divided the country on religious grounds, creating Pakistan to the west and present-day Bangladesh to the east.
The disunity created by the MS made the country easy prey to foreign invaders such as the Mughals, Dutch, Portuguese, French and the British. Under the British, the country did get united politically and administratively. What is worth noting is that under all the foreign regimes, the pre-ordained social structure remained intact, and the high castes continued to reap the benefits. In fact, they were loyal and obedient, co-operating and supporting all the foreign rulers during their regimes, by occupying crucial offices at all levels, in all departments of governance.
The monopoly of knowledge
The MS denied knowledge to women of all castes. They were not to do any intellectual work, but rear children and do domestic chores. This continued till as late as the first quarter of the last century, and explains the strong opposition of some of the then fiery political leaders to impart even primary education to women. The MS, though, permitted learning to the three upper castes, and prohibited the Shudras from not only learning but also hearing any words of enlightenment. The latter was considered a crime deserving severe punishment including the loss of hearing power.
The Vedas and all the sacred literature were propagated as words of the divine deity, and as such to be followed unquestioningly. This along with a ban on any other form of knowledge, ensured that the ignorant remained perpetually so, enslaved by the dominant castes. Vested interests glorified the status quo and the nation continued to live in the past even as other countries, particularly the West, travelled into the industrial age. We still say that India lives in villages and are proud of it.
Language as schism
The Aryans brought with them their language, Sanskrit. The indigenous regional and local languages (the Prakrits) remained the language of the masses, while Sanskrit, totally alien to the masses, became the language of the elite.
This brought about a cultural transformation in all aspects of social life, from religion and literature to art and trade. Learning, being restricted to some sections, had already created rifts in society, and Sanskrit with its different orientation, diction, idiom and grammar only widened the gap.
Keeping women in their place
Women and Shudras were treated the same. Though the MS lauded women as bearers and rearers of children, they were considered subordinate to men in all respects. They had no access to education, or indeed any activity outside their houses.
It was Jyotirao Phule who started the first school for girls in this country in Pune in 1848. He and his wife Savitribai faced strong opposition from the Manuwadis. Ironically, the first girl students of the school were Shudras, as the others followed MS diktats on keeping girls at home.
An attempt by the English missionaries to start a school for girls in the West Pargana district of the then Bengal province in 1844, failed as the bhadralok opposed it tooth and nail. The country thus lost, for centuries, the contribution of about 50% of its population in all walks of life. This was in addition to inhuman practices such as sati, the marriage of teenage girls to much older men, tonsuring the heads of widows, preventing remarriage for widows, in short, subordination and enslavement throughout the woman’s life.
Distortion of history
The Manuwadis deliberately falsified history to conceal their ways, destroying records, demonising and even eliminating anyone who opposed them. False gods and heroes were deified, propaganda, social sanctions and boycotts, lynchings and crowd hysteria, all ensured that the lowly fell in line or perished. There cannot be a better example of consent manufactured by a few and prevailing over centuries. Goebbels must have learnt his art from us. Repeat untruth several times, it becomes truth.
A few months ago, a Brahmin judge of the Kerala high court, while addressing a Brahmin convention, enumerated some special traits of the Brahmins which according to him, made them alone capable of ruling the country. A few days later, the Brahmin governor of Gujarat reiterated the same view. The present RSS chief addressing a public meeting in Pune about two years ago, defended the caste system, implying that if there had been only one caste (varna) instead of four, it would have spelt disaster for the country.
Neither the RSS nor the BJP government has ever spoken against the caste system, let alone condemn it. This emboldens the crowd, which burnt our constitution with slogans glorifying the MS. Seventy years after the constitution was written, it is the writ of Manu that prevails in many areas of our country.
Casteism will be uprooted only when everyone, irrespective of caste, progresses equally. When educational, economic and social opportunities are equally and fairly accessible to all. The caste system as laid down by the MS is a massive and deep-rooted stumbling block in the way of development and progress, and a constant deterrent to unity and brotherhood. And yet the Manuwadis still seek to preserve and strengthen it. It would be pertinent to ask in this context, who then is unpatriotic, who is the deshdrohi?
Need of the hour
Our country is large. It is multi-caste, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Our constitution has set before us a vision which is humanist, universal, rational and scientific. It aims to unite, and not divide. It seeks to empower all men and women. It desires to provide equal rights and opportunities. The inherently inhuman, iniquitous and unjust ancient texts like Manusmriti are an anathema to the aims and objectives of our constitution. Dr Ambedkar burnt the MS in 1927, would we have the courage to rise up against it today?
To remain true to the constitution in letter and spirit, we need largeness of mind and heart. Instead we seem to be teaching people to hate one another and seek ways to foment dissent and discord. The practice of divide and rule that the upper castes so successfully practiced in implementing the caste system, is alive and well today.
Those who seek to sow hate and mistrust are small-minded individuals, devoid of vision and wisdom. They do not realise the elementary truth that birth is an accident of life. Nobody is born in a particular family of his own will. There is therefore no reason to glorify one and condemn the other. Will those who believe in the theory of rebirth tell us, in which family and where, they will be born in their next life? Every person wishes for a life of peace, security and dignity. We all owe that to each other. Live and let live.
Justice P.B. Sawant is a former Supreme Court judge.