By Jerry Thomas
Manusmriti is one of the most widely accepted Dharma Shastras (Hindu Scriptures on Law). Since Hindutva forces are gaining ground in India, sooner or later, Manusmriti’s impact may also be felt. Hence, it is important for us to enquire about the view and laws of Mansumriti with regards to women. In this article, Jerry Thomas demonstrates that Manusmriti considers women as lustful creatures, unfit for independence, unworthy as witnesses as well as promotes child marriage and polygamy.
Often one would cite certain verses such as Manusmriti 3:56 (Where women are honoured, there the gods rejoice; where, on the other hand, they are not honoured, there all rites are fruitless) and argue that Manusmriti gives a highly exalted position to women (see this article https://agniveer.com/manu-smriti-and-women/). However, the word honouring here as a limited meaning of giving gifts as Manu says that to give gifts to bride, which only belongs to bride and not to her relations is honouring bride (Manusmriti 3: 54 – In the case of girls whose relations do not appropriate the bride’s gift, it is not “selling;” It is only a means of honouring the maidens and is entirely harmless). While there is no denying that this is one of the means of honouring, if Manusmriti does not consider women as worthy and of being equal to men as persons, then this honouring carries hardly any weight. As we would see in this article, Manusmriti considers women as unworthy by very nature, which is troubling to say the least.
It must be noted here that our concern is not like that of modern atheist feminists, who considers every role difference as a discrimination but our concern is of the denial of equal worth, value and dignity to women.
Let us begin with one of the most popular verses of Manusmriti with regards to women.
- Women are never fit of independence and should be guarded by men
Manusmriti 9: 1-3 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
- I shall now expound the eternal duties of the man and woman, who keep to the righteous path, during union and separation.—(1)
- During the day and the night women should not be left to themselves by their men. If they become addicted to sensual objects, they should be kept under one’s control.—(2).
- The father guards her during virginity, the husband guards her in youth, the sons guard her in old age; the woman is never fit for independence.—(iii).
At this point, one may argue that Dharmic law giver Manu is advising protection for women and not really control. However, if we continue to read Manusmriti, it becomes clear that main reason for this instruction is the Manu’s low opinion about the character of women than any concern for their protection. Manu goes on to say that women by their very nature, from creation itself, are lustful. He says that irrespective of whether a man is handsome or ugly, women are attracted towards men simply because men are males. These are explicit statements by Manu as one can read it below.
(2) Women by nature are lustful and hence should be guarded by men
Manusmriti 9: 14 -16 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
- They care not for beauty; they have no regard for age; be he handsome or ugly, they enjoy the man simply because he is a male.—(14)
- Even though carefully guarded, they injure their husbands, on account of their passion for males, of fickle mindedness and of innate want of tenderness.—(15).
- Knowing this disposition to be innate in them, from the very creation of the lord, the man should make the highest effort to guard them.—(16)
If anyone has any doubt still, they may well read the commentary of Medhatithi.
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) on 9: 14:
The husband should not labour under the vain hope—‘I am well favoured, handsome and young, how can my wife desire any other man, having me?’;—because women do not take into consideration the fact of a man being ‘handsome’ or ‘brave’; simply because he happens to be a male, they have recourse to him.—(14)
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) on 9: 15:
‘Passion for males’—At the sight of any and every man, women lose their firmness of mind and there arises in their minds an extreme desire for meeting him somehow or other, followed by a liquid exudation; this is what is called ‘passion for males.’
‘Fickle mindedness’—The mind not being steady, even when applied to religious and other acts. It is llnough this that the object of hatred becomes the object of love and persons who have been looked upon as brothers and sons come to be looked upon as lovers.
‘Tenderness’ is love, longing, towards the husband, the son and other relations. Women are without such feelings.
On account of these defects, they ‘injure their husbands’—become disloyal towards them.—(15)
‘For this reason—
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 9: 16:
‘Lord’, ‘Prajāpati’, is Hiraṇyagarbha; the disposition was born with them at the time of creation of the world by him.
The rest is clear.—(16)
In fact, if one has such low opinion about the very nature women, then what would be such law giver’s opinion on women’s education and marriage. It must be borne in mind that the highest education during those times were vedic education. Here Manusmriti without much surprises says that since women is devoid of character, they have no dealings in the vedic education as well.
(3) Women devoid of character and have no dealings with vedic education
Manusmriti 9: 17 -18 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
17 – Manu assigned to women sleep, sitting, ornament, lust, anger, dishonesty, malice and bad conduct.—(17)
18 – For women there is no dealing with the sacred texts; such is the rule of law; the fact is that, being destitute of organs and devoid of sacred texts, women are ‘false’—(18)
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 9: 17:
‘Sleeping’—Proneness to too much sleep.
‘Sitting’— Indolence, want of energy.
‘Lust’—Desire for carnal association with men.
‘Dishonesty’—Consisting in hating those who love, loving those who hate, concealing one’s real feelings, immorality.
‘Malice’—Maliciousness. ‘Drogdhṛ’ is derived from the root ‘druh’ and the affix ‘tṛch’, and it is then compounded with ‘bhāvam’.
‘Bad conduct’—Association with wicked people.
Such was the nature allotted to women by Manu, at the beginning of creation; the sense is that just as the characters here set forth cannot be eradicated, so bad conduct also cannot be dissociated from women.—(17)
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 9:18:
Some people entertain the following notion;—“Even though woman may misbehave, she may, with the help of Vedic texts, perform some rites in the shape of secret Expiatory Rites and thus become pure; so that there cannot be much harm in her misbehaving”
But this is not true; because ‘for women there is no dealing with sacred texts’; so that there can be no repeating of the texts; which, with the help of her own learning, she might do whenever she transgressed and thereby regain her purity. For this reason also they should be carefully guarded;—this is the injunction to which the statement in the present verse is a declamatory supplement.
Some people have held that the present verse contains the absolute prohibition of the use of sacred texts in connection with all kinds of rites for women; and holding this opinion, they declare that whatever rites may be performed, by whomsoever, for the sake of women,—that is, (a) in rites where women figure as the performers, as in the making of offerings, or (b) in those where they figure as the object to be sanctified, as in the tonsure-ceremony, or (c) in those where they figure as recipients, us in śrāddhas offered to them,—at all these the use of sacred texts being forbidden by the present text, no such texts should be used at the śrāddhas offered to women.
But these people say what is not reasonable; because the present text refers to a totally different matter, and is a purely hortatory supplement. And it still remains to be explained what there is in the text to indicate either injunction or prohibition regarding such rites as the Tonsure and the like. As for the inability of women to recite the expiatory texts, this follows from the fact of their not learning the Vedas.
‘Destitute of Organs’—‘Organ’ here stands for strength;—courage, patience, intelligence, energy and so forth are absent in women; that is why they are prone to become over-powered by sinful propensities. Hence it is that they have to be carefully guarded.
‘Women are false’;—on account of the inconstancy of their character and affections, they are deprecated as being ‘false’—(18)
If a law giver considers women as devoid of character and unfit for higher education, such law givers’ then would instruct child marriage. Manusmriti exactly does that. You can read those verses explicitly below.
(4) Manusmriti instructs child marriage with men of double age or more
Manusmriti 9:88 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
88 – One shall give his daughter in the proper form, even though she may not have attained (the age), to a bridegroom who is of exceptionally distinguished appearance, and her equal.—(88)
At this point, let us look at some of comparative notes provided Ganganatha Jha for the age of girl given in marriage.
Comparative notes by various authors (verses 9.88-89)
Gautama (18-21).—‘A girl should be given in marriage before puberty.’
Vaśiṣṭha (17.70).—‘Out of fear of the appearance of the menses, let the father marry his daughter while she still runs about naked. For if she stays in the home after the age of puberty, sin falls on the father.’
Baudhāyana (4. 1.11).—‘Let him give his daughter, while she still goes about naked, to a man who has not broken the vow of chastity and who possesses good qualities, or even to one destitute of good qualities; let him not keep the maiden in his house after she has reached the age of puberty.’
Similarly, one must also look at the age difference suggested by Manu and the commentators understanding about such verses.
Manusmriti 9:94 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
94 – A man thirty years old shall marry a charming maiden twelve years old; or one twenty four years old, a damsel eight years old; in the event of his duties suffering, he may do it sooner.—(94)
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 9:94:
What the injunction means is that the maiden married should be so much younger than the man;—and not that marriage must be done only at the age stated. Nor is any stress meant to be laid upon the exact number of years mentioned; all that is meant is that one should many a girl very much younger than himself.
This injunction does not occur in the section dealing with Marriage; hence, what is stated here cannot he regarded as a qualification of the persons undergoing that sacrament, and consequently, as an essential factor in the rite itself; for this same reason, it cannot be taken as precluding the age of ‘ten’ or ‘twenty-five’ or such others.
“But it is often found that even though laid down in a distinct passage, a detail does form an essential factor of an act.”
True; but the very fact that the teacher has thought it fit to place the present text apart from the section on marriage is clearly indicative of the fact that he had some special purpose in this.
The practice of cultured men is also as we have stated.
Further, the age here stated can never be observed in the case of one’s son marrying a second time; so that, if the injunction were meant to be taken literally, it would mean that there should be no second marriage; and this would be absurd.—(94)
Here we see a clear promotion of child marriage. If men have to marry women of much younger age, then the only possibility of avoiding child marriage would be to increase the minimum marriable age of men to 45 or above.
If child marriage is promoted, we may ask what would happen to the education of a girl child. Manu has a solution to that. Since vedic education was the highest education, women doing household work at husband’s house and tending of fire is treated as her education.
(5) Women’s education is domestic household work
Manusmriti 2:66-67 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
66 – For females, this whole series should be performed at the right time and in the proper order, for the purpose of sanctifying the body; but without the Vedic formulas—(66)
67 – For females the Rites of marriage have been ordained to be their ‘Vedic Sacrament,’ the serving of the husbands their ‘residence with the Teacher,’ and the household-duties their ‘tending of fire.’—(67)
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 2: 67:
The ceremony called ‘Upanaya,’ ‘Initiation,’ has been called ‘Vedic,’ because it is gone through for the purpose of studying the Veda. This ceremony, in the case of females, consists of the ‘Rites of marriage,’—i.e., those rites that are accomplished by means of marriage. Thus, since ‘marriage’ has been prescribed for them in place of the ‘Initiation,’ the former has been described here as becoming the latter; and this can preclude the necessity of ‘Initiation’ only if the purposes of this latter were taken as served by the ‘marriage.’
Objection.—“Well, the Initiation may be excluded from women, but the study of the Veda and the keeping of the observances have still got to be performed.”
With a view to preclude these two also, the Text adds—
‘The serving of husband is their residence with the Teacher.’ When the woman serves—attends upon and reveres her husband, she does what is meant to bo accomplished by ‘Residence with the Teacher.’ The study of the Veda could be done by the woman only if she resided with the Teacher; and as there is no ‘Residence with the Teacher’ in her case, how can there be any studying of the Veda? ‘Household duties’;—all that she does in the course of her household work,—e.g., cooking, getting together of articles for household use, general supervision, and so forth, which are going to be described in discourse IX, ‘the husband should employ her in saving wealth &c., &c.’ (9.11). These household duties are for the woman what the ‘bringing of fuel’ in the morning and evening is for the Religious Student (male). The term ‘tending of fire’ stands for all the observances and vows that the student keeps.
By reason of the ‘Marriage’ having taken the place of the ‘Initiatory Ceremony’ (for women), it follows that, just as in the case of men, all the ordinances of Śruti and Smṛti and custom become binding upon him after the Initiatory Ceremony, before which they are free to do what they like, and are unfit for any religious duties,—so for women, there is freedom of action before Marriage, after which they become subject to the ordinances of Śrutis and Smṛtis.
Or, we may interpret the text as follows:—Marriage constitutes the Vedic Sacrament—i.e., Upanayana—for females; even though marriage is not really the Upanayana, yet it is spoken of as such attributively. The question arising as to whence lies the similarity by virtue of which Marriage is spoken of as Upanayana, the text adds—‘the serving of the husband &c., &c.’—(67)
If women by nature are corrupt and not worthy of independence or education and have to be married off as children, what would happen if they are unable to bear children? Manusmriti is very clear that in such cases men should take another wife.
(6) Polygamy is commanded if a wife is barren or a wife does not bear son
Here one must look at the reasoning given by Manusmriti for polygamy. It is not merely out of the lust of man (which is also allowed as per Manusmriti 9:85) but out of compulsion to fulfil vedic injunctions. If men were to practice polygamy in certain cases to fulfil vedic instructions, then polygamy becomes mandatory.
Manusmriti 9: 81 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
81- The barren wife shall be superseded in the eighth year; in the tenth she whose children die off; in the eleventh she who bears only daughters; but immediately she who talks harshly.—(81)
If anyone doubts whether this is optional, commentator immediately dispels such thoughts.
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 9:81:
The text proceeds to lay down the supersession of other kinds of wives.
Among these, the barren one should be superseded in the eighth year; in the tenth, she whose children die off.
By marrying a second wife the man shall save himself from the contingency of disobeying the injunction regarding the Laying of Fire (to which a childless person is not entitled), and that regarding the begetting of children,—to which he would be liable by reason of his wife being childless. Because, the Laying of Fire is not found to be prescribed for a sonless person.
The same holds good regarding the wife that bears only daughters; as also she whose children die off.
As regards the wife who is harsh of speech, as there is no such serious defect, there need be no supersession; and she may be forgiven.—(81)
If someone does not have children or have only daughters, or children dies off, if the husband does not marry another woman, it is considered as amounting to disobedience as the vedic rite of laying of fire cannot be done. Further, it is not the vedic rite that could be violated, the husband’s very salvation is in danger. Manu has exalted the son so much that every man would want to have a son even if he has ten daughters.
Manusmriti 9: 137-138 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
137 – Through the son one conquers the worlds, through the grandson he obtains immortality, and through the son’s grandson he attains the regions of the Sun.—(137)
138 – Because the Son delivers his father from the hell called ‘Put,’ therefore has he been called ‘Putra,’ ‘Deliverer from Put,’ by the Self-existent One Himself.—(138)
139 – Between the Son’s son and the Daughter’s son there is no difference in the world; since the daughter’s son also, like the son’s son, saves the man in the next world.—(139)
While Manu’s instruction for polygamy is easily understandable given his bias against female child, one wonders why polyandry should not be promoted in equal spirit. If a woman does not bear child, how do we conclude that it is the woman’s problem and not the man’s impotency? Shouldn’t woman be allowed to marry another man as well? How can anyone blame the woman for giving birth to only daughters when the Y chromosome, responsible for son is the contribution of a man?
Leaving aside the scientific matters, let us probe another consequence of Manusmriti’s low view of women. If Manusmriti considers women by nature as lustful, unfit for independence and requiring no education, what would be their status in other areas of life? Will such law givers allow them some kind of equality, for example, in a court of law? Of course, not. Manusmriti denies women as worthy witnesses in court except in the cases related wot women.
(7) Women’s witnesses not considered as proper evidence except for women’s cases
Manusmriti 8:68-70 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
68 – Woman should give evidence for women; and for twice-born persons similar twice-born men, virtuous śūdhas for śūdras, and men of the lowest caste for the lowest men.—(68)
69 In the case of anything done in the interior of a house, or in a forest, or in the case of injury to the body,—any person who may be cognisant of the facts may give evidence on behalf of the parties to the suit.—(69)
70 In the event of (proper witnesses) not forthcoming, evidence may be given by a woman, by a minor, by an aged person, by a pupil, by a relative, by a slave, or by a servant.—(70)
After having said that women’s witnesses in general is not admissible, Manu gives the reason as well.
Manusmriti 8:77 (Translation by by Ganganatha Jha)
77 – A single man, free from covetousness, may be a witness, but not many women, even though pure,—because the understanding of women is not steady,—nor other men who are tainted with defects.—(77)
Here one might ask if many women’s witnesses are not admitted, why would women’s witness be admitted in exceptional case in Manusmriti 8:70.
Medhātithi’s commentary (manubhāṣya) 8:77 on women’s part:
The evidence of a single person having been declared to be inadmissible, the present verse lavs down an exception in favour of one who is free from covetousness. So that if a man is known to be truthful, he is certainly admissible as witness. But women are never admissible,—be they one or many,—‘even though pure’—possessed of high qualifications; and the reason for this is that ‘the understanding of women is not steady’; fickle-mindedness is the very nature of women; while other qualifications are acquired, and as such liable to lapses through carelessness, idleness and so forth; so that their inherent fickleness remains as a constant factor. Just as in the case of a dyspeptic,—even though a certain amount of appetite may have been regained by the use of butter and other things, yet even the least neglect on their part, brings on the inherent Dyspepsia again. Consequently, on account of this uncertainty, there can be no confidence in women, even though they be highly qualified.
As for the declaration (in 70) that ‘in the event of no witnesses being available, women may be made witnesses,’—that refers to cases where they can be immediately questioned, and there is no possibility of their mind being tampered with by any person. When however there has been an interval of time, it is quite possible that they may be won over by the party whoso case is weak and who is in fear of losing it. So that in such cases their evidence is not admissible at all.
Thus, we see that Manusmriti has a very low view about the women, which results in denying equal value and dignity to women. As Hindutva cheer leaders are already defending Manusmriti, sooner or later, we may expect them to start implementing these laws one by one.