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Why burn the Manusmriti?

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Constantine the Great was a Roman emperor who ruled in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity and his rule is widely considered epochal for the wide ranging financial, social and military reforms enacted by him. He is also credited for basing his administration over codified laws. Here is what he ordered as punishment for rape:

If the female had consented, she should be punished along with the male ‘adbuctor’ by being burnt alive. If she had not consented, she was still considered an accomplice, “on the ground that she could have saved herself by screaming for help.” As a participant to the rape, she was punished under law by being disinherited, regardless of the wishes of her family.

Based on current jurisprudence across the world, the rape law of Constantine I is beyond barbaric. Is it thus justified if his laws were used as a tool to denigrate modern day Christians and label them as regressive? Is it justified to destroy his edicts? The answer is clearly in the negative to such a puerile suggestion – How can we apply modern day notions of justice to the laws that are more than 1500 years old?

Something very similar is being done in India by some political parties – Burning the Manusmriti as a symbol of condemnation of ‘Brahminical oppression of dalits and women’. Manusmriti is a set of laws that is widely believed to have come into existence more than two thousand years ago – much before Constantine I codified his laws. This article is not about a discussion about the laws of Manusmriti and their relevance in modern day India, but here is a line worth mentioning: ‘यत्र ना्यरस्तुपूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवता:’ – The gods reside where a woman is worshipped. The punishment of rape was never for the victim – only for the perpetrator.

Take a random sample of Brahmins and ask them what they feel about the Manusmriti – a text that the Brahmins allegedly swear by and want to bring into existence in order to maintain their supremacy over the lower castes. An overwhelming majority would never have heard of it, or only heard of it due to news articles reporting somebody burned one of its copy. There is hardly anybody who views it as a sacred text.

The extremely few who have read it will probably also tell you that it is a Smriti – so it is not set in stone. Ask them to elaborate and they will tell you that Hindu scriptures have two broad divisions – Shrutis (divine revelations to saints) and Smritis (social laws). The Vedas form the Shrutis. The Hindus consider them to be cosmic/universal laws that cannot be changed. Smritis on the other hand, are laws that reflect the zeitgeist of the time they were composed in. As such, they are dynamic and amenable to change. Think of them like the Constitution of India. It can be amended any time.

Thus, trying to drive a wedge between the so called lower castes and the upper castes using the Manusmriti to denigrate any organization or individual is flogging a dead horse. The Manusmriti in its present form never really had any big emotional/cultural value to the followers of any sect of Hinduism. It rose to prominence mainly because it was one of the first ancient Indian scriptures to be translated during the British occupation of India – by the philologist William Jones. It was then used by the colonial government to enact the Hindu law. No doubt many of the laws of Manusmriti are antiquated and have no relevance today. It would indeed have been a big issue if there were an influential set of individuals actively demanding that it be made as the basis for governing the India of today. But the fact is there is simply no demand of that sort from any quarter.

One can extrapolate this churlish act of burning of the Manusmriti to the fields Science and Technology to expose the hollowness of doing so even further. Till Einstein’s theory of relativity and Quantum Physics, the worldview was believed to be governed by Newton’s laws. But his laws were proven to be insufficient to explain the dynamics of bodies traveling at high speeds as well as for explaining the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles. Do modern day physicists go about burning copies of Newton’s Principia? No! It was the gold standard when it was formulated – it changed the course of Physics at the time when it was written. Do Boeing engineers today cast a denigrating look at the first model of the airplane flown by the Wright Brothers because of its elementary design? This is exactly how imbecilic it is for somebody to burn a copy of Manusmriti today.

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