Friday, February 12, 2010

On the Varna System : Part IV

On the Manu Smriti

According to the Puranas, there are 14 Manus for each Kalpa , each making rules for a particular manvantra. In the current Sveta Varaha Kalpa the 14 Manus are Svayambu Manu, Svarocisa Manu, Uttama Manu, Tamasa Manu, Raivata Manu, Caksusa Manu, Vaivasvata Manu ( during this period), Savarni Manu, Daksha Savarni Manu, Brahma Savarni Manu, Dharma Savarni Manu, Rudra Savarni Manu, Deva Savarni Manu and Indra Savarni Manu. So my first impression is that because there are so many Manus – each giving laws – law is supposed to change /evolve with times and hence is not necessarily constant.

Not withstanding comments from scholars that the currently available work of Manu is filled with interpolations and hence certainly is not a reliable text, I have picked up a few verses that to my mind are relevant for the discussion on the Varna system.

Manusmriti 10-65 goes thus 'a Brahmin becomes a Shudra or vice versa on the basis of one’s merits , actions and abilities'. There are several verses which talk of a Brahmin becoming a Sudhra upon neglecting of his duties ( 2-37, 40, 103, 168; 4-245) and of Sudhra becoming a Brahmin (9-335) – which is as under

'A Sudra who is) pure, the servant of his betters, gentle in his speech, and free from pride, and always seeks a refuge with Brahmanas, attains a higher caste'

According to Manu a person who gets initiated into education for acquiring awareness of higher reality ( Brahmam) are the Dvijas ( twice born). Those who are only naturally born are called the Ekjatis.

(He who has not been initiated) should not pronounce any vedic text excepting ( those that are required for) the performance of funeral rites, since he is on a level with a Sudhra before his birth from the Veda ( 2.172).

A Brahmana who always connects himself with the most excellent (ones), and shuns all inferior ones,(himself) becomes most distinguished; by an opposite conduct he becomes a Sudra ( 4.245)

The concept of Upanayana (initiation) and becoming a Dvija seems to be later 'invention'. As detailed in my earlier, blog, Upanayana does not appear to be an essential requirement for learning Vedas or following Vedic rituals. However, texts that appeared subsequently have made it a mandatory requirement. Insistence on this requirement effectively led to discrimination of people - as the initiator could decide whom to initiate !. Flow of knowledge was hence controlled , channelized to specific individuals and Vedas were made exclusive. Knowledge of it became a source of power.

Manusmriti, atleast the version that exists today is certainly not egalitarian and prescribes differing standards of justice for different classes of people and certainly is pale and insignificant in ideals compared to the classical work Tirukural. Scholars of various hue now either rationalize the current version by forced interpretations or justify it on temporal basis. Others view several verses as interpolations by later authors. Of the 2685 verse available in the current work , only 1214 are considered authentic. There are inherent contradictions and motivated views in 1471 verses. This view is not entirely improbable. It is surprising that a work with over 50% verses suspected of being interpolations is still considered a great work.

But before we dismiss Manusmriti's current version, I will quote three verses which interested me - 10.82, 10.83 and 10.84.

10.83. But a Brahmana, or a Kshatriya, living by a Vaisya’s mode of subsistence, shall carefully avoid (the pursuit of) agriculture, (which causes) injury to many beings and depends on others

10.84. (Some) declare that agriculture is something excellent, (but) that means of subsistence is blamed by the virtuous; (for) the wooden (implement) with iron point injuries the earth and (the beings) living in the earth

Now compare this with verse 10.82

10.82. If it be asked, ’How shall it be, if he cannot maintain himself by either (of these occupations?’ the answer is), he may adopt a Vaisya’s mode of life, employing himself in agriculture and rearing cattle

There are two inferences
a) 10.82 is the original verse and 10.83 and 10.84 are interpolations
b) Agriculture is the occupation of Vaishyas – not Sudhras as we commonly believe. So the clear inference is until the time of Manu agriculture was considered a vocation of the Vaishyas and it was only later that it came to be considered as the vocation of the Sudhras. So by that logic, the dominant agricultural community - the vellalas ( of diffent hues) are Vaishyas and are hence eligible for both Upananaya and for learning Vedas

Assuming that 10.83 and 10.84 are indeed original , we will compare it with the verses in the Tirukural , which hails farming :

'Who plough and eat do really live - The rest , as followers, just serve and eat' 104-3

'Roam where you will , the world must go behind the plough; Farming , through toilsome, is man's supreme employ' 104.1

Obviously, there is a great difference in the thought processes between Manu (or some of the authors who interpolated into his work !)and Saint Tiruvalluvar. I will leave it to the reader to draw his interpretations and on what he thinks is a real work of virtue.

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