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Manusmriti And Women's Rights: Unraveling The Dilemmas Through Feminist Legal Theory And Cultural Relativism

The Smritis marks a distinct period in the evolution of Sanskrit literature. "The Manusmriti is the most important and the earliest metrical work of the Dharmasastra textual tradition of Hinduism. It is a standard work on Hindu law. Indian tradition unanimously regards Manu as the first progenitor of the human race and also its first legislator. This Manu was believed to be the founder of the social and moral order of society. Tracing backward from the Smritis to the Vedas we found the consciousness of Manu's being the first lawgiver present in every epoch of Sanskrit literature[1]".

The legal philosophy prevailing in ancient India was predominantly Hindu ruled and guided by the concept of Dharma. The concept of Dharma has repeatedly and significantly been depicted in various religious texts of Vedic period like Vedas, Vedangas, Upanishads, Puranas, and different Smritis.

Among those Smriti texts, Manusmriti has been considered as the most authoritative statement, containing the very words of Brahma and having the most influential impact on the present Hindu society. Manusmriti or 'The remembered traditions of Manu' is the basis of what has been termed as Manav Dharma Shastra or the principal guiding book for the religion of human beings.

Normative Human Rights (HR) Framework vis-a-vis Feminist Legal Theory (FLT) and Manusmriti
The portrayal of women from economic, social, cultural and religious perspectives under the Manusmriti stands in contradiction with normative Human Rights framework seeking for a global standard of gender equality and eradication of gender-based discrimination.

As the UDHR opens up with the very statement that every human being are born free and equal in dignity and rights. In the subsequent Article, the twin principle of equality and non-discrimination expressly prohibits "distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status".

The depiction of women and their general status under Manusmriti does not stand in conformity with this provision as it has been instructed that women must be subject to absolute deprivation of freedom and independence in every aspect of their social life. The freedom of movement as guaranteed under the UDHR has also been in expressed contradiction with the provisions of Manusmriti.

Even within the four corners of her house, a Hindu woman is not authorized to perform any religious rites except with her husband which is also in contravention to the universal right to freedom of religion under the UDHR. On the other hand, women's right to property has also been considered as delusional and violates the expressed provision of the UDHR in this regard.

The complex interaction between the framework of gender governance under the Manusmriti and contemporary social practices evolving around global practices creates a web of dilemmas which in turn leads to the rise of Feminist Legal Theory (FLT). Men, patriarchy, and masculine traits have mostly been addressed in this theory as sources of power, dominance, inequality, and submission.

Feminist legal theory pinpoints patriarchy's widespread imprint on legal frameworks, illustrates how it affects the material well-being of women and girls, and suggests remedies to address gender inequality, oppression, or discrimination.

Defusing the Dilemmas: Relevance of Vedic Literatures and the Theory of Cultural Relativism
From Hindu religious contexts, Sruti or Vedic texts prevail over the rules and procedure laid down by Smriti texts. Hence, the texts of Vedas can be adopted to mitigate the confusions shredded over the common perception of women empowerment within the Manusmriti.

Ancient texts of Hinduism (Vedic literatures, i.e., Veda, Vedanga and Upanishad) have been considered to provide with significant aspects of reverence for Hindu women. "Women are mentioned and are participants in the philosophical debates of the Upanishads, as well as scholars, teachers and priestesses during the Vedic and early Buddhist age. The very principle of equality has expressly been enshrined in the Rig Veda which states that the wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular ".

Girls have also been encouraged to get education before going to their husband's house. This view has also been supported in another text of Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda. Women of the Vedic period were epitomes of intellectual and spiritual attainments. In another verse the scope of employment at women's own choice has also been signified.

Vedic literature praises a scholarly daughter and says: "A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care. As regards to property rights of Hindu women, the third chapter of the Rig Veda expressly recognized the right of the daughter and widow to inherit from their male successor.

Women have been allowed to attend public gatherings of learned ones with the company of their husband or loved ones. Under the Vedic literatures, Women were also permitted to explore martial pursuits and go for battle in line with their male relations. Even the forceful giving of women in marriage was not authorized.

Women were allowed to stay unmarried as long as they could wish. So, it is evident that women were no subject of seclusion in the early Vedic period. As it has been observed that, "Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclusion of women in India was unknown in ancient times ". Even the Manusmriti has itself asked Hindus to discard rules (i.e., not to follow slavishly) that lead to unhappiness or arouse indignation in the community.

From the secular point of view, the differences between the conservative school pursuing for preserving traditional practice and the universalist approach towards establishing a common perception of women empowerment can be mitigated through applying the theory of cultural relativism.

The universality principle should not be applied if it conflicts with the customs or usage of a particular society, community, or group, claim proponents of cultural relativism. They consider all civilizations to be equally valuable and deserving in their own right. According to relativists, there is no absolute good or wrong in any society's expression.

They demand that each other's traditions and legal practises be contrasted and respected. Ethical relativism, which sees reality as relative and not absolute, is closely related to cultural relativism. There can be no objective norm that holds true across all cultures since truth is not objective. Decisions are based on experience, and each person interprets experience in light of his or her own enculturation. The paradigm of women empowerment under the Manusmriti is deeply rooted on the cultural heritage of traditional Hindu society.

As universalist attempts to propagate a meta-ethical position of 'Universal Ethics' which transcends personal or cultural whim of any given system, the framework of gender governance under the Manusmriti stands in conflict. At this point we need to take into account the cultural divergences created through religious, social, lingual or economic elements along with their differing approach towards morality.

To many thinkers, this observation-"Different cultures have different moral codes" has seemed to be the key to understanding morality. The idea of universal truth in ethics, they say, is a myth. So constructive interpretation of the arguments placed by Relativists can be placed in favor of the regime established under the domain of Manusmriti and the perception of women empowerment is not to be construed from western ethnocentric approach. And as there's no concept of universal morality exists, no society has the right to determine whether another society's customs and practices are right or wrong.

Moreover, universalism does not tell us how to identify universally valid moral judgments. So, the approach of universalism of rights can be defused through applying this theory when it comes to the traditional practice of norms and usages governing gender issues founded on the precincts of the Manusmriti. Nevertheless, it has been argued that by emphasizing stability and cultural continuity of customs or traditions, relativism disregards or minimizes the importance of social change.

As it has been asked should nations or individuals have authority to use culture as a basis for justification of human rights abuses? Relativism has also been strongly opposed by Natural law theorists who assert. that good and evil is derived from rational nature of human being and thus good and evil are both objective and universal. It is true that cultural relativism should not be used as a defense in justifying an act of barbarism or an act in violation of commonly shared values; nevertheless, it can provide a feasible solution in resolving the contrast of approach between the orthodox society's religious values and human rights normative framework towards women's empowerment.

Access to rights, be it social, economic, cultural or religious, is a prerequisite for the emancipation of women at both domestic and global level and which seems to be disregarded under the authority of the Manusmriti in certain respect. Nevertheless, the sacred verses of the Manusmriti must be interpreted from contextual background of the society prevailing at that time. The present industrialized society has reached up to this time through passing two stages of human civilization i.e., gathering/hunting stage and Agricultural stage.

In a world full of misogyny, Manu did not create any laws, but rather than just compiled the customary practices prevailing at that time. There remains a room for reforming such laws in line with the basic premise of human rights and feminist norms. The semantic barrier should thus be overcome in analysing the Manusmriti objectively, and in comparing and contrasting its fabric with the human rights and feminist approaches prevailing in the face of post-modern society.

Manusmriti's treatment of women as the most honourable at one extreme and the most hideous at the other betrays serious contradictions in its perception of women, and an extreme form of male chauvinism, and misogynism.

  1. P Radhakrishnan. "A Deeper Look at Manusmriti to Understand Why Students at JNU Burned It in Protest." A Deeper Look at Manusmriti to Understand Why Students at JNU Burned It in Protest, 1 Apr. 2016,
  2. Panda, Charan. "Manu Smriti - a Great Law Book in Indian Tradition.", 14 Apr. 2005.

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