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".
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)
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
Defusing the Dilemmas: Relevance of Vedic Literatures and the Theory of
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
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
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.
- 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,
- Panda, Charan. "Manu Smriti - a Great Law Book in Indian Tradition."
Academia.edu, 14 Apr. 2005.