Feminism, Tradition and Modernity: an essay in relation to Manusmrti

Chandrakala Padia


The author is a professor in Political Science, Banaras Hindu University.


In the contemporary cry of feminist theory for modernity in thought, we often tend to dismiss our major traditional texts in one categorical sweep. This is hardly fair. To argue for my protest, I propose to confine myself to just one of such texts, namely, Manusmrti. My attempt will be simply to show that whereas there surely are some parts of this text which appear odd and even unacceptable to the modern mind,1 there are, on the other hand, quite a few such emphases too as are of unquestionable value to us even today, and which therefore make it imperative for us to take a balanced and objective view of the text in question, as a whole. What makes me say so is criticisms like the following one:

The basic rules for women’s behaviour ... expressed in the ... passages from Laws of Manu [IX, 3,4,5]… stress the need to control women because of the evils of the female character ... 2

But the substance of these verses, I rejoin, does not warrant this criticism. I may summarize the content of these verses thus, following Pandit Ganganath Jha’s multi-volume Manusmrti:


At every stage of her life — that is, as a virgin, as a wife and as a widow — woman has to be guarded by her close male relatives. Her marriage, its consummation, and her old age — all have to be taken care of, respectively, by her father, husband and son; otherwise they would be censurable. Special care is to be taken to save her from those attachments because of which whole families are likely to come to grief.3


Quite a few Indian critics too (of the text) are just as off the right track. Consider, for instance, the following remark by Dr. Kumkum Roy, a remark which (as she claims), arises from reflection on some specific verses in Manusmrti, namely, nos. 33 and 94 of ch. IX; nos. 4 and 13 of ch. III; and no. 5 of ch. II. Here is the remark which I propose to focus on:


What emerges then [as a result of reflection on the verses referred to] is that in ... Manusmrti, the relationship between men and women was structured in terms of inequality.4


For the sake of brevity, let me weigh this conclusion against just one of the verses in question, namely, verse no. 33 of ch. IX. This is what it says:


Woman may be taken as a field, and man as a seed. All living beings arise from the union of field and seed.5

Now, even a casual look at this statement shows that there is here not the slightest hint of the categorical view that woman is inferior to man. How, indeed, can we decide as to which of the two is of greater value – the seed or the field? The seed remains merely itself until it impregnates the field, so to say; and the field is a mere stretch or receptacle until it is fertilized by the seed. What is more, the very next verse (number 34 of Manusmrti) makes it clear that, according to Manu, the seed or the male person is more important in some contexts; and the field (or woman) in quite a few others. This is indeed ( a part of) what the 34th verse says. The additional idea there is that where the seed and the field alike contribute to the act of begetting or production, the maternity involved is commendable.


However, there is yet another protest made against Manusmrti by the same critic. It runs thus:


[In this work] an attempt was made to systematize ... [the educatory] situation ... [in such a way that] women were denied access to the upanayana or initiation which marked the beginning of access to sacred learning.6


Here, the critic’s explicit reference is to verse no. 67 of chapter II; and this is what she here says:


[For women], marriage was portrayed as equivalent to the initiation (or upanayana) of the male; serving the husband was equated with the period of studentship; and the performance of household duties was identified with the worship of the sacred fire.7


Here, I admit, it may well be contended that the verse referred to regards a wife as a mere means to the welfare of husband and the family. But, to this I would rejoin by making a distinction which is often overlooked. The fact of being regarded as a means is bad, if this is the attitude of someone else towards me. But if I regard myself as essentially a means (not merely) to the promotion of others’ welfare, I think it would only be commendable. What otherwise is the meaning of selfless service? Be it noted that the cultivation of selflessness is no easy matter. It issues from a good deal of steadfast and watchful effort. This is why a selfless person does not feel weak; and this is why a mother, who is (as a rule) selfless, can hold a whole big family as one, using the magic threads of love. As for the protest that Manu denies to women the all-important initiation into the process of learning, I would like to make the following point:

Initiation into the process of education (taken in a comprehensive sense) can mean two things: first, acquisition of knowledge embodied in books; and, second, the beginning of cultivation of the right attitudes, of which helpfulness is perhaps the most important, for, as Tulasidas would have it, compassion — because of which one becomes helpful quite easily — is the prime source of religiousness or dharma which sustains the whole social edifice.

I may point out further that whereas in the verse we have just been discussing, Manu speaks of woman as wife (and mother), and so has to emphasize the attitude of service, in the immediately preceding verse, to girls taken generally, all the samskaras are openly granted, nay, even advocated. Here is a literal translation of what that verse says:


All those samskaras which involve the body should be performed also in respect of women, if without the recitation of mantras, according to the time and order as indicated earlier (that is, in the preceding verses).8


What is, however, more important to note is Manu’s glorification of the status of mother, a very clear index of which runs as follows:


In respect of exaltation of status, one Acharya [that is, a mentor who is exemplary also in respect of conduct] surpasses ten ordinary teachers; one father [who, I may add, is not only expected to set an example of good conduct for his children, but also to provide care and comfort to them] surpasses one hundred Acharyas; and, above all, a mother surpasses a thousand fathers. 9


Equally noteworthy is the following asseveration of Manu:


That family is blessed by its specific deity in which women are revered; and those families in which women are not similarly respected are not able to make their actions bear fruit.10


I fail to understand how those who accuse Manu of underrating the value of women could fail to take note of such explicit emphases on the value of women in Indian society. Yet there are quite a few modern writers, for example, Uma Chakraborty11, and Pandita Rama Bai12 who have roundly accused Manu of denigrating women. I would like to tell them, in all humility, that there are quite a few such verses in Manusmrti which give equal importance to the happiness of husband and wife in the family. See, for instance, verse no. 60 of chapter III which runs thus:


That family’s welfare is for ever assured in which the husband feels satisfied with his wife and the wife remains satisfied with the husband. 13


What is more, the following verse of Manusmrti emphasizes that


Procreation, religious rites, caring, sexual bliss, rites relating to [obeisance to] ancestors, and conduct that makes for ascent to heaven — all this is importantly determined by the co-operation of one’s wife.14


What, however, makes me sad, and not merely surprised, is the fact that some eminent scholars have based their criticisms on such a casual interpretation of some verses of Manusmrti as is not at all warranted by the actual text. For instance, Kumkum Roy contends that in Manusmrti some material benefits are allowed only to men and not to women, and [that] women were restricted to receiving gifts from their kinsfolk. This protest, the critic claims, is based on verse 115 of chapter X and verse 194 of chapter IX. Now, a careful look at the first one of these shows that it only lists the seven sources of legitimate income. The second one, similarly, only speaks of the legitimate sources and agents of gifts and riches for a wife. In neither of these verses any preference has been shown to men, as against women, in respect of the sources or means of enrichment or benefit.

Back to top

Yet another criticism of Manusmrti has been made by the same critic. I may put this protest simply, as follows:

One statement of Manusmrti which is often quoted in defence of women, because it appears to exalt their worship as a means of pleasing the gods, appears in the 56th verse of chapter III of Manusmrti. But this so-called worship only comprises the giving of ornaments, food and clothes to women on festive occasions as outlined in verse 59. In worship so regarded, it is obvious, there is nothing really divine. Rather, it only implies that women can want nothing more than material gifts. This suggestion, we are told, is supported by what is said in the 61st verse of chapter III of Manusmrti. What is said in that verse simply is that no children are born if the woman is not attractive to her husband. So, the critic concludes, the much acclaimed worship of woman in Manusmrti boils down to the unacceptable suggestion that a woman only needs clothes and ornaments, and that she has only to serve as a means to procreation by appearing attractive to the husband.15

Now, whether this criticism is fair or not can be decided only after a close and direct look at the verses referred to, that is, verses 57, 59 and 61 of Manusmrti. So let us see what these verses actually say:

In the 56th verse, what is said only is that all such efforts for betterment fail as are made by a family where women are not worshipped, and this verse is immediately followed by the 57th one which declares that that family soon comes to an end in which ladies keep grieving or are unhappy. 16 (I hardly need add that occasional material gifts alone are not enough to keep a sensible woman happy). As for 59th verse, it surely recommends to those men who wish to flourish, the giving of good food and material gifts to women. But such giving is only said to be a special way of showing regard to women. 17 It is noteworthy that in the subsequent verse (no. 60) what is pleaded for is clearly the state of a wife’s remaining generally satisfied with her husband. 18

Such pervasive satisfaction, I repeat, depends not merely on the receipt of occasional gifts, but on the generally affectionate and respectful attitude of the husband. Lastly, as we turn to the 61st verse of the same chapter, 19 what we find, quite objectively, is only the thought that on the specific occasion of sexual union, care is to be taken to lend extra charm to the act of mating, by making the husband happy through heightened embellishment of the wife. I, therefore, conclude that verses on which the criticism in question is based only suggest that what is basically important is the general everyday happiness of the wife and that this happiness may be heightened on the special occasion of sexual union. Such a view is obviously sensible. To take a simple example, it is the obvious duty of a mother to be generally careful about the needs and comfort of her children. But on a special occasion, say, when one of her children falls ill or wins a prize, will it not be her clear duty also to take special care of the ailing child or to celebrate the prize winning in a special way?

I cannot, however, conclude my paper with a mere question. Instead, I may bring it to a close by making two positive remarks: one of personal relevance, and the other of wide and quite general significance.

First, with a view to reassure myself that in taking the line of argument that I have followed in my paper, I am not in bad company, let me cite a remark from an essay by a celebrated scholar:


When judged by selective quotations, one tends to look upon the Manusmrti with an air of excited horror, while evidence to the contrary from the same text is tactfully, or perhaps I should say tactlessly withheld... [by quite a few critics]. 20


Second, and finally, I would like to make a distinction of general theoretical value. The freedom for women for which the feminists of today cry is taken to mean equality regarded as mere sameness. The same opportunities for work to women as for men — this is the battle-cry today. But let us pause for a while and consider whether such a view of equality is workable. Would it make sense if two persons of unequal keenness of appetite and digestive powers are expected to eat the same kind and quantity of food? No one would here say, yes. Equality that is proper and workable is really equality of discriminating consideration. What I mean is simply this. Pay equal attention to the different needs and capacities of men and women, and then give them appropriate opportunities for work. How many of our male participants present here would welcome being assigned the task of assuaging crying babes in the absence of their mothers? Here, it is obvious, the mothers have to lend a helping hand.

Indeed, in spite of their dissimilar needs and capacities, men and women have to work in a spirit of mutual cooperation. The ideal of freedom from undue domination by men is all right; but it has to be supplemented with the ideal of freedom to cooperate with men variously, so as to make for social harmony without any loss of individual dignity.

Now, friends, originally I had planned to close my paper at this stage. But now I cannot, because a crucial point has dawned upon my mind – as a vital after-thought; and it is this which I may be now allowed to focus on.

One particular verse in chapter IX of Manusmrti — I mean no. 3 — has been freely objected to. What this verse actually says may be put thus, in brief:


The father guards a woman during virginity; the husband, during her youth; and the sons, in her old age. So the woman is never fit to be independent.


Here, the words commonly objected to are: is never fit to be independent. Is it not outrageous, one may ask, to deny independence to woman categorically? Is there any inherent defect in her character or abilities?

My answer to such sceptical questions arises straight from attention to the very words of the verse. Everything here depends on how exactly we interpret the words: fit to be independent. What is more, the meaning that we put on these words has to accord with the other (preceding) words of the verse. We have also to remember that even the most comprehensive book on woman cannot be adequate to the individual character, abilities and capacities of each and every woman. One has to confine oneself to the generality of woman; and, of women taken generally, one clear feature is that, in respect of sheer physical strength and stamina, they are inferior to men. Just as clear is the fact that, because of the heightened sense of self-importance, which goes with the feeling of being physically stronger, man is easily liable to oppress woman.

Now, let us turn to the text of the verse. Not fit to be independent; these words I take to mean: not physically fit to be independent, or to be left alone — unprotected. Those who regard a woman as integral to their life and emotional well-being — namely, the father, husband, or her sons — they have to look after her. Her ability and character are not doubted here in any way. Alternatively, it would make little sense to say that because of some inherent defect in abilities, a woman needs the physical protection of those who are immediately close to her. A non-physical disability does not need physical protection. On the other hand, because of relative physical weakness, most of our women need physical protection even today.

Manu, I conclude, is here perfectly in line with the evidence of fact.

Back to top

Notes & References

1. See, for instance, Verse no. 94 of chapter IX. (Back to text)

2. Susan Wadley, “Women and the Hindu Tradition” in Women in Indian Society, edited by Rehana Ghadially, New Delhi / London, , Sage Publications, 1988, p. 30. (Back to text)

3. Motilal Banarsidass, 2nd edition, 1999, Vol. 7, pp. 3-5 (Back to text)

4. Kumkum Roy’s essay: ‘Where Women are Worshipped, there the Gods Rejoice: The Mirage of the Ancestress of the Hindu Woman’ in Woman and the Hindu Right, edited by Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia, New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1995, p.18. (Back to text)

5. This is almost my own verbatim English translation of the Hindi version of the verse in question as given by Hargovind Shastri in Manusmrti, Varanasi, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Sansthan, Varanasi, p. 464. (Back to text)

6. Kumkum Roy’s essay, p. 14 (Back to text)

7. Ibid, The verse referred to is: ch. II, 67 (Back to text)

8. Manusmrti, ch. II. 66 (Back to text)

9. Ibid, 145. The translation I have given above is my doing. It sure differs from, but it does not recalcitrate the translation provided by Dr. Bhagvan Das which runs thus “The teacher of the higher knowledge exceedeth ten teachers of the lower knowledge in the title to respect; the father exceedeth him, a hundred times; but the mother exceedeth the father a thousand times, in the weighty virtue of educator...and the right to reverence.” Dr. Bhagvan Das: The Science of Social Organisation or The Laws of Manu. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Vol. II, Second Edition, 1935. (Back to text)

10. Ibid, ch. III, 56. (Back to text)

11. See, Uma Chakraborty, Rewriting History, New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1998, pp. 18-19, 26. (Back to text)

12. Pandita Ramabai has made a sharp critique of the Brahmanical texts including Manu in her book The High Caste Hindu Woman, Philadelphia, published by Pandita Ramabai, 1888. (Back to text)

13. Manusmrti, ch.III, 60. (Back to text)

14. ManusmrtiIX, 28. Translation mine. (Back to text)

15. See, Kumkum Roy’s essay, op. cit., p. 21. (Back to text)

16. Manusmrtii,ch. III, 57. (Back to text)

17. III, 59. (Back to text)

18. III, 60. (Back to text)

19. III, 61. (Back to text)

20. Arvind Sharma’s paper: “How to read the Manusmrti,” submitted to the National Seminar on Contemporary Relevance of Smrtis (Jan. 19-21, 2001), organised by Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Allahabad Museum, Allahabad. (Back to text)

Back to home
Back to home