Tuesday, November 16, 2010

THE LAWS OF MANU

As I’ve already said, the gods of the religious devotees are mythological beings. But returning to the distinction between the God of revelation and the God of reason, recall that “not all the gods ‘reveal’ something to those who venerate them.” To put it differently, the God of revelation is the god who anchors a given religious tradition, in the sense that “he”—there is seldom if ever a “she”—sanctions the teachings and practices of that religion.

The God of revelation is, then, a mythological god. But before citing examples, let’s revert to another distinction, the one between creation myths and founder myths. Creation myths are stories of how a god, or gods, created the world. Founder myths are stories of how a founder either received a revelation from a god or discovered the truth about life.

Let’s begin with an example of a creation myths, from ancient India.

There were various law codes in archaic India, but none achieved the authority of the Law Code of Manu.

Manava Dharma Sastra is a long treatise consisting of both a creation myth and the religious laws on social demeanor.

The Creator, Brahma, is said to have composed the law code and recited it to his son—the first human, Manu—who then taught it to his students, including Bhrgu, who recites the entire treatise to an assembly of seers. Like his father, Manu is a mythical rather than a historical being—a kind of Indian Adam. The author of the treatise is anonymous, though the material of the treatise leads one to conclude that he is a Brahmin. In the hierarchical caste system, Brahmins (priests) are at the acme, followed by Ksatriyas (rulers), then Vaisyas (merchants), and finally, Sudras (workers).

The laws themselves are intricate and detailed, and cover almost every aspect of the lives of the population.

A sampling:

For Brahmins: “The knowledge of the Law is prescribed for people who are unattached to wealth or pleasures; and for people who seek to know the Law, scripture is the highest authority.”

For students: “Even out of sight, he must not refer to his teacher by just his name or mimic his walk, speech, or mannerisms.”

For males contemplating marriage: “He must not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb . . . He should marry a woman . . . who has a pleasant name; who walks like a goose or an elephant; and who has fine body and head hair, small teeth and delicate limbs.”

For a Brahmin: “Except during a time of adversity, a Brahmin ought to sustain himself by following a livelihood that causes little or no harm to creatures. He should gather wealth just sufficient for his subsistence through irreproachable activities that are specific to him, without fatiguing his body.”

For reading late obituaries: “When a man hears about the death of a paternal relative or the birth of a son after ten days, he becomes pure by immersing himself in water with his clothes on.”

Speaking of death, the authority of this Manu’s Code came under severe stress in the twentieth century, when the liberals took exception both to the caste system and to the secondary status of women that it legitimized.

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