Perhaps no single human being has played a more pivotal and influential role in Hindu patriarchy than Manu. Karwachauth, that intensely Hindu symbol of patriarchy cloaked in the guise of love, is a great occasion for us to better understand Manu’s legacy, particularly as it relates to the perception of women in Hinduism.
Manu was a Brahmin man, who around 100 AD, wrote the Manu Dharma-Shastra (widely known as Manusmriti). “Manu” means “the wise one”, and is the root of the word “Manava”, which means “man”, “mankind” or “son of Manu”. As such, Manu is the self-proclaimed ancestor of all Hindu men, pretty much the same way that Adam is the ancestor of all Christian men. The 2,685 Sanskrit verses that Manu wrote in his Manusmriti are thus a Hindu man’s Bible. Manu also viewed himself as the lawmaker and as such responsible for writing laws by which men and women would govern themselves for centuries to come.
Understanding Manu Smriti AgniveerManusmriti, and Manu’s own personal views expressed in it, can be better understood by examining the period during which he lived. Some historians refer to this period as India’s Dark Age, because of the absence of a centrally and well-governed empire. Other historians view this period as the Age of Invasions, when barbarians invaded India, particularly from the north. While the ensuing chaos must have been frightening to many, it is clearly also a sign of diversity, with rich integration of several different cultures and customs. The scholars of the time were forced to grapple with the very definition of Hinduism and spirituality and their consequences on daily existence. While orthodox scholars (like Manu) might have felt threatened and feared a complete loss of control, the same period also saw the existence of unorthodox scholars who were willing to experiment with diversity, change and new (and, in retrospect, far more progressive) social structures. Two other prominent Sanskrit texts were written during the period, both of which took very different views on the role of women in society, and often contradicted the conclusions Manu had reached. They were the Artha-Shastra, written by Kautilya, and the Kama-sutra, written by Vatsyayana. So, even during Manu’s own life and times, Hinduism was far more progressive than his teachings would lead us to believe.
As a man, Manu’s fear of women is perhaps best illustrated by these words:
“It is the very nature of women to corrupt men here on earth; for that reason, circumspect men do not get careless and wanton among wanton women. It is not just an ignorant man, but even a learned man of the world, too, that a wanton woman can lead astray when he is in the control of lust and anger. No one should sit in a deserted place with his mother, sister, or daughter; for the strong cluster of the sensory powers drags away even a learned man.” — Manusmriti
So great was his fear of women’s hold on men and men’s lack of self-control that he did not even trust men to be left alone in the presence of their own mother, sister and daughter! It is also typical of his male insecurity that he blames the instrument of men’s vice (the inherently seductive nature of women) rather than the men themselves. By that logic, every rape victim is more to blame than the man who succumbed to his sexual desire to rape her! Manu goes on to describe exactly what makes women so base and what they look for in men.
“Drinking, associating with bad people, being separated from their husbands, wandering about, sleeping, and living in other people’s are the six things that corrupt women. Good looks do not matter to them, nor do they care about youth. ‘A man!’ they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is good-looking or ugly.” — Manusmriti
One cannot help but wonder if Manu had ever been introduced to the concept that beauty is only skin deep and that maybe, just maybe, the women he was thus describing cared more about the minds of the men they were sleeping with, rather than their outward appearance alone. I would also hesitate to make such sweeping generalizations from the behavior of some women and apply those conclusions to 50% of the human race! But Manu’s crime was not that he was clueless about the workings of the female body and mind. Which man isn’t?! Manu’s crime was that he translated his own lack of knowledge into a social imprisonment of women.
“A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman should not do anything independently, even in her own house. In childhood a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons. She should not have independence.” — Manusmriti
Thus did Manu set the stage for the annihilation of women’s freedom which has persisted relentlessly for nearly two millennia and counting. Hindu patriarchy was solidified to the extent that even today, we as a society have barely made a dent in it. With one fell swoop, Manu enslaved Hindu women and made them the property of their own fathers, brothers, husbands and sons, the very people whom they loved so dearly. The ownership of a woman’s body and soul switches from her father to her husband during the Kanyadaan ceremony in a Hindu wedding. Her marriage then becomes a prison cell from which she is never, for any reason at all, allowed to escape.
“No man is able to guard women entirely by force, but they can be safely guarded if kept busy amassing and spending money, engaging in purification, attending to their duties, cooking food, and looking after the furniture. A virtuous wife should constantly serve her husband like a god, even if he behaves badly, freely indulges his lust, and is devoid of any good qualities. A woman who abandons her own inferior husband … is reborn in the womb of a jackal and is tormented by the diseases born of her evil.” — Manusmriti
The woman was not free even after the death of her husband. Manu showed women both the carrot and the stick. A lifetime of servitude, before and after the death of her husband, however undeserving of her labors he turned out to be, was the only way a woman could attain moksha, which itself only meant reunion with the same undeserving husband for the rest of time! Any deviation from willing slavery condemned her to the womb of a jackal and eternal torment by diseases.
“When her husband is dead, she may fast as much as she likes, living on auspicious flowers, roots, and fruits, but she should not even mention the name of another man. Many thousands of Brahmins who were chaste from their youth have gone to heaven without begetting offspring to continue the family. A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven just like those chaste men, even if she has no sons. She reaches her husband’s worlds after death, and good people call her a virtuous woman.” — Manusmriti
Men, by contrast, were completely free throughout their lives, before or after the death of their wives, free to abandon their wives while they lived and even free to remarry after their wives died. Manu himself did not say that wives should kill themselves when their husbands died. But it did not take society very long after his fatal words were spoken to decide that the only way a woman could be kept chaste after her husband’s death was to throw her on his funeral pyre. With her consent, of course, thus institutionalizing the practice of Sati. Or perhaps women gave their consent willingly, given the alternative was even worse. A lifetime of fasting, or a diet of flowers, roots and fruits.
By far the most deadly venom that Manu and his followers could have injected into the minds of Hindu women is the notion that if they are not pious and subservient, God will take his vengeance on their husbands by shortening their lives. None of us wives would ever want that to happen. We love our husbands too much for that. And so we willingly seal our fates with our own hands. For nobody can free us from patriarchy if we do not want to be free of it.
For nearly a decade after my wedding sixteen years back, I fasted on Karwachauth for the long life of my husband, and he did the same for me, in very DDLJ style. It wasn’t until my growing daughter called me a hypocrite that I saw through her eyes how the patriarchal symbols in our family were poisoning her future. Haven’t our minds been liberated enough by now for us to be able to let go of a past (and its traditions) that stopped being relevant centuries ago? Sexist symbols are avoidable and are completely pointless. We do have a choice. The time has come for us to make the right choice.
Today, with my daughter and Saraswati, the Goddess of learning, as my witnesses, I vow that if I ever again fast on Karwachauth, it will be a fast unto death to forever rid Hindu society of all its patriarchal symbols. I hope you will join me. I have said no to Raksha Bandhan, Karwachauth, Ahoiashtami (a mother’s fast for her son), mangal sutra (or thaali), sindoor, kaanch ki chudiyan, sar dhakna, pair choona, Kanyadaan, Vidai and Stri Dhan (a synonym of dowry). I will never again follow laws made by men and for men, with the express purpose of subjugating women. It is never too late to correct the bad choices we have made in the past.