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date: 16 January 2021


A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

Manusmṛti (Mānava Dharmaśāstra, Manu Saṃhitā, Manu) (‘ The Laws of Manu’, ‘ The Law Code of Manu’, ‘ The Institutes of Manu’, 

1st century bce–2nd century ce)

The foundational text of the Dharmaśāstra literature, of which it remains the best-known and most influential example. As its name indicates, it is regarded as one of the most important smṛti texts. Its composition is traditionally ascribed to the first Manu (2), but its main historical author was clearly a North Indian brahmin, perhaps working during the 2nd century ce (although there may well have been later additions); certainly, its authority had been established by the 4th or 5th century ce. A narrative framework depicts Manu being approached by some great ṛṣis to explain the ordinance of the Creator (Svayambhū = Brahmā) with regard to the laws (dharma) for all social classes (varṇas) (i.e. the work is supposed to be normative and all-inclusive). Manu obliges over twelve chapters—topics covered include: cosmogony and cosmology; svadharma and varṇa; the pre-eminence of the brahmin class; the nature and scope of dharma; the saṃskāras; the rules for the Vedic student (brahmacārin); rules and rituals for the householder (gṛhastha) āśrama; forbidden foods, pollutions, and purifications; qualifications and rules for the forest dweller (vānaprastha), ascetics, and saṃnyāsins; the duties and responsibilities of kings; civil and criminal law; domestic law, and the roles of wives and sons; duties of vaiśyas and śūdras; rules for times of adversity or distress (āpad-dharma); reparations or penances for infringements of dharma (prāyascittas); karma and rebirth; the equation of ātman with brahman (neut.), and liberation through the realization of brahman.

The earliest extant commentary on Manu is that of Medhātithi; at least six others still exist, including Kullūka's, the one most commonly cited.