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Why Are Protests Seeking A Ban On Manusmriti And Its Views On Women And Why They Feel Hollow?

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As you read this, two political parties—the VCK and BJP—are embroiled in a clash that is being referred to in the media as ‘Manusmriti row’. Apparently, this tussle began after a video clip from September went viral. The clip is of a webinar on Periyar and Indian politics, in which VCK MP Thol Thirumavalavan is being heard saying, “What do Sanatana Dharma say about the women? The Hindu dharma and Manu dharma says that god created women as prostitutes.” The statement received backlash from BJP, who condemned the way Thirumavalavan insulted women with his statement. BJP leader, actor Khushbu Sundar, has also been detained while she was on her way to a protest against the VCK MP’s remarks.

Meanwhile, protests headlined by VCK raged in Tamil Nadu, calling for a ban on the text. At the protest in Valluvar Kottam in Chennai a few days ago, Thirumavalavan said, “The Manusmriti that divides humans and demeans women should be banned. On September 27, Periyarists in Europe conducted a webinar and I gave a 45 minutes speech. A few groups edited out five minutes from the forty minute video and claimed that I am demeaning women. The Hindutva groups are circulating the false message against me.” He has now been booked after a complaint was filed against him with the Chennai city police.

Khushbu Sundar, explaining the outrage against the comment told media, “What was the necessity for Mr Thirumavalavan to speak or even refer to this book which was written in the 17th century? Now when the elections are coming up. It is absolutely irrelevant. Mr Thirumavalavan should be ashamed of himself. Either he should say he will go by the book which was written 3,700 years ago or he should say he follows the constitution of this country written by Dr Ambedkar.”

Does Manusmriti ring a bell? Maybe a history lesson about Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti to protest against the caste system? Or allegations that this ancient text, one of the many Dharmashastras of Hinduism, is single-handedly responsible for the toxic caste system, the patriarchal oppression of women or the menstruation taboos? Yes, the Manusmriti, or the Law of Manu (Manava Dharmashastra), is quite a controversial piece of religious text that you could say has often been found at odds with itself.

But before we delve further into why the protests seeking a ban on the Manusmriti are problematic in themselves, we must understand why the Manusmriti is this controversial in the first place.

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For a country with 33 crore Gods and deities that get worshipped, we barely strive to understand what the divine is. We’ll dismiss it off by saying things like God works in mysterious ways. Or God speaks through scriptures and religious books. But not one of us will pick up these scriptures and read them. I mean, we take French in school, and unfortunately, God’s publishers didn’t translate. This lack of knowledge that comes from actually reading the scriptures or our respective religions, coupled with the blind faith and fear of God in us, leaves us vulnerable to being misguided and brainwashed. So a lot of things that happen in today’s world in the name of God or scriptures are, well, questionable. Because if you have doubts, who you gonna call? (Mythbusters!) And one of the biggest influences on how the people of India, a predominantly Hindu state, live their lives has been the ancient text called Manusmriti.

What does the Manusmriti have?

Quite the extensive text that details the minutiae, Manusmriti is said to be a sort of filtered down version of best practices for each of the four Varnas in Hinduism—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. It is said to have condensed some of the most important facets of the various Vedas and scriptures, and presented man with a legal, ethical moral code to live a good life. Now while the Manusmriti is blamed for the prevalent caste system in India, there are also certain assertions that claim that the text only talks about the Varnas in terms of the professions of each varna and not the system that is based on ritual purity.

If you look around and how toxic casteism has gotten, you’d be confused. And that is just confusion numero uno. Perhaps the biggest contradiction is the Manusmriti’s views on women. While some shlokas or verses talk about worshipping women and the negative repercussions of ill-treating them, there are others that state that a woman must not think about living an independent life. In fact, at all times, she must remain under the authority of the male relatives in her life—father, brother, husband, son and so on. In addition, the whole idea that menstruation is impure and therefore a menstruating woman untouchable can supposedly be traced back to the Brahmanical idea of impurity. (The Dalits do not practice any menstruation taboos, because they’re out of the caste system.)

Scratching your head wondering what to believe? You’re not alone. Over the years, several Sanskrit manuscripts claiming to be the Manusmriti have been found. Each of them puts forth contradictory views on certain subjects that make it hard to nail what the actual preachings of the text are. Furthermore, even the manuscript that has been presumed authentic and translated has been the subject of scholarly doubt because of such antithesis. Which makes it hard to pin point what exactly the Manusmriti is advocating. Should the women be subjugated or worshipped? Should a couple be allowed to dissolve a marriage or not? Is the caste system discriminatory or simply a way of professional categorisation?

More importantly, is the Manusmriti, which was written keeping an ancient India and its socio-political, economical, and spiritual needs in mind, still relevant today? Clearly, the text does not account for a time in the future where women would be educated and employed and no longer living under the thumb of men. It didn’t account for single parenthood or divorce and custody when laying down rules for parental rights over children born out of wedlock. It definitely did not think that the Varna system would hinder equal opportunities and throttle the progress of entire nations. Who would’ve thought then that the Internet would make abstinence hard? Or that being dishonest would be a much needed skill if you wanted to succeed professionally and maintain peace in your personal life?

The point being, we’re still setting store by a lot of archaic rules and guidelines that are only hampering and hindering our progress and spreading hate. Think about it, none of us, not even the ones fighting to uphold it, have read a version that they can prove is 100% authentic. These are not divine edicts either, but crafted by men who understood good statecraft. Maybe at one point in time, their implementation made sense. Sure, the intentions to write out a set of guidelines for good conduct might’ve been noble. Almost all religions have their own version of this one moral path that leads human beings straight to the good place and punishes the bad eggs but banishing them to the underground. But now, having passed down through generations, the essence of these good edicts have been lost in translation and even manipulated for the convenience of a few.

Take this particular incident with VCK MP Thol Thirumavalavan’s inflammatory comments, for example. He claims what he said about Manu Dharma is what his ancestors have identified about the Manusmriti. Again, let’s put it out there that neither you, me or Thirumavalavan have read the actual text. So we’re all just sounding off of what we know. And what we do know for a fact is that  to a great extent, yes, the law’s interpretation has led to patriarchal oppression of women. What’s ironic then, as pointed out by several people on Twitter, is that BJP is not protesting the Manusmriti, the root cause of the oppression, but their fellow politician’s misguided remark! Does it then seem like a hollow cause to protest about because even if you stop one man from insulting women, the entire society is still practicing customs and traditions that oppress them.

With the feminist and #DalitLivesMatter movements gaining momentum, it is imperative that any instrument of oppression, no matter how dubious in nature, be removed from the picture. Usually, texts like these are open for interpretation. The Manusmriti has been cited very often in Hindu law, even quoted by Supreme Court in its verdict, and is an edict that a huge part of the Indian population abides by even now. But how do we trust people to interpret it correctly, to take only the good and leave the bad behind? Look around us. Are we worshipping women like the Manusmriti asked us too? Oh yes, totally. But are we doing it only as long as women remain inanimate goddess idols or under man’s authority, the aadarsh naari if you will? Yes. And that right there is the problem.

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