MANU was reformer, a great reformer, a specialist in law, sociology, philosophy, religion and psychology.
But which Manu are we talking about? There had been many of them. Are we talking of adiya Manu? No. We are talking of the author of the last Manu Samhita the man who codified the Indian laws.
He was a man of the Vedic age, who still performed animal sacrifices, who eschewed image worship and who did not know anything of the Trinity of Puranic Hinduism. Manu marks the transition from Vedic Hinduism to Puranic Hinduism.
The laws of a people reflected their intellectual and ethical status. The laws of Hammurabi, for example, reflected the violence of his society ( an eye for an eye). Jesus rejected it.
There is no doubt that Manu Samhita was an advance on the Vedic period, even on the Brahma Sutra. By the end of the Vedic period, trial by ordeal was abolished. Manu played a major role in this change.
For the first time, Manu laid down the procedure for trial. Even James Mill, the British imperialist, was impressed by it. On Manu Samhita, James Mill wrote: “The (Samhita) display a degree of excellence… far beyond what is exemplified in more enlightened countries. This 2000 years ago!
False witnesses were fined according to the seriousness of the case. The Manu Samhita deals with both civil and criminal laws.
Manu had a strong commitment to ethical life. He says there is a natural tendency in all civilizations to amass wealth. This leads to luxury, greed, lust and strife. What is the remedy. Not flogging. There is only one remedy’ by promoting ethical and spiritual ideals, by setting benevolence above all virtues.
It is generally believed that Manu gave primacy to Brahmins because of their status as first in the caste order. But this is not true. The measure of greatness was neither in birth nor in age nor in wealth, but in knowledge and wisdom, says Manu. No good would come by presenting gifts to an ignorant Brahmin, he asserts. This is supported by the Mahabharata which says that it is not by pedigree of class (caste) that a man was judged, but by deeds. Similarly the seniority of a man was determined by his knowledge, not by his age.
But Manu was against the changing of caste. This would create caste confusion, he warns. He was right. Today we have 3000-5000 castes and sub-castes, disrupting the unity of the people. It could go up to tens of thousands, which explains why Manu imposed rather severe punishments. Manu says that the whole world is kept in an ordered form by punishments. This is true. (This explains why his punishments were rather severe.) Remember, seniority the need of every society. And it has to be enforced through punishments. That is why almost all societies were for laws, judicial system and jails. A Brahmin who takes to trade becomes a vaisya. He cannot remain a Brahmin. (But this is hardly observed). But a shudra however well he might he educated, remains a shudra.
Thus the final determinant of caste was based on what a man did (deed), not by heredity. Thus a chandal would become a Brahmin by his good deeds. Unfortunately, these were never followed because high castes, the ruling class, would not allow its implementation.
However, Manu’s rigid caste system had a deleterious effect on the Hindu society and its future. The Brahmin whose job it was to study or worship, (having knowledge of Sanskrit) was not interested in the material progress of the country or in its security. So no progress was achieved. And the craftsmen who wanted to improve their skills by reading and studying Sanskrit works were denied the chance. The same can be said of security matters. The Brahmin was not interested in security matters and those who were interested in studying Sanskrit works were denied the opportunity. Thus, the country’s progress was blocked.
For this, the rigidity of the caste system was responsible. The entry of the Muslim invaders who gave little importance to study or research made the situation worse.
To conclude, Manu will be remembered for this reformist zeal, but not for the rigidity of the caste system.