I approached Manu's Dharmashastra with historical curiosity, braced for a tough read, but I was delightfully surprised to learn what an engaging, beautiful, and fascinating text this is. In twelve chapters the mythical author Manu describes the nature of the well-ordered society and focuses on the role of the Brahmin within it.
The Indologist Richard Gombrich describes "Dharma", awkwardly rendered by Olivelle as "Law", as corresponding to the medieval European concept of "Nature". Both terms undermine the normative/descriptive distinction; in this text's primary usage "Dharma" refers both to the essential nature of things and the way things ought to be.
Manu is an archetypal figure in Indian religious thought going back to the Rig Veda. His function is the founder of the civilization and bestower of its organizing patterns of behavior. In this work he describes prototypical forms of life that the Brahmim should follow, nominally based on the Vedas, which are themselves considered to be architectonic of the coherent structure of the cosmos.
The male Brahmin's life is presented in four life-stages, each with its attendant duties and obligations. The first stage is the student, in which the Brahmin learns the rites of recitation and sacrifice under the tutelage of the guru. The second is the householder, in which the Brahmin raises and safeguards the family. When the Brahmin becomes gray and sees his grandchildren, he enters the third stage and is to retire to the forest to undertake austerities, yoga, and meditation. In the fourth stage, the Brahmin takes up the life of the wandering ascetic, He is to complete his mastery of subduing the impulses of his biological and individual psychological character, and through disidentification with the individual self he prepares for death and for union with Brahman, the divine principle.
The Manava Dharmashastra's studious disinterest in the individual will or character is emphatically expressed on every page of this treatise, which views the personality as something to be subdued, first in deference to social patterns and norms exemplified by the caste system and various social duties and obligations following therefrom, and then in service of religious practices which require the absolute abnegation of the individual ego and submersion in the generalized field of awareness and Being. At no time is the slightest value placed on the individual discernment, judgment, or discrimination.
If the male Brahmin is subordinate to the dictates of the patterns laid out in this treatise, the lot of women and the lower castes, particularly the Sudras, is starker. The duty of women according to Manu is to serve the family, to obey the husband, and, when the husband is not available, to obey the eldest son. The joyous and assiduous undertaking of household chores and obedience to men is the path by which Brahmin women fulfill their Dharma. In the next life they may be reborn in a higher station.
Likewise the lower castes and especially the Sudras are regarded as properly servile and impure by nature. Through the uncomplaining acceptance of their lot they too may fulfill their Dharma and ascend higher in the next life.
The legacy of the Manava Dharmashastra in legitimating oppressive conditions for women and Sudras casts a long shadow, and little can be said in defense of this repugnant vision except to submit that in contrast to contemporaneous social codes written around the same time, the Dharmashastra is not as horrid as most. Compared to the Code of Hammurabi or Leviticus (both written substantially earlier, granted) the Dharmashastra is relatively progressive in its views.
It should also be noted that if one accepts the metaphysical worldview of this book, with its essentialist characterization of social orders determined by a retributive series of rebirths determined by the moral character of action, then its views on women and lower castes make logical sense. Indeed, the views of the book as a whole are governed by a ruthless logic that follows clearly and directly from its mechanistic metaphysics.
The second half of the book lays out in detail various aspects of rule such as appropriate grounds for litigation, civil penalties, criminal law, the structure and nature of good governance, et cetera. This book predictably emphasizes the deference that must be paid to the Brahmins. Indeed it has been conjected partly on the basis of this material that the book was written as an argument for the dominance of Brahmins over the Ksatriyas warrior elite caste, who might have had their own views about who was truly at the top of the social hierarchy.
This book was excellently translated and rendered by Patrick Olivelle on the basis of his meticulously compiled critical edition of the Sanskrit text. I admit I found his translation of the principle Upanisads somewhat wooden in style and approached this work with a certain trepidation, but fortunately Olivelle outdid himself in this marvelous work. It is cogent, readable, and fascinating, with useful annotations and glossaries.
It would be hard to overstate the value of this text in understanding the late Classical Indian religious idiom, particularly with respect to Brahminism. Most of the religious texts that continue to receive attention from that age are addressed to renunciates, and it's very interesting to see how such a worldview was interpreted by people who were dedicated to living within a society. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the strategies it employs to reconcile the dictates of that renunciate and deeply-pessimistic religious culture with an affirmation of the values of society and the necessity of living within it. The compromise that is reached is expressed as fulfilling different sets of obligations at different stages of life. That may occur as an interesting couter-position to the views expressed by the renunciate Vedanta or Raja-Yoga traditions.