Scroll Top

ECHOES OF MANUSMRITI: EXPLORING PARALLELS BETWEEN ANCIENT INDIAN LAW AND CONTEMPORARY LEGAL SYSTEM

INTRODUCTION

The Ancient Indian legal system, often referred to as the earliest “Manusmriti” or “Manava Dharma Shastra,” [1] was recognized as authoritative for governing Hindus during the British era. Despite widespread criticism for its misogynistic and patriarchal nature, it’s essential to approach it as a historical text within its original context and timeframe. In his book “Ancient Indian Law Eternal Values in Manusmriti,”[2] Justice M. Rama Jois contends that the Manusmriti represents the most logical compilation of laws in ancient India.[3] Many of its laws and principles predate it and continue to influence various aspects of the current Indian legal system. In the face of modernization and globalization, today’s generation rejects laws based on ancient Vedic texts like Manusmriti, deeming them obsolete. As society evolves, the sources of law in Indian society change, reflecting shifts in morality and legality. However, the reliance on Manusmriti and Vedas in ancient Indian Law and the ethos of its principles can be observed in the contemporary legal framework.

THE CRIMINAL LAW

Manusmriti outlines various offences and punishments, mirroring aspects of the modern Indian Penal Code.[4] Just as the contemporary penal system mandates state intervention in controlling and punishing crimes, Manusmriti underscores the state’s role in verses IX 264-267.[5] Theft, akin to the IPC section 378,[6] finds mention in Manusmriti’s verse IX-278,[7] while adultery, detailed in IPC section 487(subsequently deemed unconstitutional),[8] is elaborated in verses IV-134, VIII-357, and 358. Similarly, gambling and betting, regulated by the Public Gambling Act,[9] are comprehensively addressed in Manusmriti’s verse IX-223.[10] The text also parallels the IPC in providing exceptions to criminal offences and delineates provisions on the right of private defence akin to IPC sections 96 to 106.[11] Initially a comprehensive legal code, Manusmriti’s categorization reflects an evolving legal structure. It encapsulates diverse branches of law, suggesting an organized system predating contemporary legal framework.

THE CIVIL LAW

The Manusmriti holds significant importance in Hindu Law and ancient Indian society, encompassing various verses delineating personal and societal duties and intertwining moral and legal codes.[12] French barrister Louis Jacolliot, who translated Manusmriti in his work “The Bible of India,” stated that “We shall see, on examination, that these divisions [marriage, property, testaments, etc.] have passed almost unaltered, from the Hindu Law into Roman Law and the French Law [the French civil code is said to be based on the Justinian code and revised during the Napoleonic era], and the greater part of their dispositions are still in vogue….”[13] The present-day civil law offence finds antecedents in Manusmriti, addressing offences like defamation, coveting, desertion, and assault.

Manusmriti delves into the motivations driving human actions and delineates causes for unethical conduct. Justice M. Rama Jois highlights in his book that Manusmriti enumerates three prominent sinful mental actions: coveting others’ property, entertaining undesirable thoughts, and adhering to evil doctrines.[14] The Manusmriti encompasses all civil and criminal injuries an individual might inflict upon others, including appropriating property, withholding rightful dues, defamation, assault, theft, cheating, robbery, causing harm, and murder. These transgressions, now addressed by modern civil and criminal laws across various legal systems, can be categorized under the four evil verbal actions or three wicked bodily actions delineated in Manusmriti.[15]

In essence, Manusmriti serves as a foundational text reflecting the intricacies of ancient Indian legal and moral frameworks. Its enduring influence is evident in the parallels between its principle and contemporary legal system, highlighting the continuity of legal thought across different epochs and civilizations.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL LAW

In the ancient legal system, the Vedas served as the constitution, with anything conflicting deemed false, as articulated in Manusmriti Chapter XII, verses 95, 96, and 97.[16] These verses assert that doctrines contradicting the Vedas are invalid, as Vedas uphold all created beings and are thus supreme. Smritis like Manusmriti, Yajnavalkyasmriti, and Parasarasmriti functioned akin to modern codes and Acts, requiring alignment with the constitution for validity. However, unlike a constitution, the Vedas remained immutable and regarded as supreme.

THE CONTRACT LAW

Manusmriti addresses the concept of legally binding contracts, emphasizing principles akin to modern contract law. For instance, Verse VIII-164 asserts that an agreement contrary to law or established customs lacks legal validity, even if proven.[17] It highlights the invalidity of contracts lacking free consent due to force or fraud (Verse- VIII-165 and 168)[18] and discusses the liability of surety (Verse- VII- 158).[19] Additionally, Manusmriti imposes restrictions on loan interest rates (Verse VIII- 140),[20]deems property transfer without titleas null and void (Verse- VIII-198),[21] and penalty for violation of contract (Verse- VIII- 219).[22] These provisions resonate with clauses found in the Indian Contracts Act of 1872[23] and various other statutes within the contemporary Indian legal system, showing the enduring relevance of Manusmriti’s insights into contract law principle.

FAMILY LAW

Family law encompasses the legal framework governing family relationships spanning from marriage and divorce to the care and rights of children, as well as associated financial matters. [24]Throughout history, the family unit has been recognized as the cornerstone of society, with texts like the Manusmriti reflecting principles that echo contemporary legal systems. In verses III-55-60, III- 62, III- 114, and IX- 101, The Manusmriti elucidates on the ideal structure of a family and outlines permanent (Verse IX- 45-46)[25] rooted in the belief of a divine union (Verse IX- 95),[26] a concept not directly mirrored in modern divorce laws. Unlike contemporary legal systems, the Manusmriti lacks a framework for adoption, distinguishing it from present-day family law practices.

Addressing property and succession, Verse IX- 185[27] stipulates that in the absence of male offspring, a man’s property is inherited by his wife, even if his father, brothers, and Sapindas (relatives within three generations on the maternal side and five on the paternal side) are alive. [28] If the deceased leaves no male heirs, spouse, siblings, or parents, his Sapindas divide the estate proportionately.[29] In essence, the Manusmriti provides insights into ancient perceptions of family and inheritance, revealing both similarities and disparities with modern family law systems. While certain principles endure across time, the evolution of societal norms and legal frameworks underscores the dynamic nature of family law throughout history.

THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW

The Manusmriti encompasses a wide array of legal domains, including trade, consumer protection, and environmental regulations (Verse-IV-56),[30] as well as substantive and procedural laws, including regulations about warfare.[31] It is a compendium of laws to maintain law and order in ancient Indian society. Given the supreme authority of the King in ancient times, administration operated under his directives. According to verse VIII-3,[32] the king held executive and judicial powers, with a distinction drawn between the two. While executive functions required advice from the Council of Ministers, judicial decisions were made in consultation with the Chief Justice and judges, as outlined in the court hall (Verse VII-141).[33] The Manusmriti also addresses the review of judgments, akin to the modern-day legal process, reflected in Verse IX- 233-234,[34] which resembles Article 137 of the Indian Constitution.[35]

In slight contrast to the modern-day accusatorial system, which priorities the adage “Let a ten guilty be acquitted, but one innocent should not be convicted,”[36] the Manusmriti asserts the King’s duty never to punish an innocent individual while ensuring the guilty face appropriate consequences. This principle underscores the manuscript’s emphasis on justice and fairness within the legal system, reflecting a foundational aspect of ancient Indian governance.

CONCLUSION

Although the Manusmriti faces considerable criticism, particularly regarding its treatment of women, it merits examination within its historical context. This ancient text offers a comprehensive exploration of various facets of life, addressing not only legal matters but also aspects of human existence. While some of its provisions have become outdated in the face of evolving societal norms, others remain relevant and resemble the elements of India’s present legal system. Covering crimes, civil disputes, matrimonial relations, trade environmental concerns,[37] and governance and integrating its positive aspects into modern law-making processes while simultaneously identifying and condemning regressive or obsolete provisions. This approach ensures a balanced consideration of Manusmriti’s contributions while upholding the contemporary standards of justice and equity.

Author(s) Name: Akhil Kumar K.S.(The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi)

Reference(s):

[1]Ian F G Baxter, ‘Family Law’ (Britannica, 03 January 2024) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dharma-shastra> accessed 20 January 2024

[2]M Rama Jois, Ancient Indian Law, Eternal Values of Manu Smriti (first published in 2002, ULP 2010)

[3]Ibid

[4]The Indian Penal Code 1860

[5]The Manusmriti, verse IX 264-267

[6]The Indian Penal Code 1860, s 378

[7]The Manusmriti, verse IX 278

[8]The Indian Penal Code 1860,

[9]The Public Gambling Act 1867

[10]The Manusmriti, verse IX – 223

[11]The Indian Penal Code, s 96-106

[12]Vijai Kumar Singhal, ‘Modern Civil Law Systems and Manu Smriti’ (HINDU COUNCI OF AUSTRALIA, 03 August 2021) accessed 21 January 2024

[13]Ibid

[14]M Rama Jois, Ancient Indian Law, Eternal Values of Manu Smriti (first published in 2002, ULP 2010) 9-10

[15]‘Manusmriti’ (hinduismfacts.org) <https://www.hinduismfacts.org/hindu-scriptures-and-holy-books/manusmriti/>  accessed 21 January 2021

[16]The Manusmriti, verse XII 95-97

[17]The Manusmriti, verse VIII-164

[18]The Manusmriti, verse VII- 165 and 168

[19]The Manusmriti, verse VII- 158

[20]The Manusmriti, verse VIII- 140

[21]The Manusmriti, verse VIII- 198

[22]The Manusmriti, verse VIII- 219

[23]The Indian Contract Act 1872

[24]Ian F G Baxter, ‘Family Law’ (Britannica, 03 January 2024) <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dharma-shastra> accessed 20 January 2024

[25]The Manusmriti, verse IX- 45-46

[26]The Manusmriti, verse IX- 95

[27] The Manusmriti, verse IX- 185

[28]‘Sapindas and Hindu Marriage’ (Nyaaya, 26 May 2022) <https://nyaaya.org/legal-explainer/sapindas-and-hindu-marriage 2/#:~:text=A%20sapinda%20is%20someone%20who,father’s%20side%20of%20the%20family.> accessed 20 January 2024

[29]Ganganatha Jha, ‘Manusmriti with the commentary of Medhatithi’ (first published in 1920, University of Calcutta)

[30]The Manusmriti, verse IV- 56

[31]M Rama Jois, Ancient Indian Law, Eternal Values of Manu Smriti (first published in 2002, ULP 2010) 9-10

[32]The Manusmriti, verse VIII- 3

[33]The Manusmriti, verse VII- 141

[34]The Manusmriti, verse IX- 233-234

[35]The Constitution of Indian 1950, art 137

[36]Vidar Halvorsen, ‘Is it Better that Ten Guilty Persons Go Free Than that One Innocent Person be Convicted?’ (2004) 23(2) Criminal Justice Ethics <https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/it-better-ten-guilty-persons-go-free-one-innocent-person-be> accessed 20 January

[37]M Rama Jois, Ancient Indian Law, Eternal Values of Manu Smriti (first published in 2002, ULP 2010) 9-10