Different Ways of Remembering the Manusmriti and Roman Inquisitions

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • March 25, 2023
  • The author compares how Indians treat writings of Manusmriti (over 1,700 years ago) vs. history of the Roman Inquisition (less than five hundred years ago). Should there not be a level playing field?

The scientific method in religious studies is a very important tool in our understanding of the memories/teachings/reminiscences of this Manvantara’s Manu, Vaivasvata. 


We will come to the meanings of a Manavantara and the importance of the present Manu, and for that matter, who or what a Manu is after discussing the post-Enlightenment scientific method ushered in by Christian scholars who discovered the proper way to open up the Biblical canon.


Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) transformed the way we now approach the Bible as scholars. He showed, for instance, that the Bible is open to various interpretations and through his interpretative strategies, or as it is technically known, hermeneutical methods, proved once and for all that the Bible’s ‘books’ like Isaiah and even the New Testament were written by many authors.


Again, to use technical terms --- the synoptic Gospels like Luke were not written by one author. Synoptic Gospels are those which are similar in chronology and content. But this article is not about the Gospels but about the scientific method applied to the Bible through the efforts of countless Biblical theologians and exegetes.


To sum up, it is well understood within Judaism and Christianity that the Old Testament, now termed the Hebrew Scriptures respecting Judaic beliefs, and the Bible are not homogenous single-author texts. So, Isaiah is a multi-authored text which has interpolations and later accretions.


Interpolations are insertions within texts which have been put in later by different authors and accretions are authorial intrusions over long periods of time. Those who are familiar with literary texts are aware that epics like the Scandinavian  Beowulf  is a work of interpolations and accretions.


The scientific method within religious studies has been appropriated by literary scholars and it is now accepted everywhere that the practice of literatures in any language must follow this scientific method. It is also known as the structuralist method.


One more point needs to be acknowledged before we discuss Manusmriti; it is that all books including religious texts like the Bible are editorially reshaped depending on the prevailing socio-economic forces influencing the editors.


One example, though different in context is the case of the Bhagavad Gita. The Kashmiri recension of the Bhagavad Gita has more verses than the version of the Gita used globally. Except in Kashmir, exegetes or editors felt the need for expunging or removing several verses of the Gita which they found redundant outside Kashmir.


The scientific/structuralist/hermeneutical method was used by stalwarts of our Dharma much before Gadamer discovered and formalised his system.


Now what has this to do with Manusmriti? Before this is answered, let me ask how many Anglicised Hindus and Christians live by the laws and dogmas of the Holy Roman Inquisition?


The atrocities of the Roman Inquisitions are best forgotten by all of us since the Holy Roman Inquisition during the Dark Ages in Europe persecuted anyone who deviated even slightly from orthodox Church dogma.


For instance, the humanist Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola was executed for heresy or deviating from Church doctrines on 23rd May, 1498 by the Holy Roman Inquisition. The job of the Inquisition was to hound and ferret out those who disagreed ever so indirectly with the Roman Catholic Church. It was a very sad period in Christian history memorably made into an excellent novel, The Name of the Rose by the late Umberto Eco. This is one of the few novels whose cinematic version starring Sean Connery does justice to this classic and became an instant blockbuster. The discerning reader is advised to both watch the movie and read the book. 


Only then the destructive power of the Inquisition can be understood. Often literature reveals more than history does. It is for the good of us and our future generations that we do not repeat the tortures of the Holy Roman Inquisition. The tortures included tearing a body into little bits after pulling it on specially made machines or racks. It is therefore a good and holy thing that no sane Christian today remembers the horrors of the Inquisition.


Historiography and the scientific method combined with imperialist forces have erased the Inquisition from mainstream Christian discourse.

Temple of Manu in Manali, Himachal. 

However, when it comes to Manusmriti, we Hindus apply a different yardstick. We forget to apply the scientific method to this text and also forget that very few ordinary Hindus except scholars and historians remember it or actually read it. 


However, the Manusmriti is held up for ridicule by those who are not trained in the Biblical scientific method and it seems from their harping on divisive social issues as if Manusmriti is a direct revelation of the current Manu, Sri Vaivasvata.


A Manavantara according to our Dharma consists of more than 35 lakh solar years and each Manavantara has one Manu, or primordial Man. That is, if He can be called a Man at all. This particular Manu taught us our Dharma as was revealed to him by his teachers leading back to Bhagavan Brahma of this aeon.  (aeon is a measure of years)   


Now, the Bible is at the most 3000 years old if we consider the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. Within the Indian context we are speaking of a time which did not care for Enlightenment historiography. This is because our historians took it for granted that their records would not be destroyed through repeated foreign invasions of our country. 


When the British came to rule us pretending to do business with us, they conveniently forgot the scientific method and focussed on those aspects of the Manusmriti which they found convenient in dividing our nation. Later post-Independent Indian scholars, especially historians, without studying the developments within Biblical Studies, tried to outdo each other to defame this ancient work. They started debates about the differences between itihasa and history.


The more they did and continue to do so, all the more they show a total disregard for the scientific method which helped advance the study and development of Christian theology.

Their strategy unfortunately shows their inability to meaningfully carry out interdisciplinary studies and their total ignorance of the fact that the same historiography which can structurally analyse the last five thousand years cannot be applied to countless aeons. So, they threw the baby along with the bathwater. Since they could not and cannot solve the problem of incalculable time, they concluded that such periods of time simply could not exist. Anthropologists played a great role in demonising the memoirs of Vaivasvata Manu. 


This author is nowhere denying that extrapolations and accretions have creeped into the remembrances of the present Manu. The Jesuit priest and scholar Walter Ong (1912-2003) was right in proving how orality gave way to textuality.


Are we to believe, against all existing historical evidence, that the present Manu wrote everything down? Surely not. Over time, socio-cultural forces and economic pressures shaped the current text which is twisted beyond all recognition by some Hindus pursuing an anti-Dharma agenda.  


This author asks for an equal and fair treatment of the works which normatively are attributed to Vaivasvata Manu. They should be reinterpreted by scholars familiar with both Biblical Studies and this text in its original language and after accepting the limitations of contemporary historiography. There should not be conflicts of interests where suddenly and meaninglessly jargon is spewed for scoring brownie points in white acamedia. 


If this is not done, then is it not correct to recapitulate the history of the Holy Roman Inquisition in detail to show the world how darkness overcame Europe in the name of religion? 


Both Christianity and our Dharma, need reinterpretation and an end to the insider versus outsider debates. Once we accept that politics, economics and misuse of the hermeneutical method has been done in the case of the Manusmriti, we will be in a better position to dialogue authentically.


One cannot use the scientific method in the case of the Bible and use history to erase the memory of the Inquisition and not use these very methods in the case of our Shastras.


We have to accept that the present Manu never instructed us to oppress anyone. If that is not accepted, why should we accept that God in the Hebrew Scriptures not revengeful for he declares vengeance is His? But by definition, God within Christianity is incapable of anything but unconditional mercy and love no matter what we do --- it is called hesed. 


Only when we study the Manusmriti in light of the Enlightenment Project properly begun by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Germany, will we finally understand that our reading of say, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Bhimayana perhaps needs a more nuanced approach within our institutions of higher learning. Bhimayana is compulsory reading in many universities across the world.


Many suffer within our society due to various marginalisations and this author’s spouse cannot use her married name in official documents since she was not born a Brahmin. She remains a heterodox Jain. She was prevented decades ago from writing ‘Chattopadhyay’ by entrenched casteist, qualified yet illiterate Hindus. But is it enough and right to blame the Manusmriti?


Is it right to blame the Inquisition for all tortures, in the name of Christianity occurring today, in this blighted world of ours?


There is a technical term which I borrow from Christianity to explain these evils: systemic evil. The Problem of Evil as pointed out by the Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) is the only problem that remains to be solved. It has yet not been solved satisfactorily within any system of thought.


The solution lies in not reviving the horrors of the Inquisition or honing on the divisive portions of the Manusmriti. Vaivasvata Manu has little to do with the extant version of the Manusmriti as we will immediately understand if we are to study scrupulous scholars of Gadamer and Walter Ong.  


Moreover, no scripture or shastra is uniformly practiced across India because diversity is intrinsic to Sanatana Dharma!  So to cherry pick the Manusmriti to hit out at our Dharma is incorrect to say the least.

Peace, peace, peace.


May Sanatana Dharmis and Christians dialogue on level grounds. Let us learn from each other.


Also read

1. Understanding Christian Exorcisms

2. What is Immaculate Conception

3. The Constitution of India is today’s Manusmriti – Nanditha Krishna wrote, “Manu probably lived between 200 and 400 CE. Manu’s “memories” are a record of the social life and ideas of his times, and probably did not affect the collective life of the people. There is no evidence or record of their impact on society in India. In fact, Manu was probably not even a single individual: the name appears 14 times, from Manu, the first human who was the mind-born son of Brahma, to Manu who saved the fish in Vishnu’s Matsya avatar, to Manu, author of the Dharma Shastra. Smritis contributed to the exposition of the Hindu dharma but has always been far less authoritative than the shrutis, the Vedic corpus. Each era has its smriti and it is ridiculous to quote the belief and lifestyles of people who lived 1,600–1,800 years ago as authoritative laws today.”

4. What is Manusmriti - Explained

5. Scholar Dr David Frawley tweeted, “Manu Smriti is not a Hindu scripture but one of many ancient law codes and their varied opinions. To look at Hinduism according to Manu Smriti is equivalent to looking at Christianity today according to Christian law codes of the Middle Ages.”

5. Horrors of the Holy Inquisition

6. Historians says Inquisitions not that bad

7. Concept of Elections and Democracy in Vedas and Dharma Sastras

8. Easter Traditions 

9. Origin of Christmas, rituals and practices


Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in Patristics and the Problem of Evil in American Horror Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in Prabuddha Bharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences.


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