Manu, smriti and the medical paradox
It is a great misunderstanding that the Manu-smriti (or Manu's proclamation) is important to the Hindu Varna-ashrama dharma. This confusion persists even in spite of the fact that Manu-smriti as a smriti (or smrti) often contradicts the sruti (or Veda) on several important points relating to the caste system and women. This article shows that, philosophically (theologically) and traditionally (practically), the Manu-smriti was never popular among the Hindus. Moreover, they never used it as a religious or social text.
Several verses on the status of women and the physicians' caste (vocation) from the Rig Veda and the Manu-smriti are listed in the Appendix here. According to the Veda, a physician's job is very important and deserving praise and brings him prestige (Rig Veda: 2/33.4, 6/50.7, 9/112.3, 10/39.5, and 10/97.6). But the Manu-smriti, contradicting this Vedic view completely, relegates the physician to a lowly position and even implies that he is not worthy of socializing with other varnas (Manu-smriti: 3/152, 3/180, 4/212, and 4/220). The same thing is observed about the women's status according to the Manu-smriti. Note that a woman according to the Veda (Rig Veda: 10/85.27) is empowered to rule her household, whereas she has no say in her affairs in the smrti (Manu-smriti: 5/147).
From the philosophical and theological considerations (or using the Mimamsa+ rules), the above contradictions in the Rig Veda and the Manu-smriti mean that the Rig Vedic view on the status of women and physicians (and other castes! ) should be accepted. The Mimamsa states that "The smrti texts (documents on traditions or customs) are supposed to have corresponding sruti texts (Vedas). If certain smrti is known to have no matching sruti, it indicates that either the corresponding sruti was lost over time or the particular smrti is not authentic. Moreover, if the smrtis are in conflict with the sruti, the formers are to be disregarded. When it is found out that the smrtis are laid down with a selfish interest, they must be thrown out." Manu-smriti, as the smrti and having no precedence over he sruti (Veda), is deemed unreliable and therefore unacceptable as a scripture or social text.
Even traditionally and from practical considerations, the Manu-smriti lacks credibility. In reality and according to other Hindu texts, women had many rights and freedoms, including in marriage, family life and intellectual pursuits. In the Ramayana, for example, Sita was able to choose her own husband in a swayamvara. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, Gargi was a highly educated woman who excelled in many intellectual and philosophical debates against even her male counterparts.
Similarly the physicians were thought to be socially very important. Because of their special (high) education and training, they were often identified with and even commanded the respect as brahmins. They were also the favorites of the royalty, kings and queens, and had many prestigious titles (honors), including the Rajvaidya (the Royal physician) and Dhanvantri, etc., bestowed on them.
Thus the sad state of women and physicians depicted in the Manu-smriti does not accurately portray the real Hindu society. Its undermining the pursuit of education -- the superior education and training to a physician making him the object of social ostracizing in Manu-smriti -- is senseless and seriously flawed. Contrary to the general Vedic view insisting the search for knowledge, Manu-smriti seems to nullify the importance and pursuit of education and knowledge (jnana) -- even that related to the medical field (including the training in handling of body fluids etc.) -- to the individual himself and the society. Note that any opposition according to Manu-smriti to the acquisition of knowledge or even reading the Veda by some people is basically wrong and against the Vedic principles which promote education and knowledge to everyone.
In reality, the situation according to the Manu-smriti never did occur. Assuming for example that, once upon a time, there lived a brahmin (a practicing priest) who had a young son. The father, for the purpose of introducing and familiarizing young children to their family business and activities, would have his son assist him and participate in tasks related to worship etc. Moreover, as expected, the young boy would join his family in meals and even share food with his father and other kin.
The brahmin one-day decided to send his son to a school or an establishment (specializing in Ayurveda&) for training in medicine to become a physician. There the young man worked hard and completed his studies. Unfortunately, when he returned home as a newly trained physician ready to practice medicine, he would face horrible social discrimination according to the Manu-smriti. For example, as a medical personnel, he would not be allowed to join his parents in activities involving worships etc. Similarly, he would not be invited to any family gatherings where there could be the possibility of exchange or sharing of food among various family members, especially between his father (brahmin priest) and him.
But note that the above hypothetical situation never actually took place. The young physician (brahmin's son) would not encounter discrimination upon his return. Moreover, had there been any real possibility of eventual harm or discrimination to his son, the brahmin -- a learned and intelligent man, knowing fully well the contents of the Manu-smriti and their legitimacy and acceptance in society with respect to the physicians at least -- would not send his son for medical education in the first place. Since the brahmins sent or used to send their sons freely (without any reservations) to become medical doctors indicates that they were not concerned about the Manu-smriti, manu's dictates or potential discrimination afterwards. There were many other instances where the brahmins, in addition to working as priests, practiced medicine without encountering discrimination. This clearly indicates that Manu-smriti never was in vogue or taken seriously as a text by anyone including the brahmins themselves. Note that the Vedic views in this regard -- the physicians being important and commanding respect from others -- also confirm the irrelevance of Manu-smriti to the society.
The Manu-smriti was thus never an important scriptural or social text for Hindus. The ordinances and information in it on varna (caste, vocation) and women, etc., are skewed, worthless and inadmissible. It totally contradicts the Veda and has no real legitimacy. Note, even according to the Manusmriti (verses 12/95 and 12/96, in the Appendix), smritis (including the Manusmriti) have no precedence over the Srutis (Veda). And, Sruti (Veda) proclaims that there should be no discrimination, abuse and violence against locals (vaishyas -- brahmins, kshatriya, carpenters, shoemakers etc.) and non-locals (foreigners or sudra / Shudra). For example,
"O Agni...each fault done in a village or in forest, in society or mind, each sinful act that we have committed to Shudra or Vaishya or by preventing a religious act, even of that sin, you are the expiation..." Yajur Veda (Kanda 1, Prapathaka 8, Hymn i.8.3.d)
"Let us not anger thee with worship, Rudra, ill praise, Strong God! or mingled invocation.
Do thou with strengthening balms incite our heroes: I hear thee famed as best of all physicians." (Rig Veda: Book 2, Hymn 33.4)
"Give full protection, Friends of man, ye Waters, in peace and trouble, to our sons and grandsons.
For ye are our most motherly physicians, parents of all that standeth, all that moveth." (Rig Veda: Book 6, Hymn 50.7)
"I am a bard, my father is a physician, my mother's job is to grind the corn......" (Rig Veda: Book 9, Hymn 112.3)
"We will declare among the folk your ancient deeds heroic; yea, ye were Physicians bringing health.
You, you who must be lauded, will we bring for aid, so that this foe of ours, O Asvins, may believe." (Rig Veda: Book 10, Hymn 39.5)
"He who hath store of Herbs at hand like Kings amid a crowd of men,-
Physicianis that sage's name, fiend-slayer, chaser of disease." (Rig Veda: Book 10, Hymn 97.6)
"Happy be you (woman or wife) in future and prosper with your children here (in the house): be vigilant to rule your household in this home (i.e. exercise your authority as the main figure in your home).
Closely unite (be an active participant) in marriage with this man, your husband. So shall you, full of years (for a very long life), address your company (i.e. others in the house listen to you, and obey and care about what you have to say)." (Rig Veda: Book 10, Hymn 85.27)
"Physicians, temple priests, sellers of meat, and those who subsist by shop-keeping must be avoided at sacrifices offered to the gods and to the manes." (Manusmriti: 3/152)
"(Food) given to a seller of Soma becomes ordure, (that given) to a physician pus and blood, but (that presented) to a temple-priest is lost, and (that given) to a usurer finds no place (in the world of the gods)." (Manusmriti: 3/180)
"A brahmin should not eat the food given by a physician, a hunter, a cruel man, one who eats the fragments (of another's meal), nor the food of an Ugra, nor that prepared for a woman in childbed, nor that (given at a dinner) where (a guest rises) prematurely (and) sips water, nor that (given by a woman) whose ten days of impurity have not elapsed." (Manusmriti: 4/212)
"The food of a physician (is as vile as) pus, that of an unchaste woman (equal to) semen, that of a usurer (as vile as) ordure, and that of a dealer in weapons (as bad as) dirt." (Manusmriti: 4/220)
"By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house." (Manusmriti: 5/147)
"All those traditions (smriti) and those despicable systems of philosophy, which are not based on the Veda, produce no reward after death; for they are declared to be founded on Darkness." (Manusmriti: 12/95)
"All those (doctrines), differing from the (Veda), which spring up and (soon) perish, are worthless and false, because they are of modern date." (Manusmriti: 12/96)
+ "The Purva Mimamsa philosophy", http://www.oocities.com/lamberdar/purva_mimamsa.html
! The Vedas, unlike Manu-smriti, promote respect for all castes (vocations or varna) and espouse freedom in choosing one's own profession or vocation. Reference, "Hindu Caste System & Hinduism: Vedic vocations (Hindu castes) were not related to heredity (birth)", http://www.oocities.com/lamberdar/_caste.html
& Ayurveda deals with the study involving life sciences and system of medicine (including the medical profession and physicians) since the beginning of civilization. Related link: http://indianmedicine.nic.in/html/ayurveda/ayurveda.htm
(2) The Manusmriti, http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/manu/
(3) Sharma, Subhash C., "The Purva Mimamsa philosophy", http://www.oocities.com/lamberdar/purva_mimamsa.html
(4) Sharma, Subhash C., "Vedic vocations (Hindu castes) were not related to heredity (birth)", http://www.oocities.com/lamberdar/_caste.html
By: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
Date: May 29, 2004
link to: Related topics by the author