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Is Sangh looking to add an epilogue to Manusmriti?

Dr Bali theorises that Manusmirti isn’t the work of Manu but a work in his memory. He accepts as much the possibility of changes being incorporated over time in the original text.

opinion Updated: May 26, 2017 22:32 IST
Vinod Sharma
Former ABVP members who left the RSS’ student outfit citing differences over its handling of the JNU row, burn a copy of the Manusmriti, in New Delhi.
Former ABVP members who left the RSS’ student outfit citing differences over its handling of the JNU row, burn a copy of the Manusmriti, in New Delhi.(HT File Photo)

From rewriting history, the Sangh Parivar could graduate to rewriting ancient texts. A key official of one of its affiliate bodies recently underscored the need to redo Manusmirti to rid it of anti-women, anti-Dalit passages cited in liberal critiques of Hindu scriptures.

The Sanskar Bharti functionary, Amir Chand, was quoted at length by a contemporary daily under the caption: ‘RSS outfit wants Manusmriti reworked.’ He has since gone incommunicado. But those privy to his thinking maintain the idea plausibly could be promoted through ideologically friendly scholars and litterateurs--- to avoid controversy attendant to any direct involvement of the Sangh or its sister organization.

Little surprise then that Sanskar Bharti president Vasudeo Kamath flatly denied the proposal attributed to Chand, not to talk of prospects of escalating it to the culture ministry. For his part, Chand’s inspiration comes from a 2015 book authored by Dr Suryakant Bali, a pro-RSS journalist elevated, amid controversy, as national research professor during Smriti Irani’s tenure as HRD minister.

Read more | Students, ABVP members burn Manusmriti despite JNU denying nod

His book, Bharat Gaatha, spans “from Manu to Mahabharata.” But the “research-based’ work lacks the mandatory footnotes or catalogue of sources he relied upon. Even the title of the chapter on Manu isn’t scholarly by any standard: Manu ko jano gey to dewaney ho jaogey.

Dr Bali theorises that Manusmirti isn’t the work of Manu but a work in his memory. He accepts as much the possibility of changes being incorporated over time in the original text. Regardless of that, he disagrees with the idea to alter, redo or edit the ancient text. His averments against such alterations were broadly--- not exactly--- similar to those proffered by scholars with unaligned view on the subject: poet-writer Ashok Vajpeyi; writer-academic Purushottam Agrawal; Dalit scholar Chandrabhan Prasad.

Prasad saw in the effort a proximate RSS bid to reaffirm faith in the text BR Ambedkar “cremated on a pyre” way back in 1927. Writing later for his newspaper, Bahishkrit Bharat, Babasaheb justified his action. He found Manusmriti antithetical to social equality. In his view, no person who revered the text could be genuinely interested in the “welfare of untouchables.”

For Dr Agrawal the very thought of redoing texts reflective of their times was anti-history: “Human consciousness has evolved over centuries, to measure which we need to know the starting point. Any convenient or politically expedient rewriting of scriptures would violate the narrative of society’s evolution to modernity.”

The debate over Manusmriti prescriptions, original or interpolated, isn’t new. The 19th century Vedic scholar and founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand too had rejected “interpolations” advocating discrimination based on alleged inferior status of people. Identifying such passages as being out of synch with the Vedas, he surmised: the text as it exited in our times wasn’t the way it was originally scripted.

Read more | What is wrong in burning Manusmriti: JNU students ask university

There’s also a school of thought that believes the social hierarchy Manu envisaged was merit based, not birth related. Be that as it may, Vajpeyi’s advice to protagonists of text-alteration was simple: urge the government and the society at large to reject unacceptable passages believed to be interpolated. He wondered whether those talking of altering the ancient text had the locus or the scholarship to attempt an afterword.

Vajpeyi and Agrawal pointed out that “critical” editions of Mahabharata and Balmiki Ramayana carried the stamp of reputed entities such as Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and the Oriental Institute of Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao University. The Mahabharata epilogue that discusses the epic’s message, entailed five decades of work. Likewise, the Ramayana project lasted twenty-five years.

The Mahabharata initiative’s first general editor was V S Sukhtankar, eminent Indologist and Sanskrit scholar. After his death, Dr S K Belvalkar led the team that studied over 1200 manuscripts.

The message then is obvious for the likes of Chand and his peers in the Sangh. Only an autonomous authority with credible scholarship can, if at all, attempt a postlude to Manusmriti. And that’s pretty different from rewriting or editing the text.