What is the basic meaning of this quote, and why was it written?
Excerpt from "The Laws of Manu," the Rig Vedas, 100 B.C.E.-200 C.E.
74. A man who has business (abroad) may depart after securing a maintenance for his wife; for a wife, even though virtuous, may be corrupted if she be distressed by want of subsistence.
75. If (the husband) went on a journey after providing (for her), the wife shall subject herself to restraints in her daily life; but if he departed without providing (for her), she may subsist by blameless manual work.
76. If the husband went abroad for some sacred duty, (she) must wait for him eight years, if (he went) to (aquire) learning or fame six (years), if (he went) for pleasure three years.
77. For one year let a husband bear with a wife who hates him; but after (the lapse of) a year let him deprive her of her property and cease to cohabit with her.
78. She who shows disrespect to (a husband) who is addicted to (some evil) passion, is a drunkard, or diseased, shall be deserted for three months (and be) deprived of her ornaments and furniture.
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These particular quotations from the Book of Manu are complex. I think that a literal interpretation of the verses carries with it the idea that there is a strict hierarchy of men over women in the religious thought of Hinduism. It does not take much to reflect and understand this. There is a dominant force in all of these quotes that reflects women being secondary to men. Yet, I think that some further analysis is needed to not justify this read, but rather expand on it. While the quotes here do show women's freedom being curtailed, I think that such a reality applies to all people in the Book of Manu. As the lone survivor of the flood, and the recipient of Vishnu's help as the Matsya avatar, Manu codifies a way of living that locks everyone in stratified roles. Men were not allowed to do what they wished, as they were limited by their caste and their condition of being in the world. The caste in which they lived, into which they were born, was the caste in which they died. Such a reality reflects the fact that everyone, men and women, were denied freedom. Yet, one cannot stray from the fact that such a reading as rendered in the quotes above do tend to reflect a harsher condition of women.
I think that modern analysis and thought has shown that some of these ideas as reflected in the Book of Manu, a book written by humans and intended for humans, tend to go against some of the basic and most elemental fibers of Hindu thought. For example, these quotes have to be aligned with the fact that one of the strongest forces of divinity are female ones in the Hindu pantheon. For instance, the Goddesses Lakshmi or Parvati occupy powerful roles in Hindu thought. The same goes for the goddesses Durga and Kali. It seems inconceivable that a religion which stresses so much power in its female gods would be so vindictive to its women. Like other religions, the theory and the true fiber of the religion have been subject to human approval and some in the position of power, such as men, have used this to their advantage to consolidate control. This is not a reflection of the religion, as much as the people, particularly men, who fail to live up to it.
A great resource of this, and the way in which the modern setting forces one to reassess the codes in the Book of Manu or religion in general within a modern frame, is Deepa Mehta's film, "Water." If these quotes can be reconciled against a modern vision of them, this film will be an excellent source for you.
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