Teaching Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources
with Discussions and Activities


The Laws of Manu: Primary Source Lesson

India’s most famous early legal code, The Laws of Manu were complied over the years between 200 - 400 C.E. While the position of women in early Vedic India had been good, these laws illustrate the efforts of the Brahmin elite to restrict women’s legal independence in this later period.

  • “Women must always be honored and respected by the father, brother, husband and brothers-in-law who desire their own welfare.”

  • “If the female members live in grief, the family is destroyed. If the female members are happy, the family flourishes in all directions.”

  • “Women shall receive one-quarter share of the inheritance of their parents. If a man has no sons, his daughter may inherit everything he had.”

  • “Brothers should give one-forth of their inheritance to their sisters for their sisters’ dowries.”

  • “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.”

  • “A father sins unless he marries his daughter off when she reaches puberty.”

  • “Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; they give themselves to the handsome as well as to the ugly just for the fact that he is a man.”

  • “A husband should be worshiped as a God.”

  • “Even in the home nothing should be done by a child, a young or even an old wife (woman) independently.”

  • “A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property. The wealth which they earn is acquired for him to whom they belong.”

  • “Women, shudra (or sudra, lowest of four castes), dog and crow embody untruth, sin and darkness.”

  • “Women must particularly be guarded against evil inclinations, however trifling they may appear to be; for, if they are not guarded, they will bring sorrow on both the families. Considering it the highest duty of all castes, even wealthy husbands must strive to guard their wives....lest the seed of others be sown on your soil.”

  • “It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world, for that reason the wise never remain unguarded in the company of female.”

  • “A woman should not go to a meeting place; and they should not dance like the young, but sit at their proper places.”

  • “This is the first law...A wife cannot be dismissed from the marriage by a slave, separation or abdication.”

    “A man can leave a barren woman after eight years and one who only gives birth to daughters.”

  • “A virtuous wife who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste, reaches heaven, though she have no son, just like those chaste men.”

  • “If a woman should happen to merely to overhear recitations of Vedic mantras by chance, hot molten glass should be poured into her ears.”

Discussion Activity
  • Find laws which:
    - show that women are held in some esteem.
    - provide money for a girl’s dowry.
    - indicate that a woman is not to have any independent activity without consultation or permission of the male members of the family.
    - support the practice of child marriage.
    - limit a woman’s religious education and participation in important rituals.

  • Did you find some contradictions in the Laws of Manu regarding the treatment of women? If so, where do you find this?

  • Is it possible to honor a wife while preventing her from participating with men as an equal?

  • What do these laws suggest a good wife should do in order to achieve power within her family?

  • Hypothesize on the far reaching implications of the law that states that “A father sins unless he marries his daughter off when she reaches puberty.” Make up some scenarios describing what her future life might be like.

  • Use the information in this section to create a dialog between a woman from the earlier Rig Veda period with one who lived according to the Laws of Manu. How does each describe her marriage?

  • To find out what aspects of these ancient laws might have an influence on the lives of women in India today, search the WEB for resources which present the views of women. Suggested sites: Indiatime Women; Women in India; Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society.

For a complete translation of the laws find: The Laws of Manu, Wendy Doniger and Brian Smith, translators, Penguin Books, 1991.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum