Conceptual Anarchy in Hinduism

“9.334. But to serve Brahmanas (who are) learned in the Vedas, householders, and famous (for virtue) is the highest duty of a Sudra, which leads to beatitude.” –Manu Smriti

“All your talk is of caste and creed

Is it even as natural as the spider and its web?

The four blessed Vedas, were they created by Brahma?

Is caste and creed worthwhile, ye elders of Paichalur?” -Uttiranallur Nagai


Hinduism is in a constant state of transformation through internal discourse and dissent. Image source.

(This post mostly consists of quotes from Manu Smriti and Medieval Hindu Bhakti poems, so if you want to skip my spiel just hit the “read more” link at the bottom.)

People in the west tend to have an odd outlook on the ethics or “doctrines” of Hinduism. In most religions, doctrine works something like this: There is a core text, or set of texts, which contain precepts. Early in the religion’s history some sages write commentaries on these. The rest of the reasoning and doctrine formation of the religion continues by referring to these sources for legitimacy. Innovations occur, but normally only if it can somehow be “textually justified.”

Certainly there is a part of the Hindu religion, which operates very similarly to this—the religion of the Brahmins. But Hinduism cannot be thought of as just that. It is the religion of all Indians, except perhaps those who explicitly decry the label, like the Buddhists, Jainsm and Sikhs (and even those divisions are sometimes blurry. Even some sects of Islam are pretty heavily syncretized.)

Hindus of course have texts. Innumerable texts. Too many texts perhaps. There are the Vedas, the Upanishads the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas, and their commentaries. But there is also the Ramayana the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas and the Tantras and their commentaries. Endless reams of Shastras, Samhitas, Agamas, and their commentaries. Commentaries on the commentaries. And for those without as consistent access to liturgical writing, there are poems, songs, oral traditions, folk dramas, local variations of the epics, writings of gurus, aphorisms of sadhus, all issuing forth philosophical deductions and speculations, none of which are necessarily consistent with one another, and all in an open competition for what the Abrahamist might call “canonical status.”


This isn’t even a remotely comprehensive chart. Image source.

The result is that to westerners and other Abrahamists, Hinduism (when examined in more depth than a public school textbook) doesn’t really look very much like a religion. Not in the way they are used to. To them, it more resembles a very large school of philosophy insofar as it works with a shared basket of concepts, theories, ideas, and texts, but different subsections accept or reject different parts of them, and applies them in different ways often without “Vedic sanction”.

I think there is an interesting way to illustrate this. Lets compare two highly contrasting viewpoints within the tradition on three related subjects: Female independence, caste rigidity, and respect for Brahmins and the Vedas. First will be a set of quotes from Manu Smriti, the most well respected Brahminical legal authority, which was subsequently incorporated by the British into Anglo-Hindu law. Following that will be Bhakti (devotional) poems written in medieval India, by a highly “progressive,” community of poets and songwriters, the slight majority of whom were Sudras (the lowest, laboring and artisanal caste category) or Pariahs (outcastes, untouchables,) at least according to British census categories (the intricacies of British era caste categories are too complex to delve into here.) Obviously, as we will see, the idea of using the term “cafeteria Hindu” would be nonsensical, since adherence to any specific doctrine is not a criterion for membership in the community as a whole.

Any [bracketed text] is my interpolated explanation


Female Independence:

“5.147. By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.

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

5.150. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure.

5.151. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory).

5.154. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.”–Manu Smriti


Now onto the Medieval poets:

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga [Shiva worshipped in the form of a black stone] became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna [Shiva] is my husband,O Prabhu [Lord],

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” –Akka Mahadevi [1]

Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi in meditation. This is a characteristic portrayal of her. Image source.

This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband. This poet was more than just talk. Akka Mahadevi refused to marry anyone, including a powerful monarch. She also refused to wear clothing on the basis that she was already wrapped in Shiva’s light.


“A true wife is she who is aware of her own self

Being married she has to fulfill her family duties:

But she must have the craving for spiritual salvation too.

It is possible that the husband,

children and others may not approve.

But she must not give up her true path.” Bahinabai [2]


Caste rigidity:

As a preliminary note, you should know that scholars are very divided on how much Manu Smriti actually reflects ancient Indian social organizations. It is replete with “exceptional cases,” which may in fact have been the norm. I think of it more a a Brahminical utopian (or dystopian) constitution which only had limited application in reality, in concordance with how powerful or weak the Brahmins and their allies were in any given region or point in time. Anyway, onwards:

“1.91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.

2.31. Let (the first part of) a Brahmana’s name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya’s be connected with power, and a Vaisya’s with wealth, but a Sudra’s (express something) contemptible.

3.13. It is declared that a Sudra woman alone (can be) the wife of a Sudra, she and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Vaisya, those two and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Kshatriya, those three and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Brahmana.

4.80. Let him not give to a Sudra advice, nor the remnants (of his meal), nor food offered to the gods; nor let him explain the sacred law (to such a man), nor impose (upon him) a penance.

4.81. For he who explains the sacred law (to a Sudra) or dictates to him a penance, will sink together with that (man) into the hell (called) Asamvrita.

12.43. Elephants, horses, Sudras, and despicable barbarians, lions, tigers, and boars (are) the middling states, caused by (the quality of) Darkness.” -Manu Smriti


And the Medieval Bhakti poets:

“There are no castes but two if you want to tell me

The good men who help the poor in distress

The other, that will not so help

These are the low born” –Auvaiyar[3]


“In my harlot’s trade

Having taken one man’s money

I daren’t accept a second man’s sir.

And if I do,

They’ll stand me naked and

kill me sir.

And if I cohabit

with the polluted,

My hands nose ears

they’ll cut off

with a red-hot knife, sir,

Ah, never, no

Knowing you I will not.

My word on it,

Libertine Shiva” –Sule Sankavva [4]

The above might need a little explanation. The poem is coy and ironic. The author is a prostitute (and therefore a Sudra), but a very high class one. She works in a temple as a dancer/musician as a Devadasi. She is treating Shiva as a potential buyer of her services, who she coyly and sarcastically rejects because society would punish her for being with someone so libertine and “polluted.”


Respect for Brahmins and Vedas:

“9.334. But to serve Brahmanas (who are) learned in the Vedas, householders, and famous (for virtue) is the highest duty of a Sudra, which leads to beatitude.

11.56. Forgetting the Veda, reviling the Vedas, giving false evidence, slaying a friend, eating forbidden food, or (swallowing substances) unfit for food, are six (offences) equal to drinking Sura [extremely strong alcohol].

12.31. The study of the Vedas, austerity, (the pursuit of) knowledge, purity, control over the organs, the performance of meritorious acts and meditation on the Soul, (are) the marks of the quality of Goodness.

12.48. Hermits, ascetics, Brahmanas, the crowds of the Vaimanika deities, the lunar mansions, and the Daityas (form) the first (and lowest rank of the) existences caused by Goodness.

12.49. Sacrificers, the sages, the gods, the Vedas, the heavenly lights, the years, the manes, and the Sadhyas (constitute) the second order of existences, caused by Goodness.

12.50. The sages declare Brahma, the creators of the universe, the law, the Great One, and the Undiscernible One (to constitute) the highest order of beings produced by Goodness.” -Manu Smriti

A modern image of Manu Smriti, with Manu on the cover. The spitting image of Brahminical conservatism. Image source.

A modern copy of Manu Smriti, with Manu on the cover. The spitting image of Brahminical conservatism. Image source.


The following poet was actually an untouchable who explicitly violated Manu’s laws, learned the Vedas from a Brahmin boy, and married him:

“I have seen the tuft on cock, the tattoo on hen

So have I seen the fire on water

Citing your satkula [good lineage], speak not to me of four Vedas

Use your discretion to see truth, ye elders of Paichalur.

Village Brahmins gather, build a high wall [the sacrificial altar]

Dip in the river and pour clarified butter on fire

Like frogs in the rains, they croak the Vedas

Have they gained salvation, ye elders of Paichalur?” -Uttiranallur Nagai [5]


“All your talk is of caste and creed

Is it even as natural as the spider and its web?

The four blessed Vedas, were they created by Brahma?

Is caste and creed worthwhile, ye elders of Paichalur?

One palm tree, from it hangs nongu [fruit] and toddy [alcoholic sap]

For the knower of truth no one is different from the other

Will one then be superior and the other inferior

Why then blame the paraya [outcaste], ye elders of Paichalur?

The smells of neem and sandalwood are distinct when they burn

But indistinguishable is the smell of the burning Brahmin.

Does fire smell different if an unkempt Pulaya [low caste person] burns?

Does the burning stuff and flame differ, ye elders of Paichalur?” –Uttiranallur Nagai[6]



Keep in mind, the latter group is not so heterodox as to be considered a separate community, like the Buddhists or Jains. They are definitively Hindu, and even are respected in most orthodox circles. Temples and statues are erected to them. Nor is the trend represented by the medieval poets fringe, or inconsequential to the history of Hinduism. It was thanks to them that at the popular level, Shaivite Hinduism overtook and all but displaced Jainism in South India. They also laid the intellectual groundwork for major colonial era reformers like Tarabai Shinde and the Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule.

If you are interested in these poets, I have some more of their verses and some more discussion of them on my website.

That’s all.


[1] Ramaswamy, Vijaya. “Rebels — Conformists? Women Saints in Medieval South India.” Anthropos, Bd. 87, H. 1./3. (1992), p. 140.

[2] Bhagwat, Vidyut. “Marathi Literature as a Source for Contemporary Feminism,”Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 17 (Apr. 29, 1995), pp. 26

[3] Ramaswamy, 144.

[4] Sarang, Vilas. Janabai (ca. 1298-1350). Indian Literature, Vol. 36, No. 5 (157), Accent of Women’s Writing. p. 73-74

[5] Ramaswamy, 143.

[6] ibid, 144.

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