The value of Menu’s Code, as a picture of the state of society, depends entirely on its having been written in ancient times, as it pretends. Before settling its date, it is necessary to endeavour to Age of the fix that of the Vedas, to which it so constantly refers. Vedas. From the manner in which it speaks of those sacred poems we may conclude that they had long existed in such a form as to render them of undisputed authority, and binding on the conscience of all Hindus. Most of the hymns composing the Vedas are in a language so rugged as to prove that they were written before that of the other sacred writings was completely formed; while some, though antiquated, are within the pale of the polished Shanscrit. There must, therefore, have been a considerable interval between the composition of the greater part, and the compilation of the whole. It is of the compilation alone that we can hope to ascertain the age. Sir William Jones attempts to fix the date of the composition of the Yajur Veda by counting the lives of forty sages, through whom its doctrines were transmitted, from the time of Parasara; whose epoch, again, is fixed by a
celestial observation: but his reasoning is not convincing. He supposes the Yajur Veda to have been written in 1580 before Christ. The completion of the compilation he fixes in the twelfth century before Christ; and all the other European writers who have examined the question, fix the age of the compiler, Vyasa, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries before Christ. The Hindus themselves unanimously declare him to have lived at least 3001 years before Christ.
The superior accuracy of the opinion held by the Europeans appears to be put out of all doubt by a passage discovered by Mr. Colebrooke. In every Veda there is a sort of astronomical treatise, the object of which is to explain the adjustment of the calendar, for the purpose of fixing the proper periods for the performance of religious duties. There can be little doubt that the last editor of those treatises would avail himself of the observations which were most relied on when he wrote, and would explain them by means of the computation of time most intelligible to his readers. Now the measure of time employed in those treatises is itself a proof of their antiquity, for it is a cycle of five years of lunar months, with awkward divisions, intercalations, and other corrections, which show it to contain the rudiments of the calendar which now, after successive corrections, is received by the Hindus throughout India; but the decisive argument is, that the place assigned to the solstitial points in the treatises (which is given in detail by Mr. Colebrooke) is that in which those points were situated in the fourteenth century before Christ644. Mr. Colebrooke’s interpretation of this passage has never, I believe, been called in question; and it would be difficult to find any grounds for suspecting the genuineness of the text itself. The ancient form of the calendar is beyond the invention
of a Hindu forger, and there could be no motive to coin a passage, fixing in the fourteenth century before Christ, a work which all Hindus assign to the thirty-first century of the same aera.
In an essay previously written645, Mr. Colebrooke had shown from another passage in the Vedas, that the correspondence of seasons with months, as there stated, indicated a position of the cardinal points similar to that which has just been mentioned; and, on that ground, he had fixed the compilation of the Vedas at the same period, which he afterwards ascertained by more direct proof.
From the age of the Vedas, thus fixed, we must endeavour to discover that of Menu’s Code. Sir William Jones646 examines the difference in the dialect of those two compositions; and from the time occupied by a corresponding change in the Latin language, he infers that the Code of Menu must have been written 300 years after the compilation of the Vedas. This reasoning is not satisfactory; because there is no ground for believing that all languages proceed at the same uniform rate in the progress of refinement. All that can be assumed is, that a considerable period must have elapsed between the epochs at which the ruder and more refined idioms were in use. The next ground for conjecturing the date of Menu’s Code rests on the difference between the law and manners there recorded, and those of modern times. This will be shown to be considerable; and from the proportion of the changes which will also be shown to have taken place before the invasion of Alexander we may infer that a long time had passed between the promulgation of the Code and the latter period. On a combination of these data, we may perhaps be allowed to fix the age
of the supposed Menu, very loosely, at some time about half way between Alexander (in the fourth century before Christ), and the Vedas (in the fourteenth).
This would make the author of the Code live about 900 years before Christ.
That the Code is very ancient is proved by the difference of religion and manners from those of present times, no less than by the obsolete style.
That these are not disguises assumed to conceal a modern forgery appears from the difficulty with which consistency could be kept up, especially when we have the means of checking it by the accounts of the Greeks, and from the absence of all motive for forgery, which, of itself, is perhaps conclusive.
A Bramin, forging a code, would make it support the system established in his time, unless he were a reformer, in which case he would introduce texts favourable to his new doctrines; but neither would pass over the most popular innovations in absolute silence, nor yet inculcate practices repugnant to modern notions.
Yet the religion of Menu is that of the Vedas. Rama, Crishna, and other favourite gods of more recent times, are not mentioned either with reverence or with disapprobation, nor are the controversies hinted at to which those and other new doctrines gave rise. There is no mention of regular orders, or of the self-immolation of widows. Bramins eat beef and flesh of all kinds, and intermarry with women of inferior casts, besides various other practices repulsive to modern Hindus, which are the less suspicious because they are minute.
These are all the grounds on which we can guess at the age of this Code. That of Menu himself is of no consequence, since his appearance is merely dramatic, like that of Crishna in the “Bhagwat Gita,” or of the speakers in
Plato’s or Cicero’s dialogues. No hint is given as to the real compiler, nor is there any clue to the date of the ancient commentator Culluca. From his endeavouring to gloss over and to explain away some doctrines of Menu, it is evident that opinion had already begun to change in his time; but as many commentators, and some of very ancient date647, speak of the rules of Menu as applicable to the good ages only, and not extending to their time, and as such a limitation never once occurs to Culluca, we must conclude that commentator, though a good deal later than the original author, to have lived long before the other jurists whose opinions have just been alluded to.
On a careful perusal of the Code, there appears nothing inconsistent with the age attributed to it. It may, perhaps, be said that the very formation of a code, especially in so methodical a manner, is unlike ancient times; and it is certain that a people must have subsisted for some time, and must have established laws and customs, before it could frame a code. But the Greeks, and other nations, whose history we know, formed codes at a comparatively earlier period of their national existence; and although the arrangement as well as the subjects of Menu’s Code show considerable civilisation, yet this is no proof of recent origin, more than rudeness is of antiquity. The Romans were more polished 2000 years ago than the Esquimaux are now, or perhaps may be 2000 years hence.
644. Asiatic Researches, vol. viii. p. 489.
645. Asiatic Researches, vol. vii. p. 283.
646. Preface to Menu, p. 6.
647. See note at the end of Sir W. Jones’s translation.
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage