The Laws of Manu is one of the most exemplary texts of ideology in the entire history of humanity. The first reason is that while its ideology encompasses the entire universe, inclusive of its mythic origins, it focuses on everyday practices as the immediate materiality of ideology: how (what, where, with whom, when…) we eat, defecate, have sex, walk, enter a building, work, make war, etc.
The second reason is that the book stages a radical shift with regard to its starting point (presupposition): the ancient code of Veda. What we find in Veda is the brutal cosmology based on killing and eating: higher things kill and eat/consume lower ones, stronger eat weaker, i.e., life is a zero-sum game where one’s victory is another’s defeat.
The “great chain of being” appears here as founded in the “food chain,” the great chain of eating: gods eat mortal humans, humans eat mammals, mammals eat lesser animals who eat plants, plants “eat” water and earth… such is the eternal cycle of being. So why does then Veda claim that at the top of society are not warriors-kings stronger than all other humans, “eating” them all, but the caste of priests? Here, the ideological ingenuity of Veda enters the stage: the function of the priests is to prevent the first, highest, level of cosmic eating: the eating of human mortals by gods.
How? By way of performing sacrificial rituals. Gods must be appeased, their hunger for blood must be satisfied, and the trick of the priests is to offer gods a substitute (symbolic) sacrifice: an animal or other prescribed food instead of human life. The sacrifice is needed not for any special favours from gods, but to make it sure that the wheel of life goes on turning.
Priests perform a function which concerns the balance of the entire universe: if gods remain hungry, the whole cycle of cosmic life is disturbed. From the very beginning, the “holistic” notion of the great chain of Being—whose reality is the brutal chain of stronger eating weaker—is thus based on deception: it is not a “natural” chain, but a chain based on an exception (humans who don’t want to be eaten), i.e., sacrifices are substitute insertions aimed at restoring the complete life cycle.
This was the first contract between ideologists (priests) and those in power (warriors-kings): the kings, who retain actual power (over life and death of other people) will recognize the formal superiority of the priests as the highest caste, and, in exchange for this appearance of superiority, the priests will legitimize the power of the warriors-kings as part of the natural cosmic order. Then, however, around the sixth and fifth century BCE, something took place, a radical “revaluation of all values” in the guise of the universalist backlash against this cosmic food chain: the ascetic rejection of this entire infernal machine of life reproducing itself through sacrifice and eating.
The circle of food chain is now perceived as the circle of eternal suffering, and the only way to achieve piece is to exempt oneself from it. (With regard to food, this, of course, means vegetarianism: not eating killed animals.) From perpetuating time, we pass to the goal of entering the timeless Void. With this reversal from the life-affirming stance to the world-renunciation, comparable to the Christian reversal of the pagan universe, the highest values are no longer strength and fertility, but compassion, humility, and love.
The very meaning of sacrifice changes with this reversal: we no longer sacrifice so that the infernal life-cycle goes on, but to get rid of the guilt for participating in this cycle.
What are the socio-political consequences of this reversal? How can we avoid the conclusion that the entire social hierarchy, grounded in the “great food chain” of eaters and those being eaten, should be suspended? It is here that the genius of The Laws of Manu shines: its basic ideological operation is to unite the hierarchy of castes and the ascetic world-renunciation by way of making the purity itself the criterion of one’s place in the caste hierarchy. As Wendy Doniger says in her introduction to this text,
“Vegetarianism was put forward as the only way to liberate oneself from the bonds of natural violence that adversely affected one’s karma. A concomitant of this new dietary practice was a social hierarchy governed to a large extent by the relative realization of the ideal of non-violence. The rank order of the social classes did not change. But the rationale for the ranking did.”
Vegetarian priests are at the top, as close as humanly possible to purity; they are followed by the warriors-kings who reality by dominating it and killing life — they are in a way the negative of the priests, i.e., they entertain towards the wheel of Life the same negative attitude like the priests, albeit in the aggressive/intervening mode. Then come the producers who provide food and other material conditions for life, and, finally, at the bottom, the outcasts whose main task is to deal with all kinds of excrements, the putrefying dead remainders of life (from cleaning the toilets to butchering animals and disposing of human bodies).
Since the two attitudes are ultimately incompatible, the task of their unification is an impossible one and can be achieved only by a complex panoply of tricks, displacements and compromises whose basic formula is that of universality with exceptions: ‘in principle yes, but…’ The Laws of Manu demonstrates a breath-taking ingenuity in accomplishing this task, with examples often coming dangerously close to the ridiculous.
For example, priests should study the Veda, not trade; in extremity, however, a priest can engage in trade, but he is not allowed to trade in certain things like sesame seed; if he does it, he can only do it in certain circumstances; finally, if he does it in the wrong circumstances, he will be reborn as a worm in dogshit…
In other words, the great lesson of The Laws of Manu is that the true regulating power of the law does not reside in its direct prohibitions, in the division of our acts into permitted and prohibited, but in regulating the very violations of prohibitions: the law silently accepts that the basic prohibitions are violated (or even discreetly solicits us to violate them), and then, once we find ourselves in this position of guilt, it tells us how to reconcile the violation with the law by way of violating the prohibition in a regulated way…
British colonial administration of India elevated The Laws of Manu into a privileged text to be used as a reference for establishing the legal code which would render possible the most efficient domination of India – up to a point, one can even say that The Laws of Manu only became the book of the Hindu tradition retroactively, chosen to stand for the tradition by the colonizers among a vast choice (the same as its obscene obverse, “tantra,” which was also systematized into a coherent dark, violent and dangerous cult by the British colonizers) – in all these cases, we are dealing with what Eric Hobsbawm called “invented traditions.”
What this also implies is that the persistence of the phenomenon and social practice of the Untouchables is not simply a remainder of tradition: their number grew throughout the nineteenth century, with the spreading of cities which lacked proper canalization, so that the outcasts were needed to deal with dirt and excrements. At a more general level, one should thus reject the idea that globalization threatens local traditions, that it flattens differences: sometimes it threatens them, more often it keeps them alive, or resuscitates them by way of adapting them to new conditions – say, like the British and Spanish re-invented slavery.
With the formal prohibition of the discrimination of the Untouchables, their exclusion changed status and became the obscene supplement of the official/public order: publicly disavowed, it continues its subterranean existence. However, this subterranean existence is nonetheless formal (it concerns the subject’s symbolic title/status), which is why it does not follow the same logic as the well-known classic Marxist opposition of formal equality and actual inequality in the capitalist system: here, it is the inequality (the persistence of the hierarchic caste system) which is formal, while in their actual economic and legal life, individuals are in a way equal (a dalit today can also become rich, etc.).
The status of the caste hierarchy is here not the same as that of nobility in a bourgeois society, which is effectively irrelevant, just a feature which may add to the subject’s public glamour.
Exemplary is here the conflict between B.R. Ambedkar and Gandhi during the 1930s: although Gandhi was the first Hindu politician to advocate the full integration of the Untouchables, and called them “the children of god,” he perceived their exclusion as the result of the corruption of the original Hindu system. What Gandhi envisaged was rather the (formally) non-hierarchical order of castes within which each individual has his/her own allotted place: he emphasized the importance of scavenging and celebrated the Untouchables for performing this “sacred” mission.
It is here that the Untouchables are exposed to the greatest ideological temptation: in a way which prefigures today’s “identity politics,” Gandhi is allowing them to “fall in love with themselves” in their humiliating identity, to accept their degrading work as a noble necessary social task, to perceive even the degrading nature of their work as a sign of their sacrifice, of their readiness to do the dirty job for society. Even his more “radical” injunction that everyone, Brahmin included, should clean his or her own shit, obfuscates the true issue, which is not that of our individual attitude, but of a global social nature.
(The same ideological trick is performed today by injunctions which bombard us from all sides to recycle personal waste, to put bottles, newspapers, etc., in the appropriate separate bins… in this way, guilt and responsibility are personalized, it is not the entire organization of economy which is to blame, but our subjective attitude which should be changed.)
The task is not to change our inner selves, but to abolish Untouchability as such, i.e., not as an element of the system, but the system itself which generates it. In contrast to Gandhi, Ambedkar saw this clearly when he, as Christophe Jaffrelot says, “underlined the futility of merely abolishing Untouchability: this evil being the product of a social hierarchy of a particular kind, it was the entire caste system that had to be eradicated: ‘There will be out castes /Untouchables/ as long as there are castes.’ … Gandhi responded that, on the contrary, here it was a question of the foundation of Hinduism, a civilization which, in its original form, in fact ignored hierarchy.”
In 1927, Ambedkar symbolically burnt a copy of the Manusmriti; Gandhi always held in his hand a copy of the Bhagvad Gita—a text that extolled the varna order in its originary four-fold form. Ambedkar mounted a severe critique of the Gita for being a counter-revolutionary defence of the caste order.
The Gandhi-Ambedkar difference here is insurmountable: it is the difference between the “organic” solution (solving the problem by way of returning to the purity of the original non-corrupted system) and the truly radical solution (identifying the problem as the “symptom” of the entire system, the symptom which can only be resolved by way of abolishing the entire system).
Ambedkar saw clearly how the structure of four castes, or the varna system, does not unite four elements which belong to the same order: while the first three castes (priests, warrior-kings, merchants-producers) form a consistent All, an organic triad, the Shudras (slaves) and Untouchables (outside the four-fold system) are like Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production” the “part of no part,” the inconsistent element which holds within the system the place of what the system as such excludes — and as such, the Untouchables stand for universality.
Or, as Ambedkar’s put it in his ingenious wordplay: “There will be outcasts as long as there are castes.” As long as there are castes, there will be an excessive excremental zero-value element which, while formally part of the system, has no proper place within it. Gandhi obfuscates this paradox, as if harmonious structure is possible.
(Slavoj Žižek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. His most recent book is Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. The article was first published in The Outlook)