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Explain the notion of Dharma and how it relates to ‘Class’ (Varna) and ‘Stages of Life’ (Asrama)

The Laws of Manu is an influential text in Hinduism and, consequently, in Indian society. There is, however, disagreement about its relevance and importance. The present analysis will look specifically at the concepts of Dharma, Varna and Asrama, which are central to the Hindu religion, and discuss their relation to the Laws of Manu. It will also look at the controversy surrounding the Laws of Manu and discuss whether the text provides a theological justification for the Indian caste system.

Dharma has been described as the "code of duty, religious law and right human conduct which defines the path to virtue and spiritual fulfilment for all humankind" (Bayly, 1999, p. 14). It is a central concept in Indian religions, the largest of which is Hinduism. Dharma is traditionally seen as the right way of life, a moral guidance for each individual in Hindu society. It is connected to the belief in reincarnation and the ultimate goal of liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Those who live according to Dharma are believed to reach this liberated state of being, 'moksha', more quickly.   

Has the Laws of Manu been used as a theological justification for the caste system? Some theorists would say yes; they see the caste system as a social tradition rather than an essential part of Hinduism. Mahatma Gandhi has argued that the varnashrama of the Vedas "is based on absolute equality of status, notwithstanding passages to the contrary in the Smritis and elsewhere" (Gandhi, 1964, p. 56). He saw the caste system in direct opposition to the Vedic system of 'Class' (Varna) and wished to ignore the Manusmriti. Many anthropologists (see for example Kolenda, 1978) claim that the original concept of 'Class' was non-fixed; in ancient India the Varnas were merely descriptive, non-hereditary labels of occupational groups and it was possible for people to change their Varna identity. The caste system as we know it today developed over time. This supports the idea that the Laws of Manu and its notion of Dharma were given a central status within Hinduism for political reasons; what belonged to the Hindu scriptures of lesser importance (the Smritis) became known as 'law'. The Laws of Manu was a useful tool for those who wished to develop and maintain a rigid caste system in India.

In conclusion, the Laws of Manu is a book surrounded by debate and controversy but its influence is evident. Hindu tradition holds the ideas of 'Class' and 'Stages of Life' as Dharma, or 'law', sanctioned by the scriptures. These concepts, as outlined in the Laws of Manu, have become accepted as central to Hinduism. The controversy stems largely from the fact that the text contains detailed references to castes and prescribes a division of society to which each individual must adhere. One may argue that it represents the main connection between the Hindu religion and the Indian caste system. Given the current caste politics in India and the difficulty connected with the elimination of the caste system, it is likely that the Laws of Manu will remain central in the debate and its position in Hinduism will continue to be questioned.

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