The Manava-Dharma-Sastra is an ancient code of “laws” attributed to “Manu.” There are numerous such “Dharma-Sastras” in Hindu literature, some older, some newer. H. P. Blavatsky suggests that along with the Vedas “the older laws of Manu” are among “the oldest documents now in our possession” (Isis Unveiled, 1:18). Elsewhere she says that “the books of the laws [Dharma-Sastras] of Manu belong to the Krita Yuga, those of Gautama to the Tretâ, those of Sankhya and Likhita to the Dvâpara and those of Parâśara to the Kali-yuga. . . .” (“Theosophy and Spiritism,” Bulletin Mensuel de la Société Scientifique d’Études Psychologiques, July 15, 1883). In other places Blavatsky argues that the older laws of Manu are ante-deluvian, i.e. they precede the “deluge” spoken of in the mythologies of east and west. The older portions of the text, especially portions of the first chapter, can be viewed as younger than the Vedas and the oldest Upanishads, but older than the Mahabharata and Puranas (see Isis Unveiled 2:427-428).
One thing is clear about the text itself: in its present form it represents a compilation, built up of much older and much later sections (see Isis Unveiled 1:585 etc.). The original text is said to have contained a total of 100,000 verses, but this is not the text we have available today, which is almost certainly a much later compilation by Brahman pandits, with alterations and additions reflecting later attitudes and social conventions. Blavatsky points out that though “it has been definitely shown that the Brahmans have embellished their laws of Manu in the post-Mahabharatean period” (“Misconceptions: A Response to Various Criticisms,” Le Lotus, September, 1887), and though the text is “mostly lost (to the Western world) in their original form, disfigured by later interpolations and additions, they have, nevertheless, preserved quite enough of their ancient Spirit to show its character” (SD 1:333 etc.).
Of primary interest to theosophists is the first chapter of the text, which deals with Cosmogenesis. Of it, Blavatsky remarks that “the cis-Himalayan esoteric philosophy . . . is that of the original Manu Cosmogony” (SD 2:574), and that “from verse 14 to 36 [of Manu], evolution is given in the order described in the Esoteric philosophy” (SD 1:333). Both in terms of the doctrine of spiritual evolution and the doctrine of cycles, Blavatsky confirms the similarity between Manu and the esoteric school of her teachers: “Such computations as are given in Manu and the Purânas—save trifling and most evidently intentional exaggerations—are, as already stated, almost identical with those taught in esoteric philosophy” (SD 2:67); “The day may come when the ‘Natural Selection,’ as taught by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer, will form only a part, in its ultimate modification, of our Eastern doctrine of Evolution, which will be Manu and Kapila esoterically explained” (SD 1:600). Because of these similarities, the first chapter of the Manava-Dharma-Sastra warrants close study by theosophical students.