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But Sir William Jones was even more of a jurist than a scholar, and nothing seems to have surprised and interested him more than the assurance of his teachers that, in the ancient language he was learning, there survived legal writings asserted to be of sacred origin, of vast antiquity, and of universal obligation among Hindus.The oldest of them was said to have been dictated by Manu, a divine being who had been mysteriously associated with the creation of all things; and it was described as the acknowledged basis of all Hindu law and Hindu institutions, the fountain of all civil obligation to more than a hundred millions of men.
In his first four chapters he attempts, with the help of the invaluable series of ‘Sacred Books of the East,’ translated under the superintendence of Professor Max Müller, to throw some light on that close implication of early law with ancient religion which meets the inquirer on the threshold of the legal systems of several societies which have contributed greatly to modern civilisation.
In the chapters which follow, he treats of another influence which has acted strongly on early law, the authority of the King.
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Sir William Jones compares him to the Cretan Minos and the Egyptian Men, partly on account of the consonance of names.
As I have just stated, he sees an analogy in this law-book to the Institutes of the Roman Justinian, but he assigns to it the prodigious date of 1,280 years before Christ.The correspondence of Sir William Jones repeatedly expresses his suspicions (perhaps not always quite just) of the fidelity and honesty of the native advisers of the tribunals.‘I can no longer bear,’ he writes in September 1785, ‘to be at the mercy of our Pundits, who deal out Hindu law as they please, and make it at reasonable rates when they cannot find it ready-made.’ He therefore formed a determination to acquaint himself personally with the sources of the law from which they pretended to draw their opinions.The Author continues in these pages the line of investigation which he has followed in former works.He endeavours to connect a portion of existing institutions with a part of the primitive or very ancient usages of mankind, and of the ideas associated with these usages.The book was actually extant, and the translation of it which he gave to the world, with the title ‘Institutes of Hindu Law, or the Ordinances of Menu, according to the Gloss of Cullúca,’ was the first-fruits of his labours on the Digest which he had planned.He seems, in fact, to have regarded it as standing to this projected Digest much in the same relation as the Roman Institutes to the celebrated Digest of the Emperor Justinian.In the light of newer knowledge, which nevertheless might not have existed but for Jones, we can see that these statements of his require correction.There is no doubt that, if Manu is to be compared to a book known to Englishmen, it should have been to a book a good deal more familiar to them than the Roman Institutes, the book of Leviticus.It does not seem to me possible to doubt that the account which Sir William Jones gave of the Book of Manu in his Preface to his translation was a rationalised version of the statements made to him by his native teachers, who seem all to have belonged to one particular school of Hindu learning, accustomed to hold Manu in especial honour.Sir William Jones considered this personage, who, in the treatise called after him, sits ‘reclining on his arm, with his attention fixed on one object, the supreme God,’ as a real individual human being, and the personal author of the legislation attributed to him.