The Vedas use the words ‘manu’ and ‘pashu’ to describe human beings and animals respectively.The word ‘manu’ derives from the Sanskrit verbal root ‘man’ meaning ‘to think’; man, therefore is the thinking being, the one endowed with an intellect, the ability to make a choice in every decision he takes. He therefore has to take responsibility for the outcome of whatever deed he performs (the law of karma). Standing juxtaposed to ‘manu’ is ‘pashu’, meaning that which is bound by instinct. A salmon born in the fresh waters far upstream in ariver, will swim leagues exploring the depths of the ocean and finally return to the very spot it was born to spawn and die. A weaver bird, reared in a golden cage in a palace will, when released, return to the tree and weave a nest like any other weaver bird would. It has no choice. These are the inexplicable miracles of nature. Science explains it as ‘instinct’. Could instinct mean we do not know really why and how these things happen innature?

A human baby, on the other hand, if left among dogs will grow up barking and behaving as any canine would. A child left among monkeys, will grow to become a Tarzan, yelling and swaying from tree to tree and, at best, become the king of the beasts. A human has to belong to a society, to live a structured life, to be educated and have family and society, without which culture and civilization become meaningless and non-existent. We may then argue that society sometimes creates customs and laws that leave us with little to be proud of and even stifle the human spirit. Well, we have no choice but to belong to a community because we are ‘social animals’, and it therefore becomes imperative for every individual to ensure that society remains just and equitable at all times. The annals of history amply reflect the relentless pursuit of the human race to fight injustices, and this will continue to remain a pursuit regardless of how relative we may consider the notion of a just society to be.

The fact remains that we cannot live by instinct alone, because we may have by divine intervention, as religions claim, or by cultivating ourselves through our civilizations and culture, evolved beyond an existence grounded in instinct. We may say that animals also think. A pack of lions not only think but even strategize on how to make a kill, but the act of killing to survive is instinct; the lion cannot choose, for example to become vegetarian. But unlike an animal that eats of a cabbage patch and cannot be sued for it, a man would be found guilty of theft for the same deed.It has to be so because man acts by virtue of taking a conscious decision and choosing to do what he does; he knows right from wrong and therefore must be responsible for his every deed.

Even when we breathe, an act we all consider instinctive, we know that breathing correctly can be consciously achieved to promote our quality of life.

We have then set ourselves apart from the animal kingdom by virtue of our being able to think and act accordingly. The word ‘man’ is used in most Indo-European languages to denote the human species as beings endowed with the capacity to think; it has however lost its original meaning and now carries a male patriarchal baggage.


The Manusmriti is a manual on human conduct, morals and ethics which prescribes a ‘dhārmik’ or righteous way of life. The deeds we perform are therefore our karma which we perform according to our dharma, our knowledge of knowing right from wrong and acting accordingly. The laws of karma dictate that for every deed, good or bad, there is a consequence which we have to be mindful of because these deeds cumulatively determine our nature and character.

What, then, should be our character? As stated earlier, unlike animals, we have a mind which we use consciously in deciding whether we perform good or bad deeds. A study of the derivation of the word ‘human’ would be very appropriate, since we are humans and an etymological understanding of the word itself would best define who and what we are. The word ‘Hindu’ derives from ‘Sindhu’ where the initial letter ‘s’ changes or evolves to an ‘h’. ‘Hindu’ then becomes ‘Indo’ and ‘Indian’ where the initial ‘h’ is dropped. This is a well-known linguistic pattern which explains the existence of parallel or similar words in other languages. By this rule the Sanskrit ‘suman’ becomes ‘human’. ‘Su’ meaning ‘good’ or ‘kind’ is prefixed to ‘man’. For example, ‘sukarma’ means ‘good deeds’ and ‘sudharma’ means‘ good dharma’. ‘Suman’ thus means one who possesses a good (su) mind (man). This makes it axiomatic that a human be endowed with the virtues of compassion, kindness and a sense of charity. ‘Suman’, by its very derivation, exhorts us to live by the virtues the word embodies. It is this humanity and compassion that are synonymous with being human.