Eighteenth-century philologists Sir William Jones and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel assigned Manusmriti to the period of around 1250 BCE and 1000 BCE respectively, which from later linguistic developments is untenable due to the language of the text which must be dated later than the late Vedic texts such as the Upanishads which are themselves dated a few centuries ago around 500BC.
The metrical text is in Sanskrit, is variously dated to be from the 2nd century BCE to 3rd century CE, and it presents itself as a discourse given by Manu (Svayambhuva) and Bhrigu on dharma topics such as duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and others.
The text's fame spread outside India, long before the colonial era.
Simultaneously, states Olivelle, the text presupposes numerous practices such a marriages outside varna, such as between a Brahmin man and a Shudra woman in verses 9.149-9.157, a widow getting pregnant with a child of a man she is not married to in verses 9.57-9.62, marriage where a woman in love elopes with her man, and then grants legal rights in these cases such as property inheritance rights in verses 9.143-9.157, and the legal rights of the children so born.
The text also presumes that a married woman may get pregnant by a man other than her husband, and dedicates verses 8.31-8.56 to conclude that the child's custody belongs to the woman and her legal husband, and not to the man she got pregnant with.
Personal behaviors covered by the text are extensive.
For example, verses 2.51-2.56, recommend that a monk must go on his begging round, collect almsfood and present it to his teacher first, then eat.In other discovered manuscripts of Manusmriti, including the most translated Calcutta manuscript, the text declares in verse 4.204 that the ethical precepts under Yamas such as Ahimsa (non-violence) are paramount while Niyamas such as Ishvarapranidhana (contemplation of personal god) are minor, and those who do not practice the Yamas but obey the Niyamas alone become an outcast.This is similar to, states Olivelle, the modern contrast between informal moral concerns to birth out of wedlock in the developed nations, along with simultaneous legal protection for children who are born out of wedlock.This section of Manusmriti, like other Hindu law texts, includes fourfold sources of Dharma, states Levinson, which include Atmana santushti (satisfaction of one's conscience), Sadachara (local norms of virtuous individuals), Smriti and Sruti.This section is in a different style than the rest of the text, raising questions whether this entire chapter was added later.Most of these ancient texts are now lost, and only four of have survived: the law codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasishtha.