Summary: (Read conclusion below for a summarised compact understanding, since answer is long.)
Upapātaka doesn’t mean minor sin but general sin. There’s no hierarchy of sins per say except the 5 major ones and killing of women (or anyone) is in no way inferior. There is no differentiation between the killing of Men and women both have been accorded an equal status but yet an exception has been made in the case of fertile women. The killing of a fertile woman is categorised as the gravest of grave i.e. Mahāpātaka. Read on (mainly point 1 and 2) to find out the logic and description by our beautifully drafted Dharmaśāstras.
Firstly let us understand that the killing of a woman has always been considered among the gravest of sins with special emphasis laid on the fact of them being women, irrespective of caste. This can be evidenced from the following words by Bharata while preventing Shatrughna from harming Mantharā in the Rāmāyaṇa:
Seeing that enraged Shatrughna, Bharata said: "Among all beings women are not to be killed. Hence she is to be pardoned." VR 2.78.21
1. Reason for Deriding the Killing of Women?
The Vasiṣṭha Dharmaśāstra 20.36 while explaining the concept of Ātreyī (discussed below) gives us a hint for this special treatment towards women:
'For if (the husband) approaches her at that (time), he will have offspring.'
Elaborating based on the above verse- Among the two genders, the one which which is capable of creating and sustaining new life form in her own body (child bearing) and thereby facilitating other souls to take birth, bear fruits of karma and realise self/ God (the basic purpose of life) is a woman. If one kills a woman, it’s like saying one potential body through which a soul could find its way on earth has been destroyed.
On the other hand, a man’s job relating to the reproduction aspect (not talking about taking care of his wife etc) is restricted to providing his seed (procreation only) and unlike a woman who sustains for 9 months, a man is required only at the time of conception. A seed may thus be obtained from any respectable man, the practice of Niyoga somewhat alluding to this fact.
Even Manu 9.96 acknowledges the said difference between roles of man and woman:
Women were created for the purpose of child-bearing, and men for the purpose of procreation. hence it is that Religious Rites have been ordained in the Veda as common between the man and his wife.
However it is pertinent to note that only a woman who is in her prime is able gestate a new life in her womb.
Explaining the concept of Ātreyī
Since only a woman in prime is able to create a new life form, the special treatment is awarded to her. Such a woman is called an Ātreyī. The Vasiṣṭha Dharmaśāstra 20.35-36 says:
They declare that she who has bathed after temporary uncleanness is an Ātreyī. 'For if (the husband) approaches her at that (time), he will have offspring.'
Other Dharmaśāstras like Āpastamba also consider Ātreyī in this context and not an Atri gotriṇī brāhmaṇī, as maybe be misunderstood.
The Amarakośa (Manushya Varga Shloka 568: स्त्रीधर्मिण्यविरात्रेयी मलिनी पुष्पवत्यपि) too mentions ‘Ātreyī’ as a synonym for a woman in her prime.
The importance of a woman in her prime can also be evidenced from the Dharmaśāstras (the husband/ father is wasting the Rajas every month instead of facilitating a new soul):
He who does not give away a marriageable daughter within three years of her puberty doubtlessly contracts a guilt equal to that of killing an embryo. He who does not approach, during three years, a wife who is marriageable, incurs, without doubt, a guilt equal to that of killing an embryo
Bodhāyana 4.1.12 and 4.1.17
Women who’ve crossed their prime, being unable to gestate a new life form should be considered at par with men. It would thus be illogical to accord them a special treatment. Keeping this exact view (women in prime of extreme importance and those who’ve crossed it as being equivalent to men) in mind, the Dharmaśāstras have been made.
2. Categorisation of the sin by Dharmaśāstras
For the abovementioned reason, the Dharmaśāstras generally divide the sin of killing a woman into two categories:
- Mahāpātaka - The Killing of an embryo (or even pregnant woman) (भ्रूणहत्या) and an Ātreyī (woman in her prime), irrespective of Varna; as well as the killing of a Brāhmaṇī.
- Upa-Pataka - the killing of a woman not being a Brāhmaṇī or not being either pregnant or in her prime. The atonement in this case would be as per their respective Varnas.
a) The view of the Dharmaśastras regards the killing of her woman in her prime being a Mahāpātaka is as follows:
He who destroys an embryo or a woman in her courses should perform the penance laid down for the Brāhmaṇa-killer.
Likewise if he has killed a female who had bathed after temporary uncleanness.
(The penance for killing) a woman who has bathed after temporary uncleanness (is) the same (as that) for (the murder of) a Brāhmaṇa.
Or a woman during her courses.
b) The view as regards the killing of a Brāhmaṇī (not only a male Brahmin) being a Mahāpātaka is as follows:
The Mitākṣarā commentary on the Yājñavalkya Smṛti explains:
...लिङ्गवचनयोरविवक्षितत्वाद् ब्राह्मणजातेः स्त्रीपुंसयोरविशेषात्तदतिक्रमनिमित्तप्रायश्चित्तविधेः ब्रह्महा द्वादशाब्दानि...
Owing to the universality of Gender and number (singular plural), 12 years has been prescribed for the killing or attempting to kill a Brahmin man as well as a woman, as man and woman are indistinguishable.
With this we can understand that due to the universality of gender, the words ‘Brahmin man and woman’ do not find explicit mention but saying Brahmin is sufficient enough. That is to say the Shastras don’t differentiate between a man and woman in most cases and uses one word eg. Brahmin; unless highlighting gender specific duties.
Yet, since a commentator may use his own intellect to interpret the Shastra (may not be what is actually intended) and thus if there remains a doubt, we can also understand that the Mahāpātaka applies equally to the killing of a Brāhmaṇī from an authentic source i.e. the verses of the Dharmaśāstras themselves (quoted in the Upapātaka Section of this answer), which explicitly say the atonement for killing of women are to be as per their respective Varnas. Note: I’ve not quoted the Brahmin Verse but it comes just before the Kshatriya part. And then the verse which explicitly state that women are the same. Hence Brahmahatya applies for a man and woman equally.
The killing of a non-Brahmin is an Upapātaka as rightly quoted in the question. The same is applicable to non-Brahmin women (not in their prime) and men. The atonement for killing reduces with Varna. (I’m quoting this only since the same is applicable to women too but only from Āpastamba). This barring the gifting of cows is as follows:
(For killing) a Kṣatriya (he shall keep the normal vow of continence) during nine years; (For killing) a Vaiśya during three (years), (For killing) a Śūdra during one year.
Now the Dharmaśāstras unequivocally state in clear explicit words that the same penance is applicable for killing women as is applicable for the men of the same Varnas:
स्त्रीषु चैतेषामेवम् - And for women the same as these above (i.e. in the order of Varna)
Likewise for killing a woman.
And the same (rule applies) if a female (has been killed) who was not in the condition (i.e. not in her prime (Ātreyī)).
Even Manu and Yājñavalkya do not prescribe a separate explicit atonement for killing a woman only. Due to universality of gender, It’s as per their Varna only.
From the above it will be clear that killing a woman (not in her prime) will be as per Varna and there is thus no differentiation between killing a man and woman of the same Varna On the contrary the killing of women who are capable of becoming mothers has been carved out from general law and been given the status of the most heinous of sins i.e. a Mahāpātaka.
3. Why does Manu mention ‘Women’ separately and confuse?
If such is the case as above even as per Manu, then why do Manu and Yājñavalkya mention ‘Women’ separately and confuse?
This is peculiar to only Manu and Yājñvalkya Smriti. See we have to understand that Manu (and since Yājñvalkya is almost copy of Manu) is greatly tampered with/ interpolated. Yet I will comment on this aspect.
The words ‘killing women’ have been mentioned as an Upapātaka because they don’t refer to women in general (the killing of whom is as per their Varna). They refer to adulterous women (again not in her prime). This is evident because Manu and Yājñavalkya (and Gautama) prescribe a different atonement in case of an adulterous woman. This ‘women’ which comes is a reference to such women and a glance over the Mitākṣarā commentary can implicitly subtly hint at this aspect. Refer Manu 11.138 and the equivalent being Yājñavalkya 3.268 and 3.269.
This is also peculiar only to the most interpolated above Dharmaśāstras and none of the other Smritis. Then again Āpastamba and Bodhāyana stand as Kalpa Sutras appended to the Shruti whereas Manu is a Smriti text. Hence this can be ignored as interpolated and basic gist is
- killing woman in her prime = Mahāpātaka,
- killing woman crossed her prime= killing of a man = Upapātaka.
4. Speaking (briefly) about Upapātakas and Alcohol being Mahāpātaka**
(This ideally entails a separate question but will try to keep the answer woman-centric avoiding other aspects like why Brahmins etc.)
Q) Does it mean killing an infertile woman is a minor sin? —> NO!
A) Upapātaka- just because it’s termed so doesn’t mean it’s not a sin. It doesn’t give one the licence to kill. It’s a grave sin (not minor as is understood) for which one must do penance or face punishment. However one can think of Upapātaka as a general law where everything is bad, thus many sins are listed. It must not be understood as being inferior in any hierarchy. However over and above the general equal law there are 5 such acts (and other equivelent acts like killing a woman in her prime) which are the gravest of grave and supposedly way more sinful over and above the general law as they may interfere with the divine way of the world. Eg. We’ve seen killing a fertile woman is a Mahāpātaka owing to interference in divine action of potential birth of new life. Similarly Brahmins too interfere with the divine purpose (not getting into it here)
Q) Since there is no hierarchy of sins, except Mahāpātaka, couldn’t alcohol too be classified among the Upapātaka?
A) Alcohol has been carved out from the sin list as a special sin. We know that among the 5 Mahāpātaka, one who even associates with those who are Mahāpātakis, too are considered so. Because being in their company, they’re likely to perform similar acts (more sins). Similarly alcohol may facilitate committing more grievous sins. When one is in an inebriated state, a person who doesn’t have control over himself can indulge into more Upapātakas and Mahāpātakas. We’ve seen today a majority of crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol, etc. Prevention is better than cure. Further under the influence of alcohol one can’t achieve his divine purpose due to inhibition of mental ability. Hence drinking Alcohol is rightly considered as a Mahāpātaka. No reason to leave it in the general law.
That means killing a woman (crossed fertility and people in general) is sinful and is in no way inferior and it is understandable why the special law has been carved for fertile women. Alcohol may facilitate some action like that and hence a Mahāpātaka.
Based on the above we can say there is no differentiation between killing a man and a woman. On the contrary killing women in their prime has been considered a graver sin than killing an equivalent man or another woman as it interferes with the divine purpose of potentially bringing new life to earth.
So to summarise, your answers corresponding to each of the points in the question are:-
- Only killing a non-Brahmin woman who has crossed her prime is considered an Upapātaka, a sin equivalent to killing any man of the same Varna. However for killing either a Brāhmaṇī or women capable of reproducing (irrespective of Varna) it’s a Mahāpātaka i.e. special emphasis.
- The slaying of women and men is considered equal Varna-wise and the explicit mention of slaying men and women being Upapātaka in Manu doesn’t come because of universality of gender. (Mitakshara commentary)
- The mention of women separately occurs only in interpolated Dharmaśāstras viz. Manu and Yājñavalkya to refer to an adulterous woman, because alongwith Gautama they prescribe a separate atonement for the Upapātaka of such an adulterous woman (not in her prime)
- Upapātaka is not to be understood has minor sin but general law. However certain acts interfering with divine involvement like killing women in their prime have been accorded a special status over and above the general equal law. Hence killing a woman is not minor , but sinful indeed. Yet repeating, killing of a woman having her divine purpose (fertile), is an out of proportion sin.
Notes: 1. I’ve tried to stick to Yajnavalkya and avoid Manu, since he and Yajnavalkya are roughly a copy paste version of each other and Ikshvaku has already explained Manu in his answer.
2. Baudhayana Dharmasutra Praśna 2, Adhyāya 1, Kaṇḍikā 1.
3. Apastamba Dharmasutra Praśna 1, Paṭala 9, Khaṇḍa 24