Ancient Indian laws and practices

India is known for its rich and vibrant heritage. Hindu religion is considered quite inseparable from the ancient legal system. Being one of the oldest civilizations of the world, Indian rules and laws including its reward/punishment system is one of the most ancient in existence. In the ancient times, if the Kings were the judges and administrators, the Brahmins were the advisors and played significant role in shaping the Hindu laws and practices.

Major types of punishments included physical torture, verbal censure, fines, flogging/whipping, death sentence, amputation of limbs and many more. Prevention and deterrence of crime formed the basis of all type of punishments. Caste, qualification and other factors were preferred over equality. Some of the ancient forms of punishments are also considered barbaric these days.

Dharma (religion) – Foundation of Law

The origins of Indian law could be linked to Vedas (Shrutis). However, many also rely on alternative resources like Smriti and Acara to find further legal solutions. The ancient Indian law also clearly defines the role of a King (considered as God), courtiers and public. Before Kautilya compiled the Ancient Indian Law in his famous book, Arthashastra, it was recorded properly and codified in Manusmriti.

Dharma Shastra is an accurate codification of ancient Hindu law. There are many external factors determining the punishment including caste, age of the offender, qualification, the financial implications, time of the offence, etc.  Originally, four types of punishments were cited by Manu, namely – fine (dhanadanda), admonition (dhikkar), Physical punishment (badhadanda) and all punishments combined. Later two more types were added and these were confiscation of property and public humiliation.

Manava Dharma Shastra or Laws of Manu

Dharma Shastra is the ancient Indian Law. However, it is interesting to know how it came into existence. ‘Sutras’ are the Sanskrit manuals composed by Vedic gurus over which Brahmins had gained expertise. Dharma Sutras are the sacred laws and customs. These Sutras are a set of ancient customs, rules and regulations, rites and laws composed systematically and aphoristically along with musical cadence to form ‘Dharma Shastras’. Out of all the Dharma Sutras, the one belonging to Manava Vedic School are most famous. These are the ‘Laws of Manu’ or ‘Manava Dharma Shastra’.

Considered as one of the ancillaries of the Vedas, Manava Dharma Shastra or Laws of Manu is an ideal Hindu canon, referred to by many Hindu spiritual leaders. Manava Dharma Shastra has 2684 verses comprising 12 chapters. These chapters describe social, religious, administrative and various important inland norms which were predominantly administered by the Kings and learned by Brahmins (circa 500 BC).

What is Acara

Yet another important source of ancient Indian Law or Dharma Shastra is Acara comprising of community norms. The vision of the learned, the power of the influential, and the popular conduct of the caste heads and community leaders became the basis of the Acara. Such is the power of the content inscribed in Acara that it is considered as the basis of the Hindu legal practice.

Salient Aspects of Ancient Indian Law

Atmatusti – Satisfying the Self

Atmatusti means following one’s conscience as the final saying. This procedure is followed as a last resort when other avenues are not seemed to be working. Historical evidences say that Atmatusti was only followed by Manu and Yajnavalkya.

Administrative Law in practice in Ancient India

The Kings in ancient India were responsible for the implementation of administrative laws including punishments and rewards. Ancient law was more popularly practiced as management in various communities rather than as a regular state policy. Dominant social groups set up different protocols that were being practiced on a full-fledged basis around the state. On the other hand, Brahmins got complete control over the spiritual and religious systems including various traditions and rituals.

The System of Oaths and Ordeals

Classical Hindu law found in ancient texts formed the basis of various judicial procedures. A group of core ministers headed by the King used to decide upon major legal process. The verdicts were more based on ancient texts including Yajnavalkya, Dharma Shastra, Manusmriti and Smritis. The concept of pure evidence for justice was quite missing, rather oaths and ordeals were considered more sacred during those days.

The Ancient Penal Code (danda system)

Ancient punishment system was more based on incapacitation as this would have both preventative and deterrent effect on the culprit and would prevent him from committing any such crime in the future. This type of punishment includes cutting hands of thief, banishment, death punishment, mutilation, etc. Keeping the deterrent effect in mind, Manu has recommended in his test that a prison should be located right on the roadside so that the general people passing by may have a look at the prisoners and this could have a deterrent effect on them.

Reformative Theory of Punishment

Reformative theory of punishment found its origins in Mahabharata. This theory believes in the revival of the alleged prisoners through proper rehabilitation that stimulates their conscience and leads them to the correct path. Many historians opine that the criminals were categorized into two groups. The hardened criminals were given the harsh punishments; where as those who expressed their repentance were offered Prayaschit or penance through rehabilitation.