Undoubtedly, India has a very rich heritage. India is one of the oldest civilizations in the world.  It goes without saying that ancient Indians  could not do without law, rules and some reward/ punishment system.

Dharma (religion)- foundation of law

The ancient Indian law is Dharma Shastra (religious ethics). The vedas and other scriptures defined the role of king, his courtiers and public. King was considered as incarnation of God. The basic source for dharma (law) was Sruti or Veda. It is believed that Vedas were of divine origin. Shruti means 'what is listened". Thus, the law was unwritten. According to Hindu belief, Vedas were transmitted direct from God and the Rishis (sages) passed on the knowledge (vedas) by word of mouth. As the knowledge was obtained by word of mouth, this was caled 'shruti' (what is listened). Ancient Indian Law (Hindu law)  was codified in manusmriti. Later Kautilya complied Indian law in his book Arthashastra. This describes the rules of governance and law. 'Smriti' and 'Acara' were alternative sources if somebody could not find solution in Vedas or shruti. 

What is smriti 

Smriti means 'remembrance'. Thus smriti is what the knowledgeable and scholars of vedas remember. Vedas were considered as of divine origin. Hence, the scholars of vedas were relied upon for correct version of Dharma or ancient Indian law. What these scholars remembered is smriti (remebrance). This consists of sacred literature- vedanta, epics- Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.    

What is Acara 

Acara is another source of ancient Hindu or Indian law (Dharma shastra). This consists of norms in community. What the learned do or how they conduct their affairs is ideal for others. Their behaviour is cited as example to others. Later the influential and poweful individuals also became role model and their conduct became worth following. Later, merchant leaders, caste heads, community leaders became source of acara. Their word and conduct became primary source for ruling in the Hindu legal practice.  


Atmatusti literally means 'satisfying to self'. So what one considers right according tyo his conscience is law. But this is recognized only by Manu and Yajnavalkya. Atmatusti is last resort when other sources do not give clear direction in the issue involved.  

Ancient law administration in practice 

The ancient law was followed more as management in communities rather as a state policy. Particular groups in society gained influence and managed the administration. Law was defined by social norms. The kings were responsible for administration of law and punishment in all worldly affais. The Brahmin had control on ritual, penance and maintaining spiritual Hindu system. 

Judicial Procedure 

The king was the final authority in legal process. The ministers would assist in administration of justice. The system of evidence was oath and other ordeals considered divine. Those days,  methods of evidence were very bizarre. Thus Seeta, a character in the epic Ramayana had to go though fire test to prove her chastity. Even today, we witness many bizarre methods in primitive or tribal societies in India. The king would base his decision on texts like manusmriti, yajnavalkya, dharmashastra, and smritis. 

Evidence of Judicial Procedure in ancient India was mostly derived from classical Hindu law and religious texts like the Vedas. The King was made to be the ultimate law authority within a court. Very bizarre methods of proof and Oaths for simple cases were used to help in the decision making process while ultimately basing the decision on the basis of different texts like Manu, Yājñavalkya,Dharmaśāstras, Sastras and Smrtis.

The ancient Penal Code (danda system) 

The punishment system aimed at incapacitation. This would ensure that the crime could not be committed again. For example: cutting hands of thief, death punishment, banishment, mutiliation would prevent repeatng cfrime. Manusmriti prescribes cutting off the offending limb of a thief so as to disable him from again committing the offence. This punishment had both- preventive and deterrent efects.  Deterrence was the second object of punishment. The punishment should be such as to discourage prospective offenders from committing the offence. Manu recommended that prisons should be located near a high road so that sufferings of the inmates may be visible to others. This would arouse fear in mind of prospective offenders. 


Rehabilitating offender is also an object of punishment. Punishment should reform the offender's character and lead him to correct path. Mahabharata recommends corrective or reformative course. 

Role of King

King had major role in legal afairs and punishment. Manusmriti discusses role of king in administration of justice. The only way to maintain order is through punishment. The system of punishment (danda) enabled king to maintain order in his kingdom. If there were no king and no punishment, big fish would swallow the small. There is no exact definition of what constitutes crimes and the quantum of punishment. This depended on king and his advisers- Brahmins. The king had the final word but the Brahmins had advisory role.  Often statecraft and religion were mixed. Moreover the same deed could be termed as state offence punishable by king as well as sin for which penance (Prayaschit) is prescribed. Prayaschit or penance is self imposed by the sinner as advised by Brahmin. How both these worked simultaneously can only be imagined. It appears that the offenders who repented accepted penance or Prayaschit whereas the hardened criminals had to be punished by king. 

Codification of Ancient law and practice

The ancient law or Dharama shastra is essentially codification of ancient Hindu law. The severity of punishment depended on factors like caste, qualification  and age of the offender, the financial implictions, the aggrieved peson (parigrarah), place, time etc. of offence.   Manu cites four types of punishments- admonition (dhikkar), fine (dhanadanda), Physical punishment(badhadanda). Punishments could also be combined. Confiscation of property and public humiliation were later added.  


We may conclude that the ancient legal system in India is inseparable from Hindu religion. King was the administrator as well as judge whereas the Brahmins were advisers. Punishments included verbal censure, fines, physical torture, flogging/ whipping, amputation of limbs, death sentence.  The object was to prevent the offender from repeating the offence and also detering others. Equality before law was not the norm. This would depend on caste, qualification and other factors. Some forms of punishment would be considered barbaric these days.   

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