Basics of Ancient Indian Legal System

By Vasu Jain

India had been for ages known to the world for its intellect. Varamahira, Sushruta, Aryabhatta, Charaka are some names of the personalities who have added to the charm of India by pioneering in their respective fields. The power of India can be estimated by the nickname of India i.e. The Golden Bird, which it got due to its immense treasure. Since antiquity, India had been a place of attraction whether its Harappan time, Vedic age, ancient history or Muslim rule or the present. In this prestige, law was the feather in the hat. Since beginning of the Indian society, it has governed itself with the rule of law. The people and leaders of the ancient India has recognised the importance of law. Till humans are covered by law, they are the best animals.

Though the society was at a primitive stage but their concept of law was very advanced. The law system could be understood by knowing the social institutions, political system and religious philosophy of that time.

In determining the social order two important concepts may be stated, namely, the caste system and joint family system. The society at that time was divided into four castes. This bifurcation was peculiar to India in which the society was divided on the basis on occupation and birth. It is believed that the caste system was initially the division of labour on basis of occupation but gradually it took a rigid form and became a hereditary phenomenon. The Brahmins were the learned men who could study Shastras and smritis, the Kshritiyas were the warriors for defending the state and its citizens, the Vaishyas were the traders and businessmen and lastly the Shudra were the clerical men who would do all the clerical and so called low jobs. This caste system took a rigid form in the Later Vedic period where it was solely based on the birth and is defined as caste as a social group consisting solely of the people born in it. The basic feature of caste system was endogamy i.e. the practise of marring within the same caste. In later centuries caste exclusiveness became absolute and reached its peak in caste panchayats. Though caste system was conservative still it was most needed to suit the requirements of ancient India. Second feature in determining the social life was family. There was the prevalence of joint family where all the progeny live with their parents up to marriage and male progeny continues to live with them even after the marriage. Hence the size of family is big. It was patriarchal society and hence the head of the family was the eldest male member. His position in the family was very strong and decisions were binding on the whole family.

Political situation at that time was complex. Monarchy type of government was there. Kings rule the state. But the king was not an arbitrary ruler of territory rather a tribal head. He govern the people with their consent and approach. He looks after the material and spiritual advancement of the people. But the position of king was not supreme. Despite no law of the land, law was the supreme authority and nothing was above it. The doctrine of King can do no wrong was not accepted in the Indian context. The Dharmshastras impressed upon the Kings to look upon the people as God (Praja Vishnu) and serve them with love and reverence.

Religion is the third most important feature to be understood before we could go on to the legal or judicial system. Since it was a primitive society, religion was widely followed and the sanctions were mainly religious in nature. The hindu religion and philosophy laid down four grat aims of human life: Dharma (religion and social law), Artha (wealth or economic well-being), Karma (doing work) and Moksha (salvation of the soul). The correct balance of first three leads to the fourth. The major worshipping forces were the nature and personified version of natural phenomenon. Vedas were the major religious texts. These widely describes about the Dharma.

Dharma is mostly misunderstood as religion, but the fact remains that it is a word of widest import, having no corresponding word in any other language. Dharma constitutes the blueprint or master-plan for all round development of individual and different sections of society. Mahabharta explains it as that which helps upliftment of living being. Madhavacharya of Vijaya Nagar Empire explains it as that sustains and ensures the progress and welfare of all. It is promulgated in the form of positive and negative commands (vidhi or nishedha).

The society at that time though had just started to settle itself but it had organised itself with the 3 pillars of social, political and religious institutions. On all these pillars rests the structure of legal framework of that time which was highly dependent upon caste system, political system and religion & morality.


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