Crime and punishment

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Evolution Of Crime And Punishment

The problem of crime and the system of punishment started from the days human beings began to live in organized societies. The contribution of jurisprudence in this regard through its great saints like Gautama, Apastamba, Baudhāyana and Manu is considerable both in quantity and quality.

Difference in Sin and Crime

One peculiar feature of a problem in this country is that the social life and religious life is so inextricably mixed up, that it often becomes difficult to distinguish a crime from a sin or vice-versa. Crimes should be punished but sins are to be expiated. All crimes are sins, but all sins are not crimes. Stealing is both a crime and a sin whereas neglect of his duties by a Vedic student is a sin but not a crime. A sin becomes a crime if it has social repercussions and impinges on the solidarity of the social system.

Objective Of Punishments

The dharmaśāstras[1] recognize the equality before law. No person who committed a crime was exempted from punishment. Though details of punishments for various crimes have been meticulously worked out, the primary object was to protect the people of the society from the criminals and deter the potential criminals from committing such crimes.

Punishments in Ancient Times

Initially trials used were conducted directly by the king himself or the judges duly appointed by him. These judges had to be brāhmaṇas of unimpeachable character. However, though the judges could pronounce the sentence, it was the king who executed it.

The effect of the varṇa-cum-jati system on punishments for the same crime is clearly discernible in the writings. If some award more severe punishments to the members of the more educated varna/jatis, since they ought to know better, others give less. The argument in the latter case is that being culturally more refined, they are psychologically more sensitive and even lesser punishment will have the desired effect.

Whenever a criminal was punished, especially from the higher educated groups, the offender was also to expiate himself through appropriate rites and discipline. This would render him fit for social intercourse later. If this was not done, more severe punishments would follow.

List of Offences

Cognizable offences listed in these law-books are legion:

  1. Defamation
  2. Stealing
  3. Robbery
  4. Usurpation
  5. Sexual crimes of various types and degrees
  6. Treachery
  7. Physical assaults
  8. Murder
  9. Criminal abortion
  10. Offences against the State through espionage and sabotage
  11. Etc.

Types of Punishments

Punishments were generally classified into four groups:

  1. Vāgdaṇḍa - censure
  2. Dhigdaṇḍa - severe rebuke
  3. Dhanadaṇḍa - fines
  4. Vadhadaṇḍa - corporal punishment

Execution of the Punishments

Punishments could be awarded separately or jointly. The first two were for light offences only. Fines could be light or heavy, confiscation of property being the last word. However, even in such cases, the main tools and implements of workers, artisans, warriors, musicians etc., were not touched. The king was prohibited from appropriating the confiscated property to himself. Corporal punishment varied from simple flogging up to dismemberment of limbs or death. Punishments to women and old people or weaklings were of lesser intensity. But, even brāhmaṇas and women were put to death if found guilty of heinous crimes. Offences of children below specified ages were not recognized. The sins of their wrongdoings were declared to go to their parents. Repeaters of crimes would invite more and more severe punishments. Public disgrace through branding, shaving, or parading in the public streets was also resorted to for certain crimes.

Viewing an offence as venial or mortal, varied from writer to writer or even according to times. Chronologically speaking, earlier lawgivers were more severe whereas the later ones were more lenient.

References

  1. Lawbooks guiding various aspects of socio-religious life of the people.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore