The Indian legal and judicial system originated in this period.
Formerly people were governed by the tribal law, which did not recognize any class distinction.
However, by now the tribal community had been clearly divided into four orders: brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras. The Dharmasutras therefore set out the duties of each of the four varnas, and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the varna division. The higher the varna, the purer it was, and the higher the level of moral conduct expected of the upper varna by civil and criminal law.
All forms of disabilities were imposed on the shudras. They were deprived of religious and legal rights and relegated to the lowest position in society; the upanayana or sacred thread could not be conferred on them. Crimes committed by them against the brahmanas and others were severely punished, but those committed against the shudras were lightly treated.
The lawgivers spread the fiction that the shudras were born from the feet of the creator. Therefore, members of the higher varnas, especially the brahmanas, shunned the company of the shudra, avoided the food touched by him, and refused to enter into marriage relations with him. A shudra could not be appointed to high posts, and more importantly he was specifically asked to serve the twice-born as slave, artisan, and agricultural labourer.
Jainism and Buddhism themselves did not materially change the shudras position. Although he could be admitted to the new religious orders, his general position continued to be low. It is said that Gautama Buddha visited the assemblies of the brahmanas, kshatriyas, and gahapatis or householders, but assemblies of the shudras are not mentioned in this context.
The Pali texts mention ten despicable crafts and castes including the chandalas. They are called hina which means poor, inferior, and despicable. In contrast the kshatriyas and brahmanas are called the uttama or best castes.
The civil and criminal law set out in the Dharmashastras was administered by royal agents, who inflicted rough and ready punishments such as scourging, beheading, and tearing out of the tongue. In many instances, punishments for criminal offences were governed by the idea of revenge, that is, a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye.
Although the brahmanical law-books took into account the social status of the different varnas in framing their laws, they did not ignore the customs of the non-Vedic tribal groups which were gradually absorbed into the brahmanical social order. Some of these indigenous tribals were given fictitious social origins and allowed to be governed by their own customs.