In this article we will discuss about the administration of justice in ancient India.
In the earliest times the administration of justice was not a duty of the state. The aggrieved party had to take necessary steps to redress the wrongs done. The most usual step was to sit before the house of the wrong doer and not to allow him to move out till his claim was satisfied.
In case he failed to get the necessary redress on his own he could take the assistance of his friends. This explains why we do not find any references about the judicial organisation in the early Vedic literature. In the later Vedic period we come across an official sabhapati, who is considered to have been a judge.
However, this view cannot be conclusively proved. But we get some indications to the effect that the sabha or popular village assembly acted as arbitrator in certain oases.
The Dharmasutras and Arthasastra give us an indication that the judiciary had fully developed by their times. The king was the supreme judge and it was his duty to punish the wrong-doers. If the king failed to perform this duty he was sure to go to hell.
Therefore, the king always devoted lot of his time to adjudication every day. Though in theory any case could be taken to the king but in actual practice only important cases were personally heard by the king. Quite often he delegated his judicial work to the chief justice or other royal officials.
The general tendency was to encourage the town councils and village panchayats to try local disputes. Only, serious cases were tried in the royal court. Even in these cases the king was expected to observe strict impartiality and decide the case according to the dharma or law.
This law was not enacted by the legislature but was based on Srutis and Smritis. In fact law was considered as the king of kings and it could not be easily set aside.
The composition of the courts also differed from time to time and from state to state. But one common feature of the judicial administration of the various states was that the system of jury was in existence. Even the king and the chief justice were assisted by a panel of judges. The number of the jurors was normally three, five or seven. It was deliberately kept odd to ensure majority decision.
The judges were expected to be learned, religious, devoid of anger and impartial. The jurors were expected to express their opinion even if it was in opposition to the king. In fact it was their supreme duty to restrain a willful king going astray and giving a wrong decision.
To ensure the impartiality of the judges they are not allowed to give private interviews to the litigants until their case was settled. Arthasastra insists that the honesty of the judges should be periodically tested by agents provocateurs. Vishnu Smriti prescribes very serious punishments for the corrupt judges viz. banishment and forfeiture of all property.
In addition to the regular official courts, certain popular courts also existed in ancient India. During the Vedic period the Sabha probably worked as a popular court. The disputes regarding boundaries of property were settled by the village elders. Yajnavalkya mentions three types of popular courts—Puga, Sreni and Kula.
These popular courts continued to flourish right till the beginning of the British rule, because their decisions were usually upheld by the kings. The government courts only accepted certain cases which came as an appeal against the decisions of the popular courts. It may be noted that the popular courts tried only civil cases and did not enjoy any power with regard to criminal cases.
While considering the case due weightage was given to the evidence. In serious criminal cases evidence from all the sources was accepted, but in the civil cases the evidence of women, learned Brahmans, government servants, minors, debtors, persons with criminal records etc. was not given much weightage.
The evidence of the members of low caste people was not valid against persons of higher caste. False evidence was greatly abhorred. A person who acted as false witness was expected to suffer various temporal penalties, including a hundred unhappy births in future lives.
In case of serious suspicion the accused could be tortured to elicit confession. These tortures included whipping. Usually Brahmans, children, the aged, the-sick and pregnant women were exempted from torture. In case of women the torture was rather light.
The observance of various types of ordeals to ascertain the guilt were also resorted to settle the cases outside the court. The most common ordeals were ordeals by fire and immersion. The Smriti writers did not approve of these ordeals in normal cases and permitted them only in those cases where there was no concrete evidence on either side
Different types of punishments were in vogue. These included the fines, imprisonment, banishment, mutilation and death sentence. The fines were the most common punishment While deciding upon the punishment, the judges took into account the nature of the crime, the motive of the accused, his age and status in society.
Usually lighter punishments were inflicted on the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. The early Sutras had laid down fines for the punishment of murder— 1,000 cows for killing a Kshatriya, 100 for a vaisya, and in for a sudra or a woman.
The killing of a Brahman could not be expiated by a fine. These cattle were handed to the king, who passed them on to the relatives of the slain person. Thus under the ancient Indian system of justice fine could atone all but the most serious crime, the fines however differed according to the seriousness of the crime and it ranged from small copper coins to the confiscation of the entire property.
Imprisonment was another common punishment. Though the Smriti writers do not make a mention of it, it was quite popular during the times of Ashoka and Harsha. Hiuen Tsang says that imprisonment was the most usual form of punishment under Harsha.
Those sentenced to imprisonment were often made to work on road and in public places so that it could have a deterrent effect on others. Mutilation of limbs was also resorted to as a punishment usually the hands of the thief were mutilated.
Banishment, another type of punishment, was usually inflicted on the privileged classes. The death sentence was imposed on murderers, traitors, dacoits and persons guilty of heinous sex crimes. However, during the times of the Guptas the punishments were made lighter.
Fa-Hien tells us that death penalty was not imposed in northern India. Most of the crimes were punished with fine. Even in case of serious crimes like revolts the amputation of one hand was done.