LAWS AND LEGAL TEXTS FROM ANCIENT INDIA

SUTRAS

The origin of the Sutras may be traced to the practical needs of the time. As the mass of sacerdotal tradition was growing rapidly both in matter and volume, it became increasingly difficult to learn everything by heart and to save the texts from undergoing changes in the course of oral transmission. Accordingly, a new prose style, convenient to memory though exceedingly dry, was developed; and treatises, in which rules were just strung together (sutra— t hread), were produced. Their merit consisted in the use of the fewest possible words. It is believed that “the general period of the Sutras extends from the sixth or seventh century before Christ to about the second century.” The oldest Sutras, at any rate, “seem to go back to about the time when Buddhism arose.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Panini and his great Grammar of Salatura in the north-west, Panini is chiefly known for his work on grammar, the Astddhyayi, which is a monument of thoroughness and “algebraic brevity.” Incidentally, however, he gives bits of information useful for historical purpose. During his time, the Aryans were probably unfamiliar with the Deccan, for whereas he mentions Kaccha (Cutch) in the west, Kalinga in the east, and Avanti in the south, no name of a place beyond the Vindhyas occurs in his Grammar. The states (Janapadas), of which he knew about twenty-two, were called after their peoples, like the Gandharis, Madras, Yaudheyas, KoSalas, Vrijjis, etc. He also speaks of such territorial units as Visaya (province or division), N agar a (city) and Grama (village).

Monarchy was the norm, but there are references to Ganas and Samghas too. The king was the supreme head in all matters, and below him, as shown by Dr. R.K. Mookerji, were the Pdrisadyas i.e., members of the Varisat (council), Adhyaksas (heads of departments), Vyavaharika (Law-officer), Aupdyika (literally, one who devises ways and means. Was he in charge of finance?), Yuktas (officers in general), and other functionaries of administration. Further, we get a few details about the economic life of the people as well. It appears from Panini that the main sources of livelihood were agriculture, service (Janapadi vritti), profession of arms and labour. Trade and business (kraya-vikraya) flourished, and loans were advanced on interest. Among the crafts, he mentions weaving, dyeing, leather-working, hunting, carpentry, pottery-making, etc. He also records the existence of craft-corporations or guilds (pugas). These organisations must have helped specialisation and promoted a sense of discipline and respect for law.

As already mentioned, one of the six Vedangas is valuable; they primarily deal with the great Vedic sacrifices of Harts (oblation) and Soma and other religious matters. They were, so to say, a continuation of the ritual side of the Brahmanas, but they were never regarded as revealed or sacred. Later perhaps than the Srauta manuals arc the Grihya Sutras, treating of domes„ c _^ tic ritual. They embody minute rules for the performance of the various ceremonies marking every important epoch of an individual’s life from conception to cremation. The most interesting of these sacraments (Samskaras) were Pumsavana (ceremony for having an issue); Jata-karma (birth-rite); Ndmakarana (naming ceremony); Ciiddkarma (tonsure); XJ pan ay ana (Initiation for study as a Brahmacarl); Samdvartana (rite of return home); Vivaha (marriage), of which no less than eight forms were known; regular daily performance by every householder of the five great sacrifices (panca-mahdyajna), besides other offerings on special tithis like new and full-moon days, etc.; and finally Antyesthi (funeral rite). In one of these treatises, the KauJika Sutra, are also dealt with medicinal formulas and magical practices for averting disease and disaster. Thus the Grihya Sutras give us an excellent insight into the ceremonies and superstitions associated with home-life in ancient India.

Dharmasiltras

The Dharmasastras represent the traditional teachings of certain Brahmanical schools on Dharma or civil and religious law. These texts, in Sloka metre, are the most important sources of Hindu law, and they throw a good deal of light on ancient Brahmanical institutions and civilisation. Of these codes, the principal ones are the Manavadharma testra belonging “rather to the time of our (Christian) era or before it than later;” Vismdharmatestra, which, though in Sutra form, is decidedly posterior to the work of Manu, being largely based on it; Yajnavalkyasmriti, composed in Mithila about the fourth century A.D.; and Nara~ dasmriti of about the fifth century A.D. Besides, there are minor Smritis, later Nibandhas, and commentaries, like the Mitdksara, which have also in course of time become authoritative. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The next class of Sutras is that of the Dharmasiltras, which are chiefly concerned with society rather than with the family. They deal with social usages and customs of every-day life. In them we see the beginning of civil and criminal law. Of course, they treat more exhaustively of the religious, but touch only lightly on the secular, aspect of law. The principal Dharmasiitra authors are Gautama, who “can hardly date from later than about 500 B.C.” and Baudhyayana, who is supposed to have belonged to Southern India. Next come Apastamba, assigned by Biihler to about 400 B.C., and VaSistha who certainly flourished after Gautama. Apastamba appears to have belonged to the South, perhaps the Andhra country, but Vasistha was doubtless a Northerner. Lastly, we may mention the not extant Manava-dharma-sutra, on which is based the metrical Manava-dharma-ddstra, still considered the most authoritative work on law and an individual’s conduct in life. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

According to the Sutras, Varna srama-dharma was a firmly established feature of society. They describe the duties and obligations of the “Dvijas” — Brahman, Ksatriya, and Vaisya — as well as of the Sudras. We are also told that a “Twice-born” must pass through four stages (Adramas) in life, viz., Brahmacarya (period of studentship), Gdrhastha (married or householder’s state), Vanaprastha (state of reclusion), and Sannyasa (hermit's life) — the last two being marked by the practice of ascetic exercises and retirement from worldly concerns. Tremendous emphasis was now laid on the purity of social orders (vary as), which was possible only if the rules of marriage and interdining were meticulously observed. It was essential to avoid eating defiled food and coming in contact with what was unclean. There were strict injunctions regarding these matters, although differences of opinion do exist among the various authorities on certain points. Indeed, the older ones appear to be more lax in their views. For instance, Gautama allows a Brahman to take food offered by a “Dvija,” and in need even that given by a Sudra. In marriage, too, a good girl, though low-born, was sometimes accepted by a Brahman, it being definitely understood that she would occupy an inferior position, and the progeny of such union would be legally considered mixed. Marriage within the same gotra and within “six degrees on the mother's side” was prohibited, but the Ddksinatyas or Southerners, on the other hand, had the curious custom of marrying the daughter of a maternal uncle. Thus, differences in the Dharmasutras were to some extent due to local customs and conditions. Generally, however, their outlook was narrow, and this conclusion is further supported by their interdiction of sea voyages and learning the language of “barbarians” i.e., foreign tongues.

Laws of Manu

“The Laws of Manu, dated to around 1500 A.D., represent one of the most ancient sources for our knowledge of early Indian social structure. Though it was probably written in the first or second century B.C., the traditions that it presents are much older, perhaps dating back to the period of Aryan invasions almost fifteen hundred years earlier. Manu himself was a mythical character, the first man, who was transformed into a king by the great god Brahma because of his ability to protect the people. The fact that the ancient Indians attributed the beginnings of kingship and social classes to the first man is evidence that they themselves recognized the antiquity of these institutions. [Internet Archive, from CCNY]

The Laws of Manu are also called Manava-dharma-shastra (“The Dharma Text of Manu”). Traditionally it was most authoritative of the books of the Hindu code (Dharma-shastra) in India. Manu-smriti is the popular name of the work, which is officially known as Manava-dharma-shastra.

“The Laws of Manu (excerpt) I.3. On account of his pre-eminence, on account of the superiority of his origin, on account of his observance of particular restrictive rules, and on account of his particular sanctification, the brahmin is the lord of all castes. I.4. The brahmin, the kshatriya, and the vaisya castes are the twice-born ones, but the fourth, the sudra, has one birth only. . . . I.31. But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds, [the Creator] caused the brahmin, the kshatriya, the vaisya, and the sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.

“I.87. But in order to protect this universe He, the most resplendent one, assigned separate duties and occupations to those who sprang from his mouth, arms, thighs, and feet. X.5. In all castes those children only which are begotten in the direct order on wedded wives, equal in caste and married as virgins, are to be considered as belonging to the same caste as their fathers. X.24. By adultery committed by persons of different castes, by marriages with women who ought not to be married, and by the neglect of the duties and occupations prescribed to each, are produced sons who owe their origin to a confusion of the castes. VII.352. Men who commit adultery with the wives of others, the king shall cause to be marked by punishments which cause terror, and afterwards banish. VII.353. For by adultery is caused a mixture of the castes among men; thence follows sin, which cuts up even the roots and causes the destruction of everything. X.97. It is better to discharge one's own appointed duty incompletely than to perform completely that of another; for he who lives according to the law of another caste is instantly excluded from his own. From: A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

“Duties of a Brahmin: X.75. Teaching, studying, sacrificing for himself, sacrificing for others, making gifts and receiving them are the six acts prescribed for a brahmin. X.76. But among the six acts ordained for him three are his means of subsistence, sacrificing for others, teaching, and accepting gifts from pure men. X.81. But a brahmin, unable to subsist by his peculiar occupations just mentioned, may live according to the law applicable to kshatriyas; for the latter is next to him in rank. X.82. If it be asked, "How shall it be, if he cannot maintain himself by either of these occupations?" the answer is, he may adopt a vaisya's mode of life, employing himself in agriculture and rearing cattle. X.83. But a brahmin, or a kshatriya, living by a vaisya's mode of subsistence, shall carefully avoid the pursuit of agriculture, which causes injury to many beings and depends on others. X.85. But he who, through a want of means of subsistence, gives up the strictness with respect to his duties, may sell, in order to increase his wealth, the commodities sold by vaisyas, making however the following exceptions: X.92. By selling flesh, salt, and lac [resin] a brahmin at once becomes an outcaste; by selling milk he becomes equal to a sudra in three days. X.93. But by willingly selling in this world other forbidden commodities, a brahmin assumes after seven nights the character of a vaisya. III.77. As all living creatures subsist by receiving support from air, even so the members of all orders subsist by receiving support from the householder. III.78. Because men of the three other orders are daily supported by the householder with gifts of sacred knowledge and food, therefore the order of householders is the most excellent order. III.89. And in accordance with the precepts of the Veda and of the traditional texts, the householder is declared to be superior to all of [the other three orders]; for he supports the other three.

“Duties of a Kshatriya VII.1. I will declare the duties of kings, and show how a king should conduct himself, . . . and how he can obtain highest success. VII.2. A kshatriya who has received according to the rule the sacrament prescribed by the Veda, must duly protect this whole world. VII.3. For, when these creatures, being without a king, through fear dispersed in all directions, the Lord created a king for the protection of this whole creation. VII.14. For the king's sake the Lord formerly created his own son, Punishment, the protector of all creatures, an incarnation of the law, formed of Brahman's glory. VII.18. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment to be identical with the law. VII.19. If punishment is properly inflicted after due consideration, it makes all people happy; but inflicted without consideration, it destroys everything. VII.20. If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit. VII.35. The king has been created to be the protector of the castes and orders, who, all according to their rank, discharge their several duties. VII.87. A king who, while he protects his people, is defied by foes, be they equal in strength, or stronger, or weaker, must not shrink from battle, remembering the duty of kshatriyas. VII.88. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honour the brahmins, is the best means for a king to secure happiness. VII.89. Those kings who, seeking to slay each other in battle, fight with the utmost exertion and do not turn back, go to heaven.

“Duties of a Vaisya IX.326. After a vaisya has received the sacraments and has taken a wife, he shall be always attentive to the business whereby he may subsist and to that of tending cattle. IX.327. For when the Lord of creatures created cattle, he made them over to the vaisya; to the brahmins and the the king he entrusted all created beings. IX.328. A vaisya must never conceive this wish, "I will not keep cattle"; and if a vaisya is willing to keep them, they must never be kept by men of other castes. IX.329. A vaisya must know the respective value of gems, or pearls, of coral, of metals, of cloth made of thread, of perfumes, and of condiments. IX.332. He must be acquainted with the proper wages of servants with the various languages of men, with the manner of keeping goods, and the rule of purchase and sale. IX.333. Let him exert himself to the utmost in order to increase his property in a righteous manner, and let him zealously give food to all created beings.

“Duties of a Sudra IX.334. [T]o serve brahmins who are learned in the Vedas, householders, and famous for virtue, is the highest duty of a sudra, which leads to beatitude. IX.335. A sudra who is pure, the servant of his betters, gentle in his speech, and free from pride, and always seeks a refuge with brahmins, attains a higher caste. IX.413. But a sudra . . . may [be compelled] to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent [Lord] to be the slave of a brahmin. IX.414. A sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?

Dharmasiltras on Royal Powers, Taxes and Law

The Dharmasutras indicate the duties of the king. He was to afford full protection to his subjects from danger and molestation, and to chastise the evil-doers; to provide means of subsistence to learned Hindus or Srotriyas, students, and the disabled and infirm, who were not fit to work; to dispense justice; to reward the good; to lead in battle and fight with courage and resolution. He lived in a magnificent building (yelma), which was located in the town (pur a). Besides, there were other halls to entertain guests and to serve as assemblyhouses ('sabhd '). Loyal and honest men were appointed to guard the people in towns (nagara) and villages (grama) from thieves and robbers, and they had to make good the loss suffered by a person if the culprits remained untraced and stolen property could not be recovered. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

For purposes of administration and maintenance of the royal state, people paid taxes, which varied from onesixth to one-tenth of the produce of land. The king could also, according to Gautama, take “one day’s work per month from artisans, one-twentieth on merchandise, one-fiftieth on cattle and gold, and one-sixtieth on roots, fruits, flowers, herbs, honey, meat, grass, and firewood.”

The fountain of law was not the king; its source was the body of the sacred texts — the Vedas — and the tradition and practice of those who knew the Vedas 1. Further, it is stated that the administration of justice should be regulated by “the Vedas, Institutes of the sacred Law, the Vedangas, the Paranas, the (special) laws of countries, castes, families (not being opposed to the sacred records), the usages of cultivators, traders, herdsmen, money-lenders, and artisans.” Thus, the customs and usages of the various groups (vargas) and guilds (frenis) were respected by the king. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The Dharmasutras also throw some light on the laws of inheritance and the status of women, who, it appears, could not, on their own account, offer sacrifices or inherit property. Another unwholesome fea ture was that the idea of equality before the majesty of law was not well developed in the Sutras, for caste considerations and the status of individuals had then much to do in the determination of punishments; and for a similar offence a Sudra was heavily fined, whereas a Brahman was leniently treated.

Dharmasiltras on the Stages of Life and Women

The Dharmadastras mention the rules of the four stages of life (Asramd), which applied to a Dvija or “Twice-born.” The first, Brahmacarya, was the period of studentship. It began with the U panayana ceremony, but the age of initiation often varied, as it depended on the circumstances and capacity of the youngster and the order to which he belonged. He learnt the Vedas and other sacred works or the Vedahgas and DarSanas etc., under the paternal care and guidance of teachers — Upadhyayas and Acaryas. The Brahmacari’s life was one of discipline and regular activity; he had to study diligently, worship daily and perform Agnihotra, beg alms, collect wood, and bring water etc., for his guru or teacher. Modern students may well take a leaf out of the book of their ancient compeers. After the completion of education, the Brahmacari entered the Grihasthadrama i.e., married and became a householder. A Grihastha was expected to give charity liberally and to clear the three debts he owed to gods. Basis and fore -fathers by Yajna, study and continence, and progeny respectively. In the third stage, Vanaprastha, an individual renounced all the “good things” of life and repaired to the solitude of the forest for calm contemptation, living there on the simplest fare, roots, and fruits, etc. Last of all was the stage of Sannydsa, when all worldly connections were cut asunder and the body was subjected to mortification with a view to probing into the mysteries of existence and realising the ultimate Reality. The Sannyasi subsisted on whatever he got by begging, and dedicated himself to the promulgation and dissemination of Truth and Righteousness. Such was the scheme of life enjoined on the upper three classes by the law-givers, but it is doubtful how far their injunctions were followed in practice. At any rate, it appears that Sannydsa was generally meant for, and embraced by, the Hindus only. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The Dharmasdstras give us some idea of the position of women. At one place Manu says : “Where women are worshipped (honoured), the gods shower their blessings; but where they are not honoured, all acts are fruitless.” Curiously, however, in another verse he regards them as a source of evil leading men astray 2. He does not also contemplate that a woman could ever be independent; she was to be under the tutelage or guardianship of her father in childhood, of her husband in youth, and of her sons in old age. Further, according to Manu, women were of unstable temperaments, and they could not, therefore, be called as witnesses. He countenan- ces marriages of maidens when they are only twelve or eight years old; but with regard to the sale of daughters he seems to express contradictory opinions. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942] A woman could be abandoned or divorced by the husband if she was barren or bore only daughters, as also on the ground of unfaithfulness. Manu deprecates widow-remarriage and Niyoga (Levirate), whereas Narada permits both. Stridhana apart, it is'not made explicit by Manu if a widow was entitled to inherit her husband’s property. Narada denies this right to her; Yajnavalkya, on the other hand, recognises a widow as her husband’s heir. Although the custom of Sati does not obtain sanction till late, the lot of widows, debarred as they were from participating in auspicious ceremonies, must have been hard indeed. There is no mention of Purdah, and Manu admits that nobody could “guard a a woman by force.”

Smritis on the State

The Smritis recognise monarchy as the normal form of government.' Manu emphasises the necessity of having a king, for without him confusion would reign supreme all round (VII, 3). The king is attributed a divine origin. Manu says : “A king, though an infant, must not be despised because he looks a human being; verily, he is a great deity in human form.” 7 He further adds : “Through his powers (pra -bbdvd), he is Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), Arka (Sun), Soma (Moon), Dharmarat (Yama), Kubera, Varuna and Indra.” But at the same time it is to be noted that a king, though considered divine, is not represented as an absolute autocrat ruling with an iron hand for his own glory. He wielded the Danda only to maintain and enforce the Dharma. He was by no means regarded as above the Law. Indeed, it is said that Law destroys a king, who is indolent, sensual, tyrannical, and unrighteous. According to Manu, the sources of Dharma are (a) the Vedas, (b) the Smritis, (a) Acara i.e., practices of pious men, and (d) self-satisfaction. To these Yajnavalkya adds certain secondary sources, like deliberation, decision of Parisads and of learned persons, temporary needs not inconsistent with one’s duties, royal edicts, special usages of guilds, corporations, etc., and local customs. Manu also refers to the laws of countries (dedadharma), of castes (Jatidharma), of families (kuladharma), of heretics (pasandas), and of corporations (ganas). [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The DharmaJastras recognise a Ksatriya alone as king, although history knows of kings belonging to other castes also. He led a well-regulated and strenuous life for the good and progress of his people and kingdom. In the discharge of his onerous responsibilities, he acted on the advice of a cabinet consisting of seven or eight ministers, and whatever orders the king gave were taken down, or passed on, by secretaries (Sahayas). He received petitions from his subjects in the a'ssembly-hall (sabhd), adjacent to the palace, and decided cases prescribing fines, religious expiations, and other penalties according to the nature of the offence and the status of the parties concerned. Besides the counsellors (amdtyas or marlins), the king governed through a host of officials, high and low, Mabamdtras and Yuktas, assisted by spies (earns), agents provocateurs, and other instrumenta imperii. The principal departments of state were those of (a) Espionage, which kept a strict watch everywhere and on everybody; (b) Finance, in charge of income and expenditure; perhaps it also supervised stores, working of mines, etc.; (c) Military, to preserve internal peace and repel foreign invasions; (?/) Police, meant to apprehend criminals and maintain law and order; (e) Justice : it dispensed justice and settled disputes.

Lastly, a few words may be said about the divisions of the kingdom and local administration. The empire (rdstra) comprised desas or janapadas (regions or provinces), sub-divided into visajas (divisions), nagaras (cities) or pur as (towns), and gramas (villages). A nagara or city was placed under such a high officer as could inspire awe and confidence among citizens, and he was also given authority to deal with all matters concerning urban life (Sarvarthacintakah). A village was under the Gramika, who was by way of remuneration daily supplied by the villagers with all the essential requisites of food, fuel, and drink (VII, 118). Over him were officers of ten villages (Dast), who got one kula of land (sufficient to be tilled by six pairs of oxen); officers of twenty villages (Vim date da or Vimdi), assigned five Kulas; officers of a hundred villages (Sate da or Satadhyaksa), allowed to have one village for their maintenance; and officers of a thousand villages (Sahadrapati), remunerated with the revenues of a town.

Smritis on Justice

The Smritis generally enumerate eighteen causes of disputes, such as debts, sales without adequate title, fixing of boundaries, partition, non-payment of wages, breach of contract, partnership, adultery, violence, slander, larceny, robbery, etc. Thus, there were both kinds of cases — civil 1 and criminal. Those accused or suspected of theft had to prove their innocence by oath or ordeal, or sometimes both were combined. Manu mentions only two kinds of ordeal, fire and water (VIII, 14), but Yajnavalkya and Narada add three more — scales, ploughshare, and poison —, and in the Brihaspatismriti the list mounts to nine varieties. Punishments inflicted or recommended are severe. For example, a cow-lifter had his nose cut off; and one who stole more than ten “kumbhas” of grain or silver or gold was executed (VIII, 320, 321). Any kind of treasonable conduct was usually visited with the death penalty. A Brahman, if found guilty, suffered excommunication, losing all right to inheritance. Indeed, Manu lays down that whatever crime a Brahman may commit, he should never be killed but only exiled (VIII, 380). At the same time, however, it may be observed that for a similar offlnce Manu prescribes a fine of one Karsdpana only for a commoner and one thousand in the case of a king (VIII, 36). This was perhaps in accordance with the principle that the more eminent, influential, and knowing a man is, the heavier should his punishment be. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

In civil law, the later Smritis treat of contracts and business partnerships — an idea not quite known to the earlier works and the Sutras. Manu speaks only of religious partnership — Hindus sharing fees (daksind) by officiating together in a ceremony, but Yajnavalkya mentions partners in trade and agriculture (II, 265). Similarly, Narada and Brihaspati refer to them, and how their shares were to be determined. The lawbooks further show that loans were advanced, and the interests on them varied from fifteen per cent to sixty per cent according to the caste of the debtor. Usury is, however, generally discouraged; a Brahman specially was not expected" to charge a high rate of interest. If a debt could not be cleaied, a Sudra-debtor did some kind of labour in lieu of it. To enforce payment of debt, the practice of sitting and fasting unto death in front of the debtor’s house was also sometimes resorted to.

Smritis on Taxation, Occupations and Trade

Taxes were intended to be light and equitable. The king is advised not to put too great a burden on the people, nor to resort to unrighteous and covetous methods. The Mahabharata, for instance, exhorts him to gather taxes from his subjects like a bee sucking hone) from flowers, or a calf drawing milk from the; udders of the cow. The great law-giver, Manu, allows a kin£ to take from merchants one-fiftieth part of their profits in cattle and gold, and one-sixth, one-eighth, and onetwelfth of agricultural produce such as rice etc. (VII, 130); and also one-sixth, of the profits in gbee, honey, perfumes, vegetables, fruits, roots, etc. (VII, 13 1, 132). Artisans, smiths, and labourers paid taxes in the form of a day’s labour monthly (VH, 138). The Srotriyas were, however, exempted from taxes (VII, 133). Others enjoying this immunity were the blind, the deal, the lame, the aged, and those who helped the Srotriyas (VII, 394). In conclusion, we may add that among other important sources of state-revenue were excise duties, customs or tolls, levies at ferries, etc. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The Smritis indicate to some extent the material condition of the people by the crafts they mention. Thus, we hear of blacksmiths, goldsmiths, oilmen, dyers, tailors, washermen, potters, weavers, leather-workers, distillers, makers of bow and arrow, wood and metalworkers, etc. Besides, there were the mechanics and artisans, who were regarded as particularly useful members of society. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Agriculture was the mainstay of the mass of people, but trade, too, was not neglected. It was carried on by barter as well as by the medium of coins consisting of gold Suvarnas, silver Kaupya madakas, Dharanas, and Satamanas, and copper Kdrsdpanas (VIII, 13 5-137). The state fixed the prices of articles, and anybody guilty of adulteration or the use of false measures and weights was punished. It was prohibited to export grains in times of famine, or such goods as were under statemonopoly. There were well-known trade-routes, which occasionally were unsafe. Rivers were crossed by boats, and on land carts and animals conveyed merchandise to and fro.

Mauryan (323–185 B.C.) Government

At the head of the Mauryan Empire (323–185 B.C.) administration was the king, who was the supreme and final authority in all matters, military, judicial, executive, and legislative. He led in war, and deliberated over plans of offence and defence with his Sendpati or Commander-in-chief. He received petitions from his subjects and meted out prompt justice. He made high appointments, looked into the state-finances, granted audience to envoys, and collected secret information from spies. Lastly, he issued “Sasanas” or orders for the guidance of the people. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The king was assisted in the discharge of his duties by a Mantri-Parisad. It was an advisory body of Ministers (Mantris or Sacivas), whose devotion to duty, integrity and wisdom had been fully tested. The various branches of administration were controlled and supervised by other high officials, Amatyas, Mahamatras, and Adhyaksas, mentioned in the Arthadastra. The traditional list of eighteen Tirthas or officers consisted of the following : Mantrin (Minister), Purohita (Priest), Sendpati (Commander-in-chief), Yuvaraja (Crown-prince), Dauvdrika (Door-keeper), Antarveiika (Officer in charge of the harem), Praiatri (Inspector-General of prisons), Sarna- harta (Collector-General), Sannidhata (In charge of Treasury), Pradestri (Divisional Commissioner), Nayaka (City constable), Paura (Governor of the capital), Vyavaharika (Officer in charge of transactions or Chief Judge), Karmantika (Officer in charge of mines or manufactories), Mantriparisadadhyaksa (President of the Council), Dandapala (Police Chief), Durgapdla (Officer in charge of Home Defences), Antapdla (FrontierDefence Officer). Among the various Adhyaksas or Superintendents were those of Kosa (Treasury), Akara (mines) Loha (metal), Laksana (mint). Lava pa (salt), Suvarna (gold), Kostbagdra (store-house), Panya (royal trade), K/tpya (forest-produce), Ayudhagara (Armoury), Pautava (weights and measures of capacity), Mana (measurement of space and time), S ulka (tolls), Sutra (spinning and weaving). Slid (cultivation of Crownlands), Sura (intoxicating liquor). Sum (slaughterhouses), Mudra (passports), Vi vita (pastures), Dyuta (gambling), Bandhandgara (jails), Gait (cattle) Nau (shipping), Pattana (ports), Ganika (courtesans), besides those of the army, trade (Sams/bd), and religious institutions (Dcvatd).

The empire being vast, it was divided info a number of provinces for administrative convenience. The home-provinces were under the immediate control of the king, and, as we know from the inscriptions of Ashoka, the important provinces were governed by Kumaras or princes of the blood royal. Taxila, ToSali (Dhaull), Suvarnagiri (Songir), and Ujjain were such seats of viceroyalties. Besides, there were feudatory chiefs, who acknowledged the suzerainty of the Emperor, and rendered him military assistance in times of necessity. The bureaucracy was responsible for running the machinery of government, and its actions and movements were closely watched by overseers and spies (caras). This system of espionage and counter-checks must have prevented harassment of the people in outlying parts, and kept the king posted with every kind of information. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Megasthenes gives us a detailed account of the municipal administration of Pataliputra only, but it appears reasonable to infer that other great towns of the empire must have been similarly governed. We learn that the local affairs were under a commission of six boards, each consisting of five members. According to Vincent Smith, these boards were “an official development of the ordinary non-official pancayat.” [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

1) The first board was in charge of everything pertaining to industrial arts. Besides enforcing the use of good material and fixing of proper wages, artisans were its special concern. Anybody disabling a craftsman was sentenced to death by the state. 2) The second board looked to the movements and needs of the foreigners. They were provided lodgings and, when necessary, medical aid also. In case of death, their remains were interred, and their belongings were handed over to the claimants. The existence ’ of this board shows that there must have been a fairly large foreign population in the capital. 3) The third board was responsible for the registration of births and deaths. The collection of vital statistics was thus regarded as necessary for purposes of taxation and information of the government. 4) The fourth board was entrusted with trade and commerce. It regulated the sale of commodities, and checked the use of false weights and measures. Anybody dealing in more than one article had to pay proportionately heavier taxes. 5) The fifth board supervised the manufacturers, who were by law, under penalty of fine, prevented from mixing old and new articles together. 6) The sixth board enforced the payment of tithes on goods sold. The evasion of tins tax, specially perhaps if the sum involved was considerable, was visited with capital punishment. But honest default must have been treated leniently. In their corporate capacity the municipal commissioners were expected to manage the affairs of the city, and to maintain temples, harbours, and other works of public utility.

Kautilya does not mention any of these boards. He contemplates a Nagaraka or Nagarddhyaksa as Prefect of the town, and under him were the Sthanikas and Gopas, whose jurisdictions extended to one -fourth and to a few families of the city respectively.

Kautilya: The Arthashastra

Kautilya, India's earliest known political philosopher, was an adviser to the rulers of the Mauryan Dynasty. Kautilya or Canakya, is reputed to have been the minister of Chandragupta. His famous essay “The Arthasastra” is a comprehensive compendium on polity and statecraft. It presents his ideas concerning the ways in which a ruler should gain power and maintain his authority. The following passage discusses the necessary characteristics of a king which included the specific values of efficiency, diligence, energy, compassion, and concern for the security and welfare of the state. [Internet Archive, from CCNY]

Kautilya wrote in “The Arthashastra“: The Duties of a King: Only if a king is himself energetically active, do his officers follow him energetically. If he is sluggish, they too remain sluggish. And, besides, they eat up his works. He is thereby easily overpowered by his enemies. Therefore, he should ever dedicate himself energetically to activity.

“He should divide the day as well as the night into eight parts . . . during the first one-eighth part of the day, he should listen to reports pertaining to the organization of law and order and to income and expenditure. During the second, he should attend to the affairs of the urban and the rural population. During the third, he should take his bath and meal and devote himself to study. During the fourth, he should receive gold and the departmental heads. During the fifth, he should hold consultations with the council of ministers through correspondence and also keep himself informed of the secret reports brought by spies. During the sixth, he should devote himself freely to amusement or listen to the Counsel of the ministers. During the seventh, he should inspect the military formations of elephants, cavalry, chariots, and infantry. During the eighth, he, together with the commander-in-chief of the army, should make plans for campaigns of conquest. When the day has come to an end he should offer the evening prayers.

“During the first one-eighth part of the night, he should meet the officers of the secret service. During the second he should take his bath and meals and also devote himself to study. During the third, at the sounding of the trumpets, he should enter the bed chamber and should sleep through the fourth and fifth. Waking up at the sounding of the trumpets, he should, during the sixth part, ponder over the teachings of the sciences and his urgent duties for the day. During the seventh, he should hold consultations and send out the officers of the secret service for their operations. During the eighth, accompanied by sacrificial priests, preceptors and the chaplain, he should receive benedictions; he should also have interviews with the physician, the kitchen-superintendent, and the astrologer.

“A king should attend to all urgent activity, he should not put it off. For what has been thus put off becomes either difficult or altogether impossible to accomplish.

“The vow of the king is energetic activity, his sacrifice is constituted of the discharge of his own administrative duties; his sacrificial fee [to the officiating priests] is his impartiality of attitude toward all; his sacrificial consecration is his anointment as king.

“In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their welfare, his own welfare. The welfare of the king does not lie in the fulfillment of what is dear to him; whatever is dear to the subjects constitutes his welfare.

“Therefore, ever energetic, a king should act up to the precepts of the science of material gain. Energetic activity is the source of material gain; its opposite, of downfall.

“In the absence of energetic activity, the loss of what has already been obtained and of what still remains to be obtained is certain. The fruit of one's works is achieved through energetic activity - one obtains abundance of material prosperity. Source: Stephen Hay ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (NY: Columbia UP, 1988). Ashoka (c. 265-238 B.C.; also given as c. 273-232 B.C.)

Mauryan Law and Castes

It may not be out of place here to give a brief description of the Imperial metropolis. Palimbothra, as Megasthenes calls it, situated in the country of the Prasians, was the “largest city in India,” being 9$ miles (80 stadia) long and about i| miles (fifteen stadia) broad. It stood on the tongue of land formed between the two rivers Erannoboas (Sone) and the Ganges. Its defences were further strengthened by a surrounding ditch, ovei six hundred feet (six plethra) wide and thirty cubits deep. Another protection was the external wall, which had 570 towers and 64 gates. There must have been similar fortifications in other big cities of the empire. [Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

The village (grama) was the lowest unit of administration. It was controlled by a Grdmika (headman) with the help of the gramavriddhas or village elders. An officer in charge of five or ten villages was called Gopa; and above him was the Sthdnika who looked after one-fourth of a district (janapada). These officers worked under the general supervision of the Pradestrl and Samaharta.

Both Megasthenes and Kautilya testify to the severity of the penal laws. Offenders were ordinarily punished with fines, varying in amount, but there were also terrible penalties. For instance, injury to an artisan, or evasion of tithes on sales, led to the award of capital sentence, and perjury was punishable with mutilation of the limbs. Kautilya prescribes death even for a petty theft by a government servant. We further learn that judicial torture, like whipping etc., was authorised and openly used for extracting information from criminals and suspects. These rigorous methods must have gone a long way in the prevention of crime.[Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

It is interesting to note that Megasthenes divides Indian society into seven classes or ‘castes’. The first class was that of the ‘philosophers’, and, although numerically small, they were the most honoured. This class denoted the Hindus and ascetics in general. The second class was composed of cultivators, who constituted the bulk of the population. The third class comprised hunters and herdsmen. The fourth class included traders, artisans, and boatmen. The fifth was that of the warriors, representing the Ksatriyas. The sixth and seventh classes consisted of secret service men and councillors respectively. Evidently, here we have got a clear instance of mal-observation on the part or the Seleucid ambassador, for the last two could in no case have formed social divisions.[Source: “History of Ancient India” by Rama Shankar Tripathi, Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture, Benares Hindu University, 1942]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2020


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