A Glimpse of the Criminal Justice System in Hindu Villages of South India through Historical Anecdotes

Several epigraphic records give us an awesome picture of the extraordinary Hindu justice system that prevailed in South Indian villages from time immemorial. This justice system was underscored by a deep sense of spirituality dating back to the Rishis of Sanatana jurisprudence.
A Glimpse of the Criminal Justice System in Hindu Villages of South India through Historical Anecdotes

THROUGHOUT THE CENTURY of the modern Indian Renaissance, it was an article of truth that one could not offer cogent and honest interpretations of the Sanatana civilization unless one imbibed its spiritual core. Writing in 1927, this is what N.N. Law said:

In the case of the ancient Hindus, the value of the spiritual side of their civilization is very difficult to be realized by a man of the twentieth century because of the frame of mind that is generally developed in him under the influence of the current thoughts and environment. But it was this spiritual culture which was indissolubly bound up with every phase of the ancient Hindu civilization, and influenced and determined…their manners, customs, and institutions, through which their thoughts and feelings found expressions.

Nowhere is this truer than in the political systems, institutions, traditions and practices that Hindus founded and nurtured throughout the ages. More than merely bookish codification, this political system operated via customs, which in turn acquired great authority because they were actually values lived by real people and were generationally transmitted. We cited one such glorious example in our essay on the ancient, Yogic village of Sorade.

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Thus, when we remove this spiritual element from our politics and statecraft, we get the crude type of competitive politics that we observe in Western democracies. It is unfortunate that we blindly adopted the same system without first conducting a philosophical debate as to its feasibility for a spiritual civilization like India, which had just emerged from a millennium of oppression. The Western model of democracy is essentially competition and competition divides, and there is no telling when competition culminates in bloodletting. However, the Sanatana theory and practice of statecraft whose roots are moored in Vedanta, recognizes what is known as tara-tama bhava, or the hierarchy inherent in nature. In its political expression, this was transformed as a continuous attempt at harmonizing the various elements of this hierarchy after giving due recognition to the value of each element. This is how social and other conflicts were minimized and a mechanism for self-rectification was built into our civilisation and culture. The inseparable companion of self-correction is self-renewal: the lake renews itself when the silt at its bottom is cleared out. This is the Sanatana method.

The other facet of harmonizing the aforementioned hierarchical elements shows itself in the near-ideal decentralization of the administration, in its widest possible meaning. For several millennia, Bharatavarsha had almost perfected the system of what is today fashionably known as “last mile delivery of governance,” i.e., the village. It is not a coincidence that the luminaries of the modern Indian Renaissance and Mohandas Gandhi repeatedly stressed on the fact that the “real India lives in her villages.”

Successive monarchs throughout our history recognized and respected village autonomy and rarely extended their imperial hand upon it. Quite the contrary. They actually made it a point to honour the village, its headman and its councils. The Gupta, Pallava, Chola, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Hoysala, and Vijayangara monarchs made liberal gifts to villages and endowed their temples with various sevas. The reason was rather straightforward: the villages were self-governing in every sense. They knew their place in the hierarchy of the Empire and were endowed as self-restraint. They did not impinge on the affairs of other villages and vice versa. They were the preservers of their own unbroken traditions, which in turn, was a subset of the umbrella of Sanatana Dharma, which they obeyed unquestioned. The king or central government also knew his place in this umbrella: it was impossible for one person to adjudicate on matters purely local or unique to each village or locality. Our greater admiration for this system is the fact that the king had the humility to understand this limitation and conducted himself accordingly. Thus, when we today notice supreme court judges making authoritative pronouncements on every Hindu cultural tradition and even upon our sacred Devatas based on a superficial understanding, it is clear that our democracy seems to be premised on an inversion of Dharma.

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The village was an independent republic in a manner of speaking. It had its own administrative machinery, revenue-collection mechanism, police, and above all, the timely delivery of justice. In this essay, we shall look at some glimpses of how justice, especially criminal justice was delivered in the villages of South India. These are derived from epigraphic records spread over seven centuries: from the 11th century to the 18th century, cantered mainly around Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

What Real History Tells us

We first provide some real-life incidents of crime followed by the verdict of the respective village council. All the incidents occurred in various villages in the South Arcot district between the 11th and 12th centuries.

1. Two men had gone out for hunting in the forest. One of them, endowed with poor marksmanship, mistakenly shot his companion with the arrow which he had aimed at a deer. A case was lodged. The verdict: the crime was unpremeditated, and the shooter was required to give a gift of 64 cows to the Tiruttandonri Aludiyar Temple for burning a lamp to the deity.

2. In a friendly swordfight in which the practitioners tested their skills, a thrust by the sword unfortunately killed one of the participants. The verdict: the offender had to provide 32 cows for the burning of a lamp in the Tirunageshwaram-Udaiyar Temple.

3. A drunk husband, in a fit of anger, pushed his wife down and the poor woman died. The verdict: the guilty man had to work free of cost at the local temple for a specified period. At the end of each day, he had to light a lamp at the same Tiruttandonri Aludiyar Temple and recite stotrams praying for the peace of his wife’s Atman.

4. An ill-tempered mother once flung a stick at her daughter. However, the stick missed its target and instead hit another child who was standing nearby. Twenty days later, the child died as a result of the injury. The verdict: the husband of the woman had to present 32 cows to the Urbagangondarulina-Nayanar Temple for the merit of the deceased child.

All the four instances are clear demonstrations of what is known as prayaschitta or expiation or atonement, one of the main pillars of the Hindu justice system. It is equally clear that this was not just any form of prayaschitta but a specific one involving donation and service to the temple. The annals of Sanatana literature—both sacred and worldly—are replete with hundreds of stories and real-life examples of the value of prayaschitta as a form of punishment, a guiding ideal of life, and as a soul-purifying agent. In these four instances, it is significant that prayaschitta was recommended because of the purely accidental nature of the offence. Even more significant is the fact that these judgements were engraved on the walls of the respective temples.

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On the purely mundane plane of life, the donations to these temples also helped to keep the economic engine of the villages well-oiled.

We can also cite some more examples of a similar nature.

1. A merchant had a concubine whom another man attempted to outrage. The merchant stabbed the latter and killed him. The verdict: strictly speaking, this was not a crime in those days. However, it was also held that the act of murder should not go unpunished. And so, after the village council consulted with the dead man’s relatives, the merchant was ordered to offer a perpetual lamp to the Tanronri-Alvar Temple in the name of the deceased. Period: 1012 CE, Tamil Nadu.

2. A village official demanded heavy taxes from a woman and repeatedly harassed her. The unfortunate woman took poison and died. The over-zealous tax-collector was found guilty and excommunicated from the village. He was also ordered by the village assembly to expiate his sin by paying 32 Kasu (money, cash or coins) to the Tiruttandonri-Mahadeva Temple and lighting a perpetual lamp. Period: 1054 CE, Tamil Nadu.

3. A poor man named Chedirayan was responsible for the death of a fellow villager by some indiscreet act of his. The verdict: the murderer’s uncle was ordered to give a gift of lands to the temple to atone for his nephew’s crime. Period: 1170 CE, Kerala.

4. Two men severely beat a man who had allowed his buffalo to trespass into their field. The buffalo had caused substantial damage to the crops. Unfortunately, the victim died. The verdict: the Bhattas of the village ordered the offenders to provide for a lamp in the temple. Period: 1190 CE, Kerala.

Punishing Royal Offenders

Apart from the common citizenry, royalty was also unexempt from punishments ranging from the mild to the harsh. We can cite a few instances of this from the Travancore kingdom.

First, we have an interesting inscription from Kollam dated 1702 CE. It narrates how a high-ranking temple official assaulted some of his juniors. As punishment, he was suspended and ordered to pay a huge fine to the temple treasury.

Now we can see some instances of royalty being punished.

1. The Chera king Kulashekhara-Chakravartin (1102 CE) was once summoned to trial by the town council, which met in Panaingavu Palace at Kollam. He had been found guilty of killing some Ariyars (Brahmanas) who were functioning as Archakas in the Rameshwara Temple. The verdict: the king had to make a substantial land grant to the temple and had to undergo some prescribed penance for atonement.

2. In 1344 CE, Vira Keralavarman of Tiruvadi was found guilty of murdering some Brahmanas and other temple officials. The verdict: he was ordered to pay land compensation to the survivors. He also had to make substantial donations to the temple.

3. In 1382 CE, Vira Martandavarman atoned for certain atrocities he had committed against various people, by giving the gift of silver pots and fines to the temple.

4. In 1416 CE, Vira Ravivarman paid a huge penalty for having killed some men in a petty scuffle. The survivors were suitably compensated.

The epigraphic records that narrate these incidents say that these penalties were called garvakkattu or amercement for high-handed conduct. The delinquent kings were forced to pay them in order to pacify popular anger and to bring the offender to justice no matter how powerful he or she was. The penalty and punishments were awarded by the local assemblies which wielded enormous power in those days. Clearly, it is noteworthy that the kings allowed themselves to be fined. But then, they were merely adhering to the timeless Sanatana dictum that the power of the king is derived by the popular consent of the people. This is the exact opposite of that criminal generalization peddled by our “history” books about Hindu kings as being uniformly despotic. Indeed, as DVG correctly observes: “wherever there was a Hindu sovereign, there was no tyranny.”

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Hindu kings subjecting themselves to trial and punishment also finds several echoes in Sanatana jurisprudence. It may be summarized as follows: the ruler, who is a servant of the people and receives his revenue of rakshabhaga, or remuneration for his services, is thus logically liable to pay fines for wrongdoing.

In a majority of cases, justice and punishment depended on Deshachara (customs specific to a region) and Kulachara (customs specific to clans, etc). Thus, some village assemblies or councils or other local bodies which wielded judicial powers within their own jurisdictions, did not award punishments commensurate with the degree and circumstances of the crimes which they adjudicated. It could be argued today that the clemency they showed towards the murderer was quite unjustified. It also appears that they only provided for the spiritual welfare of the soul of the murdered individuals by ruling that the culprits shall offer lamps, donate cows, and similar Dharmic actions.

One reason for this could be a conscious and time-honoured custom of trying to reduce the tendencies of extreme vengeance on the part of the victim’s survivors. Simultaneously, it was also meant to induce the feeling of remorse within the perpetrator by putting him in front of the Devatas, the real judges. The idea of all Hindu lawgivers was to mitigate ill-will within the society as far as possible through a determined pursuit of the spiritual. Conscious forgiveness on the part of the survivor and conscious expiation on the part of the perpetrator are two sides of the same coin.

In a paper written in 1925, the Trivandrum-based academic, Dr. Ramanatha Ayyar puts this beautifully:

This humane legislation compares very favourably with the barbaric severity of the penal laws of the so-called ‘enlightened’ nations of the West, which till the last century punished such trivial offences as the breaking of a window and stealing of two pence worth of paint, with death.

There is much food for thought when we think about it in a different light: violent prosecution of a criminal as opposed to ordering the criminal to light lamps in a temple daily without fail. Hopeful reform and self-purification.

Our ancients chose wisely.

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