Legal system in ancient India reflects the outlook of the intelligentsia of that age. Legal system in ancient India was of two kinds, namely religious and secular. In ancient Indian society, crime and sin were distinguished as an offence against the state as well as against God. Legal system in ancient India includes various laws for curbing the violation of certain ethical principles. According to the legal system, criminals had to undergo compensation besides facing trial in a court of justice. Like for instance, the assassin of a Brahmana was legally responsible to both expiation and trial.
Legal system of ancient India included mainly 18 titles of law, although some authorities added a few more. According to Manu, these titles of law were non-repayment of debt, deposit, partnership business, resumption of gift, sale of an article by one other than its owner, non-payment of wages, breach of contract, duties of wife and husband, partition of inheritance, repentance after sale or purchase, dispute between the master and the keeper (of cattle), boundary dispute, abuse, too severe punishment, theft, violence, adultery, gambling and animal betting. Further, as per the procedural law under the legal system of ancient Indian society, a cause of action arises when a person, being harassed in a way contrary to the rules of Smriti and usage, lodges a complaint. The judicial proceedings usually comprise four parts, namely complaint, reply, evidence and judgement. Replies can probably be of four kinds, and these are admission, denial, a special plea, relating to a former judgement. Three types of evidences are mentioned namely document, possession and witness. In the absence of these human proofs, divine ones or ordeals are prescribed.
Artha Shastra and Manu Smriti
are considered as significant treatises as far as the legal system is concerned. In ancient Indian societies, an independent school of legal practices existed. Some general principles in connection with the judicial proceedings state that in case of disagreement between two texts of Smriti, justice according to usage is to be followed. In case of conflict between a text of Smriti associated with the dharma and one relating to artha, the former prevails. The former one sets rules regarding things unnoticed or otherworldly, while the latter one is more concerned with everyday matters. According to the legal system, an accused is generally barred from lodging a counter-complaint so long as the case against him is not disposed of. However, in case of violent crimes such a counter-complaint is allowed.
Legal system in ancient India also includes adverse possession and different modes of acquisition. Adverse possession grants right to the possessor if the owner who, even while seeing his property adversely possessed, does not raise any objection. A permanent property vests in the person adversely possessing it for 12 years without any objection from the owner. In the case of movables, the period is ten years. The suitable modes of attainment of a property are purchase, gift etc. Generally acquisition, by a valid mode, is stronger proof than possession. Acquisition, without even slight possession, is not valid. A mortgage vests in the mortgagee if it is not redeemed even after the principal amount is doubled. A mortgage, with a time-limit, lapses after the expiry of that time.
In the past, generally religious people were considered fit for being witnesses. Perjury and repression of evidence are punishable offences. But, if a true statement is liable to lead to the death of a member of a caste, an eyewitness is allowed to give false evidence; for the compensation of the sin. In the case of two conflicting groups consisting of an equal number of witnesses, the proof of the one containing more qualified persons is acceptable. If two groups of qualified witnesses differ, the evidence of those, who are most qualified, is to be acknowledged.
The general rule regarding partnership business was that the revenue and loss would be shared in proportion to the money invested by the partners, or as per the rules in the contract. Serious punishment was set for deforming a balance, false weights and measures and for forging coins. Further, anyone is fallaciously posing as a physician will be heavily fined.
Legal system in ancient India included laws for crimes and offences. As regards murder, some authorities consider these people as murderers - one actually committing it, the mastermind, and one who approves it, helper and partner in crime and the one who is primarily involved. Heavier punishment is set for murder with purpose than that without purpose.
Punishable suicide and permitted suicide is also included in the legal system in ancient India. Suicide is generally condemned. But, in certain cases, it is allowed as punishable suicides by some authorities. However, with the passage of time, this practice came to be firmly prohibited. Mistreatment consists in using dirty language to a person causing his sorrow or insult by loudly speaking ill against his country, caste or family etc. Agitation, use of government property for self-interest, defalcation of government funds and misconduct of the chief of prisons were the common offences to the state. According to Manu, use of charm or magic for causing harm to others is punishable.
The main principle, underlying the award of punishment, was restriction. This principle creates a sense of horror among the people. Another purpose of punishment was to restrain the offender. The idea was that if a lawbreaker was kept confined, he would desist from anti-social activities at least for sometime. Reformation of the offender was not ignored. Before imposing the punishment, several factors were to be considered like the time and place of occurrence, the intention, capacity, learning, age, sex, caste, etc. of the criminal. Different opinions existed as far as the death penalty is considered. Torture is also prescribed for extorting confession from the offender. The ancient literary texts mention different modes of torture. A historical study of the penal provisions in ancient India reveals a gradual relaxation of the severity of punishments through ages. According to Katyayana
, there will be difference in punishment according to the difference of castes. However, a liberal outlook is evident in the Indian Puranas
and Manu Smriti as far as the legal system in ancient India is concerned.