In ancient India, legal equality was unknown. There was one law for the Brahman while another for the Sudra. The former was treated with undue leniency whereas the latter with cruel severity. If a Brahman committed one of the four or five heinous crimes enumerated in the law-books, that is, if he slew a Brahman, violated his guru's bed, stole the gold of a Brahman, or drank spirituous liquor, the king branded him on the forehead with a heated iron and banished him from his realm. On the other hand, if a man of a lower caste slew a Brahman, he was punished with death and the confiscation of his property. On the other hand, if he slew a man of equal or lower caste, other suitable punishments were meted out to him.
Adultery has always been looked upon in India not only as a criminal offence, but as an offence of a heinous nature. However, here again punishment for the offence was regulated by the caste of the offender. A man of the first three castes who committed adultery with a Sudra woman was banished; but a Sudra who committed adultery with a woman of the first three castes suffered capital punishment.
In order to point out the vast distinction between themselves and the Sudras, they prescribed monstrous punishments for the latter, which, it is safe to assert, always remained an empty threat, and were meant threat only.
If a Sudra spoke evil of a virtuous person belonging to one of the first three castes, his tongue was to be cut out, and a Sudra who assumed an equal position with those castes was to be flogged. Similarly we are told that a Sudra who reviled a twice-born man or assaulted him with blows should lose the limb with which he offended; that if he listened to a recitation of the Veda, his ears should be stopped with molten lac or tin; that if he recited the Veda, his tongue should be cut out; and if he remembered Vedic texts, his body should be split in twain.
Other laws involved that if a Kshatriya abused a Brahman must pay 100 karshapanas, and one beating a Brahman pays 200 karshapanas. A Vaisya abusing a Brahman is fined 150 karshapanas. But a Brahman had to pay only 50 karshapanas for abusing a Kshatriya, 25 for abusing a Vaisya, and for abusing a Sudra nothing.
Death or corporal punishment seems to have been the punishment for theft, at least in some cases; and the thief is directed to appear before the king with disheveled hair, holding a club in his hand, and proclaiming his deed. If the king pardons him and does not slay him or strike him, the guilt falls on the king. The prerogative of mercy was the king's alone. But a guru, a priest, a learned householder, or a prince could intercede for an offender, except in the case of a capital offence.
The lawgiver Vasishtha reserved the right of self-defense. This was in the case of a person attacked by an Atatayi, a class of criminals including incendiaries, poisoners, those ready to kill with weapons in their hands, robbers, and those who took away another's land or abduct another's wife.