Justice and Laws in Ancient India4
From the standpoint of distributive equity, justice was experienced by men in three major guises. These guises were moral justice, social justice and legal justice. Each of these forms of justice was viewed as a particularization of the general principle of the universe seen as a total organism. From the broadest to narrowest conception, then, ancient Indian views on justice are inextricably bound up with a sense of economy.
The operations of men and the universe itself involve the continual readjustment of particulars to fit the normative balance of the whole. Human institutions of justice like the state, law, etc.participated in the overall economy. However the belief remained strong in India through the centuries that Nature, itself, is the ultimate and final arbiter of justice. Ultimately, justice was cosmic justice. Some of the basic principles which laid the foundation to the concept of justice in ancient India were:
1. JUSTICE AND INDIVIDUAL MORALITY - Some of the frequent western impressions about India was that it was a society that engulfed its individuals in its various collective units. In spite of this, the status, dignity and autonomy of the individual person have always been held in high value, if not in practice, most definitely in theory. Valorization of the significance of individual life begins with the earliest literature. Gradually by the time of the early Upanishads (c. 600 B. C.) it became extremely prominent.
Viewing the natural world as an organic whole, all forms of life were seen as interrelated. The thrust of nature was evolutionary. A single individual was believed to be incarnated at a number of different levels within the order of nature as he progresses (or retrogresses) on the evolutionary scale. The ultimate perfection of life, moksha or spiritual emancipation, was achieved most usually only after the individual passes through a number of animal and human incarnations.
The status of man is at the zenith of the chain of existences insofar as opportunity for realization of the final goal is concerned. Self-responsibility for one's own position in society meant that the hierarchy of classes was itself regarded as a reflection of karmic justice. Social inequality is seen as equitable. In that the rights and duties, the privileges and responsibilities of a particular class are envisioned as commensurate with the levels of spiritual and moral development of its individual members.
Any system of rights and duties which did not take into account the actual differences between these individual levels of advancement on the path of evolution and which advocated indiscriminate equality would itself have been seen as unjust. The salvation of the individual laid in the quality of his performance at the level on which he finds himself.
II. JUSTICE IN SOCIETY AND STATE - Although man embodied the highest spiritual principle, he was, nonetheless, embodied. This fact automatically involved the individual in relations with others. It also placed him in an empirical social context which is conceived of as was completely or fully natural and organic. Both the fact as well as the quality of the individual's embodiment was seen as something which were self-determined.
III. JUSTICE AND THE ROLE OF LAW - The ancient Indians were not only idealists but also realists and pragmatists. They were fully aware that the official world-view and the actual ethos of men do not always, in fact, correspond with each other. Even if justice and harmony were spontaneous, it was unreasonable to expect that they would remain so in the Kali Yuga, the present age of decadence.
Therefore the state performed its duty of protection of society and the individual through coercive enforcement of the standards of justice. These standards were reduced for the purpose into the details of positive law (vyavahaara). Early codes of law, covering every aspect of life, are preserved in the voluminous Dharmasuutra and Dharma`saastra literature. Out of these perhaps the Maanavadharma`saastra or Laws of Manu was the most well-known.
However, the administration of legal justice and regressive punishment was not performed mechanically or indiscriminately without respect for persons. Even here the informing vision of man on an evolutionary and hierarchical path to the realization of the highest spiritual value held full sway. Also it tends to bring us back to our point of departure. Men did not stand as equals before the law. A hypothetical suggestion to the effect that men were equal before the law would most likely, have been dismissed as unjust. Justice was not blind in ancient India.
It is only just in this scheme of things that more in the way of a penalty should be expected of those with greater moral capabilities. As also who should be expected to know better, while less should be required of those less advanced on the path.
Thus, the Varna system very frequently decried as a form of virtual enslavement especially in some of its modern forms. In classical times it was officially regarded as an instrument of both social cooperation and individual emancipation. By following the duty (svadharma) of one's Varna which was clearly detailed in books of law and subject to the just administration of the state, one actually attained the necessary liberty to engage in the universal spiritual quest.
Thus, in the ancient times, one of the chief duties of the king is the maintenance and protection of the Varna system through his power of danda. This king was obeyed because it was realized that Varna and the state were the necessary aids to the achievement of the final goal of life. Stemming from the moral conception of the universe and the axiom of the individual's destiny to self-realization, the ethical, social, state and legal distinctions of ancient India were firmly based on an ideal of equity and justice expressed in terms of natural hierarchy rather than of equality.