The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 3, 2009


What was that story about the teacher and his obedient students? The teacher had a beautiful daughter over whom all his (male, naturally) students salivated. He announced that he would give her hand in marriage to the fellow who could steal an object of value without being witnessed by anyone at all. The horny fellows scarpered into the night and returned with sundry treasures. All of them claimed to have been cat-burglars of exceptional skill, unseen by anybody. But one fellow, the teacher's favourite, came back empty-handed. The teacher, puzzled by this strange inability, demanded to know why.

"There was always one witness to the crime," replied the ideal student. "Myself."

I'm sure there's a lesson in this somewhere, but it is entirely lost in the immorality of the teacher. Sure, he got his students to return their spoils, and the favourite fellow got the girl. But what sort of teacher expected his students to commit a crime in the first place? And make no mistake about it: even in ye olden times, the taking of another's property was a crime, and this is as old a story as the world.

In India, as elsewhere, there have, over the millennia, been various codifications of laws, both spiritual and temporal. The Laws of Manu are one example. Another is Kautilya's Arthasastra, where the duties of the citizenry and the ruling authorities are clearly described.  From the extant literature of the time, ancient India appears to have been quite a turbulent place, full of crime, both petty and great.

In some of the contemporary literary works, criminals are vituperated. The Brhatkatha of Gunadhya describes the comeuppance of adulterous women, false priests, and twisted rogues. There were admonitory works, such as the Mughopadesha, which aimed to educate the reader in the ways of the villainous that they may be detected and avoided. Satire was a finely honed art, as evidenced by the brilliant Kshemendra in his Desopadesa, where he describes the hypocrisy and crime that bedevilled Kashmiri society in his day, and exposes humorously the perfidy of the perpetrators.

Other works exalted the criminal. In the Dasakumaracharita of Dandin one can find all manner of skullduggery (you can find a review of the work itself at the Middle Stage): murder, fraud, impersonation, sundry illicit affairs and abduction. Almost all of these are lovingly treated by Dandin; indeed, more than one of the heroes of the book is a swashbuckling rogue of some kind or the other, bent on ravishing beautiful women as often as stealing their jewellery. What's more, says Dandin, there are treatises on housebreaking available, written by such illustrious thieves as Karnisulta.

The criminal situation in India then as now was a direct function of the puissance of state control. When Fa Hien visited the country during the reign of the Guptas - a strong and disciplined monarchy - he scarcely mentioned any crime, whereas Hiuen Tsang barely two centuries later, visiting Harsha's empire - a much more tenuous enterprise -  was waylaid and attacked by robber bands several times. Furthermore, the Guptas were sufficiently secure in their strength to not punish crime heavily, whereas by the time of Harsha, punitive measures were harsh and cruel.

So how did the authorities in ancient India police their populace? The very oldest works such as the Ramayana talk of policemen on the beat (Dandayudharanapi) whose remit was to chase after criminals. The Matsyapurana enjoins the authorities to ensure vigilance and appoint honest men, else the strong would eat the weak. From other works, it appears that much of the policing responsibility devolved around communal vigilance (merchants keeping an eye on other merchants, foresters on other foresters, and so on), village watchmen, various levels of espionage, and a system of applied penal law.

Kautilya describes an army of policemen in various roles: passport control at the ingress and egress of cities, watchmen at select locales such as wayside inns and places of entertainment, spies at various levels of society, interdiction of suspicious individuals, weapons control, the maintenance of correct weights and measures, and even fire service. He puts into place a system of internal checks in the police and the bureaucracy, and demands the prosecution of embezzlers and corrupt civil servants. Paranoia is not just a word for this astute statesman.

The policemen on the beat rotated every three hours; watch-towers were established. Their chief worked with the assistance of the village heads, and dealt with minor crimes by means of fines and simple punishments (although, occasionally, he also had the power to expel a person from the area). Hunters and dog-trainers were often employed for guard-duty, especially to watch out for roving bands of dacoits.

More serious crimes were dealt with by a system of magistrates appointed by the king. Breaking religious law or the ordnance laid down by the king were serious offences. Cases were brought forward by royal appointees who prosecuted the malefactors. I have not come across any mention of legal defence, or indeed experts speaking on behalf of the defendant. Cases were likely settled on the basis of hear-say, or the social differences between accuser and the accused.

The punishment for crimes against property was in direct proportion to the value of the object stolen. Petty criminals who stole out of economic necessity were often exonerated. Seasoned thieves might pay fines. Kidnappers of children for ransom faced more stringent punishment. Violence against women and murder were the most heinous crimes according to the codifiers of ancient law. Sedition was equally serious, and met with the most severe punishment.

Exactly what all these punishments were, I have been unable to determine. Knowledgeable readers may please enlighten the rest of us.


1. Das, S., et al, Crime and Punishment in Ancient India, Abhinav Publications, 1990.

2. Shah, G., Image Makers: An Attitudinal Study of Indian Police, Abhinav Publications, 1993.


Maddy said...

that was interesting feanor - i will post a small note on punishments in malabar, it should prove to be an interesting account.

Fëanor said...

Maddy: Thanks, I look forward to your piece.

Anonymous said...

the arthashastra has a detailed description for punishments for various offenses, another interesting feature was that kautilya/chanakya supported the notion of paying fines instead of serving the sentence (this would boost state revenues). the severity of the punishments are directly proportional to the nature of the crime (from a ruler's perspective that is). get a copy of the book for more information. Another good read would be Gary Becker's "Economics of Crime" for understanding the utility of harsh capital punishments.

Fëanor said...

Anonymous: Thanks for your note. I have heard about Chanakya's preference for fines to corporal punishment; reminds me a bit of how Muslims stopped proselytization efforts in Spain among the Jews and Christians because so many were converting that they were no longer earning enough by way of the non-believers' tax. Economics trumps all!

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