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Author: Harjass Kaur Ramgadiya, I Year of B.A.,LLB (Hons.) From MNLU nagpur (maharashtra national law university).


India has the oldest judiciary in the world no other judiciary system in India has more ancient or exalted pedigree. In the following research we shall go through various aspect of ancient judicial system. Various events of past has led to major changes in the modern judicial system. Various literature sources from the past gives as a detailed vision of the ancient judicial system. Judicial system of Maurya Empire led to the formation of Arthashastra by Kautalya. Niti Shahstra, Dharmashatrs and Mahabharata of ancient have significant impact on justice delivering system of today. The research is oriented towards various philosophies by ancient scholars. Law in the ancient time was different for different sutras of societies and the concepts of equality, liberty, and freedom of expression seemed to be quite suppressed in the ancient era. But the gradual growth and development in the ancient texts related to judiciary like Nyayshastra various Vedas shows us the entry of the above mentioned concepts. King / ruler have always been the center for delivering justice to the common. He is the final authority to take final decision even though judicial system exist king have final authority.


The aim of the project is to analyze the judicial system. To compare justice delivery system of ancient era with the current legal system.


  1. To study ancient judicial system and practices with reference of literatures like Arthshastra, Mahabharata, Dharmshastra and many more

  2. To know ideologies and views of various philosophers

  3. To know about rules and regulations and kind of punishments in ancient india.

  4. Comparing to compare ancient jurisprudence with contemporary jurisprudence

Research Question

  1. How was the justice process in ancient times?

  2. Similarities and differences in ancient judicial system and Modern development system?

  3. What were the different kinds of punishments?

Research Methodology

The doctrinal method of research was used to approach the aforementioned topic in this research work. It is a type of source-based research in which the information is gathered from both classic and current written text sources such as books, journals, newspapers, and e-sources. This strategy is both descriptive and analytical. The project's challenges have been thoroughly investigated using an extensive literature review. To present an informed and perceptive study, the researcher has attentively examined all sources. Opinions of research scholars, academicians, and other specialists who have worked on this topic have been incorporated as a genuine contribution to this study.


The scope of study is to take good values or laws from ancient criminal justice delivery system and use it as a framework in making contemporary laws; Also to identify loopholes and avoid mistakes done by the lawmakers in past in making new laws.


Manu Smriti

It is the ancient Indian legal system. The primary titles of laws are mentioned in Manav dharma Shastra. Smriti highlights the necessity of competent judicial system which is purely justice system based on Dharma. According to it, Administration of justice is the prime duty of king. It establishes strong and clear framework for competent independent authority of judiciary.

Manus period is when criminal jurisprudence first emerged. He provided a detailed code of the then-dominant religion, philosophy, and social practises. He classified law under 18 titles.

The idea by Manu Smriti was used in the colonial era by the Britishers to resolve disputes among Hindus on issues related to family laws. Even lawmakers have referred it; example of this is chapter 4 IPC

Drawbacks of Manu Smriti

It was biased. The Brahmins enjoys liberty and they were placed above all other casts. Discrimination is against natural justice principles. It does not made clear difference between private and public wrong.

It also suppresses women. According to it, “it is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; one should never sit alone with ones mother, daughter or sister. Since carnal desire is always strong it can lead to temptation”


In succinct expression of vast and basic concepts of justice and common sense. These guidelines have been provided by pundits and Brahmins and are clear, universal and logically reasonable.

Among the sutras, kalpa sutra is the oldest one. The other types of sutras are Shauta Sutra, Grihya Sutra, and Dharma Sutra.


Vedic and early Vedic period

As the lord of Dharma and the person who held ultimate control over the administration of justice, Naman was revered in ancient India as the source of justice. His main duty was to defend the rights of his subjects. The Chief Justice's Court was located next to the King's Court, which was the highest court (Pradvivaka). There was a hierarchy of judges as a result. In villages, basic civil and criminal matters are handled by village councils (Kulani). The courts were looked over at a higher level in cities and districts by government officials under the King’s power to execute justice. For the purpose of resolving disputes between members of the craft community, merchants, etc., trade guilds were granted the ability to exercise effective control over its members. There were already family courts in place. Puga assemblies were convened by groups of families in the same village to settle civil issues between family members. judicial councils in villages handled less serious criminal offenses, whereas serious.

Maurya period

The king was in charge of all important decisions and served as the source of justice and the law. There were various courts, mostly in the towns and villages governed by pradesikas, mahamatras, and rajukas. There are now two different sorts of courts: dharmastheya, which handles civil cases, and kantakasodhana, which handles criminal crimes. In all large cities and headquarters, there is at least one court and one police headquarters. Village elders ruled on minor disputes in the panchayats of the villages. In civil cases, the Hindu Code of Law has been applied as intended by the shastras. On the veracity of other people's facts, there was reliance. Even minor offenses like avoiding paying taxes to the government, providing false testimony, injuring artisans, common larceny, etc., carried exceedingly harsh penalties. All of these cases involve disfigured bodies. There have been 18 different forms of torture, including 7 whippings. The criminal code was extremely pertinent.

The criminal code was extremely stringent and strictly applied. Setting an example for others and discouraging misconduct was the plan. Megasthenes praises "the Mauryan law and order" without reservation. According to him, "crimes were rare; robberies and murders were practically unheard of; people seldom ever locked their doors; and the state ensured the safety of life and property."

Gupta Period

Because of the size of its organization, the Gupta Empire was not only formidable but also charitable. The Council of Ministers and higher state authorities served as constitutional checkpoints. The freedom of constitutional uses was frequently used to steer the entire administration. The legal system was significantly more advanced during the Gupta era than it had been earlier. Several law books were first assembled during this time period. Additionally, there were clear-cut civil and criminal laws. The chief justice was referred to as "Mahadandnayak." The chief justice, however, was KING/SAMRAT. The King, who acted as the state's highest court, decided any disputes. Even though his choices were final, the monarch could not continue to oversee such a vast dominion on his own. A number of judges also assisted him in carrying out his judicial responsibilities.

King's court, poog, shreni, and kulik were the four classes that made up the court. Court categories have already been covered. The Gupta era saw virtually little punishment. Rarely have punishments like the death penalty and severe amputation been applied. Criminal regulations were less strict under the Gupta era than they were under the Maurya. The central court, which was normally controlled by the King or other royal authority, heard criminal trials. The appeal process was used, with the Monarch serving as the ultimate body of appeal. One important aspect of the old Indian legal system was the absence of lawyers. Another important feature was that, rather than having a single individual administer justice, it was frequently preferred for a bench of two or three judges to do so.


Types of Court

Division of the courts is described in Katyayna Smriti

Katyayana Smriti is most likely the most recent smriti, it is similar to the legal system: it establishes law. It clearly distinguishes between civil and criminal law on one hand and substantive and procedural law on other. Great depth about the process; presentation of a pliant, written declaration, alteration of the pleading, evidence, estoppels, res judicata and contructive res judicata, qualification of judges, imposition of death penaly even on Brahmins and many more things are covered in this.

  1. The Kula

It is also known as family councils. It consists of elderly people who give knowledge to family members about handling the conflicts inside the family or among families of similar background.

  1. The Shreni

Trade or professional councils are termed as Shreni. It is the gathering of senior peoples who are regarded as unbiased among group of traders, professionals, and artisans to mediate disputes

  1. The Gana

The village assemblies were known as Ganas. This was a huge gathering of elders of the village or elders of Grama who were known for knowledge, unbiased and trustworthy by people.

  1. Adhikrita

This is the court appointed by the king. It consists of justices who are well versed in the Sastras and Smritis. Forms of courts vary on its jurisdiction. Court also includes Pratishtitha that are the founders of certain village or town and Aparatishtitha (moveable court). Mudrita was a highest court that can use the royal seal.

  1. Sasita

The kingdoms highest court is the kings court (Sasita). It includes king who presides over, chief justice called Pradvivaka and group of judges named Sabhyas.

  1. Nripa

The king was considered as the supreme authority in judicial system. He was governed by Dharma, which could not override.

“Law is the king of kings”

The village courts, Kula, Shreni, and Gana, had jurisdiction over all civil and criminal cases with the exception of violent crimes. All instances involving violence ought to be heard by Adhikrita, who was chosen by the King. The Sasista (king's court) will decide on all physical punishment, but the king will ultimately decide how to administer it. The subsequent higher courts of each court have the authority to review all judgments. The panchayat, or local village councils Kulani, are made up of a board of four or five people (Pinchas), who aid the local government administer justice and settle disputes. Due to the fact that this laid the groundwork for the current concept of arbitration and mediation, they played a vital role in ancient India. At a later stage, the courts in the towns or districts were presided over by government officials under the king's authority to administer justice. The key figure in the village became the link between the local village management and the legitimate management.


The judges called Dharmasthas must have knowledge of laws governing court process known as vyavahara, Legislation on all subjects that is dharma, Bahushrutha which means deep research , they should also have well intimately knowledge in rule of evidence called pramananjana, they must be responsible and law abiding citizens i.e. nyayasasthrevilambinah and should be well versed in Vedas and Tarkas.

The further requirements for a judge of court are given by Katyayana. According to it judges chosen by king should be delightful, kind, bright, active, not arrogant and cruel. Ancient scriptures also give some of the criteria for selection in accordance to it judges should posses bravery, courage. They should be unbiased and autonomous.

Smritis and Sastras established judges. These are the lofty and honorable position in administration of justice in society. For the competent independent authority of judiciary, Smriti established a strong and clear framework.

Shukra Nitisara also outlines some requirements for a person to be selected as a judge. He should be wise, excellent in character and temperature, factually correct, gentle in speech, truthful, active; free from range grade or evil desire, impartial to friends or adversary and must have knowledge of law.

Concept of Lawyers

In ancient times lawyers were called as Niyogi these were generally the class of Brahmins who were well equipped with the knowledge of dharma and Vedas. Sukra Neetisara indicated that the lawyers are entitled to collect pay to extent of one sixteenth, 1/40, 1/80, 1/160 of the claim of suit. Hence the payment is indirectly proportional to the lawsuit

Court Proceedings

The court proceeding includes judge, complaint, defendant, plaintiff.


The person or party who is accusing the other person of wrongdoing is plaintiff. Vadin was the term used. Dharam kosa gives the description for the plaint as succinct in words, abundant in meaning, clear, free of immaterial facts, empty of unsuitable reasoning and arguments, accurate and not logically inconsistent, should include purpceseful request directed at defendant of respective case.


The person who is have been harmed by someone else files the complain in the court. The one who files the complain in the court is complaint; he was known as Pratijna


The person who is accuse of the wrongful act is known as defendant. Prati vadin was the term used in ancient times.

Court fee:

Unlike in present times, concept of court fee also exists in ancient era. The amount was fixed not in monetary terms but on the basis of lawsuit amount; debtor has to pay five percent of the lawsuit amount whereas Plaintiff pays equivalent amount.


It is the document of triumph. It was known as Jayapatra. It includes a simple note of plaint and written statement, corroboration by both the parties


The legal position that only the party whose right was violated and not a third party may bring a civil action makes the distinction even more obvious. While the King or an officer could not initiate a civil lawsuit on their own, they were required to look into a criminal offence based on a single piece of information. In Manu Smriti, it is emphasised that the King [State] has a specific obligation to prevent crime, identify criminals, and punish offenders.

  1. Duty of state to detect and punish offenders.

सभाप्रपापूपशालावेशमद्यान्नविक्रयाः । चतुष्पथाचैत्यवृक्षाः समाजाः प्रेक्षणानि च ।। जीर्णोद्यानान्यरण्यानि कारुकावेशनानि च । शून्यानि चाप्यगाराणि वनान्युपवनानि च ।। एवं विधान्नृपो देशान् गुल्मैः स्थावरजङ्गमैः । तस्करप्रतिषेधार्थं चोरैश्चाप्यनुचारयेत्।।

  1. ‘People who commit crimes or who plan to commit crimes are typically located in places like assembly houses (clubs), hotels, brothels, pubs, music halls, gaming establishments, old gardens, forests, artisan shops, natural and artificial groves, etc.

  2. In order to deter thieves and other undesirable characters from such areas, the King must station soldiers and spies there.

  3. He ought to appoint previous thieves who were affiliated with such dubious elements so that offenders may be found and dealt with. [IX-264-267]’

The obvious distinction between civil wrongs that gave birth to a civil action and offences that gave rise to criminal proceedings by the King against the offender is established in Manu [264-267]. This categorization still holds true in contemporary legal thought. When compared to other ancient legal systems around the world, this is what sets Indian ancient law apart.

  1. Aiding the offence of theft, harbouring thieves and receiving stolen property are also punishable

अग्निदान् भक्तदांश्चैव तथा शस्त्रावकाशदान्। सन्निधातॄंश्च मोषस्य हन्याच्चौरमिवेश्वरः।।

The monarch will punish anyone who provide fuel, food, tools, or shelter to thieves while knowing they are thieves and then they receive stolen goods. [IX-278]

  1. Exemption for acts of steya in certain cases

वानस्पत्यं मूलफलं दार्वग्न्यर्थं तथैव च। तृणं गोभ्यो ग्रासार्थमस्तेयं मनुरब्रवीत्।।

It was determined that taking someone else's property to the extent necessary and in certain situations did not constitute stealing.

For purposes such as feeding cows, for religion, etc., anyone who removes grass, fuel, flowers from trees and plants from any location commits an offence or Steya. [VIII-339]

  1. Lighter penalty for offence committed out of negligence

गृहं तडागमारामं क्षेत्रं वा भीषया हरन् शतानि पञ्च दण्ड्यः स्यादज्ञानाद्विशतो दमः ।।

A 500 panas fine is imposed on anyone who occupying a house, tank, garden, or land against their will. If the same act was done carelessly or unintentionally, a fine of 200 panas will be levied. [VIII-264]

  1. Right of Self defence

गुरुं वा बालवृद्धौ वा ब्राह्मणं वा बहुश्रुतम्। आततायिनमायान्तं हन्यादेवाविचारयन्।। नाततायिवधे दोषो हन्तुर्भवति कश्चन प्रकाशं वाऽप्रकाशं वा मन्युस्तं मन्युमृच्छति ।।

Whether the assassin is one's own teacher, a minor, an elderly man, or a Brahman knowledgeable in the Vedas, anyone can kill him without hesitation if he approaches him with the intention of killing him. The person who kills an assassin does not violate any laws. [VIII-350-351]

According to Kulluka's commentary on the aforementioned law, the right to use force in self-defense may be used when there is no time or opportunity to request the King's [State's] assistance and any delay in taking revenge will result in loss of life or ruin. According to Kulluka, the right to kill an assassin must only be used when there is no chance of escape and leaving the assassin unpunished will result in the victim's death. According to Mitakshara On Yajnavalkya II-286, this is true. According to Apararka, a person who is about to burn property on fire or kill someone must be considered an atatayi [assassin], and the only option is to kill him to avert disaster.

The defence of women and the vulnerable is included in the right to self-defense. According to Mitakshara, a person has the right to confront and kill another not just in self-defense but also to protect women and weak people who are unable to defend themselves from violent or murderous attack. Even murdering a Brahmana while using this privilege is legal.

  1. Decision regarding quantum of penalty – independent of trial

The uniform rule outlined in all the Smritis demonstrates that, in regards to offences triable or tried in a court presided over by the Chief Justice or any other Judge, or by the King, the question of determining the quantum of punishment solely vested in the king after the court had recorded its finding of guilt. He had to make the decision on the severity of the punishment on his own, taking into account all the statutory factors in addition to the charge that had been proven. According to the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973, which mandates a separate hearing about the severity of the penalty, the significance of this procedure is recognised.

अनुबन्धं परिज्ञाय देशकालौ तत्त्वतः सारापराधौ चालोक्य दण्डं दण्डयेषु पातयेत्।। अधर्मदण्डनं लोके यशोघ्नं कीर्तिनाशनम् अस्वर्ग्यं परत्रापि तस्मात् तत्परिवर्जयेत्।। अदण्ड्यान् दण्डयन् राजा दण्ड्यांश्चैवाप्यदण्डयन्। अयशो महदाप्नोति नरकं चैव गच्छति ।।

I] The King should inflict the punishment that the defendant merits after giving appropriate consideration to (a) the purpose, (b) the place of the incident, (c) the offender's capacity to bear the penalty, and (d) the type of the offence.

[ii] Let the King first correct [offenders] with a soft reprimand, then with a firm reprimand, then with a fine, and last with corporal punishment.

[iii] A king who sentences people to death who are innocent or sentences those who have been proved guilty to harsh or unjust punishments brings great shame upon himself and is condemned to hell after death. [VIII-126-128]

The aforementioned clauses required the King to be extremely cautious and wise when it came to imposing fines. First, he had to be convinced that the accused was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if the accused was found guilty, the King was required to consider the accused's age, physical condition, and health when determining the sentence, as well as his capacity to endure the punishment and any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, if any, like provocation or his prior record. The King was obligated to treat first-time offenders kindly.

  1. Orders of the king should be obeyed

तस्माद्धर्म यमिष्टेषु व्यवस्येन्नराधिपः अनिष्टं चाप्यनिष्टेषु तं धर्मं विचालयेत्

Let no one violate the law that the King establishes, including the prohibition against performing activities that the King forbids or dislikes and the order to refrain from performing those acts. Everyone must abide by the King's orders. [VII-13]

The aforementioned verse can convey the idea that the King has absolute authority to make laws. However, the term "law" was employed in this context to signify "royal command," given by a King without defying established tradition or recorded scriptures. According to how Medhatithi, Kulluka, and other commentators have understood this rule, it only applies to legitimate directives in worldly issues.


Chanakya says-

“It is the power of punishment alone when exercised impartially in proportion to the guilt and irrespective of whether the person punished is the king’s son or an enemy, that protects this world and the next”

Mahabharat states

“Punishment preserves Dharma, Artha and karma”

It can be evident from literatures that the punishment plays a crucial role. There exist division of society into classes; the varnas. Brahmana was at the top, it consists of priests and scholars, the Kshatriya were next to Brahmana they were the warriors, the Vaishya was the class of farmers and merchants, and the Shudra were laborers. Different kind punishments were given to different persons for the same wrongful act in according to the section of society they belongs.

The punishments were divided into four categories as follows:

  1. Vagdanda - Reprimand or Admonition

  2. Dhigdanda – Condemnation or censorship

  3. Angaccheda – Mutilation

  4. Vadhadanda – Capital Punishment or death penalty

It is uncommon to find people who are constantly pristine in all parts of their lives and deterrent has always been required to correct the offender.

Dhanda Neeti in Shastra depicts

“Even without king and his authority to chastise offenders, ordinary people would have constantly been plagued by dread, insecurity and threats to life and property”

Pillars of Justice System

There were the four bases of justice in ancient times: Dharma (based on truth), Evidence (based on witness), custom and traditions (accepted by people) and the royal edicts (law as promulgated).

The most decorated part of ancient judicial system; no one was above the law. Though the king exercises final authority, he was also bound by dharma. Judicial freedom was obligatory on king. Since Dharma has the supremacy. Law derived its legitimacy from trust of populace and king in Dharma.

“Law is the king of kings”

There was checks and balances for public officials. Doctrine of Matya Nyaya which means less powerful are suppressed by powerful should not be followed. Law was clear, concise and codified. The effectiveness of the enforcement of law depends on the factors like honesty of law enforcer, proportionality of punishment, importance of judicial fairness.

There were different kinds of laws:

Dharma- sacred laws

Vyavahara- secular laws

Chaitra – customs

Royal laws

Relevance of Ancient Justice System in Present times

The hierarchy of judges is present in Indian judiciary from the top court of chief justice which was known as Pradvivaka to the lower court. Higher courts can review the decision of lower courts. The stages of civil court consist of plaint, reply, hearing and decree. The principle like res judicata; in ancient times referred a prang Nyaya are also been used in Indian jurisprudence.


The justice delivery system has been present from the vedic period and later vedic period and the changes and developments were brought in it and is still now evolving. The punishments in the ancient criminal justice delivery system were too brutal and were against mankind. With the passage of time changes have been made in it, loopholes in the systems are being fulfilled in the contemporary laws. The ancient laws also serves as a basic framework structure from framing new laws. The court system and hierarchy of the court have been evidenced from past and still now its being followed. Many of the concepts which were present in ancient justice system are still now being in practice.


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