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We all know the immense contribution ancient Roman, medieval Roman (or Byzantine), and pre-modern HRE cannon law has made to the modern world. These empires relied on a written constitution (or code) and trained magistrates, lawyers, and notaries [cf. Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire; Peter H. Wilson, Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War]. Much of today's European civil law can trace its origin to those cannons and much of our current legal framework (courts, judges, constitution, senate, and lawyers) are a direct copy of their ideas.

I know that India also has a long tradition of its own legal principles. For example, we know from John Keay: India --A History that during the Mughal period, the administration was uniform and structured and that there existed courts (known as kotwaalis) and magistrates (or kotwaals) [cf, ]. But how did this law function and how was it administered? Where did it originate --did the Mughals bring it with them or was it indigenous to India?

Therefore, I have three three questions for the legal framework in India's ancient period and early middle kingdom period (i.e., 2nd century BCE - 7th century CE):

  1. Was there a (more or less) uniform law? A uniform law would mean that different kingdoms and janpads would follow roughly similar laws. Non uniformity would mean widely different laws in different realms.
  2. Was this law (or these laws) documented?
  3. Were there lawyers and trained magistrates?
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I don't have a ready answer for you, but can point out this relevant source: Amartya Sen: The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity –  Drux Feb 17 '13 at 11:34
    
@Drux. Thank you. I just found a copy (which returned me to this question and prompted a rewrite). It is a very interesting read. –  Monster Truck Jul 20 '13 at 9:08

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Uniformity:

Ancient India was essentially Hindu-ruled. And its foundation of judicial system was based on the concept of 'Dharma', or rules of right conduct, as outlined in the puranas and smritis(remembrance) which explains vedic scriptures. The King had no independent authority but derived his powers from `Dharma’, which he was expected to uphold. So, Dharma denotes 'rule of law'. Hindus followed the concept of 'Dharam' and therefore the legal framework in Ancient India was uniform.

Legal Texts:

The major texts or documents which formed the legal framework in Ancient India was Dharmasatra and later during and post Maurays, Arthasastra.

Dharmasatra has following smritis:

  1. The Manusmrti (200BC-200CE)
  2. The Yajnavalkya Smrti (200-500CE)
  3. The Naradasmrti (100BC-400CE)
  4. The Visnusmrti (700-1000CE)
  5. The Brhaspatismrti (200-400CE)
  6. The Katyayanasmrti (300-600CE)

Of these smrtis The Manusmriti was considered superior to the other Dharmasastras which dealt with the duties of a king, the mixed castes, the rules of occupation in relation to caste, occupations in times of distress, expiations of sins, and the rules governing specific forms of rebirth. Naradasmrti has been called the “juridical text par excellence” and represents the only Dharmasastra text which deals solely with juridical matters and ignoring those of righteous conduct (Dharma) and penance. Katyayanasmrti is specialized in vyavahara (legal procedure). Besides these texts, the edicts of kings was also important source of law.

Lawyers and Trained Magistrates:

Among the four varnas, only the brahmins were allowed to study texts. Manusmrti recommended the king to give the power of judicial administration to Brahmins in his absence. The juries in the court of the Brahmin judge were also Brahmins. Manusmrti also describes the court where three Brahmins versed in the Vedas and the learned judge appointed by the king as the court of four-faced Brahman. So, those brahmins who studied these texts formed the corps of trained lawyers and Magistrates.

According to Brihaspati Smiriti, there was a

hierarchy of Courts in Ancient India beginning with the family Courts and ending with the King. The lowest was the family arbitrator. The next higher Court was that of the judge; the next of the Chief Justice who was called Praadivivaka, or adhyaksha; and at the top was the King’s Court. The jurisdiction of each was determined by the importance of the dispute, the minor disputes being decided by the lowest Court and the most important by the king. The decision of each higher Court superseded that of the Court below.

(For more details see - 1.2.2. Judiciary in Ancient India in The Legal system in ancient India )

The text Vivadarnavasetu (the sea of litigations) have a section (ch. III, § II) explicitly called "Of appointing a vakeel (or attorney / lawyer)." Its contents are:

If the plantiff or defendant have any excuse for not attending the court, or for not pleading their own cause, or, on any other account, excuse themselves, they shall, at their own option, appoint a person as their vakeel; if the vakeel gains the suit, his principal also gains; if the vakeel is lost, his principal is lost also.


Other sources:

  1. Early India: From the origins to AD 1300 - Romila Thapar
  2. Manusmriti: A Critique of the Criminal Justice Tenets in the Ancient Indian Hindu Code.
  3. The Legal system in ancient India - Shivaraj S.Huchhanavar
  4. "Lawers" in Classical Hindu Law - Ludo Rocher
  5. For DOC file of Vivadarnavasetu
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In the discovery of India, Nehru argued that Manusmriti took hold as Kautilya's arthashastra faded post Gupta period. Was this a return to Manusmriti or emergence of Manusmriti? –  Monster Truck Jul 21 '13 at 16:46
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@bhau Was this followed in south India as well. is there any proof for that ? –  kartshan Aug 21 '13 at 4:07
    
Answer is right to the point and gives the exact information. –  Pradeep Sep 16 '13 at 9:50

From the 6th Century CE to the 11th century CE, the laws followed were in the form of edicts issued by Emperor Ashoka the 'great'.This was followed till the end of the Maurya Dynasty.

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Welcome to the site! Can you perhaps expand the answer a bit? –  Felix Goldberg Dec 19 '12 at 10:47

Law in Ancient India was followed by the Kings based on the Artha Shastra compiled by The Legendary Kautilya.

At least it is believed commonly in India among the common folk that Artha Shastra was indeed the guidelines for a King to be an astute ruler.

This was followed by definitely by the Mauryan Kings and was considered to be the last of such a treatise on the art of statecraft,war and foreign Policy.

There are individual sections in the book for the following 1) Treasury, Sources of revenue, Accounts and Audit. 2) Civil service regulations 3) Departments of the government 4) Law and Justice

Regarding the documentation of these laws, the culture of passing down the art,literature in ancient India was primarily Oral, so we do not find a single complete source of the same.

Even before the Mauryan empire came to existence, there were earlier versions by Brihaspati,Ushanas,Prachetasa Manu, Parasara, Ambhi, Vishalaksha and finally Bharadwaja.

It is believed that Kautilya version's influence lessened after 12th -13th century due to the foreign invasions and foriegn Kings.

So it can be said that, Artha Shastra did define a legal framework to be followed by Ancient Indian Kings.

In Artha shastra , the people who maintain law are Judges and Magistrates (King in special cases i believe) who are of the ranks of ministers. There will be panel of judges ( for civil cases) and magistrates ( for criminal cases and marriages)

For Example, If you have a dispute over land you go to the judges and file a suit. Then you will have to give statements to the clerks (also your defendant gives) Then hearing will start. You have to provide sureties till the dispute is settled. Witnesses will be bought by yourself to support your case and Judges will decide on the dispute.

P.S : Have moved the comment to the answer as suggested.

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@MonsterTruck In Artha shastra , the people who maintain law are Judges and Magistrates (King in special cases i believe) who are of the ranks of ministers. There will be panel of judges ( for civil cases) and magistrates ( for criminal cases and marriages) . If you have a dispute over land you go to the judges and file a suit. Then you will have to give statements to the clerks (also your defendant gives) Then hearing will start. You have to provide sureties till the dispute is settled. Witnesses will be bought by yourself to support your case and Judges will decide on the dispute. –  kartshan Feb 22 '13 at 0:42

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