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Law as the epics propound it

Does modern jurisprudence bear any resemblance to ancient Indian legal philosophy? To what extent do we find such congruence? A talk by Justice V. Ramasubramanian, honourable judge of the Supreme Court of India, juxtaposed the current eurocentric legal theory with that of ancient India. The webinar – ‘Law and Justice from our Epics’ – was organised by Aatmalaya Academy and was attended by dancers, teachers and students interested in the ancient Indian tradition.

By narrating stories from smritis, vedas and puranas, the honourable judge discussed a number of ancient legal principles and explained how they coincide with modern law. Categorising Hindu scriptures based on their nature and hierarchy of authority, he observed: “If shrutis and smritis are similar in character to the international conventions, acts, orders and judicial pronouncements, puranas and itihasas are like legal cases that are complicated by real life situations.”

Mentioning some of the instances where substantive laws were laid down during the times of Ramayana, he explained Bharata’s list of moral injunctions. “Bharata’s list had laws related to ethical business, family matters, taxation, pollution of the environment, breach of trust, addiction and more,” he cited. Similarly, contract law principles can be seen in the epic of Ramayana. “When Dasharatha decides to crown his eldest son Rama as his successor in the royal court of Ayodhya, his wife Kaikeyi reminds him of his promise made to her years ago. In order to bind him to his earlier promise despite his decision in the royal court that contradicts it, Kaikeyi remarks: ‘It will be in vain to build a dam when the water has already run down.’ This principle can be seen in most of our commercial laws today,” he said, providing example of how a bank treats two payees who present cheques. The bank pays to the payee who presents the cheque first, he added.

Another well-developed area of law during those times, according to him, was the law related to diplomatic relations with neighbouring states. “When Ravana sent Sukha to persuade Sugriva not to be on the side of Rama, Sukha was attacked by the vanaras. Being an envoy of Lanka, Sukha cautioned Rama that he ought to be protected. Interestingly, he is believed to have also uttered some exceptions to this rule at this juncture: ‘Only those envoys can be attacked who do not convey the message of the king or convey their own message’.” Making parallel connections to contemporary law, Justice Ramasubramanian referred to Article 31 of Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961 which grants immunity to diplomatic agents from criminal prosecution. “It also lays down exceptions which enable the foreign state to take action against the envoy if his actions were outside his official duty similar to the exceptions explained by Sukha.”

Principles of impartial adjudication and fair arbitration were given utmost importance during the ancient times, he said, recalling a story from Adi Parva of Mahabharata. Sudhanva who gets into a conflict with king Prahlad’s son Virochana, approaches Prahlada himself to settle the dispute. He however cautions him that his head would split into a thousand pieces if he falsely decided the matter. Prahlad seeks the advice of sage Kashyapa who asks Prahlad to judge the matter based on merit and with fairness even if it went against his own son’s interests.

“It is interesting to note that one was not only obliged to decide matters with fairness but also not allowed to abstain from speaking truth. It was the same rule that made Sahadeva (one of the Pandavas) provide his astrological expertise to Duryodhana to set an auspicious time for Kauravas to begin the war of Kurukshetra, although he was an opponent. Learned men during these epics were expected to keep professional ethics of the highest order,” observed the judge.

He made another compelling observation that most of the substantive legal principles of ancient India seem to have originated during the times of Ramayana, whereas procedural law seems to have largely developed during the times of Mahabharata. Answering a question that sought an explanation for the same, the judge called attention to the yugas (Treta and Dwapara yuga) during which they were written. “In fact, there was no need for a legal system during the Satya yuga as all men adhered to the truth. But down the yugas, as vices of men kept growing, there emerged a necessity to codify laws. We, therefore, see more procedural laws during the Dwapara yuga as it comes chronologically later,” he explained.

Concluding his detailed lecture, the Justice Ramasubramanian remarked: “A significant difference between modern law and the Dharmashastras is that if the former is concerned with only ‘conduct’ of human beings, the latter dealt with both ‘conduct’ and ‘character’.”

The lecture was intriguing as it made connections between modern and ancient philosophies, law and religion. It also provided opportunities for comparative studies of legal philosophies and their integration. Dwelling into religious texts for seeking legal and ethical principles could immensely benefit positivist law that is founded on logic and reason, although care and caution must be taken not to carry out such exercise from an ideological lens.

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