The Idea of Justice

Manav Kothary

Sathymevodh bhavaramyaham[i]

‘Where there is Dharma, there will be Victory; and ‘The Truth Alone Triumphs’- are the essence of the true spirit of justice in India. The word ‘Dharma’ means ‘Justice’ or ‘Nyaaya’.

We draw our concepts of dharma from the ancient concepts laid down in the transcendental scriptures like the Vedas, the Smritis and the Upanishads, which include codes of conduct and rites and are preserved in Dharma Sutras, influenced the idea of Dharma or law in ancient India. Several Dharma shastras germinated within the first seven centuries of the Christian period, dealing extensively with Manu, Yajnavalkya, Narda, and Parashara smiritis, among other things. It was practiced in a variety of sects of the Vedic schools. Their main topics include people’s responsibilities at different levels of life, kings’ role and obligations, and constitutional concerns. The Hindu Law was constructed on these principles.

The Artha Sastra[ii] of Chanakya, which dates back to about 300 B.C., is the earliest paleographic text that sheds light on the philosophy of jurisprudence, which is a component of functional governance.

Ex-facie, his theory seems cruel as it was discriminatory with relation to caste and sex. Many of the principles and goals of Kautilya’s justice system are analogous to those of our modern justice system. Offenses such as inducing abortion, robbery, kidnapping, murder, and even government corruption were explicitly described, and Chanakya administered different penalties for each. Safeguards for the animal world and ecology were also included in his code.

According to Kautilya, there are four bases of justice on which any controversy must be adjudged –

  1. Dharma- based on truth
  2. Evidence- based on witnesses
  3. Custom- traditions accepted by the people
  4. Royal edicts- the law as promulgated.

The suppression of anti-social conduct was the responsibility of a bench of three Magistrates or Judges. Bullying, abusing, discrediting, and failing to perform ethical and legal obligations by a judge resulted in hefty fines and even impeachment from service.

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.”- Chanakya.

His Dandaniti contains compensation, detention, torture[iii], and capital punishment. The penalty was supposed to strike the right balance by acting as a caution against inflicting unfair punishment. The mitigating circumstances of the offender dealt with clemency.

Pillars of the justice system:

  • The rule of law

He emphasized unbiased justice administrations. Abhorring the doctrine of ‘Matsya Nyayay[iv] , he said that the vulnerable would not have to yield to the whims of the strong if adequate rules were in place.

As the Dharma-Pravartaka, it is the king’s responsibility to uphold the standards of justice and punish the guilty regardless of anything and defend innocence.

  • The laws must be lucid, terse and properly codified, unequivocal chaos.
  • The effectiveness of law enforcement depends on 3 factors-
  • Conscientiousness of the law enforcer,
  • Magnitude of punishment, and that
  • Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.

Religious leaders in classical antiquity attempted to convert Islam into a doctrine of law. Sharia was made the custodians of justice, a court kowtowing to their sovereign authority. The rulers were supposed to be loyal and bovine to the Sharia and history records instances when sovereigns willingly bowed to the Qazi’s decree.

According to Ibn Battuta,  Muhammad bin Tughalaq, the king of the Tughalaq dynasty, sat in the Mazalim Court to hear grievances on Mondays and Thursdays.

In the absence of the Sultan, an officer known as Amir-I-dad lorded over the secular Court from the 13th century onwards. He was also in charge of carrying out Qazis’ rulings and calling their attention to occasions when there had been a miscarriage of justice. The Muftis were Sharia law experts who issued Fatwas (formal legal rulings) on cases brought before them by members of the public or the Qazis.

The Qazi-I-Mamalik or the Qazi-ul-Quzat was the Sultanate’s Chief Justice. During the Mughal period, the secular judge, (appointed on behalf of the Emperor) was referred to as Mir-adl. He was expected to conduct independent and personal investigations and carry out Qazi’s directives.

Emperor Akbar also designated two officials, known as Tui-Begis, to oversee the law’s enforcement and set a modest amount for them.

The same structure was in effect until the British gained control of India. When Britishers started expanding in India, they experimented with various judicial systems in consonance with their own objective which acted as the foundation stone to the present day judicial system.

The Victorian Ideal of Justice assumes that Justice performs her task without fear or favor, and does not go by the appearance of the parties arraigned. It is depicted as a blind-fold lady standing with a sword in her up-raised right hand to threaten the wrongdoer with dire punishment and in the half-raised left hand she holds a pair of scales to weigh the evidence.

I believe that a blind-folded must face a huge difficulty in seeing which way the scale tilts and the direction of wielding the sword for punishment. The delay of course will freeze her raised hands. This may ultimately result in striking the innocent party.

Whereas the Indian depiction of Justice is:

Sword in her right hand and a pair of scales in the left hand but the difference here is the lady is not blind-folded, with clear eyes and unbiased vision she looks intently at the ever tilting scale held in the left hand, the tip of the sword in resting on the ground near her feet, so that owing to necessary delays the right hand is not frozen. With cleared eyes she can effectively weigh the evidence and strike the guilty party barely even by peccadillo striking the innocent.

The modern day judicial system compiles the virtues of both punitive (meaning to punish those who commit offences) and preventive (meaning to prevent a man from committing an offence) action.

Dharma is the basis of the whole world. It leads to the loss of sin. Everything reputed in it is for welfare in the world. That’s why it’s the greatest. It constitutes the foundation of all the affairs in the world. It has always been given an honorable place in the Indian society by our ancestors.


[i]  In mid 16th century, Yaduraya embarked on a Vijaya Yathra across the Mysore State to consolidate their rank. During the Yathra, an ascetic encountered and gave him a red cloth. The King offered pooja to it and accepted it as a blessing. He won all acclaim thereafter.  Following his stature rising to new heights, he announced red cloth as Rajdhwaja or State flag. To add the principles of dharma and sathya, the flag got a slogan as “Sathymevodh_bhavaramyaham” with the imaginary bird Gandaberunda. The bird was surrounded by an elephant headed lion on two sides and a lion carrying Mahishasura’s head on the top.
<https://www.deccanherald.com/content/106688/a-quiet-500th-year-gandaberunda.html>

[ii] The Arthashastra, an influential text on statecraft, is divided into 15 books broadly under three sections dealing with economic growth, justice policy, and international affairs. <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-history-of-economic-thought/article/abs/kautilya-on-administration-of-justice-during-the-fourth-century-bc/5681B71A0AA8F842FBC5947D6B7D5976>

[iii] Children, the elderly, the ill, pregnant women, and the delusional were all prohibited from being tortured in any conditions.

[iv]‘Matsya Nyaya’ or ‘The Rule of Fish’ can be equated to the ‘Law of Jungle’, says that  tiny fish become prey for larger fish, or the strong gobble up the weak. To put it another way, the powerful will triumph over the weak. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/matsyanyaya>

This article has been authored by Manav Kothary, first- year law student at Karnavati University (UWSL). He is currently working as a contributing author at The Blue Letters.

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