Ancient Indians were not known to have a great sense of history. Historians have had to rely a lot on accounts by foreign travellers and foreign sources to reconstruct our history. And all such sources, including Megasethenes, Fa-hsien and many medieval Arab travellers, have uniformly found that Indians were remarkably law abiding and that crime was very rare.
Most historians including A.L. Basham and recent writers like Abraham Eraly have treated such rosy accounts with suspicion merely because prescriptions in legal literature, largely comprising of the Smritis, reflected a more insecure and harsher society. This could either show that these foreign travellers were all fanciful in their writings on ancient India or that these ‘sacred’ texts played a very minimal role in governing the Hindu way of life. Apart from the absurdity of the suggestion that a traveller would lie in praise of a foreign land, the later scenario appears more probable because of another very interesting facet of ancient Hindu society- minimal State interference in the daily life of a citizen.
Therefore there was no overarching government administering a code of laws or enforcing punishments to maintain law and order and prevent crimes. The codes of Manu, Katyayana or Narada were largely irrelevant to the common Hindu. There appears to have been a latent realisation that the State and its laws are inherently incapable of creating a crime-free society and the onus for this has to rest more locally; perhaps even on the individual. And it is this realisation that has to dawn in today’s India. The realisation that ’12000 plus police stations in some 7 lakh towns and villages cannot regulate over 110 crore people’.
Prof. Werner Menski, in his seminal work on Hindu Law (Hindu Law: Beyond Tradition and Modernity, Oxford University Press, 2003), explains the Hindu view of dealing with crimes most accurately. He writes that despite the recognition of fall in human values from the golden period of early ages, law and punishment in the late classical period were never used to displace “self-control” as the primary social norm. He writes-”The conceptual expectation of self-controlled order in classical Hindu law would have empowered, in principle if not in practice, all Hindus to determine for themselves, as individuals subject to the highest order, what they should be doing. A ruler’s claim to make what Hart called ‘primarily rules’ could never have developed in such a conceptual climate, since in the classical Hindu systems such basic rules were to be cultivated in the social sphere and should then be implemented locally and individually in self-controlled fashion.”
It would be quite wrong to assume that the traditional, classical reliance on individual and situational self-control was completely abandoned…threats of punishment of are not purely secular…as most legal commentators have assumed…transgressions of Dharma are also seen as sins, which require penance and/ or attract posthumous consequences.” (Emphasis supplied)
Therefore, the recognition that the primary onus of adhering to Dharma is on the individual naturally meant that external/ societal interventions in the form of laws and punishments were superfluous in creating a crime-free society. The emphasis instead was on encouraging a Dharmic conscience among citizens.
Prof. Menski explains the current relevance of this idea- “In this regard it is instructive to refer to the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 which is widely seen as an example of the futile attempts by the state law to abolish socio-legal practices in Indian society…disgusted with the horrible stalemate over thousands of dowry deaths every year, some women activists began to call for a moral reappraisal. Yet, does this mean that the wheel of history should in fact be turned be back to Asoka’s idealism?
Postmodernist analysis recognises (albeit with some reluctance) that the old Hindu concepts of ‘examining one’s conscience’ (atmanastuti) and ‘model behaviour’ (Sadacara) retain their relevance today. While some modernist commentators have tremendous difficulty with this kind of approach, it cannot be just dismissed out of hand.”
What is needed in India today is a moral reappraisal on Dharmik lines. We Indians have come to imbibe amorality. In the western conception of Individual freedom and liberty, morality is a shackle. A variety of western thinkers including Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Marx joined cause in attacking allegiance to ‘morality’ as something that thwarts individual flourishing or sustains certain unequal socio-economic relations. We have subconsciously adapted this attitude of amorality as a natural concomitant of individual freedom or free market; without realising that unlike western morality which was fostered and sustained by the Church and the State Bharatiyamorality is individual-centric and freedom-enabling. It is also important to emphasise, especially in the current context, that our morality is entirely gender-neutral. A Dharmik society or Bharat will render most kinds of activism that we have seen after the Delhi gang rape, especially the feminist variety, redundant.
India unfortunately has forgotten to teach its children Dharmic morality. The only moralities we have come to follow are freedom and success. Today we stand in awe of a man from Gujarat who built a great business empire apparently through unethical and morally-suspect means; all in the name of his success. Seven centuries ago Marco Polo stood in awe of a different kind of Gujarati business men- the ordinary merchants of Lata who according to the Venetial traveller “are among the best and most trustworthy merchants in the world; for nothing on earth would they tell a lie and all that they say is true.” Isn’t this an example of the difference between India and Bharat?