human sacrifice and death penalty

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at ONLINE.NO
Mon Apr 27 08:02:43 UTC 1998

>This clear division between human-divine and human-society is a quite
>modern thing, not only in India but also elsewhere in the world. As an
>aside, it should be clear that the failure to bring about this
>distinction between "church" and state in modern Indian democracy is a
>key factor behind the contemporary Indian political ferment. In any
>case, the relationship between humans and divine powers is a very
>important consideration in traditional Indian constructions of society.

True enough. However, if you read Kautilya's Arthashastra (which is my most
important reference "idea bank" for ancient Indian politics) you get a very
clear impression of punishment as a mechanism for social control. Religion
is interestingly enough portrayd as a means of increasing this control and
manipulating the populace (a function of religion that seems to be prevalent
all over the world). As always, when we discuss opinions - today or in
earlier times - the crucial question is: Says who? The ideas of people
involved in the business of politics may have been different from the ideas
expressed by the priest caste. But it is perfectly correct that spheres that
we keep clearly apart today, were not kept apart in the same manner in
ancient societies.

>>Indology is not a place to discuss matters of criminal law and penalty,
>>for the record, let me add that I regard both the views expressed by
>>who support the death penalty and the views of Medhatithi as
>Leaving aside modern arguments for and against the death penalty,
>medhAtithi operates in a world where the king and his court combine the
>legislative, executive and judiciary functions of government. Moreover,
>the king is the earthly representative of a divine power. Add to this
>the mImAmsA notion of apUrva, and how it brings about the fruit of
>ritual acts, and medhAtithi's views on the punishment of criminals don't
>seem simplistic after all.

It depends on how you would analyse it. It was brought up in a "modern"
context, as an answer to something Jean Fezas assumed that I was saying. In
a modern context, Medhatithi's arguments are simplistic. However, I think
that they are simplistic in his own context as well as a discussion of the
"value" of punishment. Punishment in the Arthashastra is strictly functional
- the typical punishment is a fine, which boosts the treasury of the king.
If I remember correctly, I don't think Kautilya mentions purification of the
criminal at all (but correct me if I am wrong). The argument may seem
theologically sound to a philosopher or a priest, but their approaches are
sometimes idiosyncratic, as we can see with theologians even today.

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse Lars Martin Fosse
Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114,
0674 Oslo

Tel: +47 22 32 12 19
Fax: +47 22 32 12 19
Email: lmfosse at
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