human sacrifice and death penalty

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at ONLINE.NO
Mon Apr 27 19:12:02 UTC 1998

>I hope the above is not the report of a contingent phenomena, but the
outcome of reasoning, in other words: are there any arguments?
>Of course this list is not intended for a debate on legal or ethical
issues, but it might not turn out to be unreasonable to ignore
anthropological and sociological points of view. After all in order to
understand Indian rituals, we have to know what a ritual is.

My angle in this matter is, as already stated, the angle of Dandaniti. That
is, ancient India knew a highly sophisticated political theory where the
role of the king was seen as determined by his function as "stick-carrier".
I believe the Arthashastra says it in this manner: "If the king didn't
continually punish criminals, the strong would rost the weak like fish on
spit". Or something to that effect. In other words, Indic political theory
was about the use of power for various purposes, not about ritual. That does
not mean that ritual did not have a role to play - we all know that it did.

The Arthashastra has a curiously rationalistic character. Some years ago, I
gave a talk on the A. to a group of people, among them a former
vice-minister of the ministry of defence. I gave a break-down of the
essential features of Kautilya's theory on how to run a state and how to run
a foreign policy, and after the talk the former vice-minister came over to
me and said: "You know, it is still pretty much in the same way. Your
Kautilya is surprisingly modern". In other words, a modern politician could
relate immediately to Kautilya's way of thinking. I think this is precisely
because the Arthashastra is stripped of ritualistic thinking. What is
interesting about Medhatithi's comments upon punishment, is that the same
question about the usefulness of punishment is being asked today, and the
same simpleminded answer is given by some persons: Because some criminals
continue to commit crimes, punishment doesn't "help". Therefore, M.
rationalises punishment as purification. But both he and his modern brethren
in the spirit forget that most rational people evaluate both possible
punishment and reward when they decide on what to do in many situations.
This is evident today when there is police strike, and otherwise law-abiding
citizens start plundering department stores. And reading the A., you get a
clear impression that India's policy makers saw human behaviour very much as
something ruled by expectations of reward or punishment. Indeed, I think
that what the Arthashastra offers us is an early form of rational choice

My point is: In spite of the overwhelming amount of ritual speculation that
India has produced, we should not jump to the conclusion that the men who
ran an ancient Indian state and an ancient Indian judiciary were completely
dominated by ritualistic thinking. To the contrary, their way of thinking
may in some respects have been much closer to the modern mindset than we think.

>Some scientists might want to think that modern western culture has
marginalised all rituals, but maybe this is just because rituals are not
called that way anymore and are hidden behind technical instruments and
rationalisations. If we take this for granted, it doesn't help us
understanding rituals very much. Apart from that sociologists like Weber,
Durkheim and Bourdieu insist on the relation between religious concepts and
social matters. Michel Foucault shows in his 'Discipline and Punishment' how
the way we punish criminals is related to the way we conceive ourselves and
our society. Just to say that it is and has always been a matter of
retaliation or deterrence doesn't seem to be a substantiated conclusion.

I would certainly not deny that there is a connection between religious
concepts and social matters. This is obviously correct. But if we look for
motivating psychological forces in the modern world, religion gets strong
competition from political ideologies, not to mention that various kinds of
intellectuals such as sociologists, political scientists etc. furnish the
modern statesman or politician with a great deal of his intellectual tools.
Modern ideas about man and society are only marginally formulated by
religion, at least compared to antiquity. My suggestion is that even in
former times there were rationalists who did not take religion very
seriously (unless as a way to manipulate people), in fact, the Arthashastra
tells us that India had its share of them, the men that regarded the Vedas
as a cloak for sophisticated "men of the world" to hide behind. This means
that ideas about punishment, crime etc. cannot simply be seen through the
eyes of the historian of religion or the anthropologist, they also have to
be analysed as tools for social and political control. That is why it does
not make sense to read dharma-shastra without reading arthashastra at the
same time.

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
Mobile phone: 90 91 91 45

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