Mahabharata on Capital Punishment

You can read my earlier post on Capital punishment here.

I will try and extract an healthy discussion between a king and his son on the need for *Capital Punishment* from the Mahabharata. There are any number of such arguments in the MB. Today, we are so sensitive to our own thoughts and are unable to handle diverse opinions that we fly off the handle at opinions that are only seemingly different from our own. But in those *Barbaric* days, the uncouth minds were able to do that.

To put it bluntly if the Mahabharata was written today, there would be protests because Duryodhana insults Vidhura as Low Caste ignoring the fact that:

1. MB holds Vidhura in high esteem; and

2. It is said in course of a heated argument and is not a stated opinion of the author.

This excerpt is from *The Mahabharata – An Inquiry in the Human Condition* by Chaturvedi Bhadrinath.

An Argument against capital punishment

Perhaps for the first time anywhere, it is in the Mahabharata that an argument against capital punishment was advanced. It develops in answering the question of Yudhishthira , put to Bhishma: ‘How should the king protect the people in a way that he does not also have to cause violence to anybody?’

Bhishma narrates a conversation that had taken place between Satyavan and his father Dhyumatsena, a king.

.Satyavan puts forth his argument against capital punishment as any part of a civilised penal code, as follows:

  • One should use only that system of punishment that does not dismember the body. Neither should anybody be punished without first carefully examining the alleged offence of a person and applying to it the established principles of law.
  • On putting a robber to death, the king renders his wife and children, his father and mother, without any means of sustenance, which is like putting them to death as well. therefore, the king must think carefully.
  • Besides, a wicked person often turns over a new leaf and acquires goodness, and the children of the wicked often grow into good human beings.
  • Therefore, by sentencing a person to death, one should not destroy his very roots. Rather, some other form of ordinary punishment may quite be the opportunity for him to repent and reform himself.
  • Should he go to a preceptor, and promise that he would do no wrong again, he should be pardoned. But if a person does wrong again and again, then he should receive a punishment greater than what he would have for his first offence. for he would have then forfeited his pardon as in the earlier case.

.King Dhyumatsena lists instead the following reasons for imposing increasingly harsher punishments to protect the people from wrong doers. Whatever is required to keep the people within the bounds of dharma, to do that is all dharma – until those bounds are breached. In times long ago, it was easy to govern people, for they were gentle, given to truth, and there was in them very little enmity and aggression. . . . . . . And now has arisen the necessity to impose the death penalty; even then , it seems impossible to keep the wicked within bounds…….

  • If you can find no way of protecting good people except by sentencing the robbers to death, or cannot reform the wicked without doing violence to them, then, keeping their past and their future in mind, do what is for their good.
  • The purpose of governance is not to kill the wicked, but to create conditions in which the people can be good.

The discussion continues, as Satyavan moves to another ground – what can create conditions in which people can be good. When Satyavan argues for abolishing Capital Punishment he still recognises that this is tied to the State’s responsibility to protect the innocent and the King also does not talk of retributive justice but only for the need to protect good people and the need for harsher punishment as an unpalatable but yet unavoidable solution.


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