Report No. 35
J. Capital punishment and Buddhist rulers
It would appear, that in the fourth century B.C., capital punishment was in force, and death penalty without torture was administered for crimes accompanied with cruelty.1
Though, in the Buddhist period, the doctrine of Ahimsa (non-violence) became prominent, the Emperor Asoka does not seem to have abolished capital punishment totally. Reference to capital punishment is found in his edicts.2
Vincent Smith3 observes-
"The most pious Buddhist and Jain Kings had no hesitation about inflicting capital punishment upon their subjects, and Asoka himself continued to sanction the death penalty throughout his reign. He was content to satisfy his humanitarian feelings by a slight mitigation of the sanguinary penal code inherited from his stern grandfather in conceding to condemned persons three days' grace to prepare for death."4
Asoka's Pillar Edict IV has been thus translated5:-
'For as much as it is desirable that there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and uniformity in penalties, from this time forward my rule is this-
"To condemned men lying in prison under sentence of death a respite of three days is granted by me".
During this interval the relatives of some of the condemned men will invite them to deep meditation, hoping to save their lives or in order to lead to meditation him about to die, will themselves give alms with a view to the other world or undergo fasting. For my desire is that even in the time of their confinement the condemned men may gain the next world and that among the people pious practices of various kinds may grow including self-control and distribution of alms.'
There is a somewhat different version of this Edict given by some authors. Thus, Bhandarkar6 gives the following translation:-
"And even so far goes my order: to men who are bound with fetters, on whom sentence has been passed and who have been condemned to death, have I granted three days as something rightfully and exclusively their own. (In that interval) (their) relatives will indeed propitiate some (of the Rajukas) in order to grant their life; and to propitiate Death, they (i.e., the convicts) will give alms and observe fasts pertaining to the next world7. For my desire is that even when the time (for their living) has expired they may win the next world and that manifold pious practices, self-restraint and liberality may thus grow among the people."
In a recent study8, the position is thus stated:-
"Continuing his efforts to secure greater welfare for his subjects, he orders a respite of three days before a death sentence is carried out. This is an act of grace, since he recognizes that this time may, in certain cases, be utilized to prove the innocence of the condemned person or to secure his repentence. It is curious that, despite his firm belief in Buddhism, he, did not abolish capital punishment. Doubtlessly he regarded capital punishment as essential to the maintenance of law and order, and, despite his personal convictions to the contrary, felt that justice in the state must be based on recognised painful punishments or pleasurable rewards9."
The following translation of Pillar Edict IV of Delhi-Topra is given in a recent work10:-
"And my order (reaches), even so far, (that) a respite of three days is granted by me to persons lying in prison on whom punishment has been passed; (and) who have been condemned to death. (In this way) either (their) relatives will persuade those (Rajukas) to (grant) their life, or if there is none who persuades (them)( they will bestow gifts or will undergo fasts in order to (attain happiness) in the Other (world). For my desire is this, that, even when the time (of respite) has expired, they should attain (happiness) in the other (world)."
This is the translation of the Edict given in that study11:
"Thus speaks the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadassi : When I had been consecrated twenty-six years I had this inscription on Dhamma engraved. My rajukas (rural officers) are appointed over many hundred thousands of people. In judgment and punishment I have given them independent authority, so that the rajukas may fulfil their functions calmly and fearlessly and may promote the welfare and happiness of the country people and benefit them.
They will learn what makes for happiness and unhappiness and together with those devoted to Dhamma, they will admonish the country people that they may obtain happiness in this world and the next. The rajukas are eager to obey me and they will likewise obey my envoys who know my wishes. These likewise will admonish (the erring rajukas) so that they will be able to give me satisfaction.
Just as one entrusts his child to an experienced nurse, and is confident that the experienced nurse is able to care for the child satisfactorily, so my rajukas have been appointed for the welfare and happiness of the country people. In order that they may fulfil their functions fearlessly, confidently, and cheerfully, I have given them independent authority in judgment and punishment. But it is desirable that there should be uniformity in judicial procedure and punishment.
This is my instruction from now on: Men who are imprisoned or sentenced to death are to be given three days respite. Thus their relations may plead for their lives, or, if there is no one to plead for them, they may make donations or undertake a fast for a better rebirth in the next life. For it is my wish that they should gain the next world. And among the people various practices of Dhamma are increasing, such as self-control and the distribution of charity."
The view that Asoka abolished capital punishment is therefore a misconception.12
(Asoka came to the throne about 270 B.C., according to the generally accepted view13).
It may be noted, that when Magasthenes was in India (i.e. some time between 302 and 288 B.C.) the severest penalties were imposed, having regard to the needs of the age14. Kautilya advocated the death penalty, though only in specified cases15.
One may also refer to the views of Prince Shotoku (Japan) (604 A.D.), who thought his "Seventeen-Articles Constitution" was based on the spirit of Buddhism16, wrote:-
"Light crimes should be embraced by our power of reforming influence, and grave crimes should be surrendered to our power of strong force".
King Harsha (seventh century) inflicted capital punishment on all who ventured to slay any living creature17.
1. See B.R. Ramchandra Dikshitar Mauryan Polity, (Madras University „Historical Studies), (1953), pp. 167-168.
2. The edicts of Asoka are collected by D.C. Sircar Inscriptions of Asoka, Government of India, (1957).
3. Vincent Smith Early History of India, (4th Edn.), p. 185.
4. Pillar Edict, IV.
5. See Vincent Smith, Asoka, (2nd Edn.), p. 186.
6. D.R. Bhandarkar, Ashoka, (Carmcihael Lectures, 1923), (University of Calcutta, 1932), p. 342.
7. This is the most knotty passage. See D.R. Bhandarkar, Ashoka, p. 345, annotation 7.
8. Romila Thapa Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, (Oxford University Press) (1961), pp. 176-177 (See p. 263 for translation of the Edict).
9. There is an interesting passage in the Mahabharata (Santi Parva, 259), which expresses an attitude very similar to Asoka's attitude in this matter. According to the Chinese travellers, capital punishment was abolished in later centuries.
10. Saletore Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions, (1963), pp. 570, 670 citing E. Hultzch Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarurn, Vol. I, p. 125.
11. Romila Thapar Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Oxford University Press, (1961), pp. 263-264.
12. See B.R. Ramchandra Dikshitar Mauryan Policy, (Madras University Historical Studies), (1953), pp. 167-168.
13. See Sir Charles Elliott Hinduism and Buddhism, (1957), Vol. I, p. 266, foot-note 4.
14. See Saletore Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions, (1963), (Asia Publishing House, New York), pp. 536, 544.
15. Saletore Ancient Indian Political Thought and Institutions, (1963), p. 570, citing Kautilya, Book IV, Chapter XI, pp. 256-258.
16. Nakamura Basic features of the legal political, and economic thought of Japan, in Moore, (Editor), Philosophy and Culture-East and West, (University of Hawaii), (1962), pp. 631 (636, 638).
17. Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics, Vol. 4, p. 284.