Given that crimes against women have risen to an alarming level in India, it would be worthwhile to travel back in time and understand how Vedic society dealt with crime against women.
Vedic age as a society
Crime and society are intricately related. In order to understand how crime and culprits were dealt with, it’s important to understand the society in question. The Vedic Society was founded on the pillars of Dharma as enunciated in Dharmshatra. It was essentially a plural society based on the concepts of high degree of morals and anything against the moral or conscience was considered to be crime. in the Indian scriptures much thinking has been done on moral valuesand social laws, so that the people may not deviate from rightful path and should be duty bound. The Vedic society ensured that the divine rules ought to be observed at all levels and times. In that context, the writers have enumerated the categories of heinous actions, untruthful behaviour, malefactions, malicious activities and evil deeds, in order to warn people to keep aloof from them and avoid contamination. There is no common list of sins acceptable to all Hindu Dharmashastra writers, but sins are mentioned with different names.
The following general observations can be made in relation to crime and punishment in vedic society:-
(1) The law of crimes was a fairly developed one, and recognized most of the major crimes that are known to the present day criminal law.
(2) The reformative aspect of punishmentwas completely absent, and the retributive and disabling aspects were prominent.
(3) The law was based on the classical theoryof punishment, that “if every crime were automatically followed immediately by extreme suffering, crime would almost entirely dis- appear.
(4) Offences against property and offences of a sexual nature against women received special treatment.
Crime against women
Crime against women in Vedic Society was considered to be a crime against her body, which was in contrast to various contemporary civilization of that time which treated crime against women to be a crime against the property (“women”) of guardian/ husband.
The majority of the text which deals with the crime against women, relates to crime against her body. In Vedic Society, great value was attached tothe chastity of women. Therefore, any attempt to rob her off of chastity was considered to be a sin. The Punishment as per Manu for such crime included throwing the perpetrator out of the society.
Interestingly, the scriptures provide an insight into not only how the perpetrator of offence of rape was dealt, but also how the victim was dealt by the Society. It is surprising to note that when victims of rape in modern India are admonished by the Society, the vedic Society was much more supportive of survivors of rape.
The Rigveda does chronicles the way vedic society treated survivors of rape/ sexual assault. In one the incidences, the victim Ushas (Dawn),flees to a cave, traumatised. She is then befriended by minstrel rishis who track her to her hidden dwelling, and offer praise and support. Singers gather in front of Ushas’s cave praising her radiance and lustre and persuading her to come out, which she eventually does.
In one of the hymns the rapist is punished; an arrow is shot at him. Society did not judge Ushas. It rallied to her aid, boosting her morale and helping her emerge from post-traumatic depression into a happy and normal life.
Contrary to modern day India, neither the rape victims nor the children born out of rape were stigmatised, rather the society used to come to their aid.The society stigmatised neither the rape survivor nor the children born as a result of rape. A father who abandoned such a child was looked down upon, whosoever he might be.A concept, which is totally alien to modern day India!
Ancient vedic text reveals that Prostitution was not an offence in Ancient India and there were well laid out rules for conduct of Prostitution. Especially in Kautilya’s Arthashatra, there were details rules laid down as to payment of women, what happens on refusal of payment etc as well as for crimes committed by women (ganikas) and against them. Even though, prostitution was recognised as a necessary evil, neither Kautilya, no Dharmashastras assigned the reasons for giving daughters for prostitution and hence, difficult, to find the grounds for giving girls to ganikadhyaksha and most probably they were abducted and sold (much like today’s trafficking channels). However, unlike modern times, where we have Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act, no such prohibition was there on procurement of girl for Ganikashala.
One of the popular examples is of Amrapali, who was decided by the villagers to be their “nagarvadhu” against her wish and had to lead a life of ganika, against her wish.
- Female infanticide
As the Vedic society was a moral society based on the concept of dharma, any deviation from dharma was considered to be a sin. Some scholars like P.V. Kane and A.S. Altekar had tried to rule out theprevalence of feticide in ancient India, but had accepted the scanty occurrences of infanticide only, whereas some prominent western writers of history believed that both the crimes, namely, infanticide and feticide were in prevalence in later Vedic period with their meagre presence even in the early Vedic period. However, almost all the ancient texts were opposed to the crimes of feticide. Nrsimha Tapniya Upanisad and many other ancient texts have highly condemned this ghastly and inhuman crime and ascribed to the severest punishment, including death penalty for such acts.
Besides sexual violence, physical or psychological violence against women is discouraged in the Rigveda, as illustrated by the famous funeral hymn. A woman who lies down, depressed, beside her dead husband is urged to get up and embrace the world of the living – with laughter, good food and song. She is even encouraged to take the hand of a suitor who could be a potential second husband. Therefore, one can deduce that Sati was not prevalent in Vedic India and was only a later addition.
Therefore, one can deduce from aforementioned facts that Vedic Society being primarily based on concept of Dharma was opposed to any kind of violence against women and women were treated with respect and dignity and person in their own rights. It was a society where a woman’s self-worth and honour were not diminished simply by a crime against her person. Hopefully, we can use our distant ancestors’ social norms for inspiration in moving towards such a society and modern India has a lot to learn from it.
Prof. P. M. Bakshi, LL.B. (Bombay). Advocate (O.S.) of the Rajasthan Judicial Service;
 The moderns of Ancient India, Rigveda, Kamasutra, Arthashastra – A rich legacy of abjuring violence against women, 2015