Nyaya (न्यायः)

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Nyaya (translates to law) was laid down as an instrument to govern a Rajya (राज्यम्, State), which was considered an essential for a society to follow Dharma (धर्मः). Dharma, which has different understanding in different contexts, means Nyaya in a legal context. Nyaya constitutes Vyavaharadharma (व्यवहारधर्मः) and Rajadharma (राजधर्मः). Vyavaharadharma is the positive civil and criminal law, as also the law regulating the constitution and organisation of State[1] and Rajadharma is the law laying down powers, duties and responsibilities of a Raja.[1] Raja (राजा, king) was entrusted with power by Rajadharma to enforce obedience of the people to Vyavaharadharma in the Rajya.

The law was recognised as a mighty instrument necessary for the protection of individual rights and liberties. Whenever the right or liberty of an individual was encroached upon by another, the injured individual could seek protection from the law with the assistance of the king, however, powerful the opponent (wrong doer) might be.[2]

Relation between Nyaya and Raja

The power of the king (state) to enforce the law or to punish the wrong doer was recognised as the force (sanction) behind the law which could compel implicit obedience to the law.[2] Nyaya is superior to the Raja and entrusts Raja with the duty of protecting people. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद्) defines Nyaya as follows.

The Brihadaranyakopanishat states that Dharma (law), a power superior to that of the king, was created to enable the king to protect the people, and gives the definition of law (Dharma) as follows:

तदेतत्-क्षत्रस्य क्षत्रं यद्धर्मः | तस्माधर्मात्परं नास्ति | अथो अबलीयान् बलीयांसमाशंसते धर्मेण | यथा राज्ञा एवं ||

tadetat-kṣatrasya kṣatraṁ yaddharmaḥ | tasmādharmātparaṁ nāsti | atho abalīyān balīyāṁsamāśaṁsate dharmeṇa | yathā rājñā evaṁ ||

Meaning: The law (Dharma) is the king of kings No one is superior to the law (Dharma) ; The law (Dharma) aided by the power of the king enables the weak to prevail over the strong.

The most ancient and perhaps the earliest definition of law given in the Upanishad brings forth the essential aspects of the word 'law' as defined in modem jurisprudence that the law is an imperative command which is enforced by some superior power or sovereign.

The law as defined in the Upanishad also meant that it was enforceable against individuals with the aid of the physical power of the king as is made clear from the statement, 'The law aided by the power of the king enables the weak to prevail over the strong'. The power of the king constituted the instrument of coercion. This aspect is forcefully put by Manu VII-22 supra. However, one of the most distinguishing aspects as between the concept of the law as defined in the western jurisprudence and that as defined in Dharmasastras is, whereas the imperative command of the king constituted the law according to the former, under the concept of Dharma, the law was a command even to the king and was superior to the king. This meaning is brought out by the expression 'the law is the king of kings'. Another aspect discernible from the definition of 'law' given in the Brihadarayaka Upanishat and accepted in the Dharmasastras is, that the law and the king derive their strength and vitality from each other. It was impressed that the king remained powerful if he observed the law and the efficacy of the law also depended on the manner in which the king functioned, because it was he who was responsible for its enforcement. There was also a specific provision which made it clear to the king that if he was to be respected by the people, he was bound to act in accordance with the law. Thus the first and foremost duty of the king as laid down under Rajadharma was to rule his kingdom in accordance with the law, so that the law reigned supreme and could control all human actions so as to keep them within the bounds of the law. Though Dharma was made enforceable by the political sovereign -the king, it was considered and recognised as superior to and binding on the sovereign himself. Thus under our ancient constitutional law (Rajadharma) kings were given the position of the penultimate authority functioning within the four corners of Dharma, the ultimate authority.[2]

Thus, the two notable aspects of Nyaya as defined in Brhadaranyaka Upanishad are that it is considered superior even to the Raja (unlike in western jurisprudence where law is declared by a political superior[1]), and that Nyaya and the Raja mutually strengthen each other. A Raja who is obedient to Rajadharma and an able enforcer of Vyavaharadharma in the Rajya will remain powerful. Nyaya limits the Raja himself, who is the enforcer of Nyaya but never its source.[3]

Sources of Nyaya

Nyaya was laid down in the Dharmasastras (धर्मशास्त्राः) written by Rshis (ऋषयः). The Vedas (वेदाः) and Smrtis (स्मृतयः) are the primary sources of Nyaya. However, the Rshis were aware that Nyaya once declared cannot remain as it is for ages, without additions or modifications. The following words by Manu and Yajnavalkya (याज्ञवल्क्यः) respectively, reflect this thought. Note that the word Dharma means Nyaya in these descriptions.

Veda is the first source of Dharma. The expression by Seers (Smritikaras), handed down from generation to generation by memory, the virtuous conduct of those who are well versed in the Vedas, and lastly, what is agreeable to good conscience, are the other sources.[3]

The Vedas, the Smritis, good conduct or approved usage, what is agreeable to conscience proceeding from good intention, are the sources of law.[3]

The Smrtikaras (स्मृतिकाराः) have thoughtfully recognised practices of people who are pure and care for the society as a source of Nyaya to make Nyaya relevant at all times.

Broadly, apart from such practices of people, there are two sources of Nyaya.

  1. Vedas. Generally, the word Vedas refers to all of the four Vedas, the six Vedangas (वेदाङ्गानि) and the eighteen Upanishads (उपनिषदः). Dharma (Nyaya, in this context) is presented in Vedas through Vidhis (विधयः) and Nishedhas (निशेधाः). For instance, the following are from Taittriya Upanishad (तैत्तिरीय उपनिषद्).
    1. सत्यं वद ।
      Speak the truth.
    2. नाऽनृतं वद ।
      Never speak what is not truth.
    3. न हिंसयेत् ।
      Never hurt.
    4. धर्मं चर ।
      Follow Dharma.
    5. मातृदेवो भव । पितृदेवो भव ।
      Treat mother and father as god.
    6. यान्यनविघानि कर्माणि तानि सेवितव्यानि नो इतराणि ।
      Do only the acts which are not forbidden, not any other.[4]
    Every law described in the Dharmasastras has its origin in the Vidhis and Nishedhas mentioned in the Vedas, of which, the above are only a few. For example, the law that dictates a son to assist his parents has its roots in the fifth Vidhi.[5] In this sense, the Vedas are the source even for Dharmasastras.
  2. Dharmasastras. Dharmasutras (धर्मसूत्राः), Smrtis and other commentaries are collectively called as Dharmasastras.
    • Taking inspiration from Vidhis and Nishedhas mentioned in the Vedas, Dharmasutras contain laws in the form of Sutras (सूत्राः, aphorisms). These can be regarded as the first works on Nyaya.[5]
    • Smrtis were written by Smrtikaras like Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parashara. These are a systematic and organised collection of laws from various sources, mainly the Vedas and Dharmasutras, and also from the common accepted customs of the society at the time of compilation. The Smrtis also describe the legal and judicial system.[5]
    • The Smrtis, which have laws laid down in the form of verses, require skill and practice for correct interpretation and understanding. Only people versed with Mimamsa (मीमांसा) are capable of doing this. Various commentaries had been written at different points in time by interpreting and presenting the Smrtis considering the common acceptable practices prevalent at respective times. Such commentaries, which were simpler to understand and more relevant, were also adopted by many Rajyas.[5]

Superiority of the sources

To avoid ambiguity in interpretation, the Smrtikaras had also laid down guidelines to be followed in case of a conflict from different sources. Vyasa Maharshi (व्यासमहर्षिः) stated that the Vedas must always be considered as the primary and inviolable source.

Whenever there is a conflict between Shruti (Vedas), Smritis and Puranas, then what is stated in the Shruti should be taken as authority.[3]

Superiority of the Vedas was unquestioned due to the fact that Nyaya presented in Dharmasutras and Smrtis derived inspiration from the Vedas although. Further, Yajnavalkya, giving importance to prevalent customs and practices, stated the following.

Whenever two Smritis conflict, principles of equity as determined by popular usages shall prevail.[3]

Acceptance of common practices

The Smrtikaras, aware of the dynamic nature of a society, allowed common practices, i.e.; customs of good intentioned people to pass as law. When both the parties of a dispute have certain customs in common, the Raja considers these customs before the judgement. However, when there is no such common practice, Vedas and Smrtis are taken as the authority.[3] To prevent misuse of this recognition given, the Smrtikaras declare that no person can choose to defy the Dharmasastras citing his/her own reasoning to be better.[3] Only when it becomes impossible to follow Dharmasastras in a situation because a socially acceptable custom which is in good conscience contradicts with Dharmasastras, overriding can be done. However, the custom must not be in disagreement with the Vedas.

Raja was given power to decide based on his own conscience only in case no reference could be found in the Vedas, Dharmasastras or in the customs of people.[3] All conventions which have been formed with the consent of people must be recorded in writing under the Rajamudra (राजमुद्रः, royal seal).[3] These conventions must then be enforced at par with the Dharmasastras. In no situation was the Raja given power to legislate. He is only an enforcer of Nyaya.

धार्मिकराज्यम् || A State of Dharma[2]

It is an orderly society that is capable of protecting the rights of individuals and such an orderly society would be in existence only if everyone acts according to Dharma. Hence, the necessity of scrupulous practice of Dharma is forcefully expressed by Manu as,

धर्म एव हतो हन्ति धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः । तस्माद्धर्मो न हन्तव्यो मा नो धर्मो हतोऽवधीत् || ८.१५ ||[6]

dharma eva hato hanti dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ । tasmāddharmo na hantavyo mā no dharmo hato'vadhīt || 8.15 ||

Meaning : Dharma protects those who protect it. Those who destroy Dharma get destroyed. Therefore, Dharma should not be destroyed so that we may not be destroyed as a consequence thereof.

It is needless to state that it is only when a substantial number of citizens of a nation are by and large of "Dharma / law abiding Nature" that the Rule of law can be maintained.

That is why, the aspect of Dharmacharana is sought to be impressed on every student. It is said in the Shikshavalli (Chapter 2, lesson 8) of the Taittiriya Upanishad that,

युवा स्यात्साधु युवाऽध्यायकः । आशिष्ठो द्रढिष्ठो बलिष्ठ ॥ तस्येयं पृथिवी सर्वा वित्तस्य पूर्णा स्यात् । स एको मानुष आनन्दः ॥

yuvā syātsādhu yuvā'dhyāyakaḥ । āśiṣṭho draḍhiṣṭho baliṣṭha ॥ tasyeyaṁ pr̥thivī sarvā vittasya pūrṇā syāt । sa eko mānuṣa ānandaḥ ॥

Meaning : Happiness is this, youth should be of good character, learned, resolute and strong (morally and physically). Then only the earth will be full of prosperity and wealth. This is the measure of human happiness.

This lesson that the real happiness and prosperity of any nation is directly proportional to the number of men of character it has produced, through proper education and environment is highly enlightening. Thus, a 'State of Dharma' is required to be always maintained for peaceful co-existence, happiness and prosperity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Justice M. Rama Jois, Legal and Constitutional History of India (2016), Part 1, Chapter 2, Pages 9-12
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Justice Mandagadde Rama Jois (1997), Dharma: The Global Ethic, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Justice M. Rama Jois, Legal and Constitutional History of India (2016), Part 1, Chapter 3, Pages 13-17
  4. तैत्तिरीय उपनिषद् 1-11
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Justice M. Rama Jois, Legal and Constitutional History of India (2016), Part 1, Chapter 4, Pages 20,22-24
  6. Manusmrti, Chapter 8.