World Scripture


One of the chief justifications of government is that it should preserve law and order, protect the innocent, and punish criminals. Judgments must be made with great care, in order not to mistakenly punish innocent people. The judge should not be partial, but should treat everyone with an equal eye. Many texts enjoin the authorities to be compassionate and prescribe lenient punishments for minor infractions. Punishment should not be prescribed from a vengeful motivation, but always with the prisoner's welfare as well as the welfare of society in mind.

Punishment serves as a deterrent to crime and a shield for the innocent. In theistic traditions, the government in meting out punishments is a co-worker with God, who is the final dispenser of justice. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the justice dispensed by the government manifests the fruits of karma on the earth: justice on earth corresponds to the absolute justice of the cosmos through the operation of karma. Furthermore, since by committing crimes the criminal burdens himself with demerit, which, if not purged by punishment in this life, burdens him in a future life, punishment helps him by reducing the quantity of evil karma which he will have to expiate in the future. Thus a government that vigorously prosecutes and punishes criminals upholds righteousness both in the present, by distinguishing good from evil in the eyes of the people, and in the future, by reducing the quantity of evil karma to be inherited by later generations.

Finally, an important purpose of punishment is rehabilitation. To be effective as a force for rehabilitation and renovation, punishment should elicit sincere repentance. The repentant criminal, by willingly accepting his punishment, is forgiven by God and inherits future blessings.

e who renders true judgments is a co-worker with God.

1. Judaism. Mekilta, Exodus 18.13

you judge between people, you should do so with justice. How superbly God instructs you to do so; God is Alert, Observant!

2. Islam. Qur'an 4.58

is the function of the ruler in order to protect the state from the wicked and nourish the good.

3. Jainism. Somadeva, Nitivakyamrita 5.1-2

justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who exacts gifts ruins it.

4. Judaism and Christianity. Proverbs 29.4

the thief steals something he takes an oath to decide his fate, but if the oath steals something what will it take?

5. African Traditional Religions. Igala Proverb (Nigeria)

destroyed your predecessors was just that when a person of rank among them committed a theft they left him alone, but when a weak one of their number committed a theft they inflicted the prescribed punishment on him. I swear by God that even if Fatima daughter of Muhammad should steal, I would have her hand cut off.

6. Islam. Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim

[Moses] charged your judges at that time, "Hear the cases between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien that is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God's; and the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it."

7. Judaism and Christianity. Deuteronomy 1.16-17

is not thereby just because he hastily arbitrates cases. The wise man should investigate both right and wrong.

The intelligent person who leads others not falsely but lawfully and impartially, who is a guardian of the law, is called one who abides by righteousness.

8. Buddhism. Dhammapada 256-257

Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim: On the punishment for theft, see Qur'an 5.38, p. 420. Deuteronomy 1.16-17: Cf. Jeremiah 22.3, p. 256; Exodus 20.16, p. 430; Abot 1.1, p. 711; Isaiah 10.1-4, p. 920.

person who is tempted to go astray does not deserve punishment.

9. Islam (Shiiite). Nahjul Balagha, Saying 14

superior man gives careful thought to his judgments and is tardy in sentencing people to death.

10. Confucianism. I Ching 61: Inward Confidence

sovereign should not inflict excessive punishment, nor should he use harsh words and speak ill of anyone at his back.

11. Hinduism. Matsya Purana 220.10

who distinguishes good deeds from evil, Who shows the results of karma--he is called a king. Ordained by the host of gods, the gods delight in him. For the sake of himself or others, to preserve the righteousness of his land, And to put down the rogues and criminals in his domains, Such a king would give up, if need be, his life and his kingdom.

12. Buddhism. Golden Light Sutra 12

the king exert himself to the utmost to punish thieves; for, if he punishes thieves, his fame grows and his kingdom prospers.
A king who thus protects his subjects receives from each and all the sixth part of their spiritual merit; if he does not protect them, the sixth part of their demerit also will fall on him.
A king who protects created beings in accordance with the sacred law and smites those worthy of corporal punishment, [it is as though he] daily offers sacrifices at which hundreds of thousands are given as fees.
A king who does not afford protection, yet takes his share in kind, his taxes, tolls and duties, daily presents and fines, will soon sink into hell.

13. Hinduism. Laws of Manu 8.302-07

I Ching 61: Cf. I Ching 40, p. 849. Golden Light Sutra 12: To show the results of karma means to enforce justice that the people will recognize that justice is truly enforced, and that the criminals will reap the fruits of their deeds in this life, thereby leaving less demerit to burden their next life. For more of this passage, see pp. 923f. Laws of Manu 8.302-07: Vv. 302, 304, 306-07.

, in its wish to regulate the people, allows us for a day to make use of punishments. Whether crimes have been premeditated, or are unpremeditated, depends on the parties concerned. Let you deal with them to accord with the mind of Heaven and thus serve me, the One Man. Though I would put them to death, do not you therefore put them to death; though I would spare them, do not you therefore spare them. Reverently apportion the five punishments so as fully to exhibit the three virtues. Then shall I, the One Man, enjoy felicity; the people will look to you as their sure dependence; the repose of such a state will be perpetual.

14. Confucianism. Book of History 5.27.4, Marquis of Lu on Punishments

alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment to be the law.
If punishment is properly inflicted after due consideration, it makes all people happy; but inflicted without consideration, it destroys everything.
If the ruler did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit.
All barriers would be broken through, and all men would rage against each other in consequence of mistakes with respect to punishment.
But where Punishment, with a black hue and red eyes, stalks about, destroying sinners, there the subjects are not disturbed, provided he who inflicts it discerns well.

15. Hinduism. Laws of Manu 7.18-25

Book of History 5.27.4: The 'three virtues' are: correctness and straightforwardness in times of peace, strong government in times of disorder, and mild government in times of harmony and order. Cf. Analects 20.1.3, p. 555; Book of History 5.9, p. 405. Laws of Manu 7.18-25: Vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25. Cf. Laws of Manu 9.263, p. 420; Book of History 5.9, p. 405; Golden Light Sutra 12, pp. 923f.

king, through compassion you should always Generate an attitude of help Even for those embodied beings Who have committed appalling sins.
Especially generate compassion For those murderers, whose sins are horrible; Those of fallen nature are receptacles Of compassion from those whose nature is great.
Free the weaker prisoners After a day or five days; Do not think the others Are never to be freed.
For each one whom you do not think To free you will lose the layman's vow, Because you will have lost the vow Faults will constantly be amassed.
As long as the prisoners are not freed, They should be made comfortable With barbers, baths, food, drink, Medicine and clothing.
Just as unworthy sons are punished Out of a wish to make them worthy, So punishment should be enforced with compassion And not through hatred or desire for wealth.
Once you have analyzed the angry Murderers and recognized them well, You should banish them without Killing or tormenting them.

16. Buddhism. Nagarjuna, Precious Garland 331-37

thief shall, running, approach the king, with flying hair, confessing that theft, saying, "Thus I have done, punish me."
Whether he is punished or pardoned [after confessing], the thief is freed from the guilt of theft; but the king, if he punishes not, takes upon himself the guilt of the thief.

17. Hinduism. Laws of Manu 8.314, 316

man came to the Prophet and confessed four times that he had had illicit intercourse with a woman, while all the while the prophet was turning his back to him. Then when he confessed the fifth time, the Prophet turned around...and asked him whether he knew what fornication was, and he replied, "Yes, I have done with her unlawfully what a man may lawfully do with his wife." He then asked him what he wanted by what he had said, and the man replied that he wanted him to purify him, so he gave the command and he was stoned to death. Then God's Prophet heard one of his Companions saying to another, "Look at this man whose fault was concealed by God but who could not leave the matter alone, so that he was stoned like a dog." He said nothing to them but walked on for a time till he came to the corpse of an ass with its legs in the air. He then summoned those Companions, and when they came he said, "Go and eat some of this ass' corpse." They replied, "Prophet of God, who can eat any of this?" whereupon he said, "The dishonor you have just shown your brother is more serious than eating some of this. By Him in whose hand is my soul, he is now among the rivers of Paradise, plunging into them."

18. Islam. Hadith of Abu Dawud

Precious Garland 331-37: Cf. Mencius I.A.6, 242. Laws of Manu 8.314, 316: Repentance is the key to the thief's successful redemption. Also karma as viewed as a kind of substance. The thief's karma will be destroyed by punishment, otherwise that karma continues to exist and must be transferred to the government. Then it will be manifest in increased crime and social disorder as the people understand that they can steal with impunity. Hadith of Abu Dawud: This man's punishment was truly redeeming because it was submitted to voluntarily with a mind of repentance. Cf. Hadith in Sharh as-Sunnah, p. 780.