On Crime and Punishment

[This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of The Theosophical Movement. For more articles published in this excellent magazine follow this link: ]

PAKISTANI terrorist Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman, was convicted in May 2010 by a special judge in Mumbai city (India) for murdering seven people directly and 65 others in common intent with a fellow terrorist. On November 22, 2012 the nation woke up to the news of Kasab being hanged after the President of India rejected Kasab’s clemency petition. The general reaction of people was that hanging had brought closure to the trauma of terrorist attack on November 26, 2008. There were many and varied reactions to the execution. Some felt that at last, justice had been done, or that the homage was paid to the dead heroes. There were stray instances of people expressing pity and sympathy for the executed terrorist.


A Mumbai-based lawyer, Yug Chaudhry remarks that under Article 72 of the Constitution of India, the President of India has the power to grant mercy even after the judicial system has confirmed the death sentence. It is only in the rarest of rare crimes that are truly unpardonable that the offender becomes eligible for pardon and mercy. Paradoxically, the very fact that Kasab had indeed committed an unpardonable crime is what rendered him eligible for mercy. “Mercy and pardon are acts of grace….Giving someone what he deserves or is entitled to is not mercy, it is recompense involving no measure of race….We do not deserve mercy, we need it. I think all of us—the best and the worse—are in need of mercy, and it is only by showing mercy that, morally, we ourselves become entitled to receiving it. Bereft of mercy, our society would be impoverished and inhuman, for mercy is quintessentially a human quality, not found elsewhere in the natural world….Mercy tempers justice, makes it less exacting, more humane,” writes Chaudhry. (Mumbai Mirror,
November 22, 2012)

It is significant to note that the above noble sentiments are voiced by a lawyer, and they are not mere pious platitude. We might recall that during the terrorist attack of November 26, 2008, many were killed and many were maimed for life. Among them was the American national, a professional meditation teacher and a successful marathon runner, who lost her 13-year old daughter and was herself badly injured. Even as she walked with the help of a walker, she hoped that Ajmal Kasab would not be sentenced to death, because victims of the attacks would find some solace when a terrorist like Kasab transforms. Perhaps he was misguided. Jesus on the cross forgave the misguided souls and so also, she forgave him and prayed for him every day!

Truly, to err is human, but to forgive is divine, especially when an ordinary person brings himself to forgive a grievous harm. Forgiveness helps both the victim and the wrongdoer to heal faster. Forgive, forgive and largely forget, says H.P.B. In the article, “Is Denunciation a Duty?” H.P.B. points out that denunciation is duty to truth, and it is our duty to denounce systems and organizations, social and religious evils, but not the individuals, who are but children of their own century, the victims of their environment. “To condemn and dishonour a man instead of pitying and trying to help him, because, being born in a community of lepers, he is a leper himself, is like cursing a room because it is dark, instead of quietly lighting a candle to disperse the gloom,” writes H. P. B.

We are asked to “condemn the sin, and not the sinner.” But dissociating the sin from the sinner is most difficult. We tend to brand people for their smallest mistakes and transgressions. We should be willing to take a fresh look at the person. We tend to think, “once a sinner, always a sinner.” To change this mindset we have to begin small, by forgiving and forgetting, i.e., by not holding it against another the wrong done to us. Often, we are willing to give another chance to a friend for his gravest misdeed. Certainly, we are ready to give a second chance to our sons, daughters, sisters, brothers. Let us remember that all crimes are not premeditated. At times, they are committed on the spur of the moment and the person is truly repentant. “We have to learn to look intelligently into the hearts of men.” There is no such thing as separateness because we are all united on the inner planes of our being. We cannot isolate ourselves from the wicked and foolish people, because the world that we live in today is of our own making.

We are all united on inner and invisible planes, and are continually affecting each other through our thoughts, feelings and actions. It is difficult to say what portion of another’s karma is strictly of his own making. We have contributed in making the humanity as we find it today. There is the story of an Eastern king who had a son, and this son committed a deed, the penalty of which was that he should be killed by great stone thrown upon him. But it was seen that such a punishment would not repair the wrong nor give to the offender the chance to become a better man, hence the councellors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into small pieces, and the same should be thrown upon him in the quantity that he was able to bear, so that he would suffer but not be killed. H. P. B.’s advice has been that human laws must be restrictive and not punitive, because we do not have the wisdom to mete out adequate punishment, such that it would give the person chance to repent and turn the corner.

The occult reason why Theosophy is against Capital Punishment is that an executed criminal though physically dead, is astrally alive. He is filled with the feeling of hatred towards society and all those who were responsible for his trial and execution; as also with the strong feelings of revenge. He can inject thoughts of crime into the minds of sensitive and mentally weak people and incite them to commit crime. That is why we hear of cases in which a crime is suddenly committed by weak persons who appear to be carried away by some outside force. While in the body, a criminal is able to influence only a few, but after death, living in the astral body, his area of influence is unlimited.

Mercy is not opposed to Justice, and the fullest justice is the same as the fullest mercy. However, this is only applicable to the law of Karma, and not to man-made law. Our concept of merciful law is the law that excuses our wrongdoings and allows us to escape the ensuing consequences. The “mercy” aspect of the law of Karma is that unlike man-made law, it gives us innumerable opportunities to improve. Often there are circumstances beyond our control. The law of Karma takes into account all the “extenuating circumstances.” Karma is action and reaction. However, this reaction is not mechanical but takes into account the motive, the inner state of the person and the weight of his past Karma. Another meaning of mercy is compassion. Compassion is an all-embracing universal love that aims at “Universal” good. Compassion is that aspect of the law, which desires growth of every being—even if it entails suffering. We must learn to imitate the Law. Whenever we are tempted to condemn, we must remember that the inner state of the person is known only to the Law of Karma. When we see a wicked person, we should regard him as one whose boots have become heavy with mud and give him a helping hand to come out of the situation.

H. P. B. seems to suggest that a criminal is like a leper born in a leper colony. No one is born a criminal, and society or circumstances are also responsible for making a person what he is. So much of terrorism is in the name of religion and arises from false and literal interpretation of lofty spiritual concepts. Perception of oneself and one’s community as victims leads to anger. We must try to understand the background of the criminal. Ajmal Kasab has been regarded as a religious fanatic. However, a retired Lt. General in the Indian army, V. G. Patankar, who was formerly a Corps Commander in Kashmir writes that rather than religious fanaticism, poverty drives young men to terrorist activities. Ajmal Kasab, as he lay injured in a hospital bed, had admitted that he did not know much about jihad (righteous war), but had joined the terrorists only to earn some good money that could help his poor family. Patankar remarks that he has heard similar refrain from captured terrorists in the Kashmir valley. “They were usually young men in their late teens or early twenties, mostly unemployed, some with rudimentary education and some illiterate, but almost always from underprivileged families. The typical young terrorist usually belonged to a large family with meager means; one among several siblings, with no more than one or at best two breadearners,” writes Patankar (The Times of India, November 23, 2012).

Who is to be blamed for the economic iniquity? Today, a large number of people suffer from misery and poverty, and often their spiritual faculties are almost dormant. On the opposite end of the scale we see mindless affluence and selfish indulgence. H. P. B. attributes such disparity to the neglect of the social duty by those who “have” wealth and knowledge towards those who “have not.” 

What is the best method of reforming the criminals? Rehabilitation, imprisonment and religious rehabilitation programmes have been considered to be better alternatives to hanging. Unfortunately, prisons, which seek to improve the character of prisoners, tend to degrade it instead, as they lack empathy. It is true that an individual must reform himself, but he can be helped in the task. No lasting reform can be achieved unless human nature is changed. The individual criminal needs proper training and he needs to have ideals put before him that can prompt a change in his mental and moral outlook. The book, It’s Always Possible—One Woman’s Transformation of Tihar Prison, is an account of Dr. Kiran Bedi’s efforts to fundamentally change an entire prison system of criminality to that of humanity in India’s Tihar jail. Dr. Bedi began by taking rounds in the prison and talking to inmates, to know their problems. She revived and enlarged the library, started yoga classes, and began to work on formal education. In 1994 around one thousand inmates were introduced to Vipassana meditation popularized by Mr. S. N. Goenka, which opened the minds of the prisoners to the beauties and possibilities of life. To enable the prisoners to become self-reliant after the end of the prison term, they are taught trades like shoemaking, manure production, screen printing, tailoring, book binding and envelope making. The important thing is to cultivate right attitude towards the crime and the criminal. As Mr. Winston Churchill puts it, there must be “tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerative processes; unfailing faith that there is a treasure if you can duly find it in the heart of every man.”

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