The four feet of legal procedure and the origins of jurisprudence in ancient India

Patrick Olivelle, Mark McClish

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The well-known classification of legal procedure into "four feet" presents certain conceptual problems for the Indian legal tradition that various Smrtikaras and commentators have attempted to resolve in different and sometimes contradictory ways. These difficulties arise because the four feet originally referred in Indian legal theory to four distinct, hierarchical legal domains rather than procedural means for reaching a verdict. The earliest attested discussion of the four feet, found in Kautilya's Arthafastra, indicates that early legal theorists understood the greater legal order as being comprised of four hierarchical domains and that these domains were ordered by the state as expressed in the original formulation of the four feet. Among the four legal domains, that of vyavahara was developed by the state itself as a realm of public, transactional law meant to address disputes that could not be resolved in other legal forums. From this we can conclude that the origin of Indian jurisprudence lies with state efforts to formalize and enforce the laws of public transactions. The reinterpretation of the four feet by later jurists was motivated perhaps by resistance to one of the fundamental relationships expressed in the four feet, namely that royal authority possessed the greatest legal authority, independent of Brahmanical law.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)33-47
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the American Oriental Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • General Arts and Humanities


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