The sources of Hindu law are the Vedas, the Smritis or Dharmasastras, commentaries and digests, and customs. A large number of commentaries were written by scholars and statesmen under the patronage of the rulers. These law books were standard works of reference in the various courts.
Some of the most important of them were Mitakshara by Vijnaneswara, Chaturvarga Chintamani by Hemadri, Dharmasutra of Apastamba by Haradalla, Aparaka-Yajnavalkya-Dharmasastra-Nibandha by Apararka, Smriti Chandrika by Devanna Bhatta, besides Madhavacharya’s commentary on Parasarasmriti and Prataprudra’s Saraswati Vilasa.
The work of these eminent jurists formed the basis of the law administered in the Vijayanagar kingdom.
Contemporary sources do not throw much light on the judicial organizations in Vijayanagar. The king was no doubt the highest court of appeal. But he could not afford to hear all the cases. There was an officer called dandanayaka who heard important cases.
But pradhani was overall in charge of administration of justice and may be called the chief justice. He would, however, bring important cases to the notice of king who sometimes received the complaints from his people direct.
There were courts in the provinces which were presided over by king’s agents or governors. Besides, these regular official courts, there were popular courts which could decide cases in their jurisdiction. Among them we may mention the village caste courts, presided over by caste elders, courts presided over by temple trustees, and courts of the guilds presided over by their leading men.
Civil cases were usually decided by these courts but appeal could be made to the royal courts of justice. Even criminal cases could be tried by these courts. At some places even some local residents were allowed to try criminal cases. But in all such cases, the appeal could be made to the king.
Punishments were very severe and even for a minor offence of theft, the hands or the feet of the culprit were chopped off. Nobles who became traitors were impaled alive on a stock thrust through the belly. Even for minor offences, the head of the guilty persons were cut off in the market place.
Some criminals were thrown before the elephants who tore them of pieces. The punishments were thus very harsh as it was considered necessary to eradicate evil and serve as a deterrent to others. Krishnadevaraya was, however, considerate. He observed: “In the matter of people sentenced to death, give them the chance to appeal thrice (for mercy).
But in the case of those people whose escape might bring on a calamity to yourself, immediate execution is advisable”. Whenever there was any necessity for human sacrifice, and condemned criminals were executed.
These severe punishments had the desired effect and the traveller Durate Barbosa observes: “Great equity and justice is observed to all not only by the rulers but by the people one to another.” Brahmans had been given the immunity from capital punishment. In certain cases, punishment by ordeal was resorted to.
In complicated cases where it was found difficult to decide the case due to the paucity of evidence, divine help was sought. “If a person who underwent the ordeal came out successfully, he was considered to have won the case.”