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Crime and Punishment (Essay)

When men misuse their liberty to commit crime, we withdraw it and put them in prison. But legal punishment has two grave defects: it makes no provision for moral re-education alongside of the physical punishment, and it makes no difference between the repentant sinner and the nonrepentant one. The criminal is simply a man who has misinterpreted life, failed in self-discipline, accepted the suggestions of an evil environment, or been hurt by a hard social system. It is not enough to enforce retribution. Society must help him straighten his life-pattern, improve himself, and re-establish his ethical sense. Prisons should be not merely penal institutions but also educative ones. Every prisoner should be brought under some system of instruction that would elevate his character--instead, as often happens, of debasing it still further.

It is far easier to degrade oneself than to uplift oneself. Every criminal knows that. The process of manufacturing a criminal is simple and easy. He commits his first crime and then, in order to save himself from its effects, he has to commit a second one. Once again he has to save himself from the effects of this one in turn and so commits a third crime. In the end he slides down a long slippery slope and becomes a hardened criminal! Only forethought for others or fear of the consequences for himself will save a man from taking the first ominous step. It is because men have insufficient forethought or insufficient knowledge of the consequences that they become criminals.

Or else, after the first punishment, instead of trying to understand the lessons of their sufferings, they nurse under-surface resentments which later explode and injure their whole life. It seems to offer an easier way out than the sterner path of moral repentance and honest endeavour. But they fail to foresee that it is no way out at all, that the selfish new crimes merely revive and worsen the hateful old tribulations. With every wrong step they take, they walk nearer and nearer to that calamity. What their befooled minds do not know is that even if they pass from successful crime to successful crime, nevertheless--under karmic and evolutionary law--they will later pass from painful retribution to painful retribution.

All this can be as true of nations as of an individual. Instead of meditating on the defeat that overtook them, they actually meditate on the victory that they themselves nearly overtook. Even when punishment is catastrophic and overwhelming, the very immensity of it creates a strong egoistic passion for self-justification, leaving room for only few and faint signs of any real change of heart. Such moral declension is as low and saddening as it is too often repeated by history. Every criminal nation which is at all curable must be brought to understand the moral degradation into which it fell when it blindly followed a path of pillage or violence. They learn little, understand little, and take to themselves few lessons from experience. They suffer, but their suffering is misread and misinterpreted. Here, for those who still doubt the truth of reincarnation, is one more argument in its favour. No single lifetime is enough to provide the necessary range of varied experience and to bring human development to an optimum of moral perfection--not even twenty lifetimes would be enough.

All aggressive persons and antisocial criminals reveal by their attitudes that they are still children in the understanding of life. There are two schools of thought as to their treatment. They have done wrong and must be punished. They have done wrong but must be forgiven. To state the problem in either of these drastic ways alone and let it go at that is dangerously to oversimplify its complications and difficulties, nay, is indeed misleading. For both these statements are true yet are so only in their own places. The first, presented by the cynics, advocates rigorous punishment. The second, presented mostly by the religious idealists, advocates a complete forgive-and-forget policy. The first is sadistic, the second sentimental. Both are unwise. Philosophy avoids such extremes and finds a sensible middle way between them. It says we must not push the criminal farther down the road of wrong-doing by evoking his spirit of revenge through unduly harsh treatment. Yet we must not let him walk down it of his own accord by letting him believe that wrong-doing brings no retribution at all.

A merely sentimental view of this problem will not really help us or them. A thoroughly psychological view will not only save us from further depredations but also save them from falling again into their own worst self. A misplaced adherence to emotional upsurges will, however, prevent us from correctly perceiving the true facts of this complex problem. It is the dictate of wisdom that we shall not forget, but it is also the dictate of compassion that we shall forgive. Little sectarian minds can only oppose these two as antitheses, whereas large philosophic minds can hold them harmoniously together. There is some confused thinking in the minds of pious people about the question of forgiveness. Criminal aggressors--whether they be single individuals or whole nations--need to be punished as much for their own moral benefit as for the physical protection of society. If through sentimental emotion they are left unpunished, then we render them a disservice. For they will fail to learn the age-old lesson that crime does not pay. Not that they will really escape from the inevitable come-back of karma, but when perpetration of crime is swiftly followed by proportionate punishment, the moral lesson involved is brought home to the wakeful consciousness much more effectively than when the same lesson is brought home to the subconscious at a later period or in another birth. There are times when a naughty child asks for and deserves spanking. Just as we do not hate a child even when performing such punitive operation, we ought not to hate the erring criminals who have put their energies into wrong channels even when we are restraining or punishing them. It should be done in the spirit of education, impersonally, calmly, without hatred, but with firm inflexible determination to teach them the lesson of their own experiences--the truth that barbarity does not pay.

There are brutes in human shape. That all the links between the baboon and men have not been lost is plainly proved by the very existence of these creatures. They will respond only to a language which they can understand: disciplinary punishment, firm repression. Their twisted minds must be surgically operated on, which means that they must be made to feel something of the pain which they made others suffer. Therefore those who through false sentimentality or wrong religion would here use kindness make a profound mistake.

But, object some religious and most mystical persons, ought we not to show mercy? Ought we not to forgive a sinner? Yes, we ought to forgive because we should comprehend that he sins through ignorance of life's unwritten laws. But the scriptural injunction to forgive enemies is often misconstrued. We ought to show mercy and forgive sinners but we should do the one at the right time and the other to the right person. Otherwise, we merely misplace these virtues and thus convert them into vices. It is our duty to practise compassion but it is not our duty to misplace it. We should show mercy only when there are signs of real repentance for having perpetrated the crime and in proportion to the actual degree of such repentance. For example, those who commit murder commit the greatest of crimes. They must make the greatest of repentances. They must turn themselves into penitents, sincerely disavowing their past evil and convincingly demonstrating their change of heart by tangible proofs.

When we witness the return to life of a criminal's sleeping conscience, the remorseful recognition of wrong-doing, and the honest admission of guilt, when he expresses genuine sorrow over his crimes and shows forth sincere repentance, it will be right and proper to treat him mercifully and forgivingly. In the moment when he truly repents, to our joy and his profit, in that same moment we must extend forgiveness and help him start a fresh and better life. But those other individuals who do not do any of these things, who merely smart with resentment and thirst for revenge, their treatment must be stern and punitive. Unless and until they do repent thoroughly, wise justice has no option but to treat them firmly. This treatment is helpful to their purification. A sentimental neglect to administer this tart medicine will only morally harm them in the end, let alone expose the world to a repetition of their crime.

The guilty must learn that everything has to be paid for. But the dearness or cheapness of the price they must pay should depend partly upon the measure of spontaneous repentance and amendment which they themselves bring forth. For there is always the divine message which, if they will tardily heed and obey it, can mitigate their unhappy lot. And that message says, "Repent, and be redeemed!" But repentance must run deep, into open deeds and secret thoughts, if it is to be karmically effective. Its reality must be proved by abundant evidence. The criminals have to pay today for what they have done yesterday. But if they have acknowledged their error, if they are genuinely remorseful, repentant in heart and mind and deed, if they strive spontaneously to make what amendment for the past it is still possible to make, then in that case new karma will manifest itself side by side with the old and thus modify their miseries. For although it is true that part of their future already exists even now, owing to karmic causes which they themselves set going, it is equally true that until the events of that future crystallize into the space-time world they are always liable to be modified by any fresh karmic causes which are introduced into their own domain.

How many can take this essential step of a moral about-turn? Can we awaken a criminal in jail to a sense of his personal failure and moral shame? Because he has suffered the humiliation of retribution, there is always the probability of comprehending that there is a better way. And because he is a human being, there is always the possibility of ethical recovery and moral improvement. Those who believe that they can solve such a problem as criminality on a merely practical basis alone are wrong. Experience will teach them that it is inseparable from a moral one, too. For if the criminal really repents, then our duty is to forgive him. A moral shift on his part should lead to a practical shift on ours.

We may forgive criminals and yet punish them for wrong-doing, if that be our duty, or place them under such external limitations as will prevent their further wrong-doing, if that also be our duty. The two are not contradictory. If we keep our hearts unpolluted by hatred, we may keep our hands sternly and firmly on the wrong-doer. This is included in what the Bhagavad Gita means when it defines the higher yoga as being "the skilful performance of action." The skilfulness here meant is obviously not the technical kind but rather the mystical power to remain inwardly detached whilst doing worldly duty. During the war, it became necessary for philosophic students to learn how to fight a cruel aggressor in the right spirit; they had paradoxically to learn how to deliver without anger or hate hard blows against him whilst feeling profound pity for his moral darkness.

But philosophic students are few. It is useless to ask humanity in its present state of evolution to behave on this high plane. A sage (and perhaps those who try to follow him) would not find it difficult to extend his compassionate goodwill to all criminals--indeed he would find it difficult not to--but it would be too much to expect that everybody else is capable of extending it.


-- Notebooks Category 11: The Negatives > Chapter 3: Their Presence in The World > # 429






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