A Dharma Reader

Classical Indian Law

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Patrick Olivelle
Patrick Olivelle
Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The sourcebook A Dharma Reader: Classical Indian Law, traces the historical development of Indian Law from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE. The translator and editor, Patrick Olivelle, attempts to clarify how scholars have, for a millennium, interpreted and theorized dharma/law in the particular geographical, social, and religious context of India.

The book is divided into two parts and thirteen chapters: there is a lengthy, comprehensive introduction, and then the subsequent chapters focus on what H.A. Hart termed the “secondary rules” of law—rules of recognition, change, and adjudication (3). The first part of the book, eight chapters long, deals with the epistemology of law and change while part two, the next five chapters, involve legal practice and procedure.

The introduction offers a bird’s eye view of the book. Given the complexity and centrality of the term “dharma” in Hindu tradition, Olivelle indicates that the book is not about a specific textual tradition, or the semantic or cultural history of dharma. Rather, it can be read as a chronological synopsis, dealing with “issues pertaining to law in a geographically vast, multiethnic and pluralistic society” (1).

The first two chapters, which examine the semantic development of dharma from Apastamba to Vasista, begin with an exposition of the earliest extant aphoristic text on dharma by Apastamba. Olivelle notes that Apastamba resorts to the normative practice of community and Veda as the authority of dharma, whereas the grammarian Pantanjali is the first to introduce the concept of “cultural elites” and “sacred geography,” shifting the focus from the epistemology of dharma to that of treaties.

In the second chapter, Olivelle points out that scholars then inherited the concepts of “culture elite” and “Arya land” from early thinkers, and moved in new directions. Gautama and Baudhyayan respectively highlight the centrality of Veda as the source of dharma and the recollection (smrti) as a secondary textual authority, while Vasista promotes good conduct (acara) as the highest dharma.

Chapter 3 views dharma from the perspective of political science, unlike the previous discussion on the science of dharma by Brahmanical scholastic tradition. By providing the history of law with “a different lens” (4), Kautilya, according to Olivelle, argues for the plurality of law. He perceives law as dharma, convention, custom, and royal decree—the four feet of the subject of a legal dispute. He also states how conflicts are to be resolved based on the hierarchical system of four feet.

Chapters 4 and 5 expound, as Olivelle shows, major advances in the epistemology of dharma initiated by Manu. In chapter 4, the major contribution of Manu is said to be in the sloka and dialogue as literary genres of authoritative text and the exposition of judicial procedure. What characterizes Manu’s era is the centrality of Brahmanism. Besides Veda, smrti, and the normative practice of good people, the root of dharma extends to the satisfaction of oneself.

Chapter 5 examines the development of scholarly reflection on jurisprudence and legal procedure. In the words of Olivelle, the legal tradition following Manu, represented by the texts of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Visnu, Brihaspati, and Katyayana have an “ever more sophisticated and technical vocabulary” (81).

Olivelle suggests that the age of commentators starts in the second half of the first millennium, with Vedic exegesis as its earliest form in which the problems of dharma are explored. In chapter 6, two exegetes—Sabara and Kumarila—focus on the relationship between smrti and dharma. For Sabara, not all Vedic prescriptions constitute dharma: that is, some smrti conflicts with dharma. On the other hand, dharma and some customary practices are universally valid. For Kumarila, the authority of smrti is not to be questioned, except for those smrti texts that are the work of Buddhists.

Chapter 7 offers early commentators’ arguments about the epistemology of dharma. Bharuci acknowledges the existence of a worldly dharma apart from the Vedic dharma. Medhatithi argues for the multiplicity of dharma and its source, rendering a realistic view of dharma, especially a worldly dharma that cannot be put into textual form.

As illuminated by Olivelle, chapter 8 moves on to medieval commentators who begin a new genre of literature—the legal digest (nibandha) which deals with the grammar and syntax of the verse, rather than epistemological issues of dharma. Since the eleventh century, commentators like Vijnaesvara and Aparaka expand smrti to other texts such as the Puranas. Devanna Bhatta gives the canonical lists of smrti and classifies them into major and minor types for the first time.

Chapters 9 through 13 comprise the second part of the book, focusing on courts of law and legal procedure. In chapter 9, Gautama assigns the king the role of adjudicator of lawsuits, he is also the first to use terms “lawsuit” and “witness.” Baudhayan and Vasistha further clarify different kinds of witness and adjudicators. In chapter 10, Kautilya and Manu seriously explore issues of legal procedure: the witness, the interrogation, the judiciary and so on.

Chapter 11 marks the mature phase of legal procedure according to Olivelle. He hails the period of the Gupta empire as the “golden age of jurisprudential scholarship” (209). The two theorists Yajnavalkya and Narada’s texts, however, merely comment and develop Kautilya and Manu’s legal thought. In chapters 12 and 13, scholars offer a realist view of law and dharma, turning from the Veda to the practice of daily living.

This book would serve well for courses on comparative legal study, Hindu religion and politics, and would help interested general readers to understand “dharma”—one of the most complex terms in Hindu tradition. While it is comprehensive in illuminating the interaction and development of scholarly debate on dharma and the Hindu system of law, it would benefit readers to have a chronological table and scholar list for those who may not be familiar with the history of India.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Yu Fu is assistant professor of English at Zhejiang University City College, China.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Olivelle is Professor emeritus of Sanskrit and Indian religions at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including King, Governance, and Law in Ancient India (2013); Visnu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Vaisnava Dharmasastra (2009); Dharma: Studies in Its Semantic, Cultural, and Religious History (2009); Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra (2005); and Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India (1999).



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