Hindu Law

A New History of Dharmasastra

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Patrick Olivelle, Donald R. Davis
The Oxford History of Hinduism
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     576 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For students and scholars of ancient and classical Hindu Law, the go-to work has long been P. V. Kane’s monumental five-volume History of Dharmaśāstra (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-75). Originally composed over three decades on either side of India’s independence, and written for readers fluent in Sanskrit intellectual practice or modern Indology or both, Kane’s work is inimitable and irreplaceable. That it is also “unwieldy” (1) goes without saying: a dense thicket of scriptural citations in Devanāgarī, detailed summaries of Sanskrit texts and authors, topical overviews, chronologies, and the review of modern Indian case law. Who could deny that such a work was due for an update? Patrick Olivelle and Donald Davis embrace just this challenge, “respectfully and affectionately” aiming to produce a “new Kane” (2). As they openly admit, it took them and eighteen other colleagues to complete the task. On the one hand, this reminds us of Kane’s singular accomplishment, but on the other hand, it attests to the relatively robust state of the field in 2018. I say “relatively robust,” for as the editors themselves acknowledge, the study of dharmaśāstra is today not merely a somewhat rarefied field, but one which benefits far less from the intellectual engagement of the traditionally trained paṇḍits and Indian scholars who were an important part of Kane’s audience. For example, the last of Kane’s volumes contained a foreword by the philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan; the work played a role in larger projects of modern Indian self-fashioning as well.

The project and the intellectual networks may have changed, but the resonances of the new volume remain profound. In particular, Hindu Law pays homage to the influential chain of transmission generated by the tutelage of the late Ludo Rocher, the renowned University of Pennsylvania Sanskritist and dharmaśāstra scholar. Rocher’s legacy can be felt throughout the volume, which includes not merely a chapter of his own on the topic of inheritance, but the work of several others who were either his students or students of his students. Among these, Patrick Olivelle himself merits special mention for having made an indelible impression on the study and translation of ancient Indian texts. For this volume, he contributes several chapters, all characteristically measured and masterly, whether on social and literary history, epistemology, the “orders of life” (āśrama) or legal procedure. 

The volume is framed in four parts: the first on literary and social history; the second around twenty-five central topics of law; the third on the impact and reception of dharmaśāstra; and the fourth dedicated to interpretive approaches in relation to such themes as the body, emotions, material culture, and vernacularization. It may be that this fourth part will age most quickly, given the ebb and flow of academic trends, but the second part is sure to remain a crucial point of departure for anyone interested in substantive categories ranging from social class, rites of passage, marriage, the householder, and children to women’s duties, kingship, punishment, and asceticism. One wonders whether the first and third part might not have been consolidated around the history and impact of dharmaśāstra generally. Notwithstanding the futility of replicating Kane’s useful summaries, one might have wished to find coverage here of key elements of genre and textual structure for the two periods identified in the text: the classical era of the dharmasūtras and dharmaśāstras and the era of commentaries and digests (nibandhas) that came to a close around the seventeenth century. Here, Olivelle’s knack for opening up the structure and logic of texts like Manu (see The Law Code of Manu, Oxford University Press, 2004), might have allowed readers more of a look inside the texts.

Overall, the editors mandated no single chapter template, which allows the strengths of particular authors to emerge, even if this leads to some inevitable unevenness in quality. In general, however, one finds that authors are tasked with the material they know best: Tim Lubin writes persuasively on aspects of Vedic studentship, David Brick on gifting, and Matthew Sayers on postmortem rites. Stephanie Jamison tackles strīdharma, but one wonders whether her orientation to the ancient and classical material may leave readers hungry for discussion around the very issues so central in the shaping of modern Hindu law, not least marriage, widowhood, age of consent and widow-burning (sahamaraṇa). 

This leads to my single concern with the volume. While the focus of the book is on the two periods mentioned above, the editors do refer to the “ironies and sense of loss” attending the modern study of dharmaśāstra and to the role of “colonial power and Orientalist thought” in dramatically transforming—if not harming—the tradition (11). Why, then, do we find no more focused reflection on this period of dharmaśāstra’s history? Granted, Davis briefly discusses the colonial “invention” of Hindu Law, but he jumps rapidly from the era of Warren Hastings to the 20th century, skirting a century of developments that actively engaged Indian intellectuals, not least the very paṇḍits whose “connection” to dharmaśāstra was severed during this period (378). Since there is now a significant literature around such matters, one might have hoped that the “new Kane” would address how best to make sense of the historical developments that gave us not only Kane, but also the many accomplished scholars of dharmaśāstrafeatured here.

Beyond this, I have only quibbles. The digest project of Smārta Raghunandana receives little attention; likewise, one misses reference to the work of Werner Menski, not least his impressive Hindu Law (Oxford University Press, 2003); finally, apart from scattered typographical errors, some method is needed to distinguish in-text references to works such as “Davis 2010,” which could refer to Donald R. or Richard H. But on the whole, this is a work that will inform the field for decades to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian A. Hatcher is Professor and Packard Chair of Theology at Tufts University.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Olivelle is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the ancient Indian legal tradition of Dharmasastra. Olivelle has won several prestigious fellowships, including Guggenheim, NEH, and ACLS. He was elected Vice President of the American Oriental Society in 2004 and President in 2005. He is the editor of A Dharma Reader: Classical Indian Law(Columbia University Press, 2016).

Donald R. Davis is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His current research broadens his interest in the practice of Hindu law in historical perspective, using materials beyond the Dharmasastra texts and from many parts of medieval India.




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