Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative

Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative

Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative

Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative


Between 300 BCE and 200 CE, concepts and practices of dharma attained literary prominence throughout India. Both Buddhist and Brahmanical authors sought to clarify and classify their central concerns, and dharma proved a means of thinking through and articulating those concerns.

Alf Hiltebeitel shows the different ways in which dharma was interpreted during that formative period: from the grand cosmic chronometries ofkalpasandyugasto narratives about divine plans, gendered nuances of genealogical time, royal biography (even autobiography, in the case of the emperor Asoka), and guidelines for daily life, including meditation. He reveals the vital role dharma has played across political, religious, legal, literary, ethical, and philosophical domains and discourses about what holds life together. Through dharma, these traditions have articulated their distinct visions of the good and well-rewarded life.

This insightful study explores the diverse and changing significance of dharma in classical India in nine major dharma texts, as well some shorter ones. Dharma proves to be a term by which to make a fresh cut through these texts, and to reconsider their own chronology, their import, and their relation to each other.


More than for any other project I have undertaken, this one has made me feel that I should reread virtually everything on India I have ever read as well as everything I have written. It seems I have been interested in dharma, however lazily, for a long time. My primary interests in the Sanskrit epics always dovetailed with dharma, to the point where my 2001 book, Rethinking the Mahābhārata: The Education of the Dharma King, put it in the subtitle. Fortunately, however, I could wait to 2005 to start the writing, for it could not have taken the form it has, before I was able to digest two works completed in 2004. The one I read first is Adam Bowles’s dissertation (2004), now revised as a book (2007), which ranges over many of the same texts I do as background to his discussion of a section of the Mahābhārata on “dharma for times of distress.” The one I read next is the landmark 2004 Journal of Indian Philosophy volume on dharma, conceptually spearheaded by Patrick Olivelle and now amplified further as a book titled Dharma (Olivelle 2009). Until quite recently, scholarly work on dharma has been rather scattered, and it has been possible to sustain and even promote a nebulous ahistorical view of the term that many still have today. Thanks to works of this sort, that has changed.

The findings of this book do, however, differ on some points from those of Bowles and the authors in Olivelle’s collection. Researching dharma has proved a rich opportunity to advance new and unexpected lines of inquiry in areas that have long preoccupied . . .

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