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

Author:Davis, Donald R., Jr.
Position:Book review

Dharma: Its Early History in Law, Religion, and Narrative. By Alf Hiltebeitel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvii + 747. $74.

It is a humbling and in its own way rewarding experience to feel inadequate to review a book of such erudition and grand scope. Alf Hiltebeitel has for many years been a leading figure in the field of Indology and is best known for his many philological, text-critical, and interpretive contributions to the study of the Mahabharata. His creative and compelling approach to myth, narrative, and ritual in the great epic also extends to his innovative historical and ethnographic work on the cult of the goddess Draupadi in South India and to theoretical approaches to the study of religion generally. In all of his work, Hiltebeitel shows that he is a voracious and thorough reader and one of his gifts to scholarship is to model how one should read both the primary and secondary sources that constitute our field. The work under review only confirms that Hiltebeitel's already astonishing scholarly breadth has few limits.

Over the last several years, Hiltebeitel has published several preparatory articles that paved the way for this monumental survey of the early history of the central theological and philosophical category of dharma. While scholars have long recognized that dharma is a concept used in many different contexts by many distinct authors and traditions, understanding its semantic diversity, its conceptual evolution, and its cultural significance has been something perpetually to place in the desiderata box. With inspiration from Patrick Olivelle's edited volume on dharma that first appeared in the Journal of Indian Philosophy (2004) and Adam Bowles's fine study of apaddharma in Dharma, Disorder and the Political in Ancient India (2007), Hiltebeitel puts some parameters on the textual corpus of what counts for "early" Indian texts on dharma and then sets out to understand both the contextual role of dharma within a given text and the interrelationships between notions of dharma that developed within this corpus. He identifies "twelve major dharma texts" in four "clusters" from the early Maurya period of Asoka, the Apastamba Dharmasutra, and the Buddhist Nikayas to the early Kusana period of the Vasistha Dharmasutra and the Buddhacarita (but also the Yuga Purana and the Buddhist Prophecy of Katyayana). Of course, the epics, the Mdnava Dharmasastra, and the Buddhist Vinaya and Abhidhamma fill the middle (p. 8). In short, this book attempts, with small caveats, to present a comprehensive study of dharma in early Indian texts.

Both in the structure of the book and in its lack of synthesizing conclusion, Hiltebeitel argues against monolithic views of dharma, insisting rather on holding together contradictory viewpoints that arose historically in relation to each other. Hiltebeitel's case for the complexity of dharma in early India is the most compelling argument of the book and a lesson from which we could all learn. What this means, however, is that the book consists not of one single argument about dharma drawn through a series of texts, but rather insists on the impossibility of such a singular view. The only way to make sense of dharma, according to Hiltebeitel, is to begin by acknowledging "that classical discourse on...

To continue reading