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Updated: February 9, 2010 11:39 IST

Study on the concept of dharma

K. SRINIVAS
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This anthology of 19 well-researched articles examines the concept of dharma from semantic, cultural, and religious points of view. ‘Dharma’ is considered the fulcrum of Indian civilisation, since it is not affected by any linguistic, sectarian, or regional differences. The term itself is “untranslatable” for it has several connotations. Paul Horsch, in his article, attempts to examine the evolution of the term ‘dharma(n)’ from its Indo-Aryan origin to the position it occupies in the intellectual history of India, tracing the various phases it has gone through.

Place of dharma

Discussing the place of ‘dharman’ in the Rig Veda, Joel P. Brereton says the term is not considered central to the lexicon, although it occurs as many as 63 times. There are Indo-European parallels to ‘dharman.’ Its Iranian equivalent in old Persian is “remedy”, which is totally different from the Indo-Aryan conception. Patrick Olivelle, who looks at the semantic history of the term, concludes that “it is likely that dharma was part of the specialised vocabulary associated with royalty, especially because of its frequent use within the royal consecration (râjasûya).”

Rupert Gethin seeks to understand the concept of ‘dhamma’ (of early Buddhism) mentioned in the Nikâyas. He is of the view that it stands for something sublime, peaceful, subtle, and trans-rational. Collett Cox discusses how the term “dharma” is used in ‘Sarvastivada Abhidharma,’ highlighting its relationship with other terms such as bhâva, svabhâva, dravya, and svalaksana in the inter-traditional context. The Buddhist scholasticism shows that the concept is, at once, stable enough for any sectarian debate and elastic enough for further refinements.

In Jaina literature, Olle Qvarnström says, dharma is interpreted as virtuous behaviour, behaviour in accordance with intrinsic nature, and behaviour in terms of activity (pravritti) and non-activity (nivritti), and cosmic order. Richard W. Lariviere’s article titled “Dharmasastra, Custom, Real Law and Apocryphal ‘Smrtis’” attempts to establish that “the whole of dharma corpus can be viewed as a record of custom.” Albrecht Wezler maintains that, since dharma is the power of supporting the cosmos and sustaining life, it is a common feature in all ritual and socio-ethical spheres and, for that reason, the diachronic changes in custom and convention are often overlooked.

Dharma in Ramayana

John Brockington is of the opinion that, in the Ramayana, the meaning of dharma changes according to the attitudes of the “transmitters.” But, in a majority of cases, the term connotes a sense of propriety or morality. James Fitzgerald argues that, in the Mahabharata, the term is chiefly associated with action. Ashok Aklujkar examines the ramifications of dharma in terms of socio-linguistics of ancient India and of assumptions and predilections of current Indology by taking into account Patanjali’s Vyakarana-mahabhasya and Bartruhari’s Trikandi.

Johannes Bronkhorst explains how the expression ‘dharma’ is used in a variety of senses in the Indian philosophical systems in general and in the Visesika system in particular. How dharma is treated variously in the Mimamsa Sutras is discussed by Francis X Clooney, S.J. However, there is a reasonably well established definition which holds ‘dharma’ is an injunctive verbal force (codanâ), a Vedic “enactment” that has to be “judiciously implemented.” Taking a look at ‘dharma’ in the context of Appayya Dikshita’s discourse of the refutation of a unified knowledge system of the Purvamimamsa and the Uttaramimamsa, Sheldon Pollock tries to establish that both the Mimamsas accept that, in the mantra, the word ‘dharma’ is used only to refer to action whose end-result is perishable.

Donald R. Davis, Jr. argues that ‘dharma’ is derived not from the Vedic literature but from acâra. As a concept and idea, it is different from Dharmasastra, which contains the textual reflections on the concept of dharma. Dominik Wujastyk is of the view that Dharmasâstra not only regulates the conduct of individuals in society but also sets out the objectives of the traditional system of medicine, ayurveda.

Frank J. Korom examines the family resemblance between ‘ethnographic’ Dharmarâj and ‘textual’ Dharmarâj, although there is hardly any evidence to show that contemporary traditions have anything to do with medieval textual tradition. John Taber provides some invaluable reflections on William Halbfass’ study of Kumârila’s ahimsa and Dharma purely from the philosophical point of view. In an interesting article, Paul Hacker observes that Hinduism is the religion of Aryan cultural community and it is often denoted by the word ‘dharma,’ which encompasses all those practices that represent Aryan-ness.

The editor of this anthology, Patrick Olivelle, needs to be congratulated on having provided the posterity with a treasure of knowledge on the concept of dharma.

DHARMA — Studies in its Semantic, Cultural and Religious History: Edited by Patrick Olivelle; Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 41, U.A. Bungalow Road, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi-110007.

Rs. 1195.

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