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Contextualizing Dharma

Ruchika Sharma

By Donald R. Davis, Jr.
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 206, Rs. 685.00


T he Spirit of Hindu Law interestingly takes law beyond its legal definition and tries to relate it to the ordinary world. It talks of its ethos as well as what constitutes Hindu law and how it operated. To our minds today law is a very impersonal gigantic structure that seems almost impenetrable. We may see it read about it fear it even live within its bounds but we certainly do not relate it to our day to day life. As Donald R. Davis correctly points out in todays secular world the religious realm is often seen as primitive anti-modern and dogmatic; and religious laws can and do clash with the accommodation of the ideas of pluralism. At the outset the book declares that it seeks to ...take advantage of Hindu laws unfortunate exotic status to reveal underexamined presuppositions in current understandings of the nature of law and to suggest certain beneficial lessons that may be learned from the Hindu legal tradition (pp. 11-22). The dharmasastra being the bedrock of Hindu law it is a herculean task to translate various Sanskrit words into English a language with completely different cultural nuances. To start with as a Hindi speaking person I felt I always knew what the word dharma meant. However if I need to explain it to someone from a different religious background what would my answer be? Religion? No it is not as simple. Can we say faith? That makes Hinduism the stereotype that the West has usually classified it to be. So the book starts by defining dharma to be a much complex web of privileges duties and obligations (p. 19). However it also brings up that the Dharmasastra itself shows a reluctance to define what dharma is. It is fairly clear that the book would be read by scholars of various disciplines especially those engaged in history religious studies philosophy and legal studies. Some of the comparisons that the book draws to elaborate certain arguments also point to the fact that the work would also be fascinating to readership not too familiar with Asian religions and the Hindu legal fabric. For instance to explain the idea of coexistent svatvas or identical adhikaras being shared the analogy of ownership of an mp3 file or the copyright issues involved in downloading music is used which more or less does convey the concept (p.101). Significantly there are no attempts to find ...

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