New Login   

A Study In Paradoxes And Subtleties

Amiya P. Sen

By Alf Hiltebeitel
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 684 Bibliography and Index, Rs. 1800.00


This monumental work, I gather, is an adaptation from the American edition of 2011 and not having consulted the original, I was naturally left wondering just how much the author ‘adapted’ with a South Asian readership in mind. It was, however, quite obvious to me that the present work represents the cumulative insight and expertise that Hiltebeitel has acquired over the years, particularly in relation to the study of the epics and dharma literature. Some of the essays included in the work under review have had earlier incarnations: the earliest of these as I discovered, goes back to 1976 and the latest appearing as recently as 2010. With about half a dozen more essays and articles in the press, this is formidable scholarship to reckon with, to say the least. By the author’s own admission, this study rests on four pivotal issues concerning the concept of dharma: law, religion, narrative literature and ethics. It also claims for itself, quite justly I think, an interdisciplinary approach. There is, for instance, a consistent engagement with historicity and this, if I read Hiltebeitel correctly, also serves to bring out more clearly the concept of dharma as a temporally mutating principle and an intertextual puzzle. The historical time frame that the author adopts for this work ranges between 300 bce ad 500 ce i.e., the period separating the Mauryan and Kushan periods in early Indian history. Though the earliest Indic texts like the Rig Veda do reveal use of the term, their treatment is by no means discursive or didactic—qualities that are progressively revealed over time especially in the post Vedic age. In this work, Hiltebeitel also brings out the recurrent and dialogic process of conceptualizing dharma as between the Buddhist and brahmanical traditions. Thus, when it comes to formulating an authoritarian and centralizing tendency, brahmanical dharma texts are clearly anticipated by Ashokan edicts which use royal power and prerogative to subdue or render ineffective, pre-existing popular assemblies (samaj). However, the brahmanical dharmasutras, as Hiltebeitel convincingly argues, in itself represent a reactive appropriation and re-working of pro-Buddhist formulations. There are, of course, some common ground that these traditions share as for instance, the attempt at  universalizing the concept of dharma, to treat it increasingly as a transcendental category and assign it a value that is believed to quintessentially define Indic civilization.  Hiltebeitel’s study is based on a rich corpus of texts but again belonging to ...

Table of Contents >>
Please or to Read Entire Article

Free Access Online 12 Back Issues
with 1 year's subscription
Archive (1976-2011)
under construction.