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Alf Hiltebeitel

Publication Year: 2010

This introductory work proposes a fresh take on the ancient Indian concept dharma. By unfolding how, even in its developments as "law" and custom, dharma participates in nuanced and multifarious understandings of the term that play out in India’s great spiritual traditions, the book offers insights into the innovative character of both Hindu and Buddhist usages of the concept. Alf Hiltebeitel, in an original approach to early Buddhist usages, explores how the Buddhist canon brought out different meanings of dharma. This is followed by an exposition of the hypothesis that most, if not all, of the Hindu law books flowered after the third-century BC emperor Asoka, a Buddhist, made dharma the guiding principle of an entire realm and culture. A discussion built around the author’s expertise on the Sanskrit epics shows how their narratives amplified the new Brahmanical norms and brought out the ethical dilemmas and spiritual teachings that arose from inquiry into dharma. A chapter on the tale of the Life of the Buddha considers the relation between dharma, moksa/nirvana (salvation), and bhakti (devotion). Here, Hiltebeitel ties together a thread that runs through the entire story, which is the Buddha’s tendency to present dharma as a kind of civil discourse. In this sense, dharma challenges people to think critically or at least more creatively about their ethical principles and the foundations of their own spiritual values. A closing chapter on dharma in the twenty-first century explores its new cachet in an era of globalization, its diasporic implications, its openings into American popular culture, some implications for women, and the questions it is still raising for modern India.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality

Front Matter

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pp. v

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Editor’s Preface

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pp. vii-xii

The University of Hawai‘i Press has long been noted for its scholarly publications in, and commitment to, the field of Asian Studies. The present volume is the fifth in a series initiated by the press in keeping with that commitment, Dimensions of Asian Spirituality. ...

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pp. xiii

A series editor may take on many tasks, including seeing a text through serial lives. This work has gone through at least seven drafts. Through each incarnation Henry Rosemont has been its midwife. To paraphrase the Buddha, this birth will be its last. My thanks to Henry for helping ...

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Chapter 1: Dharma and South Asian Spirituality

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pp. 1-11

Readers, here are many of the terms I am going to use in this book on dharma, in Sanskrit and their Pāli variants (Sanskrit and Pāli are two of the major Indo-Aryan languages of classical South Asia). Starting with their Sanskrit forms, we have dharma itself, meaning that which ...

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Chapter 2: King Asoka’s Dhaṃma

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pp. 12-18

Aśoka’s inscriptions were written in an early Prakrit, which includes a variety of regional Sanskrit-related Indo-Aryan languages, including Pāli. In Prakrit our basic term is dhaṃma. The edicts are among the first records we have of Indian alphabetic writing. They were apparently ...

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Chapter 3: Vedic Dh

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pp. 34-48

The Rigveda is India’s oldest textual source and the fountainhead of Hinduism. It introduces the term dhárman, a precursor to dharma. Beginning with the Rigveda this chapter will explore the earliest meanings of dhárman and dharma in the larger Veda or full Vedic ...

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Chapter 4: Early Buddhism Three Baskets of Dharma

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pp. 34-59

This chapter will investigate Buddhist understandings of dharma in the three baskets (piṭakas) of the early Buddhist canon, taking them as an intentional organization of three different understandings of dharma developed over time. The “three basket” division is not established ...

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Chapter 5: Classical Brahmanical Dharma

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pp. 60-73

We now turn to the post-Vedic texts in which Brahmanical dharma blossomed: the dharmasūtras, Manu, and the two Sanskrit epics. These texts open up the concept of dharma for what will come to be called Hinduism. If Indians recall the epics for their manner of relating ...

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Chapter 6: Two Dharma Biographies? Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira

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pp. 74-88

The question mark in this chapter’s title looks ahead to chapter 10. There I will argue that our last classical dharma text, the Buddhacarita or “Adventure of the Buddha,” offers a critical reading of both the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa. As mentioned in chapter 1, where all ...

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Chapter 7: Two Dharma Biographies? Sītā and Draupadī

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pp. 89-108

Turning to women and dharma, we continue to explore the relationship between narrative and norm. Brahmanical norms for women are set forth broadly through the concept of strīdharma, “law(s) for women” or “women’s dharma.” In many of our classical texts, these ...

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Chapter 8: Dharma in the Bhagavad Gītā

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pp. 109-123

The Bhagavad Gītāmakes a number of philosophical points, and no one would deny that it also deserves a reputation as a text about dharma. Yet it really says only a few things about dharma per se. Most of its prominent references to dharma occur in what I will call an

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Chapter 9: Dharma and Bhakti

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pp. 124-141

One of the results of making narrative central to our discussion of classical constructions of dharma was that we would inevitably be questioning not only the relation between dharma and mokṣa, as many have done, but that between dharma and bhakti. We have seen ...

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Chapter 10: Reimagining the Dharma Hero: The Adventure of the Buddha

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pp. 142-163

Chapter 6 raised the possibility of viewing the epics’ portrayals of Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira as moral biographies. We now come to a text that may do just that: Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita “The Adventure of the Buddha,” which offers a dharma biography of a prince who becomes a ...

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Chapter 11: Dharma for the Twenty-first Century

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pp. 164-171

Lately, the United States has become familiar with dharma within a suggestive meaning-spectrum. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums described the heyday of mid-twentieth-century America’s bohemian sages or Ṛṣis. The TV situation comedy Dharma and Greg, now in reruns, ...


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pp. 173-176

Further Reading

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pp. 177-181


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pp. 183-188

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About the Author

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pp. 190

Alf Hiltebeitel is a professor of religion, history, and human sciences at the George Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in the history of religions at the University of Chicago. He teaches courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Indian and comparative mythologies, the ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824860639
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834661

Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Dimensions of Asian Spirituality