chapter  10
36 Pages


ByBarbara A. Holdrege

Dharma is one of the most important and ubiquitous categories in the history of Indicreligions and cultures. This pivotal category has assumed a central role not only in Hindu traditions but also in Buddhist and Jaina traditions. The term “dharma” conveys a complex array of meanings and has defied the attempts of both Western and Indian scholars to reduce it to a single English equivalent, such as religion, law, duty, norm, social usage, right conduct, morality, justice, or righteousness. Franklin Edgerton’s definition of this multivalent term is representative: “Dharma is propriety, socially approved conduct, in relation to one’s fellow men or to other living beings (animals, or superhuman powers). Law, social usage, morality, and most of what we ordinarily mean by religion, all fall under this head” (1942: 151). In Hindu traditions dharma is an encompassing category that incorporates and at the same time transcends the distinctions among religion, ritual, law, and ethics that are generally posited in Western traditions. Austin Creel cautions us against attempting to equate dharma with any one of the Western categories to which it has been compared: “One must avoid identification of dharma as directly equivalent to any of the various components of its meaning, such as law, duty, morality, justice, virtue or religion. All of these are involved, but we should cease looking for an equivalent for translation, inasmuch as premature identification with Western concepts tends to blind one to the particular multifaceted structure of meanings in the Hindu dharma” (1977: 2). Among more recent studies, Ariel Glucklich (1994) has suggested that the most fruitful approach to understanding dharma is to set aside the quest for conceptual frameworks and theoretical formulations and to adopt instead a phenomenology of dharma based on a “somatic hermeneutic” that explores embodied experiences of dharma in specific spatial and temporal contexts.