A Synopsis by Amrutha MK (Research Associate, NIAS) – on “Hinduism and the History of Dharmaśāstra”
Lecture given by Prof. Patrick Olivelle on 03 March 2021

Series Title: Sanskrit Language & its Traditions: A Journey Through its History and Contemporaneity
Organised by: NIAS Consciousness Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India
Email: niasconsciousnessprogramme@nias.res.in 

Prof. Patrick Olivelle presented a lecture titled “Hinduism and the History of Dharmaśāstra” for the series “Sanskrit Language and its Tradition: A Journey through its History and Contemporaneity”. The lecture dealt with the following five major topics. The beginning, middle, and end of the tradition of Smṛti, the medieval tradition of bhāṣya commentary and nibandha or legal digests, and finally, the changes in the doctrine and the practice of Hindu tradition with respect to the history of Dharmaśāstra.
Prof. Olivelle said that for over two millennia, from around the 3rd century BC until the 19th-century, Dharmaśāstra was a vibrant intellectual tradition in India. He pointed out that this literary tradition had not received the attention that the grammatical, Kāvya, and Alaṅkāra traditions had received within the institutions of higher learning in India. Addressing the issues of the genealogy of Dharmaśāstra, he said that the emerging centrality of the term and concept of dharma both within Buddhism and in the imperial ethics propagated by the emperor Ashoka in the middle of the 3rd century BC prompted Brahmanical theologians to define their own religious way of life in terms of dharma. Further he claimed that dharma was not a central concept in the theological vocabulary of brahmins in the middle and late Vedic periods when the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads were composed. The term also occupied a marginal position in the Brahmanical ritual treatises, the Śrautasūtra and Gṛhyasūtras. Thus, he argued that it was a theological development within Brahminical thought, that made dharma a central concept. This had resulted in the creation of texts devoted to the definition and explication of specifically Brahmanical dharma. Prof. Olivelle dated this genre of literature to the first half of the third century BC and said that the relative dating of these texts was aided by the term and category of dvija or the dvijāti, the twice-born. He added that the category of dvija was absent in the earliest period of the Dharmaśāstric textual composition and that the category was invented after about the middle of the 2nd century BC. Thus, he suggested that Dharmaśāstric tradition could be classified into pre dvija and post dvija compositions.
Prof. Olivelle pointed out that the composition of the Manusmriti in the second century CE was a watershed event in the history of Dharmaśāstra. He commented that a central idea of Hindu religion that did not play a major role in earlier Dharmaśāstric history which Manu had introduced into the Dharmaśāstric discourse was mokṣa or liberation. He further said that Yājñavalkya, another influential thinker, placed emphasis on documents in his discussion of evidence. He was the first to use the technical terms lekhya and likhita with reference to legal documents and to use the technical term for audio as a significant part of legal evidence.
Prof. Olivelle commented that the age of Dharmaśāstra composition came to an end by the middle of the second half of the first millennium. The vast majority of the Dharmaśāstra had been lost in the manuscript tradition and he said that the reasons for this large-scale textual extinction were unclear. Towards the last century of the first millennium CE, one could see the beginnings of a new kind of textual production besides the traditional commentaries which Prof. Olivelle called the saṅgraha genre. In these texts, the authors attempted to produce abstracts of the Smṛtis. He added that by the 12th century, a new and improved type of Dharmaśāstra text that presented views of ancient Smṛtis in a systematic manner was born. Prof. Olivelle discussed legal texts called nibandha that presented topically arranged citations from the ancient texts. He pointed out that these texts did not simply give the views of Smṛtis in a condensed form as found in saṅgraha, but actually gave full citation from the Smṛtis with brief commentaries so as to create a narrative and remove any apparent contradiction among the Smṛtis. Apart from this, Prof. Olivellie also said that temple and image worship was absent in the early Dharmaśāstras, though one could encounter new sections on Hindu beliefs and practices in commentaries and dharma nibandhas.
Prof. Olivelle said that the history of Dharmaśāstra revealed the history of Hinduism. To mention, Dharmaśāstra instructed people what to do and when to do it. But in another important sense, he added that it was not the total history of Hinduism. It had little to say about the lived lives of marginal groups and women. Prof. Olivelle concluded the lecture by saying that we would have to be circumspect about using this important resource for writing Indian history. The seventh lecture in the series ended with an interactive question and answer session.
Lecture Synopsis Author: Amrutha MK, Team NIAS CSP

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