In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dharma

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Meanings and Translations of the Term Dharma
  • History
  • The Epics: Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, Buddhacarita
  • The Purāṇas
  • Usages Specific to Buddhism
  • Usages Specific to Hinduism
  • The Eternal Dharma: Sanātana Dharma
  • Goals of Human Life: Trivarga and Puruṣarthas
  • Caste and Life-Stage: Varṇāśramadharma
  • Dharma of Kings: Rājadharma
  • Warrior Duties: Kṣatriyadharma and Svadharma
  • Universal Dharmas: Sāmānya-or Sādhāraṇa-Dharmas
  • Worldly and Renunciatory Dharmas: Pravṛtti-and Nivṛtti-Dharmas and Mokṣadharma
  • Dharma in Current Contexts
  • King Aśoka Maurya

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Hinduism Dharma
Alf Hiltebeitel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0001


Dharma is a term distinctive to South Asian civilization. It is a concept that dictates appropriate behaviors necessary to maintain the order and customs of life. In a rough approximation of its major connotations, dharma is translated as righteousness, law, justice, duty, and virtue, though it has other meanings as well. It is considered a matter of subtlety and profundity by both Hindus and Buddhists and so is widely considered to be untranslatable in any uniform way. This article focuses on dharma as contextualized in history, and on four disciplinary discussions in South Asian studies in which the term dharma has been pivotal: law, religion, narrative literature, and ethics. The emphasis will be on Brahmanical/Hindu usages but will also touch on Buddhist ones.

General Overviews

Works that seek to understand the broad range of usages of the term dharma against a historical background are few and have until recently tended to arise from and focus on only the first two disciplinary concerns of law and religion. Such studies have been for the most part short and introductory. Horsch 2004, Halbfass 1988 and Holdrege 2004 are among these types of works. Horsch 2004 proposes an outmoded evolutionary view of the term’s early development. Halbfass 1988, is a probing study that digs out and contextualizes many revealing citations and is by now a classic. Holdrege 2004 provides an entry on “Dharma” in a book on Hinduism. Bowles 2007, ranging more widely into narrative literature, offers the most extensive historical exploration to date. Hiltebeitel 2010 is an introductory history of dharma in Vedic and classical India that ties in all four disciplinary concerns. Davis 2010 looks primarily at law and religion.

  • Bowles, Adam. Dharma, Disorder, and the Political in Ancient India: The Ᾱpaddharmaparvan of the Mahābhārata. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2007.

    Important work on the interfaith history of the term from Vedic to classical usages in relation specifically to the compound term “dharma for times of distress” (āpad-dharma, as used in the Mahābhārata).

  • Davis, Donald R., Jr. The Spirit of Hindu Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Surveys the notion of “Hindu law” thematically, emphasizing both the influential role of the Dharmaśāstra scholasticism as a religiously grounded jurisprudence and the diversity of customary laws.

  • Halbfass, Wilhelm. “Dharma in the Self-Understanding of Traditional Hinduism.” In India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Edited by Wilhelm Halbfass, 310–333. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

    Philologically astute, drawing out senses in which dharma continues later to carry an early Vedic meaning of both “upholding” and “holding apart.” The best short study for breadth and insight.

  • Hiltebeitel, Alf. Dharma. Asian Spirituality Series. Edited by Henry Rosemont. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010.

    An introductory history of dharma from Vedic to classical India that explores the interplay of Brahmanical and Buddhist usages in ten classical “dharma texts,” bringing out the relations between dharma as norm and dharma in narrative.

  • Holdrege, Barbara A. “Dharma.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 213–248. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Overview of dharma’s expanding domains, with good discussion of the relation between dharma and mokṣa and an explanation of how dharma supposedly replaces the concept of ṛta.

  • Horsch, Paul. “From Creation Myth to World Law: The Early History of Dharma.” Translated by Jarrod L. Whitaker. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32.5–6 (2004): 423–448.

    While generating many important insights, Horsch takes an outdated evolutionary view, tracing dharma’s emergence into “law” from “mythical thinking.” For the original version, see “Vom Schöpfungsmythos zum Weltgesetz.” Asiatische Studien: Zeitschrift der Schwitzerischen Gesellschaft für Asiankunde 21 (1967): 31–61.

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