In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hinduism and Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Hinduism Hinduism and Law
Donald R. Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0193


The parameters of what we mean by Hindu law and legal theory are notoriously hard to fix with any precision, because the categories as such are English and of colonial origin. At the same time, no one questions the existence of a rich and varied tradition of legal thought within Hinduism that constellates around the textual corpus in Sanskrit known as Dharmaśāstra, the treatises on dharma (religious and legal duty). This corpus is only one of several South Asian normative traditions, including Buddhist monastic law, Jain manuals of ascetic and lay conduct, and various Hindu sectarian codes of ritual and social behavior. The intellectual tradition of Dharmaśāstra has stylistic and interpretive similarities to other traditions of religious law, such as Talmudic exegesis or Islamic fiqh, for example. For the sake of convenience, this bibliography will focus on Dharmaśāstra texts as the theoretical basis of Hindu law and will emphasize topics associated with law in a narrow sense. The Sanskrit legal treatises date back to perhaps the 3rd century BCE in ancient India, after which the production of other texts and commentaries continued without break through the 19th century. Major changes occurred during that long period, and further, more fundamental, ruptures happened due to the colonial appropriation of Hindu law as a system of personal law in British India. The basic colonial structure, with significant legislative modification, continues to the present day in India. However, contemporary Hindu law has very little in common with its classical roots. This bibliography emphasizes Hindu law in its classical formulations within Dharmaśāstra, since this tradition served an important role in the formation and development of Hinduism. In fact, changes in Hindu law go hand in hand with changes in Hinduism generally, including in the colonial and modern periods. The citations given here should thus demonstrate the need to include studies of law and legal theory in studies of Hinduism. After listing general studies of the tradition and key translations, the bibliography presents Hindu law first in its major topics and then through its historical periods.

General Overviews

The definitive starting point for anything relating to the principal texts and substance of Hindu law and legal theory remains Kane 1962–1975. It is, however, a sprawling and technical work that intimidates nonspecialists. Olivelle and Davis 2018 offers a more accessible collection of studies of all the major topics of Hindu law, with a focus on historical changes and development. The best shorter introduction is still Lingat 1973, while Davis 2010 provides a broad conceptual study that emphasizes the religious foundations of the tradition. Derrett 1968 and Rocher 2012 are essential for deeper study.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511674754

    A study of eight key concepts (dharmaśāstra, pramāṇa, mīmāṃsā, ṛṇa, svatva, vyavahāra, daṇḍa, and ācāra) in classical Hindu law that summarizes its core ideas and shows the affinities of Hindu law with other traditions of religious law.

  • Derrett, J. D. M. Religion, Law and the State in India. London: Faber, 1968.

    The most substantive single study of the nature and history of Hindu law, by a prolific and leading scholar of the tradition. Incorporates landmark studies of Hindu law in its classical, medieval, colonial, and modern forms, with an emphasis on religious aspects.

  • Jolly, Julius. Hindu Law and Custom. Translated by Batakrishna Ghosh. Calcutta: Greater India Society, 1928.

    An important monograph by a noted German Indologist and translator, detailing the various titles of Hindu law and surveying the principal issues of the sources of law.

  • Kane, P. V. History of Dharmaśāstra. 2d ed. 5 vols. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962–1975.

    An encyclopedic study (6,500 pages) of all the major texts and authors of classical Hindu law and all its major topics. The work touches on many other aspects of Hinduism, and thus constitutes a veritable intellectual history of mainstream Hinduism. It also comments on modern Hindu law, but not with the same level of detail.

  • Lingat, Robert. The Classical Law of India. Translated by J. D. M. Derrett. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

    The standard introduction to the sources, style, and development of classical Hindu law. It both surveys the tradition and provides penetrating analyses of custom, the state, and legal interpretation.

  • Lubin, Timothy, Donald R. Davis Jr., and Jayanth Krishnan, eds. Hinduism and Law: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Edited volume with sections on Hindu law, law in classical Hindu traditions, and law in modern Hindu contexts.

  • Olivelle, Patrick, and Donald R. Davis Jr., eds. Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra. Oxford History of Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    State-of-the-field collection with chapters by many contributors on all major topics of Hindu law. Covers the same range of topics as Kane 1962–1975, but with special attention to social context and historical development.

  • Rocher, Ludo. Studies in Hindu Law and Dharmaśāstra. Edited by Donald R. Davis Jr. London: Anthem, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7135/UPO9780857285782

    A large collection of the articles and shorter studies of Hindu law by another important scholar of the tradition. Mostly philological studies of technical topics, but includes general studies of both classical and colonial Hindu law.

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