Hinduism and Law: An Introduction.
As its title suggests, Hinduism and Law: An Introduction is an edited volume of essays that deal, in a multitude of ways, with both Hindu religious traditions and law, thereby elucidating the deep and pervasive connections between these two social phenomena. Although the volume's editors do not specify why they have chosen to refer to the work as an introduction, the presumed reason is that it is explicitly intended to provide an "accessible analysis of the main features and periods of what has conventionally been called Hindu law, and of the interrelations between law and Hinduism more broadly, up to the present day" (p. 1). In this way the editors' stated hope (p. 1) is that the work will contribute significantly to the vast body of scholarship already dedicated to exploring the complex intersections between law and religion outside of South Asia. In more concrete terms, the introductory character of the volume means that most of the essays contained therein are essentially surveys or summaries of specific topics related to Hinduism and law, such as the creation of Anglo-Hindu law and the system of caste-based reservations in modern India. When taken together, the specific subjects covered within the volume reflect a broad picture of Hinduism and law that certainly befits an introductory text. Moreover, all of the volume's essays attempt to present Indian materials in a manner that is easily accessible to non-specialists. Thus, for instance, the contributors to the volume generally avoid quoting long passages from primary sources and often cite sources originally composed in Indian languages only in English translation.
At the outset, a brief introduction written jointly by the volume's three editors establishes two points of fundamental importance to the book as a whole. Firstly, it explains and justifies the use of the terms "Hinduism" and "law" that together constitute the work's self-proclaimed subject (pp. 1-7). Secondly, it explains the logic behind the overall layout of the book, which consists of sixteen "chapters" (the term used to denote the contributors' essays) arranged into three parts. The six chapters that comprise the first part, which is entitled "Hindu Law," all deal directly with either the pan-Indian tradition of Brahmanical jurisprudence known as Dharmas[a.bar]stra or closely related legal systems. The second and third parts each consists of five chapters. Rather than dealing simply with Hindu law, they treat what the editors refer to as "Hinduism and law" (p. 7). By this they mean that the chapters constituting the book's second and third parts all do one of two things: a) They analyze connections between law and specific Hindu traditions that are not principally juridical, such as hermeneutics and Hindu nationalism, or b) they use insights from specific theoretical movements within Western academe, such as law and literature and performance studies, to shed light on aspects of Hindu law. Part II focuses on pre-modern sources, whereas part III focuses on colonial and post-colonial sources.
This elegant arrangement gives the volume a cohesion that is often lacking in edited collections of essays. And this cohesive quality is greatly enhanced by the fact that throughout the volume, the various chapters frequently refer to one another. Like any compilation of essays, however, Hinduism and Law should not be judged primarily on the basis of its subject-matter and organizational structure. Instead, it is the combined quality of its individual essays or chapters that will ultimately determine its worth to scholars. Consequently, I will spend the remainder of this review providing a brief description and assessment of its individual chapters, which I am pleased to report are generally quite good.
Part 1 begins with chapters by Donald Davis, Patrick Olivelle, Axel Michaels, and Rosane Rocher, all of which insightfully summarize and synthesize a vast array of primary and secondary sources related to major topics in the study of Hindu law. Davis' chapter presents a grand overview of how major historical trends in South Asia have impacted legal practice amongst Hindu communities, singling out in particular the importance of corporate groups, temples, and the standardization of legal documents. Olivelle's chapter provides a clear, up-to-date, and remarkably concise textual history of the Dharmas[a.bar]stra tradition and should he regarded as essential reading for anyone wishing to become quickly acquainted with the most recent scholarship on the subject. In the following chapter Michaels addresses a longstanding question amongst scholars of Hindu law, namely, what is the relationship between the prescriptions of Dharmas[a.bar]stra texts and actual legal practice. To this end, he does an impressive job of gathering together the little available evidence that can actually help us answer this question and sketches a complex picture of the relationship between textual norms and the practice of law in pre-modern South Asia. Rocher's chapter deals with the colonial creation of so-called "Anglo-Hindu law," providing a clear and compelling narrative in a style that is refreshingly free from the air of moral indictment that often accompanies scholarly discussions of British colonial rule. The two concluding chapters of part I, by Rachel Sturman and Rina Verma Williams, differ from the preceding chapters in that they address far more narrowly focused issues. Sturman discusses the central role of the family in colonial Hindu law, and Williams discusses the debate surrounding the passage of the Hindu Code Bills in post-independence India. Although both of these authors make a number of astute observations, their chapters at places suffer from a turgid and obfuscating prose style that seems to be standard in segments of the social sciences, but makes their authors' intended meanings difficult to ascertain.
Lawrence McCrea begins part II with a gem of an essay that not only summarizes, but also provides important new insights into the well-known relationship between Dharmas[a.bar]stra and the Brahmanical school of philosophy and hermeneutics known as M[i.bar]mams[a.bar]. In the following chapter Timothy Lubin profitably compares the different notions of authority developed by Western legal theorists with the prominent Dharmas[a.bar]stric terms adhik[a.bar]ra and pram[a.bar]na, which, he argues, roughly correspond to the Western concepts of epistemic and practical authority. The next two chapters, by Ananya Vajpeyi and Whitney Cox, often suffer from the same stylistic issues as the earlier chapters by Sturman and Williams, making it very difficult for me to pin down both their precise theses and their supporting evidence despite their generally thorough knowledge of the primary sources they discuss. Vajpeyi writes on the special Dharmas[a.bar]stric compendia that were composed during the late medieval period to explain the dharma of low-caste S[u.bar]dras. Inspired by comparative studies of law and literature in the modern world, Cox compares two Sanskrit works composed under the patronage of the C[a.bar]lukya king Vikram[a.bar]ditya VI: the Mit[a.bar]ksar[a.bar] of Vijn[a.bar]nesvara (a reputed legal commentary) and the Vikram[a.bar][n.bar]kadevacarita of Bilhana (a biographical court poem). The author of the concluding chapter of part II is Robert Yelle. Drawing upon the fields of semiotics and performance studies, he presents a compelling case that poetic devices embedded in Dharmas[a.bar]stric rites, such as oaths, ordeals, and penances, enhanced belief in their efficaciousness.
The live chapters that comprise part III are uniformly excellent, with the partial exception of chapter 13 by Aditya Malik, which is useful but could have explored its topic further. The first chapter, by Richard H. Davis, deals brilliantly with the legal status and especially the property rights of temple deities in medieval South India, Dharmas[a.bar]stra texts, colonial India, and even modern British law. In the following chapter Malik discusses the process of legally petitioning Goludev, a so-called "folk" deity popular in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. The three remaining chapters, by Laura Dudley Jenkins, Smita Narula, and Jayanth K. Krishnan, all provide eloquent, persuasive, and concise surveys of major topics related to both law and modern Hinduism. Jenkins discusses the history and character of caste-based reservations in contemporary India, identifying three areas that have been the primary focus of recent scholarly discussions: the classification of castes, international activism, and the relative importance of caste vis-a-vis other types of disadvantage. Citing a number of seminal legal cases, Narula details the prominent ways in which Hindu nationalist groups have been involved in litigation, explaining--among other things--how the unique character of the Indian constitution makes it possible for such explicitly religious groups to claim the mantle of secularism. Finally, Krishnan provides an overview of Hindu migration patterns from South Asia during the modem period and briefly describes the sorts of the legal issues--particularly issues of legal identity--that these diasporic Hindu communities have faced in their non-South Asian homelands.
In short, the essays contained in Hinduism and Law cover an impressive array of topics related to law and Hinduism in all major historical periods. They are on the whole extremely well-written and useful contributions suitable for a broad scholarly audience. My only substantial criticism of the work is that a few of its chapters are written in such a needlessly obscure style that I am able to glean from them only the vaguest of arguments and conclusions.
DAVID BRICK YALE UNIVERSITY
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|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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