Dharma in Hinduism

by Paul Hacker
Dharma in Hinduism
Paul Hacker
Journal of Indian Philosophy
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This essay was originally published as “Dharma im Hinduismus” in Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft 49 (1965): 93–106, and reprinted in Kleine Schriften: Paul Hacker. Ed. Lambert Schmithausen. Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag (1978): 496–509. The original page numbers are indicated in the translation at the appropriate points. I presented the content of this article in a somewhat shorter form as an inaugural lecture on the occasion of my assuming the Chair of Indology at the University of Münster.

Hinduism is a label for the indigenous religion of India that orients
itself toward the Veda, the sacred texts from the oldest Indo-Aryan
period, without actually being Vedic in either its myth or ritual; the
religion, that intends to cultivate and pass down the religious
customs of the  Aryas, but that nevertheless absorbed and created
anew many things that did not belong to the original Arya religion.
The word Hinduism came into use only in the 19th century; it
would be more correct historically to speak of the Arya religion or
the group of Arya religions. The word Arya denotes thereby a
cultural community, the elite classes of which called themselves
Arya throughout the centuries. The religion of this cultural
community, which spread throughout the immense area of India, is
in truth a group of religions which have much in common
between them, but in which there are also many differences and
contrasts – highly visible diversity of myths, rituals, customs,
teachings, and religious views.
Among the commonalities belonging to this group of religions is a
peculiar concept denoted by the word dharma. I should just mention
that Buddhism, which does not recognize the Veda and, therefore,
cannot be considered part of Hinduism, also has a concept of dharma,
but I cannot consider it here.
What then is dharma in Hinduism? I do not want to engage in
etymological explanations; these are more often than not misleading.
I will also set aside the question of how the Hindu concept of dharma
may be differentiated from what the Vedic texts understood by
dharma.1a I will first address two cases in which the Hindu notion of
dharma came into contact with Western concepts, not in learned
analysis, but rather in real life.
A few years ago an inscription of the Indian emperor Asoka from
the year 258 BC was discovered in Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Inscriptions of this ruler are well known throughout India and its
border regions. They are composed in a variety of languages. In the
western border regions, even Aramaic has appeared as a language.
The new inscription also contains Greek text and therein appears a
Greek rendering of the Indic dharma: the word eusebeia.
Emperor Asoka was an enthusiastic Buddhist but not a religious
scholar. Even if his concept of dharma as it appears in many of his
[94, 497] inscriptions was inspired by Buddhism, it nevertheless was
clearly not exclusively Buddhist nor was it meant to be. Asoka
wanted to promote a dharma that would be acceptable to all his
subjects, whether Buddhist or Hindu. He understood by dharma,
generally stated, a right and moral conduct, the exercise of duty
toward the human community.2 One may claim that this idea of
dharma, although upheld by lay Buddhists with a special devotion,
was also not unknown in early Hinduism. For this reason we might
also draw upon this Asokan inscription in explaining the Hindu
concept of dharma.
As stated the word dharma is rendered in the new inscription by
eusebeia. Scholars of Hellenistic Greece assure us that this Greek
word in Hellenistic contexts refers not only to the veneration of gods,
but also to a ‘‘generally reverential attitude toward the orders of life,’’
and that it is used ‘‘also for conduct toward relatives, between husband
and wife, and even for the conduct of slaves toward their
master.’’3 It is this concept that the Greek speaking officials of this
Indian ruler rediscovered in the Indic dharma. This is all the more
understandable when we recall that Asoka’s understanding of dharma
as it appears in his inscriptions includes an element of reverence,
namely of the mutual esteem between humans, even though the word
has in its derivation nothing to do with fear or backing off in awe, in
contrast to the Greek eusebeia which is connected to sebomai.3a
Asoka’s inscriptions frequently preach the duty of obedience toward
one’s parents and persons of respect, of friendliness and helpfulness
in the interaction with all human beings.
The new inscription is of inestimable value because it brings us
closer to the spirit of a central concept of Indic thought through a
gloss in the principal language of the ancient Mediterranean. Such a
case is extraordinarily rare. However, we should not now simply
equate dharma and eusebeia with each another as exactly parallel. The
gloss at least conveys the atmosphere that the Greek speaker felt
when confronted with the Indic dharma. This was without a doubt a
religious, not merely a legal, atmosphere.
The encounter with this inscription encourages us to make a leap
of 2200 years forward in time to the moment when Europe and India
again came into contact – this time, however, in an incomparably
more intensive manner than in the Hellenistic period – in order to ask
which Western term is today juxtaposed to the Indic. Today it is, to
be sure, not a matter of translating from an Indic to a European
language, but [95, 498] the reverse. Thanks to the Anglicized school
system, educated Indians have since the 19th century learned to think
in European terms, and now use, when writing in Indic languages,
Indic words to express European concepts. It is therefore now a
question of transposition from European to Indic, not the opposite.
In this way, dharma appears now as an equivalent for the European
word religion.
Now this translation is not so very different from that which was
put forth by the Hellenistic Greeks. The Greek eusebeia is also, if
stated simply, in many instances translatable by ‘‘religiosity’’ or
‘‘religion.’’ Moreover, the modern habit of using dharma as a cipher
for the concept ‘‘religion’’ is a point of entry into the meaning of
dharma, but here too we cannot simply equate them. What is true of
the juxtaposition of dharma and eusebeia is also true of dharma and
religion: both concepts overlap without coinciding, and the translation
developed in living contact suggests an important element of its
meaning. It is an approximation that shows what especially stood out
in the foreign concept: what dharma was to the Greeks in the third
century BC, the European concept ‘‘religion’’ is to modern Indians.3b
If we can assume a continuity of the Indic concept over 2200 years –
and we are certainly justified in doing so – then we can make the
observation that dharma has something in common with morality as
well as with religion.
Now I want to go into the concept of dharma as it is presented in
the specialist literature that exists in Hinduism about this idea.
In the meaning of dharma, what is moral becomes especially clear
when Hindus speak of general or common dharma, samanya- or
sadharan: a-dharma. There we find injunctions or prohibitions valid for
all humankind such as, for example, the prohibitions of killing or
violence, of theft and adultery, or the injunctions of truthfulness,
friendliness, or of reverence for gods as well as for persons of respect,
parents, and teachers.
However, the domain of what is moral was never as clearly
emphasized in Hinduism as it was in Buddhism. On the one hand, the
realm of dharma stretches out well beyond what is moral; on the other
hand, dharma, in most of its contents, is not common to all humankind,
but rather bound to the cultural community of  Aryas and within this to
specific social groups. Dharma is by definition varn: asramadharma, that
is the dharma of castes and life-stages. The system of castes and lifestages,
itself belonging to the system of dharma, is the framework in
which all the contents of dharma are enmeshed. The textbooks
(Lehrtexte3c) of dharma distinguish four principal castes: Brahmins;
Ks: atriyas, meaning warriors, rulers, or nobles; Vaisyas, meaning
farmers and merchants; andSÅL udras, or servants, who undertake menial
jobs and trades. Cross-cutting this system is that of the [96, 499] four
life-stages: the brahmacarin or student; the gr: hastha or married man;
the vanaprastha or hermit; and the parivrajaka or wandering ascetic.
How far real life ever corresponded to these classifications is another
question. There have always been many more castes than just four; the
dharma texts explain them as (actually illegitimate) mixings of the four
castes. Whether the institution of religious education was ever observed
generally seems doubtful; the fact that the textbooks present extensive
prescriptions for irregularities in the observance of the system is
revealing. However, the ideal, officially recognized dharma system
according to the texts consists nevertheless in the framework of four
castes and four orders of life. To each caste and to each order of life the
texts apportioned their respective duties as their special dharma. The
dharma of a Brahmin is for instance to learn the Veda, to teach and
perform sacrifices for others, thus to perform sacerdotal services. The
special dharma of a Ks: atriya is to rule; of a Vaisya, to carry out agriculture
and animal husbandry. In addition, both of the latter castes also
had to learn the Veda and make sacrifices through the intermediacy of
Brahmins. TheSÅL udras, who are, as it were, half-citizens (Beisassen) of
the religious and social system of the  Aryas, may not become familiar
with the Veda; they have only to serve the three upper castes. For each
of the special caste dharmas, there are then innumerable individual
prescriptions of ritual and customs for the individual orders of life.
There are also many variants, mostly regional, and these are accepted as
legitimate in the regularly produced codifications of dharma.
In addition to morality proper, therefore, dharma also encompasses
the entire external ritual, ceremonial side of religion, and everything in
life is attended by such ceremonies and customs. Furthermore, the
entire realm of civil law, criminal law, and statecraft – royal law – form
part of dharma. And for offenses against the innumerable prescriptions
rites of expiation and penance exist that also form part of dharma.
Dharma is qualified religiously not only because the specifically
religious tradition belongs to it, but above all because it has a
connection to salvation. This also forms part of the definition of
dharma, just as much as the aforementioned characteristic that it is
differentiated and qualified according to caste and life-stage. Salvation
is something otherworldly, something that transcends this life.
Accordingly, part of the nature of dharma is that it ought not to be done
out of worldly, thisworldly motives.4 In the 7th century AD, the great
systematizer Kumarila expressed it negatively: ‘‘When good persons
act according to certain rules, and no motive or goal is apparent in the
realm of the observable, then this is to be [97, 500] understood as
dharma.’’5 Motives in the realm of the observable are apparent, for
instance, when someone does something for self-preservation or for
personal enjoyment or for the purpose of material acquisition; nothing
of this sort is dharma. None of these motives are present when someone
makes a ritual gift (usually to Brahmins), when he performs the daily
oblation rites, when he participates in a religious festival, and so forth.
Of course it can occur that someone does these with an added worldly
motive as well, for instance, to acquire some prestige for himself, but
according to the explicit rules of a Dharmasutra his act is then simply
not dharma and it produces no otherworldly reward, no ‘‘ascension,’’ as
they say. Worldly goods in fact follow one who fulfills dharma only as
accessories, just as a mango tree, which is really there to produce fruit,
also creates shade and fragrant blossoms. Even if no worldly goods or
benefits are acquired by the fulfillment of dharma, the dharma still
remains undiminished: so teaches one dharma text.6
This notion serves among other things to demarcate dharma from
other existential goals. Hinduism or the Arya religion classifies three
or four goals of life: sexual life, acquisitive life, and the life of dharma
that can be described approximately, if not precisely, as the religious
life; above these rises the highest goal of life, the striving after
liberation from transmigration, the condition of always having to be
reborn. The thoughts I have laid out here thus mark off the life of
dharma sharply from all striving for acquisition and forms of worldly
life. If motives arise from these pursuits, then the act of dharma is
‘‘fruitless,’’ it is dharma no more.
I repeat again Kumarila’s negative definition: ‘‘When good persons
act according to certain rules and no motive or goal is apparent in the
realm of the observable, then this is to be understood as dharma.’’ In
this definition, something important is not yet explained: the good,
lawful, righteous person, the sadhu. Who is a sadhu in the sense of this
statement? The word sis:t:
a, which may be translated as ‘‘cultured’’ or
‘‘well-mannered,’’ has a similar meaning for Kumarila and others, as
well as the word sat, which can again be rendered by ‘‘good.’’ For
Kumarila the good or well-mannered person is one who, insofar as
something is directly prescribed in the Veda, always orients himself
toward the Veda. In such a person is, as it were, the substance of the
Veda; he thus acts correctly and his decisions are a norm for others as
well, in cases for which an existing Vedic prescription cannot be
tracked down. [98, 501]
From this we see a further characteristic of dharma that is explicitly
declared in most texts: dharma has a connection to the Veda, to the
sacred texts from the oldest Indo-Aryan period. What is directly
enjoined in the Veda is categorically obligatory. It is dharma, it leads
to the otherworldly salvation. The Veda is the foremost source of
But it is not the only source. In addition to the Veda and to the
texts known as smr: ti, many texts refer to the practice of the good or
the well-mannered or the experts as a source of dharma. Kumarila
combines both sources of dharma by attributing the goodness of good
people back to the Veda which he explains as follows: The good are
those who orient themselves toward the Veda wherever it is possible.
Other texts, however, do not give this explanation, and there are
portions of texts that were probably originally independent in which
the Veda is not known as a source at all7 or appears only in second
position.8 Viewed historically, I would like to hypothesize, those
sayings which speak only of the practice or consensus of the good and
the expert as a source of dharma are very old; they may stem from a
time when the Veda was not yet seen by men as a closed, authoritative
textual corpus, when they rather still lived in the Veda, when
the Veda was still evolving. But what is it then that qualifies certain
people to be an authority for dharma, whether that they are an
exclusive authority or that their opinion or their practice is definitive
in cases for which no explicit rule is provided in the Veda?
Sometimes moral qualities are given as such qualifications: people
who are free from passionate affection or antipathy, from greed and
anger.9 A geographical demarcation is common, too. There is a region
of North India known as Aryavarta, the practices of which serve as
generally exemplary and normative. The agreement or consensus of the
upper three castes among the  Aryas is also known as a characteristic of
proper dharma. The most striking instance of a definition of this sort is
found in the Apastambadharmasutra. There it is said:
Dharma and adharma (that is, the opposite of dharma) do not go around saying,
‘‘That is us.’’ Nor do gods, Gandharvas, or ancestors declare what is dharma and
what is adharma. Rather what  Aryas praise when it is done, that is dharma; what
they condemn is adharma. One should model one’s conduct after the conduct that is
unanimously approved in all countries by  Aryas who are well-mannered, aged, and
self-disciplined, and who are free from greed and deceit.10 [99, 502]
This is the most concrete and precise definition of the Hindu
concept of dharma that I know. The definition is radically empirical.
There is no superordinate principle from which dharma and adharma
may be derivable. Only by experiential inquiry can one determine
what dharma is: one must ask morally qualified, learned  Aryas.
Since the beginning of the 20th century one sometimes hears from
Hindus that Hindu philosophy in particular taught a universal
principle of dharma and adharma,11 and therefore dharma and
adharma correspond directly to the moral concepts of good and evil.
In this view, the principle follows from Vedanta monism and means:
Do good to others because the self of others is identical with your
own self. But this notion is not authentically Hindu. The pure gnostic
monism of Vedanta admits of no ethical, meaning will-related, consequence
at all, and never in ancient and medieval India was such a
consequence derived from monism. The seemingly Hindu principle
was established instead by the German philosopher Schopenhauer,
and has become known in India through the intermediacy of the
Schopenhauerian and Indologist Paul Deussen, where it is today
taken by many Indians to be a bona fide part of ancient Hinduism.12
Historical Hinduism never attempted to derive the dharma-ness of
dharma from a universal philosophical or religious principle. A
philosophy of dharma exists only in rudimentary attempts; the
thought of Kumarila is one such attempt, which I adduced and to
which I will again return. Once again: the Hindu concept of dharma is
radically empirical. To learn what dharma is, one must go to India,
preferably to Aryavarta, to the  Aryas and observe what those who
are aged, learned, well-mannered, and disciplined, unanimously
accept as dharma. In order to establish or produce consensus, specific
procedures are sometimes prescribed: the creation of committees that
should consist of a certain number of members from different social
It is also remarkable that the previously cited Dharmasutra text
explicitly denies that gods declare or expound dharma. Nevertheless,
dharma is religiously qualified, as stated. We must surmise that the
Hindu concept of dharma developed at a time when the old polytheism
collapsed and the new quasi-monotheisms had not yet
assumed a fixed, conceptualized form. To the same time period falls
the origin of Buddhism and [100, 503] of the philosophical system of
SanÅEkhya, and in both the existence of gods is not completely denied,
but it is rejected that they collectively or individually have any
determinate influence over the fate of humankind. In this same time,
Brahmins offered sacrifices without thinking anymore that by the
sacrifices higher beings were venerated or propitiated. The sacrifice
was a means to the achievement of worldly or otherworldly goals that
was effective in and of itself. And this sacrifice was a prominent part
of dharma. The theory of sacrifice as part of the Hindu notion of
dharma was in its beginnings also formulated at this time.
If one considers these historical connections, it is no wonder that
dharma in Hinduism is innately impersonal. In later theistic Hindu
religions the concept of dharma was, it is true, integrated in such a
way that the highest god, mostly Vis:n:
u, functioned as the origin,
proclaimer, and protector of dharma; but Hindu dharma still never
lost its impersonal quality and its independence from the deity. The
connection to theism remained external and artificial. Dharma is not
the will of a personal god or gods.
Let me recapitulate briefly: Dharma, based in its contents on the
castes and life-stages, encompassing the entire realm of what is moral,
ritual, legal, and customary, and effecting through its observance an
otherworldly salvation, is not derivable from a philosophical principle
or from a religious source, but rather only empirically ascertainable,
whether from the Veda or from the consensus of the good
with regard to geographical place.
However, there are unforeseen cases in which neither the Veda nor
the accepted smr: ti texts nor the practice of the good enable a decision
about which conduct is dharma and which is not. What then should
serve as the rule?
Here what applies is that in doubtful cases the good person follows
what satisfies his heart, his own inner feeling, what he feels driven to.
This is the principle of atmatus:t:
i. Kumarila has once again connected
this notion with the relationship of dharma to the Veda. He says:
If a person ceaselessly directs his mind toward the Veda and his mind is purified by
this, then what is satisfying to his heart is a yardstick in deciding what dharma is. If
someone, over a long time, immerses himself in the Veda and in the knowledge of its
contents, his imagination is formed in such a way that it follows the path determined
by the Veda and cannot take a wrong turn. That is why it is taught: ‘‘Whatever
thought occurs to one who knows the Veda by heart, this is a Vedic thought.’’ Such a
thought is Vedic because it is formed from the residue of what is Vedic. Just as
everything that grows in the salt mines of Ruma and in the lustrous [101, 504] golden
soil of Meru becomes salt and gold, respectively, so it is with the inner condition of
one who knows the Veda.14
I quote Kumarila’s statement not only because it is a piece of
dharma philosophy, but also because it is a typical expression of
Hindu substantialism, and because this substantialism must be
considered in any complete analysis of the concept of dharma. That
the mind is ‘‘purified’’ and the imagination ‘‘formed’’ by engagement
with the Veda is not to be understood psychologically in our sense. It
is the psychology of Hindu substantialism. The Sanskrit text has the
participle sam: skr: ta and the noun sam: skara. These words denote a
transcendentally substantial ‘‘shaping’’, a ‘‘preparation.’’ The comparison
with mythical landscapes, where everything turns to gold or
salt, makes it very clear that the Veda here is understood as a kind of
substance, almost a fine stuff. When this stuff is in the mind of a man,
all contents of the mind are automatically permeated by it. Therefore,
everything that such a man thinks or does is automatically Vedic,
filled with the substance of the Veda, and it is not necessary that he
seek a specific Vedic source as an authority for his decisions.
The occurrence of the word sam: skara in the excerpt translated
above reveals what was understood by this word. Sam: skara is also
the name for the rites that accompany the life of a Hindu from
conception to cremation and that form an important part of dharma.
The sense and meaning of the sam: skaras has not been fully considered;
they simply pertain to the ‘‘shaping’’ of Arya life.14a The
translation of sam: skara by ‘‘sacrament’’ (recently for instance in:
India and the Eucharist, Ernakulam: Lumen Institute 1964, p. 19ff.) is
misleading. The essentially personal structure of a sacrament, namely
that it is ‘‘effective from God’’ as an opus operatum and imparts grace,
i.e. the ‘‘self-communication of God,’’14b is lacking in the concept of
sam: skara which, as with dharma generally, is essentially impersonal.
In another comparison, the substantialism becomes even more
dramatic. Kumarila says, ‘‘Just as a place that is inhabited by a
sacred man becomes sacred through the contact with him – and then,
as we are convinced, becomes sanctifying itself – likewise the acts and
the inner condition of those who are replete with dharma become
dharmic, dharma-ful.’’15 [102, 505]
This last explanation omits the reference to the Veda. According to
this a man is good if the dharma-substance is in him, and then all his
decisions and everything that seems proper to him and to which he is
drawn is automatically dharmic, dharma-ful. The idea that Kumarila
articulates here of a substantial, almost material, sacredness that is
transmissible through contact is universal in Hinduism. Just as
according to this idea sacredness adheres externally and is transmissible,
so also, Kumarila intends, is it within the mind of an
individual. If the dharma-substance is in it, then it colors all other
contents of the mind or permeates them without requiring a conscious
A famous example of the application of the atmatus:t:
i principle
occurs in the drama  Sakuntala by the poet Kalidasa.16 King
Dus: yanta doubts whether SÅL akuntala, whom he loves, is also suitable
for him according to caste so that he could take her as a wife. In the
end he decides according to the principle of atmatus:t:
i. He says: ‘‘In
doubtful cases what is right for good people is that to which they feel
drawn.’’ He considers himself a good person. Certainly that does not
mean in this case that he is an extraordinary knower of the Veda, but
rather only that he is a noble  Arya and that the dharma-substance is
in him. He feels drawn to SÅL akuntala – therefore she must be suitable
for him according to caste. This thought of the poet is accepted by the
systematizer Kumarila. He explicitly cites the relevant verse from
Kalidasa’s  Sakuntala.17
I have used the expression ‘‘dharma-substance’’ several times. It
seems to me that it is in fact necessary for a complete understanding
of the concept of dharma to note that the Hindus themselves thought
of dharma by analogy with the category of substance. This is not
presented explicitly and theoretically in the textbooks, but the
reflections on dharma were not very well developed anyway. The
category of substance generally prevailed in classical Hindu thought –
in stark opposition to Buddhist thought which was a naturalistic
actualism. A leading philosopher of Hinduism states explicitly that
the categories of quality and action are in essence also substances.18
The classification of dharma under the category of substance was
realized in fact, even if it was not reflexively enunciated.
Someone who has followed my argument critically may perhaps
take exception to the fact that I sometimes speak of dharma as though
it were a norm, prescription, or duty, and, by contrast, sometimes as
though it were an event, a doing. But this inconsistency exists only in
our [103, 506] habitual ways of thinking. It follows directly from the
substantialism of the conception of dharma. We must imagine dharma
as primarily a substance or a transcendental, immaterial thing. This
substance, this immaterial thing is first of all in concrete duties, as
they are passed down as fixed norms and prescriptions – indeed, these
norms are dharma, that is, dharma before its performance. Because
these norms already are dharma, however, dharma before its performance
actually does not correspond to our concepts ‘‘norm,’’ ‘‘rule,’’
‘‘law,’’ or ‘‘duty.’’ All of these are far too abstract. Dharma is rather a
concrete model of behavior with positive significance for salvation that
somehow exists already before its performance and waits for realization,
or rather it is a collection of such models. Dharma in
performance then is conduct that corresponds to this model, adharma
conduct that deviates from it. Finally, the dharma-substance exists
also after performance as the realized model of behavior. It is
something like a doing that is congealed into a transcendental active
ingredient, the substance of a done deed. Deed is karman in Sanskrit,
and by this is understood not only the deed in performance, but also
the transcendental residue of the deed that adheres to the doer as
dharma or adharma. It is in this sense that one speaks of good or bad
karman. Karman, the substance of done deeds, makes its impact
according to the Hindu belief in human fate, and mainly in future
existences only, in the course of the soul’s transmigration. This notion
gives rise to the popular way of speaking that karman can sometimes
mean something like ‘‘fate.’’
The effect of the done deed happens automatically. By the power
of its own internal quality, the performed dharma or adharma
determines the kind, content, and course of rebirth in the next
existence. Not, however, such that man is absolutely predetermined.
There is always a realm of freewill in which new karman, new dharma
or adharma, can be accumulated.
One cannot therefore speak here of a ‘‘reward’’ of the good deed,
nor in fact of ‘‘merit’’ (although such expressions are often used in
translations of Indic works), because reward and merit presuppose a
judging person, a rewarding God. There is no room for this, however,
in the mechanism of dharma–adharma’s functioning. True, Hindu
theism had tried in various ways to grant an influence on karmanevents
to the highest god. But just as it was difficult for the Hindu to
be in a position to understand dharma consequently as the will of
God, so also was it difficult for him to conceptualize the effects of a
performed or omitted dharma as a reward or punishment of merit or
fault. The role of the highest god in the mechanism of dharma–
adharma causality remained that of an essentially superfluous overseer.
This mechanism, in the same way as the hypertrophic
substantialism, did not permit a theistic personalism to develop. Only
from the substantialism of the [104, 507] conception of dharma in
connection with the notion that dharma exists before, during, and
after its performance can it be understood how it is that, as the texts
say, dharma can ‘‘decrease.’’ This can mean that the norms are no
longer followed. But it can also mean that dharma after its performance,
good karman, decays, as in the passage from the Apastamba–
Dharmasutra to which I earlier referred. There it is said that even if
worldly benefit is not acquired by an act of dharma, nevertheless
dharma does not decrease. That does not mean, as one European
translator (BuÅN hler) said, that ‘‘at least the sacred duties have been
fulfilled.’’18a Rather what is meant is that even if worldly benefit or
gain is not obtained, nevertheless the performed dharma is preserved
undiminished as an active ingredient, as it were, for a coming existence,
so long as the model of dharma is unfailingly fulfilled.
I had already stated at the outset that dharma had a connection to
salvation. But does not salvation, in the theistic religions of
Hinduism, have something to do with the highest god and is not
salvation in Hindu monism identical with that self-realized true self of
man? How does the salvation that is achieved by action relate to the
salvation that theism or monism promise?
Viewed historically, these different ideas are in fact distinct and
they originally belong to different spheres. One who adhered to the
specific religion of dharma wanted in fact to achieve the highest
salvation by means of dharma, just as the theist by means of the
worship of god and the monist by means of a gnostic realization of
total unity. There are passages in the older Hindu literature for which
salvation through dharma is truly what is final and highest – liberation.
However, a broad stream of Hindu thought running through
many schools and groups united both ideas of salvation into one
system of rank and established a value relation between them. There
it is taught that a salvation achievable by acts of dharma is merely a
relative and transient one. It imparts to man an existence in the divine
heaven and in the best circumstance he can be reborn as the god
Brahma. But this glory is fleeting. When the substance of his
accomplished dharma is exhausted, a man must again descend to
earth, even if only after millions of years. Ultimate salvation, whether
conceived theistically or monistically, is not achievable by doing
dharma. Dharma does not remain the highest value in the religion. In
the rank of the goals of life it is subordinated to liberation. The
different schools and religions of Hinduism teach variously about the
path to liberation. The concept of dharma overlaps therefore only
partially with that of religion. There are areas of what is religious that
extend beyond dharma, namely the teachings of the highest god, of
the human soul, of the relationship of god to the world and mankind,
and of ultimate salvation, as well as the practices that were to lead to
eternal liberation. [105, 508] Also, apart from certain compromises
and accommodations, the area of Yoga, which is certainly assigned to
religion, is not connected to dharma. Furthermore, one does not call
mythology dharma. If, on the other hand, dharma also covers areas
such as civil law, criminal law and the law of the absolute monarchical
government, then we would be inclined to exclude these from
what is religious; but since dharma is always oriented toward an
otherworldly salvation, these areas too are included in what is
religious. That does not mean that they are related to God, but the
fulfillment or the breach of dharma here also has an orientation
toward salvation.
The incongruence of dharma and religion is first and foremost to be
explained historically. There is a religiousness of dharma, for which
dharma is the whole religion, and this Dharmism belongs especially to a
certain period. Other areas of religion by contrast developed later or in
different circles than did Dharmism. But the balancing, adapting, and
harmonizing thinking that was always at work in  Arya-ness or
Hinduism led to the fact that the concept of dharma remained valid in
all schools and groups and views and religions. Even when dharma was
relativized, it was still always regarded as an inescapable preliminary to
liberation. Most appropriately, we should perhaps describe the process
of intellectual history that has occurred in this case in such a way that
the theistic religions as well as monism were able to supercede the earlier
periods only by incorporating the mechanism, substantialism, and
impersonalism of the concept of dharma.
The concept of Hindu dharma – viewed historically, we should
preferably say, the concept of Arya dharma – appears to have come
first into clear awareness in the disputes with Buddhism. For this
reason, the orientation to the Veda was always emphasized because
Buddhism differentiated itself in no clearer manner from the Arya
religion than by its rejection of the Veda. It is the self-awareness of
Arya-ness that is expressed in the concept of dharma, and, initially, a
self-awareness of a particular period of intellectual history. Therefore,
the marks of its period of origin are preserved in the concept of
dharma. These marks include above all the fact that the connection to
the gods and the teachings of the gods were secondary in religious
consciousness, in contrast to rites and ceremonies which were of
totally dominant importance for otherworldly salvation; they include
furthermore the fact that the quasi-monotheistic and the monistic
movements with their notion of salvation that transcends the ritual
had not yet prevailed. Later the dharma texts did indeed also make
compromises with these notions.
As an expression of the self-awareness of  Arya-ness, the concept of
dharma was preserved over time, with several accommodations
of more advanced ideas, [106, 509] but still little changed at its core. It
was, in all its indeterminacy and in its empiricism, the unifying link of
Arya-ness, the one thing that held together the multiformity
of Hindu-ness. In this function, it has stood the test of time even after
the incursion of Islam.
Today, to be sure, this old concept of dharma can no longer fulfill
this function. Although since the end of the last century it has become
common to speak of the unity of Hinduism, the establishment of this
unity has been attempted by means other than the old concept of
dharma. This concept is no longer useful because it contains so much
that people no longer want to adhere to today, for example, the
fundamental commitment to castes, life-stages, and geographical
places. Sometimes today a new meaning is being given to the word
dharma. Into that, however, I cannot go further.19
My thanks to Oliver Freiberger who meticulously checked and
corrected my draft translation and saved me from at least one major
mis-step. Thanks also to the Zeitschrift fu¨r Missionswissenschaft und
Religionswissenschaft for permission to publish this translation.
Hacker’s essay on dharma in Hinduism has been very influential in
German Indology, but, until recently, not among English-speaking
Indologists. The curious history of its punctuated influence on the
field generally may be seen through the work of several notable
scholars who make reference to the essay. Most recently, Wezler’s
1999 (English 2004) study of dharma is in many respects an extension
of and commentary upon Hacker’s article, with particular
attention the differentiation of the dharma of the Veda and the
Dharmasastra. Wezler writes that ‘‘Hacker’s designation of Hindu
dharma as ‘radically empirical’ caused an effect within Indology’’
(2004, p. 649, fn 3), and points to the work of Hartmut Scharfe
(1989) and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit (1981) as examples. Paul
Horsch’s essay (1967) appears to be something of a counterpoint or
a response to Hacker’s in that its description of dharma as a
mythological and cosmological order directly conflicts with Hacker’s
sense of dharma as radically empirical. Horsch takes up the
etymological and Vedic notions of dharma that were ignored by
Hacker as uninteresting. The two articles of Hacker and Horsch
seem to have served as standard references for two distinctive views
of the semantic history of dharma in German Indological literature
for the last 40 years.
Surprisingly, I have found no references to the articles of Hacker
and Horsch in the work of three luminaries in the study of the
Dharmasastra, Derrett, Lingat, and Rocher, despite the fact that all
three read and/or published in German. It is, furthermore, regrettable
that the very influential ethnosociology pioneered by McKim Marriott
(1990) and articulated most effectively by several of his students
never acknowledged or engaged with Hacker’s arguments concerning
Hindu substantialism.
It appears that Wilhelm Halbfass’s India and Europe (1988)
provided the first major bridge to English for both Hacker’s and
Horsch’s ideas. One should also mention Clooney’s important discussion
of both Halbfass and Hacker (1990: 150–159). The recent
special issue of the Journal of Indian Philosophy dedicated to dharma
contains a translation of Horsch’s article and other articles that build
upon the framework outlined by Horsch (Olivelle, 2004; Brereton,
2004) as well as reflections on Hacker by Wezler (2004) and
Fitzgerald (2004). The ‘‘effect’’ of these two articles within German
Indology seems to be repeating itself in Anglophone Indology,
though the reasons for the delay in taking notice of these two seminal
studies of dharma in English works are not clear. Whatever the reasons
for the delay, this presentation of Hacker’s essay in English
translation is intended to bring his thought-provoking formulations
to a wider academic audience and to rekindle the same kind of
excitement and critical reaction inspired by the essay’s original
Brereton, J.P. (2004). ‘Dharman in the R:
gveda’. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32, 449–
BuÅN hler, G. (1879). The Sacred Laws of the A^ryas: As Taught in the Schools of
A^pastamba, Gautama, Va^sishtha, and Baudha^yana. Sacred Books of the East. vol. 2,
Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Clooney, F.X. (1990). Thinking Ritually: Rediscovering the Purva Mmam: sa Sutras
of Jaimini. Vienna: De Nobili.
Fitzgerald, J. (2004). ‘Dharma and its Translation in the Mahabharata’. Journal of
Indian Philosophy 32, 671–685.
Hacker, P. (1995). In W. Halbfass (ed.), Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on
Traditional and Modern Vedanta. Albany: SUNY Press.
Halbfass, W. (1988). India and Europe: An Essay in Philosophical Understanding.
Albany: SUNY Press.
Horsch, P. (2004). ‘From Creation Myth to World Law: The Early History of
Dharma’. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32, 423–448.
Klimkeit, H.-J. (1981). Der politische Hinduismus: Indische Denker zwischen religo¨ser
Reform und politischem Erwachen. Harrassowitz: Wiesbaden.
Marriott, M. ed. (1990). India through Hindu Categories. New Delhi: Sage.
Olivelle, P. (2004). ‘The Semantic History of Dharma: The Middle and Late Vedic
Periods’. Journal of Indian Philosophy 32, 491–511.
Olivelle, P. (2000). Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama,
Baudhayana, and Vasis:t:
ha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Scharfe, H. (1989). The State in Indian Tradition. Brill: Leiden.
Wezler, A. (2004). ‘Dharma in the Veda and the Dharmasastras’. Journal of Indian
Philosophy 32, 629–654.
Translated by
Donald R. Davis, Jr.
Department of Languages & Cultures of Asia
University of Wisconsin
1244 Van Hise, 1220 Linden Dr
Madison, WI 53706


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