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Dharma

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BY ALF HILTEBEITEL

HONOLULU: UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI’I PRESS, 2010

208 PAGES, ISBN: 978-0824834869, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by Catherine Benton

Part of the University of Hawai`i series “Dimensions of Asian Spirituality,” Alf Hiltebeitel’s Dharma presents an enlightening discussion of dharma, a fundamental component of Hindu and Buddhist thinking. One of the goals of the “Dimensions of Asian Spirituality” series is to make available “short but comprehensive works [by distinguished scholars] on specific Asian . . . works devoted to the full articulation of a concept central to one or more of Asia’s spiritual traditions.” More specifically, this series aims to present this concept “in historical context for the non-specialist reader” and to create a forum for a scholar to present his or her “own views of [its] contemporary spiritual relevance . . . for global citizens of the twenty-first century.”1 Hiltebeitel’s Dharma meets these goals, providing an in-depth discussion of dharma using examples from the story literature that illustrate classical Hindu and Buddhist texts.

Integral to Hindu and Buddhist thinking, the word dharma expresses different but related meanings in these two traditions, and conveys a broad range of richly-textured concepts, even within each tradition. Dharmic (virtuous, principled) actions of various sorts can be traced to the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning to uphold or support, which the wonderfully poetic and imaginative Sanskrit language fleshes out in concepts as different as law (that which gives structure or support to order in a society) and an element of reality (that which upholds the component structure of reality).

Hiltebeitel takes on the enormous challenge of unraveling the colorful strands of dharma in several important texts of the South Asian Buddhist and Hindu traditions and presenting their multilayered resonances. Readers familiar with the Rigveda and the Chāndogya, Brhadāranyaka, and Katha Upanishads, or with the two Indian epics, the Ramāyana and the Mahābhārata (containing within it the well-known Bhagavad Gītā) will find many stories they recognize. On the Buddhist side, Hiltebeital unpacks the third-century BCE dharma inscribed on Aśoka’s edict pillars, the dharma expounded in the early Buddhist Tripitaka, and the first-century dharma expressed in Aśvaghosa’s Buddhacarita.

Though dharma is not always easy to grasp for those of us not raised in a dharma-imbued society, Hiltebeital’s organization of chapters around stories grounded in particular dharmas is helpful for those interested in this organizing principle as a way to better understand Hindu and Buddhist religious teachings. Because each chapter highlights dharma as a religious or philosophical construct, individual chapters work as discrete discussions that can be digested in any order.

Hiltebeitel explains in his opening chapter that this book is

about dharma as a South Asian spirituality. Along with yoga and karma, dharma is one of a few terms that have come to emblematize Indian spirituality not only in the West but throughout Asia (4).

In terms of classroom use, given the richness and central importance of dharma within South Asian religious thinking, Dharma would be an excellent supplementary text for undergraduate courses exploring Hindu or Buddhist traditions. For instructors of these courses or anyone interested in the philosophical complexities of this concept and its relevance to twenty-first century ethical concerns, Dharma is a superb reference guide, intellectually stimulating and enjoyable.

Notes

1. Description of “Dimensions of Asian Spirituality” series on copyright page of Dharma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i, 2010).