Religions of South Asia, Vol 9, No 2 (2015)

Dharma and ‘Custom’: Semantic Persistence, Semantic Change and the Anxieties of the Principled Few

Adam Bowles
Issued Date: 16 Jun 2016


This article does three things. First, it argues that the usage of dharma in the sense of ‘customary practice’, which is found in compounds such as deśadharma and kuladharma, can be traced back to the Atharvaveda. Second, it argues that in the Dharmaśāstra tradition this usage of the word dharma as ‘custom’ ought to be distinguished from ācāra, which is also often taken in the sense of ‘custom’, because ācāra frequently implies a hieratic sense of ‘customary behaviour’, especially in its association with the cultured practices of particular elites (the sat, sādhu, or śiṣṭa). Therefore, dharma in the usage this article is concerned with is a broader term for ‘custom’ than ācāra. And, third, it suggests that when the Dharmaśāstra writers restricted the currency of such customary dharmas to cases where existing sacred texts (śruti or smṛti) could not be called upon, they were reaffirming that such dharmas were worldly rather than transcendent, and not to be confused with the transcendent dharma the principled few now identified with these sacred texts—a development attributable to other changes that shifted the word dharma to the very centre of brahmanic ideology.

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DOI: 10.1558/rosa.v9i2.31072


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