Abstract
This paper presents the perspectives of the past and some present readings with regard to the genesis of the concept of Dharma a comprehensive term for social and moral principles in the early Indian society. Taking a broad view from different genres of the early Indian literature, it is observed that the concept and practices of Dharma has taken a multi-linear path of evolution with several simultaneous trends branching into several directions. There were forces of differences, discontinuities and connections in the organic growth of these concepts and institutions between the first millennium BC and the fourth century AD. A historical review of the genesis of social codes in early India would reveal the conscious working of a disciplinary apparatus with full faith in its practicable ethical character. This is what may be termed as the sastric attempt at controlling and containing the social developments. On the other hand, there was a profound concept of absolute morality in the Upanishads, which were brought to the wider arena of public morality in the Buddhist philosophy. Dharma, a term with a wide connotation, enveloped a loose body of principles of absolute ethics in a manner that could easily lend themselves to coercive applications in the guise of sastric dictum. The early Indian social philosophy stands unique in balancing and creating a mixture of apportioned, graded social responsibilities and disciplinary mechanisms. Starting with the Vedic literature, which reveals the formation of certain terms and definitions bearing upon power and authority, the paper moves on to the post-Vedic theories revealing three distinct traditions of thought in: (a) The Buddhist Pali canonical texts, (b) Kautilya's Arthasastra, and (c) the Dharmasastras represented by the Manusmriti. In these texts, the absolute moral principles get shaped side by side with the distinct strands of individual, status-oriented social codes. Towards the end, the paper touches upon the dilemma encountered by later day intellectuals in the perception of 'Dharma', which is revealed in the Mahabharata, a composition illustrating the fluttering of free spirit within the gilded cage of social constructs. The ordinary man's standpoint brings the issue into sharp focus in the Mrcchakatika.
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