The study of Hindu law has been neglected due to a combination of decliningknowledge of its classical foundations and the pressures of modern politicalcorrectness, to the effect that studying Hindu law is often seen as a regressive activity,dangerous for minorities and, in particular, for women.
For many reasons, the label‘Hindu law’ still conjures up images of frightful abuses such as ‘sati’, ‘dowrymurders’, caste discrimination, untouchability, and other atrocities in the name of tradition and religion. Anything ‘Hindu’ is therefore quickly denigrated in manyways, not only by many followers of monotheistic religions, but also those whoimagine and assert that a modern world, by which is often meant a Western-inspiredworld, can do without so-called primitive religious and cultural traditions.However, such assertions are misguided and are being challenged by the recenthistory of Hindu law as it plays itself out within the wider framework of the post- Nehruvian Indian state. Arguments about the inherent political incorrectness andmodern irrelevance of Hindu law have conveniently forgotten that the so-calledmodern traditions have their own roots in Western cultural and religious traditions.
So how could India be called upon to ‘modernise’, if that simply meant, at one level,shedding the social and cultural concepts that make up the fabric of the various hybridIndian identities? How can hundreds of millions of Hindus be forced to abandonHindu law? Western-led modernity, calling on all ‘others’ to assimilate to thesupposedly higher, apparently secular and ‘modern’ value systems represented by theWest, amounted to thinly-veiled pressure to abandon various indigenous traditionsand convert to the supposedly universal idioms of modernity.
In other words,modernity expected and demanded unidirectional assimilation to alien cultural normsand models, and a stepping outside of one’s own inherited traditions. It demanded de-Hinduisation, abandoning of customs, habits and traditions that are subsumed withinculture. While modernity was, at one level, less concerned about religion, it expectedthe modern world citizen to be of a secular disposition, thus seeking to prescribe one particular perspective as appropriate for modernity. Not only Muslims worldwidehave been reacting to such pressures by placatively demonstrating their presence andreligious identity, asserting their specific socio-religious value systems, by force if necessary.Hindu reactions to modernist Western assimilationist pressures may have beenless vociferous in comparison, but appear no less evident if one cares to look and,importantly, if one knows enough about ancient Hindu culture and tradition in the first place to be able to see what is not immediately visible, but nevertheless present.
These reactions to the stresses of modernist challenges are not all violently andmanifestly expressed. The constant readjustment of Hindu cultural responses to newsituations has been practised for millennia, leading to subtle forms of cultural and
For example, the otherwise excellent introduction in the important collection of essays in honour of Lotika Sarkar (Dhanda and Parashar 1999) studiously ignores Hindu law. Other studies are moreexplicitly negative about the oppression by the two major religions of India (Sarkar and Sivaramayya1994:1) and the discrimination against women by the personal laws (Parashar 1992).
The concept of ‘modernity’ has of course many facets, and has been debated from many angles. Theliterature on modernity is huge, and there are many aspects of it. No attempt is made here tocircumscribe its literary manifestations in any particular form. A good overview is presented byAshcroft et al. (1998: 144-147). Galanter (1989: 15-36) presents a useful application of the keyconcepts to Indian laws.
The debates on the universality of modernity and of human rights continues to be lively and there areno easy answers. For critical approaches see Renteln (1990) and Caney and Jones (2001).
Outrightly secular studies, such as Burton Stein’s (1998) excellent posthumous work on the historyof India
not only fail to capture the all-pervasive Hindu elements in their field of study, but also avoidcomments on law, which may not even figure in the index.