On Careful Distinction between Usages of Dharma/Dhamma

Geoffrey Bamford


This paper briefly reviews the early history of the term dharma/dhamma, focusing primarily on Buddhist sources. Then it considers implications for the contemporary understanding of Buddhism, e.g. in relation to Hinduism. It first establishes some basic assumptions about antique, polysemic terms like dharma and about Indic culture. After a quick glance at Vedic usage, it then maps the semantic field of dhamma in the Pali sutta material. Next, it considers how thereafter the sāvakas sought to systematise and package the notion of dhamma. After that, it reviews Asoka’s innovations. Moving on to Brahmanical sources, it mentions some recent research on the Dharma-sūtras & -śāstras, then looks rapidly at the Epic literature. On this evidence, it offers some preliminary generalisations about early Buddhist and Brahmanical thinking and practice, as revealed in ideas of dharma/dhamma. These two cultural currents developed in a dialectical relationship, each seeking progressively to confute and/or co-opt the other. The Buddhist usage is grounded in a psychological and the Brahminical in a social vision; the Buddhist usage is primarily descriptive, the Brahmanical prescriptive. Indian Buddhism emerges in a context conditioned by Brahmanism, just as later Hinduism is conditioned by Buddhism. So, one can usefully compare the two traditions, e.g. by analysing the various usages of dharma/dhamma in them. But such analysis hardly shows them to be ‘essentially identical’. Attempts to de- emphasise what is distinctive about Buddhism seem counter-intuitive. They are also counter-productive, particularly in relation to India’s cultural diplomacy.

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