Hindu Law

Hindu law in its current usage refers to the system of personal laws (i. e. , marriage, adoption, inheritance) applied to Hindus, especially in India. [1] Modern Hindu law is thus a part of the law of India established by the Constitution of India (1950).

Prior to Indian Independence in 1947, Hindu law formed part of the British colonial legal system and was formally established as such in 1722 by Governor-General Warren Hastings who declared in his Plan for the Administration of Justice that “in all suits regarding inheritance, marriage, caste and other religious usages or institutions, the laws of the Koran with respect to the Mohamedans and those of the Shaster with respect to the Gentoos shall invariably be adhered to.

“[2] The substance of Hindu law implemented by the British was derived from early translations of Sanskrit texts known as Dharmasastra, the treatises (sastra) on religious and legal duty (dharma). The British, however, mistook the Dharmasastra as codes of law and failed to recognize that these Sanskrit texts were not used as statements of positive law until they chose to do so. Rather, Dharmasastra contains what may be called a jurisprudence, i. e. , a theoretical reflection upon practical law, but not a statement of the law of the land as such.

[3] Another sense of Hindu law, then, is the legal system described and imagined in Dharmasastra texts. One final definition of Hindu law, or classical Hindu law, brings the realm of legal practice together with the scholastic tradition of Dharmasastra by defining Hindu law as a usable label for myriad localized legal systems of classical and medieval India that were influenced by and in turn influenced the Dharmasastra tradition. Such local laws never conformed completely to the ideals of Dharmasastra, but both substantive and procedural laws of the tradition did impact the practical law, though largely indirectly.

It is worth emphasizing that Sanskrit contains no word that precisely corresponds to ‘law’ or religion and that, therefore, the label “Hindu Law” is a modern convenience used to describe this tradition. This article will briefly review the Hindu law tradition from its conceptual and practical foundations in early India (Classical Hindu Law) through the colonial appropriations of Dharmasastra (Anglo-Hindu Law) to the establishment of the modern personal law system (Modern Hindu Law).