What is Hindu Law?

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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2020
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In its current use, Hindu Law refers to the set of laws that apply to individuals who are Hindu by religion, especially those in India. In particular, these laws govern various aspects of family life including marriage and inheritance, among other things. Hindu law has its source in Hindu texts, such as the Dharmaśāstra, and in tradition.

The concept of dharma is central to Hindu law. It is synonymous with the duty of a righteous person, but these duties can vary with age and gender as well as class and occupation. The word "dharma" may be used as a sort of equivalent to the western concept of religion but is usually translated into English as "law." Both of these, however, are a narrow translation.

In the past, dharma has encompassed many different aspects of life including religious rituals as well as civil and criminal law and court proceedings. Dharma also governs personal duties, such as hygiene, dress and ethical behavior

Hindu law begins in the classical period of India following the discovery of the Vedas and lasts until 1772 CE. The law in this period was based on the Dharmaśāstra, which had to be interpreted for each class, individual by a learned scholar of the Vedas. The law varied, though, from community to community, changing as the vocations and castes changed, resulting in a practical law that developed from the needs and traditions of the local communities.


This period was followed, in 1772 CE, by the Anglo-Hindu law set out by the British as part of their legal system for their colony of India. The British set out to allow each religious affiliation to adhere to their own set of laws. The law that resulted from this was based on the Sanskrit texts, Dharmaśāstra, which the British thought were mandates of divine law that must be adhered to, rather than guidelines for practical law.

After 1864 CE, when sufficient case law had been established, the reliance on the Dharmaśāstra diminished and was removed almost completely. It was replaced with regional customary laws enacted by British officials, similar to the situation that resulted in the classical period.

In 1947 CE, India gained independence from Great Britain. In an effort to remain secular, India allows complex personal law systems for Hindu law, Muslim law, Christian law, and Parsee law. During the early 1950s India established four laws, the Hindu Marriage Act, the Hindu Succession Act, the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act that would serve as a foundation for modern Hindu law.


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