Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

South Asian Legal Studies

South Asian Legal Studies at the University of Heidelberg

  • The study of South Asian law and legal history has played a vital role in the research of the South Asia Institute (SAI) since its foundation in 1962. This research tradition owes its existence to the Indologist Günther-Dietz Sontheimer (1934-1992) and the legal scholar Dieter Conrad (1932-2001).
  • Günther-Dietz Sontheimer, who was head of the department of History of Religion and Philosophy at the SAI from 1974 on, was trained trained in both law and Indology at Tübingen university. He deepened his knowledge on the history of Hindu law, Anglo-Hindu law and modern Hindu law at the law College of Poona University and finally completed his PhD under J. D. M. Derrett at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His contributions to the study of Hindu law lie in the fields of classical inheritance law and the history of the Hindu joint-family. Especially, his book The Joint Hindu Family: Its Evolution as a Legal Institution is still regarded as the classical reference work on this topic.
  • Dieter Conrad, who ran the program in law at the SAI from its inception in 1963 until his retirement in 1997, dedicated much of his work to the constitutional law of the Subcontinent. His reflections on the “basic structure doctrine” of the Indian constitution left an enduring imprint on the Indian constitutional jurisprudence. With his works on Mahatma Gandhi, Dieter Conrad developed an ingenious perspective on Gandhi’s political philosophy bridging Western and Indian legal theory. In 2003 the SAI launched a memorial lecture in honor of Dieter Conrad, which has brought eminent scholars on Hindu law to Heidelberg University.
  • Today, studies of South Asian law are still alive at the SAI. The institute’s library (together with the library of the nearby Max Planck Institute for Comparative Law and International Law) hosts a collection on primary and secondary sources for South Asian legal studies, which is unique in Germany. Research on Nepalese legal history, the practice of Hindu law in pre-modern South Asia and dharmaśāstra literature is conducted by Axel Michaels, Professor of Classical Indology and head of the Department for Cultural and Religious History of South Asia since 1998, who rendered the first translation of the Manu’s Code of Law into German from the Sanskrit original. Currently, he co-ordinates the project A 14 “Transcultural Legal Flows in 18th and 19th Century South Asia: Changing Ideas and Practices of Law and Legitimation in Hindu Legal Cultures” of the Cluster “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” which focuses on legal codification in colonial India and Nepal.
  • Since 2014 Axel Michaels is heading the Research Unit “Documents on Religion and Law of Pre-modern Nepal” of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Based on a unique corpus of legal documents recording private contracts, court procedure and criminal cases, one of the main objectives of the Research Unit is to reconstruct the legal practice of pre-modern Nepal, with a special focus on Nepal’s “long” nineteenth century, i.e. the Śāha and Rāṇa period.

Selected Bibliography

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