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Hindu Dharma and capitalist institutions #4: Natural rights and equality

Here's some more on human rights in Hindu Dharma.There are a number of people who have written on this issue, e.g:
a)Subedi, ‘Are the Principles of Human Rights “Western” Ideals? An Analysis of the Claim of the “Asian” Concept of Human Rights from the Perspectives of Hinduism’, (1999) 30 California Western
International Law Journal 46;
b) Pandeya, ‘Human Rights: An Indian Perspective’, in Ricoeur (ed.), Philosophical Foundations of Human Hights (Prepared by UNESCO and the International Institute of Philosophy, 1986) 267.
c) Sharma, Hinduism and Human Rights, A Conceptual Approach (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004)
d) Nanda, ‘Hinduism and Human Rights’, in Werner (ed.), Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: The Quest for Universality (The Hague, Boston: M. Nijhoff, 1997)
Natural rights
The social structures and underlying social visions of human dignity in traditional India rests not on human rights but on social duties (dharma). Persons are seen first as bearers of duties, not rights, and whatever rights one does have rest on the discharge of duties. Examples within Hinduism exist of rights talk (or adhikara as Hindus use the term). The word dharma can be translated into a term meaning ‘rights’ when used in the context of a crisis (apad-dharma). For example, the concept of rights exists if one looks at the duties of the king (raja-dharma). It is the king’s duty to protect all and also assist in times of apad‑dharma. However, there is no right for the subjects to be ruled over fairly. As a result they cannot enforce their rights. However, the Mahabharata, a Hindu religious text, grants the people to ‘gird themselves up and kill a cruel king, who does not protect his subjects, who extracts taxes and simply robs them of their wealth.’ There is a right (adhikara) to rebel against a king if he does not fulfil his duty to protect the people. This is a clear example of how the concept of human rights can be interpreted within the context of human duties. The idea of rights is not totally redundant within Hindu thought.

Hinduism tends to accord greater recognition to the rights that others have in relation to us as compared to the rights we have in relation to them. Concern for the common good enhances human rights by teaching those virtues that include respect for the human dignity of each and every person. So, for example, one would have a right to life but would also have a corresponding duty to protect life.
[Addendum: A nice point is made elsewhere: It seems from Kautilya’s Arthasastra that law, judicial system and its implementation played a very important role in order to protect the rights of others. ALSO: Indian tradition tries to secure rights of those who are not even aware of their rights, by recognizing duties towards them. ALSO: freedom must be regulated by duties. Sanjeev: I always talk about freedom with accountability.]
The idea of a ‘caste system’ as a hereditary aspect that lasts through generations is not expressly identified within the original religious texts. The caste system was an idea that was taken out of the religious context. This is demonstrated by a verse in Rigveda, where a poet exclaims, ‘I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a physician, and my mother grinds corn with stones.’ This means that one can be whatever he desires and is not restricted by his ‘caste’ as understood by many. Equality of all human beings was reiterated in the Vedic period, no one was superior or inferior, all were considered as equal ‘like the spokes of a wheel of the chariot connecting its rim and the hub’.
A deeper meaning of equality is found within the Hindu religion. This embraces the idea of harmony and fraternity among all human beings, the equality of all human souls. According to Vedanta philosophy, the souls in every human being is the same, therefore, all human beings should be treated as such.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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