Tuesday, February 5, 2013


In Hindu thought, rights follow responsibilities

Published with the kind permission of the author and courtesy Niti Central
By Ram Madhav on December 31, 2012


In Hindu thought, rights follow responsibilitiesA Hindu view of human rights and dignity – IV
Hinduism is the religion of bliss. It considers the right to happiness to be the highest fundamental right of all humans. The ultimate goal for Hindusim is material and spiritual well-being of humankind. It is pertinent to mention here that this all important right doesn’t find a place in the acclaimed Universal Charter of Human Rights.
The holy prayer of Hindus from time immemorial has been:
Sarvepi Sukhinah Santu, Sarve Santu Niramayah
Sarve Bhadrani Pashyantu, Ma Kaschid Dukhabhag Bhavet
(Let all be happy; let all be free from disease, let all see auspicious things, let nobody suffer from grief)
Another prayer that finds place in the Sikshavalli (chapter on education) in the Taittareya Upanishad is also very significant.

Om Sahanavavatu, Saha Nau Bhunaktu, Sahaviryam Karavavahai
Tejaswi Navadhitamastu, Ma Vidmishamahai
Om shantih shantih shantih
(May he protect us together; may he nourish us together; may we work together with greater energy. May our study be vigorous and effective, may we not hate each other. Let there be peace all over.)It may be noted that all these prayers essentially talk about the material well-being and happiness of the entire humankind. In that sense, modern thinkers are not the first to think in terms of the welfare and happiness of all humankind. However the ‘maximum benefit to maximum numbers’ principle of the modern economic thought was never accepted by the ancient Hindu seers. ‘Total good of all beings’ has been the ideal of Hinduism.
Karma – The highest obligation
Another significant aspect of the Hindu view of human rights is its emphasis on duties. Hinduism doesn’t support the idea of separation of rights and duties. Thus, in Hindu discourse, no right is absolute. All the rights bestowed upon a section enjoin upon another section with corresponding duties too. And for a Hindu the highest obligation is Karma — performance of his duties.
For example, the right to happiness was prominently emphasised in the Artha Shastra of Chanakya. But it also enjoined upon the king the obligation to ensure that those rights of all his subjects are protected.
Prajasukhe Sukham Rajnah Prajanam cha Hite Hitam
Naatmapriyam Hitam Rajnah Prajanaam tu Priyam Hitam
(In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the king; in their welfare his welfare. The king shall not consider what pleases himself as good; whatever pleases his subjects is only good for him. — Artha Shastra)
In the Bhagwat Gita, Lord Krishna declares to Arjuna:
Dharmenaavirodheshu Kaamosmi Bharatarshabha
(I am those desires that are not against the Dharma)
A very enlightening exchange took place during the second World War between two stalwarts — Mahatma Gandhi and HG Wells on the question of human rights. Mahatma Gandhi steadfastly refused to accept the rights discourse that was taking place in the 1940s within the Western tradition. Eminent English writer HG Wells had drawn up a list of human rights. But Mahatma Gandhi told him that he would do better by drawing up a list of the duties of man.
“Begin with a charter of duties of man… and I promise the rights will follow as spring follows winter. I write from experience. As a young man I began life by seeking to assert my rights and I soon discovered that I had none, not even over my wife. So I began by discovering, performing my duty by my wife, my children, friends, companions and society and I find today that I have greater rights, perhaps than any living man I know.” (Richard L Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth)
As an essential prerequisite to the right to happiness, the Rig Veda unequivocally declares that all human beings are equal. The Atharva Veda goes further and talks about various rights and obligations or duties.
Samani Prapaa Saha Vonnabhagah
Samane Yoktre Saha vo Yunajmi
Aaraah Nabhimivaabhitah
(All have equal Rights to articles of food and water. The yoke of the chariot of life is placed equally on the shoulders of all. All should live together in harmony supporting one another like the spokes of a wheel of the chariot connecting its rim and hub. — Atharva Veda – Samjnana Sukta)
In his important work Happiness for All to Secure Social Harmony, Justice Rama Jois writes, “The Vedas and Upanishads were the primordial source of Dharma, a compendious term for all human rights and duties, the observance of which was regarded as essential for securing peace and happiness to individuals and society. The Smritis and Puranas were collections of rules of Dharma including civil rights and criminal liabilities (Vyavahara Dharma) as also Raja Dharma (constitutional law). There were also several other authoritative works on Raja Dharma, the most important of them being the Kamandaka, Shukra Niti and Kautilya’s Artha Shastra. All of them unanimously declare that the objective of the State was to secure happiness of all.” (M Rama Jois, Guruji and Social Harmony, Sri Guruji Janm Shatabdi Samiti, Karnataka)
Bharat’s Constitution has Part – III containing details of the fundamental rights enjoyed by every citizen of the country. Commenting on this Part Justice Bhagwati said, “These fundamental rights represent the basic values cherished by the people of this country since the Vedic times and they are calculated to protect the dignity of the individual and create conditions in which every human being can develop his personality to the fullest extent”. (Maneka Gandhi Vs Union of Bharat, 1978 (1) SCC 248)
(To be continued)
Ram Madhav is Director, India Foundation

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