The human rights discourse is essentially a Western discourse. It got validated with the codification of the Universal Charter of Human Rights by the United Nations’ member countries in 1948. Massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Axis powers — Germany of Hitler, Italy of Mussolini and Japan of Hirohito — during World War II led the conscientious world to raise serious debate over the ways of ensuring that in the political struggles and wars between the nations the lives and other rights of innocent citizens are not endangered.
It is well-known that World War II had witnessed mass murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime of Hitler. Similar heinous crimes were perpetrated by Mussolini in Italy. The Japanese had indulged in horrible acts of murder, rape and plunder in territories like China and parts of Malaya that they had been able to overrun in the first couple of years of the War.
Naturally, immediately after the War, the successful Allied Forces countries decided to initiate the discourse on a universal charter of human rights that will be deemed inviolable irrespective of what form of government is in place in a particular country. The result of this discourse was the declaration of the Universal Charter in 1948.
It has certainly helped in improving the human rights conditions in many member countries besides spawning a widespread popular movement for the protection of human rights. Thanks to the UN Charter and subsequent efforts to educate people about their rights there is certainly a greater awareness and awakening in the world about this issue.
However this Universal Human Rights discourse suffers from a major flaw. The starting point of this discourse was individual rights. But over the last few decades several new dimensions have been added to this discourse. Issues like rights of certain groups — whether religious minorities or gay and lesbian groups or certain ethnic groups like the Gypsies etc — have now entered this domain. Environmental rights and animal rights activism has added a further dimension to it. With outer space getting congested with too many floating objects, concerns about the planetary system and the universe itself too, started growing louder.
Thus the rights discourse today has moved upwards from individual to community or group to environment to the whole creation. But it has given rise to a problem. Since the discourse began with the lowest unit — the individual — and moved upwards, there occurred a clash of interests between the various segments.
The Eastern philosophies in general and Hindu philosophy in particular follow the opposite approach to rights discourse. Whereas the Western discourse starts with humans and ends with the environment and the universe, the Hindu discourse begins with the universe and flows downwards to end with individual’s rights. Thus it ensures that the rights of various segments are taken care of.
The individual-centric rights discourse of the West is essentially a product of the theology of the Semitic religions. The Semitic worldview considers the entire creation as a gift of god to humankind for its enjoyment. Unlike Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a revealed religion. It is a view of life evolved over millennia through endless dialogue. Several millennia ago, on the banks of river Sindhu or Indus, these dialogues began among scholarly sages and saints and they continue to this day. Out of these discourses emerged the Vedas, the first literary works of humankind. This is a unique feature of Hinduism — dialogue. Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries.
According to tradition, Hindus are expected to strive for spiritual enhancement through moral truths with the acceptance that no path contains this truth in entirety and that each individual must make his own disciplined effort to attain enlightenment. There is no single agent who may reveal the truth for a Hindu and hence there is no single ordained path. In contrast to the Semitic religions, there is no established immutability which guides people to live according to any religious law. As a result, the huge corpus of Hindu scriptures based on insights of Rishis or seers are guidebooks which may aid the direct consciousness of the ultimate nature of the divine. With scriptures as sentinels and discussion as a tool the Hindu tradition has put up a unique institution: the Guru. An inspirational mentor, a philosopher friend, a direct instructor for the righteous path—the Guru is an aid to self-realisation and a guide to salvation.
The Vedic seers, after due deliberation, presented three visions to humankind: Dharma – The cosmic or natural order; Karma – duties and obligations; Punarjanma – cycles of birth and death. These visions are eternal and universal and not for Hindus alone. The Hindu view of human rights is centred on these three visions.