Long read| Human rights in eastern civilizations: An overview of historical context

What is the basis of the assertion of the universality of human rights? Do they emanate from all major civilisations and all major religions of the world to qualify as universal values? What contributions have the Eastern civilisations made to the universality of human rights?

Dr Surya P Subedi

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I was pleased that the logo of the G20 Summit Conference that took place recently in India reflected this year’s theme “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”–a Sanskrit phrase which means the whole world is one family and affirms the interconnectedness of all life on the planet. This phrase beautifully captures the essence of the Hindu-Buddhist philosophy. The declaration, which was adopted at the end of the conference, revolves around the theme–One Earth, One Family, One Future.Therefore, I would like to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government of India for projecting the values of Eastern civilisations so eloquently and succinctly to the outside world.  This Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” also sums up the analysis that I am going to present to you.

When discussing human rights, I am not only referring to human rights in the modern sense of the term–that is, human rights developed mainly after the establishment of the United Nations and within the framework of Western political thought. Rather, I examine human rights in a wider sense and in a much earlier historical context. I focus on the norms underpinning Eastern philosophies to assess the extent to which the ancient Eastern civilisations already had human rights values embedded in them.

The values of Western civilisations and their contribution to the development of human rights, the rule of law and democracy have been asserted in a wide range of literature. In contrast, few studies have been conducted on the values of Eastern civilisations and their contribution to the development of human rights in the wider sense of the term. Western scholars are not usually familiar with the vast body of scholarship in Eastern civilisations; nor do they go far back in history to understand and appreciate the contribution of Eastern civilisations.

This intellectual gap renders the work of such scholars limited in scope. It is in this context that my new book Human Rights in Eastern Civilizations examines the values of Eastern civilisations and their contribution to the development of the United Nations Human Rights agenda. Therefore, my book focuses on the norms underpinning Eastern philosophies to assess the extent to which the ancient Eastern civilisations already had human rights values embedded in them.

International human rights law literature and United Nations human rights reports and publications are replete with assertions that human rights are universal. However, the question is how “universal” these human rights actually are. What is the basis of the assertion of the universality of human rights? Are they universal because the Universal Declaration says so or because the Declaration and the core UN human rights treaties have received near-universal acceptance? Do they emanate from all major civilisations and all major religions of the world to qualify as universal values? And if so, what contributions have the Eastern civilisations–mainly Buddhism and Hinduism–made to the universality of human rights?

In my opinion, elements of human rights and good governance were in existence in many non-Western civilisations across Asia, Africa and Latin America, albeit without being fully developed or documented.

The early civilisation that grew in the Fertile Crescent reached its pinnacle initially in Babylon and later in Persia, and produced two early documents of immense historical significance: the Code of Hammurabi and the Charter of Cyrus. These two documents contain the early elements of human rights. When the people from this region migrated in various phases–both east to the Hindu Kush region, the Indus Valley and ultimately the Gangetic plains; and west to Greece and Rome–they carried with them the values of the Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations. Thus, these two historical documents seem to have influenced the values of Islam, Judaism and Christianity when they flourished in the Middle East, from where Christianity spread further west and northwest, ultimately covering much of Europe. 

These two documents also seem to have influenced the composition of some of the Eastern scriptures of a later period, such as the Hindu scriptures, which advanced ideas similar to those to be found in the Charter of Cyrus. 

In an article on the origins of human rights written for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office in 2015, Greg Dorey states: “Human Rights are sometimes portrayed as a “Western” concept or invention (usually most vociferously by those committing the most serious violations). This is, in fact, a misreading of centuries of history which led up to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Way back in 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia (modern day Iran), conquered the city of Babylon. In doing so, and as he prepared to govern his new territory, he declared that slaves would be free, people had the right to choose their own religion, and that different races living in the city would be treated equally.”

Turning to Hinduism and Buddhism, quite early on in antiquity–that is, in the mid-first millennium BC–the East experienced a frenzy of intellectual activity due to the birth of different philosophies of life and social organization, including experiments in the organization of states. This was the time of the Middle Way, nirvana, non-violence and yoga, preached by both Buddha and Krishna; the formulation of the Jain code of conduct by Nataputta, known as Mahavira; and the reorientation of the Vedic philosophies through the Bhagavad Gita by Krishna.

All of these developments of the mid-first millennium BC had a lasting impact on the lives of the people of the East, shaping the religious and philosophical discourse to this day and influencing thinkers beyond the East, such as those in ancient Greece. When belief in the traditional Vedic values and way of life was declining, Krishna, Buddha and Mahavira came up with their own philosophies of life and interpretation and reorientation of Vedic values, and shaped the religious and philosophical discourse accordingly. 

Even the debate on forms of government was already underway in the East in antiquity. The thinkers and philosophers of the time, such as Buddha, explored alternatives to monarchical authority and proposed alternative state systems with very different constitutions. 

When enquiring into the origins of the values of Eastern civilisations, one must go all the way back to the Rig Veda, the earliest of the Hindu scriptures which served as the foundation of law (known as dharma), religion, culture and morality. According to The Times Atlas of Ancient Civilizations and The Harper Collins Atlas of World History, the oldest of all religions is Hinduism and the Rig Veda is the world’s oldest book of the Hindus, composed in Sanskrit in antiquity. The wisdom of these people–to be found in the two interrelated main ancient religions of Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism, both emanating primarily from the values and philosophies of the Rig Veda–has shaped the civilisations of the continent for millennia. 

In fact, the Indus valley–now in modern-day Pakistan–is where Hinduism flourished. While the prevailing religion in countries Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia today may be Islam, they have strong Hindu-Buddhist heritage, including temples, and religious and ancient artifacts. In the recent past, both Pakistan and Indonesia decided to unearth and revive the traces of their Buddhist heritage, with a view not only to promote tourism, but also to preserve their heritage. Bangladesh is another country with a predominantly Muslim population, but whose culture, language and tradition are very much rooted in Hinduism. Even Japanese Shintoism was influenced by Buddhism, which in turn was influenced by Hinduism. Therefore, the source of all major civilisations of the East proper is the main Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda. 

It has generally been submitted by both Western and Eastern scholars that the current version of the Rig Veda was composed in approximately c 1450 BC. It was followed by the composition of three other Vedas and many Upanishads. Indeed, there are some similarities between the works of Plato and Hindu scriptures regarding the organization of society along the lines of class, according to a caste system. 

Plato speaks of three social classes: the Perfect Guardians, the Auxiliary Guardians and the Third Class. The status of the Perfect Guardians resembles that held by the Brahmins in Hinduism. The status held by the Auxiliary Guardians resembles the status of the Kshatriyas (the second-highest caste in Hinduism). These two classes of Guardians were supposed to rule in unison, which is similar to how the Brahmin-Kshatriyas ruled under the Hindu system. 

The Third Class resembles the third Hindu caste of the Vaishyas: those people who work in agriculture, in the trades, in commerce and in the service sector. 

The Brahmins, who work to interpret dharma, are a class or caste of their own, which is higher than that of the ruling classes, known as Kshatriyas. Although the Kshatriyas were the rules, they had no freedom to deny others the freedoms that they enjoy under the scriptures and in accordance with sanatana dharma. The ruling classes would be in violation of their own dharma if they unduly intervened in the personal lives of individuals, and would be held accountable for it. 

The dharma or duty of kings or rulers is to preserve order by ensuring the performance of the dharma of one and all. The state is expected to follow a laissez-faire approach when governing, intervening in people’s lives only when things begin to break down. How the state should conduct itself vis-à-vis its citizens is regulated by the notion of dharma, which in this context can be equated to the modern idea of the rule of law.

Thus, it is dharma that restricts how the state should treat its citizens. Enjoying the less restrictive approach of the state, all Hindus or Buddhists can create their own menu of how to lead their lives and how to pursue happiness, whatever that may mean to them. This is why pluralism is the norm in Hindu and Buddhist societies, where various sects operate freely. 

Adhering to one’s dharma does not necessarily mean that one must worship a particular god or believe in a particular scripture. Muslims can follow their own dharma according to their own religion and so can Christians according to the Bible, as long as they do not encroach upon the space of those belonging to other faiths and do not engage in activities in public that are offensive to them. None of the Hindu or Buddhist scriptures contains any provisions that prohibit individuals from practicing their faith or belief of choice. 

Some of the restrictions imposed in modern times in some Hindu-Buddhist societies on people of other faiths aim not to prevent them from practicing their faith, but rather to prevent them from carrying out their evangelical mission designed to convert people of other faiths. 

There is no credible evidence to suggest that Socrates, Plato or Aristotle was influenced by the scriptures of Eastern civilisations. However, it is possible that the cultures of ancient South Asia were studied by ancient Western civilisations. Western philosophers of the classical Greek and Roman periods would have known how the ancient states in South Asia were governed, because there is evidence of interaction between peoples living along the fertile Indus Valley and the Gangetic plains and the Greeks and the Romans. 

One plausible scenario which accounts for cultural similarities between the East and the West is that both Eastern and Western philosophers came up with similar ideas about the organization of society simultaneously, but independently of each other, and that their ideas were informed by each civilisation’s heritage. 

For example, Kautilya, the author of the Arthashastra, was a contemporary of Aristotle, and the detailed rules prescribed for different classes or castes represented in the Arthashastra are also present in the earlier scripture, the Manusmriti. These rules have many similarities with The Laws of Plato. However, both the Arthashastra and the Manusmriti clearly mention and are influenced by much earlier Hindu scriptures, including the Rig Veda. 

[The above article is drawn from the speech delivered by Dr Surya P Subedi at the Nehru Centre of the Indian High Commission, London on October 26, 2023.  Surya P Subedi is Professor of International Law at School of Law, University of Leeds, UK.]