Long read| Human rights in eastern civilizations: Sanatana Dharma as a way of life

The modern concept of human rights requires the state or those who exercise public authority to protect the rights of an individual. The Hindu concept of dharma does the same by requiring the king or the state and all other members of society to do the same for each other.

Dr Surya P Subedi

  • Read Time 10 min.

The Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Law or Universal Moral Code) was followed by the Vedic people in ancient times and came to be known later as Hinduism. This concept is at the heart of both Hinduism and Buddhism. There were various sects and faiths in existence during the Vedic era, and the Vedas sought to include them in their verses or mantras, so that the Vedas would be acceptable to all. This inclusive approach is embodied in the notion of Sanatana Dharma. The most fundamental of the philosophical concepts of the Sanatana Dharma are brahman, atman, karma (fruit of work) and transmigration. 

At the core of the Hindu-Buddhist way of life is personal liberty, which is deeply entrenched in the notion of sanatana dharma, which is found not only in Hinduism and Buddhism, but also in many other belief systems of the East. 

The modern concept of human rights requires the state or those who exercise public authority to protect the rights of an individual. The Hindu concept of dharma does the same by requiring the king or the state and all other members of society to do the same for each other. Each person, therefore, has his or her own dharma (or duty), known as swa-dharma. Some duties are common to all; but when it comes to specific duties, what is correct for a woman according to dharma might not be correct for a man; what is correct for an adult might not be so for a child and so on. Thus, in Hinduism, people do not live under public laws per se; but they have a dharma or duty/responsibility towards each other, including the protection of personal liberty. 

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

Dharma is the law of righteousness that regulates relationships between the individual, the family, the community and the state. It is necessary to follow one’s dharma, so that others can perform their dharma and enjoy their rights and freedoms. Even kings must observe dharma; this idea is enshrined in Hindu scriptures and is known as rajdharma. A good ruler is supposed to behave like a sage, or a rajarshi; the king should not only obey his own rajdharma, but also ensure that the people obey their own dharmas. 

The Hindu and Buddhist idea of human rights was conceived in a wide context, and the exercise of rights depends on following one’s duties vis-à-vis other people, society at large and the environment. In other words, one must earn rights through good conduct which is embodied in the notion of dharma. 

The main difference between Western and Eastern traditions is the manner in which one acquires rights. In Western thinking, human rights are acquired through the declaration or proclamation of rights using a legal or political instrument; but these rights are inherent in human beings because of their status as human beings. In Hinduism and Buddhism, rights are earned via good conduct or adherence to dharma or dhamma. 

The main objectives of human rights and the rule of law are to protect individuals from the undue intervention of the state in their personal lives. A great degree of personal liberty is enshrined in the sanatana dharma, based on the four Vedas and other scriptures, and the scope for state intervention in people’s lives is minimal in Hinduism and Buddhism. Every Hindu or Buddhist is entitled to personal liberty–not from the law of the land, but from the scriptures that talk about dharma, which connotes duty, obligation and freedom, above the law of the state. 

The Hindu scriptures were quite progressive in some regards by the standards of the day. For instance, the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people was acknowledged in Hinduism much earlier than in other religions. The Manusmriti suggests that society should accept the existence of gay and lesbian relationships in society, and that homosexuality should not be a punishable crime; all that a man who unites sexually with another man needed to do was to take a bath himself with his clothes on. There is also mention of the acceptance of transgendered people in the Mahabharata, and they too enjoyed a respectable status in society. One prominent character in this epic, Sikhandi, is an example. 

Even those who were non-believers–or the followers of the philosophy of Charwak–were acknowledged in society in ancient times in the Hindu-Buddhist world. Of course they were criticized by believers, but they existed and a succession of scholars continued to promote the Charwakdarshan or philosophy. 

During the Vedic period, women were afforded equal opportunity in many areas of social life. For instance, among the list of Rishis (learned men) mentioned in the Rig Veda, there are several Rishikas (learned women) who were as learned as the men and who played a major role in the organization and advancement of civilization during the Vedic era. Furthermore, both gods and goddesses appear in the Rig Veda: male Devas (gods) and female Devis (goddesses) such as Saraswati, Usha (or Usha), Indrani and Bhagavbhrini. 

Vedic society was very much a matriarchal society. Women were free to marry anyone of their choice and marriages based on love were very much the norm; women could even have more than one husband. Also, women were free to accomplish what they wished and were free to leave husbands if not satisfied with them. An unmarried woman was entitled to stay with her parents and enjoy their property on equal footing with them or with male siblings. 

Generally speaking, the status of women in Hinduism is equal to that of men, if not higher. For instance, when the name of a god is mentioned, it is preceded by his wife’s name. Examples include Laxmi-Narayan, Radha-Krishna and Uma-Maheshwor. Both of the main Hindu festivals–the Navaratra and Deepavali–involve the worship of goddesses. The Navaratra comprises nine days of worship for nine different manifestations of Goddess Durga, the ultimate Shakti (power), for she holds the power of creation. 

The SaptashatiChandi, the main scripture chanted/recited during the nine holy days (or Navaratra) since ancient times to this day in temples and at homes of the Hindus in much of India and Nepal, tells of the heroic actions of Goddess Durga as commander-in-chief in the fight against the demons (known as Rakxyashas) in antiquity and her victory over them. 

This scripture also gives an indication that the Vedic society had embraced matriarchy and entrusted women with major responsibilities and leadership both at home and in the affairs of the state, including war. The Deepavali, or Diwali in popular parlance, mainly involves worship of Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity. Goddess Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and intellect, is worshiped on the day children are introduced to education and annually thereafter. 

The core of Buddhist teachings is non-violence; and this core is shared in the Upanishads and the Vaishnav and Shaiva sects within Hinduism. Buddha shunned violence and Krishna justified violence only as a defensive measure, to be taken to uphold righteousness or to right a wrong. Offensive violence is also rejected in Hindu polity. Non-violence is the first and foremost principle which aims to protect the right of life for people, and is perhaps the number one human right. It should be admitted that the principle of non-violence is not a human right but it is a basis for the right to life. Buddhism sought to protect this right from the very beginning. Most human rights cannot be exercised properly in a violent society. Thus, non-violence is the bedrock of human rights and is a central pillar of both Hinduism and Buddhism. 

An analysis of scriptures of the East demonstrates that Hinduism and Buddhism did not teach about human rights as we understand them today. However, both laid foundational principles for human rights and the conditions under which people can enjoy them. Tolerance, pluralism, secularism, personal liberty, inclusivity and non-violence are key principles that are deeply entrenched in these Eastern belief systems. These values played a major role in ushering the countries of Asia out of colonial rule and foreign subjugation, and have found their expression in various international human rights instruments. 

Although the perceived wisdom is that Western values ultimately found their expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many of these Western values themselves have their roots in Eastern civilisations. It is of course debatable whether Western notions of human rights have influenced Eastern ideas or vice versa in later periods. Alexandrowicz, the historian of the law of nations, argues that it was the tolerant and secular practices of the East that influenced the West: “[T]he European agencies in the East learned the lesson of coexistence of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity in India (particularly on the west coast) and transplanted their experience to the West, which had been so long incapable of extricating itself from the obsession of religious wars.” 

It can be submitted that the practice of tolerance in the East has had an impact on the West and on the evolution of the concept of human rights. Alexandrowicz adds that European writers (Vattel, Justi, de Martens) formulated their views on sovereignty, inter alia, under the impact of the practice of the state of the East within the Hindu-Buddhist influence. He concludes that Western civilisation “benefitted in so many respects” from the practice of the states of the East, “which helped to shape some of its rules and precipitated its secularism”. 

Like the Hammurabi of Babylonian times, the Vedic people appear to have incorporated, emulated and surpassed Sumerian and Babylonian cultural practices through their use of the Vedas and other scriptures; but they retained some Sumerian and Babylonian values, manners and customs within their own culture. Prasanna Gautam notes: “Contrary to the widely held view that the Vedas had developed following the ancient Greek invasion of India, many scholars from the East and the West have implied that it was the knowledge of the Vedas which had subsequently inspired the ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Greek civilizations.” 

Indeed, Justice Weeramantry also states that “Hindu philosophy is older than the Greek or Chinese”; and that it is “well accepted from linguistic evidence that Sanskrit, the ancient classical and sacred language of the Hindus, in which the Vedas were composed, is the oldest known member of the Indo-European family of languages”. 

In his analysis, Justice Weeramantry cites scholars such as Fritz Berolzheimer, who suggest that Hindu philosophy was one of the main inspirations of the philosophical ideas of the Greeks. Weeramantry also argues that cultures such as the Hindu-Vedic-Aryan culture were already old when ancient Greek civilization was still in its infancy.

When Socrates–the renowned thinker and philosopher who helped to found the cultures of Western civilisations–was sharing his ideas with pupils such as Plato, and when Plato wrote classic works such as The Republic and The Laws, Hindu civilisation was already well advanced; and both Buddha and Krishna had already imparted their philosophies of life through the Tripitika and the Bhagavad Gita respectively, which, it is argued, are based on the much older Vedas and Upanishads. 

In my view, the values inherent in both Hinduism and Buddhism have had a profound direct and indirect impact on those thinkers and philosophers around the globe who had a universal outlook, and who were willing to learn from and be inspired by the values of societies beyond their own. This process in turn contributed to the adoption of the modern agenda of human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Those who claim that the notion of human rights is purely a product of Western Christian civilization are projecting reductionist nineteenth-century values (the values of the peak of colonial domination) onto the past. They do not take into account the philosophical and spiritual developments that had taken place prior to colonization. 

Many of the values of Hinduism and Buddhism, as derived from the vast ancient Hindu-Buddhist scriptures, are similar to the modern notion of human rights. Secularism in the conduct of the state’s domestic affairs, universalism in approaches to the outside world, and adherence to the principle of peaceful co-existence when dealing with foreign powers of different faiths and beliefs are some of the key elements deeply rooted in ancient Hindu-Buddhist political thinking. 

It should be borne in mind that Hindu practices and philosophies have not always run parallel to each other since the reorientation of the Hindu scriptures by the privileged classes, or since the caste system was established in many Hindu societies many centuries ago. Although Hinduism promoted tolerance, non-discrimination was not–and still is not–a central tenet of Hinduism. There are still deep-rooted practices of discrimination against women and the abhorrent treatment of people from the fourth caste, often referred to as Dalits in Nepal or Harijans by Gandhi in India. 

The Vedic idea of the division of society was based on the division of labor or professions according to functional cooperation and was different from that of the federation of tribal and occupational groups of later ages, known as the caste system. This division of labor introduced disparity in wealth, education and intellectual attainment between the different classes. The upper classes spent more time on intellectual activities and enjoyed the privileges that came with their intellectual professions. It was only later on during the Puranic period that Hindu scriptures divided society into different castes, creating an unequal society and relegating people belonging to the lower classes to an inferior status. 

The caste system is still prevalent in many traditional societies in India and Nepal, the two most predominantly Hindu states. These practices have been outlawed in modern times in both of these countries, and the constitutions and laws of these countries guarantee equality before the law and make all fundamental freedoms available to all on equal footing. However, discriminatory practices still exist in society, because many regard the laws of the state as secondary to their Hindu beliefs. Women and Dalits (or Harijans) still suffer enormously in more traditional Hindu societies. Much work remains to be done to enact major reforms to the practices of traditional Hindu societies relating to the caste system and the atrocious practice of untouchability. 

What we need is to update the Code of Manu–also known as the Code of Life or the Manusmriti–which was written by a Sanskrit scholar (most likely by a group of scholars under the leadership of sage Manu) around the 6th century BC. This is a work of genius, but it institutionalized the discriminatory caste system within Hinduism. The caste system has deeply troubled me for many years. There is a need for a modern version of the Manusmriti that incorporates modern principles of human rights. Having a national constitution that guarantees equality before the law and ratifying UN human rights treaties are ways to encourage reform.

However, attempting to reform centuries old beliefs is quite another matter. The discriminatory caste system is deeply rooted in the psyches of these traditional societies and the enactment of new political laws alone will not bring about the desired change. Rather, laws must also be accompanied by the reform and modernisation of the scriptures. I would need to mobilize a large number of scholars within the Hindu world to accomplish this task and am on the lookout for such scholars. 

To conclude, if we are looking for a modern human rights language in ancient Hindu or Buddhist scriptures, we will not find it. But if we are looking for the early foundational principles of human rights in Hinduism and Buddhism, these can be found in abundance. This shared cultural heritage, integrating Eastern and Western thinking, adds further legitimacy to the universality of human rights and demonstrates how beneficial principles from Christian and non-Christian heritage can come together to further the advancement of human civilisation. 

[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.]