Indic religious traditions and human rights – Arvind Sharma

Gandhi Quote

Western discourse talks about human beings in general, but the discourse of the Indic religious traditions, that is to say of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, tends to speak of all living beings rather than just human beings. – Dr. Arvind Sharma

I shall start my column by asking a question alarming in its irrelevance: what do women want? So as not to either be or appear sexist, I must then ask another question: what do men want?

What am I trying to get at? I am trying to get at the fact that the words women and men are used in the plural in these two instances. The question was not what does a woman want or what does a man want, but what do women want and what do men want, in the plural.

Viewed in this way, the question itself contains the answer: as there are many women, they perhaps want many different things unless they are clones. The same applies to men. To come to the point then—to talk of human rights is somewhat different than talking about what is right and what is wrong for an individual. The former pertains to a species as a whole, the latter to a member of the species who is called upon to act morally. These two are not unrelated but that very statement contains the subtext that the two are not one, from the very fact that they are related. It takes two to tango, to lapse into colloquialism, or to be related.

When we talk of what is right we talk of moral duty; when we talk of rights we talk of moral entitlement. Let us now extend the discussion to look at three related terms: rites, right, and rights. Notwithstanding the risk any generalisation entails—and perhaps this one even more than others—one could argue for a three stage model of the development of moral consciousness, if we start with the following vague but tantalising premise: in the beginning was the deed. It first took the form of ritual action (rites); then a sense of moral responsibility for our actions in general (right); and then has now finally evolved to the level of the moral responsibility of such deeds as a species (rights).

Human rights have become the idiom of moral discourse in our times. But the question to ask is: why? One could suggest the following answer: that being a human being supervenes over our being the citizen of a particular nation, or the follower of a particular religion or ideology. This point could be established in the following way. Let us begin by asking the question: is it possible to be an American, or a German, or a Russian, or an Indian, without first being a human being? The answer obviously has to be in the negative. Then one could ask the question: is it possible to be a human being without being an American, a German, a Russian, or an Indian? The answer obviously has to be in the affirmative. On this basis, one could argue that being human is the primary category and being a citizen of a country, for the followers of a particular religion or ideology, a secondary one.

It can, however, also be argued that being a human being can also become a secondary category, in the following manner. A human being is a living being like many other living beings, or, to put it another way, a human being is a creature like many other creatures such as birds or animals. Then being a creature now becomes the primary category and being a human being a secondary one, in accordance with the following formulation: It is possible to be a creature without being a human being, but it is not possible to be a human being without being a creature.

Western discourse talks about human beings in general, but the discourse of the Indic religious traditions, that is to say of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, tends to speak of all living beings rather than just human beings. For instance, Hinduism describes spiritual people as those who are involved in securing the well-being of all creatures (sarva-bhῡta-hite ratāḥ), while Buddhism speaks of ‘sentient beings’, Jainism of jīvas, and Sikhism of living beings.

An interesting point emerges from this discussion, namely, that the Indic religious traditions are inclined to speak of what may be called creaturely rights rather than just human rights. This fact could create the erroneous impression that the Indic tradition is not concerned with human rights but the truth of the matter is that it is not concerned with only human rights.

The case for ecological rights can then be seen as a further extension of the transition from human rights to creaturely rights.

The point is that just as the category of living beings goes beyond the category of human beings, yet another category, that of the environment, can go beyond even living beings. This would be the category which includes all existing things, inanimate as well as animate. Living beings exist, but all that exists need not be living or alive; inert matter exists but it is not living. This category of ‘existing beings’ would include living beings but also cover more than only living beings. In other words, if creaturely rights include creatures, then ecological rights would include the whole of creation. This category would include not just human beings but also sub-human beings, such as birds and animals, and beyond that, elements of nature such as mountains, rivers, oceans, waterfalls, and so on.

This final category could be seen as a contribution of the immemorial and primal religious traditions associated with the forest tribes or one vana-jātis, who are an integral part of the larger Hindu tradition and one of whose members now occupies the office of the President of India. – Firstpost, 30 October 2022

Prof. Dr. Arvind Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.

Albert Einstein Quote