Past Injustices and Present Opportunities: Hinduism and Human Rights

Arvind SharmaBy Arvind Sharma

Both Hinduism and Human Rights are essentially concerned with ensuring human flourishing, or an "increase of being" as some modern philosophers choose to put it. So their interaction is bound to be of significance to both, in view of this common interest in ensuring human wellbeing. Three strands in the pattern of interaction between them can be readily identified.

From one perspective, it might be useful to look at Hinduism through the lens of Human Rights and see how it fares. It would be useful to do so because Human Rights have virtually become the idiom of moral discourse in our times and it is always helpful to review whether a society's practices measure up to contemporary moral criteria as one way, among others, of evaluating them. Some practices within Hinduism, such as those involving residual caste-discrimination, may then stand out as particularly in need of continuous attention. Some issues pertaining to the position of women may also need to be reviewed in this light.

From a second perspective, it would be useful to look at Human Rights from the perspective of Hinduism. Human Rights discourse is concerned with the right to life; a Hindu perspective might suggest the inclusion of a "right to longevity" as well. Similarly, here is a tendency in Human Rights discourse to ignore the rights of non-proselytizing religions like Hinduism in its interpretation of religious freedom because it works with an Semitic concept of religion itself, which may tend to emphasize the right to change one's religion over against the right to retain one's religion. Hinduism also may have similar contributions to make in areas involving animal rights and ecological rights. Thus, just as viewing Hinduism from the lens of Human Rights helps identify areas within Hinduism where work remains to be done, viewing Human Rights discourse through the lens of Hinduism discloses some directions in which it could be extended.

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It is, however, a third perspective that might be even more relevant from a futuristic perspective. Human Rights discourse in general needs to seriously address the issue of the righting of historical wrongs, an area it tends to shy away from on the grounds that wrongs belong to a period prior to the establishment of a Human Rights regime and therefore fall outside its purview. But can moral entitlements, which constitute the bedrock of Human Rights, be overlooked by drawing such somewhat arbitrary temporal distinctions? Can there a statute of limitations on moral discourse and its consequent legal implications? In any case, this limitation principle has already been bent in the course of the Nuremberg trials, and such defenses as "the past is past" appear disingenuous to people from the Third World. Hinduism, with its firm belief and robust confidence in the doctrine of karma, and the ineluctability of moral consequences of our actions, no matter when they were performed, can go a long way in providing Human Rights discourse with the moral courage required in negotiating this vital, if delicate and even treacherous terrain.

Arvind Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of several works, including A Guide to Hindu Spirituality and the soon-to-be-released One Religion Too Many: The Religiously Comparative Reflections of a Comparatively Religious Hindu. He was also instrumental in convening a global congress on World's Religions After September 11, which met at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal from September 11-15, 2006.

6/28/2010 4:00:00 AM
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