Hindu scholar Mark Juergensmeyer begins an essay on "Dharma and the Rights of Untouchables" with the statement: "If by 'human rights' one means minority rights, then Hindu society can be said to have a human rights tradition, for it has always had a way of incorporating the poor and socially ostracized into the social whole."1 The caste system can be understood as a reflection of dharma or "the moral order" in Hindu society, which at its best maintains "reciprocal relationships of mutual economic and social benefit. Each group respects the rights and dignity of the others."2 Of course, as Juergensmeyer acknowledges, the reality has very often been otherwise. 

On the other hand, Kana Mitra argues that traditional codes of conduct in the Hindu tradition are on their face contrary to human rights. Manu's Dharma Sutra, which is considered authoritative in this regard, relates all rights to duties specified by caste, age, and sex. Traditional rights then are privileges of status and position. However, for twenty-five hundred years there have been rebellions within the Hindu tradition against its hierarchical order, and today many Hindus believe Manu's code needs revision.

Manu uses the Sanskrit word adhikara to describe the notion of a just claim or right; however, only Brahmans have such rights. Thus, deriving a notion of human rights within the Hindu tradition requires turning to the general concept of duty, or dharma, which is central to the Dharma Sutras. Mitra writes: "Dharma implies justice and propriety as does the word 'right' of the U.N. Declaration, although the connotation of a 'just claim' is not explicitly present."3

The revolts against traditional Hinduism reinterpret dharma. For instance, some bhakti groups assert:

All humans are equal as God's creation but are not the same; therefore, all should give and receive according to their own nature. These groups uphold the idea of following one's own nature (svadharma) as advocated in the Bhagavad-Gita.4

The various vedanta groups within Hindu orthodoxy also hold that one should follow one's own nature to realize perennial truth. Mitra argues, "They uphold human rights on the basis of all human beings having the same essence."5 Humans may be potentially divine, but may not have realized this potentiality. Thus, while asserting essential nonduality, most vedanta schools also embrace Manu's rules of conduct for life in this world.6

In addition to these ancient reinterpretations of Hindu tradition, Western notions of individual rights have entered Indian society, initially through British law and education. There have been many efforts to combine modern notions of rights with Hindu notions of rights and duties. Rammohan Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement, advocated equality for all persons regardless of caste or sex, on the basis that all humans are God's creatures. Vivekananda, leader of the Ramakrishna movement, supported equality on the basis of vedanta thought and thus did not, like Roy, reject Manu. "Rabindranath Tagore is another influential name in the human-rights movement."7

Most of those who led the independence movement in India sought some accommodation between Western notions of individual rights and the Hindu tradition of duty and caste. The Indian Constitution, largely drafted by B. R. Ambedkar, who was an untouchable, abolished untouchability and affirmed individual civil and political rights. Legislation was even passed to reserve places in government and schools for untouchables. The caste system itself, however, was left intact.

John Carmen notes that the Indian Constitution guarantees more rights than the American Bill of Rights. The preamble speaks of securing "the dignity of the individual" and sections which follow it include: "Right to Equality," "Right to Freedom," Right against Exploitation," "Right to Freedom of Religion," "Cultural and Educational Rights," "Right to Property," and "Right to Constitutional Remedies."8 Clearly, many of these rights directly challenge the system of unequal privileges that is fundamental to the Hindu tradition of caste.

Carmen argues that although the Indian Constitution contains an impressive list of fundamental rights, "it does not ground them in anything, whether in individual human nature, the requirements of human community, or the creative intention of God."9 In short, "the constitution does not recognize the fundamental dharma affirmed by the Hindu tradition and sets no spiritual obligation for the state itself or for the people."10

In the face of persisting untouchability in India despite these efforts to eradicate it, reformers who turn again to the notion ofdharma

have found in the ancient Indian concept the basis for ideas that are quite similar to those of socially sensitive Westerners, and yet are rooted in the Indian religious tradition. In short, they have discovered dharmic reforms appropriate to the modern world.11

For example, members of the Arya Samaj movement have argued that the original Vedic teachings are casteless and thus have fashioned "a notion of dharma based on universal, rather than caste-specific, obligations to social values."12

Mitra writes that "Mahatma Gandhi is the epitome of the human-rights movement within traditional Hinduism," for his "fight for the rights of the untouchables was based on his ideas of human rights."13 Gandhi considered himself an orthodox Hindu. He believed that whether God is understood in theistic or nontheistic terms, Hindu theology could not be used to justify the unequal treatment of human beings. As Mitra affirms: "Theistic Hinduism upholds human equality on the basis that all are God's creatures. Nontheistic Hinduism emphasizes the identity of the essence of all humans."14

Gandhi included untouchables in his ashrams and movement. Yet, he accepted Manu's idea that rights and duties, one's dharma, are to be understood in terms of svadharma, one's natural situation in life. Mitra writes:

The idea of svadharma, if not understood as a rigid code or law, can be a contribution in the field of human rights in its suggestion that differences be taken seriously. Manu offers suggestions in taking it in a nonrigid way. Dharmahe says, is what "is followed by those learned of the Vedas and what is approved by the conscience of the virtuous who are exempt from hatred and inordinate affection." Tradition, conscience, and reason must all be consulted to determine the rights and duties of humans. Rights and duties of different people in different situations are different, but each human being deserves and should have equal consideration and concern.15

Gandhi was not advocating "individual rights" in the Western sense, but rather dharma: "an ethic of community, responsibility and loyalty.16 Gandhi's emphasis on tradition and duty are clear. When asked what he thought of the proposed Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he replied:

I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved came from duty well done. Thus, the very right to live accrues to us only when we do the duty of citizenship of the world. From this one fundamental statement, perhaps it is easy enough to define the duties of Man and of Woman and correlate every right to some corresponding duty to be first performed.17

His position, as always, was rooted in religious commitment rather than political expediency.

However, he did speak of learning "to stand up for human dignity and rights," and even affirmed that everyone "has an equal right to the necessaries of life. . .."18 Therefore, we might say that Gandhi affirmed human rights in the context of his Hindu tradition:

If we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek. If leaving duties unperformed, we run after rights, they will escape us like a will o' the wisp. . .. The same teaching has been embodied by Krishna in the immortal words: "Action alone is thine. Leave thou the fruit severely alone." Action is duty, fruit is the right.19

While others have turned to the Bible or to the Qur'an to find justification for human rights, Gandhi turned within his own Hindu tradition to the sacred text of the Bhagavad-Gita.

Gandhi's legacy includes a multitude of movements for social change within India that emphasized swaraj or self-rule. "The Indian human rights movement grew out of this tradition of autonomous social organization and is linked to other social movements, many also of Gandhian inspiration, both through shared personnel and because the victims of human rights violations are often activists in those movements."20 Barnett concludes that, given the caste tradition and all the problems of Indian society, any success of human rights protection in India "is a strong argument for the potential universality of the movement."21

R. C. Pandeya, too, stresses that for the Indian all rights are derived from duties, and thus he suggests that the first principle of human rights is buried in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible."22

In Hindu philosophy this notion of duty follows from the nature of man and may be articulated in two ways:

Negatively formulated, it will state that a man ought not to act in such a way as to obscure his true nature. In other words his duty would consist in withdrawing or refraining from all such acts as were likely to obscure any aspect of the totality of his being. The same idea formulated in positive terms would amount to saying that man ought to act in order to fulfill his total nature. In this alternative formulation his duty would consist in a complete knowledge of self.23

These two different emphases in the formulation of duty lead to a fork in the road in Indian philosophy: the path of renunciation, represented by Buddhism, and the path of realization of being as being, as represented by vedanta.

Pandeya argues that both of these paths are reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

The Declaration, with its emphasis on freedom and equality of men and the consequent denunciation of distinctions contrary to the basic spirit of equality and freedom, represents a highly balanced blending of the two paths mentioned above. This is a philosophical tribute to the thoughtfulness and wisdom of the framers of the Declaration.24

The Declaration "reaches almost to the combined goal of Buddhism and Vedanta," he claims, but because of constraints in the modern world the Universal Declaration fails to specify the duties that generate human rights.25

The danger of this approach is that traditional Hindu notions of duty include justifications for violence. Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita from the epic Mahabharata as an allegory, but literally it calls members of the warrior (ksatriya) caste to do their duty by fighting on the battlefield. They are to leave the consequences of their killing to God. Moreover, the Gita makes violence easier by affirming that the soul cannot be killed: "he who slays, slays not; he who is slain, is not slain."26

Today, advocates of Hindu nationalism readily justify violence in the name of their religious and cultural traditions. The Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Patriotism Organization) destroyed a mosque in Avodhya in 1992, and this precipitated violence throughout India between Hindus and Muslims. The RSS, as it is generally known, claimed the right to destroy the mosque because the site was originally a place sacred to the god Rama, although there is no historical evidence to substantiate this claim. More recently Hindu nationalists have attacked Christians and Muslims in their effort to create a purified "Hindustan" (Hindu society).

Clearly, modern concepts of human rights are a reflection of Western influence and interfere with traditional notions of dharma.27Yet, some Hindu reformers seek to interpret dharma in ways that support the notion of human rights. This is not easily done. Perhaps this is why the Indian constitution sets forth the major human rights affirmed in the Universal Declaration without providing any philosophical foundation for them. Nonetheless, at the time of India's independence "most educated Hindus not only accepted these fundamental rights but insisted that they expressed age-old Hindu principles."28

Revised material from Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991).


1 Mark Juergensmeyer, "Dharma and the Rights of the Untouchables," unpublished essay, 8 March 1986, 1.


3 Kana Mitra, "Human Rights in Hinduism," in Human Rights in Religious Traditions, ed. Arlene Swidler (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982), 79. Raimundo Panikkar argues that the Hindu notion of dharma requires: 1) that human rights are not only the rights of individuals or even humans, 2) that human rights involve duties and relate us to the whole cosmos, and 3) that human rights are not absolute but are relative to each culture. Panikkar, "Is Human Rights a Western Concept? A Hindu/Jain/Buddhist Reflection," Breakthrough 10, nos. 2-3 (Winter/Spring 1989):33-34. An expanded version of this article appeared in the UNESCO publication Diogenes (Winter 1982).

4 Ibid., 80-81. 

5 Ibid., 81.

6 Barnett R. Rubin also argues that respect for human rights in India does not necessarily mean abolition of the caste system, and that "The plurality of dharmas can also legitimate rights and social and political pluralism." He claims that "the biggest obstacle to human rights is not caste itself but untouchability, which, while outlawed, is still widely practiced and relegates a whole section of the community to 'unclean' status." Rubin, "India," in International Handbook of Human Rights, ed. Jack Donnelly and Rhoda E. Howard (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987), 137.

7 Ibid. However, Ralph Buultjens asserts: "The Western concept of human rights has been advocated by relatively few leaders of myth-figure stature in Indian history. Two such recent advocates have been Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru. However, neither Tagore nor Nehru evokes the passionate fervor that attaches to Krishna-Chaitanya-Bose-Gandhi and projects them as exemplars." Buultjens, "Human Rights in Indian Political Culture," in The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights: A World Survey, ed. Kenneth W. Thompson (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), 116.

8 John B. Carmen, "Duties and Rights in Hindu Society," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, ed. Leroy S. Rouner (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 117. The late P. V. Kane writes: "The Constitution makes a complete break with our traditional ideas. . .. The Constitution engenders a feeling among common people that they have rights and no obligations and that the masses have the right to impose their will and to give the force of law and justice to their own ideas and norms formed in their own cottages and tea shops. . .. The Constitution of India has no chapter on the duties of the people to the country or to the people as a whole." Kane, History of Dharmasastras, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1968), 1664-65. Quoted in Carmen, "Duties in Hindu Society," 119.

9 Ibid., 120.

10 Ibid.

11 Barnett R. Rubin, "India," in International Handbook of Human Rights, 137.

12 Ibid.

13 Kana Mitra, "Human Rights in Hinduism," in Human Rights and Religious Traditions, 82.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., 83. Bühler, Laws of Manu, 2:1.

16 Mark Juergensmeyer, "Dharma and the Rights of the Untouchables," 28. A. Pushparajan, who argues that both Hindus and Christians have failed miserably to overcome untouchability in India, supports the program outlined by Gandhi. See his article, "Harijans and the Prospects of Their Human Rights," Journal of Dharma 8 (October-December 1983):391-405.

17 Quoted in German Arciniegas, "Culture—A Human Right," in Freedom and Culture, ed. Julian Huxley (London: Wingate, 1951), 32.

18 Gandhi, Young India, 21 August 1924, and Young India, 26 March 1931, in The Essential Gandhi: His Life, Work, and Ideas, ed. Louis Fischer (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 200 and 284.

19 Gandhi, Young India, 8 January 1925. Max L. Stackhouse asserts that Gandhi "worked with others to get socialist as well as Western democratic statements of human rights included in the constitution." Stackhouse, Creeds, Society, and Human Rights: A Study in Three Cultures (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 254.

20 Barnett R. Rubin, "India," in International Handbook of Human Rights, 154.

21 Ibid., 156.

22 R. C. Pandeya, "Human Rights: An Indian Perspective," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Paris: UNESCO, 1986), 274.

23 Ibid., 275.

24 Ibid., 277. Another Indian, Prem Kirpal, disagrees. He argues that the Universal Declaration is largely the result of Western political thought and neglects "the wisdom and faith" found in "the older experience of Asian civilizations and several world religions." Kirpal, "The Contemporary Situation—Looking Ahead," in Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, 280-82.

25 Ibid.

26 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: The University of California Press, 2000), 95. See also Mohandus Gandhi, Discourses on the Gita(Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1960) (trans. From the original Gujarati by V. G. Desai) and David Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

27 For instance, John Carmen describes a mid-nineteenth century conflict between Brahmins and a group of outcastes who had become Christian. The Brahmins asked the British magistrate to require the outcastes to pull a temple car as part of a traditional festival, claiming that it was the outcastes' dharma. The magistrate held that, as Christians, the outcastes had a duty not to participate in the practice of Hindu religion and so upheld their right to refuse. Carmen, "Duties and Rights in Hindu Society," in Human Rights and the World's Religions, 115.

28 Ibid., 127. Ralph Buultjens suggests: "it may be that the special accommodative genius of Hindu culture will create a new synthesis and produce the type of adjustment it has achieved in other areas. Perhaps both Indian political culture and Western political ideals can transcend their historical constrictions, taking lessons from the ways in which India has already adopted and adapted forms of democracy in the past three decades." Buultjens, "Human Rights in Indian Political Culture," in The Moral Imperatives of Human Rights: A World Survey, 121.

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