Hinduism and Social Justice
By Pritam K. Rohila, Ph.D.*
Social Justice in any society refers to an equitable distribution of its resources, privileges, and opportunities among its members. In its early years, Hinduism had a strong interest in and commitment to social justice.
Hindus believed that God was present in all living beings and therefore, a thread of unity and divinity ran through all of God’s creation. “One in all and all in One,” was the ultimate truth in Hinduism.
वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम (Vasudeva Kutumbkam) was a fundamental Hindu belief. The entire world was considered as one family, and all life, including human, animal and plant, was regarded as sacred.
These beliefs were reflected in the life and the rule of some ancient Hindu kings, like Rama. Hindus think of Rama as the ideal ruler, since he was willing to do anything and everything to please his subjects. Hindus regard his reign as Ram Rajya, meaning the God’s, or the ideal rule.
Rama’s rule was based on Dharma, i.e. righteousness, justice and duty to others. For centuries Dharma continued to play a major role in the social and political life of Hindus. It helped safeguard the poor and protect the weak.
Later, however, the concepts of Maya and Karma became more prominent in Hinduism. Simply stated Maya means that the universe just an illusion, and God is the only reality. Therefore, one was therefore advised to escape it, rather than to be entangled in it. One was urged to withdraw from the world and surrender oneself to God. Social justice was irrelevant, according to this way of thinking.
And according to the Karma principle, each individual’s life is simply an extension of his past lives. Whatever he faces currently is merely a consequence of his past deeds. Therefore, he himself is responsible for his present situation, and cannot blame others for it. Hence, whatever inequalities are currently present are justified and must be endured. In this context, social justice is limited to charity. But, one engages in charity less to help the needy, and more to earn good Karma, for one’s own benefit.
This kind of passive and defeatist attitude formed the underpinning of the Hindu caste system. The low-caste individual was expected to put up with his current situation, rather than complain or agitate about it, since the responsibility for it was entirely his own. The only thing he could do was to tolerate it and try to improve his future by engaging in good deeds. Thus Karma had become the intellectual foundation for social inequality.
Through the centuries, several reformers attempted to reform the Hindu society, but each had a limited success. In fact, in India even Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities have been infected by the fatalistic thinking of Karma and the social evil of caste system.
After Independence, India’s constitution granted equal rights to all citizens, including low-caste people and non-Hindus. Also they were ensured better access to national resources. Consequently, some low-caste Hindus have risen to much better positions.
In fact, the person who presided over the Constituent Assembly, which drew up the constitution of India, was a low caste individual. And two of the 14 presidents of India have been from low castes. Also low caste individuals have attained important positions, such as chief minister, speaker of parliament, and head of a political party.
Things are therefore better in India today, than they were in the past. But a lot more work needs to be done, to make Hindus of India, an equitable and socially just community.
*Dr. Rohila is a retired neuropsychologist. He lives in the U.S. State of Oregon.