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Dharma: The Progenitor of the Concept of Human Rights


Karl Marx once said – “Religion is the opium of mankind”. This narrative has since then become the mainstream belief among intellectuals and the masses alike. However, belief of Indian Scholars is quite contrary and finds its basis in Chanakya’s saying – “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha” which means “dharma and morality sustain the world”, and the progenitor of the concept of morality being religion or as we call it – dharma, makes it an inseparable and completing facet. Dharma is the ancient Indian concept of law and religion, amalgamated and equated with justice. It is for the stability of society, the maintenance of social order, and the general well-being and progress of people. Even though international law, democracy, and other such ideals are considered to be modern concepts, no concrete evidence backs these claims and the roots of these can be traced back to Ancient India. Whether it be the Vedas or the Dharma Shastras, the modern world law is clearly their derivative. However, the common notion is that religion sedates the human sense of justice. This article critically analyses the Indian concept of Dharma; and relates it to the derivative evolution of the Human Rights Law and its modern ideals.

Dharma: The Ancient Indian Concept of Law and Morality

Sarva Dharma Sambhavana” which literally means that all Dharmas (truths) are equal to or harmonious with each other; is a fundamental precept of Dharma, and what’s striking is that it is also a major principle of modern laws. The Rishi Munis of ancient India defined Dharma as the highest ideal of human life. It has underlying principles which aim to promote humanity among people. It is derived from Sanskrit word ‘dhr’ meaning ‘something that upholds’ and is equivalent to the Greek term ‘ethos’. Max Mueller defined it as Indian Natural Law because it governed people’s life and behavior. Though often confused with religion, dharma manifests the legal language of natural law or morality in terms of perceptibility. In ancient India, sovereignty belonged to the dharma, not the king. By assuming dharma to be basic-norm and absolute, it emerged as a fully independent force, free from manipulations. Thus, dharma’s concept is very similar to that of modern-day rule of law and stands neutral without any discrimination. It is best understood as a moral duty towards oneself and towards society. Coupled with dharma lies the concept of ‘danda’. It is said to be the son of Lord Brahma and seen as an incarnation of law itself. It sees no kith and kin and persecutes the wrongdoer for it is impartial and protector of all creatures. Thus, ancient texts are of the view that dharma is an essential component for the well-being of the community.

International Human Rights: Protecting Values

Talking about the Dharma’s modern counterpart International Human Rights (‘IHR’), we find that it has the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as its core. IHR has helped us address injustices in tough times and in societies suffering repression. It has played a major role in making human rights Universalis. IHR represents the idea of universal recognition of basic rights and fundamental freedoms as inherent to all human beings, inalienable and equally applicable to everyone. It believes that every one of us is born free and equal in dignity and rights irrespective of our nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status quo. Over the years, these beliefs have taken the form of various conventions and treaties which act as guarantors of these rights. IHR incorporates the very core principles of human rights first set out in the UDHR, such as universality, interdependence and indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, and that human rights simultaneously entail both rights and obligations from duty bearers as well as the holders. It defines obligations which States are bound to respect when they become ratifiers of international treaties, States assume obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the basic rights entitled to humans.  The obligation to respect means that ratifiers should not directly or indirectly act contrary to the spirit of IHR. Thus, the core values form the very framework on which the body of IHR has been built. They not only support the ideas but are the very source from which the obligations derive their meaning and worth. 

Dharma and International Human Rights: Two Congruent Paradigms?

The intelligentsia often claims that the IHR is a product of European ideology, revolution, and civilization. However, this claim is not completely valid because even though we owe much to Europeans for the modern concept of IHR, the roots of it can be traced far back in India’s past; with the arrival of Aryans and their organization of common life  came the concept of Human Rights to deal with conflicts. The concept of humanitarianism can be traced back to ancient India where respect for human life and dignity was looked highly upon. The Ancient Indian Laws, like the ones enshrined in Vedas, Upanishads, and Dharmashastra, established rules for the conduct of rulers towards their peoples and especially the laws to treat the vanquished humanely and uphold their dignity as a human being. These rules and regulations were not termed as explicit laws but as dharma. For rulers, it was ‘Raj-Dharma’ and for the ruled ‘Praja-Dharma’.

When we analyze the dharma of ancient India and IHR of the modern world, we find that there exists a very striking similarity. The core principles underpinning them are, if not completely, similar to a very large extent. The whole concept of Dharma, as previously mentioned, is based on the four basic principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. When we consider these as the building blocks, it is found that they resemble the basic values on which the IHR framework relies and has been built upon. Therefore, we are forced to review the origin of IHR and understand that though modern approach indeed originated from modern-day Europe, they are not in any way the only origin spot of human rights. Dharma being an ancient concept, more than two thousand years old, constantly urges us to question the very origin of the idea of human rights and suggests that it itself is the progenitor of the very idea of human rights. Thus, when we talk of the East and other such countries that hold their belief in Dharma, if they adopt this concept there won’t be any violation of human rights because Dharma principles are nothing but the predecessor and ancient eastern concept of human rights.

Conclusion: Dharma as the Antecedent to Human Rights

The principles of ancient India, or the principles of Dharma, support the fact that Indian civilization was the first to discover the laws of human rights as a universal need. Indian civilization had recognized the importance of human rights principles; the ancient literary pieces have proven time and again that dharma’s followers and preachers’ minds had always foreseen the need for International Human Rights Law. However, the question here is not about the superiority of ancient civilization, but whether the present modern laws are a novel creation or just an advancement? Judging by the evidence and sources, we find that it is a straight answer: dharma was the first human rights doctrine ever propounded. Dharma is not just a way of life; it is the very beacon for humanity. It shouldn’t be dissipated into the dark by branding it as religious discourse but should rather be shared with the world. It shouldn’t be left to be tainted as something old and meaningless. It should be portrayed as the first human attempt towards saving humanity. Hence, it’s time that we gave it the recognition it needs and keep it at the same pedestal with IHR. 

Mohd. Rameez Raza is a student of Bachelor of Law at Integral University, India; he is also a Columnist for CNES, JGU. Raj Shekhar is a student of BA. LL.B. at National University of Study and Research in Law, India

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