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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



The present paper is intended to sketch out the issue of human rights through the concepts of Dharma and ta, which can be considered as the basis on which we may be able to appropriate the meaning of human rights from Indian philosophical and ethical perspectives. We look at the issue of Human Rights as a contemporary mode of the ancient metaphysical wisdom built on the reflection upon what it means to be Dharma and the ways of existence according to Dharma. Accordingly, we identify and discuss some presuppositions of this concept and, thereby, develop its practical meaning as the ethics of human rights in order to situate its applicability in the social, political and economic domains of Indian society. Thus, our analysis of this concept considers Dharma in relation to its metaphysical and ethical presuppositions as a philosophy of the ethics of human rights. That is to say that, on the conceptual dimensions, there is a determined philosophy of human rights in the concept of Dharma, which shapes the meaning of human life as a leading principle. Thus, before touching upon the social, political and philosophical phenomena which shape the structure and fabric of this paper, we  have explained in some detail the terms ‘Metaphysical’, ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Indian’ which collectively determine the content of this paper.

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I look at the issue of Human Rights as a contemporary mode of the ancient metaphysical wisdom built on the reflection upon what it means to be Dharma and the ways of existing according to Dharma.  Just as a living being is to survive, to exist for humans as conscious and self-conscious beings is to exercise self-awareness and, hence, self-determination of one’s Dharma in life. It is in this, that, freedom exists in the Indian context.  This metaphysical insight throws open three challenges of enormous importance, which together constitute a closed unity. The three challenges may be formulated briefly as follows: 1. who is the other? 2. how do we relate with him, her or them i.e. what is our direct or indirect concern with the other? 3. how precisely in the contemporary Indian Social context, do we relate with the other and what consequences derive from them? 

The first question engages issues of ethics and metaphysics for it deals with the possibility and necessity of togetherness in social living. The issues contained in the question ‘who is the other’ concerns the need for and the essential interrelation with the other. In other words, what is at stake is the state of social living in relation with the other. Therefore, the issue of Human Rights is not merely a formal or legal concept but rooted in a metaphysical awareness of oneself, which allows for the conscious human beings to live fully in a human manner.  It is indeed true that the topic of Human Rights may be considered superficially in its political and social aspects. But it is essentially a philosophical problem with its metaphysical insights because the issue of Human Rights undergirds respect towards the other and is grounded on the acknowledgement that each one’s existence bears possibilities for everyone else. Therefore, only when the issue is studied from the metaphysical standpoint can one get at the basic issue and its possible implications.

Human Rights

Let me now take up for consideration the second of the three notions, which features in the title of this chapter i.e. Human Rights. The general object of Human Rights is said to be human life, namely the possibility and necessity of human life, which has dignity for others, that is, one possessed of qualities with exemplary value. Such a life is, therefore, desirable and its study shall not be abstract or hypostatized. The central concept that constitutes all Human Rights issues, in fact, is centered on the concept of human life itself. However, this is not a life that is understood merely in biological or physiological terms, but human life in its manifold and multifarious aspects. Hence, the issue posits a division between what is human and what is not human. It also bestows upon human beings a dignity superior to the rest of the other beings in nature.

The basic and fundamental issue of Human Rights is the human person. To be a person is to have an intrinsic value. No human person should be allowed to be used purely as a means by any another person. In other words, every person has an intrinsic value and has some basic human rights. It is a matter of social justice that everyone should respect the basic rights of others. Hence, Human Rights, generally, presuppose that four groups of basic rights are important for all human beings; they are [a] the individual human rights, [b] the social human rights, [c] right to life and survival and, [d] ecological rights. It is, generally, regarded that these four groups of human rights are the condition sine qua non without which human beings cannot develop their humanity and sociality. To put in different words, these four groups are [a] the person’s right to liberty, [b] the community’s social rights, [c] the right to existence and [d] the right to the continuation of life.

While a distinction is drawn between different categories of Human Rights, the boundaries, on the one hand, between civil and social rights and, on the other hand, between individual and collective rights are not sharp. Certain rights are of individualistic nature such as the right to private property, liberty of thought and a person’s freedom and security; other rights are by nature collective such as the majority of economic and social rights. Some rights have both collective and individual features. This is so in the case of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. 

According to Aristotle the sciences concerned with the dignity of human soul have its central idea bios, by analogy, being that is the highest category both for logic and philosophy. Human life [bios] for the Greeks is fundamentally act or praxis [Eupraxein or eupraxis]. Immanuel Kant claimed that the full existence of reason consists in being able to grasp the universal in the particular; the universal is life and the particulars are concrete individuals, men and women, children and old people, whatsoever be the conditions of their life and their cultural, political, ontogenetic and other features.  Therefore, a rational thematization of human life and dignity implies specific situations in which individuals exist and strive.  In other words, human dignity and worth may not be considered as values, which transcend the living human experiences. On the contrary, it derives from and is grounded in human existence itself. To put the same in different words, human existence is an end in itself in relation to which all the rest are simply means.

Thus Human Rights are grounded absolutely on the concept of human life as being one of dignity. Thematizing this concept opens the way to understand and possibly solve the issues related to the questions of the ‘other’. Accordingly, it may be argued that Human Rights consist in the openness from one’s immediate world to the situations and peoples in other latitudes or situations whom we may or may not know.  Hence, the tenets of Human Rights lead inevitably to being sensitized to other’s problems, their living experiences and circumstances. It amounts to saying that the issue of inter-subjectivity is the thrust of Human Rights because it is not merely an idea but is the way in which human existence de facto is possible[i] [i.e. how dowe relate to the other].

Human Rights can be defined, in a modern sense, as the ultimate legitimate basis for a universal human community.  Human community then refers to an ideal association of human persons that is conceived for the individual and collective benefit of its members. Hence, it is necessary to call attention to at least two factors that make the concept of Human Rights a complex notion: [1] its philosophical features are interwoven with political consideration and ,[2] it combines some terminological distinctions in a confusing manner [Rosenbaum, 1980: 4].

The Significance of Human Rights

The significance of Human Rights concept can be demonstrated by its importance in both politics and philosophy. In politics, it functions as an attractive concept because it provides an ideal basis on which the conceptualization and organization of a human community is made possible.  In both politics and in the philosophical literature, Human Rights and the human dignity are considered closely associated concepts. Struggles for the rights of human dignity have influenced the evolution of Human Rights discourse [ii] [Rosenbaum, 1980: 5]. Hence, it is argued that human rights ought to be unconditional, because, a denial of them anywhere in the world poses a threat against people’s rights everywhere.

The issue of Human Rights is not only raised in terms of individual human existence but also has a wider perspective in terms of one’s religion, ethnicity, caste and such other categories. As Human Rights are usually defined in terms of the legal basis for human community, it is believed that human community aims at an ideal association of human beings, which exists, for the individual and collective welfare of its members. 

Ethical Strength of Human Rights:

The ethical strength of Human Rights lies in the fact that the life and personal dignity of individuals in the community has its proper value, which can neither be dissolved in nor derived from, anything else. The goals of human existence can be discussed, but unquestionably human life has a value grounded solely on its acts and their very possibility. From this standpoint, the aim of Human Rights consists in enlarging the general conditions of life in order for the existence of human beings to be ever more full and improved, and for the possibilities of human life to develop in as many ways as possible for individuals, communities and cultures. That so many nations with radically different local conditions and traditions have come to some agreement on their esteem for Human Rights ideology [as evidenced by their almost unexceptional inclusion of Human Rights in contemporary national constitutions] attests the hope that the concept of Human Rights carries as a universalizing principle.

The issues on Human Rights cannot be answered abstractly and independently of a particular intellectual discipline.  In fact, there would seem to be no a priori idea concerning human actions or human situations.  Today the real problem of the entire universe of ethics is that of the relationship between ethics, life and the project of individuals living in determined communities. In other words, the challenge is to begin from, and build upon, the real possibilities of life, instead of, from what we would like to be with the consequent risk of arbitrariness.  To understand this we should first clarify the object of ethical concerns; second, to propose and argue that Human Rights are the ethics of our time; third, to situate the problem and issues within the Indian context in order to consider its specificities, and finally, to suggest implications arising out of these analytical concerns.

Let me now turn my attention to the third postulate of this chapter, namely, the INDIAN which otherwise comprises the main tenet of this paper. The general understanding of Indian philosophy or to say India’s philosophy is at variance with western perspectives. To understand and appreciate the issue of Human Rights from a strictly Indian perspective, we need to take recourse necessarily to Indian world-view, its philosophy and culture.

Rights as Dharma

In the Indian social and philosophical thought, all rights were treated as part of Dharma--an omnibus concept with multiple shades of meaning. Dharma is said t