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Social justice in Hindu tradition

Thursday, February 10, 2000


The Hindu philosophy of Vedanta, or monism, proposes that everything in this world is God. According to this philosophy, God is the ocean and an individual soul is a wave of this ocean, having a temporary identity of its own, but a part of the ocean.

According to the alternative philosophy dvaita, or dualism, God and man are separate; man is like a clay pot filled with water that comes from the same ocean that God is. The essential life-giving principle or consciousness of everyone is the same.

Both these concepts should result in a collective consciousness enabling us to empathize with others' pain and sorrow. Because we are not similar, but same, we should not hesitate to extend ourselves to help others.

However, there is a wide contrast between lofty ideals of Hindu philosophy and Hindu social behavior. The rampant poverty and squalor in India, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the callousness of the rich toward the poor belie the high principles of Hindu philosophy.

Whereas individuals yearn for self-realization, moksha, a collective consciousness that should arise out of the philosophy of monism is lacking.  Every New Age Hindu preacher sets up a shop to teach his own technique for self-realization, with yoga and meditation as its staple. Few serve the poor, sick, downtrodden, and destitute.

If we are all part of the same whole, individual salvation is meaningless without salvation of the whole. How can the arm be free if the leg is still trapped in the world?

Social responsibility should be a part of Hindu credo. Compassion (daya) and liberality (dan),the two principles of Hindu dharma or righteous conduct, should not be driven by pity and sympathy or be condescending -- sort of like throwing crumbs to the poor.

Every Hindu should empathize with others in need, because they are only superficially others; in truth they are part of the same God.

Swami Dayananda, founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement of the 19th century, laid down social action as part of his 10 principles that he wanted every Hindu to follow. No one, he argued, should be content with his or her own well-being, but rather should strive for common good.

The Swami said that yoga, union with Godhead, and yagna, sacrifice, are twin pillars of Hinduism. He advised every Hindu to perform five types of sacrifices every day: two for self-fulfillment and self-realization and three for others -- for parents, guests, and other people, livestock, and
the environment.

He advised Hindus to learn in this matter from Islam, in which fitr or liberality is part of the creed, or from Christianity, in which the preacher directly serves and counsels the poor.

It may be argued that, in a secular state, social justice is the responsibility of the state while the church provides moral and spiritual teaching for its members. This may be true in developed countries where
civic and social institutions are well-established, but in developing countries -- such as India, where social and civic institutions are still inefficient, and religion plays a major role in day-to-day life -- religion
should work for social justice.

In both developed and developing countries, religious leaders should create awareness of the issues and create the right climate for social action. They can have an impact on the religious convictions of the politicians and their constituents.

Hindu religious leaders, besides preaching about individual salvation, should work to end disparities among people due to social status and gender; raise consciousness about AIDS; and work to eradicate child labor and dowry. They should support visually-impaired, hearing-impaired, and mentally retarded individuals in America and in India.

Two sister Hindu organizations in Bergen County, the Hindu Samaj and the Arya Samaj, have made a good beginning in this respect by supporting orphans in India through an Indian organization, Sewa Bharati.

I hope that all Hindu organizations in the United States will incorporate social spirituality in their agenda and inculcate a tradition of volunteerism in their members. Only then will they be true to their credo:
"Whatever is in this world, is God; therefore, do not covet."

Dr. Vidya Bhushan Gupta of Closter is a pediatrician and Hindu scholar affiliated with New York Medical College and Columbia Unversity. He is a member of Arya Samaj Hindu Community.

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