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HINDU VISION OF JUSTICE  


There are three eternal questions of mankind: what is the ultimate reality, who am I or what am I and what is justice.  These questions have been raised and discussed by various religious traditions of the world. Hindu speculation of these and other questions of life is contained in four ancient books, called Vedas.  There are four Vedas with multiple volumes each, the oldest being the Rig Veda.  The other three are Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.  Modern scholars believe that the earliest hymns of Rig Veda were composed eight to ten thousand years ago. 

 The ancient people, known as the Vedic people lived in the northwestern region of India on the banks of two rivers: Saraswati and Sindh.  The Saraswati River is believed to have dried up in 1900 BCE, which ended the pre-historic civilization, known as Harappa.  The ancient people were the lovers of nature.  They derived their philosophy from the workings of the nature.  When they observed the blossoming of plants and trees, the regular cycle of the seasons, sunrise and sunset, and the cycle of life and death of all living beings, they concluded that there is cosmic intelligence.  This cosmic intelligence reveals itself in the form of natural laws that are applicable to every level of existence. This cosmic order was named Rita in Sanskrit. Rita is the underlying cosmic principle, which regulates the nature from the voyage of the planets to the motion of the subatomic particles. It was further concluded that since human beings are a part of the cosmic plan, there must be moral order in the society corresponding to Rita in the natural phenomena. This moral order was given another Sanskrit name, Dharma.  In individual life, means ethical and moral duties and in social life it is represents just and equitable laws, which restrain evil and promote virtuous life.  Dharma is rather the idea of universal justice, involving responsibility in its widest sense, to ensure growth and harmony of all that has ever come into existence.

 The ancient people also observed that the principle of sacrifice (i.e., one thing giving rise to another) is the natural principle that maintains balance in the universe.  For example, the sun sacrifices itself to give heat and light, water sacrifices to make clouds, clouds to make rains, rains to produce grains, and the grains to feed humans and the other creatures.  The humans must, therefore, sacrifice to keep the natural cycle going.  This gave rise to the idea that individual duties and responsibilities must take precedence over the rights and privileges in a society. This thought further led to the ethical concepts of three debts, four ashrams (stages), and four ends of human life, which together form the Hindu action plan for the just and equitable individual and social life.

  The three debts are akin to three mortgages on one’s life.  These debts are not literal, in the sense of a liability that one is born with and spends his life trying to remunerate.  Instead, the concept of three debts reflects the awareness of one’s duties and responsibilities. The first debt is to God, which can be paid by worship, prayers, respect for religious feelings of all the people, reverence for all forms of life, protection of environment, and harmlessness to all creatures.

 The second debt is to the society, which demands fulfillment of one’s duties and responsibilities as member the nation, community, and society.  Scripture (Tirukural 214.TW) says, “He who understands his duty to society truly lives.  All others shall be counted among the dead.” An important element of the individual duty is adherence to the moral, ethical, and positive law.

 The third debt is to one's parents, teachers, and ancestors, which includes raising one's family in accordance with the moral and ethical principles of one’s tradition.

Four Stages of Life

To enable an individual to discharge his duties and responsibilities in life, the ancient sages organized life into four ashrams (stages): studentship, householder, retirement and renunciation. The three main goals of the studentship stage of life are to acquire knowledge, build one's character, and learn to shoulder responsibilities that will fall upon the individual during his (or her) adult life. This stage begins when a child enters school at an early age and continues until he has finished all schooling and is prepared to assume the responsibilities of the future.

 The householder stage begins with one's marriage, which in Hindu way of life is regarded as a sacrament, and not a social contract.  This stage forms the foundation for the support of the other two stages that follow.  The importance of the householder stage is often reflected in the analogy that just as all rivers flow into the sea, all stages flow into the householder stage.

 After the responsibilities of the householder stage are complete (i.e., one's children have reached adulthood and have assumed the responsibilities), one enters the retirement stage, known as the ascetic or hermit stage of life.  In this stage one gradually withdraws from active life and begins devoting more time to the study of scriptures, contemplation and meditation. The individual, however, makes himself available in order to provide guidance and share experiences with the younger generation, when requested to do so.

 The renunciation stage is the final stage of life in which an individual mentally renounces all worldly ties, spends all of his time in meditation and contemplation and ponders over the mysteries of life.

Four Ends of Life

Based upon the principle of progressive evolution of individual, ancient thinkers recognized four ends of human life: dharma (moral law), artha (wealth), kama (worthy desires) and moksha (spiritual perfection).  However, they declared dharma to be the foundation of the remaining three ends. It was believed that the cornerstone of human life is character, the moral and ethical ability of an individual to respond to the external conditions.  Of all the losses, the loss of character was declared as the highest loss.  “Every fool may become a hero at one time or another, but the people of good character are the heroes all the time,” says Swami Vivekananda.

Justice in Contemporary Thought

Good ness is justice in action and justice is goodness in principle. There are six doctrines of thought and action known as the Six Pillars of justice that provides the basis for individual and social conduct in Hindu tradition.  These are doctrines of Dharma, Karma, Ahimsa, Sahanshakti, justice and intuition.  

Doctrine of Dharma (Purpose in Life)

This doctrine states that every human being has a unique talent and a unique way of expressing it.  There are also unique needs for the human talent.  When the individual matches the needs with his talent to serve humanity, nature creates unlimited abundance of wealth and happiness.  Individual duties and responsibilities must, therefore, take precedence over one’s rights and privileges.  This is the major difference between the ancient wisdom and the modern social thought.  Modern social thought emphasizes rights and privileges over duties and responsibilities.  The result is a rights oriented society, which is primarily individualistic in character. The success is defined in terms of how high is your position, how many people work for you and how high is your salary.  It is a philosophy of measuring our lives by what we get and what we acquire, and whom we know.  Since we evaluate ourselves in terms of individual success, there is no commitment to the ground rules of civic virtue.

 If we want to solve the problem of crime, drugs and guns, we have to take a fresh look at our approach to life and the laws.  We have to eliminate the economic disparity that has given birth to gangs, chronically unemployed and the underclass.  We want the individuals to strive hard, but we also must strive for the common good of our people.  Every society must have a sense of what is right and wrong.  The things that are right are the things that grow the individual and society in harmony.  These are things like compassion, honesty, fairness and accountability.

Doctrine of Karma (Personal Accountability)

The Law of Karma is the law of cause and effect.  If we want to create happiness in our lives, we must learn to sow the seeds of happiness.  “What you sow is what you reap.”  In this sense, the Law of Karma is the eternal law of justice.  It teaches us that we are accountable for our actions and therefore we must make right choices.  How do you know what is a right choice in a given situation?  The answer is simple.  When you make any choice, ask yourself two questions: First, “what are the consequences of this choice I am making?”  In your heart you will know what these are.  Second, “will this choice that I am making bring happiness to me and those around me?”  If the answer is yes, the choice is good. If that choice will bring distress either to you or the people around you, that is the answer is no, then do not make that choice.  It is as simple as that. 

 The Law of Karma is the law of harmony and equilibrium.  It adjusts wisely, intelligently and equitably each effect to its cause.  It encourages us to work with good conscience.  Good conscience is the best pillow.  As Plato said, “Virtue does not come from money, but money comes from virtue.”

Doctrine of Ahimsa (Non-violence)

Ahimsa means non-violence (in thought, word and deed), non-injury, or non-killing.  Hindu Dharma teaches that all forms of life are different manifestations of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman).  We must therefore not be indifferent to the sufferings of any of God’s creatures.

This doctrine creates love for humans between themselves as well as with other forms of life, and encourages the protection of our environment.  Hindu tradition affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth (Bhumi or Prithvi), ecological unity, and interdependence of species.  Everybody has a right to clean water and clean air, and nobody has a right to degrade and destroy the environment.  Environmental justice is a part and parcel of the Hindu religious and social thought.

Doctrine of Sahanshakti (Acceptance)

Justice devoid of the spirit of acceptance akin to a horse that has no legs. From experience we can tell that “unity in variety’ is the nature’s plan in the evolution of the universe. In this world of natural diversity where people do not look, talk or think alike, where every tradition has produced men and women of exalted character, acceptance of other people’s thoughts, beliefs and practices is essential for the growth and harmony of the human race.  History tells us that the religious intolerance in the past has (and still does) caused so much precious blood and so many bitter tears to be shed.  Hindu scriptures declare that Truth is one, but paths are many.  The doctrine of acceptance teaches us how to live in the world of differences without feeling threatened by others, without forcing our will and views on others.

 Acceptance does not mean that we must give up our values or become more like others.  It simply means that we must be open to other ideas and arrive at certain decisions that no one quite agrees, but every one is willing to live with it.

The Doctrine of Justice 

In the popular mind and in the opinions of the learned, liberty and equality are the two prime values of human life that ought to be sought, secured and preserved.  However, as we shall presently see that without the guidance of justice, certain errors are unavoidable and certain problems are insoluble. 

 Liberty and equality are the most desirable values, but if we increase the one, it will automatically reduce the other one.  Too much of liberty can create inequality of conditions in the society.  This happens because those who are favored by superior endowments or attainments can make the best use of their freedom of opportunity and beat their fellowmen in the race of life.  This can result in the vast inequality of conditions in the society. By the same token, if we maximize the equality of conditions, the result would be loss of the individual liberty.  Thus, failure to observe and understand the need for limitations upon liberty and equality leads to insolvable conflict between them.  This conflict can be resolved by understanding that neither liberty, nor equality is the unlimited good, but both can be maximized harmoniously only when regulated by justice.  Thus among justice, liberty and equality, justice is the supreme value.  Its sovereignty has the power to resolve the conflict between the extremes of the liberty and equality.

The Doctrine of Intuition

We need brain to conceive, heart to feel, and strong arms to do the work.  In the event of a conflict between the brain and the heart, Hindu tradition demands that we must follow the heart.  There is a story in Mahabharatta, Hindu epic, about Pandavas, the five brothers.  One day while traveling in a forest, Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five brothers, felt thirsty and asked Nakula, the fourth brother, to fetch some water.  Nakula went around and found a pond of fresh water.  When he dipped his hands into the water, he heard a voice;  “It is my pond.  First answer my questions, then you may drink.”  Nakula, being very thirsty, ignored the voice.  As soon as he put some water in his mouth, he dropped dead.  When he did not return, Yudhisthira sent Sahadeva to fetch water.  Sahadeva met with the same fate as Nakula.  Arjuna and Bhima also, sent after Sahadeva, did not return.  Finally Yudhisthira arrived at the scene.  Seeing all his four brothers lying on the ground dead, he began to lament, “Is this to be our end?”  Still grieving, he began to drink from the pond.  The voice was heard again, “your brothers all died because they did not listen to me.  Answer my questions and then you may drink the water.”  Yudhisthira asked for the questions and answered them all.  The spirit was happy and addressed Yudhisthira thus, “O King, I will let one of your brothers return to life.  Which one do you want?”  Yudhisthira thought for a while and then answered, “I want Nakula back.”  The angel said, “Why did you prefer Nakula to Bhima?  Bhima has the strength of 16,000 elephants and you need him to win the war.  Why not Arjuna, who is skilled in advanced weapons and can alone win the war for you.  What will Nakula do for you?  He is handsome, but handsome people do not win big wars.”  Yudhisthira replied: “O spirit, my father had two wives, Kunti and Maduri.  Arjuna, Bhima and I are the sons of Kunti.  I am her eldest son.  Nakula and Sahadeva are the sons of Maduri.  If only two of us can be alive, it is only fair that, Nakula, the eldest son of Maduri be alive so that my stepmother is not bereft of her both children.  This decision of Yudhisthira, based upon the justice of the heart, pleased the spirit and he brought all brothers back to life.  Eventually Pandavas won the battle with Kauravas and regained their kingdom. 

Challenges to Justice

The significant challenges to justice in a modern society are ethical relativism, economic disparity, rights oriented philosophy, illusion of rationality and illusion of materiality.

Ethical Relativism

There are people who consider pursuit of happiness as pursuit of wealth, power and prestige.  Our rights orientation has led us to a kind of utilitarian ethics, which allows Ivan Boesky to say, “Greed is good.”  They write books on how to win by intimidation and they can get on every TV show and teach people how to do that. To be successful is to win by hook or by crook, regardless of what happens to the fellowman or the society.  There is a simple story of a businessman who goes on a camping trip with another man. They both have their backpacks on their backs, and suddenly they see a cougar about fifty feet away.  The businessman starts to take off his backpack, and the friend says, “What are you going to do?”

The businessman says, “ I am going to run for it.”

The friend says, “But you can’t outrun a cougar.”

And the businessman says, “I do not have to outrun the cougar.  I just have to outrun you.”

Economic Disparity

Economic disparity is one of the major causes of poverty, homelessness, and an alarming crime rate in a society.  If you are a teenager living in the inner city with a single mother on welfare, and no father, your chances in life are rather limited.  You will have a very little chance of getting good education and consequently a very little chance of obtaining a higher paying jobs.  Being unemployed or underemployed, you will live in poverty and very likely end up having a child out of wedlock.  Your children will very likely be attending schools where they will not be properly educated, schools that are overwhelmingly impoverished. If you visit a ward in an inner city hospital where new born babies are, you can predict where these kids will end up in life.  Most of them will end up living in poverty.  American citizen in this affluent country should not be living in poverty, experiencing hunger and no hope for future. This is the biggest challenge to social justice.  The society does not solve the problems of the poor, of the homeless; ultimately these problems can threaten everyone’s ordinary life.

Rights Oriented Philosophy

From the standpoint of Hindu tradition, harmony within a society s more likely if duties are emphasized, if not more, at least as much as the rights are.  A peaceful society results not from the individuals aggressively exerting their rights, but from their willingly fulfilling their obligations to each other.  This is especially true from the realizations between the weak and the strong, the less and more talented.  The classical Hindu view is that the more highly one is endowed, greater his responsibilities toward others.  It is considered immoral for one to use his capacities for his own profit only.  They should be used in addition or primarily for others.  “Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow-man,” said Mahatma Gandhi.  “He who understands his duty to society truly lives.  All others shall be counted among the dead,” says Tirukural, a Hindu scripture.

Illusion of Rationality

The illusion of rationality leads to the view that reason is superior in man and that a rational man is inevitably a virtuous man, i.e., a reasonable man.  We know from experience that a rational man is not necessarily a virtuous man.  In fact, some times a reasonable man uses reason itself to support his unreasonableness.  Ancient wisdom tells us that the brain is more interested in self-preservation, which is more or less selfishness.  It is the heart that looks for our connection to everything else in the universe.  It is the heart that has an inherent sense of what is right and wrong and thereby we have the sense of guilt and shame when we do something that is wrong.  Thus, the ancient sages tell us that whenever there is a conflict between the heart and the brain, one should follow the heart.  The inner voice of the heart becomes more and more audible when one learns how to meditate and contemplate.  Meditation s what strengthens the inner voice

Illusion of Materiality

 The illusion of materiality contributes to a biological view of man.  Man thinks himself to be but one of an infinite number of organisms whose physical needs are primary.  The difference between the man and the other organisms is just a quantitative one, man simply being more complex in structure.  His major concern is his biological wellbeing and his worth is measured by how much he produces. This is a very shallow kind of life and during the period this philosophy flourishes, justice and civic virtue suffer.

Two Questions of Justice

There are two difficult questions that have been raised about justice.  Plato at the very beginning of the Western thinking first raised both.  First, why should anyone be just in relation to his actions to others in the society he lives?  Second, in a given situation, is it better to suffer injustice at the hands of others or do injustice to them? 

 The first question is easy to answer two ways.  Firstly, to be just means to be human and justice distinguishes humans from animals.  Secondly, it is impossible to imagine that an unjust man would be eventually a happy man.

 The second question is somewhat difficult to answer, because it would depend upon the situation that one is in.  From the spiritual standpoint, doing injustice is against the human conscience and blood for the blood or arm for the arm is not justice. 

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