Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hindu View of Human Rights - Presentation in Tehran, Iran

For Presentation at
The International Conference on Contemporary Philosophy of Religion
Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies
December, 23-24, 2012, Tehran, Iran

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The human Rights discourse is essentially a Western discourse. It got validated with the codification of the Universal Charter of Human Rights by the United Nations' member countries in 1948. Massive human rights violations perpetrated by the Axis powers - Germany of Hitler, Italy of Mussolini and Japan of Hirohito - during the World War II led the conscientious world to raise serious debate over the ways of ensuring that in the political struggles and wars between the nations the lives and other rights of innocent citizens are not endangered.

It is well-known that the World War II had witnessed mass murder of millions of Jews by the Nazi regime of Hitler. Similar heinous crimes were perpetrated by Mussolini in Italy. The Japanese had indulged in horrible acts of murder, rape and plunder in territories like China and parts of Malaya that they had been able to overrun in the first couple of years of the War.

Naturally, immediately after the War, the successful Allied Forces countries decided to initiate the discourse on a universal charter of human rights that will be deemed inviolable irrespective of what form of government is in place in a particular country. The result of this discourse was the declaration of the Universal Charter in 1948.

It has certainly helped in improving the human rights conditions in many member countries besides spawning a widespread popular movement for the protection of human rights. Thanks to the UN Charter and subsequent efforts to educate people about their rights there is certainly a greater awareness and awakening in the world about this issue.

However this Universal Human Rights discourse suffers from a major flaw. The starting point of this discourse was individual rights. But over the last few decades several new dimension have been added to this rights discourse. Issues like rights of certain groups - whether religious minorities or gay and lesbian groups or certain ethnic groups like the Gypsies etc - have now entered this domain. Environmental rights and animal rights activism has added a further dimension to it. With the Outer Space getting congested with too many floating objects concerns about the planetary system and the universe itself too started growing louder.

Thus the rights discourse today has moved upwards from individual to community or group to environment to whole creation. But it has given rise to a problem. Since the discourse began with the lowest unit i.e. the individual and moved upwards there occurred a clash of interests between the various segments.

The Eastern philosophies in general and the Hindu philosophy in particular follow the opposite approach to rights discourse. Whereas the Western discourse starts with humans and ends with environment and universe the Hindu discourse begins with universe and flows downwards to end with individual's rights. Thus it ensures that the rights of various segments are securely taken care of.

Individual-centric rights discourse of the West is essentially a product of the theology of the Semitic religions. Semitic worldview considers the entire creation as the gift of God to the mankind for its enjoyment. Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a revealed religion. It is a view of life evolved over millennia through endless dialogues. Several millennia ago, on the banks of river Sindhu or Indus these dialogues began among the scholarly sages and saints and they continue to this day. From out of these discourses emerged the Vedas, the first literary works of the mankind. This is a very unique feature of Hinduism: dialogue. Indian historian Irfan Habib makes this point when he quotes an early Persian source that Hindus are those who have been debating with each other within a common framework for centuries.

According to tradition Hindus are expected to strive for spiritual enhancement through moral truths with the acceptance that no path contains this truth in entirety and that each individual must make his own disciplined effort to attain enlightenment. There is no single agent who may reveal the truth for a Hindu; hence there is no single ordained path. In contrast to the Semitic religions there is no established immutability which guides people to live according to any religious law. As a result the huge corpus of Hindu scriptures based on insights of Rishis or seers are guidebooks which may aid the direct consciousness of the ultimate nature of the divine. With scriptures as sentinels and discussion as a tool the Hindu tradition has put up a unique institution: the Guru. An inspirational mentor, a philosopher friend, a direct instructor for the righteous path—the Guru is an aid to self-realisation and a guide to salvation.

The Vedic seers, after due deliberation, presented three visions to the mankind: Dharma - The Cosmic or Natural Order; Karma - The Duties and Obligations; Punarjanma - Cycles of Birth and Death. These visions are eternal and universal; not just for Hindus alone. The Hindu view of human rights is centred on these three visions.

Hindu View of the Universe

Ishavasyamidam sarvam yatkinch jagatyam jagat!
Tena tyaktena bhunjeethaah ma grudhah kasyaswiddhanam!!

We shall open this discussion on human rights and human dignity with this Golden Key of Mahatma Gandhi. That is what he called the first verse of the ancient text of Ishavasyopnishad - a philosophical treatise of the later Vedic period. This verse asserts that all that is apparent or extant in this world and beyond, is the abode of the divine. It then exhorts human beings to detach themselves from this world only to take what is essential for their righteous sustenance. It concludes with a prohibition to keep away from what is not yours.

When all that exists is divine for you, when you have no attachment to possessions, when you limit your wants and covet nothing from others you are a true Hindu or a follower of Sanatan Dharma as Gandhi liked to call himself. That is how he discovered his path of Satya and Ahimsa or Truth and Non-violence—a weapon so potent it has no antidote, a guarantee of human dignity in all its glory and the essence of any manifesto of human rights.

The Hindu tradition is focussed on similarities and shared traits rather than differences and exclusions. This makes its identity almost indefinable yet definite in its features. This means that despite its universalism there is a plethora of beliefs and practices that can be uniquely identified with Hinduism. Without doctrinal rigidity the Hindu mind has engaged itself with questions that beleaguer the entire humankind rather than issues limited to Hindus. A Hindu identity cannot be sought through conversion or differentiation between believers and non-believers. It has to be acquired through acculturation and assimilation through the recognition of such principles and disciplines that would lead any human being to become a better person and live in Harmony with Dharma the Natural Path of Righteous Conduct. Thus Hinduism bows to the potential of every individual to attain enlightenment, to become a messiah unto herself or himself.

Ethical-Spiritual Identity of Human Beings

Amritasya Putrah Vayam’ - “We are all begotten of the immortal.”

This is how Hinduism introduces human beings.

“Every individual soul is potentially divine”, proclaimed Swami Vivekananda.

It is necessary to delve into the fundamentals of Hinduism in order to comprehend its position on human dignity, human rights etc. The fundamentals of Hinduism are in those great dialogues that took place in the Himalayas or on the banks of the sacred Sindhu river some 4-5 Millennia back very much like the Socratic dialogues. They are not commandments but informed suggestions.

Hinduism doesn’t recognise human beings as mere material beings. Its understanding of human identity is more ethical-spiritual than material. That is why a sense of immortality and divinity is attributed to all human beings in Hindu classical thought.

“Consistent with the depth of Indian metaphysics, the human personality was also given a metaphysical interpretation. This is not unknown to the modern occidental philosophy. The concept of human personality in Kant’s philosophy of law is metaphysical entity but Kant was not able to reach the subtler unobserved element of personality, which was the basic theme of the concept of personality in Indian legal philosophy”, observes Prof. S.D. Sharma. (Sharma SD, Administration of Justice in Ancient Bharat, 1988)

An invisible Atman - the soul - dwelling in each body as the quintessential identity of all creatures forms the basis for all discussion on the status of human beings in Hindu classical thought starting from the times of the Vedas, indisputably the ancient-most literature of the world.

It is on the principle that the soul that makes the body of all living organisms its abode is in fact an integral part of the Divine Whole – Paramaatman – that the Vedas declare unequivocally:

Ajyesthaaso Akanisthaasa Yete; Sam Bhraataro Vaavrudhuh Soubhagaya
- RigVeda, Mandala-5, Sukta-60, Mantra-5

‘No one is superior or inferior; all are brothers; all should strive for the interest of all and progress collectively’.

The RigVeda is the first of the four Vedas and is considered the essence of all knowledge – Jnana. In fact the Vedas emphasise the quintessential oneness of the entire creation.

Samaani va Aakootihi Samaanaa Hridayaanivah
Samaanamastu vo Mano Yathaa Vah Susahaasati
-      RigVeda, Mandala-10, Sukta-191, Mantra-4

“Let there be oneness in your resolutions, hearts and minds; let the determination to live with mutual cooperation be firm in you all”.

It is worthwhile to mention here that it was much later and very recently that the world had come up with the ideals of French Revolution or for that matter the first Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that exhorts:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Three famous ideals that inspired the French Revolution i.e. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have subsequently found place in almost all the democratic constitutions of the world including that of Bharat. Liberty and Equality are the ideals that can be achieved through constitutional means. But for achieving Fraternity we need something more than constitutional means.

“What does Fraternity mean?” Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Architect of Bharat’s Constitution questioned, and went on to explain that “Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians – of Indians being one people. It is this principle that gives unity and solidarity to social life.” (B.R. Ambedkar and Human Rights, Complete Works – 8)

Fundamental Unity - Omnipresent Consciousness

Human dignity can not be ensured merely through constitutional means. It has to be embedded in the basic Sanskaras – the value system of the society. The ancient sages of Bharat have thus visualized the grand idea of the oneness of Atman and Paramaatman – and universal oneness of human beings based on ‘Chetna’ – the collective consciousness. That the same Consciousness pervades all creation is the greatest contribution of the Hindu classical thought to the wisdom of the world.

Nobel Physicist Schrödinger concluded in his book My View of the World after many experiments in Physics and neurophysiology that:

“In all the world there is no kind of framework within which we find consciousness in the plural. This is something we construct because of the temporal plurality of the individuals. But it is a false construction… The only solution to this conflict, in so far as any is available to us, lies in the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads”. (Swami Jitatmananda, Modern Physics and Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Rajkot)

Upanishads are the fountainhead of Hindu philosophy which the great German philosopher Schopenhauer described as “the solace of my life” (Harbilas Sharda, Hindu Superiority). Vedic and Upanishadic literature abounds in ideas that proclaim universal oneness and universal well-being. Hinduism is the essence of all that wisdom handed down to generations after generations. These ideas have shaped and guided the Hindu socio-religious life for centuries.

When one enters the Parliament Building in Delhi one comes face to face at the very entrance with a Sanskrit verse:

Ayam Nijah Paroveti Ganana Laghu Chetasaam
Udaara Charitaanaam tu Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

It says: “Small and narrow-minded people look at the reality in terms of ‘this is yours and this is mine’; for those of higher consciousness the whole world is a family”.

This ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the World as One Family – is unique in this age of Globalisation in the sense that while the ancient sages of Bharat have proclaimed that the whole humanity is like a big extended family, the modern-age pundits want us to believe that the whole world is, in fact, a huge market. While the Hindus stand for One World, the Globalisation stands for One Market. In reality what we are actually achieving is not Globalisation, but Mc Donaldisation.

While emphasizing on the fundamental unity of the Atman – consciousness, Hinduism does recognize that there exists diversity in God’s creation. This diversity is not seen by a Hindu as a misnomer. Neither does he set out to destroy this diversity in his quest for uniformity when he talks about the innate oneness. Diversity in form and unity in spirit is what Hinduism stands for.

The secular ideals of Europe are nascent in front of the Hindu ideal of ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’ – ‘Equal Respect for all Religions’. Whereas the secular ideology stops at calling for ‘tolerance’ to the diversity, Hinduism goes much further. It doesn’t just tolerate; it accepts every religion. It transcends all barriers of religious bigotry and even celebrates diversity.


Some wrongly portray it as polytheism or pluralism. Pluralism means existence of parts that are not inter-connected. However the Hindu ideal of respect for and celebration of the diversity in the Creation stems from its core belief that whatever we see in the universe is nothing but the manifestation of the Supreme Reality only.

The Chandogya Upanishad describes it beautifully as: ‘Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma’ – meaning ‘All that we see in this universe is Brahman (Supreme Consciousness) only’. The Mundaka Upanishad says that this Atman (Consciousness-existence - Bliss-absolute) has interpenetrated everything in the universe.

Lord Krishna refers to the omnipresence of the Divine in his discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagawat Gita.

Mayi Sarvamidam Protam Sutre Manigana Iva’ – ‘I have interpenetrated the universe like gems threaded together’.

It is interesting to observe the scientific developments in Quantum Physics that seem to proceed along the same lines. After successful experiment on Bell’s Theorem, eminent Physicist David Bohm wrote:

“The essential new quality implied by the quantum theory is non-locality, i.e. that a system cannot be analyzed into parts whose basic properties do not depend upon the whole system. This leads to new notion of unbroken wholeness of the universe”. (Swami Jitatmananda, Swami Vivekananda – Prophet and Path-finder)

We shall term it Omnitheism. The purpose of life for a Hindu is to realize this, feel One, and through this feeling, liberate spiritually. Omnitheism guides the Hindu way of life. He sees God everywhere, in trees, in rivers, in serpents and even in the vacuum. For him all creation – animate and inanimate – is sacred. He worships a river and calls it Ganga Mata – Mother Ganges. He worships a cow and calls it Go Mata – Mother Cow. Even if he were to cut a tree for laying up a road, he would do that only after offering his obeisance to that tree and seeking pardon from it. Hence every Hindu might have a personal deity like patron saints culled from historical figures enshrined in folk memory. This is not polytheism as these deities are as divine as any in the creation and merely a part of the Whole.

‘Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti’ – ‘Truth is one; Wise men call it by various names’, exhorts Rig Veda.

“We not only tolerate, but we Hindus accept every religion …. Knowing that all religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of them marking a stage of progress” – exhorted Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. (Subhash Kashyap; Understanding Bharat – Relevance of Hinduism, 2007)

In fact the Narada Smriti, one of the many constitutions Hindus have had during the course of their long history enjoins upon the king to protect non-believers too.

Pashandanaigama sreni poogavraata ganadishu
Samrakshet samayam Raja Durge Janapade Tatha

“The king should accord protection to compacts of associations of believers of Vedas (Naigamas) as also the non-believers (Pashandis) and others” (Narada Smriti, Dharma Kosha)

To put in a nutshell, the Hindu perceives global diversity as the Divine Game and sets out to preserve and enrich it rather than trying to establish a Global Standard Culture.

Right of Happiness

Hinduism is the religion of bliss. It considers the Right of Happiness to be the highest fundamental right of all humans. The ultimate goal for Hindusim is material and spiritual well-being of the mankind. It is pertinent to mention here that this all important Right of Happiness doesn’t find a place in the acclaimed Universal Charter of Human Rights.

The holy prayer of Hindus from time immemorial has been:

Sarvepi Sukhinah Santu, Sarve Santu Niramayah
Sarve Bhadrani Pashyantu, Ma Kaschid Dukhabhag Bhavet

Let all be happy; Let all be free from diseases
Let all see auspicious things; Let nobody suffer from grief

Another prayer that finds place in the Sikshavalli (Chapter on Education) in the Taittareya Upanishad is also very significant.

Om Sahanavavatu, Saha Nau Bhunaktu, Sahaviryam Karavavahai
Tejaswi Navadhitamastu, Ma Vidmishamahai
Om shantih shantih shantih

May He protect us together; May He nourish us together; May we work together with greater energy
May our study be vigorous and effective; May we not hate each other
Let there be peace allover

It may be noted that all these prayers essentially talk about the material well-being and happiness of the entire mankind. In that sense the modern thinkers are not the first to think in terms of the welfare and happiness of the mankind. However the ‘Maximum Benefit to Maximum Number’ principle of the modern economic thought was never accepted by the ancient Hindu seers. ‘Total Good of All Beings’ has been the life-ideal of Hinduism.

Karma – Highest Obligation

Another significant aspect of the Hindu view on Human Rights is its emphasis on duties. In fact Hinduism doesn’t support the idea of separation of Rights and Duties. Thus in Hindu discourse no Right is absolute. All the Rights bestowed upon a section enjoin upon another section corresponding Duties too. And for a Hindu the highest obligation is Karma – performance of his Duty.

For example, the Right to Happiness was prominently emphasized in the Artha Shastra of Chanakya. But it also enjoined upon the King the obligation to ensure that those Rights of all his subjects are protected.

Prajasukhe Sukham Rajnah Prajanam cha Hite Hitam
Naatmapriyam Hitam Rajnah Prajanaam tu Priyam Hitam

“In the happiness of the subjects lies the happiness of the King; in their welfare his welfare. The King shall not consider what pleases himself as good; whatever pleases his subjects is only good for him” (Artha Shastra)

In the Bhagwat Gita, Lord Krishna declares to Arjuna:
Dharmenaavirodheshu Kaamosmi Bharatarshabha

“I am those desires that are not against the Dharma”

A very enlightening exchange took place during the Second World War between two stalwarts – Mahatma Gandhi and H.G. Wells on this question of Human Rights. Mahatma Gandhi steadfastly refused to accept the Rights discourse that was taking place in the 40s within the Western tradition. Eminent English writer H.G. Wells had drawn up a list of Human Rights. But Mahatma Gandhi told him that he would do better by drawing up a list of the duties of man.

“Begin with a Charter of Duties of Man… and I promise the Rights will follow as spring follows winter. I write from experience. As a young man I began life by seeking to assert my Rights and I soon discovered that I had none not even over my wife. So I began by discovering performing my duty by my wife, my children, friends, companions and society and I find today that I have greater Rights, perhaps than any living man I know”. (Richard L. Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth)

As an essential prerequisite for the Right to Happiness, the Rig Veda unequivocally declares that all human beings are equal. The Atharva Veda goes further and talks about various Rights and obligations or Duties.

Samani Prapaa Saha Vonnabhagah
Samane Yoktre Saha vo Yunajmi
Aaraah Nabhimivaabhitah

“All have equal Rights to articles of food and water. The yoke of the chariot of life is placed equally on the shoulders of all. All should live together in harmony supporting one another like the spokes of a wheel of the chariot connecting its rim and hub”. (Atharva Veda – Samjnana Sukta)

In his important work ‘Happiness for All to Secure Social Harmony’, Js Rama Jois writes: ‘The Vedas and Upanishads were the primordial source of Dharma, a compendious term for all Human Rights and Duties, the observance of which was regarded as essential for securing peace and happiness to individuals and society. The Smritis and Puranas were collections of the rules of Dharma including Civil Rights and criminal liabilities (Vyavahara Dharma) as also Raja Dharma (Constitutional Law). There were also several other authoritative works on Raja Dharma, the most important of them being the Kamandaka, Shukra Niti and Kautilya’s Artha Shastra. All of them unanimously declare that the objective of the State was to secure happiness of all”. (M. Rama Jois, Guruji and Social Harmony, Sri Guruji Janm Shatabdi Samiti, Karnataka)

Bharat’s Constitution has Part – III containing details of the Fundamental Rights enjoyed by every citizen of the country. Commenting on this Part Js. Bhagwati said:

“These Fundamental Rights represent the basic values cherished by the people of this country since the Vedic times and they are calculated to protect the dignity of the individual and create conditions in which every human being can develop his personality to the fullest extent”. (Maneka Gandhi Vs Union of Bharat, 1978 (1) SCC 248)

Rights of Women

Mr. Herbert Spender, the great apostle of individual freedom, says that the position of women supplied a good test of the civilization of the people. In Bharat, women have always occupied a position of very high esteem. Prof. H.H. Wilson says: “It may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst Hindus”. (Mill’s History of Bharat, Vol. II)

God in Hinduism is Artha Nareeswara in form and gender-free in formless.

Women enjoyed not only equal opportunities and privileges with men in the classical Hindu literature; they even enjoyed rights that were not available for their counterparts.

Manu Smriti, the greatest work on Hindu social codes, declares:

Yatra Naryastu Pujyante Ramante Tatra Devatah - “Where women are worshipped there the angels tread”.

This great law-giver of Hinduism defined the status of a wife and her equal rights thus:
1.    If a wife dies, her husband may marry another wife. (Manu, Chapter V, Verse 168). If a husband dies, a wife may marry another husband. (Manu, quoted by Madhava and Vidyanatha Dikshita; Parasara; Narada; Yagnavalkya; Agni Purana)
2.    If a wife becomes fallen by drunkenness or immorality her husband may marry another. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 80). If a husband becomes fallen, a wife may re-marry another husband. (Manu, quoted by Madhava and several other scholars)
3.    In particular circumstances, a wife may cease to cohabit with her husband. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 79)
4.    If a husband deserts his wife, she may marry another. (Manu, Chapter IX, Verse 76 and several others)

Varnashrama (Later day Caste System) and Human Dignity

No discussion on Human Dignity and Rights with respect to Hinduism can be complete with out taking up the question of the Caste system and the hierarchical arrangement therein.

The Hindus perfected social organization. The Hindu Varnashrama was the most scientific principle of social organization. The Varnashrama was not the same as the present day Caste system. The society was organized into four Varnas/Castes. However unlike the Caste system of the present day the Varnas were not hereditary. Untouchability and caste-based discrimination were unknown during the Varnashrama days. No one was high and no one low.

Shankara Digvijaya of Adi Shankaracharya boldly proclaims:

Janmanaa Jaayate Shudrah Sanskaraat Dwija Ucchate
Vedapaathi Bhavet Viprah  Brahma jnanaati Brahmanah

“By birth all are Shudras only. By actions men become Dwija (twice-born). By reading the Vedas one becomes Vipra and becomes Brahman by gaining the knowledge of God.”

A passage in the Vanparva of the Mahabharata runs thus: “He in whom the qualities of truth, munificence, forgiveness, gentleness, abstinence from cruel deeds, contemplation, and benevolence are observed, is called a Brahmin in the Smriti. A man is not a Sudra (low Caste) by being a Sudra nor a Brahmin by being a Brahmin”.

The Shantiparva in Mahabharata categorically rejects the idea of some castes being superior to others.

Na Visheshosti Varnanaam Sarvam Braahmyamidam Jagat
Brahmanaa poorva Sristhim hi Karmabhih Varnataam Gatam

“There are no distinctions of castes. Divine consciousness is omnipresent in the world. It was Brahmanic entirely at first. The Varnas have emerged in consequence of men’s actions.”

In his paper read before the International Congress of Orientalists at Berlin in 1881, Mr. Shyamji Krishna Verma, a renowned scholar and said:

“We read in the Aiteriya Brahmana (ii.3.19), for example, that Kavasha Ailusha, who was a Sudra and son of a low woman, was greatly respected for his literary attainments, and admitted into the class of Rishis – the pre-eminent Hindu sages. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of his life is that he, Sudra as he was, distinguished himself as the Rishi of some of the hymns of Rig-Veda (Rig., X. 30-40). It is distinctly stated in the Chandogyopanishad that Jabala, who is otherwise called Satya Kama, had no gotra, or family name whatever (Chan. Upa., IV. 4). Though born of unknown parents, Jabala is said to have founded a School of the Yajur Veda. Even in the Apasthambha Sutra (II. 5-10) and Manu Smriti (x. 65) we find that a Sudra can become a Brahman and a Brahman can become a Sudra.” (Harbilas Sharda, Hindu Superiority)

From Vyasa, Valmiki, and Vishva Karma to the present day saints one finds countless eminent Rishis who are Sudras by Varna. Even Megasthenes, the great Greek historian wrote that there were four castes in Hindus and a Hindu of any caste may become a Sophist (Brahmin).

Caste hierarchy and privileges based on caste had no sanction in Hinduism. They were the result of the distortions crept into the Hindu body-politic during the Medieval period. Hinduism has witnessed a continuous stream of social reformers to uproot this malice, like Narayana Guru, Swami Vivekananda, Jyotiba Phule, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

“Wherever you go, there will be caste. But that doesn’t mean that there should be these privileges. They should be knocked on the head. The duty of the Advaita is to destroy all privilege. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of Bharat”, exclaimed Swami Vivekananda. (Subhash Kashyap, Understanding Bharat – Relevance of Hinduism)

Interestingly the caste system is no longer the exclusive appendage of Hinduism. Almost all religions in Bharat have these castes today, and they are afflicted by the system of caste-based privileges leading to conflicts within. Dalit Christians is a word frequently used to describe the converts to Christianity from the so-called low caste Hindus. These Dalit Christians complain that they suffer a number of disabilities and discrimination within the Christian Church establishment in Bharat. There were instances when it lead even to violence and separation of Parishes on caste lines as in the recent incidents in the South Indian city of Pondicherry in March 2008.


No way of life or philosophy can be free of contemporary aberrations. Hinduism is no exception. Myriad jostles of history and further deliberate misinterpretations have left it scarred albeit cautious. In its present continuous, it connects simultaneously with the highest philosophic deliberations and variegated folk systems of worship while embracing with happy understanding all other systems of belief. The only reservation is about exclusivist medieval codes which refuse to allow other faiths to survive. The supreme salvation of Hinduism, which is no different than Realization of Self as an essential component of the Divine Whole, is achieved thus by peaceful coexistence rather than aggressive ambition, by cooperation rather than competition.

As the Mahatma says, “Hinduism is a living organism liable to growth and decay, and subject to the laws of Nature. One and Indivisible at the root it has grown into a vast tree with innumerable branches. The changes in the seasons affect it. It has its autumn and summer, its winter and spring. The rains nourish and fructify it too. It is and is not based on scriptures. It does not derive its authority from one book. The Gita is universally accepted, but even then it only shows the way. It has hardly any effect on custom. Hinduism is like the Ganga, pure and unsullied at its source, but taking in its course the impurities in the way. Even like the Ganga it is beneficent in its total effect. It takes a provincial form in every province, but the inner substance is retained everywhere.”
(Mohandas K. Gandhi; Young India; 08/04/1926)

As Gandhi’s deity Ram says in Ramcharitmanas, the most popular religious text of our times:

Nirmal Man Jan So Mohi Pawa
Mohi Kapat Chhal Chhidra Na Bhava”

(The Pure of Heart can find me in them. I do not come to Pretenders, Deceivers and Vicious persons.)

*        *        *

“Today we are still living in this transitional chapter of the world history, but it is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history the only way of salvation for the mankind is an Indian way” – Arnold Toynbee, Introduction to ‘World Thinkers on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda’.

Presented by:
Ram Madhav Varanasi
Director, India Foundation
New Delhi, India

Saturday, November 24, 2012

INDIA NEEDS TO DEVELOP STRATEGIC CULTURE (Text of the Speech at Chandigarh on 25-11-12)

 This conference is being organised on the occasion of 50 years of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The outcome of that war was a sad national memory. We lost our territory, we lost our men and we lost of honour. It is for victors to celebrate, not for the vanquished. Then why are we organising this event? In fact in September this year, when we decided to pass a resolution at the national meet of the RSS on the 50 years after Sino-Indian War, some delegates took objection saying what is there to talk except to rake up the old wounds! Interestingly when I visit China and whenever the discussion turns to the 1962 War, the Chinese friends, without any malice, would advise sincerely that we should forget about that War and move on.

But do they themselves forget the Japanese aggression during the Second World War? Even to this day they protest loudly whenever a senior Japanese official visits the memorial for the Japanese soldiers who were kileed during the WW II. The Jews had not forgotten their defeat at the hands of the Romans in 1st Century AD for almost 2000 years until they reclaimed their land. No country forgets national failures and humiliations so easily. We also should not.

Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru used to say. We have to learn lessons from history and reform our present so that we shall enter into a brighter tomorrow. It is from that perspective that this event acquires great significance. Have we learnt any lessons from the debacle of the '62 war? Are we any different from what we were 50 years ago? Sadly, the answers to such questions are not always encouraging.

Historians, political analysts and scholars may come out with any number of theses over the reasons for India's defeat in that war. But the most critical failure of our nation was that we had not understood our enemy well. We continue to fail in that respect.

We Indians are fond of romanticism. We like slogans. Internationalism, world peace, global family – these lofty ideals attract us very much. They are genuinely very lofty ideals. But idealism and realism should go hand in hand, especially in diplomacy and international relations. Because diplomacy is not ideal-driven; it is interest-driven. It is often said that there are no permanent friends or foes in diplomacy; there are only permanent interests.

Sadly after Independence, our first Prime Minister Pt. Nehru remained a romanticist and surrealist. He ignored all the warnings about China, that came from such eminent people like Bipin Chandra Pal, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan and many more. He even ignored the British and Indian Commanders of the Armed Forces. He not only ignored warnings; he turned a Nelson's Eye to what was happening around him too. B.N. Mullick, his most trusted intelligence chief wrote in his memoirs 'My Years with Nehru' that the information about the Chinese building jeep tracks in Aksai Chin area was known to Nehru as early as in 1952-53. But Nehru never believed that there needed to be a cautious approach to handling our border security.

In fact when the Members of the Parliament pressed him for information he would only dodge the answer by saying he was not very clear as to whether a 'particular post built by the Chinese was on on our side of the border or their side'; or whether a 'particular road built by them was running through our territory completely'. It was this ambivalence that had resulted in our debacle in the '62 War.

Nehru, irritated by the pestering of some Members of the House, shouted one day, 'Not a blade of grass grows there'. He was suggesting that our insistence on reclaiming Aksai Chin was a ridiculous one. Almost 3 decades later, when the Chinese pushed forward several miles into our territory and built helipads in Sumdhorang Chu Valley in Aunachal Pradesh, the worthy grand son Rajiv Gandhi would inform the House in 1987 that 'while it is easy to draw border lines on the maps, it is not that easy to draw them on the actual territory; it may go a few miles this way or that way'. Has it ever gone 'that way'?

Nehru was so self-possessive that he would declare that he too 'had studied the Chinese history and he too knew them well'. India and China can together march to author a new history of mankind, he used to exhort to Chou En-lai during those years prior to '62 War with great elation. 'Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai' had almost become an article of faith with him.

The '62 War had taught us the biggest lesson that no amount of idealism and romanticism can secure our borders or interests. We need to develop a vision, outlook and culture that would safeguard and promote our strategic interests. Each country follows its own strategic doctrine; China has one, America has one, even Pakistan has one, but we have none. We are fond of living by slogans. That slogans had not yielded any results in '62 hardly matter to us.

Look at the advise of our Government to Israel in the recent Gaza strife. 'Don't use disproportionate force', our Government advised Israel. What does 'disproportionate force' mean? Should we first mutually agree upon the weapons that each one of us would use and then start the war? Does it happen that way? When the Chinese attacked us in 1962, did they use 'proportionate power'? Our soldiers were outnumbered by 1:6. In a war it is not proportion or parity that matters; it is your capability to defeat the enemy that matters.

What is the problem with us? Lack of strength or numbers? Lack of resources? In my view what we actually lack is the 'strategic culture'. You need particular way of thinking, vision and approach to your security and sovereignty. This vision is demonstrated in your behaviour, which is shaped by your culture. Instinctively nations demonstrate their strategic cultures. Take the case of Israel. It is guided by a strong fight-back instinct. That is why in spite of being thrown out of their motherland for almost 1900 years, they never forgot it. We already forgot that Pakistan belonged to us. But the Israelis reclaimed their country after 1900 years. Even today, surrounded by an enemy 5 times stronger, what makes them not only survive but live with courage and honour is the instinct of fight-back. It has become the strategic culture of that country.

We have been guided by an instinct of compromise. The culture of strategic thinking has not evolved in our country. In fact the China War of '62 is a classic illustration of the difference in the strategic culture of our two countries. Let me give you two examples.

India and China had signed Panchsheel agreement in 1954. Among other things it emphasised 'peaceful coexistence' of neighbors as a cherished objective. For Nehru, peaceful coexistence became a mantra for next several years and he even ignored the suggestions for equipping our Army well. In his own words, he genuinely used to believe that a “deliberate policy of friendship with other countries goes further in gaining security than almost anything else”. By 'anything else' he meant the Army, its weapons, preparedness etc. And he continued to believe that after Panchsheel we didn't need any doctrine of defense. 'Defense against whom?', his loyal Defense Minister Mr. Krishna Menon was said to have famously asked when reminded about the pathetic situation on the India-Tibet border.

Nehru and all his loyalists had faith in Panchsheel as the best defense with China until Mao smirked at Chou En-lai and told that what we needed was not 'peaceful coexistence but armed coexistence'. By then it was too late for India. This is the difference in strategic cultures of our countries.

We must remember that even today we are made to believe that trade is the best defense between India and China. We are given glorious figures like $ 70 billion trade between our two countries. But we seldom realize that out of the $ 70 billion, our exports to China are only $ 10 billion and the rest of $ 60 Billion are the Chinese exports into India. More importantly our exports to China are majorly the raw materials like iron ore while our imports are all finished goods. We are being sucked more and more into the Chinese economy through this uneven trade relationship. There is a joke that if you borrow a million rupees from a bank and don't repay, it will be a problem for you; but if you borrow a few billion rupees from the bank and don't repay, it will the bank's problem. Excessive trade imbalance will be our major problem in future.

But on the other hand we have still been lagging behind in a big way in our border management. All our border infrastructure projects are running great delays. There is no need to mention here about the border infrastructure including missile-launching sites on the Chinese side all along the 4000-km Indo-Tibetan border.

Let me give another example to elaborate my point further. The Great Wall of China stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the walls roughly measure 8,850 km. They were built essentially to protect the Chinese kingdom from the nomadic invasions from the North.

Look at what happened in India. We were repeatedly invaded from the North-West. Most of the invasions from Greeks to Kushans to Moghuls came through just one mountain pass called the Khyber Pass. Have we ever thought of sealing that one mountain pass? The simple answer is that it defies our strategic thinking. Or we totally lack it.

China follows a meticulous strategic doctrine developed largely based on an ancient text called 'The Art of war' by Sun Tzu. Written some 2000 years ago, this small book of 100 pages gives great strategic insights into the art and craft of war. The Chinese tradition is mostly based on the teachings of this book. As Henry Kissinger points out in his book 'On China', “Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism, the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage”.

We play the war game Chess in our country. We are masters of the game and we pride in having a Grand Masters like Vishwanathan Anand in our country. The Russians too had their Grand Masters, so did the Americans. But not the Chinese. Why? Are they weak in war games? The real reason is the cultural difference. Chess is about total victory, decisive battle wherein the opposite king is totally defeated and all his men killed.

The Chinese don't believe in such a war. They have a different game called Wei Chi. Wei Chi is not about winning the battle, but about protracted campaign. It is not about total victory; it is about relative advantage. In Chess the player always tries to occupy the center of the board; Wei Chi teaches the art of strategic encirclement. In Chess the players moves ahead in head-on clashes and eliminates the pawns of the adversary; whereas in Wei Chi the player moves into empty spaces on the board gradually mitigating the strategic potential of his opponent's pieces. Chess produces single-mindedness; Wei Chi generates strategic flexibility.

We can analyse the entire India-China war and realise that China literally followed these principles. In the long history of independent India we too did it once when we perched up the peaks of Siachen. But we are so much at unease; we want to give it up.

Sun Tzu was a great strategic thinker. His book contains so many invaluable insights into how a war should not only be fought but also not fought. Normally for a strategist, victory is the benchmark of a war. But for Sun Tzu the objective is to have victory where battles become unnecessary.

Just look at one of his doctrines:

'Ultimate excellence lies
Not in winning
Every battle
But in defeating the enemy
Without ever fighting.
The highest form of warfare
Is to attack (the enemy's)
Strategy itself;
The next,
To attack (his)
The next,
To attack
The lowest form of war is
To attack

'Engagement with containment' and 'strategic encirclement' are the two maxims that the Chinese derive from the Sun Tzu text and apply to their strategic goals today. They continually engaged us until the 1962 war and suddenly executed a decisive blow. In stead of going for an all out war, they preferred to protract it and kept us engaged through all these decades. They continued their campaigns, by entering in Gilgit-Baltistan in '60s, Sumdhorang Chu Valley in '80s, Sikkim in 2000, and through innumerable border incursions and claims over Arunachal Pradesh in the last decade or so. But at the same time they kept us engaged all through.

They have a way in this engagement – 'engagement with containment'. Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee visited China in 1979 as Foreign Minister. This was the first high level visit after the '62 War. But the Chinese decided to launch their Vietnam campaign on that same day forcing Vajpayee to cancel his trip and come back. Shri Rajiv Gandhi was to go China in 1988 and they encroached into Sumdhorang Chu Valley in 1987 forcing Rajiv to alter his agenda. Shri Narasimha Rao went to China in 1993 and signed - what was described as a 'historic agreement' – the 'Peace and Tranquility Agreement'. In just two years China revised its nuclear policy by stating that its 'No First Use' principle applies only to those countries that are signatories to the NPT regime. That means India is excluded from the No First Use doctrine. Shri Vajpayee visited China in 2003, this time as Prime Minister. This visit happened on the eve of the Chinese raking up Sikkim question once again. A settled question was settled once again 'in India's favour', by extracting from India the phrase 'the Tibetan Autonomous Province of China'.

Today China strategically encircles us. In the North they are on the Karakoram Highway; in the Arabian Sea the Gwadar Port has changed hands from the Singaporeans to the Chinese two years ago. They are building Hambanthotta port and docks in Sri Lanka and they have upgraded their Listening Posts at the Coco Islands in Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. They are there in Chittagong in Bangladesh. China is the largest arms supplier to all our neighbours – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal.

Most important final point that I wanted to make is with reference to the penetration of the Chinese in our country. Chinese have mastered a therapeutic system called the Acupressure, a derivative from the Acupuncture technique. It is a technique of gaining control of the body through certain nerve-centers in the body parts like hands, legs etc. The points or combinations of points are said to be used to manipulate or incapacitate an opponent. They are using such a technique on our body-politic too. They are entering vital areas like energy, communications, manufacturing industry, finished goods etc. They have mastered the art of cyber warfare. Some estimates suggest that China has developed some 150,000 hacker-strong Cyber Army.

All this is a product of a certain strategic culture that is derived mostly from the ancient Confucian and Sun Tzu wisdom. India needs to rethink about its strategic environment. We are described as a 'Soft State'. Even that is not because it was out of any strategic thinking that we opted to be that way. It has become a sort of a culture with us.

The biggest lesson for India to learn from the 1962 debacle is that it should develop a new strategic culture in the country. Please note that I am not talking about the strategic doctrine. A strategic doctrine is a dynamic thing. But a strategic culture is a fundamental requirement for any nation; much more for India which is surrounded from all sides by forces inimical.

Thank you.