HUMAN RIGHTS in Sanatana Dharma

  • By B L Razdan
  • January 16, 2023
  • Human Rights is a Western Concept. The high ideals of human rights resonate in the hymns of Vedic literature. Here rights are complemented with Duties.  

The importance of human rights in the contemporary era cannot be overemphasised. It is indispensable for good and qualitative human survival. Violation of human rights not only disturbs peace and harmony of the society and the country but also the individual. Human rights may not be explicitly and directly discussed in the Vedic literature in the way the Western cultures have projected these.


Nonetheless, the Vedas are full of ideas most of which have been put into practice via the all-encompassing concept of Dharma. In the Vedas, the rights are complemented with duties and obligations, which make an individual more responsible and a better protector of human rights. The high ideals of human rights resonate in the hymns of Vedic literature and offer a non-Western perspective to the issue of human rights.


More than 5000 years ago, the ancient Indian philosophers and thinkers proposed a theory of moral law, the aim of which was to establish a harmonious social order by striking a balance between the spiritual and material aspects of life. It was the concept of Dharma which governed all civil, religious and other activities of men in society be it the king or his subjects. Dharma has another dimension which relates to the individual persons who constitute the society.


Dharma is the epitome of best practices in each and every field of activity touched by human civilisation. The Law of Dharma made an attempt at building an organised social life wherein each individual realised his goals within the parameters of social norms of morality.


The natural law so revealed in the Vedas, Puranas and the Ramayana and Mahabharata was extolled by the mystics, saints, philosophers and poets. The philosophy of the saints of ancient India was the reinstatement of natural law with religious fervour to enthuse people towards the path of enlightenment and unity. The root of the concern for human rights in the Vedic period may be traced to religion where human beings were created in the image of god. They were endowed with intrinsic worth and dignity.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal.


The concept of human rights in Vedic literature is more abstract and refined inasmuch as it treats duties as corollaries of rights. Though Vedic society was more obligation oriented, yet a society in which rights depend upon the performance of obligations could still be considered as a society with rights. These abstract rights of individuals precede law and society. The ideals of Dharma should be construed as having a clear congruity with the conception of rights.


The Rig Veda, the first of the four Vedas is the repository of the essence of all Jnana (knowledge). The Vedas emphasise the quintessential oneness of the entire creation. The holy prayer of Hindus from time immemorial has been:


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

Translation - Let all be happy/Let all be free from diseases/Let all see auspicious things/Let nobody suffer from grief.


Another prayer in the Taittareya Upanishad is also very significant:

Om Sahanavavatu/Saha Nau Bhunaktu/Sahaviryam Karavavahai/ Tejaswi Navadhitamastu/Ma Vidvishavahai/Om shantih shantih shantih

Translation - 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 all over.


Ajyesthaaso Akanisthaasa Yete/ Sam Bhraataro Vaavrudhuh Soubhagaya

Translation - No one is superior or inferior; all are brothers; all should strive for the interest of all and progress collectively. – RigVeda 


Samaani va Aakootihi Samaanaa Hridayaanivah/Samaanamastu vo Mano Yathaa Vah Susahaasati

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


Ayam Nijah Paroveti Ganana Laghu Chetasaam/Udaara Charitaanaam tu Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

Translation - 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). 


The Chandogya Upanishad describes it beautifully as: Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma

Translation - All that we see in this universe is Brahman (Supreme Consciousness) only).


The Mundaka Upanishad says that this Atman (Consciousness-existence-Bliss-absolute) has penetrated everything in the universe. Lord Krishna refers to the omnipresence of the Divine in his discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:


Mayi Sarvamidam Protam Sutre Manigana Iva

Translation - I have interpenetrated the universe like gems threaded together.


Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti

Translation - Truth is one; Wise men call it by various names. - Rig Veda.


Narada Smriti enjoins upon the king to protect non-believers too by proclaiming:


Pashandanaigama sreni poogavraata ganadishu/ Samrakshet samayam Raja Durge Janapade Tatha

Translation - The king should accord protection to compacts of associations of believers of Vedas (Naigamas) as also the non-believers (Pashandis) and others.


Great thinkers of Sanatana Dharma, like Manu and Buddha, have laid emphasis on what should be assurances necessary for man and what should be the virtues possessed by him. They have propounded a code listing ten essential human freedoms and controls or virtues essential for a good life of the individual and maintenance and upholding of Dharma in the society. These are not only basic, but more comprehensive in their scope than those mentioned by modern thinkers.


The five social freedoms are:

1. freedom from violence (Ahimsa),

2. freedom from want (Asteya),

3. freedom from exploitation (Aparigraha),

4. freedom from violation or dishonour (Avyabhichara) and

5. freedom from early death and disease (Armitatva and Arogya).


The five individual possessions or virtues are:

1. absence of intolerance (Akrodha),

2. compassion of fellow feeling (Bhutadaya, Adroha),

3. knowledge (Jnana, Vidya),

4. freedom of thought and conscience (Satya, Sunrita) and

5. freedom from fear and frustration or despair (Pravritti, Abhaya, Dhriti).


Human freedoms require as counterparts, human virtues or controls or discipline. To think in terms of freedoms without corresponding virtues would lead to a lopsided view of life and a stagnation or even a deterioration of personality, and also to chaos and conflict in society. By itself, the right to life, liberty and property or pursuit of happiness is not sufficient; neither is the assurance of liberty, equality and fraternity. Human freedoms and virtues must be more definite and more comprehensive if they are to help the physical, mental and spiritual development of man and humanity.


In order to prevent this open and latent warfare of mutual extermination-national and international-we must create and develop a new man or citizen assured and possessed of these tenfold freedoms and virtues which are the fundamental values of human life and conduct. Otherwise, our freedoms will fail in their objective and in their mission to save man and his mental and moral culture from this impending disaster. Human civilisation is now threatened by the lethal weapons of science and the despots with their inhuman ideologies and creeds.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 31 December 2022 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. Human Rights is a Western Policy Tool

2. What is Dharma

3. Dharma in foreign policy – insights from the Mahabharata 

4. Dharma, the basis of Indian Culture  


Receive Site Updates