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Religion, Violence and Human Rights: a Hindu Perspective

Arvind Sharma

I would like to begin with two introductory remarks before I move to the text of the paper. The first is this: throughout this paper I shall assume that it is analytically advantageous to carry out our discussion in terms of the twin concepts of human rights and human dignity. Sometimes these two terms are used almost synonymously; when a distinction is drawn between the two, there is a tendency to view human dignity as the more comprehensive of the two. I shall use both the terms and in both ways -sometimes as interchangeable and sometimes as distinct, sometimes dual but undivided and yet at other times distinct, but united, even in tension.
The second introductory remark is not unrelated to the first. In the main body of the paper I shall approach my topic through a series of successively broadening circles of orientation. I shall thus begin by examining the question of the dignity of the dead or those about to be killed, that is to say: human dignity in the face of violence, or in the case of a violent end. The next concentric circle will examine the possibility of defending human dignity not against but through violence. A third circle shall encompass the question of maintaining the dignity of combatants and non-combatants in the course of war -that often secularly ritualised enactment of violence. Finally, I shall draw the largest circle around some concepts of Hindu and Indic civilization which seem to dignify violence itself, and examine their implications.
In brief then dignity in violence, dignity through violence, dignity while engaged in violence and, finally, dignifying violence are the four themes I shall be touching upon, as we discuss human rights in the context of war and peace[1].
I would now like to proceed by referring to one of the earliest episodes I know involving violence and dignity. It is provided by the Greek playwright Sophocles (496 B.C.-406 B.C.). «Human rights theorists refer to [his] Antigone, as the classic example from Greek literature. According to Sophocles, King Creon reproaches Antigone for having given her brother a burial, contrary to the law of the city (because her brother had fought against the Polis). She responded that she is obliged to follow a higher, unwritten law which supersedes positive (man-made) law»[2].
One is tempted to ask: do the dead have human rights -like the right to a decent burial even at the hands of the enemy? Should a shared humanity not transcend enmity? One is reminded here of an incident in the Hindu epic Rāmāyana, in which the demon Rāvaa abducts the wife of Rāma, who is ultimately killed by Rāma, as Rāma proceeds to rescue his wife Sītā from him. With Rāvana lying dead Rāma is asked what is to be done with his dead body. Thereupon Rāma famously replies to the brother of the dead Rāvana: «Enmities end at death. Our purpose is served. Perform the proper rites. He is as much [a brother] to me as he is to you»[3].
So much for human rights and human dignity of the dead.
Violence compromises both human rights and human dignity. The matter seems fairly straightforward when stated in this way. But when it is put under an analytical lens, it gets more convoluted. It gets more convoluted in terms of human rights in view of the fact that sometimes it may be necessary to resort to violence in order to protect human rights -as in the face of terrorism. This is considered acceptable from a Hindu or even an Indic perspective, as this presents a case when violence recoils on violence, in the memorable phrase of the Manusmrti (VIII. 349-351), a well-known Hindu text usually assigned in its present form to the second century A.D. Bühler translates the relevant verses as follows:
«349. In their own defence, in a strife for the fees of officiating priests, and in order to protect women and Brâhmanas; he who (under such circumstances) kills in the cause of right, commits no sin.
350. One may slay without hesitation an assassin who approaches (with murderous intent), whether (he be one’s) teacher, a child or an aged man, or a Brâhmana deeply versed in the Vedas.
351. By killing an assassin the slayer incurs no guilt, whether (he does it) publicly or secretly; in that case fury recoils upon fur»[4].
These verses contain an important Sanskrit word Ātatāyin, literally one who has stretched the bow to the extreme, thereby graphically representing an oppressor. The word is also sometimes used in a technical sense to include the following six: (1) an arsonist; (2) a murderer (3) a terrorist (4) a rapist (5) a robber and (6) a felon[5].
We turn next to the question of human rights and human dignity in violence, namely in the conduct of violence or, briefly, in war. The Manusmrti just alluded to also provides surprisingly relevant material on this point. The famous scholar of Indic civilization, Professor A.L. Basham, remarks on the provisions relating to war found therein (VII. 90-93) that the «chivalrous rules of warfare, probably based on a very old tradition, and codified in their present form among the martial peoples of western India in pre-Mauryan times, must have had some effect in mitigating the harshness of war for combatant and non-combatant alike»[6]. He goes on to add: «It is doubtful if any other ancient civilization set such humane ideals of warfare»[7]. Ideals mind you -which means that they were perhaps not always observed in practice but A.L. Basham was sufficiently impressed with them to write elsewhere in his classic study of Indic civilization: «No other ancient law giver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as Manu did»[8].
Before we turn to the consideration of the ideals set for the combatants let us pause for a moment to consider the fate of the non-combatants, who, according to the general code of war, were to be spared. Striking evidence that such was at least the case during some periods of ancient Indian history is provided by the extant fragments of the work of Megasthenes, the Seleucid ambassador at the court of the Mauryan emperor of India in the fourth century B.C. Megasthenes famously (though erroneously) observed that famine was unknown in India, meaning thereby perhaps that is was unknown in India as he knew it. This observation is remarkable in itself, but one of the explanations he provides for it is perhaps even more remarkable, for he goes on to say: «But, further, there are usages observed by the Indians which contribute to prevent the occurrence of famine among them; for whereas among other nations it is usual, in the contests of war, to ravage the soil, and thus to reduce it to an uncultivated waste, among the Indians, on the contrary, by whom husbandmen are regarded as a class that is sacred and inviolable, the tillers of the soil, even when battle is raging in their neighbourhood, are undisturbed by any sense of danger, for the combatants on either side in waging the conflict make carnage of each other, but allow those engaged in husbandry to remain quite unmolested. Besides, they neither ravage an enemy’s land with fire, nor cut down its trees»[9].
Hartmut Scharfe notes that «Alexander’s historians observed with amazement how Indian peasants went about their work in the fields unharmed in full view of two fighting armies». He also notes that the Mahābhārata (XII. 104. 39) «recommends against the destruction of crops in war, at least under certain conditions, and tribal allies are instructed in the proper conduct of war [as follows]: don’t destroy crops or fields»[10].
We turn next to the preservation of the dignity of the combatants themselves, or even of their human rights in some ways, speaking anachronistically of course. I quote now from the text:
«90. When he fights with his foes in battle, let him not strike with weapons concealed (in wood), not with (such as are) barbed, poisoned, or the points of which are blazing with fire.
91. Let him not strike one who (in flight) has climbed on an eminence, nor a eunuch, nor one who joins the palms of his hands (in supplication), nor one who (flees) with flying hair, nor one who sits down, nor one who says ‘I am thine’;
92. Nor one who sleeps, nor one who has lost his coat of mail, nor one who is naked, nor one who is disarmed, nor one who looks on without taking part in the fight, nor one who is fighting with another (foe);
93. Nor one whose weapons are broken, nor one afflicted (with sorrow), nor one who has been grievously wounded, nor one who is in fear, nor one who has turned to flight; (but in all these cases let him) remember the duty (of honourable warriors)»[11].
Similar rules are also laid down in the epic Mahābhārata and elsewhere which according to P.V. Kane bear «comparison with the conventions of the Geneva and Hague Conferences»[12]. It should be added however that the epic also provides instances of their violation[13].
Battles end in either victory or defeat -no matter how they are fought. Sometimes the defeated king dies -but what if he survives? And what of his kingdom?
Hindu political theory provides a broad framework which helps answer such questions. It distinguishes between three types of conquests: «the first is conquest in which the defeated king is forced to render homage and tribute, after which he or a member of the family is reinstated as a vassal. The second is victory in which enormous booty is demanded and large portions of enemy territory annexed. The third involves the political annihilation of the conquered kingdom and its incorporation into that of the victor»[14].
The terms used to designate these three types of conquest are not without interest. The first, the least malevolent type, is called dharma-vijaya or righteous conquest; the second is called lobha-vijaya or larcenous or acquisitive conquest in which booty is demanded and the third, in which the ruler is ousted, is called asura-vijaya or demonic conquest, reminiscent of the ruthlessness of the Assyrians.
The idea of dharma-vijaya or righteous conquest is interesting. It was developed in certain circles to denote conquest only through righteousness as by the Mauryan Buddhist emperor Asoka; while in other circles it may have led to development of the perspective which came to view war as a ritual, on the analogy of the sacrifice of animals in Vedic ritual[15].
Another term found in the Hindu tradition -analogous to that of dharma-vijaya or righteous conquest- is that of dharma-yuddha or righteous battle. An analysis of the word dharma-yuddha might help advance our discussion of violence and human dignity further. The word is a compound in which the first part dharma means righteousness, along with a host of other meanings. The word yuddha means battle or war. As a compound expression it can be analysed and made meaningful in more than one way. At the most obvious level it could mean a righteous war, as well as a war fought righteously. That is to say, violence could be “dignified” either in terms of what it is being engaged in for or how it is being carried out. Thus «fighting may be noble or ignoble according to its purpose or object, so also it can be good or bad according to the manner in which it is carried out»[16]. In other words, it could mean a just war or a war fought justly, and ideally both. Such a connotation imparts human dignity to an otherwise violent exercise, because justice rubs off on violence, as it were, in terms of both the means and end of violence, thereby dignifying both.
There is also a more specifically Hindu way of dignifying violence by placing it in the context of the so-called caste system. It is not often realised that one of the things performing one’s inherited duty in life generated in Indian society was a sense of dignity. There was also a dignified way of discharging that duty. In this sense then it was an honorable thing to be a warrior in itself. Then there was an honorable way of fighting. In this particular context it meant not running away from battle or as graphically stated in the tradition, «not showing one’s back to the enemy». This fact of not running away from the field of battle is specifically mentioned in the Bhagavadgītā among the qualities of a ksatriya and surfaces in the Manusmrti (VII. 89) also in the following verse:
«Those kings who, seeking to slay each other in battle, fight with the utmost exertion and do not turn back, go to heaven[17]».
This manner of fighting was also dignified soteriologically, to the extent that what one fought for became secondary to how one fought, i.e. bravely. In the Mahābhārata, King Yudhihira is one of the Pāndava brothers. These Pāndava brothers are the good guys, who win the war against the Kauravas, the evil cousins, who were the bad guys. When Yudhisthira died and was led into heaven he was shocked to find the bad guys also in heaven and it was explained to him that this was so because they also performed their duty as ksatriyas or warriors fittingly.
One feels a certain uneasiness perhaps with such an extension of the concept of dignity in relation to violence, and with good reason. For such an extension may explain a phenomenon which has puzzled cultural historians of India for a long time, namely, that despite its commitment to ahimsā or non-violence «positive condemnations of war are rare in Indian literature»[18]. The same holds true of the death penalty. It is perhaps worth adding, just to emphasize this point, that this holds true even in the case of Jainism whose commitment to ahimsā or non-violence is generally believed to exceed that of both Hinduism and Buddhism. The famous historian V.A. Smith found this point of sufficient consequence to include an explanation of it from a Jaina point of view in his history of India, which will not fail to interest us: «A true Jaina will do nothing to hurt the feelings of another person, man, woman, or child; nor will he violate the principles of Jainsim. Jaina ethics are meant for men of all positions – for kings, warriors, traders, artisans, agriculturists, and indeed for men and women in every walk of life... ‘Do your duty. Do it as humanely as you can.’ This, in brief, is the primary principle of Jainism. Non-killing cannot interfere with one’s duties. The king, or the judge, has to hang a murderer. The murderer’s act is the negation of a right of the murdered. The king’s or the judge’s, order is the negation of this negation, and is enjoined by Jainism as a duty. Similarly, the soldier’s killing on the battle-field»[19].
I would like to propose that one reason why in such cases violence may have lost its moral sting -its capacity to shock- may well be because it had been imbued with dignity in ways we have discussed.


Normally we think of human rights and human dignity as morally synonymous concepts in human rights discourse. This graded discussion of violence in Hinduism in the context of such discourse generates the possibility that sometimes tension might arise between the two. A dignitarian approach to violence, for instance, might tend to justify it in contexts in which a rights alone approach might consider it unjustified. I did not quite expect this outcome when I started work on this paper and I share it with you in the hope that it might spark further debate.

[1] RAJEEV SRINIVASAN, Sri Jeyendra Sarasvati, “India Abroad”, March 8, 2002, p. 20.
[2] ALISON DUNDES RENTELN, International Human Rights: Universalism vrs. Relativism, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, California 1990, p. 17.
[3]Rāmāyana VI. 109.25 (vulgate); VI. 99. 39 (critical text).
[4] G. BÜHLER, tr., The Laws of Manu, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1967 [1886], p. 315.
[5]VAMAN SHRIVRAM APTE, The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Motilal Banarisdass, Delhi 1965, p. 208.
[6] A. L. BASHAM, The Wonder that Was India, Rupa & Co., New Delhi 1999 [1954], p. 126.
[7] Ibidem.
[8] Ivi, p. 9.
[9] J.W. MCCRINDLE, Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian, Chuckervertty, Chatterjee & Co. Ltd., Calcutta 1960 [1876-1877], pp. 21-32.
[10] HARTMUT SCHARFE, The State in Indian Tradition, E. J. Brill, Leiden 1989, p. 185.
[11] G. BÜHLER, tr., The Laws of Manu, cit., pp. 230-231.
[12] P.V. KANE, History of Dharmasāstra, Vol.III Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona 19732, p. 209.
[13] A.L. BASHAM, The Wonder that Was India, cit., p. 126. Also see HARTMUT SCHARFE, The State in Indian Tradition, cit., p. 184.
[14] Ivi, p. 124.
[15] Ivi, p. 54, p. 126.
[16] K.B. PANDA, Sanātan Dharma and Law, Goswami Press, Cuttack 1977, p. 69.
[17] G. BÜHLER, tr. The Laws of Manu, cit., p. 230 (emphasis added).
[18] A. L. BASHAM, The Wonder that Was India, cit., p. 123.
[19] PERCIVAL SPEAR (ed.), The Oxford History of India by the Late Vincent A. Smith, C. J. E., Oxford University Press, Delhi 1994, p. 79.

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