A couple of days ago Ravindra Svarupa Prabhu wrote a very nice article on the subject of rights as seen from both Vedic and modern perspective. I’m still in awe of his previous idea about speech even though I forgot the exact term he used to call it.
In short, spoken words have different power depending on the situation and qualification of the speaker. When a judge says “I sentence you to prison” it actually makes things happen while we may curse anyone we want without any effect whatsoever. He approached this concept from within western philosophical framework and extended it to the power of a pure devotee speaking on Bhāgavatam.
It makes a lot of sense but it’s also an example of how my brain can’t retain information anymore, just the gist of it. I’ve heard this presentation several times as he made it a staple of his Bhāgavatam lectures and still the details escape me. Anyway, for the speech to acquire potency it must be pronounced by a person of authority and rely on “power vested in me” by other people or institutions. That’s what makes judge a judge rather than any ordinary person running off his mouth. When judge says something the institution makes it happen and people are either released or detained accordingly.
Likewise, in order to make the words of Bhāgavatam into reality they must be spoken by a person of authority, carrying powers vested in him by Kṛṣṇa Himself. Only then the spiritual import of commonly remembered ślokas can be fully revealed in the heart of the listeners.
This analogy does not touch on qualification of the hearers but mahā-bhāgavata devotees said to be able to infuse absolutely anyone with transcendental realization anyway. Lord Caitanya made even animals to join His kīrtana while He was traveling through a forest, for example.
If I remember more of that presentation I’d probably write about it again, today I wanted to talk about rights and duties.
Just as with power of speech, Ravindra Svarupa takes western philosophical ideas and extends them as universal principles evident in our Vedic literature. Normally, we don’t have a concept of rights in our philosophy but, as it turns out, it’s not our fault but rather common misunderstanding by the westerners of what rights actually mean.
Ravindra Svarupa says that he came across a book by Simone Weil and quotes a couple of passages from it. You can either read them in his Dandavats article or check wikipedia. I’ve never heard of Simone Weil so if someone rejects her assertions on philosophical grounds I would have nothing to say in her defense but within our own framework it makes a lot of sense. I would also add that she was interested in upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā, not only in leftist politics, and that she died possibly as a result of personal austerities, her desire to defeat the urges of her tongue.
She was also into Christian mysticism and the book we take quotes from has been written after her personal meetings with Jesus so relying on her authority in debates with atheists might not add much value to our points but, as I said, it makes a lot of sense. I don’t want to wade into a philosophical debate on the subject of human rights, it’s a very extensive topic covered by great many philosophers and I have no idea how Simone Weil fits there at all so all of this is mostly for our internal consumption.
Anyway, according to wikipedia “Weil asserts that obligations are more fundamental than rights, as a right is only meaningful insofar as others fulfil their obligation to respect it.” She says a lot more on the issue but this the central point relevant to us. We don’t have rights – we have other people being obliged to do something. If they are not obliged then our rights do no exist.
I don’t think this assertion is controversial and I don’t foresee easy arguments against it but it offers a completely different perspective on how we should approach the subject of human rights that is simply not present in modern discourse, and they talk about rights a lot.
Everybody talks about rights from the perspective of “I”, completely oblivious that “my” rights are a function of others. They say “I have the right to..” without realizing that what they actually mean “you must..”. If someone says he has the right to free speech, for example, what it actually means is that he demands that other people do not react to it. Or, to be specific, he demands that other people react only in a certain way and cannot react in the way he doesn’t approve.
Most people would include at least “please” with demands like that but to human rights campaigners “please” does not exist. More thoughtful people would consider if the request for a specific reaction is reasonable and whether it’s not too much of a burden for the other party but social justice warriors are oblivious of inconveniences to others, it just doesn’t occur to them at all.
Then they say things like “people in … have no rights”, which would mean that governments in those countries have no obligations, which is nonsense. They reject monarchy outright, for example, but they do not consider obligations of a proper king to the citizenry. Ravindra Svarupa gives a few quotes from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam to illustrate that Vedic kings had far more obligations then any modern democratic government which would mean Vedic citizens had more rights even though they had no democracy whatsoever.
In that regard, no modern democratic state guarantees jobs but it was an obligation of a Vedic king to make sure everyone who wanted work had a gainful occupation. Come to think of it, USSR had guaranteed employment and North Korea still does it, too, I think. Free healthcare and free education are other rights that were guaranteed in the socialist block and they have become common in Europe but not the US, though Bernie Sanders is busy changing American attitudes to it.
Interestingly, there was no free healthcare and free education in Vedic times but it doesn’t mean anyone was denied treatment or education. Ayur-Vedic treatment was herbal and so it was only a question of obtaining natural ingredients, and everyone had to pay guru dakṣiṇā at the end of their studies. That payment, however, was commensurate with one’s abilities and, again, it was king’s duty to make sure no one was poor and there were no entrance fees to start studying.
The relationship between rights and obligations is a complex one and it can’t be covered in one article or one blog post so I might continue with this subject some other time.