Today, I happened to attend a talk on Ancient Indian Political Thought in Pune University. During the talk, there was a cursory discussion on the terms, rights and duties. The equivalent of duty in Indian classical philosophy is dharma (although dharma is a much richer word). Many scholars agreed there is no corresponding word for rights. (One scholar made a comment that we could sense the presence of it in Carvaka school. I am not claiming about the existence or non-existence of such a word in innumerable minor traditions). Thus the essential conclusion is that we don’t have such a word in the mainline classical traditions. When I say the word was absent, it is in no-way saying that rights were absent.
Some argue of the implicit presence of rights in the concept of dharma. (this is a reading into the theory of dharma). As long as people follow their dharma, we can assume that there is no problem for the rights of the people. But, this is not completely the case.
The 3 important concepts for us are Dharma, Ṛta (which means cosmic harmony) and Varnashrama dharma (duty according to their castes). Everybody should follow their dharma for cosmic harmony (Ṛta). Now what is my dharma? Who defines it? Is it based on the principle of varnashrama? If that is the case, it could be problematic.
If I am a shoemaker, it is my duty (dharma) to prepare good shoes. Now if I become shoemaker because of my birth (and not by skills and choice), there is an injustice from the society to me. Here we speak of shoemaker’s duty to the society, but the right of the person to be or not to be a shoe-maker is forgotten.
Thus it is okay to speak of dharma (duty) alone and not of RIGHT,
1. if the society is completely egalitarian
2. the society concept of dharma is all-inclusive
3. it does changes according to the temporal and spatial sensibilities.
But this is a very ideal situation and may not be possible anytime soon.
Our constitution speaks about equality in an emphatic manner. But association of people with their culture, traditions and religion is a reality. Thus a concept of RIGHTS is relevant in such a situation.
In the present context, the constitution guarantees rights of the individual. If its is so, why I am writing about a concept not so explicit in Indian tradition. Is it an exercise on history or archeology alone?
I sense danger when right wing activists across the country plead for the revival of the ancient Indian traditions and cultures. I wouldn’t appreciate any revival (which is like cut, copy and paste from the past). But it is sensible to have a reconstruction or re-interpretation for our times. The reconstruction should accept the beauty and imperfectness of each traditions. The reconstruction should happen in critical dialogue with other cultures, traditions and thought-patterns. We could do reconstruction on any major or minor cultures. At the end of the day, the people should have the right to decide what they should follow. No versions (new or old) should be imposed.
Every tradition or culture has its own short-comings. The concept of RIGHTS is one of the missing link in many of the classical Indian cultures. Despite having the beautiful concept of DHARMA, a blind revival of the major classical traditions would be detrimental to the RIGHTS of many underprivileged people.