Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Religion and culture are some of the enlightened offshoots of human evolution

How Religion, Culture and Human Dignity Came to be Human Values

Abstract:

A very important dimension of religion and culture is the issue of human rights. Historically religion and cultures have been associated with the principles of domination and subjugation of peoples. Nowhere is this more evident than the event of crusades in the early 10th and 11th centuries and the massacre of peoples in the name of religion.

However fast forward to the modern age, human dignity is the cornerstone of socio-economic programmes of any regime around the world. With that objective in mind, my research paper focuses on doing an intensive study of the interplay of religion, culture and human dignity. It focuses on how human dignity came to be prioritised since the onset of enlightenment in Europe and gradually spread to other countries over the centuries.  The methodology is based on a scrutiny of the existing literature on the issues surrounding religion, culture and human dignity particularly the works of important authors like Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins etc. The implications include how religion and culture have been subjected to modifications over time to bring them in tune with the emphasis on human dignity and human rights.

Introduction

Since the dawn of civilisation, human beings have evolved continuously, the primitive foragers have gone on to conquer the planet and have emerged as the most dominant species on the planet. Human beings have the unique distinction of being the only social animals that can think, talk and communicate with large numbers of people. In this context, the human mind which has worked wonders have conjured up two of the most significant phenomenon/entities which have shaped their societies and institutions- Religion and culture.

The focus of this paper is to explore how the religion and culture and human dignity have emerged and how the interplay of these factors have led to the gradual incorporation of human rights within religions and cultures.

Religion and human dignity- a complicated relationship

Human dignity is defined as the protection and preservation of certain basic inalienable rights of human rights such as the right to live, right to live a decent life, right to work, right to freedom of speech etc.

Religions since times immemorial have emphasised on the performance of good deeds, believing in a supreme deity or deities, remaining pious and most important of all- to serve one’s fellow human beings. Various religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, Islam etc have strongly focused on focused on human dignity.

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the eminent philosopher, educationist and the first vice president of India argues that respect for human dignity in the age of science has waned; he states that annihilating every other religion is bolshevization of religion which must be prevented at all costs1. He called for the unity of spirit which he states will not only secure ample liberty for every single human being but will also ensure their meaningful and harmonious existence. He calls for embracing the overarching liberal spirit of Hinduism which is like a mighty forest with a thousand waving arms each fulfilling its function and all directed by the spirit of the supreme ultimate.

Islam on the other hand believes in the maintenance of egalitarianism and the brotherhood of man. The religion strongly believes that every individual in the Islamic Ummah will have equal and inalienable rights in accordance with the laws of the Shariat- the Islamic personal law.

Christianity on the other hand preaches like Islam the universal brotherhood of human beings and prayer and service for others as the way of promoting human dignity. It believes in the principle of universality of human dignity and promotion of common human rights.

Buddhism, one of the world’s ancient religions which were established in India in the 6th century BC was based on the foundational objective of promoting human dignity. It grew as a result of a strong reaction against Brahmanical supremacy and dominance of the Vedas. Hinduism at that time was orthodox which imposed several disabilities on the lower castes particularly the shudras and the outcastes- the dalits. Buddhism not just repudiated the authority of Vedas as the ultimate source of all knowledge but preached the equality of human beings and that all human beings possessed certain rights2. Its founder Siddhartha Gautama, known in history as the Buddha rejected the caste system and repudiated the hierarchical division of Hindu society by preaching equality of man and God.

Religion act as a source of domination and subjugation, what is true for one sect of followers may be alien to other sects. In such instances, it is human dignity which suffers. This is perhaps the most pressing concern in Islam. The doctrinal differences between the Shia and Sunni sects led to large scale bloodshed after the death of Prophet Mohammed. Further, in several countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria which is recognised as failed states the question of who are the real Muslim leads to sporadic incidents of violence in the form of terror attacks, lynching, leading to a breakdown of law and order and a complete mockery of human rights and dignity. This is evident from the Justice Munir Commission Report of 19543 in Pakistan which highlights how deep this problem is, this concerns Pakistan.

Henry Kissinger argues in his book World Order4 that in a period of resurgent Islamism- the ideology which seeks to enforce Muslim scripture as the central arbiter of personal, political, and international life- the Islamic world remains in a condition of inescapable and irresistible confrontation with the outside world. In such a situation, Saudi Arabia, an important western ally in the Middle East and home to the holiest places in Islam has played a somewhat surreptitious deceptive role. On one hand it has helped the US and its allies combat terrorism, on the other hand it is in its capacity as the home of Wahabbism sponsored jihadist groups and funded Islamic religious schools around the world in the 1970s and 1980s which allowed it to regulate global jihad.

A discussion on the relationship between human dignity and religion would be incomplete without discussing critically the institution of caste in South Asia. Caste is a social institution which involves the division of human beings not only on the basis of their birth but also on the basis of their occupation. Dr B.R. Ambedkar the architect of the Indian Constitution and the first law minister of independent India called caste “not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers”5.

Caste system is thousands of years old which primarily originated in the later Vedic Age when Hinduism became more and more rigid and orthodox. The caste system imposed severe disabilities on the untouchables or dalits, who were also known as outcastes. They could not drink or fetch water from the ponds of other castes, could not enter temple, education for them was forbidden and there was no occupational mobility. They were made to do to the most menial of jobs such as removing the hides from the skin of dead animals, work as agricultural labourers etc. Under the jajmani system, they were entitled to a fixed share of remuneration in exchange for their services. The caste system therefore exemplified the notion of how human dignity was violated in the cruellest of manners for thousands of years until the dedicated work by social reformers, the industrialisation and commercialisation of agriculture in India in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the formation of formidable chinks in the armoury of the caste system.

The rights and struggles of untouchables and their consistent crusade against caste system bore fruit when the constitution of India abolished untouchability by Article 17. Also several other legislations like the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 19556 and Untouchability Offences Act, 1955 has strengthened the penal provisions against untouchability. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 contain several provisions which punish persons accused of practicing and preaching untouchability or for encouraging atrocities against scheduled castes. These provisions have played a crucial role in reaffirming human dignity and have helped Indians to protect their human rights

Culture and human dignity

An awareness of a common language, ethnicity, history, religion, and landscape represent the building blocks of culture. Few cultures are completely insular or unchanging, but to be perceptible, symbols of identity must possess consensus and persistence within the community. Societies also define internal and external boundaries by inducing individuals and communities to believe in the value of their culture and the distinctiveness.

The nature of culture varies from country to country. The historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of the bestselling book Sapiens- A Brief History of Humankind7 argues that culture developed as a result of the ability of human beings to conjure up stories-stories of deities, supernatural beings, devil etc. He argues that based on the social, religious, economic and other factors play a key role in the development of culture and its associated dimensions.

Culture has a deep connection with human dignity. Since culture is civilisation writ large so it is a hallmark of how societies treat their members. One of the best examples is India, a country which is perhaps the most diverse in terms of religion, language, customs, culture etc. In India, different cultures co-exist peacefully, while occasional flare ups and conflicts happen yet the social fabric of India is solid. Here every culture has their own rules and regulations concerning human rights. The object of human dignity is of paramount importance in their customs and traditions. At the same time the constitution which is secular in nature ensure the protection of human rights thereby upholding human dignity.

Impact of globalisation on human dignity

The decolonisation of countries in the second half of the 20th century was the high watermark of imperialism and colonialism being universally discredited. It reaffirmed human dignity; in fact human dignity received a shot in the arm in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It affirmed that every human being had the right to certain inalienable rights of which the right to live was the most important.

Fast forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the phenomenon of globalisation took the World by storm. Every nation-state, individual, government, institutions etc came to be integrated with the global economy. Globalisation led not only to the integration of economies but also cultures, religions, customs and individuals. In such a context, human rights and human dignity experienced a new fillip across ethnic and cultural boundaries.

Human rights became a very important issue in the foreign and domestic policy of countries. The focus in democratic countries was on building a strong human rights regime which emphasised on the protection of human dignity. However this era of globalisation did saw some grave violations of human dignity such as the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the Bosnian towns of Srebrenica and Zepa during the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s8.

Globalisation led to another problem, it led to the globalisation of terrorism which reached its climax in the form of 9/11 terror attacks which claimed the lives of over 3000 people and forever changed the face of global politics in the new millennium. It led to the US ‘War on terror’ which saw the US overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, scores of civilians died in these campaigns thereby putting in peril human rights and dignity.

A crucial outcome of the globalisation phenomenon is the internalisation of human dignity concerns. What was started by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 was forwarded by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and the final touch was given by the process of globalisation. This is evident from the criminal proceedings against former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic who was tried at the International Criminal Court but died after five years of trial. Similarly, the United Nations and its various organs publish reports on a regular basis on the human rights abuses and the violation of human dignity around the world. The latest is the revelation that the Ethiopian troops committed mass rapes on the women in the Tigray region in the ongoing Ethiopian civil war9.

Similarly, there has been a global outrage among intellectuals, civil society members and governments on the dastardly attack on the famed writer Salman Rushdie. A Lebanese man by the name of Hadi Matar attacked the writer before he was about to deliver a lecture at the chautauqua institution in New York City. This attack is being seen as an attack on the freedom of speech and expression of people which is an essential part of human rights regime globally and thereby an integral part of human dignity.

This considered to be the outcome of the fatwa10 issued by the former Supreme leader of Iran the late Ayatollah Khomeini who had issued the religious decree in 1989 calling on fanatical Muslims to kill Rushdie on the allegation that he had committed blasphemy against Islam by writing the ‘Satanic Verses’. Ironically the Rajiv Gandhi government in India became the first government in the world to impose a ban on the book.

This was also a violation of basic human dignity as being the largest democracy in the world; it was unbecoming of the government to prohibit a book which was perceived as offensive to Islam. It was an insult to the spirit of India which thrives on dissent, debate and its argumentative culture and ethos which the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen had brought out succinctly in his book ‘The Argumentative Indian’11 which celebrates dissent, debate and polemical culture.

Role of Religious and Cultural Institutions in human dignity

Religious institutions play a crucial role in promoting or opposing human dignity. Positive contributions of religious institutions come from their role as humanistic associations in civil society; this is tied to their theistic beliefs.

However Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven or hell12. At the same time, communality and civic virtue can be fostered by membership in secular service communities such as Shriners (with their children’s hospitals and burn units), rotary international (which is playing a stupendous role in eradicating polio) and lions club (which is combating blindness) and according to Putnam and Campbell’s research even a bowling league and soccer match.

In fact religious and cultural institutions which profess a secular agenda strongly emphasise on humanistic morality which rests on the bedrock of reason and human interests: it is a universal feature of the human race and humanity will be better off if humans help each other and refrain from hurting each other. That is why contemporary philosophers like Peter Singer, Richard Boyd, and Derek Parfit are moral realists13.

Does religion promote humanism?

Humanism is a distinctly Homo Sapien trait. It defined as the ability of the human species to show compassion, benevolence and mercy upon fellow humans and other creatures. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now- The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress14 has regarded humanism as a foundational value ingrained in the human psyche. While philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli had taken a pessimistic view of human nature, Pinker argues that human beings are an admixture of both good and evil characteristics.

However the good or compassionate side of human beings is what is predominant in the modern age. This is evident from the historically low levels of violence and the peaceful co-existence of nations notwithstanding stray incidents of wars or skirmishes.

One important point in this context is whether religion promotes humanism. The answer is definitely in the positive as religion have time and again emphasised on the need to do to others and serve one’s fellow beings. Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest seers and philosophers India ever produced said “The service of Jiva is the worship of Siva”15. All religions promote humanism.

In fact one of Islam’s foundational principles is Zakat, offering charity to the poor and the needy. Even the highly distorted and controversial idea of jihad has a deeper meaning. The holy book of Quran says that jihad in its pristine meaning denotes fighting one’s inner demons16 of avarice, lust, narcissism, etc and to emerge as a better human being who can serve the human society. It argues that serving one’s fellow human beings is a service to the almighty.

The humanistic side of religion is evident nowhere better than India. Scores of social reformers who sparked reforms in orthodox Hinduism were influenced by their moral duty to uplift the poor and suffering sections of humanity. Notable examples include Raja Rammohan Roy who is known for his tireless crusade against the inhuman practice of sati, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was moved by the pathetic plight of the suffering widow which influenced him to launch the campaign for widow remarriage; in Islam it is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who advocated the abolition of triple talaq (talaq-e- biddat) and purdah, he actively advocated education for women and that too modern western education to improve their social status.

This clearly states that in promoting humanism religion prioritised human dignity and the active promotion of human rights. Protection of human dignity was the paramount objective in the campaigns of each of these social reforms.

Conclusion

Religion, culture, and human dignity share a very intimate yet complicated relationship. Human dignity for ages have been the centre of attention for cultures and religions, yet at different points in time they have been subjected to abuse and controversies, like during the crusades which was a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Catholic Church to retake the holy lands taken away by the Muslim ‘heretics’ and the subsequent wars which led to atrocities on the subject populations by the conquerors. Similarly when the western nations established their colonial empires across the world from Brazil to Mexico to North America, they wiped out the indigenous populations and colonised it. These combined with slavery were some of the darkest chapters of violation of basic human dignity.

However in the modern world, where nation-states have the right of existence based on the principle of self determination under the aegis of the United Nations charter, human rights and human dignity takes primacy over all other concerns. That is why democracy and that too liberal representative democracy have emerged as the best form of government over time. It promotes human dignity and ensures that the rulers who are popularly elected remain accountable to the people for all their acts of omission and commission.

Religion and culture are only vehicles to promote human dignity; they disseminate the message of humanism. Having said it is the responsibility of people around the world to protect human dignity and human rights. They irrespective of their ethnic, cultural, political, social, economic orientations must speak in one and one voice only that what matters is humanism.

 

References

[1]Radhakrishnan, S. (2018). Conflict of Religions. In The Hindu View of Life (pp. 19–40). HarperCollins Publishers India, a joint venture with the India Today Group.

[2] Dahiya, P. D. (2017). Buddhism and Jainism. In Ancient and medieval India: For UPSC and State Civil Services Examinations (pp. 5.2–5.14). McGraw Hill Education (India) Pvt., Ltd.

[3] Kissinger, H. (2015). Islamism and the Middle East: A World in Disorder. In World order (pp. 96–145). Penguin Books.

[4] Ambedkar, B. R., Anand, S., Roy, A., Roy, A., & Gandhi. (2016). Annihilation of caste: The annotated critical edition. Verso Books.

[5] Devasher, T. (2017). Islamization and the growth of sectarianism. In Pakistan – courting the abyss (pp. 143–165). Harpercollins India.

[6] Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. India Code. (1970, January 1). Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.indiacode.nic.in/handle/123456789/1544?sam_handle=123456789%2F1362#:~:text=India%20Code%3A%20Protection%20of%20Civil%20Rights%20Act%2C%201955&text=Long%20Title%3A,and%20for%20matters%20connected%20therewith.

[7] Vintage Publishing. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.

[8] Sorguc, A. (2020, July 9). As Srebrenica is remembered, Zepa’s war victims feel forgotten. Balkan Insight. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://balkaninsight.com/2020/07/06/as-srebrenica-is-remembered-zepas-war-victims-feel-forgotten/

[9] Ethiopia: Troops and militia rape, abduct women and girls in tigray conflict – new report. Amnesty International. (2021, November 1). Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/08/ethiopia-troops-and-militia-rape-abduct-women-and-girls-in-tigray-conflict-new-report/

[10] Explained: The enduring impact of fatwas. The Indian Express. (2022, August 16). Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/salman-rushdie-attack-fatwa-explained-8092396/

[11] Sen, A. (2012). The Argumentative Indian. In The argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian history, culture and Identity (pp. 3–33). Penguin Books.

[12] Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American Grace: How religion divides and Unites us. Simon and Schuster.

[13] Parfit, D. (2011). On what matters. Oxford University Press.

[14]Pinker, S. (2019). Humanism. In Enlightenment now (pp. 410–453). Penguin USA.

[15] An abiding message. The Statesman. (2017, January 27). Retrieved August 31, 2022, from https://www.thestatesman.com/opinion/an-abiding-message-1485556874.html

[16] TNN | Mar 27, 2001. (n.d.). Jihad is war against one’s inner demons – Times of India. The Times of India. Retrieved August 31, 2022, from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/jihad-is-war-against-ones-inner-demons/articleshow/35748181.cms

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