Ram Madhav
January 1, 2022

Human Rights in Eastern Civilisations: Some Reflections of a Former UN Special Rapporteur

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Ended 2021 with three books – but decided to talk about only two. The third, which I could finish in just a week’s time, was undoubtedly a gripping and interesting read since it was about espionage. Spy stories, like Bond movies, are thrillers. They are full of heroism, adventurism, and suspense. Obviously, they will be heavily exaggerated also. Readers of these stories should have the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, not an easy task. That is the reason why I eventually decided not to write about the book and its heavily loaded content that has the potential to mislead the readers. Although it was about our own neighborhood and drew liberally from our own official sources too, its conclusions appear badly biased and skewed.

But the other two books that I completed in the last couple of months do call for greater publicity. First one that I review in this column was by a Nepali-born British academic Prof. Surya P. Subedi. Subedi – a well-versed person in Vedas as the name suggests – comes from an orthodox Hindu family in Nepal. His background had helped him gain solid knowledge about the ancient Hindu scriptures like the Vedas. But he also did extensive study of the other Eastern philosophies like Buddhism. A legal luminary by training, Subedi had served as the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia for five years before settling down as a Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds in UK.

His well-researched book, “Human Rights in Eastern Civilizations” is a treat for readers interested in understanding civilizational virtues of ancient societies of the Eastern Hemisphere. Subedi was fortunate to have initial schooling in Sanskrit and also acquiring basic knowledge about the Vedas, the Hindu holy scriptures from his scholar-father Pandit Hom Nath. He highlights the universalist nature of the ancient Hindu thought by proclaiming that “in the Vedas and especially the Rig Veda – the fountainhead of Hindu religion, philosophy, law, art, and social institutions, there are prayers for all gods of the universe, known as ‘vishwe devah’. There is no concept of my god and your god in Vedas, since there is only one god for all”.

Concepts like democracy, human rights and rule of law are considered to be the products of the modern Western civilizational thought. By contrast, the ancient civilisations of the East are regarded retrograde and fundamentalist when it comes to progressive European concepts like these. Subedi tries to dispel this misconception, born sometimes of ignorance about the richness of the Eastern value systems but also sometimes due to a sense of superiority.

Some Western scholars like John Keay did acknowledge that the East had experienced “a frenzy of intellectual activity due to the birth of different philosophies of life and social organization” in the first millennium BC, while others like CH Alexandrowicz wrote that “the Hindu world had several centuries before the Christian era developed a machinery of inter-state negotiations which reflected the high level of political organization of these states”. Alexandrowicz goes further to insist that the Western scholars had learnt early lessons in tolerance and co-existence from the Eastern civilizations and “transplanted their experience to the West, which had been so long incapable of extricating itself from the obsession of religious wars”. He concludes that the West had “benefitted in so many ways”, “which helped to shape some of its rules and precipitated its secularism”.

Having set the context for his study thus, Subedi embarks on highlighting the salient aspects of the civilizational thinking of Hinduism and Buddhism – “two of the main religions, or, more accurately, the main Eastern philosophies”, that “influenced the lives and philosophies of one-quarter of humanity”. He cites the Vedas and Upanishads as the earliest primary sources – 1450 BCE according to him – of human wisdom. He concludes that Vedas predate Greek and Persian civilization but bases his conclusion on the much contested argument that the authors of the Vedas – the Aryans – had come to Punjab in India from the Sumerian mountains of Central Asia.

Tracing the birth of Buddhism to the social and religious discord in Hinduism, Subedi seeks to take a leaf out of the Left Liberal scholarship to blame the Brahmins of the post-Vedic period for devising “their own creative interpretation of the Vedas and the Upanishads, often inventing new stories, exaggerating elements of existing stories and prescribing rigid and conservative rules for society, and relegating women, non-Brahmins and non-Hindus to inferior status”. It had led to disharmony and corruption in religious life and Siddharth Gautam rose in response to this strife. He calls Buddha as a “Rishi who sought to discover the true meaning of the Vedas and the Upanishads”.

Subedi dwells at length about the concept of human rights in Hinduism and Buddhism with the solid contention that “in Western thinking, human rights are acquired through the declaration or proclamation of rights using a legal or political instrument; but these rights are inherent in human beings because of their status as human beings. In Hinduism and Buddhism, rights are earned via good conduct or adherence to dharma or dhamma”. Drawing from epics like Mahabharata and scriptures like Arth Shastra, Subedi highlights the ancient Eastern understanding of the concepts of freedom, happiness and rights.

Subedi’s book covers not only history but geography too. Eastern civilizations included the ones in India, China and several other ancient societies in the East. Subedi discusses the contemporary human rights situations and discourses in these countries too. While he insists that the Chinese civilization, having been built on the foundations of Buddhism, will certainly progress from today’s autocratic Communist rule towards a more liberal and democratic order, Subedi also sees several challenges to the Indian society, whose basis has continued to be the Hindu value system.

Subedi’s book is an enriching discourse on this most relevant topic of human rights, which, as he rightly points out, will continue to dominate global socio-political discourse increasingly in the coming years. He adds a chapter on his own experience dealing with the human rights situation in Cambodia as UN Rapporteur and concludes on an optimistic note that given ‘proper’ push even authoritarians like Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia can be persuaded to respect human rights and rule of law.

Subedi’s optimism about China becoming democratic and Hun Sen respecting human rights or his occasional deviation into the dominant Left Liberal discourse apart, the book is an interesting and important read for students of international relations and public policy. Although a little pedagogic, it is an easy read and certainly a useful one.

(The Book Review was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on January 1, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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