12 - Social protest and the construction of a religious ethic  pp. 193-205

Social protest and the construction of a religious ethic

By Rosalind O'Hanlon

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The idea of human rights

Compared with the ideas that had developed within the European Christian tradition, none of the theologies of pre-nineteenth-century Hinduism contained a strong concept of an original human equality. In Christian thought, both catholic and protestant, this equality was a reflection of all men's origins at the hands of their Maker. This absence of any idea of a ‘natural’ order amongst men, in contrast with the humanly contrived order of society, meant that the speculative traditions of Hindu philosophy did not produce a movement of ‘rationalist’ social criticism. Such a movement did develop within the intellectual traditions of Europe from the seventeenth century. Central to it was the notion of ‘human rights’, based on the abstract idea of natural law.

Moreover, the tendency to devalue this-worldly life, together with the karmic doctrine that the structure of present society represented the final realisation of religious justice, had a profound effect on the Hindu individual's attitude to his own society. He could not look upon it as an arena for the realisation of social values, such as human equality, whose source was an extra-worldly God. The individual's activity should, rather, take the form of a search for release from all worldly existence.

Phule set out ways in which these attitudes and values might be superseded. The uncompromising claim of a pre-social human equality, deriving from the purposes of an extra-worldly Creator, stood at the centre of his scheme.