Is The Golden Rule a Vaishnava Principle?

This is an old article from way back published on the now defunct VNN site. I came across it as I was doing some research on compassion. There was no copy on the blog so I decided to repost it. It will be somewhat interesting to see the difference of style and content. One thing that springs quickly to anyone who reads my other stuff on this blog, is that I am directly addressing some hypothetical Iskcon audience. Anyway, check out the current article when I put it up. The link is dead.

EDITORIAL, Apr 25 (VNN) — In his article (Practical Standard of Goodness), Akhilesvara Prabhu recognizes the role that the Golden Rule has played in Western moral philosophy and asks the question whether we can find an alternative to it as the basis of morality. This is a significant question, and though it may seem self evident that we accept the idea of treating our neighbor as we would be treated ourselves, it is worth investigating.

The American transcendentalist Josiah Royce identified this ability to empathize as "The Moral Insight." It is in recognizing that whoever we encounter is a sentient being who suffers and enjoys in the same way as we that all moral philosophy is based. Otherwise, what prevents us from causing suffering to others in the name of whatever ideal happens to be moving us at the moment? Many examples could be given here, of events in recent days -- mass shootings in Ottawa, Denver, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Would any of these things have been possible if the moral agents had been conscious of others as sentient beings?

Recently I read a text by V. S. Naipaul, the well-known Trinidadian author, called "Our Universal Civilization" (1991) in which he mentions his "...discovery, as a child, a child worried about pain and cruelty, ... of the Christian precept ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.'" Naipaul writes from his own experience of Hindu culture: "There was no such human consolation in the Hinduism I grew up with, and -- although I have never had any religious faith -- the simple idea was, and is, as dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behavior."

There are two points that I would like to address in this article. First of all, is the Golden Rule absent from Hinduism, as Naipaul holds? I hold that it, or something similar, does exist, though the implications of the idea have been seriously disturbed by the Hindu social system. Second, if it is present, as I believe, what is the implication of this idea for a devotee?

The response to the first question is that this principle does indeed exist in Hinduism, though perhaps it has never found as central a place there as in Christianity and the post-Christian world. There are three types of statement in Vaishnava scriptures about the way to see others: (1) to see all equally, (2) to recognize the similarity of others with one's self, (3) to see the presence of God in all beings.

(1) Egalitarianism

The injunction to see all equally is found in the Gita 5.18:

brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śvapāke ca 
paṇḍitāḥ sama-darśinaḥ
The truly learned see a Brahmin endowed with wisdom and culture, a cow, an elephant, a dog or a meat-eating outcaste as being equal.
The basis of such vision is, of course, the understanding that despite external differences, all living beings are spirit souls somewhere on their journey to divine perfection, whatever particular body they happen to be trapped in.

(2) Self-comparison

The second idea, which is perhaps closer to the Golden Rule, is also expressed in the Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna in the sixth chapter:

ātmaupamyena sarvatra 
samaṁ paśyati yo'rjuna 
sukhaṁ vā yadi vā duḥkhaṁ 
sa yogī paramo mataḥ
One who sees everyone as equal through a comparison with himself, whether in happiness or distress, is considered the highest yogi.
This verse also contains the idea of spiritual equality. One recognizes the equality of all beings through comparing them with oneself. Prabhupad elaborates the implications of the idea in a verse from Cāṇakya-śloka (10) which he quoted frequently:

matṛvat para-dāreṣu
para-dravyeṣu loṣṭravat
ātmavat sarva-bhūteṣu
yaḥ paśyati sa paṇḍitaḥ
"One who considers another's wife as his mother, another's possessions as a lump of dirt and treats all other living beings as he would himself, is considered to be learned.
In several places, Prabhupada considers this dictum to be the basis of moral education. He says, "According to the moral instructions of Cāṇakya Paṇḍit, ātmavat sarva-bhūteṣu: one should observe all living entities to be on the same level as oneself. This means that no one should be neglected as inferior; because Paramatma is seated in everyone's body, everyone should be respected as a temple of the Supreme Personality of Godhead." (SB 6.7.30, Purport)

Though more often than not Prabhupada used this verse to argue against meat eating, how can we miss the point that other human beings are to be treated according to the principles of ahiṁsā and compassion? In other words, in the way that we would wish to be treated ourselves?

Other Bhagavata verses support the golden rule idea:

etāvān avyayo dharmaḥ
puṇya-ślokair upāsitaḥ
yo bhūta-śoka-harṣābhyām
ātmā śocati hṛṣyati
If one is unhappy to see the distress of other living beings and happy to see their happiness, his religious principles are appreciated as imperishable by exalted persons who are considered pious and benevolent. (SB 6.10.9; See purport also.)
(3) Divine vision

The third way of looking at others is a transcendental vision based on seeing the presence of the Lord in all creatures, nay in every aspect of the creation. Devotees in the movement generally consider this state to be a distant thing, on the level of the uttama Bhāgavata and not meant for the ordinary rank and file, who should simply aim for the madhyama Bhāgavata stage as their goal. First of all, I would like to say that Prabhupada told us to shoot for elephants. If you aim for the madhyama stage, you are likely to reach some higher realm of the kaniṣṭha stage at best. You can only become a madhyama Bhāgavata when you have genuine insight into the uttama consciousness by spiritual experience.

Look at the Bhāgavata 11.19.19ff where Lord Krishna talks about bhakti-yoga (the discipline of devotion, i.e., devotional service in practice). In verse 21, after the oft-quoted mad-bhakta-pūjābhyadhikā are the words sarva-bhūteṣu man-mati, "see my nature in all beings." To develop this mentality is thus part of the culture of Krishna consciousness.

etāvān eva loke'smin 
puṁsāṁ svārthaḥ paraḥ smṛtaḥ
ekānta-bhaktir govinde 
yat sarvatra tad-īkṣaṇam
This then is considered to be the supreme self-interest of every person in this world: the single-minded practice of devotion to Govinda, whereby one is able to see Him everywhere. (BhP 7.7.55)
This is also the first quality mentioned in an extended description of the uttama Bhāgavata in the Eleventh Canto (BhP 11.2.48-55):

sarva-bhūteṣu yaḥ paśyed 
bhagavad-bhāvam ātmanaḥ
bhūtāni bhagavaty ātmany 
eva bhāgavatottamaḥ
One who sees the nature of the Supreme Lord in all living beings and who sees all beings in the Lord, and the Lord as the Self, is on the highest level of devotion, a bhāgavatottama. (BhP 11.2.45)
Generally devotees argue that if we see the divine everywhere, then there is no idea of doing welfare work for others because everything is seen as auspicious, as perfect. It is said that the uttama Bhāgavata has to "come down" to the madhyama platform. This is one way of looking at things, similar to the Bodhisattva doctrine in Buddhism according to which full Buddha-hood is rejected or put on hold so that one can engage in welfare activities. However, Vaishnavas are not Buddhists.

The point is that the uttama Vaishnava sees supreme VALUE in the OTHER. This is more than a moral precept, it is a mystic experience. The Jewish philosopher and mystic, Martin Buber, described the fruit of belief in a personal deity in the personal encounter with all human beings. This is a particularly difficult practice, but it comes back to the same thing: dehumanizing human beings by seeing them as commodities, as things, as IT rather than THOU, is an aberration of the belief in a personal God.

Improper self-comparison

Prabhupada argues that empathy (ātmavat sarva-bhūteṣu) is the source of the impetus for preaching. But for V. S. Naipaul, the Golden Rule is also the basis for what he calls "the universal civilization." Naipaul argues that we have to be able to see that ideas which are held passionately by one person cannot be inflicted on another on the basis that one person knows better than another. We have no right to inflict our opinions on another.

This kind of attitude, according to Prabhupada, is the result of another type of self-comparison, ātmavan manyate jagat which he often quotes as a bad thing, a false understanding of the world based on self-comparison: "If one is deaf, he thinks others are deaf. If he is a fool, he thinks all are" (750625MW.LA). This false comparison of the world to one's conditioned self provides the erroneous guiding moral principle: "Everyone should be like me" (751214MW.DEL). This, of course, is the very antithesis of the Golden Rule. At the same time, Prabhupada says it is also the reason why one should approach a higher authority. Seeing the world in terms of our own limited frame of reference is the same kind of self-deception and cheating propensity that results in our inability to transcend our limitations and see the world from the spiritual perspective.

The idea that there is a higher standard of understanding also has its ethical dangers, however. The thought process takes on something like: "Since I have insight to a higher understanding, it gives me the right to impose my views on others."

If I sacrifice my own ability to sympathize with other human experience, I run certain risks. By taking the position that I have (through scripture, my spiritual master or even my own spiritual experience) understood a higher truth that relativizes the experiences of others, the need to understand the experience of others becomes unnecessary. Political philosopher Robert MacIver paraphrases the position as follows: "I am right; I have the truth. If you differ from me, you are a heretic, you are in error. Therefore while you must allow me every liberty when you are in power. I need not, in truth, I ought not to, show any similar consideration for you." ("The Deep Beauty of the Golden Rule" from Moral Principles of Action, Harper and Row, 1952)

Since we do not wish to be oppressed, we should not oppress. Since we wish to be treated as human beings with dignity, we should treat all human beings irregardless of their race, color, or creed, as temples of the Lord. As soon as one thinks, because I am a Vaishnava, I have some special privilege, he starts on the slippery slope to fascism. One has to keep the culture of seeing Krishna everywhere, but most of all in other personal beings, topmost in his devotional practice.

Preaching will arise automatically out of the ability to see supreme value in every living being.


Anonymous said…

From the sub-atomic light of the atom, to the great torsion of the universe; all is a reflection of ones own self.

In helping others we help our own selves.

Jagadananda Das said…
I am currently in SRSG Rishikesh where a group of 30 Keralan postulates for the Catholic priesthood have just finished a retreat. It is to Swami Veda's great credit that this is a regular feature at the ashram, but it should be noted that the openness of the Keralan Catholics ( to a pan-Indian religious ethic, that I would call fundamentally "Hindu." Last night they sang their kirtans, which were deliberately meant to "cross" religious lines and using terms that are pan-Hindu, you could say.

In other words concepts from Hinduism that are acceptable to Christians and Hindus alike. They also participated in chanting Om, Hare Krishna, Govinda Gopala, etc., when the ashram vasis' turn came.

I inquired from some of them about this and they said it is more important to find common ground than to push a sectarian view on others as absolute. I said, "That is a very Hindu idea."

Perhaps Christians in the South developed this way of living, first of all because they are in a mixed religious culture and there is always sensitivity in neighborly relations, especially in the modern era when Hindus have become very sensitive to issues like conversion. I contrasted these indigenous Christians with the evangelical Protestants -- whom I could not imagine participating in an event like the one we had last night.

I was reminded of Roberto de Nobili, who though a committed Jesuit, adopted Brahminical standards as described in the Gita 18.42 because he realized that such standards are non-sectarian.

And that includes ahimsa. How can you say that killing animals for food is a necessary or even an optional characteristic of religious or spiritual leadership? You cannot descend to the lowest common denominator for the sake of cultural solidarity and still claim to be a party to true and universal spiritual understanding.

Following a non-violent diet is not elitism. It is a non-sectarian standard of the evolved spiritual character and integral to it. You may forgive and accommodate those who have not been able to overcome this anartha, but you cannot expect them to be true universal religious leaders.

Technocratic efficiency in warfare and animal slaughter are the two wings on which the raptor buzzard of modern civilization sabotages the cause of the Divine in the world. It is time to take a stand.
Anonymous said…
According to John: The Secret Things.
Anonymous said…

Jagananda Das said: "Following a non-violent diet is not elitism. It is a non-sectarian standard of the evolved spiritual character and integral to it. You may forgive and accommodate those who have not been able to overcome this anartha, but you cannot expect them to be true universal religious leaders."

Anon replied: By free will, place the finger of one's own intellect through the ring of truth. The true pneumatic "of the breath" ("spiritual"), undivided, as one with the all and all with the one in the love of truth, needs no religious leader to attain union. The true light of man is to be found within, its is only within that one attains union with the Guru (the true universal religious leader).
Anonymous said…

In the same love of truth, Thomas also placed the finger of his own intellect through the flesh of the Christ...

Anonymous said…

Swami Abhishiktānanda (Henri Le Saux) in his book 'The Further Shore' (page 132) states:

"The voice has already sounded which calls the dead to live (John 5:25), and the hour has indeed come for man to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23)."

and (page 137):

"In this depth of the self,
where one is,
before any foundation was dug,
or anything was built there
by human hand or brain,
and deeper than any shaft that man has dug,
prior to and deeper than the emergence of any desire,
prior to and deeper than the emergence of any symbol,
be it image or idea;
alone with the self, at the source of its being,
alone with the Absolute,
alone in the aloneness of the Alone,
in the kevala, the solitude that has no name,
there where the spirit issues from the hands of the Creator,
and outside Him, yet still in Him, awakes to the being
which is Alone He Is."
Anonymous said…
Charayapada (Caryācaryāviniścaya)

Verse 48


Kulish and Karuna are united.
The army is in deep sleep
The senses are won over.
Great Bliss becomes king of the Void.
The shell played the 'anahata' sound.
The magic tree and the worldly powers fled away.
Kukkuripa raised his finger aloft and said :
In the city of Bliss all has been won over.
The three worlds became filled with Great Bliss.
So says Kukkuripa in great content.


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