Articles Srilanka & Malaysia

Religion and Human Rights: Buddhists and Human Rights

Robert Traer*

An analysis of Buddhist affirmations of human rights might begin in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. There in 1956 another Hindu, B. R. Ambedkar, converted to Buddhism and took some four million other untouchables with him.1

Sangharakshita, a Buddhist who played an important role in the mass conversion movement that Ambedkar set in motion, writes of Ambedkar:

In the end, after years of unsuccessful struggle for the basic human rights of his people, he was forced to recognize that there was going to be no change of heart on the part of the Caste Hindus, and that the casteless, “Protestant” Hinduism of which he had sometimes spoken so enthusiastically was only a dream.2

As early as 1935 Ambedkar had threatened to leave Hinduism, when in a speech to a conference of the depressed classes he “spoke bitterly of the failure of their attempts to secure their basic human rights as members of the Hindu community.”3

Ambedkar had considered conversion to Sikhism, but finally admitted that only the personalities of the Buddha and Christ captivated him. However, because the caste system was observed in the Christian churches of Southern India and Ambedkar felt the Christian community had not fought against social injustice, he turned to Buddhism.4

Ambedkar wrote that his philosophy was “enshrined” in three words: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.5

He suggested that fraternity was only another name for democracy, which is “essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards [one’s] fellow men.”6 Buddha transformed attitudes of respect and obedience contained in the ethnic Hindu notion of dharma into a universal morality. By admitting members of lower castes and women into the Bhikshu Sangha, the Buddha took “concrete steps to destroy the gospel of inequality.”7

Ambedkar argued that for Buddhists the dharma is that

universal morality which protects the weak from the strong, which provides common models, standards, and rules, and which safeguards the growth of the individual. It is what makes liberty and equality effective. . ..”8

For Ambedkar, fraternity “is nothing but another name for brotherhood of men which is another name for morality. This is why the Buddha preached that Dhamma [dharma] is morality and as Dhamma is sacred so is morality.”9


Many Buddhists are reluctant to identify the dharma with human rights. Buddhist scholar Masao Abe writes that “the exact equivalent of the phrase ‘human rights’ in the Western sense cannot be found anywhere in Buddhist literature.”10 The Western concept of human rights concerns only humans. By marked contrast, in Buddhism

a human being is not grasped only from the human point of view, that is, not simply on an anthropocentric basis, but on a much broader trans-homocentric, cosmological basis. More concretely, in Buddhism human beings are grasped as a part of all sentient beings or even as a part of all beings, sentient and nonsentient, because both human and nonhuman beings are equally subject to transiency or impermanency.11

Therefore, the human self is also impermanent, or relative.

The notion of absolute self-identity or substantial, enduring selfhood is an unreal, conceptual construction created by human self-consciousness. Buddhism calls it maya, or illusion, and emphasizes the importance of awakening to no-self by doing away with this illusory understanding of the self.12

Though self and nature are different from one another on the relative level, “on the absolute level they are equal and interfuse with one another because of the lack of any fixed, substantial selfhood.”13

For this reason Buddhism, Abe tells us, differs radically from the monotheistic religious traditions.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the problem of human rights and human duty to other people must be considered in relation to the exclusive commandment of the supreme God, whereas in Buddhism the same problem should be grasped in relation to all living beings in the universe. This difference entails that in Buddhism conflict between human rights and religious freedom becomes much less serious. . ..14

It also means that for Buddhists nature is no more subordinate to human beings than human beings to nature. Buddhism offers a kind of ecological view of life: “Under the commandment ‘Not to destroy any life,’ the rights of animals and plants are as equally recognized as are human rights.”15

On the basis of this Buddhist analysis, Abe makes the following recommendations to foster human rights and overcome religious intolerance. First, attachment to doctrine and dogma should be eliminated, for this is the cause of intolerance. Second, wisdom rather than justice should be emphasized, as this is the basis of compassion and love. Third, monotheistic traditions must come to understand the Oneness of ultimate reality in a nondualistic way in order to avoid exclusivistic and intolerant attitudes toward other traditions.16

Similarly, Kenneth Inada acknowledges the importance of human rights, but suggests that for Buddhists human rights are “ancillary to the larger or more basic issue of human nature.”17 Human nature is understood as part of the process of “relational origination (paticcasamupada),” which is the greatest doctrine of Buddhism:

It means that, in any life-