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Dharma and Universal Values of Humanism
Universal values, Personal law, Religious discourse, Religious conversions

by SK Sharma, People First, September 2000

Dharma is an ancient philosophical concept of India. As propounded in various scriptures, Its attributes, include characteristics such as: rationality, sense of duty, justice, peace, truthfulness, compassion, non-violence, rectitude, humanity, spirituality, tolerance, ethics, service to others, and philanthropy. Dharma thus truly symbolises universal values of humanism and can form the basis of global ethics.
Hinduism is not a religion but "dharma" which means a way of life based on universal values of humanism. Within Hinduism there are various "panths" or religions. "Dharma" has been incorrectly interpreted as "religion" and consequently "dharma-nirpeksh" construed as "secularism", leading to the present confusion in concepts. The official translation of religion is "panth" and of secularism is "panth-nirpeksh". The true interpretation of "Dharma" signifying the above stated attributes can only be "universal values of humanism".
Hinduism, Bahai and such other faiths represent henotheism, that is oneness of various manifestations of the only super-consciousness. Many tribal religions are polytheistic in that they have belief in many gods. Religions such as Christianity and Islam are monotheistic in that they assert that there is only one god and specified prophets. Thus a Hindu naturally accepts that Christ and Mohammed are manifestations of god but Christians and Muslims have difficulty in accepting other gods and can, at best, "tolerate" them. As a result, they tend to resort to convert those whom they perceive "non-believers". Social reformers such as Christ and Mohammed themselves never claimed that they were god or the only representatives of god.
Self-seeking priesthood in most religions, with intent to establish its hegemony, distorted the values preached by all faiths, and divided society. Hindu priesthood converted castes based on profession to birth, made a section of society untouchable, and introduced exploitative customs. The Muslim priesthood till today sanctifies four wives and abuses religious dictats called "fatwa". Christian priesthood claims superiority and entices the poor of other faiths to conversion.
In the epic poem Gita revered by many western scholars, the godhead Krishna says that whenever injustice and exploitation becomes unbearable, I will come again and again. He came again as Christ, Mohammed, Sikh gurus and other social reformers, and in the twentieth century as Gandhi. Most of them were not accepted in their lifetime. Now at the turn of the millennium, the survival of society depends upon their preaching.
"Dharma" based on universal values of humanism asserts secularism with total acceptance of all faiths whereas the western concept of secularism is of mere tolerance of other religions. Hinduism and Bahai faith are thus truly secular. The third millennium should strive for such true secularism based on universal values of humanism.

1 Personal law through in-community referendum

The personal law of any community is not a religious but a social matter. However, since sentiments are associated with it, it should be validated through referendum within each community. Contemporary social values are that women should have equal inheritance rights as men, a person can have only one spouse, and divorce by consent or decree should be permissible. These are opposed by high priests of some communities. In such cases, personal law based on contemporary social values versus customary personal law should be referred for decision through referendum within the community, and the verdict of the referendum declared the personal law. Well meaning citizens and most women will clearly vote in favour of contemporary social values.

2 Religious discourse and festivals at grassroots level

In grassroots governance, that is village and urban neighbourhood governments, the grassroots assembly consisting of all adult men and women constitutes the supreme authority. There is thus a confluence of community and governance. If therefore the grassroots parliament, in open assembly, resolves that in the village or neighbourhood schools discourses in religions and spirituality shall be held, certain festivals of religions will be arranged, and participation in them will be optional, it shall not be construed as violation of secularism.
Disputes shall be referred to citizen’s councils at the sub-district and finally at the district level whose decision shall be final. State and national governments shall have no jurisdiction over social issues.

3 Religious conversions to be non-exploitative

Religious conversions are of three types, namely (1) State supported as during the Muslim and colonial rule in India, (2) motivated by service, such as education, healthcare and skill upgrading for augmentation of earning capacity, and (3) motivated by intellectual conviction. The second type has elements of exploitation of poverty and illiteracy, and is truly not conversion through conviction. Conversions, based on such exploitation, cannot be acceptable to contemporary society. Conversion, through service, of persons who are not at least high school graduates, should be treated as forced conversion, and those responsible should be liable to prosecution under law. The persons converted should however be free to profess any religion they choose.
Conversion through exploitation of poverty is provoking attacks on Catholic priests not only in India but also in Pakistan and other countries. It is leading to social tension and ongoing ill will between communities. The above law will promote social and religious harmony and true secularism based on universal values of humanism, and not mere tolerance of other faiths.


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