During my initial encounter with Krishna consciousness, I was puzzled, and then troubled, by the absence of any consideration of “rights”—human rights, civil rights—in the social teachings of Shrila Prabhupada, who took great pains to elucidate an ideal “Vedic society.” It seemed to me that rights ought to be a central concern of this or any other social ideal.
Moreover, the social order he extolled as exemplary—indeed as divinely ordained—was unapologetically hierarchical. All the more need for rights, I thought. Isn’t respect for rights the greatest safeguard against the abuse of power?
My typical American education had glorified the eighteenth century discovery of “the rights of man” as a supreme achievement of Enlightenment thinking. To that revolutionary historical breakthrough we owed that bold assertion in our “Declaration of Independence” every school child was made to memorize: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The polity promoted in Bhagavatam could hardly be more different from that advocated by the so-called Enlightenment. One of its foremost ideologues, the philosopher Denis Diderot, said: “Mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Bhagavatam, in contrast, teaches that a society lead by priests and kings best facilitates human freedom.
Bhagavatam at once challenged my received ideas. It would require me to unlearn a great deal—the consensual reality I had unquestionably accepted with uncritical faith. Reposing my faith in Bhagavatam, on the other hand, could hardly be uncritical. And so came my misgiving concerning rights.
As it happened, my first readings of Bhagavatam were confined to the second canto, which, in 1969 and 70, ISKCON Press published serially, chapter by chapter, in thin paperbacks. The volumes of the first canto, published in India and trunked to America by Prabhupada himself, were long sold out. Only after I moved into the Philadelphia ashram, in January of 71, was I able to read the temple’s copy of the first canto. I discovered a crudely bound work, printed on cheap paper, each page bristling with typos. It was written in Prabhupada’s idiomatic, “babu English,” yet his distinctive voice—not yet editorially planed and sanded like the second canto—spoke out all the more powerfully.
It was here I encountered a text that resolved all my worry about rights. In the fourth verse of chapter twelve, I read about the exemplary King Yudhisthira, who cared for all of thoses born in his kingdom. Prabhupada comments:
Herein the word ‘Prajah‘ is significant. The etymological import of the word is that which is born. On the earth there are many species of life from the aquatics up to the perfect human beings and all are known as ‘Prajas. . . . . As such the Praja is used in a broader sense than it is now used. The King is meant for all living beings namely the aquatics, plants, trees, the reptiles, the birds, the animals and the man. Every one of them is a part and parcel of the Supreme Lord (B. G. 14/4), and the King being the representative of the Supreme Lord, he is duty-bound to give proper protection to every one of them. It is not like the presidents and dictators of the demoralised system of administration where the lower animals are given no protection while the higher animals are given so called protection. But this is a great science which can be learnt only by one who has learnt the science of Krishna as already refered to above by us.
The king, as God’s representative, is “duty-bound to give proper protection to every one of them.” I gave some thought to this idea: The king is the head of state, the government. And all living beings, even the animals, are citizens. This means that they have (as we would put it today) civil rights. And the government must guarantee those rights.
In 1971, the idea of animal rights was “way out there,” a notion of the lunatic fringe. Yet this highly radical extension of civil rights to animals was contained within Prabhupada’s exposition of monarchism—a most conservative political philosophy, to say the least. Bhagavatam was destroying the standard conservative-liberal typology.
From that moment I understood that modern, enlightened “rights” were no innovation; they had somehow been implicit in the entirely old fashioned, conservative, pre-enlightenment idea of duty.
A few years later, browsing a used book store, I happened to pick up a volume by the French theologian Simone Weil. I’d learned about this extraordinary person—”a modern saint”—in a graduate religion course, and I was curious to know more.
The book, translated from the French as The Need for Roots, opens on the first page with a brilliant and penetrating discussion about rights and obligations (or duties); it grealy helped me to understand Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam.
Simone Weil begins:
The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former. A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which is corresponds, the effective exercise of a right springing not from the individual who possesses it, but from other men who consider themselves as being under a certain obligation toward him. Recognition of an obligation makes it effectual. An obligation which goes unrecognized by anybody loses none of the full force of its existence. A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much.
To say that a king like Yudhisthira has duties or obligations toward the living being in his realm is another way of asserting that those subjects have rights. But Weil asserts here that it is better to think in terms of obligations than of rights. Why? Because the idea of rights is subordinate to and depends upon the idea of an obligation. I may assert that I have some right, but that recognition becomes effective only if some others recognize that they have obligations toward me. So it is better to be concerned with obligations.
Moreover, an obligation remains in force even if it is unacknowledged. An unrecognized right by itself has no force. It gains force only when the corresponding obligation is recognized.
Weil continues her analysis, showing that the difference between rights and duties is simply a difference of point of view:
It makes nonsense to say that men have, on the one hand, rights, and on the other hand, obligations. Such words only express differences in point of view. The actual relationship between the two is as between object and subject. A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, among which are certain duties toward himself. Other men, seen from his point of view, only have rights. He, in his turn, has rights, when seen from the point of view of other men, who recognize that they have obligations toward him. A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatever, but he would have obligations.
Imagine, for instance, the relationship between a good master and a good servant in Vedic culture, or, for that matter, in medieval Europe. There will be no talk of rights; there are no labor unions, no social security system. Still, just as the servant has duties toward his master, the master has obligations toward the servant. The master, having received years of faithful service, knows he is obliged to care for his servant in sickness, in the infirmity of old age, in death. The servant has, in effect, all the rights promised by modern “cradle to grave socialism.” But in this case, both master and servant know their obligations, and neither has to ask for his rights.
Weil goes on to point out an important difference between obligations and rights. The former are absolute, or unconditioned, and the latter relative and conditioned:
The notion of rights, being of an objective order, is inseparable from the notions of existence and reality. This becomes apparent when the obligation descends to the realm of fact; consequently, it always involves to a certain extent the taking into account of actual given states and particular situations. Rights are always found to be related to certain conditions. Obligations alone remain independent of conditions. They belong to a realm situated above all conditions, because it is situated above this world.
The sense of obligation is expressed in English by the verbal formula “ought to.” In Sanskrit, there is a special verbal form, called vidhi-lin, that conveys injunctions, that is to say, what was enjoined or directed by Vedic authority. Weil understands that obligations are unconditional. They derive from a transcendent realm.
The men of 1789 did not recognize the existence of such a realm. All they recognized was one on the human plane. That is why they started off with the idea of rights. But at the same time they wanted to postulate absolute principles. This contradiction caused them to tumble into a confusion of language and ideas which is largely responsible for the present political and social confusion. The realm of what is eternal, universal, unconditioned is other than the one conditioned by facts, and different ideas hold sway there, ones which are related to the most secret recesses of the human soul.
“The men of 1789” are the architects of the French Revolution. Since they rejected divine injunctions, they had to forgo talk of duties or obligations. They could adduce only the cognate “rights.” Those they could simply assert, without grounding or foundation. Yet, as Weil has pointed out, “rights” by themselves are impotent. To be effective, they require someone else to accept the corresponding obligations.
It is a commonplace in philosophy that it is not possible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” They are two different realms. “Ought” requires an authority. Ultimately, I will argue, an absolute one. For a person becomes an authority only by being authorized by another. Hence there emerges a sequence of authorizing agents that can only end—where? If the chain has an anchor, a foundation, it ends with the unique self-authorizing authorizer of all others. In other words, God.
Or, of course, with a god-surrogate, an imitator. Your idol du jour.
In the Bhagavatam, the kshatriya kings are guided by the brahmanas, those who are able to know transcendence and who have the skill to apply that knowledge correctly to concete affairs. In such a society, people are trained from childhood in a culture of obligation.
The results may surprise us.
If we search though Bhagavatam for statements of the obligations of a king, for instance, we discover a citizenry with far more rights that most of us have today.
For example, Prabhupada writes in the purport to Bhagavatam 4.17.12
It is the duty of the king to see that everyone in the social orders—brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra—is fully employed in the state. Just as it is the duty of the brahmanas to elect a proper king, it is the duty of the king to see that all the varnas—brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra—are fully engaged in their respective occupational duties. It is here indicated that although the people were allowed to perform their duties, they were still unemployed. . . . . When the people are perplexed in this way, they should approach the head of government, and the president or king should take immediate action to mitigate the distress of the people.
In other words, everyone has a right to full employment. If people cannot find work, then the state is obliged to arrange for their employment.
Bhagavatam (1.14.41, purport) speaks of the rights of those who are weak, diseased, or old or otherwise helpless:
The brahmanas, who are always engaged in researching knowledge for the society’s welfare work, both materially and spiritually, deserve the protection of the king in all respects. Similarly, the children of the state, the cow, the diseased person, the woman and the old man specifically require the protection of the state or a kshatriya king. If such living beings do not get protection by the kshatriya, or the royal order, or by the state, it is certainly shameful for the kshatriya or the state.
Bhagavatam recognizes (5.15.7, purport) even a universal right to happiness:
As a representative of the Supreme Lord, the king had the duty to protect the citizens in a perfect way so that they would not be anxious for food and protection and so that they would be jubilant.
Of course, governments today do not represent the Lord, nor are the citizens jubilant.
In the eighteenth century, Europe was completing the turn from a God-centered to a human-centered world view. With the triumph of humanism, obligations lost their force, and talk of rights began.
After so many years of humanism, we still hear that the most basic of human rights—food, clothing, shelter, physical security, health—go scandalously unfulfilled in most places in the world.
And the rights of the mute, nonhuman populace are only beginning to be acknowledged.
Yet, for all the handwringing over rights, there is precious little action. Simone Weil put her finger on the problem: “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which is corresponds.”
Thus, to be effective in bringing about full social justice to human and animals alike we must return to the culture of obligations. Shrila Prabhupada’s presentation of Bhagavatam is intended to effect that return.
We should now recognize that the only way to go forward is by going back. We progress by returning.