Is The Golden Rule A Vaisnava Principle?


EDITORIAL, 4/25/99 (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.

The American transcendentalist Josiah Royce identified this ability to empathize as "The Moral Insight." It is in recognizing that whomever we encounter is a sentient being who suffers 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 states about 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 which 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 Vaishnava (a devotee of Vishnu, or Krishna, the Supreme God)?

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 Bhagavad-gita 5.18:

vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva svapake ca panditah sama-darsinah

The truly learned see a brahmana 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. This is still some distance from:

(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:

atmaupamyena sarvatra samam pasyati yo'rjuna |
sukham va yadi va duhkham sa yogi paramo matah ||

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. Prabhupada elaborates the implications of the idea in a verse from Canakya-sloka (10) which he quoted frequently.

matrivat para-daresu
para-dravyesu lostravat
atmavat sarva-bhutesu
yah pasyati sa panditah

"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 Canakya Pandita, atmavat sarva-bhutesu: 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 (God in the heart) is seated in everyone's body, everyone should be respected as a temple of the Supreme Personality of Godhead." (Srimad Bhagavatam 6.7.30)

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 ahimsa and compassion? In other words, in the way that we would wish to be treated ourselves?

Other Bhagavata verses support the golden rule idea:

etavan avyayo dharmah
punya-slokair upesitah
yo bhuta-soka-harsabhyam
atma socati hrisyati

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. (Srimad Bhagavatam 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 Hare Krishna movement generally consider this state to be a distant thing, on the level of the "uttama adhikari" (a highest devotional level) and not meant for the ordinary rank and file, who should simply aim for madhyama-adhikara (a middle devotional level) as their goal. First of all, I would like to say that Prabhupada told us to shoot for elephants. If you aim for madhyama-adhikara, you are likely to reach kanishta state (the lower devotional level) at best. You become a madhyama-adhikari when you understand the uttama consciousness.

Look at Bhagavatam 11.19.19 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-pujabhyadhika are the words sarva-bhutesu man-matih, "see me in all beings." To develop this mentality is thus part of the culture of Krishna consciousness.

etavan eva loke'smin pumsam svarthah parah smritah
ekanta-bhaktir govinde yat sarvatra tad-iksanam

This then is considered to be the supreme self-interest of every person in this world: the single-minded practice of devotion to Govinda (another name of God), 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-adhikari in the Srimad Bhagavatam (11.2.48-55):

sarva-bhutesu yah pasyed bhagavad-bhavam atmanah
bhutani bhagavaty atmany eva bhagavatottamah

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 bhagavatottama. (Srimad Bhagavatam 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. It is said that the uttama-adhikari 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-adhikari 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 particularar 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 a belief in a personal God.

Improper self-comparison

Prabhupada argues that empathy (atmavat sarva-bhutesu) 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 thing, according to Prabhupada, is the result of another type of self-comparison, atmavan manyate jagat which he often quotes as a bad thing, as we have 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) Or, more to the point, the idea that this should provide an erroneous guiding moral principle: "Everyone should be like me." (751214MW.DEL) This, of course, is the very antithesis of the Golden Rule. But it is also the reason Prabhupada gives for approaching 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 which results in our inability to transcend our limitations and transcend.

The idea that there is a higher standard of understanding 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 which 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 Vaisnava, I have some special privilege,´ he starts on the slippery slope to destruction. One has to keep the culture of seeing Krishna everywhere, but most of all in other personal beings, topmost in his devotional practise.

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

This story URL: