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Anantanand Rambachan Addresses the Community Plenary

Namaste and greetings, my dear brothers and sisters. It is a very special honor to speak these few words of reflection with you about the ways in which the Hindu tradition connects with the theme of the 2023 Parliament. I will certainly lift up some central themes of the Hindu tradition, but I also want to do so in a spirit of self-critical reflection.

I think it is very easy in a forum like this to speak about our tradition in its ideals and not also speak about our flaws. It is easy to speak of our ideals and of the flawed reality of other traditions, so please allow me also to do so today self-critically. When I think about the Parliament’s theme “A Call to Conscience Defending Freedom and Human Rights,” I begin with the teaching of the Vedas, the sacred sources of the Hindu tradition, that the sacred infinite is that from which all beings originate, that by which they are sustained, and that to which they all return. The infinite is not a national or a tribal deity, but the source of all life and all existence.

Having a single source of all beings, we all belong to one interdependent community. With the richness of diversity, we constitute a single family. But interdependence means also obligations. We often speak of interdependence without emphasizing the ethical and moral obligations of recognizing interdependent existence, the obligations to care for each other, the obligation to be receivers, but also to be givers. Having a common source and existing in that interdependently are important ways of understanding our unity.

But there is another significant insight of the Hindu tradition, which is that the sacred infinite from which we’ve all come, in which we all exist and to which we all return, exists equally and identically in everyone. The divine presence is not limited by anything, nation, gender, religion, sex, or age. Nothing exists outside of God and nothing exists but for the fact that it receives its sustenance from God. The truth of divinity abiding in all hearts is the most fundamental source of human dignity, intrinsic dignity, the equal word of every being. So the word of the human being is not derived from the state.

It is not reducible to economic or political considerations. It is our theological antibody to the instrumentalization of human beings and the denial of the personhood. We cannot claim to acknowledge and to honor God while dishonoring and demeaning each other. We cannot give support to any historical structure that oppresses, exploits, impedes the ability of human beings to flourish and to joyfully celebrate their existence. Divine inclusivity is indeed the source of human dignity, but this truth invites us to an even deeper way of seeing human beings. It summons us to encounter each other with reverence. The logic of the teaching that the divine exists intimately in each of us presents us with an all-filled recognition that every human encounter is in fact an encounter with God.

For good historical reasons, our contemporary discourse about rights, human freedom, is dominated by the language of human rights. The contribution of this language is important. It must not be underestimated, but such language has its limits. It legally binds us to tolerance.

It does not arouse delight in our differences, nor does it inspire relationships that flow from an awakening to the sacred divine in each of us. But profound religious teachings about human dignity and equality become irrelevant if not applied to social reality, and if these teachings do not inspire us to commitment and to efforts to overcome structures of injustice and oppression within our own communities.

Our understanding of human nature requires diligence and discernment in identifying such systems, to see patriarchy, to see women as inferior to men, to prefer the boy child over the girl child, to mistreat the elderly, to describe unequal words and to demean people on the basis of birth. To discriminate and to practice violence against gay people are all fundamental contradictions to our deepest teachings. 

To become advocates for freedom and human rights, we must bridge the gulf between the spiritual and the social. Equality in the spiritual sphere is not enough. It must be manifested in social reality.

Let me also end on a self-critical note. We must be vigilant about ideologies within our own traditions that advocate narrow loyalties and identities that set groups against each other and which support the rights only of those who share our identities. Today, the ideology of Hindu nationalism champions a definition of national identity that privileges a Hindu identity and marginalizes those who are not included, especially Muslims and Christians. 

In our call to conscience and in defense of human freedom and rights, we must denounce all such ideologies or we are not faithful to our traditions. We must denounce those ideologies that wield the power of the state as an instrument for marginalizing others and commends benefits to those of a single religious identity. We must become the eloquent champions of an inclusive and pluralistic vision that allows different groups in our communities to flourish, to be safe, and to enjoy equal rights.

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