Thoughts on Humanism

Humanism is a system of thought that expresses the goal of life individually and collectively centered around the human being, instead of divine or occult. It prefers the means also to be rational and empirical, than dogmatic. As Kant’s second maxim of Categorical Imperatives says, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Thus, the end should always be “human”.

Social vs Liberal Humanism

The goal is human welfare. Social Humanism says the collective good mankind is the end. Liberal Humanism says the good of every individual human being is the end. Thus in Social Humanism, individual conveniences and interests can be sacrificed for the good for a greater number of people. There is a popular saying which illustrates this: “For the sake of the family, the personal interests of an individual can be sacrificed. For the sake for the village, a family can be sacrificed. For the sake of a city, a village can be sacrificed. For the sake of a country, a city can be sacrificed.” This line of thinking was popular till a couple of centuries ago. Liberal Humanism breaks the shackles of individuals from the expectations and dictates of society. The very purpose of the entire human society and state machinery are to protect the freedom of an individual human being. Social Humanism emphasizes on Duties of individuals. Liberal Humanism emphasizes on Rights of individuals. Both these should be balanced. The ideal society is where individuals think in the lines of Social Humanism and the society and government thinks in the lines of Liberal Humanism. The tension between individuals and society is because they are thinking the other way round.

Humanism vs Religions

If we dig deeper, all religions consider the after-life only as a motivation to lead a better life here and now. Religions cook up all kinds of cock-and-bull stories to motivate people to lead a moral life and to encourage people to strive forward in life even in the worst of times. Thus, all religions are actually humanistic.

Swami Vivekananda makes a bold statement, “Salvation is nothing in itself, it is only a motive. All those things are nothing, except as motives. It is the man they form, that is everything!” (Reminiscences, page 272)

There is a parable of “goats and sheep” in the Bible in Matthew 25:34-40. The Lord will tell those on his right hand, “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?” The Lord will answer them, “Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

In the Islamic tradition, there is the story of a Sufi saint named Abou Ben Adhem. This is beautifully portrayed in a poem by Leigh Hunt. One night, he saw an angel preparing a list of names. He asked the angel, “What are you writing?” The angel replied, “It is a list of those who loved God.” Abou asked the angel, “Is my name there?”. The angel replied in the negative. Abou told the angel, “Write my name as one who loves his fellowmen.” The next night, when Abou saw the list, his name was on the top.

Serving living beings is the best service to God. This is the underlying theme of most of Hinduism and other Indian Religions.

The ultimate goal of life, which is called Moksha by Hinduism is freedom from all suffering. It is freedom from all limitations posed by nature. It is only incidental that this also implies freedom from future limited embodiments also. Most of the saints of Hinduism have expressed that they don’t actually care about liberation. They are more interested in serving suffering living beings.

A popular Hindu prayer based on the prayer of King Ranti Deva in Bhagavatam 9.21.12 says:
na tu aham kaamaye raajyam na swargam na apunarbhavam
kaamaye dukha taptaanaam praaninaam aartinaasanam
I do not desire kingship nor heaven nor freedom from rebirth. I only desire that I help to free living beings from their sorrow and suffering.

Rabindranath Tagore propounded Humanism in his lecture series “Religion of Man” based on the Vedas and Gita. About the first verse of the Isha Upanishad, he says, “It is said in a verse of the Upanishad that this world which is all movement is pervaded by one supreme unity, and therefore true enjoyment can never be had through the satisfaction of greed, but only through the surrender of our individual self to the Universal Self. (Religion of Man, page 11) The verses of his Gitanjali are a poetic rendering of these Humanistic ideas.

Dr.S.Radhakrishnan says about Hinduism, “It looks upon religion as a natural development of a really human life. Man, no doubt, is the measure of all things ; only his nature contains or reflects every level of reality from matter to God. He is a many-levelled being. He may identify himself with his animal nature, the physical and the physiological, or with the self-conscious reason. …True humanism tells us that there is something more in man than is apparent in his ordinary consciousness, something which frames ideals and thoughts, a finer spiritual presence, which makes him dissatisfied with mere earthly pursuits. … In each being dwells a light which no power can extinguish, an immortal spirit, benign and tolerant, the silent witness in his heart.” (Eastern Religions and Western Thought, page 25)

Swami Vivekananda was a great proponent of Humanism in the name of religion. Here are some of his stirring utterances:

“After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth — God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. ‘Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed.’ ” (Complete Works, Vol.7, page 247) [Jiva = living being]

“I do not care for liberation, or for devotion, I would rather go to a hundred thousand hells doing good to others (silently) like the spring — this is my religion.” (Complete Works, Vol.7, page 486)

“The watchword of all well-being, of all moral good is not ‘I’ but ‘thou’. Who cares whether there is a heaven or a hell, who cares if there is a soul or not, who cares if there is an unchangeable or not? Here is the world, and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt. Forget yourselves; this is the first lesson to be learnt, whether you are a theist or an atheist, whether you are an agnostic or a Vedantist, a Christian or a Mohammedan.” (Complete Works, Vol.2, page 353)

“This is the gist of all worship — to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.” (Complete Works, Vol.3, page 141-142)

It is a popular saying in Hinduism, “nara seva hi naarayana seva” – “Service to Man is Service to God”.

Copernican Revolution Needed

Putting man at the center of the Universe is a remnant of the pre-modern way of thinking. The Bible says that the whole Universe and all its living beings were created for the consumption and exploitation of human beings. (Genesis 1.26-30, Psalm 115.16) This idea was limiting Western Science. When there came the Copernican Revolution in science, which removed man from the center of the Universe, it opened up the eyes of humans and allowed science to progress in leaps and bounds.

Unfortunately, much of the social sciences are still stuck in a human-centric way of thinking. A Copernican Revolution is needed here also.

Indian systems of thought were never stuck in this. Right from the times of the Vedas, Gita, Buddhism and Jainism, right into the Modern times, Indian thought always talk about “all living beings”. Nature, forests, plants, animals and humans are always seen as an inseparable whole. For example, here are some verses from the Gita:
isvara sarva bhutaanaam hrid deshe arjuna tishthati (18.61)
God is present at the Heart of all living beings
bhutaanaam asmi cetanaa (10.22)
God is the Consciousness in living beings
adveshtha sarva bhutaanaam maitra karuna eva ca (12.13)
Bear no hatred towards any living being. Be friendly and compassionate to all living beings.
In every verse where the Gita talks about the relationship between God and an individual or between individuals, it does not restrict to humans. Gita always talks about “living beings” in general. The same can be found all Indian literature.

There is a beautiful story in the life of Buddha, when he was a prince in the palace as Siddhartha. When Siddhartha was strolling in the palace gardens, he saw a dove in flight being hit by an arrow. He rushed to the spot where the dove fell and saved the bird’s life. He removed the arrow and nursed the bird’s wound. Soon, his cousin Devadutta came there holding a bow. He claimed that the bird belonged to him because he shot it. Siddhartha said that the bird was his because he saved its life. The conflict was taken to the court. The judge gave the verdict that the bird belonged more to the person who saved it than to the person who tried to kill it.

Saint Ekanath was well known even during his time for his scholarship, devotion and wisdom. He went on a pilgrimage with some of his friends and followers. They went to Kashi, the holy place of Shiva on the banks of river Ganga. It is a custom to bring water from the holy river to offer and bathe the deity in other temples. Each pilgrim carried some water back to Pandharpur, the abode of Vishnu in the form of Panduranga, from where they started the pilgrimage. When they were a few miles before Pandharpur, they were crossing a parched area. Beside the road, they saw a thirsty donkey almost on the verge of death. Ekanath sat beside the donkey with its head on his lap. He gave all the Ganga water that he had carried for hundreds of miles to the donkey to drink. The donkey had a peaceful death. When his followers asked him the reason, Ekanath said that God will be more happy by using the water to quench the thirst of the poor donkey than by offering it at His temple. Ekanath explained that God is the life in all living beings. By serving living beings, we serve God.

There are innumerable such anecdotes in the lives of various saints of India.

All over the world, the scope of Humanism should be expanded to include all living beings. This will make us more Human. This will create a better sustainable environment.

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