May 25, 2017 at 3:00 pm EDT | by Sunil Babu Pant
Eastern philosophy influences human rights advocacy

Sunil Babu Pant, gay news, Washington Blade

Sunil Babu Pant (Photo courtesy by Kyle Knight)

Why should the Oriental (Eastern) way of doing human rights passivism (not activism) be different from the Western way?

Let me start with the definition of activism.

To me, the word “activism” means active resistance, defiance and struggle against injustices, inequality and oppression. To really understand where modern day activism came from and how it is executed, one must be familiar with the two ancient religious stories that pretty much shape modern day “activism.”

The first story is about the Olympians.

The Twelve Olympians, also known as the Dodekatheon (Greek: dōdeka, 12, and theoi, gods), were the principal deities of the Greek pantheon. These gods are said to reside atop of Mount Olympus in Greece. The Olympians gained their supremacy in a 10-year-long war of gods in which Zeus led his siblings to victory over their predecessor gods, the Titans. The Olympians had to replace the Titans because they were considered strong, fierce, oppressive, cruel and violent. So the Olympians had to beat them by becoming even stronger and fiercer. The more familiar “scene” to this story that we see today, once every four years, is the Olympic games where athletes have to compete and excel to win by becoming the strongest and fiercest.

The second story is about Moses

This Biblical story of Moses — believed to be one of the messengers of God according to Abrahamic religions — leading the Jews who were enslaved, abused and oppressed by the Egyptian pharaohs, who were the rulers of Egypt, to the Promised Land — metaphorically called the land of milk and honey, but we can translate it as the land of freedom, abundance and happiness — as per the will of God.

God prescribed commandments (laws) in writing on stone, which means they cannot be edited, and gave it to Moses to be implemented as it is. The only thing the enslaved Jews had to do was to comply. Maybe this is how the “rule of law and order” has become second nature to the Western world for anybody who strives for the Promised Land — the land of freedom, abundance and happiness.

Modern day human rights movements too, which are modeled from the “West”, are influenced by these “Western” stories (beliefs), which believe in a justice- and equality-based society ruled by “law and order.”

Most modern-day activism is, more or less, a replica of these combined ideas of the Promised Land which is actualized by becoming an “Olympian.” We can see, on one hand, how human rights NGOs are asked to come up with a vision statement, their own idea of the Promised Land. This is then followed by set of business rules and operating procedures. On the other hand, human rights activists are expected to be rebellious and defiant against the system or authority or the government that are (or are considered to be) oppressive, cruel, abusive and violent.

And the result is expected that the freedom, abundance and happiness — the Promised Land — will be actualized by changing “bad law” into “good law” and changing the “exclusive order” into the “inclusive one” by “Olympian” means, which means being tough, being a champion, being excellent, being achievement-oriented.

In activism, the active resistances and struggles are daily “norms.” Those “activists” who appear to be soft and more inclined towards dialogue and conversations are considered “hardly-an-activist” or are even sometimes accused of being “cowardly-activist.”

This perception and approach of “activism” is well-suited in “Western” countries because the predominant belief of a “just and equal” world. And this belief is re-enforced by the cultures of being the best, and the rule of “law and order.”

Whereas the “Oriental” (Eastern) approach towards human rights activism may not be realized by replicating the “Western model” because “Eastern” beliefs are different. The cultures that are derived from these beliefs are very different. Buddhists for example don’t believe in the Promised Land that is far out there somewhere. Buddhism rather talks about Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit.)

The basic idea of Nibbana is being out of “the suffering” and focusing on the “here and now” and not the “past.” It means not indulging in memories, which actually means “not getting attached” to your ego and simply “letting go.” It also means not indulging in the “future,” which actually means “not having any expectations” of self-desire.

I am also aware that the notion of “not having any expectations” in life can be a troublesome idea for many, particularly to “Westerners,” because “Western cultures cherish the idea of “achievement,” whereas “Eastern cultures” — Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism — emphasize the idea of “reflection through introspection.” So the question that usually one deals with is, “How to do what I do in the ‘West?’” and, “How to do what I do in the ‘East?’”

No wonder why the “West” produces more technicians, engineers and scientists and the “East” produces more gurus and philosophers.

Buddhism explains the dynamics of suffering, how to end it and calls it the Four Noble Truths. The layperson’s modern translations of them are follows: 1) Suffering: Acknowledging the problem. 2) Cause of the suffering: Identifying and understanding the “combinations of causes” to that problem. 3) The secession of the suffering: Knowing that the problems can be solved. And 4) paths to the secession of the suffering: The paths that one should follow to realize the state of “no problem.” This idea is also very similar to the very ancient idea of Ayurveda (literal translation is “knowledge of life and longevity,” which is also popularly known as the ancient medical science of India/South Asia.)

The how: Buddhist way of doing human rights passivism (by end of this article you will, hopefully, understand why I use the word “passivism.”)

The root causes of any suffering, according to the Buddhist philosophy, are primarily craving and hatred. These two mental attitudes are derived from the mental status called “delusion.” So, all the hatred, aversion, oppression, violence, abuse, bullying against another fellow human being on the grounds gender, race, caste, faith, disability, sexual orientation, gender identities and other status are derived from the “delusional” mind. The Buddhist approach and the Ayurveda approach to solve this problem, like an enlightened guru or a skilled doctor would do, is to first and foremost have compassion towards that “sick (delusional)” person who is oppressive, abusive and violent. This, unlike the “conventional activism” approach, is “passivism” approach. The “Oriental” way out of this problem is not to “fight” with the “sick” but help to heal them.

The Buddha taught the eight-fold path, which can be summered in three steps: The Prajnaya (wisdom, basically means being wise, identifying the problems and appropriate solutions); the Sila (precepts, basically following the dos and don’ts, having a bit of rules and orders) and the Samadhi (which basically means to be resourceful and utilize these resources into one’s practice while reaching the blissful mental status.)

The difference lies on how one perceives:
a) The perpetrator or someone “sick” who needs compassionate attention?
b) The victim or someone who should become a compassionate doctor or more of welfare friend to the “sick” person?
c) How to do or why to do?
d) Achievement or reflection?
e) Rule of law and order or ending suffering?

Based on the different beliefs and cultures, the human rights activism or passivism have to be done differently. The activism that has been successfully worked in the “West” may not work as well in other regions of the world. An African should find their own activism or passivism. So should the Chinese, the Russians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, South Americans, Arabs and different Indigenous and Aborigines communities.

In this today’s globalized village human rights activism or passivism does not have to be one vs. other; it can be either without disrespecting the other or a bit of both, may be.

Sunil Babu Pant is the founder of the Blue Diamond Society, a Nepalese LGBTIQ organization. He is also the first openly gay member of the Nepalese Parliament who served from 2008-2012.

1 Comment
  • I think there is merit in this argument — however, it’s important to avoid this argument being abused by regimes that simply want to avoid their responsibilities, or turned into a rhetorical strategy by people using anti-colonialism as a cover for protection of corruption and cronyism. Probably different frames for human rights and responsiblities need to be put into creative relationship with each other– east and west. Otherwise suffering humanity may lose the benefits that the international community (and universal human rights protections) may bring to humanitarian partnership.

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