Indian Theory of Positive Human Rights by Professor Ashok Vohra

Speaker: Professor Ashok Vohra, Delhi University, Delhi. Title: Indian Theory of Positive Human Rights


Most of the modern Western scholars, including Hegel, Heidegger, John Donnelly and Isaiah Berlin, believe that in the traditional Indian thought and lived life, man’s life rather his total existence is ‘altogether stupid and intolerable’. They argue that there is no place for humanism, human rights and respect for human life in the Indian classic tradition. They, following Hegel, argue that even idealism as found in India is ‘an idealism of imagination, without distinct conception’. In the Indian thought ‘Things are as much stripped of rationality, of finite consistent stability of cause and effect, as man is of the steadfastness of free individualiy, of personality and freedom’.

My purpose in this paper is to show that this mistaken belief is based on ignorance of the tradition. Indian thinkers and sages upheld and propagated humanitarian values, human rights, principles and respect for life much before the Western thinkers. However, the concept and role of man – the human species – in Indian thought is radically different from the Western thought. At the outset, I argue that in the Indian thought there is not one or ‘the’ notion of person. In the Vedas and at least the earlier Upanishads there is more worldly, earthly, temporal atmosphere, therefore man in these texts is viewed as embodied person and plays his role in his concrete individuality. Indian thinkers do not think about man as a ‘rational animal’ – animal rationale or homo sapien. They have always thought of man as ‘amritasya putrah’ – the childern of the immortal bliss. Mahabharata upholds, “there is nothing superior to man in the universe – na hi manuṣāt šreṣthataram nu kincit.”

The Indian seers did not anchor human rights in God, morality, or mundane laws but in the concept of human dignity. It means man can act on his own judgement, voluntarily choose his own goals and pursue them without physical compulsion, coercion or interference from others. I have argued that there is a difference between the Indian and Western discourse on human rights. While the Western thinkers emphasise and argue for individual centric human rights; the Indian thinkers prefer social centric human rights. I have shown that this difference between ‘the rights discourse’ in the West and ‘the obligation discourse’ in India is the outcome of the difference between their conception of man and his nature itself.

About the Speaker:

Ashok Vohra, former Professor of Philosophy, Delhi University has published more than One hundred seventy research papers and articles in national and international research journals, anthologies and newspapers. He taught for over a decade (1975-1986) at St Stephens College. He was the Member Secretary of Indian Council of Philosophical Research from 1995 to 1998, and Director of Gandhi Bhawan, Delhi University from 1998 to 2000. He was the Vice-president of UNESCO’s Asia Pacific Philosophy Education for Democracy (APPEND) for a term of two years from January 1999 to December 2000. He is the author of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Mind (London, Sydney, 1986; Reissued in the Routledge Revivals Series, Routledge London, New York, 2014) and is the co-author of Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas (New York, 1990); and Man Morals and Self: A Philosophical Perspective, Viva Books (Delhi 2014). He has translated into Hindi Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (Delhi, 1996); On Certainty (Delhi, 1998); Culture and Value (Delhi, 1998); and Radhakrishnan Memorial Lectures 1996 and 1997 (Shimla, 2000). His Hindi translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus is in the Press. He has co-edited The Philosophy of K. Satchidananda Murty (Delhi, 1996); Dharma: The Categorial Imperative (Delhi, 2005). He has delivered special lectures in various Universities in India, USA, UK, Austria, Japan, Thailand, Kenya, North Korea, South Korea, Lithuania, Greece, Czechoslovakia, and Canada. He is on the editorial board of Humanitas Asiatica; Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (JICPR); Suvidya: Journal of Philosophy and Religion, Bangalore; Indian Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and Unmilan. He is on the Advisory Board of Dialalato Corde. He writes regularly for the Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Tribune, and The Pioneer on philosophical themes with a view to popularise them.


Event Date: 
Thursday, 21 August 2014 - 3:15pm
Seminar Hall, Department of HSS
IIT Bombay, Powai, Mumbai