Poverty, discrimination based on caste, gender, religion, and economic status, and lack of access to education are significant issues in India. Indian reformers in the 19th and 20th centuries established the foundation for social reforms that have resulted in several constitutional and legal protections for the underprivileged. Many Hindu groups prioritize social justice and undertake charitable programs, volunteer activities, and work towards the betterment of society. Additionally, there are organizations like the Satya Sai Baba Organization, the Divine Life Society, and the Ramakrishna Mission. Several organizations focus on women's issues, such as the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi. [Source: Leona Anderson, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Women are often at the center of modern issues that include equal rights and sexual violence. As mothers, women are culturally revered and mother figures can occupy a high position in politics, religion, and the Hindu pantheon of deities. The modern Hindutva movement advocates for women to return to traditional roles within the family. Some women in India support this agenda, embracing their roles as mothers, wives, and daughters. Others, however, push for reform.

Child marriage and dowry are serious issues that affect women. Disputes over dowry are common, and some have ended in violence. Many widows relocate to pilgrimage centers each year to escape poverty of abuse at home.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Hindu Views on Contraception and Abortion

Hindu medical ethics are guided by the principle of ahimsa (non-violence), which says that all life is sacred and should be loved, revered and protected. Many believe this means it is not only bad to kill living beings, but to also to kill embryos. According to the BBC: “ Hindus believe All life is sacred because all creatures are manifestations of the Supreme Being. When considering abortion, the Hindu way is to choose the action that will do least harm to all involved: the mother and father, the foetus and society. Hinduism is therefore generally opposed to abortion except where it is necessary to save the mother's life. In practice, however, abortion is practiced in Hindu culture in India, because the religious ban on abortion is sometimes overruled by the cultural preference for sons. This can lead to abortion to prevent the birth of girl babies, which is called 'female foeticide'. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Classical Hindu texts are strongly opposed to abortion: one text compares abortion to the killing of a priest; another text considers abortion a worse sin than killing one's parents; another text says that a woman who aborts her child will lose her caste Traditional Hinduism and many modern Hindus also see abortion as a breach of the duty to produce children in order to continue the family and produce new members of society. Many Hindus regard the production of offspring as a 'public duty', not simply an 'individual expression of personal choice' (see Lipner, "The classical Hindu view on abortion and the moral status of the unborn" 1989). |::|

“The status of the foetus in Hinduism: The soul and the matter which form the foetus are considered by many Hindus to be joined together from conception. According to the doctrine of reincarnation a foetus is not developing into a person, but is a person from a very early stage. It contains a reborn soul and should be treated appropriately. By the ninth month the foetus has achieved very substantial awareness. According to the Garbha Upanishad, the soul remembers its past lives during the last month the foetus spends in the womb (these memories are destroyed during the trauma of birth). The Mahabharata refers to a child learning from its father while in the womb. |::|

Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in "The Mahabharata," the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father's cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother's womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, August 21, 2005 |+|]

“But the religions and traditions we know as Hinduism are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity; they can yield contradictory arguments. Early in "The Mahabharata," there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years — from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.” |+|

“Abortion and Reincarnation: The doctrine of reincarnation, which sees life as a repeating cycle of birth, death and rebirth, is basic to Hindu thinking. The doctrine of reincarnation can be used to make a strong case against abortion: If a foetus is aborted, the soul within it suffers a major karmic setback. It is deprived of the opportunities its potential human existence would have given it to earn good karma, and is returned immediately to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Thus abortion hinders a soul's spiritual progress. Reincarnation can also be used to make a case that abortion should be permitted. Under the doctrine of reincarnation, abortion only deprives the soul of one of many births that it will have. The consequences of abortion in the framework of reincarnation are therefore not as bad as they are in those religions where a soul gets only one chance to be born and where abortion deprives the soul of all possibility of life.”

“There is no ban on birth control in Hinduism. Some Hindu scriptures include advice on what a couple should do to promote conception - thus providing contraceptive advice to those who want it. However, most Hindus accept that there is a duty to have a family during the householder stage of life, and so are unlikely to use contraception to avoid having children altogether. Because India has such a high level of population, much of the discussion of birth control has focussed on the environmental issue of overpopulation rather than more personal ethics, and birth control is not a major ethical issue.” |::|

20120501-Karma Depiction_of_Violence_Gujarat.jpg
Karma depiction of Violence from Gujarat

Hindu View on Euthanasia

According to the BBC: “There are several Hindu points of view on euthanasia. Most Hindus would say that a doctor should not accept a patient's request for euthanasia since this will cause the soul and body to be separated at an unnatural time. The result will damage the karma of both doctor and patient. Other Hindus believe that euthanasia cannot be allowed because it breaches the teaching of ahimsa (doing no harm). However, some Hindus say that by helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and so fulfilling their moral obligations. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Hinduism is less interested than western philosophers in abstract ideas of right or wrong. Rather it focuses on the consequences of our actions. For Hindus, culture and faith are inextricable. So although many moral decisions taken by Hindus seem more influenced by their particular culture than by the ideas of their faith, this distinction may not be as clear as it seems. Hindus live their lives according to their dharma - their moral duties and responsibilities. The dharma requires a Hindu to take care of the older members of their community. |::|

“Hindus believe in the reincarnation of the soul (or atman) through many lives - not necessarily all human. The ultimate aim of life is to achieve moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. A soul's next life is decided by karma, as the consequence of its own good or bad actions in previous lives. You could regard a soul's karma as somehow representing the net worth of its good and bad actions. A soul cannot achieve moksha without good karma. Another important principle is ahimsa, not being violent or causing harm to other beings. |::|

“Killing (euthanasia, murder, suicide) interferes with the killed soul's progress towards liberation. It also brings bad karma to the killer, because of the violation of the principle of non-violence. When the soul is reincarnated in another physical body it will suffer as it did before because the same karma is still present. |::|

episode from the Mahabharata: Krishna and the Pandava princes battle demons

“The doctrine of karma means that a Hindu tries to get their life in a good state before they die, making sure that there is no unfinished business, or unhappinesses. They try to enter the state of a sannyasin - one who has renounced everything. The ideal death is a conscious death, and this means that palliative treatments will be a problem if they reduce mental alertness. The state of mind that leads a person to choose euthanasia may affect the process of reincarnation, since one's final thoughts are relevant to the process. |::|

“There are two Hindu views on euthanasia: By helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and so fulfilling their moral obligations. By helping to end a life, even one filled with suffering, a person is disturbing the timing of the cycle of death and rebirth. This is a bad thing to do, and those involved in the euthanasia will take on the remaining karma of the patient. The same argument suggests that keeping a person artificially alive on a life-support machine would also be a bad thing to do. However, the use of a life-support machine as part of a temporary attempt at healing would not be a bad thing” |::|

Prayopavesa: Hindu Suicide

According to the BBC: “Suicide: Prayopavesa, or fasting to death, is an acceptable way for a Hindu to end their life in certain circumstances. Prayopavesa is very different from what most people mean by suicide: 1) it's non-violent and uses natural means; 2) it's only used when it's the right time for this life to end - when this body has served its purpose and become a burden; 3) unlike the suddenness of suicide, prayopavesa is a gradual process, giving ample time for the patient to prepare himself and those around him for his death; 4) while suicide is often associated with feelings of frustration, depression, or anger, prayopavesa is associated with feelings of serenity. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Prayopavesa is only for people who are fulfilled, who have no desire or ambition left, and no responsibilities remaining in this life. It is really only suitable for elderly ascetics. Hindu law lays down conditions for prayopavesa: 1) inability to perform normal bodily purification death appears imminent or the condition is so bad that life's pleasures are nil; 2) the decision is publicly declared; and 3) the action must be done under community regulation. |::|

“An example of prayopavesa: Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a Hindu leader born in California, took his own life by prayopavesa in November 2001. After finding that he had untreatable intestinal cancer the Satguru meditated for several days and then announced that he would accept pain-killing treatment only and would undertake prayopavesa - taking water, but no food. He died on the 32nd day of his self-imposed fast.” |::|

Organ donation

According to the BBC: “No religious law prohibits Hindus from donating their organs and tissues. Life after death is a strong belief of Hindus and is an ongoing process of rebirth. This could be seen as reflecting positively on the concept of organ donation and transplantation. A minority argument, though, says that if someone donates an organ as intrinsic to the body as a heart, the principle of karma means the recipient will have to return the favour in the donor's next life - which means the donor will have to have a next life. Hindus hope to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth, so this would be a disadvantage. However, most Hindus would view this argument as selfish. [Source: BBC |::|]

battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas

“According to Shaunaka Rishi Das of the Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies, most Hindus take the view that after the soul has departed, the body is no more than a machine, and there is nothing to stop the parts being shared with others. Decisions about organ donation and transplantation are left to individuals to make, but there are many references that support the concept of organ donation in Hindu scriptures. In the list of ten Niyamas (or virtuous acts) in the Hindu scriptures, Daan (or selfless giving) is third, and is held as being very significant within the Hindu faith. That which sustains is accepted and promoted as Dharma (righteous living). This could also be seen as supporting the idea of organ donation. |::|

“But, the only constraint on the idea of organ donation is imposed by the very nature of Dharma. Every act or intention of anyone should be dharmik. Therefore, it is right to donate organs, only if the act of donating an organ has beneficial results. In Hindu mythology there are also traditions which support the use of body parts to benefit others. Scientific papers also form an important part of the Vedas. Sage Sushruta looks at features of organ and limb transplants, and Sage Charaka deals with internal medicine.” |::|

Hindu Views on War

According to the BBC: “Like most religions Hinduism includes both teachings that condemn violence and war, and teachings that promote it as a moral duty. The teachings that condemn violence are contained in the doctrine of ahimsa, while those that permit it centre around the Kshatriyas - the warrior caste.” But again it is important to keep in mind that “Hinduism is a label that covers a wide range of Indian religious groups. While there are many differences between the various traditions they have a great deal in common. [Source: BBC |::|]

Hindus believe that it is right to use force in self-defence: Rig Veda 1-39:2 reads: 1) May your weapons be strong to drive away the attackers; 2) may your arms be powerful enough to check the foes; and 3) let your army be glorious, not the evil-doer. On the conduct of war, the Rig Veda sets down the rules of war in 6-75:15, and says that a warrior will go to hell if he breaks any of them. The rules are: 1) do not poison the tip of your arrow; 2) do not attack the sick or old; 3) do not attack a child or a woman; and 4) do not attack from behind. |::|

A key teaching on war is contained in the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna was about to go into battle when he discovered many of his relatives and friends were on the opposing side. Arjuna didn't want to kill people he loved, but was persuaded to do so by Krishna. Krishna tells Arjuna that he should fight, for the following reasons: 1) it is his duty - his dharma - to fight because he was born a warrior; 2) he was born a member of a warrior caste and his duty to his caste and the divine structure of society are more important than his personal feelings; 3) violence only affects the body and cannot harm the soul, so killing is not a fault and there is no reason for Arjuna not to kill people, nor should he be sorry for those he has killed behind this lies the Eastern idea that life and death are part of an illusion, and that the spiritual is what matters. |::|

There is no official Hindu line on capital punishment. However, Hinduism opposes killing, violence and revenge, in line with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence). Even so India still retains the death penalty.

Fighting Arjuna, Susarma Unleashes the Suparna Weapon which Invokes Garuda

Hindu Views on Peace

According to the BBC: “Ahimsa is one of the ideals of Hinduism. It means that one should avoid harming any living thing, and also avoid the desire to harm any living thing. Ahimsa is not just non-violence - it means avoiding any harm, whether physical, mental or emotional. In modern times the strongest proponent of ahimsa was the Indian leader Gandhi, who believed that ahimsa was the highest duty of a human being. Ahimsa, non-violence, comes from strength, and the strength is from God, not man. Ahimsa always comes from within. [Source: BBC |::|]

“Underlying Hindu opposition to killing or violence is the concept of Karma, by which any violence or unkindness a person carries out will return to them at some time in the future by the natural law of the universe. When Hindus are violent (other than as a matter of duty), philosophers argue that this is because those who do harm do so because they have yet to evolve to a level where they understand and seek peaceful conduct. |::|

Hinduism contains some of the earliest writings about peace. Rig Veda 10 - 191:2 goes:
Come together, talk together,
Let our minds be in harmony.
Common be our prayer,
Common be our end,
Common be our purpose,
Common be our deliberations,
Common be our desires,
United be our hearts,
United be our intentions,
Perfect be the union among us.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind”. However, Gandhi did not equate ahimsa with non-killing - he accepted that killing because it was a person's duty, and doing so in a detached way without anger or selfish motives, would be compatible with ahimsa. |::|

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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