- A Hindu moral response to refugees must begin theologically with the origin of all in God. The Upanishads, that is the wisdom section of the Vedas, speak of God as “That from which all beings originate, by which they are sustained and to which they return (Taittiriya Upanishad 3.1.1).” The Bhagavadgita (9:17-18) speaks of God as father and mother of the universe, and as its nourisher, lord, goal, and friend. God is not the national or tribal deity of a particular religious, or ethnic community, but the source of all life and existence. God is not limited by our national boundaries and we should never assume that our community is favored or privileged by God above all others. Our boundaries are not God’s boundaries. The theological vision of a universal God who is the source of all existence, and in whom all exists and who exists equally in all, is the source of our human dignity and value. This vision is fundamental for informing the character of our relationships with other members of our human family.
- The single moral value that expresses best the meaning of this divine and human unity is compassion (daya). The Bhagavadgita repeatedly commends the human being who is devoted to the flourishing of all beings and who identifies with others in suffering and in joy. In his address to participants at the International Forum on Migration and Peace (21 February 2017), Pope Francis spoke of the necessity for solidarity, which he described as “the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs.” At the heart of the teaching of the Hindu tradition is a fundamental humanism that flows from the vision of seeing oneself in others. One of the most influential of Hindu teachers, Tulsidas (ca.15th CE) emphasizes caring for others as the highest expression of the moral life and describes it as identifying with the other in suffering and happiness (para duḥkha duḥkha sukha sukha). He equates the moral life with working for the well being of others and immorality with being an agent of oppression and suffering.
- The expression of this humanism in the public sphere is attentiveness and care for the common good (lokasangraha). Consideration for the universal common good is equated with wisdom and virtue; it is what distinguishes the unselfish and wise person from the one who is selfish and unwise. The Hindu tradition requires that we make the common good the purpose of public policy. One who is concerned about the universal common good values and respects the dignity of all beings and is devoted to their flourishing. Such a person does not privilege unjustly the interests of a particular race, religion, nation, group or gender. Policies and actions that aim to overcome suffering are a necessary concomitant to the common good. Human beings do not flourish when they are the victims of injustice and violence and when they lack opportunities to attain life’s necessities that include health care, housing, education, good work and leisure.
- The core Hindu moral values that must guide our response to refugees are compassion (daya), and generosity (dana) and the expression of these values in public policies that address the reality of suffering in their lives. Our priority must be for those who are forced to flee their homes because of violence and threats to their very survival. It is immoral if, because of xenophobia, prejudice or calculation of our own economic benefits, we shut our hearts and our doors to those who come to us in desperate need for protection and the sustenance of life. We must ensure that concerns about security are legitimate and not excuses for racism or intolerance.
- In the same address of Pope Francis, to which I just referred, the Pope also spoke of the “sacred value of hospitality present in religious traditions, ” and of hospitality to the stranger as hospitality to God. The Pope’s lifting up of the obligation of hospitality as one that is shared across our traditions inspires my recall and reflection on one of the most famous texts from the Vedas : “May you become one for whom the stranger (atithi) is a deva (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.1-2). In the Hindu tradition, a deva is a person deserving of welcome, reverence, respect and generosity. A deva is accorded hospitality and offered gifts. The word, atithi, which I translate here as ”stranger” literally means a person who comes to us without prior arrangements about time or place; one who turns up unexpectedly. It describes well the refugee who is forced to flee her home and who arrives in desperation at our borders. By speaking of such persons as devas, the Vedas remind us of our moral obligations to treat them with reverence, respect and generosity. The text does not qualify the stranger in any way by religion, ethnicity, place of origin, age, or gender. The stranger is deserving of our hospitality by the fact of her humanity and dignity.
- The centrality of the obligation of hospitality in Hindu ethics is highlighted by the fact the primary mode of Hindu worship (puja) is a ritual of hospitality to God. Worship begins with the welcoming of the divine and includes life-sustaining offerings such as food, water, clothing, and shelter. When we affirm a God who exists in all beings, we are to understand that such hospitality and generosity must be extended to all in need. Our understanding of God calls us to generous self-giving. To worship in the Hindu tradition is to serve.
- In many of the traditions of Hinduism the entire universe is understood to be the body of God, existing within God and pervaded by God. It is not ours to own and possess and the resources of the earth are meant for the flourishing of all beings. Hindu economic thinking must be shaped by the values of generosity (dana), non-possessiveness (nirmama), concern for others (nirahamkara) and the common good (lokasangraha). Such values are not consistent with the unjust utilization of the world’s resources for the greed of a tiny minority and the relegation of over 800 million human beings to lives of poverty. These moral values, however, cannot be confined to the sphere of private human relationships but must become norms for state policy making in our response to refugees. Gandhi emphasized the necessity for economics to be informed by ethics. “True economics,” in his view, promoted social justice, the good of all and especially the weakest among us.
- A universal God implies a universal moral concern for the wellbeing of all. Today, when narrow national and economic concerns are again asserting and privileging themselves, our religious traditions have an urgent moral obligation to break free from such selfish limits, overcome boundaries and speak without ambiguity for the universal common good. . Our moral voices cannot be limited by or equated with narrow-minded national interests, religious boundaries or ethnic identity. We are morally responsible to speak for and act on behalf of those who suffer.
Anantanand Rambachan is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.