authored by Prof. Lily de Silva

(this article is an extract from Beyond the Net a Web Site on Theravada
Buddhism at ‘’)

The concept of human rights is of recent origin. We do not find a word to denote this concept in Sanskrit or Pali. Instead of rights, duties have been well emphasized in the cultures represented by these languages. It is no strange coincidence that the word for duty, ‘dhamma’ in Pali and Sanskrit, also stands for truth. The underlying philosophy seems to be that duty leads to truth. In English however the word right has the double meaning of truth and privilege/claim. According to the social function of oriental philosophies the discharge of duty by one leads to the fulfillment of the right of the other.

When we compare the social impact of duties with that of rights we begin to realize that an atmosphere of harmony and mutual co-operation can prevail in a society when duty is emphasized, whereas it is more likely that contention and competition will be the outcome if each one is wont to assert his or her rights.

The absence of a single word to denote human rights does not mean that the ancient oriental civilizations did not have methods to safeguard human rights. This was accomplished in such a subtle periphrastic manner that man was not even overtly conscious that he was enjoying certain rights as such, by the very fact of his human birth. The mechanism was the voluntary acceptance by each and every one to abide by the five precepts or pancasila.

Each man in society is expected to voluntarily take upon himself/herself the vow not to destroy life. Life is sacred and each human being is expected to respect life as inviolable. When this non-violent attitude is widespread the right to life of each individual gets automatically fulfilled. What is more, this non-violent attitude generates security of person, amity and benevolence in society, giving rise to harmonious interpersonal relations.

The second precept expects man to abide by the voluntary vow not to take anything that has not been given to him. This vow of non-misappropriation safeguards everyone’s right to ownership of property. The sense of security of property creates an atmosphere of mutual confidence in society. Such a society is tension-free and people can devote themselves to the pursuit of their chosen vocations without the burden of having to guard their properties with anxiety.

The third precept enjoins that man should take the voluntary vow to abstain from unlawful sex. This safeguards the right of every individual to choose a spouse and bring up a family free from outside interference. Sexual immorality is most often the cause of deadly diseases and broken homes which have disastrous social repercussions as they produce problem children and problem citizens. The health of a nation depends on the health of the family and the value of the third precept can never be underestimated.

The fourth precept comprises abstention from false speech. The human being is a social animal and he has to depend on society for his survival and meaningful existence. Therefore he has a right to expect truthfulness and freedom from fraud from his fellowmen and this right gets fulfilled if everyone is honest in his dealings. No society is self-existent today, every society and nation is dependent on every-body else. Therefore honesty and integrity are absolute social necessities today.

The fifth precept regarding the abstention from intoxicants is extremely valuable for mental and physical health of every member. Disregard for this precept undermines the value of all other precepts. Physical and mental health should be the sane choice of every human being and habits which are diametrically opposed to them should be shunned by every sane man. It is said conscience is soluble in alcohol, hence erosion of duties and moral obligations.

Thus adherence to the five precepts not only safeguards human rights but also health of body and mind generating a tension-free society with healthy homes for bringing up happy families.

Dhammo Sucinno Sukham avahati
Righteousness well practiced brings happiness.