A Century of Human Rights

Excerpt from Conversation Six of
Our World To Make

By Ved Nanda and Daisaku Ikeda

Ikeda: Political leaders are entrusted with an elemental mission: to nurture the nation and its citizenry with culture (the value of beauty); to provide economic stability (the value of gain); and to promote peace and respect for all living things (the value of good). (1) In reality, however, foolish, irresponsible leaders all too often involve their citizens in tragic conflicts leading to untold misery. This is a fundamental source of the world’s unhappiness.

The exclusive focus on relationships between nations and between powers that have prevailed to now will never yield peace. Instead, constructing a community uniting citizens, peoples, individuals—a grassroots network built on person-to-person interaction that leads us to world peace—is indispensable.

Nanda: The ideal solution for reducing tension between countries is to promote communication among people. You often write about the importance of interaction among people that transcends ideology.

For quite some time, you have urged reconciliation between the former Soviet Union and the United States, as well as for friendly ties between North and South Korea. In this regard, I have high hopes for the role that Japan can play in the international sphere in organizations such as the United Nations.

Ikeda: I believe Japan must earn the trust of the other Asian countries for it to truly contribute to international affairs. Regrettably, Japanese leaders are largely ignorant of their Asian neighbors’ concerns. The Japanese must develop bonds of trust with the people of Asia, the kind that will encourage them to gladly partner with us in tackling our common challenges.

People must first of all relate to one another openly and with great sincerity on a heart-to-heart basis.The festering wounds of the past must be healed, and feelings of bitterness and suspicion must be transformed into a sense of trust and security. For this to happen, people must first of all relate to one another openly and with great sincerity on a heart-to-heart basis. We need to expand the circles of friendship. This is precisely why I have made every effort to engage with the people of Asia through various exchanges, including numerous discussions with the most senior leaders of various Asian countries.

Nanda: I believe that your vision and much more of the kind of work you have been doing—inspired by determination and commitment—are necessary to bring about world peace.

I have been actively involved in several organizations working for world peace and have closely followed the activities of groups such as the World Court Project, which was part of an international movement contending that the use of nuclear weapons violates international law.

Ikeda: As a result of the efforts made by you and your colleagues, the International Court of Justice at The Hague, the United Nations’ principal judicial organ, has ruled that in principle, any use of nuclear technology that threatens humankind’s right to survival is unlawful. This was an unprecedented achievement in the history of the global peace movement.

As a scholar and peace activist, you have been participating in activities such as the World Jurist Association and UN Association programs. I want to talk more about your activities, especially from your perspective as an authority on international law, in another conversation.


Ikeda: In the Seikyo Shimbun, the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper (January 1, 1996), you had this to say about the role that religion should play in protecting human rights:

It is terribly important that people who have religious faith sustain active involvement in social, economic, and cultural life. Thus I have high hopes that international religious organizations like the Soka Gakkai, which is very active in society, will play a large part in the struggle to protect human rights.

Nanda: In my homeland of India, many Hindu yogis become reclusive and devote their entire lives to meditation for many years in mountain caves to seek enlightenment. While I believe that attaining enlightenment is important, it is hard to justify such religious practice, which is confined to the solitary pursuit of enlightenment while seemingly ignoring the suffering of others. Such a perspective, with the sole focus on one’s spiritual growth while not paying attention to societal needs and well-being, seems rather limited—and, I have to say, unenlightened.

The traditional wisdom shared by the world’s religions has the potential to make human rights more universal and just.Ikeda: If religion exists to advance human happiness and well-being, then it must engage in the betterment of society as a matter of course. From a human rights perspective, I believe that universal principles and ethical guidelines that derive from religion can make an important contribution to the further development and deepening of our understanding of human rights. The traditional wisdom shared by the world’s religions—such as the golden rule, which teaches that killing is wrong—has the potential to make human rights more universal and just.

Nanda: Likewise, I believe it is this spiritual foundation that gives human rights an enduring quality.

Let me elaborate by delving into Hindu history: Hinduism is sometimes called sanatana dharma (eternal law), which is without beginning and without a human founder; it is experience-based and not belief-based. It exhorts everyone to scrupulously practice dharma. The Sanskrit word dharma, as we’ve been discussing, is hard to define. Professor Pandruang Kane, whose multi-volume work History of Dharmasastra is one of the principal sourcebooks on Hindu dharma, calls it

a mode of life or a code of conduct, which regulated a man’s work and activities as a member of society and as an individual and was intended to bring about the gradual development of a man and to enable him to reach what was deemed to be the goal of human existence. (2)

Justice Rama Jois has also expounded:

Dharma regulates the mutual obligations of individual and the society. Therefore, it was stressed that protection of Dharma was in the interest of both the individual and the society. (3)

In this sense, the true dharma could be called the path of self-realization.

Ikeda: King Ashoka set about creating a government based on dharma. In his decrees, he asked the people to “work for the benefit of the many” (bahujanahitaya) and “work for the happiness and common good of the many” (bahujanasukhaya). These phrases were based on Shakyamuni’s famous injunction to his followers to propagate his teachings (see Conversation Two: “Walk, monks, on tour for the blessing of the manyfolk . . .”).

Shakyamuni sought to teach the dharma that he had come to understand through his own enlightenment for the benefit and happiness of all people. Shortly before his death, he instructed his followers to “rely on the Law.” Shakyamuni taught his followers that even after his death, the dharma would endure and would be the foundation for eternal happiness.

As is revealed in the Lotus Sutra, the realization of a peaceful society and the happiness of all people are the central aspiration of all Buddhas. To this end, the single greatest objective of Buddhas appearing in this world is to teach the fundamental Law for achieving human happiness. The consistent aim of Buddhism, then, has been to establish a society for the well-being of all people based on the Law.

Nanda: Yes, that is so well expressed. The Laws of Manu warns, “Do not destroy Dharma so that you may not be destroyed.” (4) For peaceful coexistence and prosperity, the state must always be based on dharma. Thus what you have said about Mahayana Buddhism and what you have demonstrated so beautifully in your life—that our lifelong engagement in civic, cultural, and political activities must be deeply and completely grounded in our religious faith—resonates deeply in Hinduism as well.

Politics and Religion

Ikeda: Mahatma Gandhi’s lifelong political activism was rooted deeply in his religious faith. In other words, for Gandhi, political action and religion were not separate endeavors. Gandhi said:

I do not know any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities which they would otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing! (5)

For Gandhi, religion was an integral part of everyday life. His perspective is consonant with Mahayana Buddhism’s emphasis on faith and daily life being inseparable and on religion being the source for all human activities.

The foremost scholar of Gandhian studies in Japan, Tatsuo Morimoto, professor emeritus at Meijo University, had this to say in a lecture sponsored by the Soka Gakkai youth:

Politics is generally thought in terms of a macrocosmic framework in which major issues affecting the nation and populace are addressed. . . . However, according to Gandhi, the work of politics [takes place on the individual level and] is “unfinished until happiness befalls on every person.” In religious terms, his beliefs echo the same desire of the Buddha for the salvation of all living beings. (6)

The realization of Gandhi’s dream to bring happiness to every single person has yet to be fulfilled. As he pointed out, in order to realize this dream, religion must serve as a moral compass to guide people in all their activities, including politics, rather than staying remote and disengaged from human affairs.

Nanda: I agree completely that religion’s call to its followers has to be that they fully engage in human affairs.

Ikeda: We in the SGI believe that such an engagement is possible through the Buddhist principles as expounded in the Lotus Sutra and are acting on them accordingly.

As for the relationship between religion and politics, the separation of church and state seeks to ensure that a government maintains a posture of religious impartiality. This separation is established by the constitutions of both the United States and Japan. Adherence to this principle, however, should not be construed to mean that religion should distance itself from governmental or societal endeavors and be bound solely to internal feelings and beliefs. Rather, the objective is to safeguard the freedom of religion, one of the most fundamental of human rights, from abuse by political authorities.

Religion’s spirituality and creativity can positively influence politics and can guide society. I see this as the ideal relationship between politics and religion. It represents Gandhi’s legacy to humankind.

Nanda: Yes, you have eloquently captured the essence of Gandhi’s message.

There was a period in Indian history when societal interests were not given adequate attention. As a result, there was no social cohesion. This loss of social consciousness in Hindu society was a major reason India was vulnerable to foreign domination, under which it suffered heavily for hundreds of years.

But this lack of social cohesion is not in harmony with the fundamental teachings of Hinduism. In fact, Gandhi’s statement that “religion provides a moral basis to all other activities” (7) captures the essence of the Hindu teachings.

The essence of a multicultural, multi-religious, pluralistic society is that all religions and cultures must be treated with respect.Of course, the separation of church and state serves a useful purpose. The state should not favor a particular religion. The essence of a multicultural, multi-religious, pluralistic society is that all religions and cultures must be treated with respect. This laudable objective behind the separation of church and state is not at all at odds with the role of religion and spirituality as guiding lights for individuals and as the foundation for enriching all human society.

Ikeda: I am sure that there are many well-known Hindus whose social and political activities grew out of their deep-seated religious convictions. Can you share some examples?

Nanda: One example that readily comes to mind is, again, Swami Vivekananda (see Conversation Three). He was a Hindu sage who inspired not only people in India but the West as well. Vivekananda visited Chicago to deliver his famous address at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. He mesmerized audiences in the United States and several European countries, including Britain and France, as he spoke on Hinduism.

This sage often said that to serve one’s fellow human beings is to serve god:

If the Lord grants that you can help any one of His children, blessed you are. . . . Blessed you are that that privilege was given to you when others had it not. . . . I should see God in the poor, and it is for my salvation that I go and worship them. (8)

Ikeda: Vivekananda is surely one of India’s most distinguished modern philosophers. Hardly any American had heard of Vivekananda before he delivered his Chicago address. Soon after he began speaking, they were struck with awe. He illuminated the lives of his listeners with the spirit of Indian philosophy. The major newspapers of the day, such as the New York Herald and the Boston Evening Post, all recorded the impact Vivekananda had on his audiences.

Nanda: His philosophy indeed made a profound impression on Americans.

Ikeda: The notion that service to one’s fellowman is service to god reminds me of an episode from Shakyamuni’s life. He displayed compassion for a dying man as he cleansed the patient’s body himself, explaining to his disciples that serving the infirm is to serve the Buddha (Mahâvagga, or “Great Grouping”). (9)

In his 1893 Chicago address, Vivekananda also noted:

The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. (10)

Vivekananda is calling for a balance between belief in one’s religion and tolerance of other religions, a balance in which each religion coexists harmoniously with others while developing its unique identity. He is expressing the fundamental principle underlying interfaith dialogue.

Nanda: I believe, as you note, that Swami Vivekananda’s ideas have had major implications for interfaith dialogue, which continue to be so important in the twenty-first century.

He is a great source of inspiration to Indian youth. His teachings are widely disseminated throughout India by the Ramakrishna Mission, named after Vivekanada’s teacher, Ramakrishna.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Ikeda: Let us now turn to the state of human rights today. The year 2003 marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations designated the years 1995 through 2004 as the Decade for Human Rights Education and urged nations and NGOs to take part in this campaign to improve human rights.

The SGI participated in this effort by organizing human rights exhibitions and lectures all over the world as part of our educational campaign to promote human rights principles. Our exhibition “Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today’s World,” which we held in forty cities around the world in cooperation with government agencies and NGOs, drew 500,000 people. Also, our “Treasuring the Future: Children’s Rights and Realities” exhibition has already attracted 760,000 visitors in Japan alone.

Nanda: I have great admiration for the SGI for championing the cause of human rights so tirelessly all these years. The organization’s activities in promoting human rights and raising global consciousness on the significance of human rights are indeed exemplary.

The core of the Declaration of Human Rights is humanity.Your dialogue with the late Austregésilo de Athayde, one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a Brazilian delegate to the United Nations, was published as a book. I respect what you had to say in the book about the universality of this declaration that shines so brightly in human history: “The core of the Declaration is humanity.” You also pointed out that “because of its universality, the Declaration is applicable to all humanity for all time.” (11) I completely agree.

Ikeda: Dr. Athayde made an indelible impression on me. He was a champion of human rights who spoke out for justice and stood as a beacon of hope for the unheard. His intrepid struggle against the abuse of power set a brilliant example in the history of humanitarianism.

In our discussions, we explored the philosophy of human rights, covering the origins of Western thought on the subject, from the Code of Hammurabi, Moses, and Aristotle to present-day philosophers. We also delved into the major streams of Eastern thought, from the philosophies of Hinduism, Shakyamuni, and Ashoka to

Nichiren and Gandhi. Dr. Athayde also shared with me various difficulties and interesting episodes in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Dr. Nanda, you have discussed the development and significance of the human rights declaration in the following terms:

The concept of human rights is closely tied to the concept of world peace. That connection was made deeper and broader with the founding of the United Nations after World War II. One thing that became clear was that a nation that egregiously violates the human rights of its own people is likely to act lawlessly in the international arena. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born at a time when the world was very conscious of these relationships. And so the human rights campaign emerged as an international movement under UN leadership. (12)

Nanda: The declaration is based on the premise that 

all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person, and that the human person is the central subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms. . . . (13)

The 1993 Vienna Declaration, adopted on the occasion of the UN World Conference on Human Rights, acknowledges the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the “source of inspiration” and the basis for advances in standard-setting under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Universal Declaration articulates the importance of basic rights that had come under siege during the Nazi and fascist regimes, including the rights to life, liberty, and security of person; the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religious belief; and protection from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment without a fair trial. It also contains provisions for economic, social, and cultural rights.

Although initially there was some criticism that the Declaration was a product of Judeo-Christian values and simply reflected those values, representatives from all religions and cultures have endorsed the rights in the Declaration as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” (14)


1. See D. C. Phillips, Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2014), p. 505.

2. Pandruang Vaman Kane, History of Dharmasastra, vol. II (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941), p. 2.

3. Justice M. Rama Jois, Ancient Indian Law: Eternal Values in Manu Smriti (New Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., 2010), p. XXV.

4. Ibid., p. 28.

5. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, LXVIII (October 15, 1938–February 28, 1939) (New Delhi: The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1977), p. 201.

6. Translated from Japanese. Seiji to shukyo wo kangaeru (Thought on Politics and Religion) (Tokyo: Daisanbunmei-sha, 1994), p. 133.

7. Mahatma Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 2005), p. 66.

8. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (India: Advaita Ashram, 1915), vol. 1, p. 639.

9. Nanden daizokyo (The Southern Tripitaka), vol. 3 (Tokyo: Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo Publishing Society, 1970), p. 526.

10. “Address at the Final Session of the 1893 Parliament of Religions,” The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 1, p. 34.

11. Austregésilo de Athayde and Daisaku Ikeda, Human Rights in the Twenty-first Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), p. 74.

12. Translated from Japanese. Dr. Nanda’s remarks, Seikyo Shimbun, January 1, 1996.

13. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/Vienna.aspx.

14. See Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.


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