There is a seeming contradiction in Hindu philosophy. Picture some half-naked holy man meditating in the Himalayas, and it might lead you to conclude that Hinduism is seriously world-denying. Witness its many rituals, customs and festivals which proclaim the joys of life, and you get the idea that it is thoroughly world-affirming.
Hinduism contains probably the most lucid exposition of the distinction between body, mind and soul; and it also asserts that each of us should have the opportunity to enjoy good health, the full span of life and the use of all our physical and mental faculties. These philosophical issues are often assumed to be opposing and, indeed, some individuals may be extreme in their personal outlook. But, when the Vedas, (the scriptural source for all Hindus) are taken as a whole, a balanced resolution emerges. And it is that broader approach which is at the heart of Hindus’ attitudes towards disability.
Hindu philosophy describes each individual as a transcendental being, whose existence is not dependant on the material body. This atma (or soul) is a visitor to the material world. The soul is the conscious person who inhabits and uses the material body and mind to interact with the world around, but is in reality separate from it.
Western theology claims that “I, the body, have a soul”. Hindu theology claims the converse - “I, the soul, have a body”. On this basis, it is condemned as ignorance to categorise oneself or others in terms of the body. To say someone is black, white; old, young; male, female etc. is a misconception, because none of those designations describe the atma or actual person.
Similarly it is wrong to term someone as disabled or diseased since that is a condition of the body and not of the soul, which remains untouched and unchanged by any circumstance of the body. Hence, someone is not disabled, but is a whole person who has a body which has a disability. Some strict Hindus stress this in everyday conversation. They might say, “I am well, but my body has an illness.”
It is said to be illusion, maya, that convinces us to identify with our body as our very self. There are two schools of thought offering different opinions on this illusion of the soul.
One states that the entire external world is an illusion - everything material simply does not exist. If someone actually lived according to this philosophy, they would have no reason to show the slightest concern for their own or anyone else’s condition. However, this harsh conclusion is often tempered with the attitude that it is the duty of enlightened, pious or moral people to offer service to those less fortunate.
The other school states that the world itself is not an illusion. It exists. Our bodies are real and any disability of the body is a real condition. The illusion, however, is that the transcendental soul identifies itself as being the physical body. Under this illusion, I will naturally be highly concerned about any imperfection in my body. The Bhagavad-gitadescribes the soul travelling as the driver within the machine of the body. This is a useful analogy. If my car is scratched, I feel very upset because of my attachment to it being in perfect order, but the scratch has not touched the real me.
Either philosophy could be taken as an excuse for neglect or disdain towards those with physical disability. Some Hindus cite the statement of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita, “the wise lament neither for the living nor the dead”, as justification for a lack of concern towards any suffering condition. This misses the point in its context, that an enlightened person understands that the soul does not die with the demise of the body and that it has the potential to transcend even the most trying bodily condition. It is not a call to be uncaring.
However, despite equality on the spiritual level, or perhaps, because of it, the Vedas state that distinction must be made of individual’s abilities and qualities, particularly in considering a person for specific roles in society. In the scripture, Mahabharat, which is still highly influential for Hindus today, there is an important example of such discrimination. Although, the eldest son of the previous king, Dhritarashtra was denied the opportunity to take the throne because of being born blind. The justification was that the king was expected to lead the army in battle.
The Manu Samhita, another scripture, seems to codify such discrimination by stating that the blind, lame and deaf cannot receive inheritance, though they must be maintained by others. The Manu Samhita also contains strictures dealing with a father who gives his daughter in marriage without identifying any disability she may have. Although, the ManuSamhita was the basis for Hindu law, many of its tenets regarding morality are considered wildly impractical in the modern age.
Elsewhere in the scriptures, bodily deformity is linked with a crooked mind as in the case of Manthara of the Ramayana saga. She is portrayed as a hunch-back crone who poisoned the mind of Queen Kaikeyi against the young prince Rama. In contrast to this example is the story of Kubja, also a lady with a hunch-back. She was marked by Lord Krishna as having the most devotional of hearts and praised for her service to Him. The moral is that character is more important than appearance.
All circumstances we encounter are the result of karmic reactions. Karma is understood as a universal law of nature regulating the circumstances of all beings. The process as described in the Vedas is highly complex, but in simple terms we reap the results of our actions. Human activities are monitored by universal authority and those actions which are in keeping with the laws of God are rewarded with opportunities for pleasure and well-being. Those actions which are contrary to the laws of God are punished by experiencing unwelcome events. Accidents, disease, mental problems, legal and other conflicts are all forms of bad karma.
Karma cannot be understood without appreciating the nature of the soul as an eternal being moving from life to life. This process of transmigration of the soul from one body to another is referred to as reincarnation. The Bhagavad-gita compares this process to how we cast off old clothes when they are worn out and put on new dress. Our desires determine the species of body we next receive. Karma is the process that determines the facility that the new body will provide us.
Karmic action is like sowing a seed. The reaction is rarely instant. More likely, it takes years, even lifetimes, to fructify. Thus, karma is carried from life to life. Everyone is born with some of their karma already manifested. This is called prarabdha-karma - that which has already come to fruition. Thus the body that we have at birth is karma which has come to be. Explaining the apparent inequality of people even from birth is a challenge for all religious philosophy. Karma offers such an explanation, and, for most Hindus, that is better than thinking that their circumstances are the result of blind chance. But it can have negative impact.
The apparently evident conclusion for anyone suffering from a disability, either from birth or from some event later in life, is that they are being punished for being bad at some time in the past. It is difficult enough for someone with disability to deal with their circumstances without the added burden of thinking that they must be more sinful than the average person. I have witnessed two reactions in Hindus pondering their situation.
One is someone who feels maligned by the cosmic judicial process. It is not simply “Why me?” as “What did I do to deserve this?” The Vedas discourage us from trying to identify the specific causes for particular reactions. However, the Manu Samhita does give a few examples of various disabilities that arise from certain crimes in previous lives. I know of one Hindu group in the UK that has shamefully played upon these and similar references to castigate disabled folk as sinful out-castes and to warn others against the dangers of sinful life.
Many Hindus who are active in their religious practice take a different view. More than simply accepting their fate, they feel cleansed of their karmic past, are enjoying transcendental pleasure and in such a fortified mood, bear no grudge against a system that seems to have condemned them.
In reality, most Hindus may find themselves oscillating between the two views.
In a similar vein is the concept of Asirvat - blessings. So many of the Hindu ceremonies and rituals are performed to receive the blessings of God and His deputies, the Devas - the plethora of demigods or small “g” gods. Opulence resulting from the blessings of God include “Janmaisvarya srutir sribhir” - good birth, wealth, erudition and physical beauty.
A person with severe disability may conclude that not only have they not been blessed, but that they are somehow cursed. This can affect other family members. Parents may see themselves as cursed or punished for having a disabled offspring.
However, there is enough discussion of this point in the Vedas to lead many Hindus to consider an alternative view. The four blessings mentioned above are also labelled a curse and disqualification for spiritual progress. Although it might seem strange, even pitiful, to an outsider, a devout Hindu may sometimes even see their disability as a blessing from God to avoid them deviating from religious principles.
I say that this might seem pitiful because one gets the picture of a disabled person vainly trying to persuade themselves that they are better off in that condition. But there is a real taste and heartfelt pleasure experienced by some Hindu devotees which amply convinces them that they are as well dedicating themselves to spiritual life rather than mundane pursuits which can be rather empty and dissatisfying.
It comes back to the original philosophy of Hinduism - Who are we? and What is life for? As part of the answer, Hinduism defines four purusharthas - human objectives. These are dharma (religious sentiment and morality); artha (economic development); kama (sensual enjoyment) and moksha (liberation). Some individuals may over-concentrate on a single one of these objectives, but a balanced human life contains efforts to secure all of them. The key message, however, is that sense enjoyment is not the most important. It is a need that requires some fulfilment, but it must be in moderation, with the understanding that greater satisfaction will be found in the pleasure of the soul.
This is a comfort to many Hindus with disability. The belief in the transcendence of the real person may seem to entail dangerous neglect, but it also defines a level playing field for everyone, regardless of physical ability. The modern social climate proclaims sense pleasure as the ultimate pursuit for all humanity. How must those who have less opportunity to indulge in such activities feel? Despite the best intentions and efforts to create a sense of equality for the disabled, modern society has defined sensual pleasures as the goal of life and physical ability and beauty as the pre-requisite for its fulfilment. Traditionally, Hindu teachings would have contested that attitude. However, even in India, the message is being eclipsed by hedonistic aspirations.
Economic development is obviously necessary for acquiring life’s necessities. Hinduism encourages full employment for everyone. Even those with the gravest disability may have particular and unique talents, which can be utilised for earning their livelihood. This was, and still is, more applicable in the highly devolved social set-up of India. In an environment that caters for the one-man business, the disabled artisan or merchant trading on his skills, has real opportunity to compete in the market-place.
Because artha and kama are two of the objectives of human life, it is natural to feel sorry for someone unable to participate in those activities to the full extent. For some Hindus, making money and gaining physical pleasure are paramount. But many others do believe there is a hierarchy of importance. Earning money and sense gratification add some spice to life, but they are not our real business. The highest purushartha is moksha culminating in love of God. The Vedic scriptures state that no disability can deny or delay one’s ability to achieve that greatest of goals. Many celebrated saints had severe disabilities, which proved no hindrance to and were often said to be the impetus or catalyst for their religious pursuit.
There are stories of God responding to the disability of His devotees, not by curing it, but by celebrating it. Bilvamangala Thakur was blind, but described his ecstatic visions how he could see the incarnation of Krishna dancing around him, teasing him to catch Him. Bilvamangala’s books and poetry have inspired Hindus for centuries.
In Jagannath Puri, there is a temple with the only murti, (temple image) of the deity form of Krishna sitting down. The story is told how this deity originally was a standing figure, but the priest of the temple was getting so old and crippled that he could no longer reach up to place the flower garland over the head of the deity. In deference to His devotee’s disability, the marble deity sat down and the priest was able to continue his daily worship.
Although we are not the body, the Vedic scriptures offer many injunctions which encourage us to take care of our bodies and those of others, because the body is a special gift of God to facilitate the soul in the journey to achieve liberation from the material sphere. The soul has entered the material sphere as an act of rejection of a loving relationship with God. By overcoming envy of God and cultivating a service mood, one develops the spiritual characteristics to again become qualified to be re-instated in the natural home of the soul - the spiritual world, Vaikuntha - the kingdom of God.
By definition, we are not sufficiently spiritually qualified at present, nor is the path quick and easy. We have to persevere. Hinduism accepts all acts of religious devotion, regardless of denomination, as being valid in making spiritual progress. Keeping the body fit and healthy is recommended to create the conducive circumstances for life-long devotional practices. It was that intent that developed the system of hatha-yoga. But, whereas ill-health can often stifle religious activities, disability need not be an obstacle.
The Hindu scriptures are full of codes and strictures, yet Hinduism is not actually a religion of proscription. This is evidenced by the infinite array of individual practices and rituals one witnesses in India. The scriptural codes are not commandments to be obeyed. They are meant as insights into universal truths which can assist someone to orientate his or her actions to take the next step on their path. Hinduism is individualised and personal, yet universal in application.
Hindus, therefore, do not have specific rules they all have to follow. However, most choose to adopt some particular disciplines and practices according to their own beliefs, which may arise from their family or community traditions or from adherence to a particular teacher or guru. Some of these may be highly demanding, or even abusive.
Those with disabilities may also set their own agenda. Even amongst a particular faith group within Hinduism there is ample scope to vary specific practices. Visiting a temple, either locally or on pilgrimage is recommended for inspiring one’s devotion, but Hindus do not have any set regulation for visits. Some visit a temple daily, others only on special occasions. Those who are not so mobile, may do so at their convenience.
There is great stress on the benefits of recitation and listening to sacred sound vibrations or mantras. Those with speech and hearing impediments are obviously at a disadvantage, but I have met such devotees who somehow perform these practices anyhow. At one temple in the UK, there is a group called “Sign on to Krishna” for members of its congregation with aural disability.
The Vedas explain how all rituals and practices have the purpose of focusing the mind on acts of meditation, austerity and/or devotion. For most of us, actually performing an action with the bodily senses engages our mind most effectively. Praise is given to the devotee who uses all his limbs and senses in the service of God. However, if one does not have the opportunity or ability to perform a particular religious action, it may be carried out in one’s mind alone, and that is considered equally beneficial and meritorious. Many examples are cited of devotees chanting, offering worship, performing pilgrimage and giving charity solely within their thoughts.
The moral choices that Hindu families make will be guided by the depth of their religious understanding and commitment. For example, those with strong religious sentiments will prefer to eschew the abortion of a potentially disabled child, because they recognise that life begins at conception, and, to them, abortion equals killing. Similarly, they may be exceptionally hesitant to end a loved-one’s life by switching off the life support machines.
Seva, or service to others, is another key element of Hindu life. There is a general prescription that full protection and assistance should be given to the old, the infirmed, children, women and animals. Hindu householders are guided to keep their doors open for all those in need. Service to society is a ritual of atonement, a merit in itself and more importantly, the natural characteristic of a true human being.
Opportunities for seva are, therefore, considered gifts of God. The Hindu community in UK have been enthusiastic in donating for welfare projects in India - often linked to disabilities. In particular, the Gujarati community has supported eye hospitals.
Service to one’s elders is an expression of gratitude, also important in Hindu culture. Although it is starting to change as the Hindu community loses its cohesiveness in UK, most Hindus do try to accommodate their dependant parents at home, serving them to the last as a way of trying to repay the debt we each owe to the parents who made sacrifices to rear us.
Such families may think they have failed if they are obliged by circumstances to send their parents to a residential home. And the parents may feel hurt and let down by being sent away. Their whole experience and tradition is that the parents and the son’s family stay together
Similarly, the parent with the special needs child may, at times, see that, although a challenge, they have been blessed with the opportunity to serve the child in their care more attentively. It will generally be the Hindu parents’ first choice to care for a child with even the most demanding needs in the shelter of their own home. I have seen how parents of children with severe mental health have drawn on their religious belief to recognise the personality of the soul behind the disability and to enjoy a loving connection with them.
This principle of service to a disabled child has been celebrated in two theological statements. One is the description of how God is like a father who loves all his children equally, but if there is one who, because of some disability, is particularly dependant on him, he feels a special inclination and emotion towards that child.
The other is the statement that the nearest we may get to witnessing the wonderful love of God is in the incessant and unmotivated love of a mother for her disabled child.
(Original title: A Hindu Perspective on Disability. Issues of Disability For the Mental Health Foundation, 1998)[ disability ] [ vedas ]