Love of Neighbor in Hinduism


Love in its various forms—spiritual, erotic, mystic, brotherly, familial, filial, and universal —is explored in Hindu religious texts such as Ramayana and Mahabharata and also in philosophical and social treatises such as Manu’s Ordinances as stories, fables, songs, and brief moral lessons. Love of one’s neighbor is integral to the core belief system of Hinduism, because Hindu theology is anchored in the belief that the universal soul (Paramatma) permeates all living beings, and union with the Paramatma is the goal of every individual soul’s Jeevatma, goal. The individual soul seeks liberation from the cycle of birth and death, an inevitable phenomenon in which every soul is trapped, and aspires release (moksha) wherein it finally attains union with the universal soul and is released from the mire of human existence. The individual soul is part of the universal soul but is only embodied in a temporal frame, and all individual souls are seen as variations or embodiments or manifestations of the universal soul, thereby linking them all in one unified existence with the universal soul.

Love of the neighbor or the “other soul” is a fundamental requirement for a functioning Hindu who aspires for final liberation from this world. Any injury or insult inflicted upon the other soul is ultimately injury inflicted on oneself—or worse still, the higher being. Neighborly love is integral for one’s social existence in this world. The Anusana Parva (113:8) in Mahabharata encapsulates this wisdom and dictates that one should be unselfish and not behave toward others in a way that is disagreeable to oneself.

Another verse in Mahabharata summarizes the essence of the individual’s social obligation (dharma) and theorizes that one should not do unto others that which would cause pain if inflicted on oneself (Mahabharata 5:15; 17). The Ordinances of Manu also instruct a Hindu never to wound or inflict on anyone any type of injury or pain by thought, word, or deed. Hospitality to strangers is a highly celebrated virtue and is expected of all Hindus, especially people in positions of power.

A story in Bhagavatam, a Hindu literary text belonging to the Bhakti tradition, recounts the story of Rantideva, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu who had undertaken a prolonged fast to empower himself spiritually. When he was about to break his fast, the gods wanted to test his devotion and appeared in the forms of starving mendicants and begged him for food and water. It is told that even before he broke his fast, Rantideva generously distributed whatever food and water was available to him and humbly stated that since all are Vishnu’s, the food must nourish everyone.

Hinduism extols selfless love and generosity that typically manifests itself as respect and hospitality shown to a stranger or guest, and the need for extending fair treatment even to one’s enemy simply because of his/her right to exist and thrive in this universe. Hinduism celebrates Ahimsa, or nonviolence, and expects every Hindu to treat all humanity, and the animal and plant kingdom, with respect and compassion. Mahatma Gandhi utilized this concept to its full extent in India’s freedom struggle and demanded that Indians claim their freedom peacefully from the British without hating or harming their oppressor.

Hinduism carries the concept of neighborly love to its next logical level by demanding that one be considerate and fair even to the enemy and follow the dictates of Dharma even in warfare. In the epic Ramayana, the legendary hero Rama declared that he would extend protection to Vibhishana, brother of his arch enemy Ravana, since Vibhishana had since declared Rama to be his friend. Rama extends the same courtesy to Ravana, who appeared disarmed in front of him and asks him to leave but come back the following day fully armed, for it is not heroic to take advantage of the defenseless enemy. Thiruvalluvar, a Tamil poet who lived in the first century BCE, also reflects the same sentiment when he asks one to generously return an evil deed with a good one, and thus embarrass the wrongdoer.

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