The motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” first appeared during the French Revolution.
Although it was often called into question, it finally established itself under the French Third Republic. It was written into the 1958 French Constitution and is part nowadays of their national heritage.
Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), the internationally famous Indian lawyer and social reformer wrote that his philosophy too was “enshrined” in these three words. “Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution.
I have not. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha. I found that his teaching was democratic to the core”. (Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was one of the most prominent Indian leaders of the 20th century who belonged to the very lowest stratum of Hindu society, known as Untouchables or Dalits. He helped spark a revival of Buddhism in India).
Ambedkar argues that for Buddhists the Dhamma is that “universal morality which protects the weak from the strong, which provides common models, standards, and rules, and which safeguards the growth of the individual. It is what makes liberty and equality effective….”
For Ambedkar, fraternity “is nothing but another name for brotherhood of men which is another name for morality. This is why the Buddha preached that Dhamma is morality and as Dhamma is sacred so is morality.”
Many Buddhists are reluctant to identify the Buddha Dhamma with human rights. They say that the exact equivalent of the phrase ‘human rights’ in the Western sense cannot be found anywhere in Buddhist literature.
The Western concept of human rights concerns only humans. By marked contrast, in Buddhism a human being is not grasped only from the human point of view, but on a much broader cosmological basis.
More concretely, in Buddhism human beings are grasped as a part of all sentient beings or even as a part of all beings, sentient and non-sentient, because both human and nonhuman beings are equally subject to transience or impermanency.
In Buddhism there is a teaching describing the main principles of fraternity with repercussions on liberty and equality, known as the saraniyadhamma, the conditions for fraternal living.
The meaning of the teaching is similar to that of fraternity – principles for generating harmony and cohesion in society. The gist of this teaching is that a democratic society must be endowed with some unifying principle, something which causes people to think of each other with kindness.
Harmonious actions can be expressed in different ways, but they must always be imbued with goodwill (metta), a desire for others’ benefit, and this in turn implies wisdom. Wisdom must be imbued with goodwill, and goodwill must be founded on wisdom.
Goodwill without wisdom, such as when we cast aside our critical abilities in order to help a friend, can lead to bias.
Wisdom without goodwill may cause insensitivity to the well-being of others and actions, albeit unintentional, which are harmful to them. Thus both wisdom and goodwill must be used in balance.
The six saraniyadhamma are as follows:
Metta-kayakamma – friendly action;
Metta-vacikamma – friendly speech;
Metta-manokamma – friendly thoughts;
Sadharana-bhogi – sharing of gains;
Sila-samannata – moral harmony; and
Ditthi-samannata – harmony of views.
Actions based on goodwill: these actions help to create a feeling of togetherness, and as such add to the stability of the community.
Speech based on goodwill: debates and discussion conducted with aversion rather than wisdom only lead to arguments and resentment.
When we speak with goodwill, we are motivated by a sincere desire for understanding and harmony, and we speak constructively.
Thoughts based on goodwill: this will help us to counteract the negative forces of greed, hatred and delusion. Instead we consider things with a clear intention for mutual benefit.
Sharing of rightfully acquired gains: Buddhist monks, for example, share their gains in all respects – food, clothing, shelter and medicine.
If modern day society adhered to this Buddhist principle it would be a great improvement. People would not be so motivated toward personal gains at the expense of others. Parents love their children so they easily feel goodwill for them. Friends, too, can easily feel goodwill toward each other.
Uniform moral conduct; a harmonious society must consist of people with a certain level of morality, who respect the laws and regulations of the country and are honest toward each other.
If people’s conduct is not uniform, the laws are not effective or fair, and crime is rife, no matter how democratic a society may be, it will not be harmonious and development will be very difficult.
Uniform views: harmonious views, ideals and principles of belief are also important factors for ensuring harmonious society.
Members of a democracy should at least possess the same beliefs in relation to democracy, beginning with the common acceptance of the democratic state, and ideally they should also have a common understanding of the heart of democracy and the meaning of liberty. Without such a common understanding, problems are bound to arise.
Simply by understanding that liberty is the freedom to do what one pleases we are inviting contention and disharmony.
The key to the Buddhist contribution is its notion of the human person. The human person is a part of the interdependence of all life.
Thus the Buddhist teaching of Anathma makes possible an appreciation of persons as more than entities or individuals.
This awareness liberates a person from the enslaving concepts and practices of culture, such as those imposed by the traditions. By negating the metaphysical basis of traditional values and practices the Buddha affirmed instead the crucial nature of human conduct and virtues as determining what is truly human.
He also stressed reliance on the powers of analysis and autonomous reason and rejected revelation, authority, and tradition as sources of knowledge.
The Sangha was to model this image of the human person, as “a society of equals-regardless of birth or lineage or whether one was rich or poor, man or woman.”
People are human in relation to others and nature, by virtue of their conduct and character.