In Hinduism, the idea of material debt hasn’t been a point of emphasis (though Kautilya’s Arthashastra mentions it), primarily because Hindu philosophy doesn’t privilege material attachments. Instead, from a Hindu perspective, debt is defined in accordance with the principle of dharma, the mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement.
According to Hindu scriptures, there are four categories of debts that humans owe to meet the qualifications of a dharmic life: debt to God, debt to sages/teachers, debt to parents, and debt to humanity. The last is probably the most relevant to the concept of Jubilee, the spiritual progressive call to abolish material debts periodically with the goal of rescuing those who are trapped by debt and economic despair. Poverty, rising inequality, and social marginalization of disenfranchised groups are starting to stir progressive faith activists to join a global call to action on these issues. Perhaps an interfaith campaign for Jubilee could help to connect people of different religions into a new era of spiritually guided social justice.
The dharmic debt to humanity is encapsulated by the idea of seva, or selfless community service. Economic justice certainly fits into this larger concept, and there are many Hindu organizations that engage in work meant to obliterate inequality and promote the social uplift of the disenfranchised. For example, groups such as Hindu American Community Services, Inc., focus on providing mentorship to inner city children, while groups such as the Sai Baba organization and ISKCON feed the homeless and job training assistance. But seva runs deeper than fixing the economic woes. It is about ensuring that human beings understand that the world exists beyond themselves and that they must live selflessly in order to uplift others. It is not unlike the Jewish concept of tikkun, which is rooted in the idea that transformative change must also be holistic.
This is what contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar have promoted in their advocacy efforts. Shankar’s group provides meditation to incarcerated people, in hopes that a clear and calm mind allows them to re-integrate better to society upon their release, thereby reducing recidivism. It’s also why Hindu-based initiatives such as the Bhumi Project, which promotes environmentalism and an embracing of green lifestyles, have become more popular at a time when so many young people seek to put their spiritual and scriptural principles to action. We can, as Rabbi Lerner has noted, emphasize a holistic healing of the world through these initiatives.
In this sense, the debt to earth and all living beings is a principle in which Hindus—as well as Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs—deeply believe. This is why, in addition to pushing for the sort of economic measures that ameliorate suffering, spiritual progressives must push for the collective acceptance of and action upon the need to uplift others as an ongoing debt.
At a time when a conservative U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges that “corporations are people,” perhaps it’s time to push for those very corporations to participate in this concept of seva. This isn’t just the idea of paying more in taxes, or giving more in charity, but to institutionalize the idea that individuals and organizations must perform seva as part of their existence. Can we get corporations that pollute to clean up after themselves voluntarily? What about ensuring that corporations don’t engage in racial, religious, or sexual discriminatory practices? Hindus will continue to push for ways to transform humanity so that material considerations don’t remain the cause of enslavement, injustice, and inequality.
Once we expand the definition of debt beyond material considerations, the idea of Jubilee becomes more than just debt cancellation—it becomes a broader push to institutionalize the fulfillment of our debts to humanity and Mother Earth.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Winter 2015 print issue: Jubilee and Debt Abolition. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/jubilee to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)