Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 July 2022
Ancient and medieval India (prior to ca. 1600) produced a vast literature dealing with the nature of the human being, the proper ordering of society, and ethical and legal norms. Sanskrit sources tend to emphasize special dignities belonging to particular statuses according to a divinely ordained class hierarchy (varṇa-dharma). But in some contexts we hear of universally shared aspects of the human condition. Ascetic and devotional movements call into question special dignities tied to ascriptive rank. Sanskrit texts on good governance formulate general standards of justice and equity that could cut across or bypass rank. Thus, Hindu sources illustrate how ethical and legal orders find ways to compartmentalize: to recognize that all people can share basic capacities does not automatically sweep the field clear of status dignity. This essay draws on Jeremy Waldron’s concept of human dignity as a status claim that “levels up” by attributing to all people a dignity once reserved for a privileged few. We note Hindu examples of a similar approach, as well as examples of “leveling down” by pointing out the hypocrisy of elites while extolling the virtues of which the lowly are capable.
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