Eugenics and Religious Law: IV. Hinduism and Buddhism

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IV. Hinduism and Buddhism

Because reproduction is one of the most important concerns of human life, most religions concern themselves with the regulation of sexual activity, marriage, and production of children. Hinduism and Buddhism also guide their followers in these matters, but in ways very different both from each other and from Western religions.

Eugenics might be defined as controlling human reproduction to modify or benefit the species. Prior to the present innovation of genetic engineering, eugenics meant restrictions on who could reproduce and with which partner. The recent development of methods of altering the human genome has opened a new area of ethical discussion: the propriety of voluntarily altering the human genome. Eugenics has also been used to excuse genocide, but this aspect will not be discussed here since nothing in Hinduism or Buddhism allows rationalization of genocide.

Although Hinduism and Buddhism have highly developed ethical philosophies, neither religion produces set positions on such contemporary matters as eugenics, nor is it likely that they will, given the nature and organization of the two religions. In both religions, ethics are developed by the individual or the social community; there is no official body that produces ethical statements. Hence there are no official Hindu or Buddhist positions on issues that were not envisioned when their scriptures were composed over 2,000 years ago. However, both religions have ethical ideas or methods that can be applied to modern problems.

Hinduism has its beginnings in the two millennia before the Common Era; the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, died about 500 b.c.e. In those remote times there were no concepts akin to those of modern genetics and hence there could be no ethical discussions of genetic manipulation. Rather than a single scripture analogous to the Judeo-Christian Bible or the Koran, Hinduism and Buddhism have vast collections of diverse canonical texts that have appeared over millennia. Hinduism does have several authoritative legal texts, the most important of which, The Laws of Manu, was composed from about 200 b.c.e. to 200 c.e. These texts codify religious law (dharma) but are not regarded as the only legal or ethical authority. Buddhist texts are concerned with spiritual development and give only very general precepts for regulation of lay life. However, it is possible to develop Hindu or Buddhist positions on eugenics.

Hinduism and Buddhism both arose in India and share many common beliefs, such as the doctrine of karma (discussed below), yet the differences between the two religions must not be underestimated. Generally speaking, Hinduism is a legalistic religion and pays great attention to regulating life in the world. Buddhism sees worldly life as secondary in importance; attainment of release from suffering in this or subsequent existences is its central concern.

Reproduction in Hindu Religious Law

Although Hinduism recognizes a final stage of life in which the individual is released from domestic and social obligations in order to be able to pursue enlightenment (moksha), in the earlier, householder stage, detailed rules define acceptable behavior. Among the most important are those that regulate reproduction. The intent of these rules is to maintain the hereditary caste distinctions. Here Hinduism's outlook is very similar to that of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Western eugenics, which proposed controlling reproduction to prevent what were considered undesirable unions. Although the specific rules for regulating marriage and reproduction were different from those proposed by Western eugenics, the spirit is the same: to protect the human species from degeneration due to unsuitable matches. Hinduism does not define suitability for marriage according to scientific understanding of genetics, but by caste membership, which is hereditary, and by physical traits, which are correlated with astrology. Traditionally, prospective brides were inspected undressed and an elaborate system of body divination existed for interpreting body markings, particularly on erogenous areas. Manu states, "A man should not marry a girl who is a redhead or has an extra limb or is sickly or has not body hair or … is too sallow … He should marry a woman who does not lack any part of her body … whose body hair and hair on the head is fine …" (Manu, p. 44). There are also rules for selecting the sex of children (males are conceived on even-numbered nights) and in all cases, the social class of husband and wife must match.

These procedures amount to methods of selecting marriage partners according to biological suitability, although the biological traits selected for concern may not seem very appropriate today. Marriage is discouraged if partners are not biologically and astrologically suited. In India, marriages have been and still are arranged by parents on the basis of social, economic, and reproductive suitability. Romantic interest is at best a very secondary consideration. The entire basis of marriage in Hinduism is eugenic, but the factors felt to predispose favorably to suitable offspring are quite different from modern Western ones. Marriage in Hinduism exists to ensure offspring and perpetuate family distinction and caste separation. These laws were intended to regulate reproduction rather than sexuality. Sexual liaison outside of marriage and across caste, though not approved of, was not considered wrong so long as no offspring resulted.

Hinduism does not contemplate elimination of inferior castes, but simply limitation of physical contact between them and higher ones. The higher castes must preserve their purity, but all castes are necessary and have their place in the cosmos (Danielou). This contrasts with the extreme, modern racism, in which one group, which considers itself superior, aims at the elimination of others. There is no idea of altering the genetic or social situation of humanity as a whole. On the contrary, marriage rules attempt to maintain the status quo. Their rationale is not to improve the human species but to prevent its degeneration.

In general, Hinduism has not been opposed to attempts to control reproduction. Female infanticide has been extensively practiced in India. An innovation is the use of ultrasound machines by entrepreneurs; at village marketplaces a pregnant woman can find out whether she is carrying a boy or girl, with abortion elected in the instance of the latter. A similar practice exists in China. Although the practice of female infanticide can be explained in economic terms (a girl's parents must provide a dowry if she is to be married), it represents a practice of controlling reproductive outcome for family or social goals. Infanticide has not been viewed with the same opprobrium as in the West, although it is certainly not fair to imply that the Hindu religion condones such acts.

The Indian concept of karma, which is fundamental to all its philosophical and religious systems, has some similarities to modern genetics. It is a law of moral cause and effect. The literal meaning of karma is action, and the theory holds that one's present state is the result of personal and collective actions in this and previous lives. Actions, like genes, have effects that persist across lifetimes. Much of each individual's present circumstances are the result of previous actions carried across generations. Karma and scientific genetics seek to account for the human experience that the past tends to repeat itself in the present. Both offer an explanation of how an individual comes to have certain traits.

Buddhism and Human Reproduction

Buddhism, which abolishes the caste system, has no concern with the suitability of marriages. Indeed, its monastic nature has made Buddhism generally uninterested in family life and reproduction. Throughout Buddhist history, clergy were forbidden to solemnize marriages; this was seen as inappropriate involvement in worldly affairs. (Wedding ceremonies officiated by Buddhist monks are a recent innovation.) Nor does Buddhism have an elaborate ethical code for regulation of lay behavior. Throughout most of its 2,500-year history, Buddhism has been monastic; lay life was not considered conducive for progress toward enlightenment. However, the sangha, the order of monks and nuns, did try to inculcate simple moral understanding in the laity.

In the Theravada form of Buddhism, which most closely resembles early Buddhism, the laity is taught the Five Precepts, which call on the Buddhist to avoid (1) unnecessary killing, (2) taking what is not given, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) harmful speech, and (5) use of intoxicants. Although Buddhist teachers will offer their particular interpretations of these principles, detailed rules are not given in any canonical text. Sexual misconduct, for example, is rarely defined and there is no position on contraception. Nor are there specific rules on suitability of marriage or sexual partners. The first precept might be interpreted as discouraging abortion; however, termination of pregnancy is not absolutely forbidden, though it is considered highly undesirable. Buddhism would see the ideal situation as one in which the partners are mindful of the consequences of their actions and avoid a situation in which abortion is a consideration. If carried out, abortion should use a method that minimizes any suffering. (For Buddhist analyses of the abortion issue see Taniguchi, 1987, and Redmond, 1991.) In Japan, where abortion is used as a method of family planning, Buddhist monks are involved in practices that women use to atone for abortion.

In contrast to the religious law of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Buddhist precepts are very general, expressing morality in spirit rather than letter. Nothing in the five lay precepts can be construed to oppose genetic manipulation, provided that it is not harmful. Buddhism does not try to regulate lay behavior by detailed codes of laws, but rather by teaching sati, "mindfulness" and ahimsa, "harmlessness." The ultimate value in Buddhism is not living in accordance with a code of religious laws but being aware of the effects of one's actions so as to minimize harm. In general, a Buddhist would be concerned that genetic knowledge not be used in a way that causes suffering, but would not be opposed in principle to the acquisition or application of such knowledge. Buddhism places its highest value on knowledge, which it sees as the sole vehicle for enlightenment and release from suffering. Ignorance, not sin or disobedience, is the case of a human's unhappy state. Hence, Buddhism may be seen as favoring the acquisition and use of genetic knowledge, provided that it is applied in ways that help, rather than harm, living beings. Changing the genetic code so as to eliminate a disease in the offspring would be quite acceptable so long as it was carried out skillfully, that is, not harmfully. Partner selection for genetic or ethnic reasons is not supported by Buddhism, which abolished the Hindu caste system. However, such selection would not be ethically improper if it did not cause suffering to those involved.

Cosmology and Eugenics

There are two commonly held contemporary Western positions about eugenics that Hinduism and Buddhism see rather differently from most Western ethicists. One position is that since the world and everything in it, including human beings, are held to be created by God according to a divine plan, then altering the human genome is altering the very basis of God's creation, which is impermissible. Thus the Vatican's statement on reproductive technology holds that "no biologist or doctor can reasonably claim, by virtue of his scientific competence, to be able to decide on people's origin or destiny" (Vatican, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1992, p. 84). A similar but secular argument holds that we should not alter nature. Although altering nature may not be inherently wrong, pragmatically such alterations are much more likely to do harm than good. The only safe course is stringently to restrict novel technologies such as genetic engineering.

Neither Hinduism nor Buddhism conceives of a creator God whose divine plan might be altered by genetic manipulation. (Although Brahma is considered the creator in Hinduism, the metaphysics of creation are quite different. Creation occurs from moment to moment and not according to a perfect plan.) Far from seeing the world as divine or perfect, both religions regard the world as inevitably a place of suffering. The fundamental virtue in both Hinduism and Buddhism is practicing ahimsa, or harmlessness, which means to avoid making living beings suffer. For example, the environment should not be harmed because living creatures are dependent on it. Since the universe was not created by divine plan, altering it is not considered a repudiation of God. In this context genetic manipulation is perfectly acceptable.

As to the second argument, that humans cannot handle their power over the genome, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism can be held to have a clear position on this. Evil is the result, respectively, of delusion, moha, or ignorance, avidya. Ethical ignorance is simply an aspect of more general spiritual ignorance, which clouds perception of the true nature of existence. However, Buddhism and Hinduism conceive of ethical ignorance somewhat differently. In Hinduism, it is necessary to be aware of the complex laws, or dharma, regulating human behavior. In Buddhism, ignorance is lack of awareness of the law of cause and effect, for example, of knowing how one's actions will affect oneself and others (Taniguchi, 1994). Mindfulness shows that an action harmful to another will cause suffering just as it would if done to oneself. A unique moral insight of Buddhism is that ethical behavior requires factual knowledge (Redmond, 1989)—for example, what effects behavior will have on others—as well as knowledge of ethical precepts. The way to this knowledge is through self-cultivation such as meditation, study of religious texts, and, especially, the influence of a teacher. Ethical behavior results from personal moral development rather than detailed moral legislation.

Karma and Eugenics

The concept of karma can be interpreted, or sometimes misinterpreted, so that it appears to oppose eugenics. Karma holds that misfortunes in this life are due to harmful actions in a former life (although there are also social sources of unfavorable karma). By this interpretation, if a child is born with a genetic disorder, then the misfortune is due to previous voluntary actions that harmed others and hence is deserved. Furthermore, this karma must be worked off; the suffering must be endured to expiate the previous wrongdoing. If the suffering is prevented, it will simply occur later. Thus, if a fetus with Down syndrome is aborted, the same individual will simply be reincarnated later with a similar affliction.

The idea that suffering should not be relieved, because karmically deserved, is widespread in India and Buddhist countries and is sometimes articulated by Buddhist teachers in the West. It is a misunderstanding of the Buddha's teaching, which was concerned to explain the way of release from suffering. Although Buddhism teaches compassion, some Buddhists, in common with some followers of other religions, find interpretations that rationalize evasion of the ethical obligation to be kind to others. It is not consistent with Buddhist teachings on compassion to refrain from relieving another's suffering on the grounds that it is due to the operation of karma.

Buddhism, although not opposed to eugenics if it is skillfully applied, does not require it. In contrast to Hinduism, it does not establish rules regarding reproductive behavior. Some contemporary Buddhists believe that each individual has his or her tasks in life and that, although these might be different for someone with a birth defect, others should not assume that such a life is therefore less worthy. This has affinities with the idea that we should not interfere with nature because we may not fully understand the effects of what we do.

Hinduism, then, requires a form of eugenics, and Buddhism is essentially neutral on eugenics as such, but would be greatly concerned to ensure that eugenic practice decreased suffering rather than increasing it. Neither religion sees eugenics as in itself improper, but both concern themselves with how it is carried out. However, Hinduism and Buddhism produce no set positions, and individual Hindus and Buddhists may have views different from those summarized here.

geoffrey p. redmond (1995)

SEE ALSO: Buddhism, Bioethics in; Hinduism, Bioethics in; Medical Ethics, History of South and East Asia; Population Ethics, Religious Traditions: Buddhist Perspectives;Population Ethics, Religious Traditions: Hindu Perspectives; and other Eugenics and Religious Law subentries


Danielou, Alain. 1993. Virtue, Success, Pleasure, and Liberation: The Four Aims of Life in the Tradition of Ancient India. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International.

Manu. 1991. The Laws of Manu, tr. and with an introduction and notes by Wendy Doniger, with Brian K. Smith. London: Penguin.

Redmond, Geoffrey P. 1989. "Application of the Buddhist Anatma Doctrine to the Problems of Biomedical Ethics." Ninth Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Abstracts. Taipei, Taiwan: Institute for Sino-Indian Buddhist Studies.

Redmond, Geoffrey P. 1991. "Buddhism and Abortion." Newsletter on International Buddhist Women's Activities, no. 26 (January–March), pp. 7–11.

Taniguchi, Shoyo. 1987. "Biomedical Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective." The Pacific World. New Series (3): 75–83.

Taniguchi, Shoyo. 1994. "Methodology of Buddhist Biomedical Ethics." Religious Methods and Resources in Bioethics, pp. 31–65, ed. Paul F. Camenisch. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Vatican. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 1992. "Instruction of Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation." In The Ethics of Reproductive Technology, pp. 83–97, ed. Kenneth D. Alpern. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Eugenics and Religious Law: IV. Hinduism and Buddhism

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