Ubuntu and the Golden Rule

One of the most consistently progressive ideas in human history, being both ancient and strikingly relevant to our world today, is that of “reciprocity”, or the Golden Rule.

It is an idea so simple and so practical, that we almost need to unlearn to get to its core. It has taken on many forms, but at its heart it is this

Do to others what you would have them do to you.

Put even more simply this means “practice compassion”. Rather than pity, weakness, sympathy or sentimentality, compassion means the powerful ability to “feel with”, to empathise. This is not hard for anyone to understand, and yet yields an endless field of study and application, with great relevance for interspiritual understanding as well as the general development of civic society.

From Rembrandt’s Good Samaritan

One of the strongest champions of the contemporary understanding of The Rule is British writer Karen Armstrong. She says, “All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality … all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group”. Based on her decades long study of the Rule in every major religious tradition, she founded the Charter for Compassion in 2008, as a “modest” proposal for a basis for unity in a religiously fractured world.

Now Ubuntu, the classic African sense of shared humanity, is perhaps most succinctly put as

“Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”

African traditional saying

from the Zulu, meaning “A person is a person through other persons”. Spending time in almost any African culture, one quickly feels the underlying communal basis for African life, and this is echoed in many parts of the world, especially where modern Western consumer culture has not eroded it.

Compare this co-operative worldview with that of French philosopher Rene Descartes‘s Enlightenment-era dictum

I think, therefore I am.

René Descartes, 1637

This highly influential thought has come to mean 2 things; that humans are primarily thinking (rational, as opposed to feeling or doing) beings, and the individual ego, rather than the community, is the starting point for understanding the world. It forms the basis for the rampant individualism of the modern and post-modern world.

In South Africa we live in an environment broadly shaped by these 2 oft-conflicting perspectives, the Ubuntu of indigenous Africa, and the Individualism that emerged from the European “enlightenment”.

What is exciting at this time is how the near-universal truth of the Golden Rule intersects with the Ubuntu tradition. If our being is via the being of others, then doing Good is a matter of knowing how others would like to be treated, and treating them thus.

If Ubuntu is the ethos, then the Golden Rule is its ethic. Through bringing these together, that which is African is connected and infused with universal spirituality, and the universal, perennial traditions of our “worlds” (First, Second,Third…) can mutually empower one another.

Here is a short list of how the Golden Rule has been religiously formulated through the ages, in an approximate chronological order:

Shu – Reciprocity
  • Zigong asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?” Confucius replied, “It is the word shu–reciprocity: Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” (Confucianism, Analects 15.23)
  • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Buddhism, Udana-Varga 5:18)
  • Do nought unto others which would cause you pain if done to you (Hinduism, Mahabharata 5 : 1517)
  • What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn. (Judaism, (Hillel the Elder) Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
  • You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Judaism/Christianity, Leviticus 19.18, Matthew 22.36-40)
  • Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. (Christianity (Jesus; putting the rule in its “positive” form),  Matthew 7.12)
  • Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself. (Islam, Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13)
  • Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss. (Taoism, Laozi T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien 15)
  • All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. (Oglala Lakota, (Black Elk 1863-1950))
Detail from mosaic “The Golden Rule” by Norman Rockwell

Published by Nic Paton

Composer of music for film, television and commercials.

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