Hinduism is an ancient religion practiced by hundreds of millions in India and abroad. One commentator describes it as
...more than just a creed: it is a total culture, a way of life based on the belief in the unity of all creation. Hindus, like Buddhists, see humankind not as an entity separate from animals, but rather as an integral part of the universe that includes all living creatures. Although Hinduism is well known for considering cows to be holy, in Hindu doctrine, all living creatures, including insects, plants, and trees, are thought to enjoy a kinship with one another and to be worthy of respect and life. (1)
According to Nine Beliefs of Hinduism, a tract published by the Himalayan Academy of San Francisco: "Hindus believe that all life is sacred, to be loved and revered, and therefore practice ahimsa, or nonviolence." All life is sacred because all creatures are manifestations of the Supreme Being.
The Hindu practice of nonviolence is connected to a belief in reincarnation: the repeated re-embodiment of souls in different species of life. The karma generated in one's present life determines whether one enjoys a higher or suffers a lower existence in the next reincarnation. Dr. T. K. Venkateswaran, a Hindu leader in the Parliament of the World's Religions, writes that karma is "the moral and physical law of cause and effect by which each individual creates one's own future destiny." Hinduism teaches that there are 8,400,000 species of life, beginning with the microbes, rising through the fish, plants, insects, reptiles, birds, and animals to the humans and gods. According to their desires, living entities perpetually take birth in these species. These transmigrations are directed by the mind propelling the soul to newer and newer bodies. As Dr. Venkateswaran notes, "All souls are evolving and progressing towards union with God....The individual soul reincarnates, evolving through many births and deaths, until all the karmic results, good and bad, are resolved." (2)
Hinduism teaches that abortion, like any other act of violence, thwarts a soul in its progress toward God. Why does the Hindu community seem silent on the abortion issue? Dr. K. S. Krishnan of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Kerala, India, offered this explanation for the apparent silence: "Personally, I feel that a sannyassi [monk] should have no chance of discussing the private life of a lady. That can only happen when a lady approaches him to become a disciple." (3)
Nevertheless, Hindu scriptures and tradition have from the earliest of times condemned the practice of abortion, except when the life of the mother is in danger. Hinduism teaches that the fetus is a living, conscious person needing and deserving protection. Hindu scriptures refer to abortion as garha-batta (womb killing) and bhroona hathya (killing the undeveloped soul). A hymn in the Rig Veda (7.36.9, RvP, 2469) begs for protection of fetuses. The Kaushitaki Upanishad (3.1 UpR, 774) draws a parallel between abortion and the killing of one's parents. The Atharva Veda (6.113.2 HE, 43) remarks that the fetus slayer, or brunaghni, is among the greatest of sinners (6.113.2). (4)
In modern times, India's greatest apostle of nonviolence, Mohandas Gandhi, has written: "It seems to me clear as daylight that abortion would be a crime." (5) The international periodical Hinduism Today acknowledges: "Across the board, Hindu religious leaders perceive abortion at any stage of fetal development as killing (some say murder)...and as an act that has serious karmic repercussions." For example, Swami Kamalatmananda of the Ramakrishna Monastery in Madras, India, has said: "No human being has the right to destroy the fetus. If having a baby is economically and socially problematic, one can very well take precautions to avoid such unwanted birth rather than killing the baby. Precaution is better than destruction." (6)
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is India's greatest scholar, philosopher, cultural ambassador, author, and spiritual leader. His teachings on the subject of abortion are very clear:
They are killing the baby in the womb. How cruel! In this age of unwanted population, man is losing his compassion. When you kill a living entity, even an ant, you are interfering with its spiritual evolution, its progress. That living entity must again take on that same life form to complete its designated life term in that body. And the killer must return to pay for damages.(7)
Elsewhere Srila Prabhupada has written:
You are killing innocent cows and other animals--nature will take revenge. Just wait. As soon as the time is right, nature will gather all these rascals and slaughter them. Finished. They'll fight among themselves. It is going on. Why? This is nature's law. Tit for tat. You have killed. Now you kill yourselves.
They are sending animals to the slaughterhouse, and now they'll create their own slaughterhouse....This is nature's law. It's not necessary that you be sent to the ordinary slaughterhouse. You'll make a slaughterhouse at home. You'll kill your own child--abortion. This is nature's law.
Who are these children being killed? They are these meat-eaters. They enjoyed themselves when so many animals were killed, and now they're being killed by their mothers.
People do not know how nature is working. If you kill, you must be killed. If you kill the cow who is your mother, then in some future lifetime your mother will kill you. Yes. The mother becomes the child, and the child becomes the mother.(8)
Commenting on the Hitopadesa, an ancient Sanskrit text, Satyanarayana dasa observes:
At present, people generally unite only for sensual pleasure, and children are often considered a regrettable accident....Abortion being accepted as standard practice, people conveniently forget that life begins at conception, by using such euphemisms as "tissue" when referring to the fetus. Although subconsciously they know that they are killing the baby in the womb, they prefer to say they are "terminating the pregnancy," or "removing the tissue" so they may feel free of the guilt for murder, thus deluding themselves psychologically...they cannot escape the punishment for murder given by the laws of karma, and ...in their next lives they will have to suffer the misery of repeatedly being aborted. (9)
Srila Prabhupada's teachings indicate a spiritual link between humans and other sentient creatures: violence towards animals leads only toward violence against other human beings. Satya Narayana dasa similarly notes that people who commit violence against their unborn children will be subjected to the same violence in future reincarnations. The cycle of killing stops only through the practice of ahimsa toward all.
It is important to note here that the karmic repercussions of abortion, grave though they may be, are not "punishments" in the sense of being the personal vengeance of a wrathful, judgmental God. They are simply the consequences of violating a natural law--whether that law is violated out of ignorance, fear, or whatever other possible motive. These spiritual leaders are not intending to act as agents of such a God, but to help people become more mindful and compassionate in their behavior, and to promote the evolution of all the souls that may be harmed through an abortion--the child's, the mother's, the father's, the abortion provider's.
One need not be a Hindu or even share the Hindu belief in reincarnation to conclude that the practice of ahimsa towards all is the only way to stop the cycle of killing that surrounds abortion. As Dr. Venkateswaran comments: "No particular religion, including Hinduism, teaches the only, exclusive way to God and salvation. All authentic, genuine paths and traditions lead to the One God and are facets of love and light." (10) The non-Hindu Marjorie Spiegel, author of The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, writes: "All oppression and violence is intimately and ultimately linked, and to think that we can end prejudice and violence to one group without ending prejudice and violence to another is utter folly." (11)
The anti-abortion and animal-rights movements in the West are predominantly non-Hindu but often invoke such a belief. Animal-rights activists compare the rights of animals to those of very young human children, insisting that a lack of respect for the lives and rights of animals brutalizes humans into insenstivity toward one another. Anti-abortion activists consider abortion the ultimate form of child abuse, and claim that child-abuse rates have risen dramatically since abortion was legalized. Acceptance of abortion, they argue, leads to a devaluation of human life and paves the way toward acceptance of infanticide and euthanasia.
Though anti-abortionists may grasp that "violence begets violence," they often do not extend this insight to the issue of animal rights. Hindus and non-Hindus alike can recognize that this is self-defeating. Animals are sentient, autonomous beings possessing many mental capacities comparable to those of human children. If we fail to see animals as part of our moral community, how will we ever extend our sphere of moral concern to embrace humans in their most primitive stages of development? Anti-abortionists look in horror as an entire class of humans are systematically stripped of their rights, executed, and even used as tools for medical research. Yet this is what we humans have been doing to other sentient creatures for millennia.
A contemporary Hindu spiritual master, Srila Hridayananda dasa Goswami, comments on this shortcoming of the anti-abortion movement:
Insisting that human life begins at conception, the anti-abortion movement seeks to shock us into the awareness that abortion means killing--killing a human being rather than an animal, a bird, an insect, or a fish. Thus although the movement calls itself "prolife," it is really pro-human-life. Its fudging with the terms life and human life reveals a disturbing assumption: that nonhuman life is somehow not actually life at all, or, if it is, then it is somehow not as "sacred" as human life and therefore not worth protecting....If the prolife movement can become part of a broader struggle to recognize the sacredness of all life...then undoubtedly it will gain great success.(12)
According to Hinduism's most sacred scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita (5:18), "the humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater." (In the traditional Indian caste system, Brahmins are considered the highest group of humans, while "dog-eaters" are a group of humans deemed so inferior that they are placed outside the caste system.) (13) Social ills such as racism, sexism, nationalism, caste-ism, and speciesism arise because souls falsely identify with their temporary bodies. On the spiritual platform, all are equal. (Compare this to the Christian teaching: "In Christ there is no Greek or Jew, slave or free" [Colossians 3:11].) Prolife feminism is compatible with such a theology. Srila Prabhupada explains: "Material bodies are dresses; they are the shirt and coat of the living entity. To be either a woman or a man involves only one's bodily dress." (14) The Supreme Being is both beyond gender and equally manifested in people of both genders.
Hinduism, like other religions, has been misused to justify the oppression of women. But properly understood, it is a challenge to sexism as well as to the oppression of the unborn. Indeed, some Hindus have noted the karmic link between the oppression of already-born women and girls and the oppression of the unborn--especially in their objections to the tremendous economic and social pressures upon Indian women to marry and to bear sons instead of daughters. Sons are preferred in large part because a bride's family is traditionally expected to pay a dowry to the groom's family, and women have few or no options for economic support other than marriage. As in many other countries, female infanticide has been practiced in India for centuries. When amniocentesis became available in the 1970s, it became possible to practice female infanticide before delivery as well as after.
Many families have sought prenatal diagnosis--sometimes with every pregnancy-- with the intent of aborting any fetuses who turn out to be female. According to a 1994 estimate, one million female fetuses a year were aborted in India alone. Poor families especially have been vulnerable to the widespread advertising slogan for prenatal diagnosis: "Spend 500 Rupees Now, Save Five Lakhs Later." (A lakh is equal to 100,000 rupees.) This slogan plays directly on the fear of economic catastrophe that the prospect of paying a daughter's dowry has often generated. (15) One woman tearfully explained why she succumbed to this fear and aborted her baby girl, even though she felt that "each child is sent by God." Her husband, she said, "has a right to a son" and she feared "my husband will divorce me and take a new wife who will give him sons," thereby abandoning her to economic ruin. (16)
Sabapathy Siva, a physician, asks :
What happened to our time-honored dharma [natural law of holy living] and duty to our children? Illiteracy, poverty and the dowry system have corrupted the society to the level of barbarianism. The man blames the woman for bearing a female child while he himself is [biologically] responsible for determining the sex of the baby. This fact ought to be taught first to the people. Next comes the public education regarding the dowry system. It is time that the women are bought with love and respect instead of money. Those of us who have come away from such a conducive atmosphere should not kill unborn female babies in the name of abortion once the sex of the fetus is known. We have to set an example and bring back the value of human life irrespective of the sexes.(17)
The practice of sex-selective abortion has even proved directly harmful to girls who have survived past infancy. Dr. Vibhudi Patel tells the true story of sex selection's impact upon one family--a story which, sadly, has had its counterparts throughout India.
Two sisters in the Punjab [region of Northern India] committed suicide. Before that, they left a note for their parents....It is a telling story of how these young girls feel. They were very bright; they were very creative. They used to participate in all extra-curricular activities. They used to write poetry. When their mother went for a sex determination test at the time of her third pregnancy, they suddenly felt unimportant and unwanted and killed themselves. (18)
Some Hindus are actively seeking to break the cycle of violence involved in abortion through the measures of education and marriage reform suggested by Dr. Siva, as well as through the Indian government's 1996 ban on sex-selection. Swami Kamalatmananda, as mentioned earlier, recommends precautions for those who are not prepared to raise a child. There are Hindus who see adoption as a positive solution. Hinduism Today has reported on a Hindu couple living in the United States who adopted an Indian girl, hoping to clear the negative karma of two past abortions.(19) In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the chief minister offers the White Cradle Program as an alternative to female infanticide (before and after birth). Cradles have been set up in hospitals and other places so mothers can leave their babies anonymously. The government finds adoptive homes for these babies and promises the adoptive families financial assistance until the children reach the age of 21. (20)
"For those Hindus who are not aware of the [soul-evolutionary] truths, it is our responsibility to advise them not to undertake abortion," says V. R. Kandasubramaniam, an elderly scholar from the Sister Nivedita Academy in Madras. (21) Female feticide is a powerful example of how abortion--like any other violence to sentient beings--proves that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all. Hinduism compellingly explains why this is so, but one need not be Hindu to also conclude that abortion generates bad karma which harms the whole web of life.
Endnotes for "Abortion is Bad Karma: Hindu Perspectives"