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Gene Therapy – Genetic Modification – How Hindu Religion Views Them?

A look at the moral stance of Hinduism with respect to human manipulation of biological structure – gene therapy, gene editing and genetic modification. Hindu religion ethics are drawn from its knowledge texts and the elaboration of those texts by ancient sages. Although genetic engineering is a 20th century phenomenon, Hinduism looks to its knowledge texts to determine its ethical stance in this matter.

Hinduism would support the therapeutic uses of genetic engineering. However, these techniques can also be used to manipulate genes to enhance the physical appearance or abilities of a person. Hindu bioethics distinguishes between therapeutic and enhancement uses of genetic engineering. It recognizes not only a medical, but a moral, divide between the two applications of this technology. The former serves to improve life; the latter serves only selfish interests.

An important criterion for therapeutic gene therapy is the principle of compassion, daya. Uses of gene editing and genetic modification which help children with serious diseases in leading normal lives or which aid in treatment of those suffering from serious diseases like cancer etc are considered as acts of compassion.

Another ethical principle, established since the Vedic period, is that of the three debts owed by every person who takes birth. The first is to the natural world, which sustains all life; the second is to the sages who imparted eternal and moral truth; and the third is to one’s own family, which gives and sustains one’s individual life. It is incumbent on each one to ensure the continuity of the family for future generations. Prevention of premature death is one aspect of this moral obligation. Medical gene therapy is a modern therapeutic procedure which serves this moral purpose.

Enhancement gene therapy involves the introduction or modification of specific physical or mental characteristics of oneself or one’s children. For Hindus, this falls in a different category from therapeutic uses of this methodology. In Hinduism, the body is but the vehicle, taken on by the spirit so that it can grow and develop towards its ultimate goal. The self of the person is neither the body nor the mind, but the eternal atman (spirit). The spirit is born over and over so that it can learn, by means of the laws of cause and effect, how to attain the highest beatitude. The physical and mental abilities with which one is born are precisely the ones the spirit has drawn to itself in order to develop and grow. True personal transformation is accomplished only in the inner life, using the creative forces within. To modify the physical and mental attributes of any particular life contravenes the ultimate journey of the spirit. External and mechanical manipulation contradicts the freedom of the individual spirit.

Hindu religion does not believe in body improvement but only in true self improvement and this is the transformation of the inner self to a greater awareness of Bhagavan. Seeking improvements of physical capacities is due to ignorance and this prevents the individual from growing towards its highest goal.

An ethical principle central to Hinduism is that of no-harm, ahimsa. The human person is a complex combination of mutually interdependent physical, mental and spiritual components. Changes to even the smallest aspect cause a sequence of changes throughout the person. The unintended consequences of change in any genetic structure cannot be anticipated. Changes would not only affect the individual but their offspring also. The potential for great harm, with no assurance of remedial measures, makes this type of genetic manipulation incompatible with the principle of ahimsa.

Another response of Hindu bioethics concerns the principle of karma. Every act, no matter how subtle or insignificant, inherently entails inevitable consequences. One must eventually reap the effects of every thought, word and deed. The spirit grows by learning from the consequences of its past acts. Changing the capacities of the body and mind will have no effect on the latent store of karma waiting to be experienced. In fact, such changes constitute further acts for which consequences will need to be experienced. Thus, this increases the moral burden of the essential spirit.

The Ayurvedic view of health incorporates the principle of balance. Whereas therapeutic therapy restores balance, enhancement therapy increases particular aspects of the body or mind at the expense of other aspects. The body-mind complex is an interactive whole; genetic changes in one area affect many other characteristics and functions. When one part changes, its relation to all the other part changes; and thus all the parts are changed. It is not possible to know all the ways in which any one change will affect the whole. Changes as profound and fundamental as genetic engineering are more likely to violate than to generate balance.

Hinduism’s pluralistic approach values diversity and individuality. The cosmos is perceived as an infinite manifestation of the infinite Absolute. Each living being is a unique appearance of particular aspects of divine. It is precisely in its diversity that humanity is able to perceive the divinity which resides within all things. To artificially shape all the multiplicity of human potential to conform to particular historically situated cultural norms destroys not only our humanity but our perception of the divinity that manifests in diversity.

Hindu bioethics does not distinguish between genetic engineering of humans and of animals. The principle of unity, central to Hinduism, is founded on the concept that all levels of existence are manifestations of the Supreme Absolute. The individual atman (spirit) of every being is of the same nature as the Supreme Spirit (Paramatma). The human person is but one type of life experienced by the eternal atman in its journey through creation. The evolving spirit ascends through many lifetimes from the lower levels of consciousness to the higher levels, until it attains to the highest. Humans and animals are not only related by virtue of being made of the same material elements but, at the essential level of the spirit, they are also grounded in the same reality. Although there is a distinction between them, there is no separation. Thus, genetic engineering performed on animals falls in the same category as enhancement therapy on humans. When it is done for the benefit of the animal’s health, genetic engineering on animals is supported by principles of compassion and payment of the debt to the forces of nature. When it is done for the benefit of humans, without concern for the spiritual, mental and physical well being of the animal, it falls in the category of selfish behavior which will reap harmful karmic consequences. However, experimentation that uplifts the quality of life in general is acceptable to the Hindu tradition.

The principle of bandhu (connections), one of the most fundamental of Hindu concepts, governs the relations between all things, both material and spiritual. All things are not only manifestations of the One Absolute, but are interconnected. That which affects one part has repercussions on all other parts. Nothing and no one exists in isolation. Every act has consequences, not only for oneself, but for all other things and beings with which one is connected. What is done to animals cannot be disconnected from what happens to people. All are part of the same web of life.

Since life is one and all its parts interconnected, the principle of interdependence governs the interactions of all beings. The law of karma (moral causation) states that all actions which one does will bring necessary consequences to oneself. Thus what a person does to any other being will have to be also experienced by that person. Pain and suffering caused to other beings will eventually have to be suffered in the same way; kindness and benevolence given to others will also eventually be experienced in the same way.

The ethical stance of Hinduism regarding genetic engineering rests on the moral principles of compassion, debts to nature and family, no-harm, moral causation, balance, the unity of all things, the interconnection of all things, and the Supreme Absolute at the center of all existence. But in addition, in Hindu bioethics, privilege entails responsibility. Humans by virtue of their higher consciousness and greater power over the rest of nature, have a greater obligation to see the well-being of all living things.

Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume IV page 270 – 272 – IHRF – 2011
Ethics and Genetic Engineering in Indian Philosophy (2000) by Harold Coward – Unpublished paper presented at the Eighth East-West Philosophers’ conference, University of Hawaii.