--> Skip to main content

Teachings On Empathy In Hinduism

Most of the spiritual traditions say that pure love of God and realisation of one’s spiritual nature raises this noble sentiment in our mind. Real empathy is the natural progression of a deep understanding of the divinity within one’s heart.

The difference between ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ is relevant in this context. Empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune’. One may develop sympathy instinctively, but real empathy can arise in one’s mind only through spiritual education. We shall now explore the meaning and significance of empathy in different spiritual traditions that act as a beacon light in this hour of distress and confusion.

The teaching of empathy found in the Upanishads is established on the oneness of existence. Seeing ‘all beings in the Self itself, and the Self in all beings’ is the core teaching of the Upanishads.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes the state of oneness, when one becomes everything. In that state, one identifies oneself with the essence of whole existence, which the Upanishad terms as Atman or Brahman. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says in this regard: ‘Aham brahmasmi iti, tasmaat tat sarvam abhavat; realizing one’s true self as Brahman, one becomes everything.’ This is the highest goal of a human being.

How is this to be practised in our daily life? The Gita shows us the way. ‘Atmaupamyena sarvatra samam pashyati yo’ arjuna, sukham vaa yadi vaa duhkham sa yogi paramo matah; O Arjuna, that yogi is considered the best who judges what is happiness and sorrow in all beings by the same standard as he would apply to himself.’

Bhakti schools of Vedanta give prominence to the love of God. The intense loving devotion is called bhakti. Bhagavata shows how we can make use of this divine love for the good of all.

My presence in all beings should be recognized. … men in distress should be shown sympathy and kindness. … I abide by all beings as their innermost soul. (Srimad Bhagavad Purana).

The Bhakti traditions say that one can develop empathy with others by seeing God in them. The love of God transforms into the love for all beings for it is the same God who resides in the hearts of all. Thus, the empathy, a human emotion, elevates itself into recognizing divinity in all. Seeing God in all is real empathy.