Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Hindu Perceptions of Disability

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Hindu Perceptions of Disability

Article excerpt

"The only disability in life is a bad attitude" (1)

Hinduism is a religious tradition of Indian origin. There are 900 million adherents, making it the third largest religious community in the world, after Christianity and Islam. Hindus are located primarily in India, Nepal, and Bali; 2% live outside India including 1.5 million in the United States. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of adult Hindus in the U.S. more than tripled (from 227,000 to 766,000 residents). (2,3)


Several concepts are central to Hinduism. Karma is the unfolding of events and is based on the integrity of lives in previous lives. It is not imposed by an outside punitive force, or God, but is an "exercise of the moral law of the universe." (2) Samsara is the process of successive rebirths until one reaches the complete release from the cycle of rebirths.

Suffering, both mental and physical, "... is thought to be part of the unfolding of karma and is the consequence of past inappropriate action ... that occurred in either one's current life or in a past life." (2) This view is shared by Buddhist and Sikhs. (4) Hindu traditions promote coping with suffering by accepting it as a just consequence and understanding that suffering is not random. Experiencing suffering satisfies the debt incurred for past negative behavior. Suffering can be positive if it leads to progress on a spiritual path. An individual can feel hopeless because he feels that things are fixed by karma. Tradition counters with the view that a person can go forward in a positive manner by following dharma (guidelines for living one's life). (2)

"... suffering is transitory while in this world, and not affecting one's true Self." (2)

But the reality is that classical texts of Hinduism often refer to disabilities and deformities, "... as something fearful, usually a punishment for misdeeds. Credence is given to the equation of a twisted personality with a twisted body." (5) These historical epics contain many characters with disabilities that are familiar to Hindu adults, "... (and have) the significance of religious myth and continue to shape attitudes." (5)


There is "... no universal definition of disability, rather, multiple meaning exist ..." (6) The medical model views a disability as a personal tragedy. The medical model expects individuals to find ways of adapting to society. The social model presents a disability as a consequence of oppression, prejudice and discrimination by society. The social model shifts the onus from the individual with a disability to society and its attitudes and environment. Given this perspective dichotomy, the belief in "... Karma gives people some explanation of their suffering which cannot be justified otherwise." (6)

However, in Hindu mythology, "... the portrayal of people with disabilities is overwhelmingly negative, but also exhibits a strong gender bias in terms of the perceived capabilities of disabled men and women." (7) Men with disabilities are in some cases powerful and capable people. In contrast, women with disabilities in Hindu mythology are "simply irrelevant." In Bollywood films, several common images of men and women with disabilities emerge. The disabilities typically are acquired after birth rather than congenital; thereby "normalizing" the actor somewhat. The disability quite often is cured during the course of the film. Men with disabilities are featured far more often than women with disabilities. Men with disabilities often are loved by a devoted woman, while women with disabilities are rarely loved by men. (7)

But to conclude from these exchanges that individuals with disabilities are being punished for actions in a former life and therefore excuses others from the obligation of helping "... is not what a belief in karma countenances or recommends." (8) Karma commends concern to minimize the person's problems, ". …

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