How Religion can Protect the Environment (Dr. Suresh Basrur)
1. Hindu teachings on nature and the environment
From the earliest days of the Hindu civilization, reverence for the environment has been an integral part of Hindu society. Our ancient forefathers perceived God’s presence around them through nature; they considered the natural forces which affected their lives as manifestations of the Supreme Being or God named Brahman.
The immense wisdom of the founders of Hindu civilization made them realize that these divine natural forces were not only necessary for the sustenance of humans, but also for the sustenance of all living things around them – animals, plants, fish, and organisms of every kind. They felt that they must live in harmony with all of God’s creations, respect and revere all of nature and the divine forces. They identified the divine forces as air (vaayu), water (jala), earth (bhumi), fire (agni), and sky (aakaasha). These elements are an integral part of Hindu worship. Many hymns were written in the Vedas praising the elements. Rivers, forests, animals, and the Sun were considered worthy of worship. The Samkhya philosophy of Vedic times describes ecology as integral to human existence.
Hymn IX of Book 10 of Rig Veda is dedicated to Water. The hymn recognizes the life giving ability of water, not only physically but also spiritually. The prayer concludes that plentiful supply of pure water be always available.
The far sightedness of the Hindu sages is evident in Vedic hymns, because, in ancient times, natural resources were not scarce and the capacity of nature to heal itself was much more than the harm inflicted on nature by human activity. However, Hindu sages realized that for sustainable development, preservation of nature was essential.
Here is a hymn from Isha Upanishad:
“Everything in the universe belongs to the Supreme God. Therefore take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take anything else, for you know to whom it belongs“.
The holy scripture Bhagavatam (Volume 2, Chapter 1, Verses 32-33) says
“The air is His breath, the trees are the hairs of His body, The oceans His waist, the hills and mountains are His bones, The rivers are the veins of the Cosmic Being (Brahman), His movements are the passing of ages”.
Even to this day, the significance of all these manifestations of God is understood; so, they are held in reverence and worshipped by Hindus. Reverence for the river Ganges, the cow, the Cobra, the monkey, etc. is known the world over. Hindu mythology describes river Ganges as originating from the top of Lord Shiva’s head in the Himalayas.
Hinduism has revered the tree for thousands of years. Official seals from the Indus Valley civilization (circa 3000 BC) depict the tree as a powerful symbol of abundance. King Ashoka (304 – 232 BC) created laws and edicts for the protection of forests. Trees are treated with great respect because, like all living things, trees have an atman or soul.
The concept of ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) prevents a Hindu from causing harm to any creature, and therefore, most Hindus are vegetarian. Thus, in summary, Hindu belief says: Everything in the universe is a manifestation of Brahman. To be Hindu, therefore, means to see divinity in everything. Everything means that which we can see or perceive, plus that which we can not see or perceive.
2. Conservation of natural resources and prevention of excess consumption
Hinduism teaches us that we should use the world unselfishly in order to maintain the natural balance and to repay God for the gifts he has given. Lord Krishna spread the message that nature needs to be preserved
Bhagavad Gita 3:12 says that:
For, so sustained by sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Whoso enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more, no less.
In Hinduism, spiritual endeavour advocates renunciation of all sensual attachments to the world. At the same time, the doctrine of Dharma (proper conduct) emphasizes a need to act “for the sake of the greater good of the world.”
Isha Upanishad says: “Resources are given to mankind for their living. Knowledge of using the resources is absolutely necessary.”
Mahatma Gandhi has delivered inspirational messages for the environmental movement. He has said: “The country’s development has to be in harmony with nature.” “Each member of a community has to live in communion with nature.” “The earth has resources to meet everybody’s needs, but not anybody’s greed.” “Man must voluntarily limit his wants.” “We must learn to live lives of simplicity and austerity.”
Hinduism stresses that true happiness comes from within, not from material possessions. This means that material possessions, and the consumption of materials and energy, should not be allowed to dominate life. Life’s main purpose is to discover our spiritual nature and the peace and fulfilment it brings. Exploitation of this world and everything on it, animate and inanimate, is considered by Hindu teachers to be contrary to this central purpose of life.
3. Responsibility of every human being.
According to Hindu dharma, the highest ethical standard that Hindus ought to apply comes from the concept of Sarva Bhuta Hita, which means the welfare of all living beings. This requires that the common good take precedence over private advantage. That includes protection of the environment, caring for the oppressed and the poor, protecting the needs of children and those who are yet to be born, and the welfare of all other living beings.
Ancient Hindu literature strongly advocates the duties of Kings and rulers in the preservation of the environment. Therefore, in today’s world, preservation of the environment should be a prime duty of politicians, lawmakers, powerful heads of corporations and businesses, and those who wield power through wealth. Hindu philosophy with its deep notions of trusteeship of earth resources and its reverence for nature as a sustainer of humanity has encapsulated within it the modern notion of sustainable development. The assets of nature are there for humans to use for their sustenance and development, but the assets of nature are held in trust. This is the essence of the modern concept of sustainable development and Hindu philosophy provides a strong philosophical base for this concept.
4. How Hinduism can contribute to the protection of the environment
Worldwide awareness of the need for protection of the environment and prevention of ecological disaster has taken root, very slowly, only in the past 50 years or so. Thanks to Greenpeace, David Suzuki Foundation, the Al Gore movement, etc it is beginning to gain significant understanding and broad based following only in the last few years.
Although human beings are considered the most intelligent life form on earth, they are responsible for most of the damage done to planet earth.
In India and elsewhere, as awareness of clean water needs, pollution of air, water and soil, global warming, species extinction, etc creates urgency for action, religious thinkers and activists have begun to reflect on how the values of Hindu tradition might contribute to fostering greater care for earth’s ecology. Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of simple living, based on dharmic Hindu principles, is a strong counterpoint to rampant worldwide consumerism, which in some societies has reached repulsive excesses. Sustainability is the watchword; but its practical implementation is such an enormous challenge requiring corporations and big business to reverse traditional “devil may care” attitudes, that global grassroots pressure and action is required to reverse current trends of ecological destruction. Teachings and principles of Hinduism can be adopted by these grassroots movements, to awaken human beings from their complacency or lack of urgency.
In mankind’s struggle to sustain the earth’s environment for the future generations, Hinduism’s extremely perceptive views of ecology offer a wealth of understanding and answers to our current ecological crisis.
5. Practical examples from India.
The Bishnois was a small community in Rajasthan who practised environmental conservation as a part of their daily religious duty. The religion is an offshoot of Hinduism and was founded by Guru Maharaj Jambeshwar in the 15th century. He believed that if trees were protected, animal life would be sustained and his community would survive. Therefore he formulated twenty nine injunctions. Principal among them was a ban on the cutting of any green tree and killing of any animal or bird. The Bishnois people’s defence of the natural environment needs to be more widely known as one of the world’s classic instances of martyrdom in defence of the environment. In 1730 Amrita Devi, a Bishnois woman was at home with her three daughters when she came to know that a party of woodcutters sent by the Maharaja of Jodhpur was on its way to fell a green Khejri tree for the construction of the Maharaja’s new palace. She blocked the woodcutters from felling the tree and was killed by them for her resistance, as were her three daughters. The news spread like wildfire among the Bhishnois community and hundreds of them assembled on the spot, prepared to give their lives in this cause and 363 of them did. This is known as the Khejrali Massacre. Later, the Maharaja apologised for the conduct of his officials. This Bishnois sacrifice has since been an inspiration to the environmental protection movements in India.
In 20th century India, the Chipko movement in the Himalayan foothills, “Save the Narmada River” movement in central India, the Appiko movement in the Western mountain range, and many others are significant, and take inspiration from Hindu teachings.
Hindus take an active part in checking Indian government schemes which might damage the environment, such as the building of large-scale dams which could cause the rivers to flood, destroying precious land and animals.
Vandana Shiva has campaigned against genetic modification. She is an Indian scientist motivated by her Hindu beliefs to champion the rights of rural women and farmers. She fought against the genetically modified ‘terminator’ seeds, which produce only one crop and force farmers to buy new seeds each year from the suppliers. And she campaigns to stop the patenting of the sacred Neem tree. Neem provides a natural and harmless alternative to pesticides, but global corporations have tried to patent it for their own use.
In the Assisi Declarations issued by a gathering of world religions in 1986 the Hindu perspective included the following statements:
• The human role is not separate from nature. Everything in the universe, including beings and non-beings, is pervaded by the same divine spiritual power.
• Nature is sacred and the divine is expressed through all its forms. Reverence for life and ahimsa (non-violence) is an essential principle.
• Nature cannot be destroyed without humanity destroying itself. In India, electric crematoriums are quickly replacing the wood-burning funeral pyres. Waste management is replacing dumping waste into rivers. Wildlife protection systems have been established. Much more needs to be done. Hindu spiritual leaders are spreading the message that our environmental crisis is in essence a spiritual crisis; that we must rejuvenate the values of Hindu teachings and incorporate them in our personal lives, in business, government, corporate and media operations.
6. Practical ideas for you to take with you.
In closing, I would like to encourage each one of you to take to heart the ideas of simplifying your lives, reducing consumerism and making your own personal contribution to saving the environment. This is what Hinduism has taught us. This is what Mahatma Gandhi has inspired us to do.
If we do this, there could be hope that the devastation of the environment will abate, and the end of human civilization could be averted.
So, let us do it in earnest. Let us teach our children. Let us spread the word amongst family, neighbours, educators, and societal leaders, business leaders and the wealthy.