This month will kick off Dharma Deen Alliance’s exploration of the role of Nature and the importance of respecting God’s creation. Part 1 will explore the Hindu perspective, while Part 2 will published in December discussing the Islamic perspective.
Part 1: Environmentalism according to Hinduism
The rivers are the veins of the Cosmic and trees the hairs of his body. The air is breath, the ocean his waist, the hills and mountains are the stacks of his bones and the passing ages are his movements.
– Srimad Bhagavatam 2.1.32-33
Let us adore the the Luminous, who is in fire, who is in water, who is in plants and trees, who pervades the whole universe.
– Shvetashvatara Upanishad 2:17
Mother Earth and Mother Nature play an important role in Hindu practice as its tied to many of our scripture’s ancient stories. In addition to being part of Bhagavan’s lila (divine play and creation) being surrounded by Nature forces one to live a simpler lifestyle free from the daily stresses of societal attachments. This in turn helps a seeker focus their attention on Higher Truth rather than being distracted by trivial matters.
NATURE’S ROLE IN EXECUTING DHARMA
The Earth is mother, the Heavens are father
– Atharva Veda 12.1.12
Trees are referenced frequently in Hindu scriptures as many deeper mystical lessons contained in the Upanisads or the Gita use metaphors involving banyan, sandalwood, and pipal trees. Sages usually transmitted sacred knowledge to their students while gathered under a tree in the jungle. Stories of devotees from cities or villages seeking knowledge would travel through forests seeking out rishis living in isolation. Main characters of the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata spent years banished to the jungles of South Asia. The divine avatar Krishna spent his youth as a cow herder in the forests of Vrindavan. Siddhartha Guatama, who was raised Hindu but then broke off to start a new religion, transformed into the Buddha while meditating under a bodhi tree. Clearly, nature plays a major role in connecting with the Divine.
Water holds importance because of its purifying properties which is why rivers, lakes, and oceans, are referenced in Hindu texts regularly. Before conducting pujas Hindus are expected to bathe to cleanse away both external and internal impurities. The mighty rivers that flow from the Himalayan peaks and provide water to the Asian continent are said to have qualities of shakti and named after divine Goddesses such as Ganga and Saraswati. In the story of Creation life arises out of the cosmic ocean (much like what science teaches us today) and at the end of certain festivals clay representations of Deities are dissolved in bodies of water. Rig Veda 1:23 praises the life giving properties of this importance substance:
Waters contain all disease dispelling medicine, useful for the upkeep of our body, so that we may live long to enjoy the bright sun. That there is ambrosia in waters, there is healing balm in them, and there are medicinal herbs, know this all, and by their proper use become wiser.
Mountains are also regularly referenced in scriptures with the Himalayas holding a special place in the heart of dharmic raditions. Saints, prophets, ascetics, and monks of various religions have made pilgrimages to the world’s highest mountain peaks for religious training or heightened experiences. The Pandava family of the Mahabharata undertook a dangerous trek to the Himalayas for the purpose of attaining spiritual rewards. Holy men and women known as sadhus travel there to meditate in isolation. And Hindu pilgrims endure a harsh journey on foot that can last for days to weeks to circumnavigate around the bases of certain locations or climb great heights to visit mountain-top shrines.
Those residing in cities or villages who are unable to or lack a desire to visit the wilderness also have an important dharmic role to play. People uninterested in pursuing the isolated lifestyle of an ascetic or the dedicated studies of a monk are instead asked to assist those who are on a quest for Higher Truth. One way of serving devotees is by honoring Creation through conservation. This not only sustains and honors Brahman’s conception it assists those people who’ve decided to seek out the Divine through austerity in natural surroundings. Therefore Hindus who’ve chosen to function as a part of greater society are obligated to support devotees by donating a percentage of their time and/or income to natural conservation just as it’s their dharmic duty to offer charity to a temple or to social causes.
EXAMPLES OF HINDU ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISTS
One famous Vaishnava sect known as Bishnois was established in Rajasthan in the 1400’s. Since the guru and his surrounding community lived in a region where wildlife conservation was vital he decreed several injunctions prohibiting the killing of animals and cutting down of trees. A few hundred years later more than 300 Bishnois protested and sacrificed their lives when a king began deforestation around their villages to build a palace. Bishnois have been known to be fierce protectors of animals against recreational hunters as well.
In the 1970’s villagers in Uttar Pradesh demonstrated against corporate logging and started the Chipko movement. The term “tree hugger” actually originates from this era since village women would embrace trees to prevent their livelihood from being destroyed. This in turn inspired a similar 1980’s Appiko movement in Karnataka, where locals used creative means to stop factory pollution and deforestation as well as promoting energy efficiency.
There are numerous other modern day examples of Hindus fighting for ecology. There are temples around the world going green by installing solar panels and implementing recycling projects. Organizations like BAPS have used methods of collecting rain water in impoverished areas as well as starting tree planting campaigns. ISKCON has held Vedic Ecology conventions and started organic farms promoting sustainability . And then there are more directly involved people like activist, author, and former Chipko participant Vandana Shiva who opposes biopiracy and genetically modified crops while working on behalf of downtrodden and exploited peoples. Each of these people whether individually or through organized efforts obey the commands of Vedic scriptures by revering and honoring Creation rather than subjugating it.
RESPECT NOT DOMINION
A person engaged in killing creatures, polluting wells, ponds, tanks and destroying gardens certainly goes to hell
– Padma Purana
A great misconception is that since humans were granted with superior intelligence they have free reign to dominate the Earth and a license to abuse and exploit Nature. We can all see that this attitude is foolish since Mother Nature can easily harm us at any moment with earthquakes, floods, and other ecological disasters. Anyone who thinks humanity has “dominion” over nature should try taming a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, or a tornado. We’ve also seen how cities that keep expanding outward and with the territory of wild animals being encroached upon on start posing a threat to communities – coyotes have wandered into businesses and elephants have trampled upon farm land. Lastly we’ve seen the huge negative impact of factory farms where millions of domesticated animals are crammed with no space to move. This approach to agriculture and slaughter causes massive water pollution, clear cutting of rain forest, in addition to causing farm workers PTSD and massive health problems among the human population.
The scriptures state that natural resources are here for us to use responsibly. For example, the Sanskrit term shrivan loosely translated means “forest of prosperity.” Besides using trees for fire and building homes, the forest also contains herbs that are highly prized in healing. Science has also backed up what our scriptures have already revealed on the role plants play in sustaining life according to one recent study. Nature also contributes to a devotee’s daily practice at home or the temple. Puja or temple offerings usually consist of fruits like coconut or bananas, or plants like lotus flowers or tulsi leaves (note: animal sacrifice is unnecessary; what one offers doesn’t count but rather the sincerity behind the offering). Bhagavad Gita 9:26 confirms the Divine’s acceptance of authentic piety and its ties to nature: I accept a leaf, flower, fruit or water or whatever is offered with devotion.
According to the principle of shrivan Nature is here for us to use but we’re expected to use these resources responsibly. Clear cutting trees, polluting air, land, and water, overusing resources in excess, or slaughtering animals unnecessarily are prohibited as stated in Isa Upanisad:
Everything within this world is possessed by God pervading both the animate and the inanimate. Therefore one should only take one’s fair share and leave the rest to the Supreme.
Time to end the war on Earth
CNN Video: Go vegetarian, save the planet
NDTV video: How religion is saving the dolphin of the Ganga River
The Gaurdian: UN urges global move to meat-free diet to stop climate change
TIME Magazine: Hindu temples go green
Photos of Buddhist temple in Thailand made entirely of recycle bottles (non-Hindu)