Hindu Muslim Unity: Krishna’s birthday celebrated at Narhar Dargah

Muslim family carries son playing Hindu avatar Krishna
Muslim family carries son playing Hindu avatar Krishna

JAIPUR:  Not many people know but Narhar Dargah, also known as Sharif Hazrat Hajib Shakarbar Dargah has been celebrating Janmashtami for the past 300-400 years.

“Its very hard to say the exact time and reason from when this festival is celebrated in the dargah but this marks an important event for national and communal unity. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs stay together and organiZe the event.” says dargah secretary Usman Ali Pathan.

“Thousands of Hindus come here and offer coconuts and flowers to the shrine and stay together. The idea behind organiZing this festival is to increase the love and unity among different religions in the country,” added Pathan. Devotees visiting the Dargah are surprised by such an event and the way it is smoothly organised and run from almost 400 years.

Read more: Communal Harmony

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Hindu Muslim Unity: Mughal art depicts Krishna

Krishna and devotees at Govardhan Hill
Krishna and devotees at Govardhan Hill

History shows that many Muslim artists have produced exquisite paintings of Krishna. Centuries after they were created, connoisseurs delight in these enchanting revelations of skill and artistry.

The Mughal influence is visible in the Vaishnava devotional paintings, temple carvings and iconographic expressions. The supremacy of Krishna and the bhakti school was maintained by the Vaishnavas in the midst of an overwhelming Mughal influence during this period.

In the Mughal School, there was a considerable crossover between Vedic devotional themes and Persian style illustrations. After the Mughal Empire collapsed, Krishna leela scenes again proliferated in miniature works of artists under the patronage of non-Muslim states of Rajasthan, and from 1750 onwards, their work branched out into many wonderful schools of devotional art.

Read more: Communal Harmony

Hindu Muslim Unity: 12 year old Muslim girl wins Bhagavad Gita competition

12 year old Maryam Siddiqui has won against 4000 competitors to win the Bhagavad Gita Champion League
12 year old Maryam Siddiqui has won against 4000 competitors to win the Bhagavad Gita Champion League

MUMBAI: Maryam Asif Siddiqui might have been a regular 6th Grade student but she’s not. The 12 year old from Cosmopolitan High School, Mira Road, Mumbai, recently won the Gita Champions League hosted by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

When asked what motivated her to participate in the competition she said, “I have always been inquisitive about religions and I often read up on them during my free time. So when my teacher told me about this contest I thought it would be a good chance to understand what the book is about. My parents too supported my idea of participating in the contest” Her curiosity was driven by the fact that she: “tried to understand what the Gita tries to tell us. The more I read about different religions, the more I have realized that humanity is the most important religion that we must follow”.

It’s no wonder that Maryam’s different thinking originates from her family and her father. “Our family believes that one needs to respect and accept all religions. No religion preaches hatred or wrong. However, there are some members who have misguided us. Before these have a bad influence on the children, we need to talk to them and make them understand what is right,” said her father, Asif Siddiqui.

Read more: Communal Harmony

Hindu Muslim Unity: Muslim artisans prepare for Krishna festival

Temple in Krishna's birthplace of Mathura
Temple in Krishna’s birthplace of Mathura

MATHURA: Thousands of Muslim artisans in the region have been working round the clock to make countless bejewelled costumes and accessories for the statues of Krishna and other Hindu deities for the Janmashtami festival. “We are working beyond our scheduled time in order to prepare maximum ‘poshak’ (dresses) of Thakur ji (Lord Krishna),” said Ikram, one of the artisans.

Another worker Iqbal, who is known for his expertise in preparing crowns for the deities, says he feels ecstatic whenever he comes up with a new design. Preparing attractive dresses and accessories has taken shape of a cottage industry in Mathura, Vrindaban and Goverdhan which employs roughly six thousand Muslim families.

While it is another example of communal amity, the artisans say any communal tension elsewhere has never impacted the relationship between the two communities. “Only politicians directly or indirectly are associated in such activities. We work like a family here. There is no exploitation,” said Azlan. “Our relations have never been strained in spite of communal riots that have taken place elsewhere in the country,” said his co-worker Zaheer.

Read more: Communal Harmony

Hindu Muslim Unity: Muslim artist designs for Krishna temples

Abdul Rashid, Muslim designer for ISKCON

JUHU: Abdul Rashid is a 58-year-old designer behind the beautiful clothes and decorations of Lord Krishna and Radha at the ISKCON temple at Juhu. The decoration of the deities at the temple is the result of the creativity of Rashid, who is a devout Muslim. Rashid began designing the clothes for the deities at the ISKCON temple back in 1966. “Initially, when I moved here, I took up various jobs such as painting, plumbing. Finally, in 1976, I joined a stitching class and that’s when I realised I had found my passion in life,” he said.

Rashid’s colourful and magnificent designs not only grace the deities in India but also in the ISKCON temples in America, UK and Australia. His designs have also been showered with praise from devotees all over the world.

Read more: Communal Harmony

Hindu Muslim Unity: mosque and temple used to celebrate Janmasthami

recreating baby Krishna’s pastime: forming a human pyramid to reach a hanging pot

MUMBAI: Janmasthami or Gokulashtami, is a festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, avatar and narrator of the Bhagavad Gita.  For decades the practice in Mumbai has been tieing one side of a rope holding a pot filled with curd between a mosque and a building where Hindus and Muslims are living together, recreating baby Krishna’s activity of stealing yogurt hung from the ceiling in clay pots.

“Every year we celebrate all the festivals together, whether it is Janmashtami, Dussera, Deepavali, Eid or Ramazan. We celebrate every festival together with love and brotherhood,” said Hajibhai, a Muslim resident of Dadar.

“We, at this festival give the real colour of Maharashtra. The colour, which goes beyond religion, which goes beyond caste, beyond creed and beyond regionality…we respect love of prayers and whosoever comes, we are ready to lift them,” said Vijendra Awaas, organiser of the festival celebrations.

Read more: Communal harmony
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Women in Hinduism Part 1

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lighting Diwali lamps in Pakistan

by Ravi

Did God make one gender superior?

both women and men are manifestations of the Supreme Being
– Atharva Veda Samhita 8:9:11

The Bhagavad Gita mentions that every living being has a soul (atman). A true seeker sees all souls with equal vision and without judgement.  Gita 5:18 sums this up: “The enlightened and wise regard with equal mind a priest endowed with learning and humility, an outcast, a cow, an elephant, and even a dog.” For one to assume they’re better than someone else based on their physical encasing (the body) is contradictory to viewing all beings as atma, which clearly has no gender. The eternal soul carries on to the afterlife  – not the physical body. This idea is again reinforced where it’s stated that any devotee regardless of gender or status in society can reach God’s abode so long as they have sincere devotion and obey Vedic laws (Gita 8:13, 8:22, 9:3, 10:10).

Today women all over the world are mistreated, abused, denied education, and forced into submission. Unfortunately  there are misinformed people (both pro- and anti-women) who believe that organized religion supports misogyny. The reality is that religions such as Hinduism preach respect for women. In order to combat men who use religion to justify their superiority complex and backward attitudes, scriptural law needs to be looked at more closely.

Education and property rights

temple procession in Indonesia

Hinduism encourages study and the pursuit of knowledge  – the Gita refers to this as jnana yoga. In the Vedic Age women were encouraged to be well versed in scriptures and fully educated. Atharva Veda 11:5:18 proclaims that daughters should be scholars. Mahanirvana Tantra 8:47 commands parents to raise their daughters with affection and to ensure they receive an education.

Both scriptural and archaeological evidence exist that girls and women were educated in Vedic schools with the same learning privileges given to boys and men. Likewise women were granted property rights with Rig Veda 3:31:1 affirming that privileges are equal between son and daughter when inheriting land from their parents.

Marriage rights

Marriage is considered more than a symbolic union between two people – it’s an enjoining of two souls.  A common critique of gender relations in Hindu texts are verses where wives are told to treat their husbands like God. But this is only half of what’s written. If one reads the sastras in their entirety they’ll discover that the husband is also commanded to treat his wife as Goddess! Vishnu Purana states “Where Vishnu is knowledge, Lakshmi is intelligence.” In Hindu doctrine the most High cannot exist without both female and male aspects in equal balance. And in the human realm, for a man to destroy, diminish, or subjugate woman is considered blasphemous. Among Vaishnava sects chanting or singing the names of the Vishnu’s forms must be done with the woman’s name first: Sita-Ram, Radha-Krishna, etc.

There is also an incorrect belief that a Hindu man has full power to pick and choose his wife while a Hindu woman has no say. Simply reading Hindu texts disproves this. In the Ramayana, princes from all over South Asia had to travel to a small kingdom to compete for the hand of princess Sita. In the Mahabharata a similar competition among men took place to win the heart of Draupadi. Rather than the man having full authority in deciding his marriage, he had to prove his worthiness to his potential spouse. The Mahabharata also contains multiple stories of women choosing their husband, even sometimes upsetting their fathers and other male relatives.

fasting for Teej in Nepal

Marriages where women are forced to marry against their will are referred to as asuric (asuras are demons  in hell).  Hinduism has no law on dowry and women who are married off in exchange for wealth are also categorized as asuric marriages. Marriages formed through kidnapping or use of force is classified as rakshasha (rakshashas are those who oppose Vedic culture). Scriptures state in plain language that a dharmic marriage is one based on mutual respect sanctioned by the heavens (gandharva). A union based on subjugation, greed, or force is endorsed by beings with demonic qualities.

A controversial episode takes place in the Ramayana where King Rama banishes his pregnant wife Sita after his subjects accuse Sita of cheating on Rama. Both misogynists and women’s rights activists  regularly cite this story to link Hinduism with sexism. But during Sita’s exile Rama refused to remarry saying “I have abandoned the woman you do not want as your queen, but I will forever remain faithful to the woman who is my wife.” Tragically, the story closes with Sita ending her life and Rama being filled with intense grief.  The lesson taught here is  not that husbands are allowed to mistreat their wives but rather they should give them the utmost respect regardless of opinions of others.  Had Rama supported spousal abuse or the idea of women being inferior he wouldn’t have felt any guilt, loneliness, or anguish upon Sita’s death. In fact, Rama is described as crying uncontrollably after her passing and grieving into old age.

Another controversial subject is that of widowhood and the act of sati (forcing a wife to walk into the cremation fire of her deceased husband). Like other religions Hinduism considers suicide a sin.  Sati is not described or supported in any text and is a relatively new and unethical practice. Just the opposite, Rig Veda 10:18:8-9 tells women to rise up if their husband is deceased and to charge on with their lives.

praying for communal harmony in India

Those who attempt to link sati to Hinduism usually reference two stories. One account is of a woman named Sati who killed herself because her father didn’t support her marriage to Shiva. Sati was not a widow as Shiva was alive  when she took her life. Thinking that this is about a woman being forced to burn because of a dead spouse is inaccurate. The second story mentioned earlier was where Sita asks the Earth to swallow her up because Rama rejected her. Rama was not deceased and Sita had two children – how this is connected to a widow dying for her departed husband doesn’t make quite make sense. In addition the Ramayana tells of Rama’s father who died yet his mother carried on. Later in the Ramayana, a king by name of Vali is killed and his grieving wife Tara declares that she prefers death over widowhood. Rama and Hanuman convince Tara not to commit suicide. Likewise in the Mahabharata, Krishna intervenes to prevent Uttara, the grieving wife of deceased soldier Abhimanyu, not take her own life. In addition Kunti the widowed mother of the Pandavas, stayed alive after her husband’s death and played an active matriarchal role in advising her sons. Rig Veda 10:40:8  asks for widows and worshipers to be protected daily which contradicts the belief that Hinduism calls for widows to be shunned and mistreated.

Lastly, another narrative from the Mahabharata is the story of Savitri, a woman who chose her own husband only to have him die shortly after because of a curse placed on him. Because of Savitri’s wisdom and deep philosophical knowledge she was able to debate and convince Yama, the lord of Death to bring her husband back to life. The legend of Savitri is complete reversal of the traditional knight in shining armor rescuing the damsel in distress. Rather it’s  about a woman well versed in dharma saving her husband’s soul from the clutches of death and outsmarting the power of a curse.

Violence against women

The highest ideal and duty preached in Hinduism is ahimsa or non-violence towards all beings. This doesn’t mean blind pacifism in the face of danger. It simply means that violence should only be used as a last resort (ie. in self defense against another violent attacker). This concept is repeated in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Upanisads, and numerous other texts. Anyone claiming that Hindu sastras support violence towards women is challenging the divine laws on ahimsa.

Coming soon!
Part 2: Hindu women as priests, yoginis, saints, and warriors

Hindu Muslim Unity: Vaishnavas and Muslims discuss the name of God

many names of Allah

WASHINGTON DC: Men and women from the Muslim and Vaishnava faiths met in Washtington D.C. for the state’s first Vaishnava-Muslim interfaith dialogue. The topic chosen for the dialogue was ‘The Name of God.’ “Reverence for God’s name is an important aspect of both traditions, and we thought it was something around which we could share commonalities, understand differences, and learn from each other,” one attendee said.

many names of Vishnu

One Muslim spoke about how Muslims emphasize remembrance of God, and chant what they call the 99 Beautiful Names of God. These are divided into two broad categories: one comprises God’s majestic aspects and includes names meaning The Creator, The Provider, The Source of All, and The King. The other addresses God’s beauty, and includes names meaning The Generous One, The Loving One, and The Patient One. Some of the Vaishnavas in the group commented on how the two categories of God’s names in the Islamic tradition corresponded to their tradition’s glorification of both God’s Aishvarya nature, or opulence, and his Madhurya nature, or beauty and sweetness.

A Hindu speaker also presented The Name of God from the Vaishnava perspective. He related that while Vaishnavas have many different names for God—the Bhagavad-gita contains more than forty, and the Vishnu Sahashranama lists no less than one thousand—they hold the name “Krishna” especially dear. Still, they have great respect for all names of God.

Read more: Communal Harmony

Is Hinduism polytheistic?

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Hinduism and Multiplicity in the Divine
by Ravi

Often a point of contention in religious debates, the idea of God manifesting in various forms is greatly misunderstood. There are some who believe that Hindus worship “330 million different gods” with Hindu verses taken out of context and misconstrued. It needs to be emphasized that the main point of this piece is not whether religions are polytheistic (belief in more than one god) or monotheistic (belief in one god). This is irrelevant – the objective is to show that multiple forms of the Creator are written about in the sacred texts of ALL major religions, not just in Hinduism. The essence is the same. The conflict is merely an issue of language/semantics. Before detailing what exactly Hinduism says on this subject it’s important to first examine the three religions which are usually labeled monotheistic.

What Abrahamic faiths say

Genesis 1:26 of the Torah narrates “”Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The words “us” and “our” imply that more than one creator constructed humanity. In Genesis, one Supreme Force assigns the task of creating Adam to

prophets such as Moses received divine revelations from angels – representations of the Creator

a team of divine servants. The Old Testament calls this team “angels”; Hindu scriptures use the Sanskrit term devas (demigods) instead to describe those who serve Brahman. The Hebrew word El-ohim which is used numerous times in the Torah can be translated to mean one single God or multiple entities. At the end of every angel’s name is “el” (Gabri-el, Rapha-el, Immanu-el, etc.), each representing a different aspect or characteristic of the larger Creator El.

Catholicism references not one but three divinities – God the Father, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit. Catholics are also known to pray to various saints who handle specific issues. Protestant faiths revolve around the worship of two distinct beings, God the Father and his son Jesus. The New Testament 23:33 even contains a conversation where Jesus says “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  In monotheism would this be considered a monologue or a dialogue?

Islam continues in the lineage of the Hebrew prophet Abraham. Just as in the Torah, the Quran also uses the plural “we”: “And We did certainly create the heavens and earth ” (50:38) and “O people, we created you from the same male and female.” (49:13)

What Hinduism says

It’s clear that there’s an inconsistency when defining religions as polytheistic or monotheistic. When a person worships Ganesh the son and his Father Shiva they’re said to believe in more than one God. The same thing isn’t said about someone who worships Jesus the son and his Father Jehovah. The Catholic Trinity is considered monotheist, but the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva is not. When the Vedas say that Brahman manifested as various entities then the conclusion is that Hindus believe in many gods. But when the book of Genesis and Surat Qaf describe a legion of creators that designed Man this is somehow not the same thing.

And what do religions say about how their sacred texts were delivered to prophets? Exodus 3:3 states “The angel of the Lord appeared to him as flames in the fire from a bush.” Here, commentators refer to this fire as “the presence of God.” But when this story is presented to the public, Moses is  instead talking directly with God, not an angel as the scriptures specify. Muslims also believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Yet the Quran is referred to as  “the word of God.” Even though God did not directly transmit the Quran to Muhammad, it’s accepted that Gabriel is a representation of God delivering the word.

Yet critics of Hinduism will not allow this same logic to be applied to its scriptures. The Mahabharata was penned by sage Vyasa and dictated by Ganesh, yet it’s not considered a divine text because it wasn’t revealed by directly by Bhagavan.  The Bhagavad Gita was sung by Krishna, but since he’s an avatar (manifestation) of Vishnu in the form of an Earthly being, it’s not considered the word of God. And even though it was not heavenly beings but men who penned the New Testament the  same way the Vedas where were revealed to rishis, the Vedas cannot be considered divinely inspired.

The common argument is Biblical and Quranic verses do not promote polytheism, but that God merely materialized as separate representations at the same time. This is exactly what Hindu scriptures having been saying all along – that the Creator can manifest, act, and reveal on this plane in an infinite number of ways.

First let’s address the misconception that Hindus worship “330 million gods” (or some similar outlandish number) by looking directly into their scriptures. Rig Veda 1:164:46 says “the One Being is called by many names.” This point is elaborated in the Upanisads, a sub-text which is presented as conversations between a teacher and his pupils. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:9:1 contains one such dialogue:

Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Three hundred and three and three thousand and three.
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Thirty three.
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Six.

divine energy inhabits the entire Universe from the smallest atom to the largest astral body

This dialogue goes on until finally the Guru reaches the answer One. He continues by saying that there is one Being who pervades the entire universe and manifests in infinite forms. There is no Hindu text that lists a million names, let alone thirty three million. In a daily Vedic ceremony priests/brahmins are required to chant the many titles of God. If priests had to speak such  high a number in one ritual they’d probably be chanting their whole lives without a break. And imagine the overwhelming task if each Hindu had to individually worship 330 million gods every time they prayed or visited a temple!

The Katha Upanishad expands on the idea of infinite manifestations: There is one Ruler, the Spirit that is in all things, who transforms his own form into many.

Indian saint Namdev of the Sikh tradition also wrote in agreement with Hinduism:
He is the One in many, countless are His shapes and forms. He pervades all that exists; wherever I look, He is there.

The Bhagavad Gita also details the idea of devas and One Supreme Deity. Avatar narrator Krishna explains that devotees

infinite manifestations of the Divine
infinite manifestations of the Divine, benevolent and terrifying

have permission to devote their heart to the  form of God they desire:
I am in everyone’s heart. As soon as one desires to worship a deva, I make their faith steady so that he/she can devote himself to that particular deity. Endowed with such a faith, they execute worship of a particular deity and obtains their desires. But in reality these benefits are given by Me. (7:21-23)

This verse also gives a glimpse as to why there are no Hindu missionaries around the world working to convert people. The Gita states that whichever form of the Creator a person is attracted to whether it be Brahman, Allah, Raba, Yahweh, or anything else, they are encouraged to worship that form so long as the devotion is sincere and they obey God’s basic tenets. The viewpoint that the Supreme has created the Earth to be a battleground for religious fighting or competition is rejected.

Gita 17:23 says that the chanting of priests in Vedic ceremonies performed specifically for God’s agents are directly pleasing to Brahman:
From the beginning of creation, the three words OM TAT SAT were used to symbolize God. These three representations were used by brahmins chanting Vedic hymns for the satisfaction of the Supreme.

In Chapter 11 of the Gita, Krishna reveals his infinite forms to Arjun, showing that the Divine is able to manifest in an infinite number of ways, both beautiful and terrible. Arjun is so terrified of the sight that he asks Krishna to revert back to the comforting single, personal form understood by him. This is something mirrored by religious devotees, as most people attach themselves to the religion that makes them feel comfortable in their form of worship.

In all religions various attributes and qualities are assigned to the Creator. But the reality is most people choose to worship a form of the Creator they feel mirrors their personal viewpoints. Some view God as vengeful and angry, while others see a loving and merciful God. Some see God as encompassing of all these qualities, while others say God is incapable of having attributes since attributes are human-like. We see these differences in the various sects of religions, some causing rifts within communities that supposedly worship the same Supreme Being. Likewise in Hinduism, Hindus are attracted to the form of deity which is pleasing to their outlook on religion. Which form of God or deva appeals to a Hindu devotee’s heart and mind is the one they will choose to worship. Instead of being hung up on terms like “polytheism” or “monotheism” Hindus instead must focus on steadying their devotion, purifying their heart, and focusing their intellect on loving worship of the Infinite.

Sri Sarada Devi
Sri Sarada Devi

Brahman exists everywhere. Prophets and Incarnations are born to show benighted humanity their way. They give different instructions to suit different temperaments. There are many ways to realize truth. So all these instructions have their relative value. For instance, many birds are perched on the branches of a tree. They are of different colors: white, black, red, yellow, and so on. Their sounds, too, are different. But when they sing we say that the sounds are made by the birds. We do not designate one particular sound only as the sound of the birds, and refuse to acknowledge the other sounds as such.
Mother Sarada Devi

Gita Jayanti

Gita Jayanti
by Ravi

Battlefield of Kurukshetra

Towards the end of the year marks Gita Jayanti, the day  that the Bhagavad Gita (the Divine Song) was recited from avatar Krishna to His adored devotee Arjun.

A subtext of one of the longest written epics in the world the Mahabharata, the Gita is held in high esteem by most Hindus. Around 700 poetic verses in 18 chapters it describes the purpose of life and outlines the goals one should strive for to attain the Absolute. To many Hindu practitioners it holds the highest philosophy that can be executed in  everyday living.

On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the great warrior Arjun is faced with the dilemma of having to kill his relatives, elders, and gurus in the opposing army who have sided with his adharmic, unrighteous cousin. Facing intense depression he tells his charioteer Krishna that he’s unable to bear the sin of killing his own flesh and blood. In frustration he throws down his weapons and refuses to fight. Krishna expresses his concern for Arjun’s grief not by speaking, but by singing the science of Self realization.  In the end Arjun understands his purpose in life and his relationship with the Infinite, overcoming his grief and attaining transcendental knowledge.

The Gita touches on many important theological subjects. It gives a blueprint of what a spiritual aspirant must do to break the stranglehold of material existence and attain Divine consciousness.

peaceful and terrifying forms of the Infinite Divine

It explores mystical subjects such as:

  • cultivating devotion so Divine presence is within one’s heart (bhakti yoga)
  • carrying out one’s duties with no expectation of rewards (karma yoga)
  • acquiring knowledge to understand one’s purpose (jnana yoga)
  • mental concentration on the Supreme through meditation (raja yoga)
  • the concept of the avatar (Divine manifestation on Earth when evil overpowers good)
  • the eternal and indestructible nature of the soul (atman)
  • the afterlife: transmigration, heavens, hells, and ultimate liberation of the soul (moksha)
  • methods of worship and how various paths eventually lead to the same Ultimate Truth
cycles of life and death

The Gita also discusses several areas of correct everyday living:

  • establishing equal vision of all living entities
  • freedom from suffering through detachment
  • the importance of reducing and destroying one’s ego
  • virtuous conduct (giving charity, dietary laws, speaking truth, etc.)
  • comparing qualities of the good, the passionate, and the demonic

On Gita Jayanti devotees recite the Gita all day, chant the holy names of God repeatedly, perform acts of charity, distribute books, sing bhajans, attend lectures, and even fast.

Going Green: Ecology in Hinduism

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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.

satellite view of the Himalayas

Part 1: Environmentalism according to Hinduism
by Ravi

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

Nature possesses great value in Hinduism 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 worrying about trivial matters.

NATURE’S ROLE IN EXECUTING DHARMA

The Earth is mother, the Heavens are father
– Atharva Veda 12.1.12

guru teaching disciples under tree

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. In the great epics the heroes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata spent years banished to the jungles of South Asia due to the heinous actions of adharmic villains.  The divine avatar Krishna spent his youth as a cow herder in the forests of Vrindavan. Siddhartha Guatama 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 Himalayasholding a special place in the heart of dharmic

Mt Kailash
Mt Kailash, Tibet

traditions. 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 circumambulate 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.

Chipko women defenders

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 massive health problems amongst the human population.

The scriptures state that natural resources are here for us to use responsibly. For example, the Sanskrit term shrivan

tulsi/holy basil

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.

>> Read Part II: Ecology in Islam

FURTHER READING:
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)

ORGANIZATIONS
Bhumi Project Greening your temple and lifestyle
Hindu Seva
Navdanya

Happy Diwali!

Fall marks one of the largest Hindu high holidays – the Festival of Lights.
Diwali is a celebration of light over darkness and good triumphing over evil. The holiday is also celebrated by Sikhs, Jains, and some Buddhist communities as well.

Read more about the importance of Diwali here

The significance of Dipavali is a re-enacting of this banishing darkness from within yourself, of shaking yourself free from the sleep of ignorance, and waking up into the light of a new dawn of full awareness…And to remind you of this, each year the festival of lights is held during the darkest night. It comes as an annual reminder of what you have to do—banish darkness, bring in light, be full of light and revel in the Illumination. Fill yourself with the Light. Fill the whole world with light by your own being in it.

– Sri Swami Chidananda