Ecology and Religion: Ecology and Hinduism

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Hinduism, the major religious tradition in India and the faith of almost a billion people around the world, is extremely diverse. There are many philosophical, ritual, narrative, theistic, and nontheistic traditions within Hinduism and, therefore, Hinduism encompasses pluralistic views towards nature. Many Hindu communities value nature, think of the universe as the body of God, pray for peace between all the elements of the universe, urge nonviolence to all beings on earth, and personify nature and the earth as goddesses. However, others devalue nature by thinking of matter (homologized to women) as ensnaring the spirit and preventing it from achieving liberation. Yet other Hindus think of the universe as ultimately without reality, and some Hindus think of the final goal as transcending all dualities of good and evil, spirit and matter, culture and nature.

Several Indian words in Sanskrit and in vernacular languages have philosophical and colloquial meanings corresponding to the many meanings of nature. In general, the term nature will be used here to refer to those elements that are considered to be part of the lived or conceptualized environment in the many Hindu traditions. The most frequently used Indian term for "nature," prakti, may refer to matter as well as the inherent tendencies in material substances.

The many Sanskrit texts within Hindu traditions have had a limited role to play in the history of the religion. Hindu traditions consider custom and practice to be as important as the texts themselves. Nevertheless, with the intellectual colonization by the West and the advent of mass media, more Hindus today have started to focus on the sacred texts, and many search for answers to the environmental crises both in text and practice. This entry, therefore, will discuss textual sources, as well as eco-practices adopted by Hindus. This essay will consider the phenomena of nature in texts and then discuss the various forms of environmental activism in India that use religio-cultural concepts as sources of inspiration or guidance. Environmental activism has been largely guided by notions of dharma (duty, righteousness, "religion"). These concepts have been communicated through stories from the epics and Purāas (Sanskrit and vernacular texts glorifying deities and places composed primarily in the first millennium ce) and narrated by family or village elders.

Nature in Sanskrit Texts

The earliest hymns of the Vedas are addressed to many gods, and many of them are connected with natural phenomena and the environment the people lived in. Agni, the god of fire, is seen as a messenger between human beings and the deities because offerings were placed in the fire to be carried to other worlds. Agni is the fire on earth, lightning in the atmosphere, and the sun in the sky. Usha, the goddess of dawn, Varua, who presides over the waters, the oceans, and even aquatic animals, and Indra, who is associated with the thunderbolt and rain, are all worshiped. A goddess known as Sarasvatī is also spoken of, sometimes as a river, sometimes as representing learning. Some hymns speak of a connection between the rituals and the prevalence of cosmic and earthly order, ta. ta is truth and justice, the rightness of things. It makes harmony and peace possible on the earth and in the heavens. Although ta is an impersonal cosmic principle, Vedic gods like Varua were considered its upholders.

In retrieving and revisioning the Vedas, Hindus have emphasized those sections that speak of peace and harmony. Thus, the "Shanti path" (Song of peace) in the Yajurveda (36:17) has become popular in India and in the diaspora. Repeating a hymn composed more than three millennia ago, the Hindu devotee recites: "May there be peace in the skies, peace in the atmosphere, peace on earth, peace in the waters. May the healing plants and trees bring peace; may there be peace [on and from] the world, the deity. May there be peace in the world, peace on peace. May that peace come to me!"

The many texts that focus explicitly on dharma or righteous behavior were composed in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Many sections of the epics Rāmāyaa and Mahābhārata and the Purāas also focused on dharma. The epics and Purāas give detailed narratives of the periodic and cyclic destruction of the world. By the beginning of the third eon, things are perceived as going awry. The Kūrma Purāa says that because of greed and passion, the people of this age seize the rivers, fields, mountains, and clumps of trees and herbs, overcoming them by strength. That is just the beginning of the decline in virtue and behavior. The epic Mahābhārata (c. 500200 bce) is graphic in the portrayal of the events that will take place at the end of the fourthand worsteon and what will happen after a thousand such ages. At the end of the eon the population increases; there is a stench everywhere. The "natural" order of things becomes sluggish; the cows will yield little milk; and the trees, teeming with crows, will yield few flowers and fruits. The brahmans the priestly classit is said will plunder the land bare for alms. At the end of a thousand eons, the text continues, there will be a drought of many years, and all creatures will starve. The fire of destruction will rage, and large clouds will rise up in the sky. The epics say that at this time all humans will become omnivores and barbarians. They will destroy parks and trees, and the lives of the living will be ruined in the world. Thus, there seems to be an almost preordained structure in the destruction of the environment.

Other scriptural passages on dharma, however, focus on positive elements. They encourage the planting of trees, condemn the destruction of plants and forests, and assert that trees are like children. In this context, a passage from the Matsya Purāa is instructive. It is said that the goddess Pārvatī planted a sapling of the Aśoka tree and took good care of it. Her rationale was that there are many acts of dharma that one can performdigging wells and reservoirs provide clean water to the publicbut a tree is as good as ten sons in serving the community. Sentences such as these have been valorized by some temples to encourage the planting and care of trees. Other Purāas also celebrate the planting of trees; the Varāha Purāa says that one who plants five mango trees does not go to hell, and the Viu Dharmottara claims that one who plants a tree will never fall into hell. The Matsya Purāa also describes a celebration for planting trees.

Aspects of Nature

Most Hindus perceive divinity in many aspects of nature. Many animals, snakes, mountains, rivers, trees, and, indeed, the entire universe pulsate with something divine. Some Hindus personify natural phenomena as divine; others think of natural phenomena as having presiding deities. Although the divinity is considered invested in some natural phenomena and habitats, it does not follow that such habitats are not used or abused. As with many religious traditions, there is dissonance between perception and behavior.

Most of the rivers of India are considered to be female and the mountains male. Rivers are perceived to be nurturing (and sometimes judgmental) mothers, feeding, nourishing, quenching, and when angered, flooding the earth. Rivers are personified as deities. The River Gagā (Ganges) is sometimes portrayed as a consort of Lord Śiva. In the south, Kāverī Amman (Mother Kāverī) is the name by which the river is fondly addressed. Hundreds of girls born in the area of Coorg, where the Kāverī has her source, are named after her. In the plains of Tamilnadu, Kāverī is seen as a devotee and sometimes the consort of Lord Viu, and several temples (such as Terazhundur, near Kumbakonam) include a striking image of this personified river in the innermost shrine.

Rivers such as the Gagā, Kāverī, Godāvarī, and Narmadā are much venerated by devotees, both as rivers and as goddesses. By bathing in the great rivers of India, one is said to be both physically cleansed and morally purified of one's sins (papa ), which are destroyed. Moreover, one acquires merit or auspiciousness in this way. Although there is strong belief in the religious purity of the rivers, from an environmental perspective, they have become severely polluted as a result of rapid industrialization and the release of toxic human and industrial waste. The rivers that are supposed to purify human beings, physically, morally, and ritually, are said to be at the receiving end of adharma, unrighteous behavior. The beliefs of devotees that the rivers are intrinsically pure, moreover, works against the cleansing of the rivers, for some people believe that they cannot really be polluted.

Philosophical Texts, D harma, and Moka

Hindu texts portray dharma and moka (liberation from the cycle of life and death) as goals for all human beings. There are many meanings for dharma. In some of its manifestations, it is concerned with loka sangraha or the welfare of human beings. Dharma refers to many topics, including notions of righteousness and duty, as well as virtues such as gratitude and compassion, which are thought of ideally as common to all human beings. While in some philosophical traditions, doing one's dharma or duty led to moka, in other cases the dictates and norms of dharma to sustain society (beget children, earn money) could be seen as binding one to the cycle of life and death and as tugging in a direction away from liberation. The pathways to liberation included meditative and reflective paths focusing on control of the human body and mind, as well as intellectual and emotional devotion to the deity of one's choice. Detachment from everyday lifeeven while living in the midst of the worldwas an integral part of the enterprise.

It is important to keep this taxonomy in mind, because theological doctrines dealing with "reality" do not necessarily trickle down into dharmic or ethical injunctions. This disjunction between dharma and moka is marked in some Hindu texts and practices. Dharma texts promote righteous behavior on earth, and moka texts encourage one to be detached from such concerns. A few texts, such as the Bhagavadgītā, have tried to bridge the paradigms of dharma and moka.

Thus, a theology that emphasizes the world as a body of God, a pervasive pan-Indian belief that goddess Earth (Bhūdevī/Vasundhara/Pithvī) is also a consort of Viu, or the notion that the mother goddess (Amba, Durgā) is synonymous with nature (prakti ), does not necessarily translate to eco-friendly behavior. Likewise, renunciation, celibacy, and detachment are laudable virtues for one who seeks liberation from the cycle of life and death, but the texts on dharma say that begetting children is necessary for salvation. These biomorphic worldviews are significant if we are to assess the relevancy of philosophical viewpoints such as deep ecology for the Hindu traditions. On another front, the dissonance between dharma and philosophical texts explains why some Hindu traditions hold the Goddess to be supreme while women do not always have a high position in society. It is true that some theological/ tattva texts speak of certain kinds of "oneness" of the universe and, in some cases, of the equality of all creation. Some philosophical texts speak of the oneness of creation and the creator, and the absolute identity between the supreme being (Brāhma) and the human soul (ātman )a oneness that transcends the concept of "equality of many"; however, in the sphere of dharma and everyday life, the hierarchies of social classes pertaining to economics, gender, caste, and age are significant. Hindu institutions and eco-activists have therefore found more resources in the narratives in the dharma texts than in those of philosophy and theology in galvanizing people.

Environmental Activism in the Contemporary Period

In India there has been a fairly long, though sporadic, history of environmental activism. The faith of the Bishnoi and in the Chipko movement and the Narmadā Andolan have become well known. The Bishnoi traditionor as some call it, the eco-religious revolutionwas started around 1485 in Samrathal Dhora (north India) by Jambho-ji (b. 1451). Jambho-ji was said to have been influenced by the pastoral life led by the deity Ka and is believed to have preached his faith for about fifty-one years. Of the 120 sayings credited to him, twenty-nine (bish-noi) directives are said to be particularly significant. Many adherents today interpret these teachings as promoting biodiversity and the protection of trees.

The Chipko movement uses principles of nonviolent protest and resistance to protect trees from commercial developers. The movement was organized during the 1970s in the Himalayan region of the state of Uttar Pradesh and has since spread to many other parts of India. Local villagers embrace (chipko means "to hug") trees, and the movement promotes many slogans that help spread the message. These pithy sayings include such messages as "Ecology is permanent economy" and "What do forests bear? Soil, water, and pure air." The protests are based on Mohandas Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, pervasive Hindu notions of a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature, and respect for nature (prakti), which is seen as divine.

Some temples, such as the one at Tirumala Tirupati in South India, the largest and richest temple complex in the country, have also encouraged eco-activism. Billboards saying "Vriksho rakshati: rakshatah" ("Trees protect: Let us protect them" or "Trees, when protected, protect us") greet visitors to the sacred pilgrimage town of Tirumala-Tirupati in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The Tirumala-Tirupati temple is one of the oldest temples, and it carries a great deal of dharmic and financial clout both in India and in the diaspora. In response to the ecological crisis in India, the temple at Tirumala-Tirupati began what is called the Vriksha (tree) Prasāda scheme. Whenever a pilgrim visits a temple in India, he or she is given a piece of blessed fruit or food to take home. This is called a prasāda or "favor" of the deity; at Tirumala-Tirupati, a sapling, rather than food, is given as the symbol of the deity's grace. The nurseries of the Tirumala-Tirupati temple have many varieties of plants, both decorative plants and plants that are considered to be medically useful. The saplings cultivated are suitable for the soil in various parts of India, and by planting them at home, one can have an authentic piece of the sacred place of Tirumala wherever one lives.

The Tirumala-Tirupati temple, which is located on an elevation of 3,000 feet, was once surrounded by heavy forests. Apart from the giving of saplings, which is meant to raise the ecology-consciousness of the pilgrims, the forestry department of T. T. Devasthanam (the official bureaucracy of the temple) started the Shri Venkateswara Vanabhivriddhi scheme in 1981; it was initially called the "Bioaesthetic Plan." Following this plan, donations made by devotees are used for the purchase and planting of trees and plants. Over 2,500,000 indigenous trees are said to have been planted on the hills and the plains as a result of this program. In its support of this venture, the temple quotes relevant scriptural texts on the importance of trees and, most importantly, honors the devotee-participants in this thriving program. Both in texts and in practice, the Hindu traditions and some institutions have encouraged proactive approaches in the planting and protection of trees and plants.

Environmental activists have also deployed a number of religious strategies in the fight against the damming of rivers. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a well-known environmental activist, says that damming a river is like killing it. In opposing the building of the Tehri Dam in the Himalayas, a seismic zone, he has argued that several sacred pilgrimage sites will be destroyed if the dam were to break.

Several activists have drawn upon traditional Hindu narratives and rituals to save rivers like the Gagā and the Yamunā from pollution, and more recently from corporate developers. Many of the movements and statements, such as the Haridwar Declaration, issued in 2002 to protect the river from privatization and commercial interests, draw upon the narratives and imagery of Gagā as mother and goddess. The Haridwar Declaration correctly points out that rites of passages for Hindus, from birth to death, are conducted on the banks of these holy rivers and that the people will not let their Gagā Mātā (Mother Gagā) or its water be sold to multinational corporations. The declaration recalls the story of the descent of this river from the heavens, as narrated in the Purāas. It goes on to say that the sacred waters of this river cannot be the property of any one individual or company, and that Mother Gagā is not for sale. In this, and many similar activist efforts, the Puranic narratives and notions of dharma are pressed into use.

Ramachandra Guha, a noted environmentalist, has urged a more practical environmentalism. He argues against an extremist, radical environmentalism, and advocates a balance between ecological concerns and social justice on the one hand, and economics and science and technology on the other.

In the hundreds of grassroots movements around India, leaders like Veer Bhadra Mishra and Sathya Sai Baba, institutions like the World Wide Fund for Nature, and pilgrimage sites such as Badrinath have all used religious narratives, ritual, and the values of dharma as ways of successfully motivating Hindus to take action and clean up the environment, plant new trees, and value biodiversity as an integral part of their activities. In many of these movements, women have played an active role.

Women and Contemporary Environmental Action

Beginning in the late twentieth century, environmental activists such has Vandana Shiva began to develop an ecofeminist critique of gender and the environment that was pertinent to India. They compared the denigration of the rivers to the denigration of women at various times in the history of Hindu civilization. Shiva has eloquently and forcefully explored as well the ways in which women suffer as "development" destroys forests near their homes. Shiva argues that many of the new corporations are involved in "maldevelopment" projects in which nature and women are turned into passive objects and exploited by and for the uncontrolled desires of men.

Shiva also works on issues of hazardous wastes, biodiversity conservation, globalization, and patenting and intellectual property rights (calling the profiteering of corporations from traditional ecological knowledge "biopiracy"). Shiva has highlighted colonialism as a major factor in the draining of resources from India and the dismantling of traditional ecological paradigms by which the earth is held in respect. She argues that the process of patenting will deprive India of its last resourcebiodiversity. Inspired by such critiques, women from diverse social classes have become environmentally active in India.

Women in the Chipko movement, for example, have been involved in protecting trees, for women are generally the first to feel the impact of deforestation. In an important development, however, many women from the more powerful classes have become influential environmental activists in their own right, adding their strength to the cause. Women have been actively and creatively involved in communicating the tragedy of ecological disaster and facilitating environmental awareness and action, sometimes using traditional religious art forms, sometimes through mainstream media and technology.

Awareness of ecological concerns has also been raised through the medium of traditional Indian dance. The theory and practice of classical dance in India is seen as a religious activity. In the twentieth century, classical dance began to be used as a medium for a social commentary on women and the environment. Noted dancers choreographed many dances with environmental themes, portraying, through their art, the Chipko movement and the pollution of the landscape, and the importance of trees. Through this medium audiences around the country, urban and rural, literate and illiterate, soon came to understand the urgency of this message.

With the growing awareness of the ecological plight, Hindu communities are pressing into use many dharmic texts and injunctions. They are drawing on the epics and Purāas for inspiration as they plant gardens and revive traditional lore regarding the medicinal importance of trees and plants. Women, through song and dance, increasingly communicate the ways in which environmental deterioration injures both women and nature, and they call for environmental protection and restoration, sometimes engaging in direct action to resist environmentally destructive practices. The philosophical insights of Hinduism may not have been strong enough to prevent environmental disaster, but the dharmic resources have provided rich resources for the subcontinents' early initiatives to reverse these trends and make the subcontinent green and toxin free.


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