“This entire universe is to be looked upon as the Lord.” (Shukla Yajur Veda, Ishavasya Upanishad) “Ether, air, fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, directions, trees and plants, rivers and seas–they all are organs of God’s body. Remembering this, a devotee respects all species.” (Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, 2.2.41 )
These words translated from the original Sanskrit express the Hindu world view of deep reverence for all of Nature. In `Living with Siva’ writer Sivaya Subramuniyaswami urges: “Let’s worship the Earth. It is a being – intelligent and always giving. Our physical bodies are sustained by her abundance. When her abundance is withdrawn, our physical bodies are no more.… Instil in yourself appreciation, recognition. We should not take advantage of all this generosity, as a predator does of those he preys upon.”
In acknowledging mankind’s role in the current environmental crisis, the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change (December 2009 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia) declared that: “Our beloved Earth, so touchingly looked upon as the Universal Mother, has nurtured mankind through millions of years of growth and evolution. Now centuries of rapacious exploitation of the planet have caught up with us, and a radical change in our relationship with nature is no longer an option. It is a matter of survival. We cannot continue to destroy nature without also destroying ourselves.”
Hinduism based on the Sanskrit name for the Indus River is a term for a variety of related religious traditions which have their roots as far back as the ancient Iron Age civilizations of India. The philosophy of reverence for Nature that underscores Hinduism explains why laws and even fines for environmental damage can be found throughout Hindu texts and scriptures also dating back thousands of years. “Do not harm the environment; do not harm the water and the flora; Earth is my Mother, I am Her son; may the waters remain fresh, do not harm the waters. . . . Tranquil be to the atmosphere, to the earth, to the waters, to the crops and vegetation.” Some sacred law books are very specific, for example: “Let him not discharge urine or faeces into the water, nor saliva, nor clothes defiled by impure substances, nor any other impurity, nor blood, nor poisons” (Manu Samhita IV. 56). Fines are specified for offenses against the environment, such as damaging trees. Professor Arvind Sharma explains, “Harming a tree was considered on par with physical assault of a person… ‘For injuring any kind of tree a fine should be imposed proportionate to its utility.”
India and Hinduism’s most loved global icon, Mahatma Gandhi, probably did not see himself as an environmentalist, but his plea for people to lead a simple life with the words: “Nature has enough to satisfy every one’s needs, but not to satisfy anybody’s greed” is one of the clearest calls for people world wide to live unselfishly and within the ability of Mother Nature to provide renewable resources. Gandhi is also reputed to have said “One can measure the greatness of a nation by the way it treats its animals.”
Three fundamental concepts underlie a Hindu’s relationship with the environment. Respected academic Dr. O.P. Dwivedi in his work `Hinduism and Ecology’ explains these concepts as follows: Vasudeva sarvam (the Supreme resides in all beings); Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the family of Mother Earth-the original “global village”); and Sarva bhuta hita (the welfare of all beings). Add to these concepts the law of karma, which explains the mechanism of the cause and effect of our behaviour, and we can appreciate that Hinduism has a deeply embedded philosophy of ecological thought and practice. Let’s look more closely at how the three guiding concepts of Hinduism provide a basis for an environmentally responsible ethic.
1 Vasudeva Sarvam – the Supreme resides in all beings
In contrast with the dominant materialistic consumer driven attitude of today, the attitude of Vasudeva Sarvam acknowledges reverence for all things. While Western civilization considers human life to be sacred, Hinduism views all of life, all of existence, as sacred and the residence of the Divine.
2 Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the one global family of Mother Earth
In the words of Dwivedi, Mother Earth “supports us with Her abundant endowments and riches; it is She who provides us with a sustainable environment; and it is She who, when angered by the misdeeds of Her children, punishes them with disasters.” It is important to realize that She does not favour humans above other life. To Her, all are important. This is made clear in a prayer specifying that when digging is done in the Earth, it should be done in a way that no serious damage is done to Her body. Humans need to understand that they are not separate from the environment and have no inherent authority over it, other species or other humans.
James Lovelock’s scientific Gaia Theory in the 1970’s of Earth as one self-regulating organism seeking to create optimal conditions for life, has parallels with Hindi beliefs of Earth as a sacred living entity, except that Gaia is not presented as divine. Gaia theory explains how the imbalances in the atmosphere caused by excessive human induced greenhouse gas emissions is resulting in an increase in storm frequency and ferocity as the Earth shifts to a new balance which is not likely to be favourable to humans. In Hinduism, this shift is more than the result of physical, chemical and biological re-adjustments. It is a divine punishment from an injured Mother Earth.
3 Sarva Bhuta Hita – the Welfare of All Beings
Sarva bhuta hita is the logical extension of acknowledging that all is sacred and that we are all children of Mother Earth. It justifies and encourages behaviour that balances our individual needs with those of the extended family of life. This is not to say that it is easy to achieve this balance given the complexity of the Earth’s ecosystems. A fundamental ethic of Hinduism is ahimsa which means nonviolence in thought, word and deed. Applying ahimsa underpins the choice of many Hindus not to eat meat. Vegetarianism is a far more environmentally sustainable diet especially with 7 billion people on the Earth than a diet that includes meat!
The Law of Karma – Climate Change is a lesson in karma.
The three concepts of: all is sacred, that we are one family on Mother Earth and that we need to live in harmony and in a way that supports the common good is all tied together by the Law of Karma, simply stated, the law of cause and effect. Our situation is the combined consequence of our past actions (in this life and previous incarnations) and actions that we take today which means we are constantly creating our future even in lifetimes to come. Our actions also influence our family and community, today and into the future. Climate Change is a lesson in karma. The consequences of the past and current generations of burning fossil fuel, deforestation and increased meat production were not realized until the last couple of decades, but they have tipped the natural balance and created a long term consequence for humans – our current environmental karma is of our own creation.
Most of the Hindu population still live within villages that use resources sparingly. However as the population increases and shift to a consumer, cash oriented lifestyle so the fragile balance of sustainability can shatter. Toxic air quality in India’s cities, degraded water in many regions, deforestation and an increasing frequency of natural disasters such as floods or droughts is focusing more attention on how the values of Hinduism can foster greater care for the Earth.
*From Conversations On World Religions and Ecology (The Forum of Religion and Ecology at Yale)
“Take this firm resolve: May all beings look at me with the eyes of a friend. May I look at all beings with the eyes of a friend. May we all look at each other with the eyes of a friend. “ Shukla Yajur Veda (36.12-15, 17-18) translation by Vamadeva Shastri
“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 nor less”. Bhagavad Gita 3:12