All of Existence Should Be Revered: Hinduism & The Environment

ganga puja photo

photo: Jose Pereira/Creative Commons
The following is the first in an ongoing series of posts outlining how the world's major religions have traditionally viewed the environment and are putting those beliefs into practice today.

Hinduism is the oldest of the world's major spiritual paths. Though it only became known by that name in much more recent history, the oldest of its sacred texts date in their written form to the second millennia BCE and reference astronomical alignments as far back as 10,000 BCE.

For those people unfamiliar with Hinduism basic tenets, the Himalayan Academy has good overview. As for its traditional and contemporary views on the environment, keeping reading:A quick sidebar: Hinduism is really an umbrella term for a vast faith, with many different sects occupying that space. They don't always agree in teachings, interpretation, or emphasis, even if there is ultimately more commonality than difference. Also, as with every philosophy there is sometimes a gap between belief in practice, and in that Hinduism is no different. With that in mind, let's continue.

Entire Universe Is Looked Upon As Sacred
When it comes to traditional Hindu views on the environment, one statement for the Ishavasya Upanishad sums up the reverential attitude Hindus are urged to take. In English it reads, "The entire universe is to be looked upon as the Lord." That means that there is everything in existence is essentially, practically and metaphorically, connected together. Everything is seen as aspects of Divinity--humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, the Earth, the Universe and everything in it. Scripturally, these are seen as parts of God's body.

More specifically, this broad outlook can be broken down into a number of key principles with direct implications for the environment, as we talk about it within the green movement.

  1. Divinity In All -- The attitude of Vasudeva Sarvam, or Divinity in All, bestows reverence for all things. This contrasts starkly with the dominant outlook today in which humans are separate from nature and God is separate from both. While Western civilization considers human life to be sacred, Hinduism views all of life, all of existence as sacred.
  2. Global Village -- Or Vasudhaiva Kutumbatam... If you view everything and everyone as an aspect of Divinity, viewing the entire globe as a village easily follows. A paraphrase from the Hymn to Earth, from the Artharva Veda: "Mother Earth supports us with Her abundant endowments and riches; it is She who nourishes us; 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." Obviously a more poetic and metaphorical than literal reading of the causes of disasters, but on the whole not off base in its recognition of the web of life.
  3. Welfare of All Beings -- Once you view the entire world as a global village and understand Mother Earth's protection of life (maintaining the conditions for life, in scientific terms), Sarva bhuta hita or "enhancing the common good of all beings" follows. When you believe all life to be sacred and we are all children of Mother Earth, your behavior and desires change, balancing our individual needs and desires with those of the extended family of life.
  4. Restraint & Limitation -- Not restraint (sanyam) and limitation (maryada) as we popularly conceive of them, but deeper than that. Professor Arvind Sharma explains, "You refrain from drinking or eating too much not because there are laws against doing that, but out of a sense of propriety and decency." You practice restraint and limitation not because you are forced to, but because it's part of your lifestyle.

There are a number of other Hindu concepts which figure into the discussion--both karma and the principles of ahimsa (non-violence), santosha (contentment) and aparigraha (non-posessiveness, non-stealing), all are important--but the above highlighted principles are a good overview.

linga by tree photo

photo: Mat McDermott/Creative Commons
Ancient Law Placed Fines on Deforestation, Polluting Rivers
These principles have been put into practice in various ways since time immemorial. In some of Hinduism's oldest law books, fines are specified for illegally cutting trees and if you need to clear an area of forest new trees must be planted in its place, discharging bodily waste into rivers and lakes was also prohibited. In the 15th century, the Bishnoi sect first placed environmental protection, conservation, protection of trees and animals as a central part of religious duty. They still exist and practice these principles today.

swami chidanand sarawati photo

photo: Mat McDermott/Creative Commons
Pollution Won't Be Stopped Until People Take Ownership of The World Around Them
Jumping forward quite a bit, Hindu groups have begun taking the lead to clean up environmental pollution in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and pressuring politicians to take the issue seriously. Swami Chidanand Saraswati (pictured above at center) has been quite outspoken in this regard (his ashram has its gates perhaps 100 feet from the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh) and hits on a crucial point for a number of environmental issues, what do you take figurative ownership of and care for:
People think, "My home is my home, but the street, that's not mine. My farm is mine, but the road is not mine. That's the government's road, the borough's road, or the municipality's road; it's not mine." But that's not correct. It's not just "your home is your home." The street is also yours. Until we have this kind of relationship with the environment, [awareness and action about pollution] will not come.

video: Ahimsa Milk
A Big Step Beyond Organic is Slaughter-Free Milk
A further, and truly excellent, example of putting Hindu principles into practice comes from Bhaktivedanta Manor, located just outside London.

Recognizing that even within more stringent animal welfare conditions imposed by organic certification schemes cows are stilled killed when they stop producing milk and young bulls have no better a fate than in industrial farming, the residents of the Manor (given to the community by George Harrison in the early 1970s) have created a model for compassionate, environmentally sustainable and low-carbon dairy farming for the 21st century. At the center of it is a way of managing a cattle herd virtually unique in modern farming (though it wouldn't have been far out of place in pre-industrial times): No cows, bulls or oxen are killed at all; all cows are hand-milked; cows suckle from their mothers; and bulls are given work. At the end of the animals' working life they are kept on the farm and cared for until they die a natural death. Furthermore, the milk is marketed under the Ahimsa, Slaughter-Free Milk designation.

For more information on Hinduism and the environment, a longer, more in-depth version of this article appeared in the April/May/June 2011 issue of Hinduism Today.
More on Religion & The Environment:
Environmentalism Ignores the Power of Religious Communities At Its Peril - Lets Change That
Religions May Be Powerful 'Joint Venture Partners' in Conservation Efforts: Study

All of Existence Should Be Revered: Hinduism & The Environment
Hinduism is the oldest