Can Religion Teach Us to Protect Our Environment? Analyzing the Case of Hinduism

| April 2019
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The Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela festival in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2009, the Convocation of Hindu Spiritual Leaders adopted the inaugural Hindu Declaration on Climate Change at the Parliament of the World Religions, which was later re-introduced in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, gaining endorsements from various Hindu organizations and activists worldwide.1 Within the Declaration, Hindu leaders made specific references to teachings from religious texts to highlight how Hindus have an inherent duty to protect the environment. Indeed, in the midst of various global discourses on climate change, religious leaders have started to become vocal advocates for the need to tackle the dire environmental challenges that lie ahead. Across a diversity of religions, these leaders have begun appealing to their respective communities by connecting the moral imperative for environmental action with values and principles prescribed by their faith.2 But can religion serve as a complementary normative framework to environmentalism? In other words, to what extent do the major world religions promote environmentally-friendly practices? Do people practice what they preach? This post considers these questions in the context of Hinduism, a religion practiced by over 900 million individuals globally.

 

The human-nature relationship in Hinduism

Before identifying how the Hindu tradition conceptualizes the human-nature relationship, it is important to recognize that there is no single text that defines all of Hinduism and its practices. The religion is a multifaceted one, with multiple perspectives on the human-nature relationship that do not apply to all Hindus. Nevertheless, Hindus do tend to see such diverse views as complementary, believing there is a level of underlying unity in all that diversity.

First, Hinduism is a dharmic religion, where the concept of dharma is considered to be the universal organizing principle that governs all reality and guides how all things—animate or inanimate—ought to be, connoting a sense of duty, virtue, and moral righteousness that all Hindus should uphold.3 In the context of the human-nature relationship, protecting the environment has thus been considered by some to be an expression of dharma.4 As worded in the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, it is a “dharmic duty [to ensure that] we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet.”5 Another central concept to Hinduism6 is karma, which holds that every action has consequences and that there is a causal relationship between one’s actions and one’s future fate, even in subsequent lifetimes.7 Thus, karma is also closely related to the concept of rebirth,8 or Saṃsāra. Both concepts further illustrate the Hindu conception of the human-nature relationship in two ways: (1) that there is a continuity and an intimate relationship among all forms of beings on Earth, and so it is essential that no harm is done to any of them9; and (2) that one’s behavior toward the environment will have karmic consequences, which means one can accumulate good karma by actively protecting the environment.10

Religious texts provide more insights into the different ways the Hindu tradition makes sense of the environment, and in turn, the human-nature relationship. The Rig Veda—believed to be one of the earliest Hindu religious texts—contains various hymns describing the sacred phenomena of nature, with different environmental elements perceived as extensions of the divine. Another Vedic text—the Atharva Veda—has mantras that remind Hindus of the need to behave respectfully toward “Mother Earth” by making sure that any personal activities do not hurt her vitals, body, or appearance.11 Other texts like the various Hindu folklore or epics include similar teachings, but further illustrate the human-nature relationship through narratives, sometimes to make the teachings more relevant or to provide more specific guidance. The Puranas are one such collection of Hindu myths and traditional lore. For example, some are related to the Ganges River, or Ma Ganga, which is depicted as a goddess who descended to Earth to save the world.12 The Ganges River is thus perceived to be a sacred place where believers can remove their sins by touching or consuming the water, and the river is an essential site for worshipping rites and rituals in India.

 

Aligning religion and practice?

Recognizing that such beliefs about the human-nature relationship are inherent within the Hindu tradition, to what extent then has the religion actively inspired environmentally-friendly practices?

There are various examples of Hindu organizations working on environmental initiatives, on both a local and global scale, and the Bhumi Project is one appropriate case. Established in 2009 by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, the UK-based project has since been perceived as a leading international Hindu voice on worldwide environmental concerns, with a range of global initiatives under its umbrella.13 In its nine-year plan, the Bhumi Project recognizes that Hindu communities can become an important voice in addressing climate change, through the “unique contributions Hindu teachings can make.”14 One of their global initiatives includes the Green Temples Guide,15 an effort to make Hindu pilgrimage sites and worshipping practices around the world more environmentally sustainable.

Of course, there are also ecological movements in India, home to the largest Hindu population in the world. While more recent initiatives involve Hindu leaders having to actively bridge the gap between beliefs and practices so as to provide a religious motivation to care for the environment, there are anthropological studies that show how that has never been an issue for some local Hindu communities in India. These communities do not engage in environmentally-friendly practices as part of a wider contemporary environmental movement; rather, their own practices have inherent environmental significance as guided by their religious tradition to express dharma.16  One such example is the famous Chipko movement, which first started as a local response against a deforestation project. The strategy was eventually adopted in various other locations, where villagers would hug the trees as a form of protest, risking their lives in front of contractors. In a book chapter on environmental movements in Hinduism, George James recounts an instance involving village women listening to recitations of religious texts during the protest.17 Though the movement was more of an effort by locals to maintain their right to their forest and to protest corporate exploitation, the positive environmental impact is an important by-product, and religion did play a role by shaping the way the Chipko participants cast nature as sacred and worth protecting. Another example is the Swadhyaya movement. In his research, Pankaj Jain quotes a Swadhyayi who is skeptical about the academic focus on ecological characteristics underlying their cultural practices, because such practices were never about environmental sustainability, and should instead be viewed an expression of their devotion to the divine.18

At the same time, India is also no stranger to widespread environmental problems, and the situation has been dire due to population growth, rapid industrialization and agricultural activities, and the depletion of natural resources.19 Religious activities do constitute a part of those problems, especially when it comes to the pollution of bodies of water that hold religious and ritualistic significance to the Hindu communities. There have been various studies on how worshipping activities like the Kumbh Mela festivals, the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festivals, or the daily aarthi ceremonies contribute to the pollution problem for rivers such as the Ganges and the Yamuna, especially with the use of religious offerings that are usually non-biodegradable and often contain heavy metals or plastic. While there have been many calls for efforts to clean these sacred rivers, the paradox is that there are also devotees who believe that since these rivers are part of the all-powerful divine, any human practices—whether to pollute or to clean—are  insignificant and inconsequential. Furthermore, even if there are ways to promote more environmentally-friendly religious practices through the use of biodegradable offerings, there are also other deep-rooted cultural practices—motivated by the same set of religious beliefs—that are much more difficult to address, such as bathing in the Ganges or cremating bodies near the Ganges to then scatter the ashes into the river.20 These issues were identified by anthropological studies nearly two decades ago,21 and yet continue to this day.

One might then question the effectiveness of appealing to religion or faith to promote positive environmental action; as seen in the case of Hinduism, even a religion that seems to have deep underpinnings of ecological sensibility can also indirectly promote a level of indifference for environmental harm. The fact that environmental ethics can be linked to Hindu traditions does not mean that devotees will internalize those ethics. This short case study is thus representative of a larger challenge in using any religion or faith as a normative basis for action: the subjectivity in interpreting beliefs allows for people to decide how they want to reduce the cognitive dissonance arising from the inconsistencies between their faith and their actions, either by (1) dismissing the inconsistencies entirely; (2) re-interpreting old beliefs or choosing new ones to align with their actions; or (3) changing their actions to align with their beliefs.22 While it is one thing to encourage the third option, it is another challenge altogether to discourage people from taking the first two options. Notwithstanding that, religious leaders should remain proactive in guiding their communities toward adopting environmentally-friendly practices. The current scope of the environmental crisis demands that we invest efforts in many different ways of encouraging environmentally-conscious actions, and with over 80 percent of people worldwide identifying as religious,23 faith has the potential to be an effective platform to disseminate desirable morals, values, and behaviors, including those in relation to environmental ethics.

Priscilla Tay is a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where she specializes in international security policy.

 

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  1. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, accessed April 17, 2019, http://www.hinduclimatedeclaration2015.org/english.
  2. A collection of climate change statements from various world religions can be found here: The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, Climate Change Statements from World Religions, accessed April 10, 2019, http://fore.yale.edu/climate-change/statements-from-world-religions/.
  3. Robin Rinehart, “Introduction: The Historical Background,” in Robin Rinehart, ed., Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, culture, and practice (California: ABC-CLIO, 2004), pp. 1-66.
  4. Pankaj Jain, “10 Hindu Environmental Teachings”, The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, April 10, 2011, http://fore.yale.edu/news/item/10-hindu-environmental-teachings/.
  5. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Hindu Declaration on Climate Change.
  6. These central concepts do appear in other religions as well, particularly those that originated in the South Asian civilizations. Such religions include Jainism and Buddhism.
  7. Robin Rinehart, “Introduction: The Historical Background,” pp. 1-66.
  8. Such a concept is present in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, though there are subtle differences between the two.
  9. Harold Coward, “Hindu Views of Nature and the Environment,” in Helaine Selin, ed., Nature across cultures (Massachusetts: Springer, 2003), pp. 411 – 419.
  10. Pankaj Jain, “10 Hindu Environmental Teachings”.
  11. O. P. Dwivedi, “Hindu Religion and Environmental Well-Being,” in Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  12. Ganga Action Parivar, Ganga in Scriptures, accessed April 17, 2019, https://www.gangaaction.org/about-ganga/national-heritage/ganga-in-scriptures/.
  13. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, The Bhumi Project, Accessed April 17, 2019, https://ochs.org.uk/bhumi-project.
  14. The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, The Bhumi Project: Respect, Compassion and Service for our Environment, January 11, 2012, http://www.bhumiproject.org/downloads/TheBhumiProject.pdf.
  15. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Green Temples Guide: An Environmental Guide for Hindu Temples and Ashrams, 2015, http://www.arcworld.org/downloads/Green%20Hindu%20Temples%20Guide.pdf.
  16. Pankaj Jain, Dharma and ecology of Hindu communities: Sustenance and sustainability, (London: Routledge, 2016).
  17. George James, “The Environment and Environmental Movements in Hinduism,” in Robin Rinehart, ed., Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, culture, and practice (California: ABC-CLIO, 2004), pp. 341-380.
  18. Pankaj Jain, “Dharmic ecology: perspectives from the Swadhyaya practitioners,” Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 13.3 (2009), p. 305-320.
  19. Jyoti K. Parikh, “Environmental Problems of India and Their Possible Trends in Future,” Environmental Conservation 4.3 (Autumn 1977), p. 189-197.
  20. Danish Siddiqui, “Dying ‘Mother Ganga’: India’s holy river succumbs to pollution,” Reuters, July 10, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-ganges/dying-mother-ganga-indias-holy-river-succumbs-to-pollution-idUSKBN19V0OG.
  21. Kelly D. Alley, On the banks of the Gaṅgā: When wastewater meets a sacred river (University of Michigan Press, 2002).
  22. Leon Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance (California: Stanford University Press, 1957).
  23. Pew Research Center, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims Are Rising Fastest and the Unaffiliated Are Shrinking as a Share of the World’s Population, April 2, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/.

Category: Blog, Environment, Climate Change, Sustainability

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