ecology and Hinduism

   The beliefs and practices of Hinduism have been a resource in ecological and environmental move-ments both within and outside India. Hindu reli-gious stories, imagery, and symbolism are used to support the view that the universe is divine in all of its aspects and nature is sacred in its essence. Aspects of nature including mountains, seas, riv-ers, trees, flowers, animals, and even the elements of soil, water, and air have often been personified in Hindu myth as divine beings to be worshipped and cared for. Various forms of vegetarianism have been practiced widely among different Hindu groups for centuries. The deep respect for all forms of life in the beliefs and practices of Hinduism pro-vides a natural alignment of Hindus with any con-certed effort against environmental degradation.
   In India, the traditional home of Hinduism, over 950 nongovernmental organizations work for environmental causes that address ecological problems from rural deforestation to urban pol-lution. As record rates of industrialization and urbanization press upon the limited resources of India, groups have mobilized to find ecologi-cally sound practices in residential settlements, farming, mining, fishing, and water management. Threats to India’s land, rivers, and seas, and air and the displacement of millions of people through construction of dams and mines are heightened by population expansion and the consumerism of a burgeoning middle class.
   Traditionally India relied upon ecologically sound management practices in its rural areas and included a religiously based cultural order that respected the sacredness of all life. Mohandas Karamchand GANDHI’s activities in the movement for Indian independence gave political legitimacy to the religious and ecological sensibilities of India, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. His dedication to the values of nonviolence (AHIMSA), holding to truth (SATYAGRAHA), personal asceti-cism, minimal consumption, self-reliance, simplic-ity, sustainability, and community-based economics was based on his interpretation of Hindu values. However, since the days of Gandhi, the political leadership of the country has stressed seculariza-tion and growth so that India has continued to industrialize, urbanize, and modernize at a rapid rate. Loss of arable land, deforestation, water pol-lution, unplanned urbanization, dam construction, and pesticide pollution are critical problems being addressed by various ecological movements that draw on the Hindu devotion to life and the sacred.
   Two locally based movements in India dem-onstrate the application of Hindu precepts to eco-nomic and environmental challenges: the Bishnois and the Chipko movement. The Bishnois are a small Rajasthani community who view environ-mental conservation as a religious duty. Their leader, Guru Maharaj Jambaji (b. 1451 C.E.), wit-nessed a severe drought and the cutting of trees as food for animals, which resulted in the desolation of both animals and plants. He constructed a pro-gram that prohibited the cutting of any tree and the killing of any animal. The ethic of the guru endured over centuries and the area became lush with vegetation. In the 18th century, the king of Jodhpur sent loggers to cut down the Bishnois’ trees for construction of a new palace. The villag-ers protested, and, when their protests were not heeded, they protected the trees by surrounding the trees with their bodies. Upon hearing of the villagers’ dedication, the king granted them state protection and their protection of trees and ani-mals persists today. The Bishnois’ tactic of encir-cling trees to protect them inspired the Chipko movement of the 20th century.
   In March 1973 in Gopeshwar, Uttar Pradesh, a sports equipment factory marked trees near the vil-lage for harvesting. The villagers encircles the trees, as had the Bishnois before them, and provided a human shield against deforestation. The strategy was repeated in several villages in the Himalayas, creating the Chipko movement, which exists today as a grassroots ecodevelopment movement.
   Both the Bishnoi and the Chipko movements demonstrate how environmental conservation is aligned with Hindu religion and culture. Hindu scriptures contain implicit environmental ethics that encourage respect for and stewardship of a sacred universe. The central concepts of DHARMA (right conduct) and KARMA (action in the world) have been used to support initiatives for environ-mental protection. Ecological writers call for a partnership between Hindu religious leaders and ecological activists to join the insight and devotion of traditional Hindu thought in collaboration with scientific strategies of sustainable development.
   A series of 10 conferences on the world’s reli-gions and ecology was held at the Harvard Divinity School Center for the Study of World Religions from 1996 to 1998. Subsequently, the Forum on Religion and Ecology and its Web site were announced by the founders, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, during a report to the United Nations and subsequent press conference in 1998. In both the initial conferences and the continuing activities of the forum, scholars and practitioners promote a dialogue on the global environmental crisis and efforts to create public policy in alignment with the teachings of the world’s religions. The relationship of Hinduism and ecology has become one focus of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.
   Scholars and religious leaders have made pre-sentations about Asian religious traditions and ecology at the Parliament of World Religions. The Green Yoga Association, founded by Laura Cornell in Oakland, California, in 2004, seeks to promote an ecological ethic in its practice of traditional yogic techniques and to interpret yogic texts, such as PATANJALI’S YOGA SUTRAS, in terms of environmental ethics.
   Further reading: David Landis Barnhall and Roger S. Gottlieb, eds., Deep Ecology and World Religions: New Essays on Sacred Ground (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001); J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames, eds., Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Tradi-tions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993); Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, eds., Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); David L. Gosling, Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia (London: Routledge, 2001); Lance E. Nelson, ed., Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998); Helaine Selin, ed., Nature across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures (Lancaster, England: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003); Mary Evelyn Tucker, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 2003).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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