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Hinduism and the Environment

Hinduism is a holistic religion that focuses not merely on worship, but also seeks to explain the most optimal political, social and economic life as well as the most appropriate human attitude towards natural world or the environment. Due to the fact that this religion is among the oldest doctrines, it contains the components of paganism that asserted strong connection between human-being and the environment and included humanity into the natural world.

The Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti comprise the information about the importance of maintaining and preserving ecological balance. As Sen (1992) writes, “Nature, or the Earth, has never been considered a hostile element to be conquered or dominated. In fact, man is forbidden from exploiting nature. He is taught to live in harmony with nature and recognize that divinity prevails in all elements, including plants and animals.

The rishis of the past always had a great respect for nature” (Sen, 1992, p. 269). This ancient wisdom is particularly important nowadays, in the period of ecological crisis, and this paper is designed to explore and explain the basic ideas of human relationship with environment in Hinduism. Ancient Indians viewed the harmony with the natural world as the basic prerequisite for successful psychological and social functioning (Chattopadhyaya, 2003; Sen, 1992) .

For instance, meditation, a process of developing inner peace, tolerance and acceptance, was often performed outdoors, as the environment was regarded as auspicious in terms of meditation, as it provided enough space, fresh air and calm. In addition, the Hindus distinguished a number of sacred places, whose spiritual power was reinforced by rituals, such spots included river banks, confluence of rivers, forests and hills, so that their dwellers were known as possessing both profound and universal knowledge (Chattopadhyaya, 2003).

Evergreen forests were particularly respected, since they symbolized eternal life as well as divine power and influence, and it needs to be noted (Cooper and Palmer, 1998) , cutting down such trees, the person automatically causes divine anger. The sacred texts of the Vedas describes and explains this cosmic viewpoint, as these writing represent the earliest oral tradition of Hinduism. The Atharva Veda contains the s-called Hymn to the Earth (the Prithvi Sukta), probably the most ancient environmental prayer that pledges human allegiance to the environment: “Earth is my mother, I am her son” (Findly, 2002, p.

925). The Earth is worshipped because of the abundance of natural resources and plants she kindly provides to her children; in addition, in the ancient times, the Hindus sought her blessing in order to achieve prosperity. This means, human-beings are described as children or minors, who haven’t developed enough wisdom and life skills and are therefore supported by the Earth: in this mutualism, neither of the sides is inferior or superior, as they are linked by true love (Chattopadhyaya, 2003).

The magnificent Hymn to the Earth (from the Artha-Veda) contains following lines: “Earth, in which the waters, common to all/ Moving on all slides, flow unfailingly, day and night/May she pour on us milk in many streams/And endow us with luster,/May those born of thee, O Earth,/Be of our welfare, free from sickness and waste,/Wakeful through a long life, we shall become bearers of tribute to thee” (Cooper and Palmer , 1998, p. 348).

Hence, ancient Hindus, on the one hand, recognized the power of the Earth, yet also realized (Findly, 2002) its fragility and powerlessness against true violence, as this short passage clearly demonstrates human respect and care for the Earth, that resembles the attitude towards ageing parents, often demonstrated by grateful and supportive adult children (Allchin, 1998; Findler, 2002). Any environmental trespass therefore pointed to the serious abuse of the mother (Bhumi, or the Earth), as the issue of kinship was not merely understood by the Hindus at cognitive level, but also manifested in certain conducts.

Not merely natural forces, but also deities, served to protect the Earth – for instance, Indra acted as the main defender (Allchin, 1998), Brahma was known as a constructive power, whose ‘area of competence’ also included nurturing the Earth, Vishnu was a balancer, who maintained global harmony, including the equilibrium between human civilization and the natural world (Sen, 1992; Allchin, 1998).

The Tenth Hymn of the Rig Veda is dedicated to the emotional depiction of waters, as this resource, due to climatic peculiarities in India (heat, in particular) (Feldhaus, 2003), was regarded as a basic constituent of ‘human survival kit’: “Ye, Waters are beneficent: so help ye us to energy” (ibid, p. 511).

The approach to water can be categorized into two main groups: firstly, ancient people considered it a resource, or a component of nutrition: “Give us a portion of the sap, the most auspicious that ye have,/Like mothers in their longing love” (ibid); secondly, water was a source of divine power, attraction and health Gods’ gift: “I beg the Floods to give us balm, these Queens who rule o’er precious things,/and have the supreme control of men. /Within the Waters-Soma thus hath told me-dwell all balms that heal,/ And Agni, he who blesseth all” (ibid).

As one can understand, the unknown authors clearly articulate their perception of the water as the element, used to produce healing potions, elixirs of youth and beauty, so that it should be clear and transparent. Moreover, similarly to the Earth, the water was also viewed an animate element that could express its ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ like anger or satisfaction. The later scriptures, like the Upanishads, clearly enunciate the idea of the global interrelation among plants, animals, the sky, the water, the fire, humankind and other ‘characters’ of the natural world, which contribute to the natural harmony.

In this sense, the mistreatment of any component inevitable results in the degradation, primarily – of human civilization (Chattopadhyaya, 2003). The divine manifested itself first and foremost through natural phenomena rather than existing in otherworld or distinct reality. For instance, the Mudaka Upanishads provide following notion of the divine: “Fire is head, his eyes are the moon and the sun:/The regions of space are his ears, his voice the revealed Veda,/The wind is his breadth, his heart is the entire universe,/The earth is his footstool,/Truly he is the inner soul of all” (Raj, 1995, p.

239). This means, inner fire exist in each object of the environment, in this context, it symbolizes life, physical existence. Moreover, the fire embodies universal knowledge and the aspect of purification in human development (Childs, 1982; Selin, 2003). In addition, India can be regarded as a network of holy places, as there are seven hallowed mountains, seven holy rivers, sacred plants, animals and even cities. The Hindu religious doctrine is cosmocentric, i. e. human being is represented as a link in the long network, where ‘creation and destruction take place simultaneously” (Selin, 2003, p.

118). Ancient Hindus seemed knowledgeable about the laws of energy preservation: for example, they thought energy was dynamic, moved among organisms and natural objects (Selin, 2003; Fisher, 1997) and could have been converted: in this connotation, death was regarded as a normal phenomenon, encountered by any animate object, as it was aimed at changing the type of energy or distributing among the newly-appeared organisms (Feldhaus, 2003; Redford, 1990). The notion of reincarnation also points to the belief in the cyclic energy flow.

Furthermore, human are not the most important part of the natural world, as they are imply an atom, a tiny constituent of the huge universe, so the establishment of human-centered world is a grave abuse of the environment, which is composed of the objects, filled with the divine (Fisher, 1997). The idea of Atman reflects Hindu belief in the global unity, as Atman is the spiritual dimension of the world, or the Universe’s soul. “God is in all things, and all things are in God” (Raj, 1995, p. 185). Each natural object therefore contain information human eye is not able to make out, i.

e. has its soul, or the sparkle of divine blessing. In this sense, the Isa Upanishad is among the most important teachings about the environment, as it is the earliest scripture that contains the notions of the environment as the home of the divine as well as a number of prescriptions for human behavior. First of all the writing describes the local environment: “The Ganges is the symbol of the holy spirit which permeates through every river and holy mountain. Kailash is the holy mountain, but all mountains are holy, because God lives there.

The cow is holy, because ultimately all animal kingdom is holy” (Cremo and Goswami, 1995, p. 293). Human-beings, however, are creatures, gifted with reason and ability to assess their deeds, so they need additional rules to follow, as their mental power can be used for the purpose of defense as well as offense. There are three basic principles of safe and productive coexistence with the environment: yajna (sacrifice), dhana (ability to give) and tapas (self-control or self-punishment). “These are the three ecological principles for replenishment of the earth” (ibid, p. 294).

Yajna can be exemplified in the following situation: if the person’s clothes contain wool, they ought to produce this material for others, if an individual needs wood to build a house, they should plant and grow five-seven trees for the future generations. In addition, one ought to minimize their needs and the resources they take from the natural world – optimal consumption should touch each aspect of daily life – from food to energy, as certain amount of the resource should necessarily be left for the future or for those unable to take care of themselves (Cremo and Goswami, 1995; Cooper and Palmer, 1998).

The observance of this prescription should also be demonstrated through the so-called fire ceremony, performed during the most important ceremonies, such as wedding, the birth or recuperation from a serious disease. The most hard-line Hindus prefer to perform this ritual each morning, before the breakfast: they normally burn a part of their daily ratio for the purpose of purification (Redford, 1990; Cremo and Goswami, 1995) .

Ghee (a sort of butter) is of particular importance in terms of the fire refinement, as burning a bit of ghee means liberating one’s soul from envy, anger, jealousy and greed (Redford, 1990) and receiving wisdom (as it has been mentioned above, fire is a brilliant source of knowledge and spirituality). Another vital imperative is dhana, or ability to give. “This is replenishment of society. Just as we take from nature and therefore must make sacrifice, so we take from society. In every field – architecture, poetry, painting, ideas – we have received so much. But we mustn’t be just consumers.

We must make our own sacrifice to replenish society. Write a poem – not for money or fame, but as a gift to the world…” (Selin, 2003, p. 379). Due to the fact that human-beings are a part of the natural world, the internal relations within the society should be dominated by this principle, as Hindus believe, human communities have certain ecological status, probably based upon the distribution of material and non-material resources as well as inner psychological climate, or purely interpersonal relationships, which naturally include the ability to concede (Selin, 2003; Cremo and Goswami, 1995) .

Finally, tapas, or penance, replenishes human soul and allows experiencing the relation to all natural objects, i. e. perceiving the global unity. The first two prescriptions are the path to unity and peaceful coexistence, whereas tapas purely allows feeling it and perceiving unity as continuous emotional state. “If you fast or take a vow of silence that is tapas. Ghandi was silent every Friday.

On the eleventh day of the waxing and waning moon Hindus practice tapas by fasting or praying. At other times they go on pilgrimage to holy places like Vrindavan. Meditation is tapas. Because of all the things you do in the world there is a tremendous amount of wear and tear of the soul and it has to be replenished” (Cremo and Goswami, 1995, p. 298). Tapas includes self-restraint even in the basic needs, including sexual life.

Hindu tradition wisely divides (Cremo and Goswami, 1995) the manifestations of human sexuality into four periods: before 25 – brahmacarya or abstinence; 25-50 – family life, in which sexual life should be limited, as surfeit might come; after 50 – rejection of sexual life or vanaprastha; finally, complete physical abandonment of the world (death). As one can understand, these measures are necessary, as sexual activity means procreation, so that the restrictions are aimed at preventing overpopulation and overuse of the natural world and maintaining human health through preserving their energy for more meaningful deeds (Majumdar, 1988).

At age 50 Hindus are expected to conduct a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey. The ageing individual is viewed as experienced, so that 50 is the age of analyzing, synthesizing the experience and, if necessary, canalizing it into more productive channel. In addition, such traveling extends the person’s knowledge about the environment, which can be used in the future. Each Hindu village should have at least one guest house and provide free shelter and food to the travelers.

The Isa Upanishad also infers that material possessions should not be accumulated, as they create obstructions to energy flow, worsen human karma (adding into such emotions as greed and selfishness) and result in the improper distribution of material resources among humans as well as natural objects: for instance, if a person decides to cut off a forest, he/she automatically deprives numerous animals, birds and smaller plants of their habitat and therefore violates the harmony through damaging this ecological system (Cooper and Palmer, 1998).

The ancient Hindus seemed to use system approach in their environmental ‘science’: for instance, they explained the importance of each ecological microsystems (e. g. , a tree) with regard to the interconnection between such natural complexes. Another ancient text, the Mahabharata implies that “the basic elements of nature constitute the cosmic Being – the mountains His bones, the earth His flesh, the sea His blood, the sky His abdomen, the air His breath and fire His energy” (Ghosh, 1993, p.

49). The text contain actual reference to the sun as to a great saver of all living beings (Vaisampayana’s monologue): “in days of old, all living beings that had been created, were solely afflicted with hunger. And like a father (unto all of them), Savita (the sun) took compassion upon them” (Seshadri, 1986, p. 598).

The sun later became a master of plants and vegetation and stimulated the growth of vegetative food that later developed six different tastes under lunar influence. The provision of solar energy is therefore Savita’s voluntary act, which should not be conducted by compulsion, al this source is finite to all other natural resources and should therefore be used reasonably and wisely.

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