How did religion influence or shape our attitude towards the natural environment? UCLA history professor Lynn White answered the question in his article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” published in a 1967 issue of Science. White wrote that the Western world’s attitude towards nature was shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam and Marxism. “God planned all (of creation) explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” According to White, Western Christianity separated humans from nature, and created a dualism, while the older religions saw [divine] spirit in every tree, river, animal and bird. White claims this Western concept encouraged exploitation and domination of nature for the benefit of man. This traditional, western, exploitative attitude to ecology gave birth to protest movements such as Green Peace to protect the environment.
To Hindus, the concept of environment protection is not a modern phenomenon; they inherited it from their ancestors. During the earliest, formative period of their society, Hindus first perceived God’s presence around them through nature. The natural forces that governed their daily lives were considered as manifestations of an Almighty Creator they called the Brahman (not to be confused with the Brahmin caste). Ancient Hindus felt Brahman’s presence in everything around them. Since these divine forces sustained all living creatures and organic things on the earth, to please God, they felt they must live in harmony with His creation, which includes rivers, forests, sun, the air and mountains. This belief spawned many rituals that are still followed by traditional Hindus in India. For example, before the foundation of a building is dug, a priest is invited to perform the Bhoomi Pooja (earth worship) in order to worship and appease Mother Earth and seek forgiveness for violating her. Certain plants, trees and rivers were considered sacred, and worshipped in festivals.
In a traditional Hindu family, to insult or abuse nature is considered a sacrilegious act. A Hindu mother would severely scold her child for acts like ripping the limb of a plant or urinating or spitting on a tree or in any body of water. Hindus believed that humans, gods and nature were integral parts of one “organic whole.” Ancient Hindu writers personified each of the divine forces as a devata or deity worthy of reverence and worship. Even Charvaka, the atheist philosopher of ancient India, who totally rejected Vedas, the primary Hindu scriptures, considered the principles of Vayu (air), Bhumi (earth), Jala (water) and Agni (fire) as important factors in regulating the lives of humans, animals and plants. This Hindu worldview of ancient Vedic times became formalized into the Samkhya system of philosophy that promoted ecology-consciousness in Hindu attitude.
The Hindu peace prayer called Shanti path, recited to conclude every Hindu ceremony, reflects the Hindus’ connection to nature: “There is peace in heavenly region; there is peace in the environment; the water is cooling; herbs are healing; the plants are peace-giving; there is harmony in the celestial objects and perfection in knowledge; everything in the universe is peaceful; peace pervades everywhere. May that peace come to me.”
In the process of modernization and their mimicking of western lifestyles and consumerism, modern Hindus have acquired the western exploitative attitude towards nature. Lush forests have been denuded and rivers, including the sacred river Gunga (the Ganges), have become polluted with industrial wastes. Delhi has become one of the most polluted cities in the world. Many beautiful birds and animals have become extinct. And this devastation is taking place in the name of progress. The Indian environment-protection movement is run by Westernized elites, and based on a Western model. It has failed to become a mass movement, for the simple reason that it is devoid of the spiritual foundation or content necessary to inspire Hindus.
Prof. David Frawley, author of How I Became a Hindu (as well as many books on Hinduism, yoga, and other related subjects), laments that “… Hindus have forgotten this Vedic view of the earth and don’t protect their natural environment. They have not added a (traditional) Hindu point of view to the ecology movement which is perhaps the main idealistic movement in the world today … part of the challenge of the modern Hinduism is to reclaim its connection to the earth.”
Article By: Ajit Adhopia
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