Climate Change and Hinduism

Climate Change and Hinduism

By Nyapati R. Rao, MD, MS, DLFAPA


-Series Editor: H. Steven Moffic, MD

Nature is an integral part of religion. Religion serves as a bridge between humans and the environment by using rituals to mark the rhythm of the seasonal changes, to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest, and pray to keep away destructive natural forces. Many religions teach that humans are the caretakers of this planet earth. The beliefs about human-nature relationships, religious cosmologies, and climate change perceptions are a set of interrelated concepts, reinforced and shaped by one another. How might we approach climate change from the Hindu point of view?

Hindu Worldview and Climate Change

It is critical to understand how various cultures function concerning nature. Hindu religion is a multifaceted faith with numerous perspectives on human-nature relationships.1 There is no central authority that prescribes and proscribes universally accepted human behavior to all Hindus. There is a description of unity in all diversity: “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” meaning “the whole world is a family” in Sanskrit.

Hinduism teaches that the 5 significant elements (space, air, fire, water, and Earth) that constitute the environment are all derived from prakriti, the primal energy. Each of these elements has its own life and form; together, the elements are interconnected and interdependent. Hinduism recognizes that the human body is composed of and related to these 5 elements. Each element is connected to 1 of the 5 senses. The human nose is related to Earth, tongue to water, eyes to fire, skin to air, and ears to space. This bond between our senses and the elements is the foundation of our human relationship with the natural world. For Hinduism, nature and the environment are not outside us, not alien or hostile to us. They are an inseparable part of our existence, and they constitute our very bodies.

The Upanishads explain the interdependence of these elements in relation to brahman, the supreme reality, from which they arise: “From Brahman arises space, from space arises air, from air arises fire, from fire arises water, and from water arises earth.”

In Hinduism, the concept of dharma is considered to be a universal organizing principle that governs all reality. Thus, protecting the environment has been considered by some as Hindu dharma. Another central concept of Hinduism 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. Thus, karma is also closely related to the concept of rebirth, or samsara. Both concepts further illustrate the Hindu conception of the human-nature relationship in 2 ways: 1) 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 them; and 2) one’s behavior toward the environment will have karmic consequences, which means one can accumulate good karma by actively protecting the environment.

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. The Hindu 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. 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.1

In 2009, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a convocation of Hindu Spiritual Leaders adopted the inaugural Hindu Declaration on Climate Change, which failed to gain full support from the members. This declaration was later reintroduced at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, when it won the support from various Hindu organizations and activists worldwide. 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.1

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