Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions

Water, Wood, and Wisdom: Ecological Perspectives from the Hindu Traditions

By Vasudha Narayanan

From the cradle that is a baby’s first bed to the cremation pyre that is the last resting place for the body in many Hindu traditions, wood is an integral part of Hindu lives. From home hearths to religious sacraments, wood and fire are conspicuously present. Hindu weddings take place in front of a sacred fire that is considered to be an eternal witness; at death, the bodies are consigned to the fire.

The ashes of the cremated body are immersed in holy waters—the same rivers that feed and irrigate paddy fields; the same water that cooks the rice and bathes the dead before cremation. From cradle to cremation, Hindus have long had a palpable, organic connection with nature. But today they must also face the reality of environmental disaster. With the population hovering around a billion in India (with eight hundred million Hindus), the use, abuse, and misuse of resources is placing India on the fast track to disaster. What, if anything, can Hindu tradition say about this looming environmental crisis? Are there any resources in the Hindu religious and cultural traditions that can inspire and motivate Hindus to take action?1

While in the Western world one has to argue for the significance and relevance of religion in everyday life, in India the interest and involvement in religion is tangible; religious symbols are ubiquitous. The traditional mantra heard among Hindus, “Hinduism is more than a religion; it is a way of life,” is more than a trite saying. There is a deep relationship between religion and ingrained social structures and behavioral patterns. The characters featured in the various Puranas, or ancient texts about the Hindu deities, are known and loved by the masses. People never seem to tire of these stories. Only vernacular cinema seems to rival the epic and Puranic narratives in popular influence.

But do the many Hindu philosophies and communities value nature and privilege the existence of plants, trees, and water? Although the short answer is “yes,” Hindus have answered this question in many different ways that have been documented in excellent texts.2 Plants and trees are valued so highly in Hindu sacred texts that their destruction is connected with doomsday scenarios. The Puranas and epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata give detailed narratives of the periodic and cyclic destruction of the world. There are four aeons in each cycle, and by the beginning of the third aeon, things are perceptibly going awry. As the Kurma Purana puts it, “then greed and passion arose again everywhere, inevitably, due to the predestined purpose of the Treta [Third] Age. And people seized the rivers, fields, mountains, clumps of trees and herbs, overcoming them by strength.”3 The epic Mahabharata (c. 500–200 b.c.e.) graphically depicts the events at the end of the fourth—and worst—aeon, and what happens after a thousand such aeons:

At the end of the Eon the population increases . . . and odor becomes stench, and flavors putrid. . . . When the close of the thousand Aeons has come and life has been spent, there befalls a drought of many years that drives most of the creatures, of dwindling reserves and starving to their death. . . . The Fire of Annihilation then invades . . . [and] burns down all that is found on earth. . . . Wondrous looking huge clouds rise up in the sky. . . . At the end of time all men—there is no doubt—will be omnivorous barbarians. . . . All people will be naturally cruel. . . . Without concern they will destroy parks and trees and the lives of living will be ruined in the world. Slaves of greed they will roam this earth. . . . All countries will equally suffer from drought. . . . [It] will not rain in season, and the crops will not grow, when the end of the Eon is at hand.4

What we note almost immediately is that these destructions are portrayed as cyclical and periodic. The first quotation about the third aeon evokes the inevitable, predestined nature of such events. One wonders if human beings are powerless against such cosmic configurations. But even if we were to take these epics seriously, we have quite a while to wait. According to very conservative Hindu almanacs and reckoning, the end of this aeon—the fourth—is not expected before 428,898 c.e.

We also notice in the Hindu texts a close correlation between dharma (righteousness, duty, justice; from dhr, or that which sustains) and the ravaging of Earth. When dharma declines, human beings despoil nature. There is, however, no Hindu text focusing on dharma that advises us to be passive and accept the end of the world with a life-negating philosophy. Many Hindu texts are firm in their view that human beings must enhance the quality of life. A popular blessing uttered in many Hindu temples and homes focuses on human happiness in this life, on this earth: “May everyone be happy, may everyone be free of diseases! / May everyone see what is noble / May no one suffer from misery!”

Despite this unequivocal ratification of the pursuit of happiness, Hindus of every stripe have participated in polluting the environment. In this essay, we will look at the resources and limitations within the many Hindu traditions to see how the problem of ecology has been addressed. Before we look at these resources, a few caveats and qualifications are in order.

The first important issue to be aware of is that there are many Hindu traditions, and there is no single book that all Hindus would agree on as authoritative. In this essay, I will cite many texts from a spectrum of sources. The second point to note is that the many texts within Hindu traditions have played a limited role in the history of the religion. Although works like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the many Puranas have been generally influential, philosophical works like the Upanishads are not well known by the masses. The texts on right behavior (dharma shastras) have been only selectively followed, and popular practice or custom has had as much weight as religious law. All these texts, along with Puranic and epic narratives, have been the carriers and transmitters of dharma and devotion (bhakti).

Dharma is all-important in Hindu communities, but the texts that define and discuss dharma were known only by a handful of Brahman men. Instead, notions of dharma were communicated through stories from the epics and Puranas, and such moral tales were routinely retold by family or village elders. Like Aesop’s fables—or MTV today—these narratives shaped notions of morality and acceptable behavior. The exaggerated reliance on texts of law is a later development and can be traced to the period of colonization by the British.5 With the intellectual colonization by the West and the advent of mass media, Hindus today, especially in the diaspora, think of texts alone—rather than oral tradition or community customs—as authoritative. Many Hindu temples in India now hold classes and study circles on the Bhagavadgita (“the Song of the Lord;” a text composed circa second century B.C.E. that is part of the epic Mahabharata). The Ramakrishna and Chinmaya missions publish theological books and tapes with translations and commentaries to explain their canonic texts to an educated middle-class public.

Finally, I do not speak about these resources for anyone except those who in some manner belong to one of the Hindu traditions. Gerald Larson has alerted us to the dangers of indiscriminate use of philosophical texts as a generic resource for environmental philosophy, and one has to be mindful of these warnings.6 Still, given the increasing popularity of sacred texts among many sectors of Hindu society in the late twentieth century, I feel comfortable in using many Hindu texts as resources in this essay. We will see shortly that some Hindu institutions are citing esoteric passages on dharma from sacred texts in order to raise the consciousness of people about contemporary social issues. The regulation of dharma with a dual emphasis on text and practice has given it a flexibility that we can use to our advantage today.

The resources from which the Hindu traditions can draw in approaching environmental problems are several and diverse: there are texts, of course, but also temples and teachers. Hindu sacred texts starting with the Vedas (c. 1750–600 B.C.E.) speak extensively about the sanctity of the earth, the rivers, and the mountains. The texts on dharma earnestly exhort people to practice nonviolence toward all beings; other texts speak of the joys of a harmonious relationship with nature. Temples are large economic centers with endowments of millions. Many have had clout for over a millennium; devotees, pilgrims, and politicians (especially after an election) donate liberally to these centers. Finally, there are gurus. Teachers like Sathya Sai Baba can influence millions of devotees around the world and divert enormous resources to various projects.

These vast and varied religious resources can undoubtedly be used to raise people’s consciousness about environmental problems. In this essay, I will explore some of the resources in the Hindu traditions that may be relevant to the environmental crisis, discuss a few cases of environmental mobilization that have sprung from religious sensibilities, and finally assess some of the other strands in the Hindu traditions that often impede the translation of philosophies into action.

Trees, When Protected, Protect Us”

Read the rest @ https://www.amacad.org/publication/water-wood-and-wisdom-ecological-perspectives-hindu-traditions


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