Religions and Conservation: A Hindu Perspective

“Religions and Conservation: A Hindu Perspective.”

Presenter: Dr K.L. Seshagiri Rao
This was a lecture given by Dr. Seshagiri Rao for the International Interfaith Centre at Westminster College, Oxford on 4 May 1995. Dr. Rao had been attending a world Summit on Religions and Conservation, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Pilkington Foundation and MOA International (Japan) at Windsor Castle, UK, 29 April – 4 May 1995
The Hindu ethical ideal, comprehensively described as ‘dharma’, gathers in its sweep the total well-being of humans; it includes physical, mental, intellectual, moral, and spiritual values. ‘Dharma’ is both individual and social, this worldly as well as other worldly. It is both stable and flexible. It provides for continuity, it can be related to new times and conditions. It contains a code of life and a philosophy of social and ethical relations.

Hindu ethics is inspired by the ideal of “‘Loka Samgraha’, protection and welfare of the world” taught in the Bhagavad Gita (III, 20), the most popular Hindu scripture. This ideal reveals a deep interest in human happiness and the stability of society. It requires from each member of society a way of life consistent with the general welfare of mankind.

In the third chapter of the Gita, Sri Krishna explains and expands this ideal of the “Welfare of the world”. He says that action or dynamism is a characteristic of life. There is no escape from action for humans. The only question is: what kind of action is worthy and valuable? Sri Krishna’s answer is that any action that contributes to the welfare of the whole world with all the living beings in it, is valuable; and that which harms or hinders it is a negative value, and therefore immoral or ‘adharma’. The positive forces of life promote, and the negative forces of life hinder the conditions of general welfare and fulfillment of human kind.

A sacrificial performance (‘Yajna’) is a most creative action. The conception of ‘Yajna’ was much widened in the Bhagavad Gita, distinguishing the spirit of ‘Yajna’ from its forms. It puts social and ecological contents into it. Those acts which protect and enhance public utility and fulfillment are called sacrifices (Yajna). The prosperity and happiness of the members of a society are dependent on a well-ordered society, nature and cosmos as a whole. Just as in individual life, when the eyes, ears and other sense organs work unitedly, the person works in health and happiness. Similarly, the sun and other cosmic powers perform their duties in unison and therefore, the universe goes on and on smoothly.

Sacrificial performance has a cosmic concern; it is intended to reinvigorate the powers that sustain the world by securing cosmic stability and social order. It brings rain (beneficent results) and activates positive forces of the universe, and protects things from degeneration. “Prajapati, having created beings and actions in former times, declared thus: by this you prosper, this is for you the desired milch cow. With this, you cherish gods, and the gods will cherish you. By mutual care and concern, the highest good may be obtained. Being worshipped through Yajna, the gods grant your desires”. (Bhagavad Gita III, 10-11.)

Sacrifices are conducive to material prosperity and spiritual growth. Anything done for the benefit of society and the world is a sacrifice. The spiritual motivation offers us direction and initiates us into altruistic work. It is very different from egocentric materialism. The world prospers with acts of sacrifice. An action is Yajna in proportion to its public utility.

Natural elements air, water, fire, sky and earth are all life-giving and life-promoting. So are the sun, moon, stars, and clouds. They heal and rehabilitate. They turn toxic materials into whole and wholesome things. Nature is a source of raw materials. These natural resources are given not for selfish exploitation by one group or nation or generation of another, but to be shared by all creation.

Hindus regard the earth as mother, deserving our reverence. She feeds us, provides shelter, and material for clothes; without her gifts, even survival is impossible. If, as children, we do not take care of her, we diminish her ability to take care of us. Unfortunately, our scientific and industrial achievements are undermining the natural environment. The earth itself has now become an area of concern.

Human shortsightedness and selfishness have landed us in ecological crises of immense proportions. Natural resources are being depleted and degraded rapidly on a global scale. Industries are polluting the atmosphere, releasing chemical wastage in water, using up nonrenewable energy resources without a thought for posterity; automobile exhaust is causing acid rain. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides pollute the air, water, and vegetation. They are harmful to human health and welfare. They can even cause genetic damage. The disappearing ozone layer threatens our children; cancer, blindness, and death. Global environmental problems make our continued existence on the planet questionable.

Hinduism speaks of harmony with nature and with the whole creation. It speaks of the moral and spiritual laws of life as precious parts of the very structure of the universe. Truthfulness, humility, unity of humanity, reverence for life, and care of the environment are their expressions. Hindus have chosen their places of pilgrimage on tops of mountains, or the banks of rivers, wherever there was some natural beauty or grandeur. They speak of father sky, mother earth and uncle moon. Rivers such as Ganga, Jamuna, Godavari, Cauveri and mountains such as Himalayas, Vindhya and Malaya are considered sacred, because they are life-giving, life-sustaining and life-promoting. So are oceans, trees and rocks.

Religious leaders can and must impress their followers on the importance of the cleanliness of river waters and the protection of forests and mountains. In this connection, the childhood and early life of Sri Krishna – the eighth incarnation of God – spent among the cowherds, is very inspiring. He is concerned with the preservation of the life sustaining nature of the waters of Jamuna, the life promoting nature of the Govardhan mountain, and the life supporting qualities of the animal world in Vrindavan. The Supreme Divinity plays with common, simple and pure cowherds (gopas and gopis). Bred in this atmosphere, Sri Krishna endears himself not only to his contemporaries and humanity at large, but also to all creatures and the natural environment.

Mental pollutions are the cause of physical and environmental ravages. They are engendered by greed, lust and anger. Disharmony, conflict, sickness and degradation of nature are their results. They are the result of the desire for profit, power, and self-aggrandizement.. The important thing about actions is the motive with which they are done. Psychological and social motivations and implications of activities are important. All actions start in the mind. Evil deeds are caused by ignorance and selfishness. If the ego is allowed to grow, it generates anger, greed, lust, hatred, etc. and makes life miserable for all. They should be offered in fire. Mental environment has to be kept clean and focused. Yajna is the sacrificing of one’s ego and the burning of impurities. When it is accomplished, one’s society and environment are purified. A wiser thought, a cleaner vision, and a greater kindness appears; then honesty, love and selfless service emerge in life.

Whenever worship-service is performed in the Hindu tradition, it is preceded by purification of elements, ‘bhutasuddhi’ as a necessary preliminary. The five elements are purified both within and without. Purification is preliminary to sanctification: it establishes harmony between macrocosm and microcosm. The offerings that are made to the deity represent the best of each of the five elements; fragrance offered represents the essence of earth, flower the sky element (openness, blossoming), incense represents the wind element, water represents the water element, and light represents the fire element. Only when these elements are pure or purified, can they be offered in worship.
Conservation Trends
All forms of life are an integral part of nature. All species need to be appreciated and respected. There are birds, fishes, and animals of all kinds. Life on this planet is a single weave. The value of the subhuman world is to be recognized. It is not there for exploitation. Human and sub human creations are interdependent. We are not isolated. We are participants in a large and grandly meaningful whole. The animal world serves creation and works for a divine purpose.

Nature yields abundant food stuffs. Medicinal value of the five elements of nature is well known. Encouragement of “Nature Cure” helps economy and conservation.

In herbs and plants, we can find remedies to known and unknown diseases. The value of herbs are to be fully recognized. Ayurvedic system of preventive and inexpensive health-care system is to be encouraged.

The green world makes earth fit for the life of the animal world. Trees with wide leaves absorb moisture and give it to earth. The vegetable and animal world are harmoniously interwoven into a single household. Plants are a necessary living link in the web of life. Organic farming is good for health and good for the earth. Vegetarian diet provides the required substances for a healthy life. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are embedded in the Hindu ideal of life; it feeds more people and is less wasteful.

Traditional institutions still exercise a great influence. The life of the masses is heavily influenced by religious values, customs and practices. People draw heavily upon the spiritual resources and wisdom of ages. In this connection, the potential of Hinduism to support ecological conservation is indeed tremendous. Spiritual leaders in these institutions can and must increase the awareness of their followers in respect of the violence done to the environment by burgeoning industrialization. Exclusive pursuit of material values undermines our world, depletes our resources, and threatens our survival. They should instill the ideas of sanctity of life and sacredness of nature. They must encourage and inspire their followers to observe a certain code of conduct. They must show that the spiritual quest is the most world-affirming and life-affirming of all ventures. Such an attempt could on the one hand, reverse the trend to degrade the environment, and on the other help to enrich it.

Traditional prescriptions are still in order:

* Cause wells to be dug;
* Cause trees to be planted;
* Cause water tanks to be built;
* Cause flower gardens and parks to be made;
* Wherever you cremate a dead body, plant a tree;
* Don’t cut green trees;
* Don’t pluck flowers in the night;
* Don’t disturb water in the night; let foreign particles settle down.
* Don’t pollute river banks;
* Make life-styles less violent and less extravagant;
* Minimize consumption and minimize the harm to the environment.
* Reuse and recycle durable materials;
* Enhance the quality of life, not just the standard of life;
* Encourage interfaith dialogue and support for environmental protection.

Nature is our friend, not an enemy. We are born and live and play in the lap of nature and receive sustenance from her. Our debt to Nature is immense. We need to discharge our debt by giving back a fraction of what we have taken from her. Nature is not to be exploited or conquered, but to be nourished and cherished. We should develop friendly and responsible relationship with nature.