Mother Bhumi: Hinduism and Creation

Once or twice a year during Lent, you can find me in a church: I am fortunate to be invited to speak during the house of worship's Lenten Lecture series about my faith journey as a Hindu. This Lent, I had an opportunity to share how Hindus value all of Creation.

This issue came up when I brought up the many misconceptions about Hinduism, including how people believe that Hindus are polytheistic and how we worship cows—a question that comes up often because public school curricula provides this misrepresentation. This is an issue that Hindus have to answer collectively, as done in the Hindu American Foundation's media toolkit, or individually, as done by Gautham Pathial in an essay published in a 2007 issue of Hinduism Today. When someone asked during the Q & A if we worship snakes also, I simply stated, "All of Creation is sacred."

I was just repeating what Matthew McDermott quoted from the part of the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads. In the latest issue of Hinduism Today, his article on Hinduism and the Environment opens with three words in Sanskrit and its eleven-word translation: Ishavasyam idam sarvam—"This entire universe is to be looked upon as the Lord." (Shukla Yajur Veda, Ishavasya Upanishad - 1)

That the environment is on everyone's mind is not surprising: I even thought of writing a reflection on karma and creation in the aftermath of the first of the recent Japanese earthquakes and the nuclear emergency, or various countries' impact on global warming. But even more important to understand than an American Hindu perspective on the environment is the Indian Hindu perspective.

Newsweek touched on why this is so in "Why India Might Save the Planet." In the land of almost a billion Hindus, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment and Forests is considered a pretty important person. He divides environmentalism into "lifestyle environmentalism" and "livelihood environmentalism"—the first being what Westerners follow, and the second, what India needs. India is a developing nation, and Ramesh must make choices that provide for the growth in GDP necessary for its human population while also preserving the environment. Newsweek says "he has rebalanced a playing field that had been tilted heavily in favor of growth at all costs"—one where both industries and ecosystems are considered valuable.

I don't envy him for the choices he must make. A few years ago, in a class I took at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, my first assignment as an introduction to theological thinking was to visit one of many sites such as www.protectingcreation.org and www.earthministry.org, and respond with a three-paragraph evaluation. First, I was overwhelmed with the amount of information, and second, I was extremely concerned that there was no equivalent Hindu site. Then a friend passed along the website for the Bhumi Project, and I gave a sigh of relief: the Bhumi Project is a worldwide Hindu response to the environmental issues facing our planet, and is facilitated by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, in partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, and backed by the United Nations Development Programme.

The Bhumi Project team has developed a couple of initiatives, and one is focused on Compassionate Living. Just like the Green Temple initiative, this advocates that should one follow five simple steps in one's daily life: 1) cut out red meat; 2) go veg; 3) be kind to cows; 4) buy consciously, buy cruelty free; and 5) [live] a life built on compassion. The underlying principles in this initiative involve the Hindu core value of ahimsa, and another that relates to the misperception of polytheism—personification of earth as mother. As the site rightly states, "by personifying the earth as Mother Bhumi, Hindu culture has built a foundation for a relationship of respect . . . It is more difficult to be cruel to a person than to an object."

In my daily scriptural reading over the past few weeks, a few verses from the Atharva Veda that caught my attention clearly illustrate this personification: "She carries in her lap the foolish and also the wise. She bears the death of the wicked as well as the good. She lives in friendly collaboration with the boar, offering herself as sanctuary to the wild pig" (Atharva Veda XII, 1, 48); "Earth, gracious leader and protectress of the world, who holds in firm grasp both trees and plants . . ." (Atharva Veda XII, 1, 57).

As we approach Earth Day, I hope that more people choose to be wise than foolish: that they too choose to live compassionately, and live in friendly collaboration with one another and Mother Earth. May she hold us firmly and protect us as we find balance.