By Christopher Key Chapple
The religious traditions of India are rich and various, offering diverse theological and practical perspectives on the human condition. Hinduism and Jainism comprise the oldest continually observed religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Both have spread beyond the subcontinent to virtually all parts of the globe, though most adherents to these faiths claim Indian ancestry.
Hinduism and Ecology. The Vedic traditions of Hinduism offer imagery that values the power of the natural world. Scholars of the Vedas have held forth various texts and rituals that extol the earth (bhu), the atmosphere (bhuvah), and sky (sva), as well as the goddess associated with the earth (Prthivi), and the gods associated with water (Ap), with fire and heat (Agni), and the wind (Vayu). They have noted that the centrality of these gods and goddesses suggests an underlying ecological sensitivity within the Hindu tradition. In later Indian thought, these Vedic concepts become formalized into the Samkhya denotation of five great elements (mahabhuta): earth (prthivi), water (jal), fire (tejas), air (vayu), and space (akasa). The meditative and ritual processes of Hinduism entail awareness of these constituents of materiality. Daily worship (puja) employs and evokes these five powers.
Hinduism has long revered the tree. Early seals from the Indus Valley cities (ca. 3000 B.C.E.) depict the tree as a powerful symbol of abundance. References to India's trees can be found in a wide range of literature, particularly in epic and poetic texts. India has a long history of forest protection, from the edicts of Asoka, to the individual work of various Rajas, to the modern Chipko movement, wherein women have staved off forest destruction by surrounding trees with their own bodies.
Rivers have been and continue to be an integral part of Hindu religious practice. More than fifty Vedic hymns praise the Sarasvati, a river (now dry) associated with the goddess of learning and culture. The Ganges River, which flows through northern India, likewise is referred to as a goddess originating from the top of Siva's head in the Himalaya Mountains, giving sustenance to hundreds of millions of modern Indians. Traditionally, the rivers of India have always been considered pure. Modern industrial contaminants and human wastes have fouled the rivers, though Ganges water still plays an important role in India's ritual life.
Hinduism offers a variety of cosmological views that may or may not situate the human in the natural world in an ecologically friendly manner. On the one hand, the agrarian and often near-wilderness images of India found in the Vedas, Upanishads, and epic texts present a style of life seemingly in tune with the elements. The Samkhya and Tantra traditions affirm the reality and efficacy of the physical world. On the other hand, the Advaita Vedanta tradition, while adopting the basic principles of Samkhya cosmology, asserts that the highest truth involves a vision of oneness that transcends nature and, in a sense, dismisses the significance of the material world by referring to it as illusion or maya.
One model of Hindu spirituality encourages physicality through yoga practices that enhance the health of the body and the vitality of the senses. Other spiritual paths advocate renunciation of all sensual attachments to the world. However, even within the paths that relegate worldly concerns to a status of secondary importance, the doctrine of Dharma emphasizes a need to act "for the sake of the good of the world."
Particularly in regard to such issues as the building of dams in the Narmada River Valley, this requires taking into account social ecology or the need to integrate environmental policy with the daily needs of tribal and other marginalized peoples.
The current worldwide ecological crisis has only emerged during the past four decades and its effects have been felt within South Asia more recently. As the region copes with decreasing air quality in its cities and degraded water in various regions, religious thinkers and activists have begun to reflect on how the broader values of Hindu tradition might contribute to fostering greater care for the earth.
Gandhi's advocacy of simple living through the principles of nonviolence (ahimsa) and holding to truthfulness (satyagraha) could give some Hindus pause as they consider the lifestyle changes engendered by contemporary consumerism. Most of the Hindu population lives within villages that, barring natural disasters such as flood or drought, are self-sustaining and use resources sparingly. However, as the population of South Asia increases, and as the modern lifestyle continues to demand consumer goods, the balance of sustainability can shatter. With appreciation and acknowledgment of the five great elements, with a new interpretation of social duty (dharma) expanded to include the ecological community, and with remembrance of its ethic of abstemiousness, the Hindu tradition can develop new modalities for caring for the earth.