10 Hindu Environmental Teachings ~ Pankaj Jain, Ph.D.

Hinduism contains numerous references to the worship of the divine in nature in its Vedas,
Upanishads, Puranas, Sutras and its other sacred texts. Millions of Hindus recite Sanskrit mantras daily to revere their rivers, mountains, trees, animals and the earth. Although the Chipko (tree-hugging) Movement is the most widely known example of Hindu environmental leadership, there are examples of Hindu action for the environment that are centuries old.

Hinduism is a remarkably diverse religious and cultural phenomenon, with many local and
regional manifestations. Within this universe of beliefs, several important themes emerge. The diverse theologies of Hinduism suggest that:

• The earth can be seen as a manifestation of the goddess, and must be treated with respect.
• The five elements — space, air, fire, water and earth — are the foundation of an interconnected web of life.
• Dharma — often translated as “duty” — can be reinterpreted to include our responsibility to care for the earth.
• Simple living is a model for the development of sustainable economies.
• Our treatment of nature directly affects our karma.

Gandhi exemplified many of these teachings, and his example continues to inspire contemporary social, religious and environmental leaders in their efforts to protect the planet.

The following are 10 important Hindu teachings on the environment:

1. Pancha Mahabhutas (The five great elements) create a web of life that is shown forth in the structure and interconnectedness of the cosmos and the human body. Hinduism teaches that the five great 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. The Upanishads explains 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.”

Hinduism recognizes that the human body is composed of and related to these five elements,
and connects each of the elements to one of the five 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.

2. Ishavasyam — Divinity is omnipresent and takes infinite forms. Hindu texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita (7.19, 13.13) and the Bhagavad Purana (2.2.41, 2.2.45), contain many references to the omnipresence of the Supreme divinity, including its presence throughout and within nature. Hindus worship and accept the presence of God in nature. For example, many Hindus think of India’s mighty rivers — such as the Ganges — as goddesses. In the Mahabharata, it is noted that the universe and every object in it has been created as an abode of the Supreme God meant for the benefit of all, implying that individual species should enjoy their role within a larger system, in relationship with other species.

3. Protecting the environment is part of Dharma.
Dharma, one of the most important Hindu concepts, has been translated into English as duty, virtue, cosmic order and religion. In Hinduism, protecting the environment is an important expression of dharma.
In past centuries, Indian communities — like other traditional communities — did not have an understanding of “the environment” as separate from the other spheres of activity in their lives.

A number of rural Hindu communities such as the Bishnois, Bhils and Swadhyaya have maintained strong communal practices to protect local ecosystems such as forests and water sources. These communities carry out these conservation-oriented practices not as “environmental” acts but rather as expressions of dharma. When Bishnois are protecting animals and trees, when Swadhyayis are building Vrikshamandiras (tree temples) and Nirmal Nirs (water harvesting sites) and when Bhils are practicing their rituals in sacred groves, they are simply expressing their reverence for creation according to Hindu teachings, not “restoring the environment.” These traditional Indian groups do not see religion, ecology and ethics as separate arenas of life. Instead, they understand it to be part of their dharma to treat creation with respect.

4. Our environmental actions affect our karma. Karma, a central Hindu teaching, holds that each of our actions creates consequences — good and bad — which constitute our karma and determine our future fate, including the place we will assume when we are reincarnated in our next life. Moral behavior creates good karma, and our behavior toward the environment has karmic consequences. Because we have free choice, even though we may have harmed the environment in the past, we can choose to protect the environment in the future, replacing environmentally destructive karmic patterns with good ones.

5. The earth — Devi — is a goddess and our mother and deserves our devotion and protection. Many Hindu rituals recognize that human beings benefit from the earth, and offer gratitude and protection in response. Many Hindus touch the floor before getting out of bed every morning and ask Devi to forgive them for trampling on her body. Millions of Hindus create kolams daily — artwork consisting of bits of rice or other food placed at their doorways in the morning. These kolams express Hindu’s desire to offer sustenance to the earth, just as the earth sustains themselves. The Chipko movement — made famous by Chipko women’s commitment to “hugging” trees in their community to protect them from clear-cutting by outside interests — represents a similar devotion to the earth.

6. Hinduism’s tantric and yogic traditions affirm the sacredness of material reality and contain teachings and practices to unite people with divine energy. Hinduism’s Tantric tradition teaches that the entire universe is the manifestation of divine energy. Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “to yoke” or “to unite,” refers to a series of mental and physical practices designed to connect the individual with this divine energy. Both these traditions affirm that all phenomena, objects and individuals are expressions of the divine. And because these traditions both envision the earth as a goddess, contemporary Hindu teachers have used these teachings to demonstrate the wrongness of the exploitation of the environment, women and indigenous peoples.

7. Belief in reincarnation supports a sense of interconnectedness of all creation. Hindus believe in the cycle of rebirth, wherein every being travels through millions of cycles of birth and rebirth in different forms, depending on their karma from previous lives. So a person may be reincarnated as a person, animal, bird or another part of the wider community of life. Because of this, and because all people are understood to pass through many lives on their pathway to ultimate liberation, reincarnation creates a sense of solidarity between people and all living things.

Through belief in reincarnation, Hinduism teaches that all species and all parts of the earth are part of an extended network of relationships connected over the millennia, with each part of this network deserving respect and reverence.

8. Non-violence — ahimsa — is the greatest dharma. Ahimsa to the earth improves one’s karma. For observant Hindus, hurting or harming another being damages one’s karma and obstructs advancement toward moksha — liberation. To prevent the further accrual of bad karma, Hindus are instructed to avoid activities associated with violence and to follow a vegetarian diet.

Based on this doctrine of ahimsa, many observant Hindus oppose the institutionalized breeding and killing of animals, birds and fish for human consumption.

9. Sanyasa (asceticism) represents a path to liberation and is good for the earth. Hinduism teaches that asceticism — restraint in consumption and simplicity in living — represents a pathway toward moksha (liberation), which treats the earth with respect. A well-known Hindu teaching — Tain tyakten bhunjitha — has been translated, “Take what you need for your sustenance without a sense of entitlement or ownership.”

One of the most prominent Hindu environmental leaders, Sunderlal Bahuguna, inspired many Hindus by his ascetic lifestyle. His repeated fasts and strenuous foot marches, undertaken to support and spread the message of the Chipko, distinguished him as a notable ascetic in our own time. In his capacity for suffering and his spirit of self-sacrifice, Hindus saw a living example of the renunciation of worldly ambition exhorted by Hindu scriptures.

10. Gandhi is a role model for simple living. Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as an ecological treatise. This is one life in which every minute act, emotion or thought functioned much like an ecosystem: his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his spinning wheel, his abhorrence of waste, his resorting to basic Hindu and Jain values of truth, nonviolence, celibacy and fasting. The moralists, nonviolent activists, feminists, journalists, social reformers, trade union leaders, peasants, prohibitionists, nature-cure lovers, renouncers and environmentalists all take their inspirations from Gandhi’s life and writings.

(Acknowledgment: Adapted from the essays by Christopher K. Chapple, O. P. Dwivedi, K. L. Seshagiri Rao, Vinay Lal, and George A. James in Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water and Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, both published by Harvard University Press. Thanks also to the essays by Harold Coward and Rita DasGupta Sherma in Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, published by SUNY Press.


Pankaj is the author of Sustenance and Sustainability: Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities (May 2011) and has also published articles in journals such as Religious Studies Review, Worldviews, Religion Compass, Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Union Seminary Quarterly Review and the Journal of Visual Anthropology. He also contributes to the Washington Post’s forum “On Faith” and the e-zine Patheos.com.

His research and teaching interests include Hinduism, Jainism, environmental ethics, Indian films, Sanskrit, and Hindi/Urdu languages and literatures. Before joining UNT, he taught at North Carolina State University, Rutgers, Kean and New Jersey City University. Interested in connecting ancient practices with contemporary issues, he is exploring the connections between religious traditions and sustainability in Hindu and Jain communities in the North Texas area. He serves as a research affiliate with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project and as scholar-in-residence with GreenFaith. He is also a Roving Professor at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity at UNT.

He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from Columbia University (both in Religious Studies). In his “previous life” he had also earned a B.S. in Computer Science from India and had worked as a software engineer in India and in New Jersey.

What Would Jesus Do About Islam? ~ Deepak Chopra

When angry mullahs and oil despots want to stir up anger against the West, “Crusade” is an inflammatory term that comes automatically to their lips. The memory of Christian knights invading the Arab world is very long. The height of the Crusades ended seven centuries ago. But it’s not history that is at stake. Embedded in the worldview of many devout Muslims is a defensive and hostile attitude toward Christianity. The burning of the bible by a mullah somewhere in Iran wouldn’t incite mob action in the West, but a single extremist in Florida with a following of less than fifty led to violence and murder in Afghanistan.

Distasteful as it is, religion remains a major element in all three Arab conflicts that the U.S. has ventured into. The memoirs of former President George Bush are rife with religious motivations. There is little doubt that when he gave speeches about a “conflict of civilizations,” he meant a conflict between two religions. Such a conflict doesn’t exist, not inherently. Jesus is worshiped as the Prince of Peace; one definition of the word “Islam” is peace. But history has created its own dogmas, and when human nature wants to justify aggression, any rationale will do, including God.

This issue is facing us again because the uprisings that are revamping the Arab world include a strong Islamist influence. In some places the specter of new hostility between the Shia and Sunni is boiling up. In other places the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong voice, and almost everywhere the populace looks to their traditional leaders, the clerics, for guidance. Crowds consider Friday, the chief gathering time for the faithful going to mosques, as a significant day for protest. There is a real possibility that fundamentalist Islam will loom in the future of many states.

The direction of history will be decided by another faction, one that has proved stronger than religion in Egypt: young people who want a future in the modern world. Like the student uprisings in the West in the Sixties, a youth movement in Islam isn’t likely to seize power after expressing its discontent. In every Arab country an entrenched military, traditional clerics, and explosive extremists hold the spotlight. Protests aren’t equal to organized, empowered elites.

What’s important is that the West doesn’t repeat Bush’s doctrine of fighting for God. If we honestly asked what Jesus would do about Islam, it’s obvious that his solution wouldn’t be war. He might even apply the Golden Rule. So far, President Obama has been more Christian than his predecessor, not by applying Christian principles but by treating Muslims with common humanity, tolerance, and understanding. These uprisings are part of a global phenomenon, the rise of the dispossessed. People don’t emerge from political repression as model citizens, much less saints. They are angry and resentful, so they lash out. They have been deprived for generations of education, so they follow demagogues. They know little of the world beyond what religion tells them, so they see others through the lens of religion.

We have a reactionary wing in this country that shares the same traits, but they have much less excuse. They haven’t been oppressed, and for the most part every benefit of prosperity and education has been available to them. The jihadis and extremists of the Arab world have served well as bogeymen for the right wing, as they have served the Gaddafis and Mubaraks whose vested interests are just as reactionary. I doubt that Jesus would appreciate their values, and his response to religious intolerance would not be to praise it.

Eckhart Tolle on Personal Love

Q: If we’re all one, why do we feel drawn toward certain individuals in an expression of “personal love”?

ET: True love is transcendental. Without recognition of the formless within yourself, there can be no true transcendental love. If you cannot recognize the formless in yourself, you cannot recognize yourself in the other. The recognition of the other as yourself in essence – not the form – is true love. As long as the conditioned mind operates and you are completely identified with it, there’s no true love. There may be substitutes, things that are called “love” but are not true love. For example, “falling in love”…perhaps most of us have experienced it. Maybe one or two at this moment are “in love”, and those who have experienced it have also experienced “falling out of love”.

We need to remember to understand [the difference between] true love and other forms of so-called love. We are in the relative as form, and in the absolute as formless consciousness. The two dimensions that the human being embodies are the ‘human’ and the ‘being’. The human is the form, the being is the formless, the timeless consciousness itself. It sometimes happens that the form has an affinity with other forms. It could happen for a number of reasons. One being that this form has come out of another form – called your mother – and so there is an affinity of this form with that other form.

You have a love toward your mother that might be called ‘personal’. Another aspect of affinity with another form is male/female. You can be drawn to another body in a sexual way, and it’s sometimes called “love”. Especially if the sexual act is denied long enough, it’s more likely to develop into obsessive love…so much so, that in cultures where you could not have sex until you were married, falling in love could be a huge thing and could lead to suicide. Naturally, there is an affinity of the male/female, the incompleteness of this form. The primary incompleteness of this form is that you are either a man or a woman. The oneness has become the duality of male/female.

The pull towards the other is an attempt to find wholeness, completeness, fulfillment through the opposite polarity, in an attempt to find the Oneness. That lies at the basis of the attraction. It’s to do with form, because on the level of form you are not whole – you are one half of the whole. One half of humanity is male, one half is female, roughly.

You have the attraction for the other, then there may be finding certain qualities in another human being that resonate with certain qualities in yourself. Or, if they don’t resonate, it may be the opposite that you feel drawn to. If you are a very peaceful person, maybe you feel drawn toward a dramatic person, or vice-versa. And again, you are hoping for some completion there. You can have an affinity with another form, which can be called ‘personal love’. If personal love is all that there is, then what is missing is the transcendental dimension of the formless – which is where true love arises. Is that part of the personal love, or is the personal level all that there is? That determines whether that so-called “love” is going to turn into something painful eventually, and frustrating, or if there is a deepening.

There may be an attraction that is initially sexual between two humans. If they start living together, this cannot endure for that long and be the fulfillment of the relationship. At some point, sexual/emotional [attraction] needs to deepen and the transcendental dimension needs to come in, to some extent, for it to deepen. Then true love shines through the personal. The important thing is that true love emanates from the timeless, non-formal dimension of who you are. Is that shining through the personal love that is to do with affinity of forms? If it is not, there is complete identification with form, and complete identification with form is ego.

Many times you may think “that’s it!” and after living together for a little while you realize “that was a mistake”, or “I was completely deluded”. Even in parent-children relationships, which is a very close bond on the level of form, if the transcendental dimension does not shine through, eventually the love between children and parents turns into something else. This is why so many people have very problematic relationships with their parents.

Some relationships may start as purely form-based, and then the other dimension comes in after a while. Perhaps only after a lot of problems, and perhaps you get close to a breakup, when suddenly there is a deepening and then you are able to bring in space.

The key is to ask, “Is there space in this relationship?” Or are there only thoughts and emotions? It’s dreadful prison to inhabit if you live with a person and all you have are thoughts and emotions. Occasionally you are okay, but there is disagreement, friction.

We need to acknowledge that there are personal affinities. But in themselves, they are never ultimately fulfilling. More often than not, they are a source of suffering. Love becomes a source of suffering when the transcendental is missing. How does the transcendent come in? By being spacious with the other. Which essentially means that you access the Stillness in yourself while you look at the other.

Not mental noise, not emotional waves. That does not mean that there cannot be emotions or thoughts, but there is something else present in the relationship. That applies not only to close personal relationships, but also to more superficial relationships at work.

With any human relationship, the question is, “Is there space?” It’s a pointer. Space is when thought becomes unimportant – even an emotion becomes unimportant.

When people live together, sometimes the other is no longer acknowledged in daily life because there is so much to do. If you wake up in the morning, is there a moment when you acknowledge the presence of the other?

It’s the most wonderful thing if you can be there for the other as space, rather than as a person. At this very moment, you can either be here as a person, or you can be here as the space.

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