Dharma and the Environment

Courtesy: Sh. Gyan Rajhans

Since 1967 I have been consulting in the field of occupational health, safety and environment. In 1981 I became involved in spiritual Vedic Religion radio broadcasts in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) which has now become online  weekly spiritual broadcast (www.bhajanawali.com). One of the blogs of N A Ramachandra Pai in ST http://timesofindia.speakingtree.in/public/spiritual-slidesh ow/seekers/wellness/global-concern/23404 inspired me to write this blog. 

Today humanity faces a global ecological crisis.  Environmental degradation is proceeding at an unprecedented rate -- all in the name of development. It is no wonder that worldwide public attention is being drawn to this 'ecological crisis' through the western and eastern media. 

We know that the environmental abuses result from the desire for growth and social apathy regarding the deleterious effects of that growth. This apathy towards our surroundings, combined with materialism, has brought forth the present havoc. The fundamental question arising from this dilemma are: What is Hindu Dharma to the environment; and how can

our spiritual and cultural beliefs assist us in this struggle for survival? 

Pradushana ( Pollution) and its Prevention in Hindu Scriptures

 Hindu scriptures revealed a clear conception of the ecosystem. On this basis a discipline of environmental ethics developed with formulated codes of conduct (dharma) and defined humanity's relationship to nature. An important part of that conduct is maintaining proper sanitation. In the past, this was considered to be the duty of everyone and any default was a punishable offence. Hindu society did not ever consider it proper to throw dirt on a public path. Hindus considered cremation of dead bodies and maintaining the sanitation of the human habitat as essential acts. When in about 200 BCE Caraka wrote about Vikrti (pollution) and disease, he mentioned air pollution specifically as a cause of many diseases

(Caraka Samhita, Vimanastanam III 6:1.9 ) 

Water is considered by Hindus as a powerful medium of purification and also as a source of energy. Sometimes, just by the sprinkling of pure water in religious ceremonies, it is believed purity is achieved. That is why, in Rig-Veda, prayer is offered to the deity of water (Varun): "The waters in the' sky, the waters of rivers, and water in the well whose source is the ocean, may all these sacred waters protect me" (Rig-Veda 7.49.2).  The healing property and medicinal value of water has been universally accepted, provided it is pure and free from all pollution.Persons engaging in unsocial activities and in acts polluting the environment were cursed:

"A person, who is engaged in killing creatures, polluting wells, and ponds and tanks, and destroying gardens, certainly

goes to hell" (Padmapurana, Bhoomikhananda 96:7-8). 

Effectiveness of Hinduism in Conservation 

The effectiveness of any religion in protecting the environment depends upon how much faith its believers have in its precepts and injunctions. It also depends upon how those precepts are transmitted and adapted in every-day social interactions. In the case of the Hindu religion, which is practiced as dharma - way of life - many of its precepts became ingrained in the daily life and social institutions of the people. If such has been the tradition, philosophy, and ideology of Hindu religion, what then are the reasons behind the present

state of environmental crisis? As we have seen, our ethical beliefs and religious values influence our behaviour towards others, including our relationship with all creatures and plant life.If, for some reason, these noble values become displaced by other beliefs which are either thrust upon the society or transplanted from another culture through invasion, then the faith of the masses in the earlier cultural tradition is shaken.As the foreign culture; language and system of administration slowly takes root and penetrates all levels of society, and as appropriate answers and leadership are not forthcoming from the religious leaders, it is only natural for the masses to become more inward-looking and self-centered. Under such circumstances, religious values which acted as sanctions against environmental destruction do not retain a high priority because people have to worry about their survival and freedom; hence respect for nature gets displaced by economic factors. 

That, it seems, is what happened in India during 700 years of foreign cultural domination. The situation became more complex when, in addition to the Muslim culture, the British introduced Christianity and western secular institutions and values.

While it is too easy to blame these external forces for the change in attitudes of Hindus towards nature, nevertheless

it is a fact that they greatly inhibited the religion from continuing to transmit ancient values which encourage respect

and due regard for God's creation.

In the final analysis if we just keep reminding ourselves what Mahatma Gandhi warned  'nature has enough for everybody's need but not for everybody's greed' we can still avoid the global ecological crisis.