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A Hindu Perspective on Care of the Earth

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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In the Mahabharata and in the Puranas, the ancient Hindu texts that reveal the nature and activities of the Supreme Deity, we read that the creation of the world is based on an eternal order that is known as rita or as dharma.


During the creation of the world, order replaces the primeval chaos and every element in the creation has a particular nature and a particular function so that the whole scheme of existence proceeds in a smooth and effective manner.


This order of the world and the inherent nature of the elements of creation is one of the meanings of the term dharma. According to the ancient Hindu accounts (Mahabharata and Puranas), the Supreme Deity himself descends to earth at different times when the original order is disturbed. (The word avatar is used for this.) The Bhagavad Gita refers to dharma samsthapana (the establishment of dharma) as the reason for the appearance of these avatars. In the accounts of the descent of God as the Rama and Krishna avatars, we are told of how the earth goddess was overburdened by the activities of materialistic human beings who were disturbing the natural order. Taking the form of a cow, the goddess appeals to the Supreme Deity to descend and restore the harmony of creation that has now been disrupted.



Guidance from an ancient religion for a modern world


Ancient religions do not usually contain teachings directly relating to the current environmental crisis, but, by looking carefully at the core teachings, we can find ideas that provide guidance for the contemporary world. From the Hindu doctrine of avatar we learn that the order of nature is a part of the dharma God has created for the benefit of all beings and that this natural order can be disrupted when human activity deviates from the proper rules of conduct. At present it seems that the earth is overburdened by the avaricious industrial endeavours of human beings just as she was in the ancient stories. It is therefore incumbent on all those who revere the Hindu dharma not just to live according to proper standards of virtue but also to do whatever they can to ensure that the beauty and bounty of the earth is not harmed by the avarice of humanity. The Earth is a goddess, she is Bhumi Devi, who along with Lakshmi is the eternal associate of Sri Vishnu, the Supreme Deity. Therefore reverence, care and respect for Bhumi Devi is important for Hindus in their devotion to God. The iconic representation of the earth as a cow must be seen in association with the Hindu reverence for the cow as an animal and the universal prohibition on cow slaughter. The earth is the great cow that nourishes every one of us and as such, like the cow that gives us milk, the earth must never be harmed in any way. This is the Hindu Dharma.


Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata note the contrast between the urban environment and the untamed forest, and it is the forest that is regarded as the ideal setting for spiritual practice. The ashrams (or hermitages) of sages and religious teachers are to be found outside of the cities in beautiful locations that bring natural tranquillity to the mind. The forest setting can be a source of fear but the beauty of the natural world is frequently eulogised, with reference to the lakes of water, towering trees, fruits, herbs and fragrant flowers.


When people have realised their worldly ambitions and seek instead the fruits of the spirit then they turn away from the urban environment and seek the tranquillity of the natural world. There is clearly a close connection between the quality of Sattva (purity, goodness) and the undisturbed natural setting; this ideal environment must therefore be preserved and protected as a part of our spiritual lives.


Materialism destroys the earth


In order to properly protect the earth, we must ask why it is that the environment is being destroyed by human activity. Some might suggest that it is over-population, but the root cause surely lies in the excessive emphasis placed by contemporary human society on the consumption of manufactured goods. The modern ethos attempts to convince us that happiness and satisfaction in life can be achieved through the acquisition of the goods produced by industry and this in turn fuels the excessive industrial production that desecrates the natural beauty of the earth.


We lament this destruction, but because of the nature of our desires we have become convinced that, without it, we will not be able to acquire the things that will bring us happiness in life. Hindu Dharma provides an alternative vision of human life, one that does not require the level of production and consumption that is so damaging to the earth. Hindu teachings reveal that there are three gunas or inherent qualities in the world, Sattva (goodness or purity), Rajas (passion, desire and endeavour) and Tamas (darkness, impurity and ignorance). We are urged to base our lives primarily on the quality of Sattva and to try to move away from Rajas and Tamas. It is easy to see that the modern lifestyle that has so harmed the natural world is a product of Rajas in the form of intense endeavour and burning desire for material objects and also of Tamas in the callous and lazy disregard for natural beauty we see when litter or industrial waste is dumped in the most idyllic settings.


Hindu teachings reveal that it is in the quality of Sattva that the highest form of human happiness is to be found, but this is through peace of mind, intellectual pursuits and human relationships and not through the acquisition of more and more consumer goods. The Bhagavad Gita (3.38) points out that desires of this type are never satisfied and hence no permanent joy can be achieved through acquisition. If human society could come to see the profound yet simple truth of this revelation, then the root cause of our harming the earth might possibly be removed. In truth, there seems to be no other viable solution. Moreover, Hindu teachings on spiritual progress towards salvation reveal that this path can only be followed by one who is prepared to give up materialistic forms of pleasure. The rampant materialism that is the cause of the present environmental crisis is shown to be a barrier to spiritual advancement. Hence if people accept the Hindu vision of a spiritual life they will certainly change their lifestyle in such a way that the burden on the earth will gradually be eased.


The natural world as part of the divine world


I made the point earlier that the earth herself is regarded as a goddess by Hindus and as such is to be revered and nurtured, as her iconic representation as a cow indicates. If, however, we look at the more philosophical Hindu teachings on the nature of God we find the idea that the Supreme Deity is not just the creator of the world, but that the world is a part of his universal existence. In Hindu teachings, the creator is identical with the created and the natural world and is in reality a part of the divine existence. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asks Krishna (who is God on earth) how the presence of God can be perceived by one who exists in this world. Krishna replies to this question by referring to the glories of the natural world.


Whenever we see anything that is glorious, wonderful or magnificent in nature then we should understand that this is due to the presence of God within creation. And when Arjuna asks Krishna to show himself as God, Krishna then reveals the whole world as his bodily form. So again from this idea we can see that the natural world we inhabit is not just a gift of God; its wonder and beauty is so astounding because it is pervaded by the divine presence. And the fact that we harm, exploit and fail to respect the earth is a sign that we are not aware of the presence of God in every aspect of creation.



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