We need to build a stronger Earth community, one that is harmonious, resilient, and abundant. The efforts of those working for change must be grounded in spiritual principles if a lasting beneficial change is to come. Given the realities of today, this is how age-old Hindu teachings can help us.
Hindu view of Nature
Ecology is an inherent part of the Hindu spiritual worldview. Since the earliest times of the Vedas and Upanishads, Hindu teachings refer to the omnipresence of the supreme Divinity in nature. These sacred texts contain hymns of worship of nature and messages for maintaining environmental ethics and ecological balance. Hindus recite mantras daily, revering their rivers, mountains, trees, animals, and the earth.
‘Ishavasyam idam sarvam’
Whatever there is in this world,
it is covered and filled with Narayana
Divinity is boundless and takes infinite forms. Hinduism’s Tantric and yogic tradition teaches that the entire universe is the manifestation of divine energy. Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘to unite,’ refers to a series of mental and physical exercises intended to connect the individual with this divine energy. And because these traditions envision the Earth as a goddess, contemporary Hindu teachers have used these teachings to fight exploitation, be it of the environment, women, or indigenous tribes.
Hindu Dharma is not a religion. Dharma, meaning ‘support’ and ‘harmony,’ is a moral code, a set of practices that enables humans to stay in harmony with the world around them. And one who follows this code is a Hindu. Preserving the environment is part of Dharma, and Hindus do not understand “the environment” as distinct from other matters in their lives. Hindu Dharma views on Nature are based upon the philosophy expounded in the most ancient and sacred texts of the Vedas, Upanishads, Vedanta, and Hindu devotional and ritual practice.
There is no distinction between the Divine and nature in Hindu thought, two aspects of the same reality. The cosmic reality is like the ocean: nature or the manifest world is like the waves on the surface of the water, and Brahman or the unmanifest Absolute is like the depths of the water. But in the end, it is all the same, a single ocean. Ultimately as the Upanishads say:
Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma
Everything is Brahman
Hindus perceive a Divine and sacred presence working behind the natural world, which is the real object of their reverence. They do not senselessly worship the forces of nature out of superstition and fear. The revered presence of Brahman or the Supreme Existence is present in God or the cosmic lord in Hindu philosophy. The Brahman is eternal, conscious, irreducible, infinite, and the spiritual core of the universe of finiteness and change. It is also present in the soul, which is our higher Self. And it is present in nature. God, the soul, and the world are aspects of One Reality. Each is sacred and holds the same profound Nature of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. The Hindu sages can discern the same Absolute Reality in a human being, an animal, or a distant star, now and beyond all time and space.
This Vedic vision of unity is the foundation of the Hindu ecological approach in which we respect the entire universe as part of our higher Self or soul. It takes us beyond the dualism of God and creation. We need not regard nature as we would someone lower in status. We honor nature as our own greater life and expression. We cultivate an attitude of care and equanimity and strive to raise awareness in our society.
‘tat sristva ta devanu pravisat’
After creating the universe,
He entered into every object created
Ecological Value of Hindu Rituals and Mantras
Hindu prayers and mantras are part of an extensive spiritual science designed to connect us to higher planes of consciousness, energy, and creativity. Hindu rituals are intended to bring men in harmony with the world of nature. The yajnas or fire rituals offer particular substances like wood, resins, ghee, grains, and seeds into a consecrated fire to transform into higher vibrations for the benefit of all humanity to heal, transform and make us feel elevated. Hindus pray for that all-embracing peace that transcends all boundaries. They pray for peace to the Earth, Atmosphere, Heaven, Mountains, Rivers, Sun, Moon and Stars, and the entire cosmos. Peace is a universal reality, not a result of human endeavor or a truce between competing tribes.
Vedic mantras are part of an enlightened Yoga of sound and are composed of unique celestial sounds that tether us to the cosmic mind and the energy of the universe. Chanting these mantras is one of the most invigorating things we can do to uplift ourselves and the planet. By bringing these rituals, mantras, and meditation to the sites of natural beauty, we are purifying and reenergizing nature. We not only heal the earth and heal ourselves; we can fulfill our highest goal as a species - the liberation of consciousness into the infinite. Many autochthonous cultures and old pagan traditions have a similar understanding of all nature as sacred and recognize the venerated places in their environment. These deep-rooted traditions need to be honored and their practice revived.
Pancha Mahabhutas or The Five Elements
According to Hindu thought, the five significant elements - Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth constitute the environment and are all derived from Nature. Thus, the cosmos, nature, plants, animals, the human body, and everything present in the universe are connected by a web of life. The Upanishads expound on the interconnection of these elements to the Brahman from which they emerge:
“From Brahman arises space, from space, arises air,
from air arises fire, from fire, arises water,
and from water arises earth.”
Each of the elements also relates to one of the five senses of the human body. The nose connects to Earth, the tongue connects to water, the eyes connect to fire, the skin refers to air, and the ears refer to space. This union of our senses with the elements is the bedrock of the relationship of humans with the natural world. Hence, harming Nature would be harming ourselves.
Ahimsa is the most excellent Dharma
Harming another being tarnishes one’s Karma and obstructs progress toward Moksha or liberation. Ahimsa to the Earth improves one’s Karma. To arrest the further accrual of bad Karma, Hindus avoid eating meat, activities associated with violence, and oppose the institutionalized breeding and killing of other living beings.
Sanyasa (asceticism) is honorable for the Earth
Asceticism – simple living and restraint in consumption - treats the earth with respect and presents a path toward Moksha. A Vedic teaching is:
Tain tyakten bhunjitha
Take what you need for your sustenance
without a sense of entitlement or ownership.
How western religions look upon Nature
Religious thought based upon Abrahamic heritage is quite different and regards nature as something created by God. If nature is sacred, it is because it is God’s creation, and as such, it must be protected. Nature on its own has no sanctitude. They are generally skeptical of nature Gods and regard worshipping the natural elements for an enlightened and harmonious life as a form of idolatry. That is why they have historically repudiated Hinduism and all nature-based religions as pagan and unholy.
The profound philosophy of Vedanta, which sees the unity of all beings in the Self, provides a spiritual and philosophical vision for a sound ecological approach that we so desperately need to save our natural environment.
Hindu ancient texts extoll the beauty of Nature
Hindu sages and rishis of the past have always had great respect for nature. Their activities center around transmitting the essence of ancient Hindu wisdom through descriptions of the bounty and beauty of nature. They call upon us to deepen our relationship with the sacred earth with a spirit of gratitude that the Dharmic traditions uphold. The settings of natural beauty create an enriching environment that encourages people to be calm and peaceful.
The poet sage Valmiki excels in narrating the resplendent beauty of nature in his ‘Ramayana.’ It seems he would like Ram to roam in the forest so he could glorify the natural beauty and charm of the surroundings in detail. He captures our imagination and holds us spellbound, going into a celebratory mode with metaphor upon metaphor of exquisite comparisons.
Sacred Places in Hinduism
In Abrahamic religions, there are many holy places of pilgrimage defined mainly in human terms, even if they are found in a beautiful natural setting. A place is sacred because some prophet, savior, or saint had visited or communicated to God from that location and not because of its own natural beauty. One may honor it as God’s creation but not as a manifestation of divinity. Such worship is restricted just to God and his human representatives. It is considered blasphemous to find Divine in the form of an animal, plant, or force of nature.
Hindus honor the Divine not only in the human form but also in the beauty and power of nature. The Divine is not only in the father, mother, sister, brother, or friend, but also in the animals, plants, rocks, planets, stars, fire, and water. This thought of finding the Divine in nature is the reason why Hindus find sacred places like mountains and hills, rivers and lakes, flowers, trees, and groves everywhere. This Hindu devotional attitude is not primitive idolatry as the western religions would like to portray but a recognition of the Divine reality behind our world. For example, Mount Kailash is sacred as a magnificent mountain and as the abode of Shiva or the higher consciousness. Indeed, all mountains are blessed because they offer us access to the higher realms of meditation and bliss. All rivers are blessed because they nourish and purify the body, mind, and inner being, and the Ganga is one such holy river. The revered nature of such places does not depend upon human activity but can undoubtedly be enhanced by ritual, mantra, and meditation.
Hindus honor all forms of the Divine and perceive the formless Divine even beyond the Creator, extending to the Absolute or Brahman, the being, self, and soul of everything animate and inanimate. Our very Self is the universe, and the entire universe dwells within us. To honor nature is to honor ourselves. To honor ourselves, one must honor nature.
Mother Earth – Bhoomi Devi
The earth is sacred as the manifestation of the Divine Mother, the Earth Goddess. Hindus consider the earth as a mother, and as such, mother earth deserves our respect, love, and care. Hindu rituals recognize that we benefit from the earth and offer gratitude and protection in response. Hindus honor cows because the cow represents the attributes and energy of the planet: selfless caring, sharing, and providing nourishment to all.
The Atharva Veda addresses Mother Earth:
“May whatever I dig from you grow back again quickly,
and may we not injure you by our labor.”
Another hymn to Mother Earth says:
“Earth, in which the seas, the rivers, and many waters lie,
from which arise foods and fields of grain,
abode to all that breathes and moves,
may she confer on us with her finest yield.”
Our environmental actions have Karmic consequences
Karma, a central Hindu and Buddhist tenet, holds that our actions create good and bad consequences that constitute our Karma and determine our future. Good behavior results in good Karma. Even if we have destroyed the environment in the past, we can mitigate our destructive Karmic patterns with good ones by protecting them in the future. Hindu texts mention that natural disasters are consequences of our activities where we have harmed mother nature in various ways.
Decolonizing Our Thinking
The birth of colonialism and subsequent industrialization resulted in compartmentalization and control of our environment. The right to trample was assigned to powerful nations. Society moved away from the spirituality of everyday life. It fossilized our minds into thinking that the earth was dead matter and the sacred earth was forgotten. A fossilized mind went hand in hand with a fossilized heart because it stifled compassion and ignored our interrelatedness.
We must unlearn and unravel the myths of a ‘superior’ modern life and what we mean by ‘good life’ and ‘progress.’ Current development models don’t consider these crucial questions; instead, there is a propensity to think: ‘these villages don’t have concrete homes, school buildings, or insurance or enough income.' There are communities in India that could instead offer us a different vision forward, a more excellent cosmic insight of the purpose of life, reconnecting us with the Earth in a spirit of togetherness, not in isolation. Hindus have never considered nature or earth an antagonistic force that must be conquered or dominated. We are the soil. We are the Earth.
Strengthening Local Communities
We understand we are part of a larger world, and we feel we need to save the whole world, but we can’t. We need to engage at a local level, starting with our local communities. Rather than seeking immediate solutions, we must slow down and listen deeply to the wisdom of the land and feel in the heart. Then we can discover the potential of the land, rather than designing something that does not belong there and forcing it in place. We may not see the solutions in this lifetime, but future generations will.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with indigenous knowledge systems based on an appreciation of the environment. We can ignore this at our own peril. We must create an elementary curriculum for young community leaders to teach people. These can include free activities for the community focused on ecology and contemplative practices; simple, practical projects like community gardens, vegetarian cooking, composting, recycling, planting trees that people can do by making small changes in their lives. We must connect young people to mentors and leaders, extraordinary human beings who hold wisdom, love, and care deeply for the land, humanity, and life. The healing power of the spiritual practice of yoga and meditation will bring it a transformative relationship with nature.
Designing sustainable projects
"Sustainability is not a fixed state to reach and then maintain; it is a community-based learning process aimed at increasing the health and resilience of our communities, our bioregional economies, ecosystems, and the planetary life-support systems as a whole," says Daniel Christian Wahl who is pushing for the restoration of ecosystems.
The root cause of our lack of connection to Nature is the illusion that we are separate from Nature and each other. Modern mechanized complex agriculture directly results from this disconnection - we see the earth as a commodity that generates resources for us, forgetting the sacred connection with the natural world. We must nurture the deep-rooted relationship between humans with all-natural elements and help restore a benign relationship. We need to bring together traditional wisdom and contemporary science to experience inner harmony, community bonding, and service to the earth.
We must shift our thinking to restoring our own communities and bio-regions. This can be done by creating new paths to regenerative living, which are ‘sustainable' and include the local history and stories of people that reflect their capacity to leave behind a land more abundant and healthier than their ancestors. It means healing the landscape, rebuilding the right relationship with the Earth’s resources, restoring ecosystems, celebrating human creativity, and living harmoniously with Nature.
Deepening our relationship with Nature
Human beings have an innate ability to listen to and connect with Mother Nature, but today, many of us have forgotten this sacred relationship. Instead, we want to be the controllers and proprietors, and this mindset prevents us from allowing Nature to help us heal.
To be truly one with the Earth, we must learn to collaborate with plants, water, and seeds. This requires ceding control to the Earth rather than trying to go to war with her. Instead of trying to control our external environment, we need to surrender and listen to Nature deeply, engage with it meaningfully and work with it collaboratively. ‘We can't save the Earth...because the Earth is already saving us.’
Gandhi is an example of simple living
Gandhi’s life and writings based on simplicity, truth, and non-violence can be seen as an ecological commentary and has inspired activists, feminists, journalists, social reformers, politicians, trade union leaders, freedom fighters, farmers, and environmentalists.
About the author Manishi Sagar
Manishi, an entrepreneur and writer who now lives in Dubai, had been familiar with Hindu and Buddhist religious texts since childhood but was surprised by a sudden urge to share ancient secrets to help readers incorporate this traditional wisdom in daily life in our modern times.
Always intellectually curious, this impulse to study religions was an unusual conundrum that, ‘I hid initially from my smart, wealthy, fit, suburban businesswomen circles but soon decided that if my newfound love could uplift and inspire even one person, it was worth the discomfort others might feel.’
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