Dharma and Ahimsa: A Hindu Take on Environmental Stewardship

“Didn’t you guys ever feel bad about taking three buses to New York City?” my classmate at Princeton asked me following the People’s Climate March last September. “Think about all of the greenhouse gas emissions you could have avoided by simply not going.”

Illustration of two islands nearly submerged with a fisher and a tent on one island.

In an age of melting ice caps and rising seas, fulfilling our eco-dharma requires more than lifestyle changes. {title}What Lies Beneath{/title} by Caitlin Ng. Credit: Caitlin Ng ({link url="http://www.caitlinng.com"}caitlinng.com{/link}).

Taken more broadly, his question touches on a seminal dilemma faced by all who care for Mother Earth: should humans retreat from engagement in nature, in an attempt to leave no footprints, or step forward to take action in a mindful way? Though taking mindful action seems like the natural winner between the two, it is not always obvious that this is the case. Many religions preach nonviolence at their core. Yet, the essence of human action is violence—violence in the sense that every action we take has tangible negative consequences for the environment and for our fellow living beings. If we cannot safely traverse the proverbial lawn without inadvertently crushing an ant, why cross it in the first place? Shouldn’t we retreat instead of step forward?

The environmental movement almost exclusively deals with this question from a utilitarian framework. However, I have always found it instructive to delve into my own religious tradition—specifically, the Bhagavad Gita, an explicitly non-utilitarian text—for answers. In the third chapter, Krishna says to the warrior-king Arjuna:

Not by avoiding actions does a person gain freedom from action. And not by renunciation alone does a person attain perfection…. Certainly no one, not even for a moment, ever lives without performing action. Indeed, against one’s will, everyone is forced to perform action by the qualities born of primordial nature.

Not traversing the lawn, then, is not an option. While eschewing action in a given situation may exculpate us from the negative consequences associated with it, a retreat from engagement with nature is impossible, even in the relative sense.

Within many Hindu traditions, Brahman (God), is all-pervading, literally enmeshed in all things, both within and without the cosmos. Hence, we are all inextricably linked in a network of karma (force created by a person’s actions), where action is not only inevitable, but inevitably has tangible consequences toward everything in nature. Thus, as Rajiv Malhotra notes in his book Being Different, the dharmic philosophy of ahimsa (“not to injure”) does not demand absolute nonviolence but rather advises taking action so as to minimize harm to others. Thus, taking action is not only “permissible” but also a moral imperative—the only means through which we as responsible citizens can fulfill our dharma (our duty toward the environment and those around us).

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