The presence of hope in the face of climate change, in the face of our ecological crisis, is woven into the fabric of the Hindu tradition. To create a present and a future which is Earth-honoring and just to all marginalized and outcast beings, those of us who identify as Hindus must act as wise and determined servants in re-discovering the ecologically-sound wisdom embedded in our collective human history and experience. This is the wisdom of peace and well-being which is the inherent birthright of every living being, as the ancient yet timeless Atharva Veda proclaims:
Let there be peace in the heavens, the Earth, the atmosphere, the water, the herbs, the vegetation, among the divine beings and in Brahman, the absolute reality. Let everything be at peace and in peace. Only then will we find peace.
Dharma and Our Sacred Duty
In Hinduism, the concept of dharma (the behaviors—including duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and ‘‘right way of living—that are considered to be in accord with the order that makes life and the universe possible) has many mutually comprehensive and compatible definitions and understandings, which by and large revolve around the common thread of our sacred duty of compassion and concern towards our very selves, towards each other, and towards the Earth that we live all in. In “Hindu Religion and Environmental Well-Being,” Hindu scholar O.P Dwiwedi writes,
Duty towards God’s creation is an integral part of Hindu religion. All other species conduct themselves as per their natural instincts; only a human being has the power to act in either a dharmic (righteous) or adharmic (morally wrong) manner. People are urged to behave in such a manner that their acts do not cause undue harm or injury to any creature. As the great Hindu epic Mahabharata explains:
Dharma exists for the general welfare (abhyudaya) of all living beings; hence by which the welfare of all living creatures is sustained, that for sure is dharma.
Dharma represents an understanding of duty that is temporal, which responds to time, place, and circumstance, as well as one that is based on eternal, timeless principles. The temporal and contextual understanding of dharma is fully harmonious when it is linked to the eternal understanding of dharma, which is known as Sanatana Dharma. As we face the ever-present specter of climate change, it becomes more urgent by the hour and the day that our everyday dharma as living beings on this planet be guided by the deeper, timeless understanding of Sanatana Dharma. Author and translator Ranchor Prime writes in Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century:
If Hinduism can be given a legitimate name it is ‘Sanatana-Dharma.’ which is used by many Hindus today. Roughly translated, this means ‘the eternal essence of life.’ This essence is not limited to only humans. It is the essential quality that unites all beings-human, animal, or plant-with the universe that surrounds them ultimately with the original source of their existence, the Godhead. This perception of underlying unity is what causes Hindus to steadfastly refuse to separate their religion from their daily life, or to separate their own faith from the other great faith traditions of the world. To them all religions are part of the process of discovering the unity of God, humanity and nature.
This universal, non-hierarchical, and ecumenical awareness, which is the heart of the Hindu tradition, is the thread woven through the fabric of all life and all nature. When we touch upon the wisdom of this thread, we touch upon the hope, courage, and conviction necessary for us to properly and compassionately face the uncertainty of our existential ecological crisis. Sanatana Dharma gives us this hope, courage, and conviction because it is made of the and timeless substance of the many faces of the Divine in Hinduism, the substance that is understood as all-pervading Brahman or the personal Godhead who is worshipped and related to through the process of bhakti, or devotion. This eternal spiritual substance can never be polluted in the way that the temporal can be. Because of this essential truth and understanding, our connection to the Divine is the source of our hope, our conviction, our compassion, and our courage in the face of climate change in our everyday lives as Hindus
Reverence for all Life Forms
Hindus have classically understood the term yoga to incorporate any practice, realization, or revelation, which connects us to the eternal substance of the Divine Godhead. Hinduism, at its heart, is a yoga of ecology. Many of the primary principles of Hinduism are designed to instill in its adherents an Earth-honoring ethic, which creates just relations with all living beings. Ahimsa (a term meaning compassion and not to injure) is one such primary principle.
One example of the principle of ahimsa is vegetarianism/veganism. Ahimsa is a vital principle applied to everyday life, which allows anyone any one who practices this it to distinctly understand his or her sacred obligation and relationship towards every planetary being. As Hindu scholar K.L. Seshagiri Rao writes in “The Five Great Elements (Pancamahabhuta)”:
The vegetable and animal worlds are linked in the web of life … The Earth provides us with abundant foodstuffs. A vegetarian diet provides the required substances for a healthy life. It feeds more people and is less wasteful. Ahimsa and vegetarianism are embedded in the Hindu ideals of life … go vegetarian; it makes you live longer and better; it is also good for the economy and the global environment.
It can be difficult for people to understand that our dietary preferences can be one of the primary causes of climate change. Many of us react strongly to the environmental harm created by practices such as hydraulic natural gas drilling (also known as “fracking”), or the planned creation of the Keystone XL project. However, when it comes to the reality that the industrial animal-agriculture system, which produces much of the meat in our everyday diet, is also a primary cause of climate change, many of us refuse to give the same kind of indignation that we give to other environmental issues. This is because our diet is so intimate to our body, and we can feel confronted in a way that makes us deeply uncomfortable. Yet the principle of ahimsa compels us to explore the conscious and unconscious participation in violence in our everyday lives which unquestionably leads to climate change.
In “The Five Great Elements (Pancamahabhuta)” Rao also points to the pragmatic and metaphysical reverence of the cow and bull in Hindu culture, which is at the heart of the Hindu ecological ethic. Rao writes:
The principle of cow protection symbolizes human responsibility to the sub-human world. It indicates reverence for all forms of life. Humans are related to and dependent on the whole creation. The cow serves humans throughout its life and even after its death. The milk of the cow runs in our blood. Its contributions to the welfare of the family and society are countless. Hindus seek daily blessings for the welfare of the cows. When cows are cared for, the world, on all levels, finds happiness and peace.
This pragmatic and spiritual reverence for the cow and bull is representative of yet another primary principle of Hindu culture and the yoga of ecology, which is known as tapas, or simplicity. This is colloquially known as the art and practice of “simple living and high thinking,” a phrase originally linked to Mahatma Gandhi and popularized by the contemporary acaryas (teachers) Gaudiya Vaisnava and A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The essence of this ethic is that our turn toward simplicity and away from the consumption and waste of “unnecessary necessities,” which ruins our ecosphere, will gradually lead us to an enlightened consciousness in relation to ourselves, each other, and the Earth.
On this ethic of simple living and high thinking scholars Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Pramod Parajuli write, in “Sacred Groves and Ecology: Ritual and Science”:
Gandhi passionately rejected the amorality of the market economy … His vision of village republics was saturated with a deep sense of morality, of restraint in the expression and fulfillment of human desires … Restraint or self-abnegation may also be viewed in terms of the logic of sacrifice understood as a reciprocity for the gifts of the nonhuman collectivity. Gandhi’s approach to all of life is emphatically a moral one: restraint, ethics, the curbing of desire and acquisitiveness are not to be located elsewhere … they are to inform daily activity here and now … Like Gandhi, we see in these practices a viable alternative to modernity and environmental destruction.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s words, quoted in Ranchor Prime’s Vedic Ecology, echo the abovementioned Gandhian call to simplicity as an action of hope, courage, and conviction in the face of turbo-capitalism and climate change.
Human civilization should depend on the production of mother nature without artificially attempting economic development to turn the world into a chaos of greed and power only for the purpose of artificial luxuries and sense gratification.
This wisdom has an essential design which allows us to understand the presence of the Divine in all aspects of creation. This recognition of the living presence of the Divine—the Earth herself, her waters, hills, and trees, which are seen as murthis (deities)—is so important for many Hindus.
Yet, as someone who is trying to understand what it means to be a progressive Hindu, I am also coming to understand that advocacy for the cow can be exquisitely problematic in relation to the reality of caste discrimination that Dalit, Adivasi, and other so-called “untouchable” peoples in India experience. To confront climate change as a progressive Hindu means for me to also confront the reality of alienation, oppression, and discrimination at the heart of caste. The pollution of climate change cannot be overcome unless we overcome the pollution of caste. Anyone who advocated for the honoring and protection of the cow cannot do so at the expense of any other person. Unfortunately in India and in the Indian diaspora the Dalit’s life is all too often considered less important than the life of the cow. This must stop.
Our Duty as Progressive Hindus
I am a board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, an organization that works, through Project Prithvi, with Hindus in the New York City area to conduct cleanups of ceremonial items of worship that have been left in the Jamaica Bay. Last year we also created an exhibit entitled “Sacred Waters: A Collection of Hindu Offerings from Jamaica Bay” at Queens Museum in order to raise consciousness about the elemental worship that is essential to Hindu identity, as well as the responsibility of Hindus to understand how their worship affects the elements they so adore. Our press release for the Sacred Waters exhibit states:
Rivers and oceans are considered sacred by Hindus, as are trees, all life forms, and the Earth herself. Prithvi Maa and Bhumi Devi are names for Goddess Earth. Many rituals in this community require making an offering to the water, and Hindus often feel that their worship is incomplete without such an offering being made. All items on display were once part of Hindu religious ceremonies, or puja, and were therefore religious offerings. We are not displaying the items as objects of worship. Rather, we are attempting to restore them to a place of honor. Our hearts are broken to find murthis of the Gods and Goddesses we revere broken, littered across the beach among garbage and detritus. Reverent to our sacred Hindu traditions, we hope to move devotees to engage in eco-friendly worship that is respectful of both the environment and our Gods and Goddesses.
Hope for Hindus in the face of climate change can come from moving beyond this paradoxical misunderstanding which surrounds our most intimate and integral worship. Our devotion to the presence of the Divine within the elements that surround and sustain us must compel committed action and a devotion to restoring and healing the elements that are so inherently sacred. Our responses to the overwhelming reality of climate change begin within our own communities, in the intimate spaces of our own bhakti, our own devotion. The example of our devotion has the unimaginable radical potential of restoring the Earth-honoring ways we need now more urgently than ever. As progressive Hindus, we must understand the art of devotion that liberates us from any kind of alienation, such as the way we discriminate against each other because of caste, race, gender, and sexuality, which prevents us from healing our relations to each other and to the Earth.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2015 print issue: The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/climate to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)