When the whole universe is the body of the Lord, how can any right-minded person ever think of harming it?
Hindu Scriptures on Nature
Normally when we talk of the environment we think only of our immediate physical surroundings. But a moment’s reflection will make us appreciate that the environment in fact means much more. It is the earth with its natural resources both living and non-living such as plants and animals; mountains, seas and rivers with their water, and air; the people with whom we interact as well as all the man-made structures. This is the setting of which we form an intimate part and are therein embedded, and in which we carry out our multifarious activities.
It is now an accepted fact that, globally, human activities are impacting the environment in a negative way, most significantly giving rise to global warming, as has been established by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The immediate causes of these problems were already identified by the Global Environmental Outlook 2000: ‘… consumption patterns that continue to be unsustainable in many parts of the world, population densities that place impossible demands on the environmental resources available, and armed conflicts causing environmental stress and degradation, locally and regionally.’
These consumption patterns are the culmination of the exploitative approach that we have had towards nature during the past few centuries, because we looked upon it as an object separate from us over which we had ultimate control and could therefore utilize without any limits. This is in contrast to the approach of Indian philosophy, which looks at life as One whole and emphasizes the oneness of existence. It is perhaps apt therefore that India was the global host of 2018 World Environment Day which took place on June 5, 2018.
The theme is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ as the world comes together to combat single-use plastic pollution. ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ urges governments, industry, communities, and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce the production and excessive use of single-use plastic polluting our oceans, damaging marine life and threatening human health.
Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s Environment Minister, said that ‘India is excited to host the World Environment Day this year on June 5. Indian philosophy and lifestyle has long been rooted in the concept of co-existence with nature. We are committed to making Planet Earth a cleaner and greener place.’ Which is easier said than done of course, especially in India with its 1.25 billion population, although the Government of India has committed to organizing and promoting the World Environment Day celebrations through a series of engaging activities and events generating strong public interest and participation, from pan-Indian plastic clean-up drives in public areas, national reserves and forests to simultaneous beach clean-up activities.
In Mauritius too the government has on this occasion reiterated its commitment to get rid of plastic pollution, whose worldwide statistics should really worry us:
– Every year the world uses up to 5 trillion plastic bags.
– Each year, at least 13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.
– In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century.
– 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable.
– We buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute.
– Plastic makes up 10% of all of the waste we generate.
No wonder, World Environment Day expects everyone around the world to take ownership of their environment and to actively engage in the protection of our earth.
Already, at the Rio Conference in 1992, scientists made an appeal: ‘A new ethic is required, a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth… We require the help of the world’s religious leaders, and we require the help of the world’s peoples.’
In fact we need an ethic that redefines the man-nature relationship in the direction of eco-friendliness. This means uniting all beings – human, animal and plant – with the universe that surrounds them and ultimately with the original source of their existence, the Supreme Reality. This is the core of Vedic wisdom, as expressed in the first mantra of the Isopanishad: ‘Everything (animate or inanimate) that is in the universe is dwelt in by God. Enjoy it with the spirit of renunciation. Do not covet what belongs to others.’
The Vedic sages also conceived the Supreme Reality as Purusha, the great person. The whole of existence — earth, heavens, planets, gods, living and non-living objects — is conceived as part of Purusha. ‘The moon was gendered from His mind, from His eyes the Sun; from His mouth, Indra and Agni and from His breath Vayu were born. From His navel came the atmosphere, from His head the heaven, from His feet the earth, from His ears the cardinal points.’ (Purusha Sukta – 14.15) The idea was the Oneness of the source of existence and creation, the macrocosm being reflected in the microcosm by the correspondence between their constituent parts.
Thus the Vedic scriptures describe how each element was created and how they are all related to one another. They show how the senses of hearing, touch, vision, taste and smell are each related to a particular element and how all are woven together to form a living world where all the parts depend on each other. As an illustration, from the essence of sound is produced akasha (ether) with the quality of sound which is perceived by the ear, from the essence of touch arises air which is perceived by the skin and so on.
Thus, the five gross elements are related with our sense organs. If there is a disturbance in one part of this web of existence its balance will be upset with a corresponding disturbance somewhere else: not only in the outside world, but also internally within our own organisms. The environmental parallel here is the damage being done to nature and to our own health by the continued industrial exploitation of the environment.
Thus, whereas the materialistic view of nature is to exploit it to the maximum for one’s own benefit, the Indian view is to treat it as a companion and use it only for one’s necessities, in other words to protect it to the maximum, as is shown in the Atharvaveda when it says, ‘earth is mother, space is brother and sky is father,’ because nature was viewed as a combination of three components: dyu (sky), antariksha (mid-region or space) and earth. From dyu we get the energy of the sun, from antariksha we get air and from earth we get nourishment. Atharvaveda (12.1.12) further reiterates: earth is our mother and we are her children. Her beauty and profusion are vividly portrayed in the beautiful hymn to earth, the Prithvi Sukta of Atharvaveda.
In a post on April 20, 2018 on the website ‘The Hindu Patheos’ titled ‘Hindu scriptures on Nature’ Mat McDermott says ‘What do Hindu scriptures have to say about nature?’ is a ‘question I’m often asked, particularly around holidays such as Earth Day (April 22nd) or World Environment Day (June 5th)’.
He looked for some answers, and listed his seven favourite passages amongst many more that he feels, ‘if you truly internalize them, lead to a reverence for all life and towards compassionate conservation.’ Here are a few of them:
‘The entire universe is to be looked upon as the Lord’ – This short line opens the Isha Upanishad, says that ‘All of existence is divine. Though there may be apparent differences in form and name, undergirding all of existence is the same divinity.’
‘Ether, air, fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, directions, trees and plants, rivers and seas, they are all organs of God’s body. Remembering this a devotee respects all species’ – from the Srimad Bhagavatam (2.2.41), echoes the passage above. ‘Everything in the world is part of one sacred unity. The elements, the forces in the universe, all creatures, all things living and unliving, are ultimately part of one divinity. Poetically, one body, God’s body. We should recognize and honor this in everything we experience in life. We are part of this, not separate from this divinity in any way. It is our very essence.’
‘Dharma exists for the welfare of all beings. Hence, that by which the welfare of all living beings is sustained, that for sure is dharma’ – from the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 109.10). He deems this as ‘profound guidance on how to act in the world, asking ourselves ‘Are my actions and path in life helping sustain (or at least not hurt) the welfare of the beings around me?’
‘It is the unfailing fall of rain that sustains the world. Therefore, look upon rain as the nectar of life’ – from the Tirukkural, a 2000+ year old text in Tamil by Sage Tiruvalluvar. He comments that ‘What I find compelling about this particularly couplet is its simplicity and truth in observation. Even though there is no expression in it of ecological conservation or sustainability per se, it lays down the sort of sense of reverence for and poetics about the cycles of nature that I think sometimes gets lost in the science describing those cycles.’ If you want to look up this passage, it’s Kural 11 in the text.
To sum up the Hindu scriptural perspective, therefore: When the whole universe is the body of the Lord, how can any right-minded person ever think of harming it? Any such attempt would disturb the peace and harmony of the individual as well as that of the universe, even though the effect on the latter may not appear immediately. Knowing this, our rishis prayed for peace all around, right from the sky to the earth, for one and all. They expressed it in this beautiful invocation, known as the Shanti Paath that we recite daily:
‘Let the skies be peaceful, let space be peaceful, let the earth be peaceful, let the waters be peaceful, let the plants be peaceful, let the trees be peaceful, let all the gods be peaceful, let Brahma be peaceful, let everything be peaceful. May there be only peace and peace. May I attain that peace.’
* Published in print edition on 8 June 2018