Rio + 20: Spiritual Pragmatism to Save the Earth

If we do not protect Mother Earth we will not be protected either, let alone be saved

Dr R. Neerunjun Gopee

Prior to the environment summit in Copenhagen in 2009, the Duke of Edinburgh had invited representatives of the world’s leading faiths at Windsor Castle to discuss the role of religion in protecting the planet. Addressing the gathering, which included representatives of the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Buddhist faiths, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon urged politicians to take inspiration from spiritual leaders to “act more courageously” in meeting the challenge of climate change.

His appeal to the faith leaders then is still relevant: ‘We have know-how, we have resources but the only vacuum is political will. You can inspire, you can provoke, you can challenge your leaders, through your wisdom, through your followers.’

There are countless examples of how religious bigotry coupled with ethnic/tribal and other forces (South Sudan and Syria immediately come to mind) is causing situations of persistent conflict and warring, damaging the environment in the process, not to speak of the human and social costs involved. The call is for each faith to seek within itself for clues that may indicate a way to help protect the environment and save Mother Earth. Hindu spirituality provides a perspective on our relationship to nature and our total environment which can inspire us profoundly towards their protection. What follows is based on material from a talk at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute delivered some years ago by Dr (Mrs) Veenu Arun, who was then at its Department of Indian Philosophy, on the occasion of World Environment Day.

Indian philosophy looks at life as a whole and emphasises the oneness of existence, in contrast to the exploitative approach that we have had towards nature during the past few centuries, looking upon it as an object separate from us. This has led us to a point in our development where it is being increasingly realised that our future as a species is at stake, and that if we do not change course we may destroy ourselves and the planet along with us.

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, water and air; the people with whom we interact as well as all the man-made structures. This is the setting, in fact the crucible in which we are berthed and in which we carry out our multifarious activities.

In serious circles, 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 agreed by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The immediate causes of these problems were 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.’ (italics mine) At the Rio Conference in1992, 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.’

‘Everything (animate or inanimate) that is in the universe is dwelt in by God’

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 by whatever name we may choose to call it. 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.

Our rishis treated all forms of life with respect and reverence, considering them manifestations of the Supreme Reality in various names and forms. The Yajurveda proclaims: ‘look upon all the creatures as your friends.’ (Yaj – 36.18) Thus, we can see that 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. I hope that India is leading by example.

This perspective has been presented in a beautiful anecdote of the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana. Earth took the form of a cow and asked king Prithu to bring a calf. He then milked from her the herbs and grains which she was keeping. (When the mother cow sees her calf, she is overwhelmed with love and her milk flows freely). The symbol of the cow and her calf used here emphasises that the relationship between the earth and her inhabitants is that of a mother and her children. There is a great difference between exploitation and milking. Exploitation means extracting everything and leaving nothing, while milking is to take according to one’s need and to protect the giver as well.

‘Earth is mother, space is brother and sky is father’

This concept of protection is also present 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 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. — The Yajurveda (5.43) also warns not to harm dyu, antariksha and earth: ‘Do not graze the sky, do not harm space and always be in accordance with earth.’ This intimate relationship with Mother Earth was considered so important that even a king, at the time of his coronation invoked ‘O mother earth, do not injure me and I will not injure you,’ (Yajurveda 10.23) so that the welfare of his subjects would be ensured.

There are many other references in the Vedas in support of this view of the earth as containing treasures that were vital for our sustenance and which required to be protected and replenished – which is exactly what the environmentalists are advocating today. It may amaze us to know that the Vedic seers were aware of the role and importance of a protective layer over the earth, an analogy perhaps with the ozone layer that shields the earth from ultra-violet rays. They described it by a beautiful metaphor: Mahat ulba which means ‘great membrane,’ likened to the membrane that protects the foetus in the womb. It is referred to in a hymn to fire in the Rigveda (10.51.1): ‘O fire divine, cognizant of all, the covering of the creation is very vast and hard and the texture is very fine and firm enveloped by which you enter into the cosmic moisture.”

As far as the other element, water, is concerned, in the Atharvaveda it is clearly stated that life is sustained by water – a point of view held also by modern science, and in fact it is known that the human body is made up of 70% of water. Because they were aware of its importance, the Vedic seers gave injunctions to save water from pollution. Thus, we find in the Yajurveda (6.22): ‘Don’t pollute water.’ The Rigveda goes a step further to remind us that only unpolluted water is good for health. The Padma Purana has declared that pollution of water is a sin. To disturb the flow of rivers by heavy machinery is also called a sin in Manusmrti (11.63-66) which, further, warns against putting any sort of garbage in water.

We also find that trees and plants, which are inseparable parts of the environment, have been so vividly depicted in all disciplines of ancient Indian Literature. In epics like Valmiki’s Ramayana and Mahabharata, the depiction of the cordial and intimate relationship between man and trees is unique. Our ancient seers had realised the virtues of plants and in the Vedas they are accorded great veneration in the form of personified relationships such as son, mother, friend, etc. One tree was considered to be the equivalent of ten sons (Matsya Purana) for the amount of goodness it provides to us. It was mother because like the mother’s milk it nourishes us.

Thus, the descriptions which we find about earth, water, air, trees and plants, mountains and sound in ancient Indian Literature echo the sentiments of modern environmentalists. But the difference is that today’s concern about the environment is out of deadly fear – that we may become extinct — whereas the Vedic wisdom was of reverence for nature considering ourselves an integral part of it. There is a successful application of this wisdom in modern times: the work of a group of organisations based in New Delhi known as “Development Alternatives.” They were awarded the UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize in November 2002, for ‘innovating and fostering environmentally friendly, commercially viable technologies across the country. They include village power plants fuelled by agricultural wastes, small factories for recycling paper, and local businesses making low-cost roofing.’

Nearer to us, there are the familiar examples of the banana and coconut plants, of which all the parts are made use of without causing any damage to the environment. In fact the banana leaf could, without stretching the imagination too far, be considered as the prototype of disposable plates – with the added advantage that it is biodegradable.

The ‘deep ecology’ perception

This is in keeping with the ‘deep ecology’ perception that is gaining ground as the new paradigm for our times. To quote Fritjof Capra, physicist and systems theorist, and Founder Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy at Berkeley, California, deep ecology ‘does not separate humans – or anything else – from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects, but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognises the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.’ What an amazing echo of what we find in the Bhagavat Purana, in which the various components of universe are symbolised by the parts of Lord Vishnu’s body. Thus, the oceans are Vishnu’s waist, the hills and mountains are His bones, the clouds are the hairs on His head and His veins, the trees are the hairs on His body, the sun and moon are His two eyes and the passage of day and night is the moving of His eyelids.’

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: ‘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.’

If we do not protect Mother Earth we will not be protected either, let alone be saved.

* Published in print edition on 29 June 2012

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