Hindu roots of modern ‘ecology’
One of the first lessons a student of ecology is taught is that this science is relatively new, that the term ‘ecology’ was only first defined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel. Among the sciences, it has become sought after from the latter half of the 20th century, largely due to widespread environmental degradation and pollution.
What the western discourse in general and the western academia and its textbooks in particular forget to inform us is that the roots of ecology lie in Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism and no other religion pays as much attention to environment and environmental ethics, and to the understanding of the role and value of nature. Hinduism is inherently an ecological religion. It can quite easily be said that Hinduism is the world’s largest nature-based religion that recognises and seeks the Divine in nature and acknowledges everything as sacred. It views the earth as our Mother, and hence, advocates that it should not be exploited. A loss of this understanding that earth is our mother, or rather a deliberate ignorance of this, has resulted in the abuse, and the exploitation of the earth and its resources.
Centuries before the appearance of the likes of Greenpeace, World Environment Day, and what is known as the environmental movement, the shruti (Vedas, Upanishads) and smruti (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, other scriptures) instructed us that the animals and plants found in the land of Bharatavarsha are sacred; that like humans, our fellow creatures, including plants have consciousness; and therefore all aspects of nature are to be revered. This understanding, care and reverence towards the environment is common to all Indic religious and spiritual systems: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, there is ample evidence to show that the earliest messages of the importance of the environment and the need for ecological balance and harmony can be found in ancient Indic texts. After all the Upanishads say,”Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma“(everything is Brahman). Hinduism, thus, has always had a deep understanding of ecology and the relationship between man and nature.
While there is no formal environmental movement (inasmuch as it is defined by the West) in India, except in recent times, or no category of “environmentalism” in Hindu tradition, it is our Dharmic tradition that has helped sustain our ecology for centuries. Hinduism teaches us to worship the earth as our Divine Mother. In fact, a very conspicuous aspect of Hindu culture and tradition is the strong love and respect for nature. It honours the Earth as the mother goddess (Bhūmī-Devī) and promotes a worship of the rivers, streams, trees, mountain peaks, plants, animals, birds, forests, and every kind of flora and fauna. In the Atharva Veda’s “Hymn to the Earth “(Bhumi Suktha), the earth is adored and respected: “The Earth is our mother and we are all her children”. Our oldest texts, the Vedas, contain 1028 hymns, almost all of which are redolent with love for nature. The Vedic deities are connected with deep symbolism and have many layers of existence. One such association is with ecology. Thus, Surya is associated with the Sun, the source of heat and light that nourishes everyone; Indra is associated with rain, crops, and abundance; and Agni is the deity of fire and transformation and controls all changes. The Vedic hymns are filled with many simple, but universal messages, such as:
Plants are mothers and Goddesses. (Rig Veda Samhita x-97-4)
Trees are homes and mansions. (Rig Veda Samhita x-97-5)
Sacred grass has to be protected from man’s exploitation (Rig Veda Samhita vii-75-8)
Plants and waters are treasures for generations. (Rig Veda Samhita vii-70-4)
We invoke all supporting Earth on which trees, lords of forests, stand ever firm (Atharva Veda 12:1:27)
“Do not cut trees because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda 6:48:17)
“One should not destroy the trees.” (Rig Veda Samhita vi-48-17)
The Western religions, especially the Christians viewed this nature worship as Paganism, failing to recognise the scientific and spiritual basis of the relationship between man and nature and how this is the only way to sustain ecological balance. While all ancient religions and cultures ascribed some powers and divinity to nature, with the birth of Christianity, this ended. Christians were made to turn all their love and adoration for nature towards their One and only God, who was a jealous God. The elements of nature, then became devoid of all divinity, and were left to be conquered by man.
Even today, Bharat is blessed with a rich biodiversity, because of the spiritual connectedness that Hindus have with nature. That there exists sthala vriksham shows that trees were intimately associated with spiritual tradition (In Sanskrit, sthala is a place, especially a sacred place, and vriksh is tree). Every temple is associated with a tree and every tree is associated with a deity and a story. The more well-known examples of sthala vriksham include the Kadamba at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai and the vanni tree (khejri in Hindi) at the Magudeshwara Temple at Kodumudi. The famous mango tree at the Ekambereshwara Temple at Kancheepuram is believed to be more than 3,000 years old! The presiding deity Shiva is worshipped as Prithivi Linga – earth linga. The four branches are said to represent the four Vedas. Some trees are sacred to the place and some to the individual deity.
Our ancient, majestic trees, some that are many centuries old are part of our rich ecological inheritance. Today, the sthala vriksham is considered the single genetic resource for the conservation of species diversity. Unlike the west, where trees are merely natural objects, India is filled with magnificent sacred trees: peepal, neem, bel, banyan, asoka, amla, arjuna to name, but a few –and most deities have their favourites. For Shiva, his favourites are Rudraksh and Bel, for Vishnu it is Peepal and tulsi, for Hanuman it is Mango. In fact, first came the tree and then the mandir. No ritual is complete without the leaf of a bilva, or neem or tulsi. The use of these leaves reminds us of our connection with the earth and the unity of man and nature.
Since, rituals are incomplete without trees and their flowers, leaves, and fruits, they had to be preserved and protected. So much importance was given to trees, that there was also Vrikshayurveda – an ancient Sanskrit text on the science of plants and trees. Written by Acharya Surapala, around the 10th century, this is a complete manuscript for the management plants and trees. This starts with the glorification and praise for trees and tree planting, and provides details about management and care of seeds, plants and trees. It contains details from soil conservation, planting, sowing, treatment, propagating, how to deal with pests, diseases, etc. Further, the Vrikshayurveda is complete with details, such as when to plant, where to plant the sacred trees. For example, the bel and peepal should be planted to the west side of a dwelling, mango and amla to the south side.
Ancient India knew and understood the role of ecology, trees and forest in making life on this earth possible. In fact, tree planting and tree worship was not just confined to those involved in forest management. Tree worship was undertaken by all. The Banyan tree (ficus benghalensis), the most venerated of all trees, known as aal in Tamil, vat in Hindi and Nyagrodha in Sanskrit, got its name Banyan from the British, who observed that the merchants/traders (banias) carried out all their business under this tree – hence from Bania, they coined the word banyan. The Banyan tree is the kalpavriksh, the wish fulfilling tree. Likewise, this tree is sacred for the Jains. All through the Vedas , the Puranas, and in the Mahabharata, this tree finds mention and its planting considered auspicious. Nyagrodha also played important role in various Samskaras and ceremonies performed by the Hindus. A tradition that still holds good.
The Peepal tree or asvatta (ficus religiosa) has had a conspicuous position in the cultural landscape of Bharat for at least as long as there has been shruti and smruti. It was depicted even on the seals found at the sites of Mohenjodaro. Buddha found enlightenment under a Peepal tree (also bodhi or bo tree) born in a sacred grove, Lumbinivana that was full of sal trees. The love and respect for trees is as old as our ancient civilisation. Hence, trees like the venerable Peepal are amongst the most easily identifiable and recognisable all across Bharat, and can be found in almost every village. It is considered sacred as it is believed to be the dwelling place of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. The Atharva Veda (V.4.3) refers to the Peepal as the permanent seat of God.
On the other hand, the Abrahamic faiths in their scriptures like the Old Testament, for example, perceive man as the Supreme Being, the supreme species, who “rules all over other creatures”. In fact nature worship is so abhorred and derided by the Church, it is almost iniquitous to worship rivers, to revere mountains and trees as these are considered soulless objects to be conquered by man. The elements of nature are devoid of any form of divinity.
This is in complete contrast to the Hindu’s love, understanding and respect for nature, which shows that Hinduism understood the invaluable role of trees and forests in ecosystem services like purifying the air, hydrological services, as a provider of food and material, climate, rain, and soil.
In fact, in any reading of the Bible (both the old and new testaments), there is not a single reference to the earth being sacred, or being looked upon as mother-like or divine. Nature and all its elements are soulless and the only one, who is worthy of worship is the Abrahamic God. Unlike the Hindu, who nurtures a great sense of sanctity towards all elements of nature and perceives Divinity in the sky, in the water, in the fire, and in the snow-capped mountain peaks. All Indic traditions have respect for all forms of life and does not differentiate between the soul of man and that of an animal. Whereas the Christian belief is that nature is destructive and therefore has to be conquered, the Dharmic view propagates conservation of the nature and advices man to live in harmony with nature without indulging in exploitation.
For Hindus, nature is a manifestation of the Divine. Brahman exists as the innermost Self (Atman) of not only humans, but also of all forms and beings in nature. Hence, a large number of pilgrim centres in India, are the sacred rivers, mountains, trees, forests and groves themselves. Whether it is the Kailash Mansarovar, the Char Dham, the Gangotri in the north or the deep forests of Sabarimala, Hindus have continued to worship the elements of nature. This is in such contrast from the Abrahamic religions, where sacred spots are largely anthropomorphic that are linked to a human form – (Lourdes In France is a popular pilgrim site for Christians as Mother Mary appeared there, the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount for Jews in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque, etc.) – none of these religion associate spirituality for anything in its natural form.
Sacred groves were found in abundance in Bharat, which were protected by local communities and which goes to show that forest resources were precious. Our ancestors did not require any law to protect these groves, which, like the kavus of Kerala, are sacred places, where trees and plants were allowed to grow undisturbed and where reptiles, birds and animals could have free living without fear of poaching or interference by man. Such groves may be close to settlements, attached to households or near them, and usually have the serpent or Durga as deities. The existence of forests today in India can be credited to this practice, which still survives in India today.
Hindus strongly believe in the tenet vasudev kutumbakam (the world is one family) and hence, the divine is also seen in animals and are protected. The deification of animals, therefore, has led to the protection of many species of animal. Hinduism in its belief that all living creatures are subject to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, never distinguishes between the soul of man and a soul of an animal. Apart from this, the recognition that every animal played a role in creating an ecological balance, allowed us to live in harmony with animals.
Animals are also vahanas or vehicles of the Gods and Goddesses and are equally worshipped as their riders. Some vahanas were treated equal to their Gods, some were their companions and some friend! Garuda (Eagle) is the vehicle of Vishnu, the Bull that of Shiva, the mouse that of Ganapati. At times, the vahana is the only way to recognise the deity, which shows the closeness or connectedness between the divine and the animal. The Yajur Veda (13.47) says service to animals leads to heaven: “No person should kill animals helpful to all and persons serving them obtains heaven.” According to the Atharva Veda (12.115), the earth was created for the enjoyment of not only human beings, but also for bipeds and quadrupeds, birds, animals and all other creatures. This reverence of animals and protection of forest allowed Bharat to be a land of great faunal and floral diversity.
The period of the Moghuls, followed by the British colonial rule saw a continuous period of large-scale hunting. The British arrival in India saw the decline of the wildlife population. Conferring no divine status on the tiger or any other wildlife, hunting was a favourite pastime of the Englishman. They indulged in reckless hunting and by 1947 the last cheetah in India was killed. According to Mahesh Rangarajan, researcher and historian, “over 80,000 tigers were slaughtered in 50 years from 1875 to 1925”. Tigers were considered ‘Villains of Indian Jungles’ and to follow the biblical injunction, man had to dominate over his natural environment. By the early 1950s the cheetah was declared extinct in India, the only large animal to have been declared extinct in our recorded history. Likewise, other animals like the tiger, leopard and lion were brought to near extinction.
That India today is home to 70% of the world’s tigers – our country has some 2,500 tigers in the wild – is because the tiger is considered divine, a vahana of the Durga and present in any form of Durga iconography. Tigers have been wiped out in Java and Sumatra, the great islands of Indonesia across which, the majestic big cat once roamed freely, for Indonesia was once Hindu.
Nothing better explains Hinduism approach to animals than this:
brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca
Those who are wise and humble treat equally, the Brahmin, the cow, elephant, dog and dog-eater. (Bhagavad Gita 5.1)
Why does the Hindu psyche intuitively respect nature and all its forms?
The concept of karma, or the cosmic law of cause and effect, which is at the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, demonstrates the interconnectedness or the web of life of humans, not just with other humans, but with non-humans too. Every action, however miniscule creates its own set of reactions, which then has a cascading effect. Today, under the principles of the Chaos Theory, the commonly known as the Butterfly Effect – where a creature as delicate as the butterfly, by flapping its wings, sets up a series of reactions, by first causing some changes in the atmosphere, can end up causing a storm. This is nothing, but the Hindu understanding of karma, that all actions are connected and are part of the universe and that our actions affect not just other humans, but also nature, of which we are a part. That even a small act can have great consequences is intuitive to every Hindu. It follows that every action we take has a planetary and cosmic effect – and this is what scientists today call ‘footprint’.
Today’s environmental crisis demands a response. The world is grappling to find solutions to multiple crises of the environment. Technology is considered the panacea. Global conventions on biodiversity and climate change are signed by 190-odd countries, earth summits keeps taking place, activism by international environmental NGOs is at its peak. But, it is very unlikely that the ecology would be saved by this Western approach, which is characterized by activism and relies solely on science and the scientific community. For ecology to be truly saved and revived, we have to return to the meanings and practices that infuse sacredness and reverence towards nature as in Hindu traditions, re-awaken our relationship with nature and not view religion and ecology as separate. For Hindus, the environment is not protected because of the selfish urgency to save biodiversity and hence save human future, but because it is the Dharmic way of life and hence a righteous duty that all humans are obliged to perform.
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Krishna, Nanditha, and M. Amirthalingam. Sacred Plants of India. Gurgaon: Penguin India, 2014.
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