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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 972

Judge Weeramantry focuses on Hindu contribution to environment protection

Judge Weeramantry focuses on Hindu contribution to environment protection

Hinduism demonstrates an ecological awareness and great respect for the natural world, said Judge C.G.Weeramantry at the inaugural meeting of the World Future Council held in Hamburg on 9 -13 May 2007.

The following is an abridged version of his speech:

Hinduism, the Environment and the Long Term Future

There are several principles of importance to the human future that can be distilled from the teachings of Hinduism – principles relating to the inevitability of the consequences of one’s actions, the interconnectedness of all things, the linkage between past, present and future, the integrity of the human family, the harmony that is necessary between humanity and the natural order and many others.

Running through them all is the all-pervasiveness of the divinity, which is present in all things and a cosmic view of space and time which militates strongly against a short-term view of the consequences of one’s actions. This requires us to think, moreover, of the prevalence of the needs of the community over the egoism of the individual.

Hinduism, regarded by its adherents as Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Truth, contains perhaps the most ancient religious scripture known to the world. These texts contain the theology, philosophy and guidance for daily life that form the basis of the religion of over a billion people in the world today.

The principal sources of dharma are the sruti (that which is heard – the Vedic literature which was originally passed down orally) the smriti (that which is remembered –includes the itihasa or epic poems of history and the puranas or stories from ancient history) and ac?r? (the norms and standards constituting the practice of those who know and live by the first two sources of dharma).

There are hundreds of smriti texts, constituting an immense body of juristic literature equal to if not exceeding that in other systems. This vast treasury of concepts and principles was virtually unknown to the West for centuries. It was only in 1794, with the translation by the jurist Sir William Jones of the Laws of Manu, that even the existence of this repository of legal wisdom became known to Western legal scholarship.

1. Ecological Awareness in Hinduism

It is clear that the most ancient texts on Hinduism demonstrate through the praise of the deities an ecological awareness and great respect for the natural world. There are many specific teachings on environmental matters contained in all these writings and ecological activists have drawn much inspiration from the text. A few examples are:

* “Do not cut trees, because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda, 6:48:17)

* “Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere.” (Yajur Veda,5:43)

* Destruction of forests is taken as destruction of the state, and reforestation an act of rebuilding the state and advancing its welfare. Protection of animals is considered a sacred duty. (Charak Sanhita)

All of this is an enormous source of concepts, principles, traditions and practices which is of deep relevance to the study of the future of humanity and of the long-term perspectives which it is so essential to bring into the thought-frames of the present generation.

Among these concepts are the following:

2.The Presence of the Divinity in all Things

An important feature of the Hindu worldview is that the supreme deity resides in all things. This divinity is present in all things for as Sri Krishnan says in the Bhagavad-Gita:

“On me the Universe is strung
Like clustered pearls upon a thread
In water I am the flavour
In sun and moon the light”

We are told in the Upanishads that “after creating the Universe God entered into every object created.” Consequently his creations must be treated with respect.

This view of the relationship between God and creation inspires Hindus to maintain a harmonious relationship between human beings and nature.

3. The interconnectedness of all things

Hindu law and philosophy are set in a cosmic view of the universe with aeons of time spreading behind and before us. The present and even the centuries behind and before us are a microcosm of time in the infinite expanse of eternity.

Within that cosmic view there is also a view of the interconnectedness of all things. The nexus between things past, present and future is emphasised as is the causal relationship between them. All of this flows from the concept that God pervades all things. Since the divine presence is everywhere all things have an integral connection with all others.

4. The Integrity of Humanity, Past, Present and Future

It follows from what has been said before that Hinduism takes a holistic view of the human community. Past, present and future are one organic whole just as all of humanity is one organic whole.

In the words of Radhakrishnan “To the Hindu, human society is not an organisation. It is an organism. It is a living, growing thing.”

5. The Unity of the Human Family

We have referred already to the integrity of the human family, past present and future. It is one family occupying one small abode in space. As such their vision is not of a planet that is vast and limitless but of one which is small and limited. One family occupies it and must therefore share it, small though it be.

The One World/One Family concept has today become more urgent than ever, for whether through trade or communications or travel or the information revolution or the shortage of earth resources or pollution, we are increasingly realising that we survive or perish as one family.

6. The Need for Human Harmony with all forms of Life

Hindu teaching is rich in its instructions on harmonious coexistence with all forms of life.

This means a bond not only between humans and animals, but also between humans and all forms of vegetation. In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna compares the world to a single banyan tree with unlimited branches under which all the species of animals, humans and demigods wander.

7. The Sarva Bhuta Hita: The Notion of the Welfare of All Beings

The highest ethical standard that Hindus ought to apply, according to their dharma, is the concept of Sarva Bhuta Hita. The tradition requires that the common good takes precedence over private advantage. That includes protection of the environment, the support of the poor and needy, the oppressed, the needs of children and those who are yet to be born and the welfare of other living beings.

8. Doctrine of Karma: The inexorable effects of present actions on the future

The doctrine of Karma means that an action which has been committed by a human being in this life, follows him or her again and again through future lives (whether he or she wishes it or not). Every action performed creates its own chain of reactions and events, some of which may take a long time to surface. Environmental pollution is an example of the karma of those who believe that they could continue polluting the environment with impunity and regardless of the consequences for future generations. Once karma begins, it continues without a break. Regardless of whether the person is dead, his or her karma will survive into their next birth.

9. Examples of Practical Action Based on Hinduism to Protect the Environment

The Bishnois, Defenders of the Environment :

The Bishnois was a small community in the state of Rajasthan who practised environmental conservation as a part of their daily religious duty. The religion is an offshoot of Hinduism and was founded by Guru Maharaj Jambeshwar in the 15th century. He believed that if trees were protected, animal life would be sustained and his community would survive. Therefore he formulated twenty nine injunctions. Principal among them was a ban on the cutting of any green tree and killing of any animal or bird.

The Bishnois people’s defence of the natural environment needs to be more widely known as one of the world’s classic instances of martyrdom in defence of the environment. In 1730 Amrita Devi, a Bishnois woman was at home with her three daughters when she came to know that a party of woodcutters sent by the Maharaja of Jodhpur were on their way to fell a green Khejri tree for the construction of the Maharaja’s new palace. She prevented the woodcutters from felling the tree and was killed by them for her resistance, as were her three daughters. The news spread like wildfire among the Bhishnois community and hundreds of them assembled on the spot, prepared to give their lives in this cause and 363 of them did. This is known as the Khejrali Massacre. The Maharaja apologised for the conduct of his officials but this has ever since been an inspiration to the environmental protectionists of India.

10. Avoidance of Waste

“Resources are given to mankind for their living. Knowledge (Isha)
of using them is necessary.”
- The first stanza of Isha Upanishad

Gandhi’s classic statements that have inspired the environmental movement include ‘The country’s development has to be in harmony with nature … each member of a community has to live in communion with nature.’ ‘The earth has resources to meet everybody’s needs, but not anybody’s greed.’ ‘Man must voluntarily limit his wants.’ And ‘We must learn to live lives of simplicity and austerity.’

11 A Vision of Sustainable Development

Hindu philosophy with its deep notions of trusteeship of earth resources and its reverence for nature as a sustainer of humanity had encapsulated within it the modern notion of sustainable development. The assets of nature are there for humans to use for their sustenance and development. But the assets of nature are held in trust. This is the essence of the modern concept of sustainable development and Hindu philosophy provides a strong philosophical base for this concept.

11. A Deep Concern for Future Generations

This is interlocked with the previous topic. Trusteeship of resources is based on the philosophy that the wealth of nature provided by God is provided for humanity in general and not for this generation or that. The long term vision of Hinduism reaches through to thousands of generations and all eternity. It is totally incompatible with this notion that any one generation has the right to diminish or extinguish the resources that nature provides. Indeed this would almost amount to sacrilege and also to theft from future generations of their rightful inheritance. This idea of the preservation of nature can be illustrated by many episodes in Hindu history.

12.Respect Due To Land and the Landscape, Which are Considered Holy

Hindu philosophy is impregnated with notions of respect for nature and for natural phenomena such as forests, rivers and mountains. The environment is alive and teems with life, trees and rocks become shrines and the river is respected as a source and support of physical and spiritual life. Nature, like the gods of old, can be both threatening and protecting.

13. Our Dependence on Mother Earth which nourishes and tends Humanity like a Mother

Hinduism is replete with spiritual and poetical references to mother earth. The Atharva Veda, devoted to praises of mother earth contains 63 verses embodying the sentiments of Hindu visionaries regarding the dependence of humans on mother nature and the respect for the natural order that follows naturally from such a vision. The Prithvi Sukta or Bhumi Sukta hymn in the Atharva Veda says “Earth is my mother. I am her son.” Prithvi or Bhumi Devi is the Goddess who personifies Mother Earth

14. The Environment and Its Components (Both Living and Non-Living Forms) – Have Rights – including the right to exist without being harmed, polluted or destroyed.

All of the preceding discussions would have served to highlight the basic Hindu approach to nature which vests it with a personality of its own. It is not a subject of ownership, but has rights of its own. It is not a form of subordinate existence for the purpose of serving humans, but is in a partnership with humans

15. Factors that Warp our Relationship with Mother Earth

The conduct outlined above naturally stands in marked opposition to the egocentric and materialistic vision which is a major cause of our environmental problems today.

The Hindu vision of dharma involves the idea that human beings must accept certain limitations on their desires so that the natural order can be preserved. Further, the Gita prescribes a devout and frugal lifestyle that has inspired and may be expected to continue to inspire ecologically supportive lives in which wasteful consumption is eliminated

16. Governmental Duty in regard to the Environment

“Wealth and life are preserved by men for enjoyment. But what avail
a man to have wealth and life who has not protected the land?” - sukraniti

Hindu literature is very strong on the duties of rulers in relation to the environment. In fact, the titles associated with kingship reflect this very strongly. Among these are descriptions such as Bhupalana (protector of the earth), Bupala (earth guardian), Bhubharata (husband of the earth).

* * *

We close, as we began, with an emphasis on the spiritual dimension, which is lacking in our modern approaches and attitudes to all issues connected with the long-term future. This lacuna in modern thinking, as compared to the frameworks of ancient thought, has been picked up by contemporary Hindu thinkers as a crucial area for action as we address the task of conserving the human future.

To quote Swami Tripurari, a modern commentator on the Bhagavad-Gita

“Our present environmental crisis is in essence a spiritual crisis…

The current deplorable condition demands a spiritual response.
One of the measures that could help a great deal to fulfil this need is to regenerate and rejuvenate basic values of Hindu culture and propagate them.”

Notes:

1.Vedante for the Western World, ed. Christopher Isherwood, Unwin Books 1948 p.9

2.Human Ecology in the Vedas. Marta Vannucci, DK Print World Pvt. Ltd., India, 1999

3. See in general Juristic Concepts of Ancient Indian Polity, Nagendra Singh, Vision Books

4. Bhagavad-Gita VII.7 – Hindu Scriptures, Everyman’s Library, 1972, p.280

5. Radhakrishnan,Religion and Society, p.81

6. For further reading see e.g.Bishnois, R.S., A Blueprint For Environment – Conservation as Creed, Surya Publications, (1992)

7. Source: review of George A.James ed. Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India (1999) by Saliendra Nath Gosh on http://www.india-seminar.com/2001/499/499%20books.htm

- Asian Tribune -

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