restricted access CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: Hinduism and Ecology
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476 CH APTER THIRT Y-FI V E Hinduism and Ecology India’s ecology is in deep trouble. Its rivers are extremely polluted. Yamunā, the daughter of Yama, the god of death, is today a river that lives up to its name.1 The Gaṅgā is no better. Indeed, no river, once it hits the plains, remains clean. . . . The air in most Indian cities is becoming literally unbreathable. . . . Tens of thousands of people die prematurely in Delhi each year due to environmentally induced causes.” —Anil Agarwal, “Can Hindu Beliefs and Values Help India Meet Its Ecological Crisis?” The ecological crisis that exercises so many people in the Western world has also reached India, one of the most densely populated countries of the world with one of the fasted growing economies. In order to alleviate mass poverty , governments since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru have pushed ahead with industrialization and agricultural development—the “Green Revolution” has transformed India, in spite of an enormous increase in population, from a food import dependent country in the 1960s to a major grain-exporting nation in the 2000s. India’s industrial capacity is impressive and the “outsourcing” of many information technology related jobs from North America and Europe has brought affluence to a large number of well-trained Indian workers. The “collateral damage” caused by industrial progress to the environment has been enormous, and Indian ecological activists are getting alarmed. India has ample legislation to protect the environment, but most people care little for it. Anil Agarwal, an engineer turned journalist and ecological activist, blames Hinduism for this sorry state of affairs. “Hinduism,” he writes “is a highly individualistic religion. It looks into the self, emphasizing the ātman as the key to spiritual ascent. Dharma focuses first on oneself, emphasizing one’s own behavior. The consequences of one’s behavior on others play a secondary role. The primary concern is to do one’s dharma for the sake of one’s own HINDUISM A ND ECOLOGY 477 well-being. . . . Under the onslaught of modern-day secularism this has brought out the worst type of individualism in Hinduism.”2 He mentions instances of pollution and sanitary neglect, which no visitors to India fail to see as soon they leave the airports: heaps of garbage in public places, roadsides used as public latrines, untreated sewage flowing into waterways, and so forth. He also points out aspects of ecological degradation that are not so obvious: Groundwater is being overexploited across the country and in urban industrial areas is becoming irreversibly polluted. Nearly one third of the country’s land lies bare, due to abuse and mismanagement. Biomass shortages are acute and women can spend eight to ten hours just collecting basic necessities like firewood, fodder and water. . . . The air quality of New Delhi rivals that of Mexico City as the most polluted in the world.”3 Veer Bhadra Mishra, a retired hydrological engineer and head of the “Swatcha Ganga Foundation” in Vārāṇasī as well as the guru of a religious association who made it his life’s mission to clean up the Ganges, maintains that Hinduism is an essential part of the ecological salvation of India. Pointing out to his fellow Hindus the horrendous pollution of “Mother Gaṅgā” in a place like Vārāṇasī, the most holy of India’s holy cities, he asks them: Would you consciously throw garbage at your mother and defile her thus? In an apt simile he compares the two banks of the Gaṅgā to science/technology and religion/tradition and explains: for the river to be able to flow properly, both banks must stand firmly. He seems to be encouraged by what he has been able to do so far with his initiative of the Ganges cleanup.4 In a country that has been so much shaped by its religious traditions and in which so many people actively participate in its rituals and festivities, religion must be a major partner in the restoration of the ecology. Traditional Hinduism offers indeed many insights into nature and many incentives for preserving it and contemporary Hindu scholars and gurus make use of Hindu mythology and philosophy to awaken an ecological consciousness in their audience.5 NAT UR E AS SPIR IT UAL GUIDE AND TEACHER The epic and dramatic literature of India contains numerous vivid and loving descriptions of nature. The beauty of the forest through which Rāmā and Sītā proceeded, the peace and tranquility of the...