- Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability
In a 2009 article Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that "climate change poses for us a question of a human collectivity, an us, pointing to a figure of the universal that escapes our capacity to experience the world . . . a universal that arises from a shared sense of a catastrophe."1 In other words, while Subaltern Studies scholars have been attempting to uncover unique histories independent of the universalizing narrative of European historicism, humanity has become irrevocably universalized as a force of nature whose ecological impact has ushered in the Anthropocene epoch, and no amount of decolonizing the past will help us to escape our shared future: "[There] are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged," argues Chakrabarty, and "without that knowledge that defies historical understanding there is no making sense of the current crisis that affects us all."2
Faced with this problem, a growing number of scholars have turned to the study of religion to provide models that can reconcile this new, irrefutable universal category of the human as geological force with what Clifford Geertz calls "local knowledge." One such project is Pankaj Jain's Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability, which comes out of the author's work with three communities in India that have been actively involved in preserving local flora and fauna, though not necessarily with the intention of ecological preservation. Jain focuses on the Swadhyayis of Gujarat and Maharashtra, a twentieth-century sectarian movement known for their building of "tree-temples" and "water-harvesting sites," and the Bishnoi and the Bhils, two Rajasthani communities that have been fighting to preserve their sacred groves from deforestation.
Central to Jain's project is his resistance to labeling anything these communities do as "ecologically conscious." Instead, he prefers the term dharma, a Sanskrit word sometimes translated as "law" (in either the legal-ethical or the natural-physical sense), "religion," "duty," or "ethics." While describing these communities in terms of the indigenous concept of dharma and eschewing categories like "religion" and "ecology" may move him away from the discourse of traditional religious studies (if there ever was such a thing), his recourse to the model of "great" and "little" traditions seems to be a step in the other direction. For Jain, "great" traditions like ISKCON, the Ramakrishna Mission, and Transcendental Meditation are "modern, English-speaking, urban-based, and fully conscious about environmentalism," while "little" traditions like the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils are "traditional, vernacular, rural-based and only somewhat conscious about environmentalism" (p. 3). It is the "little" traditions, operating according to the principle of dharma, with which Jain is concerned. Jain wants to use dharma, which he understands as "holistic" and "help[ing] [End Page 92] Indians to transcend the boundaries of subject and object" as the basis for "an alternative sociological and anthropological category to study Indic traditions" that can also "be successfully applied as an overarching term for the sustainability of the ecology, environmental ethics, and the religious lives of Indian villagers" (p. 3).
Jain's argument crystallizes in a sustained engagement with Emma Tomalin, in which he criticizes Tomalin's insistence that a "secular environmentalism" must replace "religious environmentalism" so that the "Hindu Right" cannot hijack the movement, and her fear that, because the ecological preservation that is connected to religion in India is an accidental by-product of regarding certain trees, groves, rivers, et cetera as sacred rather than a self-conscious program of action, it is not (so to speak) sustainable.3 Here one is tempted to agree with her, given the polluted state of the Ganga, which an enthusiastic bather at a ghat once told a friend of mine was so sacred that nothing could live in it. But while it makes Tomalin uneasy that "bio-diversity" seems to exist as a mere by-product of "biodivinity" (one thinks here of the puzzlement college students often experience when...