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Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies

Volume 6 Article 8

January 1993

Human Responsibility and the Environment: A

Hindu Perspective
O. P. Dwivedi

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Dwivedi, O. P. (1993) "Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective," Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies: Vol. 6,
Article 8.
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Dwivedi: Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective

Human responsibility and the Environment:

A Hindu Perspective*

o. P. Dwivedi
University of Guelph

THE WORLD COMMISSION on Envi- and unethical. For example, in the ancient
ronment and Development acknowledged that past Hindus and Buddhists were careful to
to reconcile human affairs with natural laws observe moral teachings regarding the treat-
'our cultural and spiritual heritages can rein- ment of nature. In their cultures, not only the
force our economic interests and survival common person but also rulers and kings
imperatives,.l But until very recently, the followed those ethical guidelines and tried to
role of our cultural and spiritual heritages in create an example for others. But now in the
environmental protection and sustainable twentieth century, the materialistic orienta-
development was ignored by international tion of the West has equally affected the
bodies, national governments, policy plan- cultures of the East. India, Sri Lanka, Thai-
ners, and even. environmentalists. Many fear land, and Japan have witnessed wanton
that bringing religion into the environmental exploitation of the environment by their own
movement will threaten objectivity, scientific peoples, despite the strictures and injunctions
investigation, professionalism, or democratic inherent in their religions and cultures. Thus
values. But none of these need be displaced no culture has remained immune from human
in order to include the spiritual dimension in irreverence towards nature. How can we
environmental protection. That dimension, if change the attitude of human beings towards
introduced in the process of environmental nature? Are religions the answer?
policy planning, administration, education, I believe that religion can evoke a kind
and law, could help create a self-consciously of awareness in persons that is different from
moral society which would put conservation . scientific or technological reasoning. Relig-
and respect for God's creation first, and rele- ion helps make human beings aware that
gate individualism, materialism, and our there are limits to their control over the ani-
modem desire to dominate nature in a sub- mate and inanimate world and that their
ordinate place. Thus my plea for a definite arrogance and· manipulative power over
role of religion in conservation and environ- nature can backfire. Religion instills the
mental protection. recognition that human life cannot be
From the perspective of many world measured by material possessions and that
religions, the abuse and exploitation of the ends of life go beyond conspicuous
nature for immediate gain is unjust, immoral, consumption.

* This article has been drawn from the author's contribution in Ethics ofEnvironment and Development,
J. Ronald Engel and Joan G. Engel (eds.), London: Belhaven Press, 1990, pp.201-212.

Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin 6 (1993) 19-26

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Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 6 [1993], Art. 8

20 O.P. Dwivedi

World religions, each in their own way, the bases of his argument that religion could
offer a unique set of moral values and rules be blamed for the ecological crisis.
to guide human beings in their relationship In the course of this debate, examples
with the environment. Religions also provide from other cultures were cited to support the
sanctions and offer stiffer penalties, such as view that, even in countries where there is
fear of hell, for those who do not treat God's religious respect for nature, exploitation of
creation with respect. Although it is true that the environment has been ruthless. Countries
in the recent past religions have not been in where Hinduism,. Buddhism, Taoism and
the forefront of protecting the. environment Shintoism have been practiced were cited to
from human greed and exploitation, many are support the criticism of Thomas Derr, 3
now willing to take up the challenge and help among others, that We are simply being gul-
protect and conserve the environment. But lible when we take at face value the adver-
their offer of help will remain purely rhetori- tisement for the ecological harmony of non-
I' cal unless secular institutions, national gov- western cultures'.
ill ernments, and international organisations are Derr's assertion with respect to the role
'I'I'!.! willing to ackriowledge the role of religion in of the Hindu religion in the ecological crisis
environmental study and education. And I is challenged here. We need to understand
believe that environmental education will how a Hindu's attitude to nature has been
remain incomplete until it includes cultural shaped by his religion's view of the cosmos
values and religious imperatives. For this we and creation. Such an exposition is necessary
reqUlre an oecumenical approach. While to explain the traditional values and beliefs
there are metaphysical, ethical, anthropologi- of Hindus and hence what role Hindu religion
cal and social disagreements among world once played with respect to human treatment
religions, a synthesis of the key concepts and of the environment. At the same time we need
precepts from each of them pertaining to to know how it is that this religion, which
conservation could become a foundation for taught harmony with and respect for nature,
a global environmental ethic. The world and which influenced other religions such as
needs such an ethic. Iainism and Buddhism, has been in recent
times unable to sustain a caring attitude to-
Religion and Environmental Debate wards nature. What are the features of the
Hindu religion which strengthen human· re-
In 1967 the historian Lynn White Ir wrote an spect for God's creation, and how were these'
article in Science on the historical roots of features repressed by the modem view of the
the ecological crisis. 2 According to White, natural environment and its resources?4
what people do to their environment depends
on how they see themselves in relation to
nature. White asserted that the exploitative The Sanctity of Life in Hinduism
view that has generated much of the envi-
ronmental crisis, particularly in Europe and The principle of the sanctity of life is clearly
North America, is a result of the teachings of ingrained in the Hindu religion. Only God
late mediaeval Latin Christianity, which con- has absolute sovereignty over all creatures;
ceived humankind as superior to the rest of thus human beings have no dominion over
God's creation and everything else as created their own lives or non-human life. Conse-
for human use and enjoyment. He suggested quently, humanity cannot act as a viceroy of
that the only way to address the ecological God over the planet nor assign degrees of
crisis was to reject. the view that nature has relative worth to other'species. The idea of
no reason to exist except to serve humanity. the Divine Being as the one underlying power
II White's proposition impelled scientists, of unity is beautifully expressed in the Ya-
theologians, and environmentalists to debate jurveda: 2
DOI: 10.7825/2164-6279.1077
Dwivedi: Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective
Human Responsibility and the EnvirOnment: A Hindu Perspective 21

The loving sage beholds that Being, intervened a period of darkness after
hidden in mystery, which the Great Lord and Controller of
wherein the universe comes to have one the universe arranged the motions
home; which produce days, nights and other
Therein unites and therefrom emanates durations of time. The Great One then
the whole; produced the sun, the moon, the earth
The Omnipresent One pervades souls and all other regions as He did in pre-
and matter like warp vious cycles of creation
and weft in created beings (Rigveda 10: 190.1-3).
(Yajurveda 2.8). 5
All the Hindu scriptures attest to the belief
The sacredness of God's creation means that the creation, maintenance, and annihila-
no damage may be inflicted on other species tion of the cosmos is completely dependent
without adequate justification. Therefore, all on the Supreme will. In the Gita, Lord
lives, human and non-human, are of equal Krishna says to Atjuna: 'Of all that is mate-
value and all have the same right to exis- rial and all that is spiritual in this world,
tence. According to the Atharvaveda, the know for certain that I am both its origin and
earth is not for human beings alone, but for dissolution' (Gita 7.6). And the Lord says:
other creatures as well: 'The whole cosmic order is under me. By my
Born of Thee, on Thee move mortal will it is manifested again and again and by
creatures; my will, it is annihilated at the end' (Gita
Thou barest them - the biped and the 7.6).7 And the Lord says again: 'The whole
quadruped; cosmic order is under me. By my will it is
Thine, 0 earth, are the five races of manifested again and again and by my will, it
men, for whom is annihilated at the end' (Gita 9.8). Thus, for
Surya (Sun), as he rises spreads with ancient Hindus, both God and Prakriti
his rays (nature) was to be one and the same. While
the light that is immortal
the Prajapati (as mentioned in Regveda) is
(Atharvaveda 12.1-15).6
the creator of sky, earth, oceans and all other
species, he is also their protector and
Srsti: God's Creation eventUal destroyer. He is the only Lord of
creation. Human beings have no special
The Hindu concept of creation can be pre- privilege or authority over other creatures; on
sented in four categories. First the Vedic the other hand, they have more obligations
theory, whiqh is followed by further elabora- and duties.
tion in Vedanta and Sankhya philosophies;
the second is Upanishadic theory; the third is Duties to Animals and Birds
known as Puranic theory; and the fourth is
enunciated in the great Hindu epics The most important aspect of Hindu theology
Ramayana and Mahabharata. Although the. pertaining to the treatment of animal life is
Puranic theory differs from the other three, a the belief that the Supreme Being was him-
single thought flows between them. This uni- self incarnated in the form of various species.
fying theory is well stated in the Rigveda: The Lord says
The Vedas and the universal laws of This form is the source and indestruc-
nature which control the universe and tible seed of multifarious incarnations
govern the cycles of creation and disso- within the universe, and from the par-
lution were made manifest by the All ticle and portion' of this form, different
knowing One. By his great power were living entities, like demigods, animals,
produced the clouds and the vapors. Af-
ter the production of the vapors, there

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Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 6 [1993], Art. 8
·22 O.P. Dwivedi

human beings and others, are created Edicts, located at various public places,
(Srimad-Bhagavata Book 1, expressed his concerns about the welfare of
Discourses III: 5).8 creatures, plants and trees and prescribed
Among the various incarnations of God various punishments for the killing of ani-
(numbering from ten to twenty-four depend- mals, including ants, squirrels and rats.
i ing upon the source of the text), He first in-
i: carnated Himself in the form of a fish, then a Flora in Hindu Religion
I tortoise, a boar, and dwarf. His fifth incar-
. II
nation was as a man-lion. As Rama he was As early as in the time of Regveda, tree
il worship was quite popular and universal.
!i closely associated with monkeys, and as
Krishna he was always surrounded by cows. The tree symbolised the various attributes of
Thus, other species are accorded reverence: God to the Regvedic seers. Regveda regarded
Further, the Hindu belief in the cycle of plants as having divine powers, with one
birth and rebirth where a person may come entire hymn devoted to their praise, chiefly
back as an animal or a bird gives these spe- with reference to their healing properties.
cies not only respect, but also reverence. This (Regveda 10.97). During the period of the
provides a solid foundation for the doctrine great epics and Puranas, the Hindu respect
of ahimsa - non-violence against animals for flora expanded further. Trees were con-
and human beings alike. Hindus have a deep sidered as being animate and feeling happi-
faith in the doctrine of non-violence. Almost ness and sorrow. It is still popularly believed
all the Hindu scriptures place strong empha- that every tree has a Vriksa-devata, or 'tree
sis on the notion that God's grace can be deity', who is worshipped with prayers and
received by not killing his creatures or offerings of water, flowers, sweets, and
harming his creation: 'God, Kesava, is encircled by sacred threads. Also, for Hin-
pleased with a person who does not harm or dus, the planting of a tree is still a religious
destroy other non-speaking creatures or ani- duty.
mals' (Visnupurrana 3,8,15). To not eat meat The Hindu worship of trees and plants
in Hinduism is considered both an appropri- has been based partly on utility, but mostly
ate conduct and a duty. Yajnavalkya Smriti on religious duty and mythology. Hindu
warns of hell-fire (Ghora Naraka) to those ancestors considered it their duty to save
who are the killers of domesticated and pro- trees: and in order to do that they attached to
tected animals: 'The wicked person who kills every tree a religious sanctity.
animals which are protected has to live in
hell-fire for the days equal to the number of Pradushana: Pollution and its Prevention
hairs on the body of that animal' in Hindu Scriptures
(Yajnavalkyasmriti, Acaradhyayah, v. 180).
By the end of the Vedic and Upanishadic Hindu scriptures revealed a clear conception
period, Buddhism and Jainism came into of the ecosystem. On this basis a discipline
existence and the protection of animals, birds of environmental ethics developed with for-
and vegetation was further strengthened by mulated codes of conduct (dharma) and
the various kings practicing these religions. defined humanity's relationship to nature. An
These religions, which arose in part as a important part of that conduct is maintaining
protest against the orthodoxy and rituals of proper sanitation. In the past this was con-
Hindu religion, continued their precepts for sidered to be the duty of everyone and any
environmental protection. The Buddhist default was a punishable offence. Hindu
emperor Ashoka (273-236 BCE), promoted society did not everi consider it proper to
through public proclamations the planting throw dirt on a public path.
and preservation of flora and fauna. Pillar Hindus considered cremation of dead
bodies and maintaining the sanitation of the 4
DOI: 10.7825/2164-6279.1077
Dwivedi: Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective
Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective 23

human habitat as essential acts. When in detennined, hierarchical and oppressive

about 200 BCE Caraka wrote about Vikrti social structure, particUlarly for the untouch-
(pollution) and disease, he mentioned air ables and lower castes. But the amazing phe-
pollution specifically as a cause of many dis- nomenon is that it lasted for so many millen-
eases (Caraka Samhita, Vimanastanam III nia even with the centuries of domination by
6:1).9 . Islamic and Christian cultures.
Water is considered by Hindus as a One explanation by the ecologist Mad-
powerful medium of purification and also as hav Gadgil and the anthropologist Kailash
a source of energy. Sometimes, just by the Malhortra is that the caste system, as contin-
sprinkling of pure water in religious cere- ued until the early decades of the twentieth
monies, it is believed purity is achieved. That century, was actually based on an ancient
is why, in Regveda, prayer is offered to the concept of sustainable development which
deity of water: 'The waters in the' sky, the disciplined the society by partitioning the use
waters of rivers, and water in the well whose of natural resources according to specific
source is the ocean, may all these sacred occupations (or castes), and 'created' the
waters protect me' (Regveda 7.49.2). The right· social milieu in which sustainable pat-
healing property and medicinal value of terns of resource use were encouraged to
water has been universally accepted, pro- emerge. 10 A system of 'resource partitioning'
vided it is pure and free from all pollution. emerged whereby the primary users of natu-
Persons engaging in unsocial activities and in ral resources did not worry about encroach-
acts polluting the environment were cursed: ment from other castes. At the same time,
'A person, who is engaged in killing crea- these users also knew that if they depleted the
tures, polluting wells, and ponds and tanks, natural resources in their own space, they
and destroying gardens, certainly goes to hell' would not surviye economically or physically
(Padmapurana, Bhoomikhananda 96:7-8). because no one would allow them to move on
to' other occupations. Religious injunctions
Effectiveness of ~nduism in Conservation also created the psychological environment
whereby each caste or sub-caste. respected
The· effectiveness of any religion in protect- the occupational boundaries of others. In a
ing the environment depends upon how much sense, the Hindu caste system can be seen as
faith its believers have in its precepts and a progenitor· of the concept of sustainable
injunctions. It also depends upon how those development.
precepts are transmitted and adapted in But the system started malfunctioning
every-day social interactions. In the case of during the British Raj when demands for raw
the Hindu religion, which is practiced as materials for their fast-growing industrial
dharma - way of life - many of its precepts economy had to be met t:hfough the commer-
became' ingrained in the daily life and social . cial exploitation of India's natural resources.
institutions of the people, Three specific As traditional relationships between various
examples are given below to illustrate this castes· started disappearing, competition and
point. tension grew. The trend kept on accelerating
in independent India, as each caste (or sub- . I

The caste system and sustainable develop- caste) tried to discard its traditional role and
ment seize eagerly any opportunity to land a job.
When this happened, the ancient religious
The Hindu religion is known for its elaborate injunction for doing one's prescribed duty
caste system which divides individuals within a caste system could no longer' be
among four main castes and several hundred maintained; this caused the disappearance of
sub-castes. Over the centuries, the system 'ecological space' among Hindus. There is no
degenerated into a very rigid, hereditarily doubt that the caste system also degenerated

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Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 6 [1993], Art. 8
24 O.P. Dwivedi

within and became a source of oppression; The Chipko Movement

nevertheless, from an ecological spacing
viewpoint, the caste system played a key role The genesis of the Chipko movement 12 is not
in preserving India's natural riches for only to be found in the ecological or
centuries. economic background, but in religious belief.
Villagers have noted how industrial and
Bishnois: Defenders of the Environment commercial demands have denuded their
forests, how they cannot sustain their liveli-
The Bishnois are a small community in hood in a deforested area, and how floods
Rajasthan, India, who practise a religion of continually play havoc with their small agri-
environmental conservation. They believe cultural communities. The religious basis of
that cutting a tree or killing an animal is a the movement is evident in the fact that it is
blasphemy. Their religion, an offshoot of . inspired and guided by women. Women have
Hinduism, was founded by Guru Maharaj not only seen how their men do not mind
Jambaji, who was born in 1451 CE in the destroying nature in order to get money while
Marwar area. When he was young he wit- they had to walk for miles in search of fire-
nessed how during severe drought people cut wood, fodder and other grazing materials,
down trees to feed animals, but when the but, being more religious, they also are more
drought continued, nothing was left to feed sensitive to injunctions such asahimsa. In a
the animals, so they died. Jambaji thought sense, the Chipko movement is a kind of
that if trees were protected, animal life would feminist movement to protect nature from the
be sustained and his community would sur- greed of men. In the Himalayan areas, the
vive. He gave 29 injunctions and principal pivot of the family is the woman. It is the
among them was a ban on the cutting of any woman who worries most about nature and
green tree and on the killing of any animal or its conservation in order thatits resources are
bird. About 300 years later, when the King available for her family'S sustenance. On the
of Jodhpur wanted to build a new palace, he other hand, men go away to distant places in
sent his soldiers to the Bishnois area where search of jobs, leaving women and old people
trees were in abundance. Villagers protested, behind. These women also believe that each
and when soldiers would not pay any atten- tree has a Vriksadevata (tree god) and that
tion to the protest, the Bishnois, led by a the deity Van Devi (the Goddess of forests)
woman, hugged the trees to protect them with will protect their family welfare. They also
their bodies. As soldiers kept on killing the believe that each green tree is an abode of the
villagers, more and more of the Bishnois Almighty God Hari.
came forward to honour the religious injunc- The Chipko movement has caught the
tion of their Guru Maharaj Jambaji. The attention of others in India. For example, in
massacre continued until 363 persons were Kamataka state, the Appiko movement
killed defending trees. When the king heard began in September 1983 when 163 men,
about this human sacrifice, he stopped the women and children hugged the t~ees and
operation, and gave the Bishnois state pro- forced the lumbeIjacks to leave. That move-
tection for their belief. 11 ment swiftly spread to the adjoining districts.
Today, the Bishnois community contin- These people are against the kind of com-
ues to protect trees and animals with the mercial felling of trees which clears the
same fervour. Their community is the best vegetation in its entirety. They do recognise
example of the true Hindu-based ritual the firewood needs of urban people (mostly
defence of the environment in India, and their poor) and therefore do not want a total ban
·sacrifices became the inspiration for the on felling. However, they are against indis-·
Chipko movement of 1973. criminate clearing and would like to see a
consultative process established so that local 6
DOI: 10.7825/2164-6279.1077
L Dwivedi: Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective
Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective 25

people are able to participate in. timber man- culture, the British introduced Christianity
agement. and western secular institutions and· values.
These three examples are illustrative of While it is too easy to blame these external
the practical impact of Hinduism on conser- forces for the change in attitudes of Hindus
vation and sustainable development. While towards nature, nevertheless it is a fact that
the effectiveness of the caste system to act as they greatly inhibited the religion from
a resource partitioning system is no longer continuing to transmit ancient values which , I
viable, the examples of Bishnois and Chip- encourage' respect and due regard for God's
kolAppiko are illustrative of the fact that creation.
when appeal to secular norms fails, one can
draw on the cultural and religious sources for Hope For Our Common Future·
'forest satyagraha'. ('Satyagraha' means
insistence or persistence in search of truth. In Mahatma Gandhi warned that 'nature had
this context 'forest satyagraha'means enough for everybody's need but not for
persistence in search for truth pertaining· to everybody's greed'. Gandhi was a great
the rights oftrees). believer in drawing upon the rich variety of
spiritual and cultural heritages of India. His
Loss of Respect For Nature satyagraha movements were the perfect
example of how one could confront an unjust
If such has been the tradition, philosophy, and uncaring though extremely superior
and ideology of Hindu religion, what then are power. Similarly, the Bishnois, Chipko and
the reasons behind the present state of envi- Appiko people are engaged in a kind of
ronmental crisis? As we have seen,. our 'forest satyagraha' today. Their movements
ethical beliefs and religious values influence co.uld easily be turned. into a common front -
our behaviour towards others, including our 'satyagraha for the environment' - to be used
relationship with all creatures and plant .life. against the forces of big government and big
If, for some reason, these noble values business. Satyagraha for conservation could
become displaced by other beliefs which are very well be a rallying point for the
either thrust upon the society or transplanted awakened spirit of Hinduism.
from another culture through invasion, then
the faith of the masses in the earlier cultural Notes
tradition is s~aken. As the foreign culture;
language and system of administration 1 World Commission on Environment and
slowly takes root .and penetrates all levels of Development, Our Common Future, New
society, and as appropriate answers and York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p.l.
leadership are not forthcoming from the 2 Lynn . White, Jr, 'The Historical Roots of
Our Ecological Crisis', Science 155 (March
religious leaders and Brahmans, it is only
1967): pp.1203-7.
natural for the masses to become more
3 Thomas S. Derr, 'Religions Responsibility
inward-looking and self-centered. Under such for the Ecological Crisis: An Argument Run
circumstances, religious values which acted Amok', World View 18 (1975): p.43.
as sanctions against environmental destruc- 4 These questions have been examined in
tion do not retain a high priority because detail in O.P. Dwivedi and B.N. Tiwari,
people have to worry about their survival and Environmental Crisis and Hindu Religion,
freedom; hence respect for nature gets dis- New Delhi: Gitanjali Publishing, 1987.
. placed by economic factors. 5 The Yajurveda, Devi Chand (tr.), New
That, it seems, is what happened in Delhi: Munsiram, Manoharlal Publishers,
India during 700 years of foreign cultural 1982.
domination. The situation became more ~.

complex when, in addition to the Muslim

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Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 6 [1993], Art. 8
26 O.P. Dwivedi

6 The Atharvaveda, Devi Chand (tr.), New 10 Centre for Science and Environment, The
Delhi: Munsiram, Manoharlal Publishers, State of India's Environment 1984-85, the
1982. Second Citizens' Report New Delhi: CSE,
7 The Bhagavad Gita, commentator Swami 1985, p.162.
Shidbhavananda, Tirruchirapalli: Sri 11 Ibid., p.164
Ramakrishna Tapovanam, 1974. 12 Chandi Prasad Bhatt, 'The Chipko
8 Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, C.L. Andolan: Forest Conservation Based on
Goswami and M.A. Sastri (tr.), Gorakhpur: People's Power' in: Anil Agrawal, Darryl
Gita Press, 1982,2 vols. D'Monte and Ujawala Samarth (eds.), The
9 Caraka-Samhita, Priyavrat Sharma (tr.), Fight for Survival, New Delhi: Centre for
Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 1983 Science and Environment, 1987, p.5l.
1, p.315. 8
DOI: 10.7825/2164-6279.1077