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Dharmic Environmentalism

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

The environment is a universal concern.

Universal environmentalism, however, is myopic, monopolistic, and hegemonic. It overlooks native and Indigenous solutions and, as such, is a recipe for disaster. 

We all relate to our surroundings differently. Present-day environmentalism, however, is based on the Western anthropocentric approach. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anthropocentrism as a religious and philosophical doctrine holds that “human life has intrinsic value while other entities (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

The destruction of ancient paganism was a turning point in environmentalism. Before the advent of Christianity, both as a religion and as a political power, there was no distinction between nature and the divine in the widespread pagan societies. Pagans believed in God’s transcendence in the elements of nature. The notion of the ‘sacred grove,’ however, is an alien concept in the West. Moreover, Marxism, Liberalism, neoliberalism, etc., too are an extension of the same anthropocentric ideology. They regard humankind as central and the most important in the world. 

What is considered modern and scientific in our day-to-day lives today, is based primarily on Christian theology. Implicit faith in perpetual progress dominates our lifestyle, our habits of action, and our planning for the future. Man’s destiny, within this paradigm, is to be hopeful of a future affected by science, technology, a promise of more progress, and doomsday prophecies. 

Modern technology too ends up being a means to an end. As the attitude and the will to exert dominion over nature becomes all the more urgent, the more technology threatens to slip from human control. We end up empowering our political class as they promise to make things better with newer progressive technologies as well as with catchy phrases and slogans.

Such thinking was unknown either to the pagan Greco-Roman antiquity or to the indigenous civilizations of what came to be known as the Orient. Indigenous care for nature goes much beyond the shrill of environmentalism. Such care is deeply rooted in culture, “religion,” and spiritualism. Native cultures, such as Hinduism, have a long history of living in harmony with their surroundings. They are mindful of ecological limits, constraints, and boundaries of nature and do not take from nature more than what is needed. There is an element of reverence towards the earth and other elements of nature that guides them. Native cultures have developed a complex system of using and preserving the ecology. Native American communities’ use of low-intensity controlled burns, regenerative harvesting, etc are examples of native environmentalism. 

Bishnoi Woman (Image from Permaculture News)

As for Hindus, much before any modern-day environmental protocol was ever signed, it is the Bhoomisuktam (hymn of the Mother Earth) of the Atharva Veda that provides a framework for environmentalism. Composed more than 3,000 years ago, Bhoomisuktam is considered the oldest environmental protocol. The Sukta is composed of 63 verses. These verses provide a framework of understanding as well as respecting Mother Earth and her environment. The Sukta recognizes the Earth for all her gifts such as plants and herbs; rivers and cultivable land for food; and animals for milk, honey, etc. But going a step further, the invoker of the verses declares that despite availing all those boons, he does not intend to hurt Mother Earth in any manner whatsoever. The Sukta gives to Mother Earth an assurance of rational utilization of her resources. 

Much of our interaction with the elements of nature, according to Hinduism, is guided by Dharma: the rules of ethical behavior. Such behaviors are guided not by rights, but by obligations. Pankaj Jain in his book Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities describes three communities in India that have actively and consciously worked to preserve and protect the environment as part of their cultural and religious ideology. Those communities include the Swadhyayis, Bishnois, and Bhils.

The Swadhyayis disavow environmentalism. Their mission is “to generate and spread reverence for humans, animals, trees, earth, nature, and the entire universe in general.”

Similarly, the Bishnoi community was founded by a 15th century Guru Jambheshwara who spread the teachings of conservation and living in harmony with nature. Bhils, on the other hand, have protected their sacred groves for generations. 

According to Indic environmentalist and the author of the book Good News India, DV Sridharan, “one doesn’t restore nature, one just keeps a vigil against interruption of Nature’s relentless act of creating the fair and rightful balance.” Hindus believe that when the imbalance reaches a critical point and equilibrium is broken beyond redemption, an avatār ‘unburdens’ the Earth.

Unless the ecological concerns do not empower individuals and communities worldwide to find their indigenous solutions at a more local level, the answer to such concerns will always evade us.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He writes frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.