A religious environmentalism

June 5 was World Environment Day, which is presumably why an article entitled ‘Hindu roots of modern ‘ecology” was doing the rounds on Twitter, despite having been published in 2016. In the article, its author Viva Kermani writes,

Centuries before the appearance of the likes of Greenpeace, World Environment Day, and what is known as the environmental movement, the shruti (Vedas, Upanishads) and smruti (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, other scriptures) instructed us that the animals and plants found in the land of Bharatavarsha are sacred; that like humans, our fellow creatures, including plants have consciousness; and therefore all aspects of nature are to be revered. This understanding, care and reverence towards the environment is common to all Indic religious and spiritual systems: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, there is ample evidence to show that the earliest messages of the importance of the environment and the need for ecological balance and harmony can be found in ancient Indic texts.

Overall, Kermani argues that Hindus are essentially all environmentalists and that many species of plants and animals thrive in India Bharat because of Hindus’ reverential attitude towards them. The second argument is easier to swat away, especially when it shows itself as the following contention from the same article:

That India today is home to 70% of the world’s tigers – our country has some 2,500 tigers in the wild – is because the tiger is considered divine, a vahana of the Durga and present in any form of Durga iconography. Tigers have been wiped out in Java and Sumatra, the great islands of Indonesia across which, the majestic big cat once roamed freely, for Indonesia was once Hindu.

Kermani has clearly mixed up cause and effect here. Tigers don’t survive because they’re represented in Hindu iconography; they’re represented in our iconography because they were already here before the Hindus got here. More importantly, tiger populations in India are increasingly threatened by linear projects, mining activities, dams and river-interlinks. If the tiger was so important, shouldn’t the streets of Puri and Varanasi be swimming in Hindu protestors right now?

The reason Greenpeace and World Environment Day showed up was because religious importance alone is useless. It’s fine to claim primacy but to claim such primacy is also relevant is the problem. It’s not. What’s the point of repeatedly saying you invented something when clearly the invention doesn’t even work anymore? It’s hard to believe, as a result, that exercises of this nature are anything more than a form of intellectual indulgence. With some editing, they might be better served as messages of hope, inviting Hindus to look beyond the red herrings of Islamophobia and nationalism and towards sustainable living practices.

However, my issue with Kermani’s argument is deeper. While she makes a case for why Hinduism was also a very early first manifestation of environmentalism (albeit by placing the blame for our general ignorance of this factoid at the feet of Christianity), it’s not a useful environmentalism – nor is that of Greenpeace or, for that matter, the likes of PETA, etc.

Hinduism’s authority is scriptural; modern environmentalism’s authority is scientific, at least it should be. We shouldn’t have to pay attention to the needs of the non-human occupants of this world because a higher authority thinks so but because we know why it is important to do so. The centroid of our ecological morals should be located, at least in part, within humanist, social, naturalist and empirical frameworks, instead of taking sole recourse through divine proclamations that we’re not allowed to challenge, let alone overthrow.

Scriptural authority doesn’t allow our responsibilities as the alpha species on Earth to evolve with what we know. For example, it makes sense to destroy some members of an invasive species that have colonised foreign ecosystems (aided, often inadvertently, by human activities) before they displace and endanger their native counterparts. For another, it’s perfectly reasonable for forest-dwellers to cut trees down for firewood and other resources. However, Hinduism would condemn the man who does either of these things, at least according to Kermani.

She continues:

Even today, Bharat is blessed with a rich biodiversity, because of the spiritual connectedness that Hindus have with nature. That there exists sthala vriksham shows that trees were intimately associated with spiritual tradition (In Sanskrit, sthala is a place, especially a sacred place, and vriksh is tree). Every temple is associated with a tree and every tree is associated with a deity and a story. The more well-known examples of sthala vriksham include the Kadamba at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple in Madurai and the vanni tree (khejri in Hindi) at the Magudeshwara Temple at Kodumudi. The famous mango tree at the Ekambereshwara Temple at Kancheepuram is believed to be more than 3,000 years old!

These are as much places of worship as they are lightning rods for discriminating against the lower castes. Non-Brahmins are proscribed from reading the Indic texts that Kermani is so fond of quoting; during most of its existence, especially in the post-Vedic period, the tenets of Hinduism rendered the members of such castes to be socially dead and unfit to use Sanskrit (apart from perpetrating various other brutalities). Hinduism is not an inherently ecological religion; it is inherently discriminatory, and an environmentalism feeding and drawing from its practices will only exhibit the same afflictions.

But even if Hinduism had been a wholly inclusive religion, our sense of why it’s important to save our trees shouldn’t come from there. The practice of environmentalism has many stakeholders and they contest its purpose along different trajectories, according to different needs, their geographical locations, their cultural values, etc. In this muddle, which is necessary by design, it’s important that we are more adaptable than we are prescient, more equitable than munificent, and more progressive than prescriptive. These guidelines are as such antithetical to religion by definition.

Of course, this doesn’t mean one must reject all the environmental aspects of Hinduism, or any other religion for that matter; instead, Hindus’ views on what it means to be environmentalist mustn’t be limited by what Hinduism considers appropriate, although this isn’t likely to be the case.

If you’re wondering why I chose to write about an article that appeared on a website peddling the typical far-right pro-Hindutva viewpoint, it’s that this endorsement of Hinduism as an environment-friendly entity stems as much from among conservatives as liberals, and that as much as either group would like to assert Hinduism’s credentials in this regard, such ‘spiritual environmentalism’ is, at least in part, an oxymoron.

(One last point, on a different note: Kermani writes towards the end,

Today, under the principles of the Chaos Theory, the commonly known as the Butterfly Effect – where a creature as delicate as the butterfly, by flapping its wings, sets up a series of reactions, by first causing some changes in the atmosphere, can end up causing a storm. This is nothing, but the Hindu understanding of karma, that all actions are connected and are part of the universe and that our actions affect not just other humans, but also nature, of which we are a part.

As it happens, chaos theory is not just the butterfly effect, and the butterfly effect is not concerned with the interconnectedness of all things. Instead, it is a metaphorical example of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to their initial conditions. For example, the trajectory of a pendulum changes drastically over time even if its starting position is moved only slightly. In the same way, the tornado in the metaphor could have been precipitated by a distant butterfly flapping its wings as much as, say, an eagle high up in the sky.)