Ideals and Values/Environmental Awareness
Hindu Dharma and Environmental Awareness
In other religions, the environment consisting of animals, plants and natural resources is considered the wealth of humanity, meant for use as we please. However, Hindu Dharma treats all living creatures as our family members, with whom we share our Mother Earth. In fact, even non-living objects like stones and rivers are pervaded by Paramātman or God as the Supreme Soul. Therefore, Hindu tradition forbids us from wanton abuse and destruction of our environment through slaughter of animals, cutting down of trees or defiling the earth by indiscriminate mining and other similar activities.
Manu Smṛti asks the state to impose fines for unnecessary damage or destruction of trees. Even when trees are cut for specific purposes, prayers of forgiveness should be offered, according to Manu Smṛti. Planting of trees is said to be very good Karma and it brings great rewards. In fact, Queen Kunti says in the Mahābhārata that the trees are our true companions and even if life were possible without trees, it would not be worth living.
Likewise, for animals, Manusmṛti prescribes fines and punishments if pedestrians and cart drivers injure animals intentionally. There are even rules for the minimum number of oxen that should be tied to the plough so that they are not over-worked and rules concerning riding of horses, feeding domestic animals before the owner eats himself and so on.
Intentional pollution of water bodies, soil etc. are also all recognized as punishable offences in the Hindu tradition. The Hindu belief that Paramātman resides in the entire creation and that animals and plants also have souls, whereas Christians and Muslims do not always accept that they have souls and the Hindu values of vegetarianism, aparigraha, non-hoarding, austerity and santośa are very conducive towards environmental awareness and conservation.
Nothing in this world is Useless, therefore do not just throw away!
A lot of us throw away things that we consider as old and useless. But if we just give great thought, we can figure out a use for things that we regard as useless. Hindu tradition argues against throwing away things because not only it hurts the environment, it also fails to put them to genuine uses. This does not mean that we keep hoarding things in our lives and clutter our homes. It means that instead of throwing away our old possessions, we find newer uses or owners for them promptly before we just thrown them away wastefully. In the Śukranītisāra, a Hindu text on worldly wisdom, a verse says:
There is not a single herb that has no medicinal use, and not a single person who does not have any good quality. But rare is he who can put them to purposeful and appropriate use.
The following stories illustrate this principle very well.
Story: How Jeevaka became a great Physician The town of Takṣashilā, founded by Takṣaka, the nephew of Bhagavān Rāma, came to have a renowned university after several centuries. One of the subjects it became famous for was Ayurveda, the system of Hindu medicine.
A renowned teacher in that school was Bṛhaspati. One day, he decided to test his favorite student Jeevaka. He summoned him and said to him, "I will give you a spade. Within a radius of 5 miles, find a plant that has no medicinal value and bring it to me. Jeevaka left and returned to his teacher empty handed. He said, "Gurudeva, there is no plant that is useless from a medicinal point of view. Every plant can be used to derive some medical benefit or the other."
Bṛhaspati was very pleased and said, "You have truly understood the heart of Ayurveda. There is no herb in this world that will not yield some medical benefit. Rather, there is a paucity of scholars who can evaluate the true worth of these herbs. I want you to graduate today because I am confident that you will make a great physician." Bṛhaspati's prediction came true. Jeevaka eventually became the physician of none other than Bhagavān Buddha as well as of King Bimbisāra of the Magadha kingdom.
Story: Ramaṇa Maharṣi finds good use for rose petals and fallen grains of rice Ramaṇa Maharṣi did not waste anything till it was totally worthless. One day, he saw an inmate of his Āśrama throw away rose petals from the previous day's pujā. He said that they should be instead added to the sweet porridge being cooked that day. The cook thought it was strange that rose petals should be added to a sweet dish, but she did as told. The sweet dish actually turned out to be delicious. In the Āśrama, every pin and loose sheets of paper were preserved for future use and nothing was thrown away unnecessarily. The Maharṣi wanted to teach everyone to conserve our resources in little ways in this manner.
Ramaṇa Maharṣi saw a few grains of rice fallen on the ground near the kitchen. He immediately sat down and started collecting them one by one. Some of the devotees gathered around the Maharṣi to see what he was doing. They could not believe that the great sage who had left his home and all for the sake of God cared so much for a few grains of rice. One of them even said, "Bhagavān, we have many bags of rice in the kitchen. Why do you take so much pains to pick up these few grains?" The sage looked up and said, "You see only these few grains of rice. But try to see what is inside those grains. The hard work of the farmer who ploughed the field and sowed the seeds, the water of the ocean and the heat of the sun, the clouds and the rains, the cool air and the warm sunshine, the soft earth and the life in rice plants all these have gone into these grains. If you understand this fully, you will see in every grain the hand of god. So do not crush them under your feet. If you do not want to eat them, give them to the birds."
Story: Ishvarachandra Vidyāsāgara teaches the worth of chewed remnants of china-orange One day, Khudiram Bose visited Ishvarachandra Vidyasagar at the latter's home. The two started chewing some juicy china orange fruit. Khudiram spat out the chewed fruit from his mouth into his hand and got up to throw them away. Ishvarachandra immediately stopped him, "Do not waste food." Khudiram was surprised and asked "Well, of what use are these chewed pieces of fruit?" Ishvarachandra asked him to place the chewed fruit outside the window of his home. Soon, some crows swooped down and took the chewed fruit in their beaks to eat it as their food.
Ishvarachandra smiled and said, "As long as an item can be used by some creature, do not throw it away. Nothing should be discarded till it becomes a totally useless to all creatures."
The Special Role of Hindu Americans in protecting our environment
The United States of America has approximately 6% of the world's area and about 5% of the global population, but our country consumes 30% of world's overall energy. The heavy demand for meat, especially beef, in our country is causing ranchers in South America to cut forests and raise beef cattle. Studies show that almost 15% of the food put on our tables is actually wasted and garbaged! Quite clearly, we Americans are consuming a lot of global resources and are disproportionately taxing our environment. Therefore, it is our Dharma to promote the Hindu principles of environmental consciousness in our society.
We cannot shy away from our responsibility by saying, "What can I as a little person do?" We may not have influence over many people, but let us try to light our own little dark corner. At the same time, let us not underestimate ourselves, because as a Sanskrit proverb goes, "The lamp lightens the room where the sunshine cannot reach." We can conserve vegetation, water and electricity in our day to day habits as shown in the next three pages.
- Pages 12-13 in Shri Sathya Sai Bal Vikas Guru Hand Book Group I (for second and third year). Nov 1993. Sri Sathya Sai Balvikas Magazine Sai Darshan: Bombay
- Chaitanya and Chakra, p. 639
Notes & References
- Manu Smṛti 8.285
- Manu Smṛti 11.143
- Santośa means contentment.