Hinduism and Ecology
The word “Hindu” derives from a Persian way of characterizing the variety of traditions and cultural practices that can be found on the other side of the Indus River, the great Himalayan cascade that now bisects Pakistan. “Hindu” describes persons practicing Vedic ritual or worshipping Krishna. “Hindu” also describes the shared customs of Jains, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.
The excavations of early Indian civilization reveal a dynamic, multicultural society in constant trade and contact with Mesopotamia. It flourished over 5,000 years ago and remained largely unchanged for two millennia. The seals, insignia, and ruins from this era indicate a veneration of female energy that has endured in the form of goddess worship, as well as a respect for animals that can be seen throughout India. The iconic heroes and heroines of this ancient culture were often depicted in poses resembling modern-day meditation.
At least 3,500 years ago, collections of songs known as the “Knowledge Hymns” or Vedas circulated first in northwest India, then spread east through the Ganges River plain and then south through the Deccan to the very tip of India. These hymns include praise of the earth goddess, the sky gods, and the great seers and philosophers who originated sacrificial rituals and brought some order to society. In an unbroken oral tradition, these chants passed from generation to generation up to the present.
From the wisdom of the Vedas arose several philosophical schools and traditions of worship. Perhaps the most compelling image can be found in Indra’s attempt to harness the thunder and the rain, necessary for the replenishment of life in India’s critical monsoon season. Gentler images include the description of two birds on the same tree, one always active, the other looking on wisely and dispassionately. India still grapples with its extreme weather and places great value on the aspect of being human that allows one to sit and reflect.
Widely popularized 1,300 years ago, the spiritual philosophy known as Tantra arose as a marriage of these concerns. Tantra speaks of an intimacy between the human body and the cosmos. Meditation reveals that the earth stands in relationship with our sense of smell, located in the human nose. The scent of snow on the distant mountains, the fragrance of flowers bursting forth following the rains, the musky smell of fertile humus remind us of our reliance on Mother Earth.
Meditation also establishes the connection between the water we drink and the saliva that allows us to digest our food. Meditation unveils the power of our eyes to connect with the radiance of the sun and perceive form, beauty, and color. Meditation brings us into a quiet realization of the power of the wind that circulates in our bodies as breath. And meditation on the power of hearing provides an orientation in space. Our five great senses interact with the five great elements, fueling the motion to be interpreted and understood by the mind.
The mind seeks to grasp meaning and purpose. A mind sullied by greed will attempt to gather as much of the material world as possible. However, no matter how much one acquires, it can never be enough. A mind liberated from greed moves with power, always in touch with the deeper spiritual aspect that lies within a human in harmony with the cosmos. When one finds that connection and can reach deep within before moving outward, then the imprint on the earth becomes light, even luminous.
Yoga seeks to enhance and bring out this acknowledgement that regardless of what a human being might accomplish in this lifetime, the world, the earth, will continue. By appreciating the movements of the body and the breath, by culturing oneself through the ethical practices of nonviolence and truthfulness, one moves into the world with ease and grace.
Ritual, quietly observed, perhaps in a salutation to the sun, or the kindling of a flame, or the careful arrangement of flowers, promotes a deep link with the earth goddess, the god of the breath and wind, and the vast expanse of the heavens. Through Yoga, one realizes the connection between oneself, other people, that which is below, and that which is above.
For one attuned to the ritualism and artistry of the Hindu tradition, the practice of religion cannot be separated from an appreciation of the earth. Hindu ecology makes us catch our breath and enter into that special moment where our senses become filled, our mind becomes stilled, and we dwell, even if for just an instant, in a state of perfection and gratitude.
Christopher Key Chapple is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University and author of a dozen books, including Hinduism and Ecology (co-edited with Mary Evelyn Tucker) and Reconciling Yogas.
This article was excerpted from Hinduism and Ecology.