India’s Dying Goddess

A report from Yale University:

Early this year, at the point in northern India where the Yamuna River empties into the Ganges, several hundred people set out on a six-week protest march. They were aiming to gather strength in numbers en route to New Delhi, the national capital, halfway up the Yamuna River. The river itself was the subject of their protest, and the popular chant was “Yamuna Bachao, Pollution Bhagao!”—meaning “Save the Yamuna, Stop the Pollution!”

They had ample cause for complaint. The Yamuna River starts out clear as rainwater from a lake and hot spring at the foot of a glacier, 19,200 feet up in the Himalayas. But for much of its 853-mile length, it is now one of the world’s most defiled rivers. Agricultural demand repeatedly depletes the river’s flow. Rapid modernization of the Indian economy since the 1980s has added thousands of manufacturing plants to the Yamuna’s watershed, with little thought given to how much water they take out or how much pollution they add back. And urbanization has roughly quintupled the population of New Delhi, from about 3.5 million people 30 years ago to more than 18 million today.

In some places, the Yamuna is now so heavily exploited that broad swaths of riverbed lie naked and exposed to the sun for much of the year. In other places, the river is a sudsy, listless morass of human, industrial and agricultural wastes, literally an open sewer. Given that 60 million people depend on the river for bathing and drinking water, a protest might seem inevitable.

The surprising thing, at least to untutored Western eyes, was that the leaders of the Yamuna march were not primarily political activists. They were sadhus, or holy men, devotees of the central Hindu hero and deity Krishna. They briefly shut down their temples along the river as part of the protest, and they added a colorful strand of religious belief to the familiar environmental language of oxygen content, turbidity and toxicity. When Mathura, one of the towns along the route, moved to end the blight of plastic shopping bags along the river banks, The Times of India headlined the news: “Lord Krishna’s birthplace now polythene-free.”

For Hindus, the Yamuna is not just a natural resource, but also one of the holiest rivers in India. She is a goddess, a giver of life and the chief lover of Krishna. So the protesters were motivated as much by faith as by environmental outrage. In the past they would have relied exclusively on prayers, incense and offerings of fresh flowers to practice seva, the Hindu ritual of loving service to the deity. But of necessity seva has lately also come to mean environmental action, working to restore life to a river now widely regarded as dead.

That same disorienting blend of science and religion also showed up at a January conference on the banks of the Yamuna. A collaborative effort between TERI University in New Delhi and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, the conference brought ecologists, microbiologists, chemists and hydrologists together with spiritual leaders and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The stated purpose, according to organizers Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, was to foster understanding across disciplines and to bridge the gap between studies focused exclusively on scientific issues and the broader world of societal, ethical and religious concerns. But for the Americans who attended, the surprise was how comparatively narrow that gap is, at least on the Indian side.

“Religions are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.” – Mary Evelyn Tucker “Coming from America, we were all amazed at the comfort and readiness with which these scientists were willing to engage in discussions that included religion,” says one participant, David Haberman, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington. They were also intrigued with the potential to bring about change for the Yamuna River through careful scientific research disseminated and acted on by millions of people with a powerful spiritual motivation. An inadvertent side effect was to leave some of the Americans wondering about missed opportunities back home. That is, would environmental remedies come easier if science and religion could look beyond their differences and begin to seek common ground?

The Ecozoic

For many scientists who have lived through 30 years of American culture wars, the words religion and ecology can seem to go together about as well as a blind date between Mother Teresa and Richard Dawkins. Religious conservatives have become notorious among scientists, particularly in environmental fields, for working relentlessly to block the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools, for adamantly resisting efforts to promote birth control (even as the human population has doubled to 7 billion people over the past half-century) and for serving as a leading source of skepticism and obstructionism on climate change and almost every other environmental issue of the day.

The prominent evangelical and political activist Rev. Jerry Falwell, for instance, once called climate change “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus” from evangelism to environmentalism. His son, Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr., said environmentalism itself was an attempt to “use pseudo-science to promote political agendas,” with the aim of destroying the freedom and “economies of the Western world.” In their most deranged moments, some fundamentalists have actually seemed to welcome drought, famine, flood and other forms of environmental havoc as harbingers of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.

This is the sort of thing that once led the late historian Lynn White Jr. to describe Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” In an influential 1967 paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” he wrotethat “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

But White also acknowledged that any religious faith is complex, with multiple traditions and interpretations. He regarded St. Francis of Assisi, in particular, as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history” and as the patron saint of ecologists for his attempt “to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.”

Though White did not say so, Christianity also inadvertently produced the West’s greatest scientific revolutionary. The natural theology movement of the early 19th century popularized the idea that nature revealed the divine hand of the Creator and that naturalists came closer to God by providing detailed scientific descriptions of how species were perfectly adapted to their habitats. One young reader would later rank Natural Theology by Rev. William Paley together with the works of Euclid above all others “in the education of my mind.” The student who thus learned the critical importance of studying minute variations in nature was Charles Darwin.

But these instances of religiously instigated environmentalism in the past were clearly exceptional. Is there any reason to rethink scientific attitudes toward religion now? That is, does religion have anything to add to the search for environmental solutions, whether in India or the United States? “Religions have been late to this,” says Tucker. “We often say religions have problems and promise. Everybody realizes there’s a problematic side, the fundamentalist side, the narrow-minded side.” But religions have also been a powerful force behind some of the great reform movements of the past—for instance, the drive by Quakers and other religious groups to abolish slavery, Mahatma Gandhi’s long struggle to win India’s freedom from British colonial rule and the campaign by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From a purely practical view, Tucker adds, religions “are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.”

Moreover, neither scientists nor religious believers are as simple, or as mutually antagonistic, as sometimes supposed. Commonplace notions about fundamentalist and other religious attitudes can border on caricature (or perhaps a hijacking of the religious identity by one end of the political spectrum). So it can be tempting, for instance, to just ignore the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Creation Care Blog, which is rooted firmly in the Bible. And yet writers there can sound as alarmed as any Greenpeace activist about climate change and other issues. One recent entry: “I’m not so prescient as to suggest that there will be environmental martyrdom, mass civil disobedience or game-changing arrests. But laying down our lives has got to mean something. Doesn’t it?” Among white evangelicals in the United States overall, 73 percent actually favor tougher environmental laws and regulations, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among scientists, meanwhile, Pew reported in 2009 that just over half say they believe in God or some form of higher power.

Even so, it takes a certain daring to bridge the chasm that has opened up between religion and science in America—and even more so for institutions on “opposite” sides to collaborate, as Yale’s Divinity School and F&ES have done for the past five years. The two schools now jointly host the Forum on Religion and Ecology and also offer a combined master’s degree program.

“I live in the state of Indiana,” says Haberman, “and I can assure you that Purdue University’s Department of Forestry & Natural Resources would never, ever do that: ‘How could religion have anything useful to say in environmental studies?’” (The Purdue department confirms that no such collaboration exists: “We’re very traditional.”) And yet, Haberman continues, “Yale has said, ‘Hmm, not only is the pairing of religion and environmental studies interesting, but let’s turn it into a joint-degree program.’ I can’t think of another school that has taken it that seriously.”

For Yale, the collaboration has roots in a long-standing search to address “one of the great failings of environmentalism in our country,” says Gus Speth, the former F&ES dean who brought the Forum on Religion and Ecology to the university in 2006. The green movement “never really developed the ethical and spiritual dimension of environmental concern,” he says. “We had run on the political capital that catalyzed action in the late 1960s, but that had been largely exhausted by the 1980s. Unless there were huge moral and ethical sentiments that could be mobilized, we were unlikely to achieve the long-term transformation that was needed.” So when the opportunity arose to bring Tucker and Grim to Yale, Speth grabbed it, “motivated by the fact that they have been leaders in explaining the links between environment and ecology and the world’s great religions.” Funding came from the V. Kann Rasmussen and Germeshausen foundations and the Kendeda Sustainability Fund. The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation has also supported annual student exchanges between TERI University and Yale.

Tucker and Grim, who hold faculty appointments at both F&ES and the Divinity School, walk a fine line in describing their work. They are not “eco-theologians,” and words like “activist” can raise eyebrows in an academic context, says Grim. “At the same time, Mary Evelyn and I are not keen to just stand on the edge and watch these problems carry us away.” What they do, he says, is “engaged scholarship,” based largely in the traditional academic field of religious studies. (Tucker specializes in Asian cultures, Grim in American Indians.) They work with all shades of religious belief, looking to find room for agreement among skeptical scientists, politically minded environmentalists, New Age spiritualists and traditional religious groups pushing back against any hint of pantheism or nature worship.

Read the entire Yale report, here.

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