Spirit of the Environment

By Swami B.V. Tripurari

Our present environmental crisis is in essence a spiritual crisis. Evidence of this has been documented in the well-known seminal work of Lynn White Jr. His article, published in Scientific American in 1967, framed the ecological debate that gave birth to the field of environmental philosophy. As White irrefutably explained, we need only look back to medieval Europe and the psychic revolution that vaulted Christianity to victory over paganism to find the spirit of the environmental crisis. Christianity’s ghostbusting theology made it possible for man to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. It made the soul man’s monopoly. This thinking went so far that in some quarters even women, men’s better half, were considered soulless. Inhibitions to the exploitation of nature vanished as the Church took the “spirits” out of the trees, mountains, and seas.

This theory of the Church was more than an esoteric ideology. Translated into the practical, it fed more mouths and improved material comforts. With the wedding of science and technology blessed by the Church, there was no limit to how far man could go. Thus today’s continued techno-scientific improvements on material nature are really no less than the Church’s sustained witch-hunt, which began in the middle ages. Deforestation, for example, has its roots in the uprooting of idolatry.

Yet, White was as correct about Christianity’s satanic role in taking the sacred out of nature as he was wrong about Eastern philosophy being incapable of offering a solution to the Western environmental crisis. And while White’s suggestion of an emerging “Franciscan Christianity” has not been taken very seriously, Eastern philosophy has worked its way into the fabric of the American mainstream, where the growing environmental debate has landed as if from backstage to Broadway—now a global concern.

Taking the better part of White’s debate, we can see from the eco-crisis we face today that misapplied spirituality can be very dangerous. It is perhaps more for this reason than that of cultural inappropriateness, as was White’s formal argument, that he dismissed Eastern philosophy, and Buddhism in particular. As a Christian, White may have been wary of the spirituality of Buddhism, yet as a scholar, reluctant to speak about it. White’s dismissal of Eastern spirituality was unfair, while his caution appropriate. Perhaps he thought that there was little value in an ecologically sound world that was at the cost of one’s soul. However, Buddhism’s soul-less and Godless spirituality—its emptiness—is neither as empty as it sounds nor the culmination of Eastern spirituality. Zero is positive in relation to negative numbers. Similarly Buddhist emptiness is positive in relation to exploitation of the world for material gain. But going further, the yoga philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita seeks to take us from this zero to positive numbers, wherein we meet the yogic soul (atma) and its God (Yogesvara), and this not at the cost of the natural environment.

Yes, yoga has a soul. Not only are the lights on within our heads, there is someone home in our hearts, and it’s our enduring self. From a purely spiritual perspective, realizing this self and its source is the solution to the environmental crisis in that on the one hand it fulfills one to the extent that the very tendency to exploit the world for material gain beyond self-preservation evaporates, and on the other, it is not at the cost of losing one’s soul.

Eastern spirituality’s yoga philosophy is often differentiated from its Western counterpart because it emphasizes experience in the here and now over belief in a brighter hereafter. It is also often misperceived in the West as being world-denying, as opposed to the so-called world affirming Abrahamic perspective. But it is spiritual experience that the world needs now, not mere belief. And denying worldliness, as Eastern spirituality does, is not the same as denying the world. Indeed, if our spirituality denies the world of its soul and empowers humanity to rape and pillage her, ours is a far more world-denying spirituality than we might think—far from a Franciscan Christianity, which itself is not far from yoga.

On the ground of being stands Francis, Rumi, Sri Caitanya and the like. They lived very much in the world while not being of it, in the sense that they ceased to struggle for their existence. They realized the extent to which they existed and thus they transcended fear and the need to exploit the environment in a struggle to preserve an illusory sense of self derived from material desire. Thus they found the environment itself to be friendly. They found its soul, that is, to be themselves.

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27 Responses to Spirit of the Environment

  1. Maharaja: “Yet, White was as correct about Christianity’s satanic role in taking the sacred out of nature as he was wrong about Eastern philosophy being incapable of offering a solution to the Western environmental crisis.”

    I am with White on that one. India is one of the most polluted countries in the world. While it’s holy rivers are offered arati, they are treated like a common cesspool. Most Eastern philosophies are escapist in nature, calling for treating this material world with total indifference as an evil and illusory place.

    • I think ancient India was more in tune with the environment and sensitive about it (perhaps because the population was 1/10th of current population), so were most native cultures. That obviously changed with times. I think BSST and SP to some extent went with the idea of opulent big buildings and temples much like the church. However, I feel a more natural, simple lifestyle would be more pleasing to Godhead in the present day rather than huge construction that will destroy the environment. We see that in Vrindavan where people just want to build their own ashrams and temples without caring a bit for the environment.

      There is some truth to what Kula Pavana said. While, people in India are very particular about their personal cleanliness, they don’t think a bit about environmental cleanliness in even a dham.

      • Gaura-vijaya Prabhu,

        When you are citicizing Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and Srila Prabhupada A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, for constructing “opulent big buildings and temples” and asserting that “a more natural, simple lifestyle would be more pleasing to Godhead in the present day rather than huge constuction that will destroy the environment.”, you are taking your spiritual life in your hands.

        When you are thinking that you know better than such personalities who are cent percent Krishna’s instruments, you have missed the boat.

        It may have gone by you unnoticed, that Srila Prabhupada addressed these very issues, saying that the real goswamis, himself included, had no need for these palatial buildings, but that these buildings are for attracting neophytes like us, and the people in general, who are attracted to such things.

        I once put some shelving into a tiny closet, accross the small room, from srila Prabhupada’s little desk on the floor, so Srila Prabhupada’s personal Radha Krishna dieties could be placed there. And as I hammered in the supports for the shelf, Srila Prabhupada said, “Why you are making it so strong? We will only be here a short time.”

        Srila Prabhupada strongly asserted that these temples, especially in the cities, were exclusively for preaching purposes, and that his devotees, especially those with families should take up living together in simple rural communites, going so far as to give up dependence on technology, ploughing the fields by engaging the the oxen.

        Very few of us are prepared to go that route, bathing in the stream or by the well, in winter, giving up our 21st century standards of technology, our cars, computers, cell phones, gas and electric stoves, etc., as Srila Prabhupada wanted. However, if we did follow Srila Prabhupada’s wishes, then that could have been our preaching work, showing by example how to live simply, in harmony with nature.

        So I ask, you, Prabhu, how many of us are willing to do that? Generally, we are not. And then, to go on to criticize those who are world-wide preachers, personal representatvies of Lord Caitanya, whose intelligence and insight is all divinely inspired? Prabhu, I think you are really off the mark on this one, and would be best off asking these maha bhagawatas for forgiveness, from the core of your heart, for ever allowing such thoughts to enter your mind.

        Hare Krishna! Ishan das

        • I think Gaura-vijaya is speaking about the “present day.” He uses those words. Thus he is not criticizing SP and BSST for what they did in their times. He is perhaps suggesting that in today’s world an different approach might be useful. His comment about the present state of Vrindavan is telling in this regard. But you are right when you ask how many are prepared to live a rural lifestyle. Very few.

        • The willingness to live the rural lifestyle is one aspect. Another I think about is the structural side of the problem. There is very real pressure of the greater society upon the individual which makes the choice to live a rural lifestyle very difficult. So I don’t see the blame for that to go entirely on the individual. It is understandable that most people won’t be able to carry it out despite their appreciation for the ideal.

          I think that people who have respect for the ideal of simple living and at least a desire to participate or support it can be appreciated even if they are not able to carry it out alone.

        • Ishan ji,
          I am sorry to have offended your sensibilities. I made the comment then and I understand it is not appropriate to make such comments where things can be misunderstood as being offensive. Therefore, I have been trying to stay away from discussions of this sort over the past few months to avoid offenses you are talking about. Just I have to be honest on one thing. I don’t feel whatever SP and BSST did for time is completely applicable to our times. Still I am sure their power is such that some people will be always attracted by their message. Of that there is no doubt and the growing number of devotees all across the globe in ISKCON and other Gaudiya maths illustrate that point. So all glories to them.

        • Forgive me , Prabhu, for sounding off. I tend to get hot-headed, and then to regret this. I’ll have to put a note to myself on the monitor not to get too much self-righteous and to be more kind-hearted and less agressive.
          Your kind of feed-back helps to show me that I have a lot to learn.

          I would like to offer you my sincere obesiances and thank you for being a devotee. You are helping me to be one too.

          Hare Krishna!

          Your servant , Ishan das

      • Gaura Vijaya,
        I also see that today it is more important to focus the building of Gaudiya Vaisnava temples and communities in ways that are very low impact and natural. This would only support this ideal of simple living and high thinking. The days of impressing people with huge buildings, I think, are over. After all there are huge buildings which display the dominance of nature everywhere. It would also be helpful for practice of Krishna conscious meditation and contemplation to create environments where people could experience the peace of nature and human harmony with it.

        Without doubt the ideal of Srila Prabhupada’s day was to make a large and impressive buildings. But it is certainly not offensive to question weather that is the ideal of the present day or the future.

    • Obviously I strongly disagree. Deep ecology embraced Buddhism decades ago. You suffer from a Wester understanding of Easter spirituality. Christianity clearly divorced humanity from nature. Eastern philosophy never did, even while acknowledging the futility of material acquisition. As I pointed out in the article, there is a difference between denouncing worldliness and denouncing the world. Renunciation is about getting closer to that which one renounces. It is a step back in the direction of objectivity that allows one to see the world for what it is before stepping forward and participating in the world based upon a more comprehensive understanding of its nature. Renunciation properly understood is not escapism. It is the first step toward love. But you are not alone in your misunderstanding, nor is this misunderstanding exclusively found in the West. The East itself has misunderstood much of its spiritual heritage. It is running after the carrot of material acquisition in a manner that neglects rather than respects, as scripture teaches, the gods and goddesses that personify prominent aspects of nature, what to speak of loosing sight of mukti with prema being off the map.

      • Maharaja, I find the original Vedic tradition (as presented in the 4 Vedas) closely aligned with shamanism. It is natural, pluralistic, not terribly dogmatic, and very much focused on the natural world and our place in it. The same however cannot be said of the present spiritual currents in India which primarily aim at nirvana or the spiritual world (which are both a variety of escapism in general sense of this term). And the effects are painfully visible in the destruction of the environment in that part of the world. Holy Yamuna is the most polluted river in the world – while the priests are busy offering arotiks to her.

        In our own lineage any kind of ‘worldly’ charitable work is seriously frowned upon, supposedly because ‘when the house is on fire, you just need to get out’. In other words: no sense trying to make this world into a better place. Should this attitude be changed? I certainly think so.

        Maybe I do suffer from a Western understanding of Eastern spirituality, but the care for environment is simply not part of that tradition nowadays. Religious traditions that actually care about the environment are all shamanic or pagan in nature, because there people see themselves as part of this natural world, both as body and spirit. There the world is loved, cherished, and protected. It is holy, nurturing, and pure. Those are traditions that worship Goddess in the form of the earth, and God in the form of the sky. The storm is Their loving embrace, and the resulting rains bring forth life. That is spirituality in environmentalism.

        • The Bhagavad-gita is environmentally friendly. If you study it carefully, it takes one from the veneration of nature in the form of personified gods and goddesses for material bounty to finding the soul of nature to be oneself, at which time, by comparison, worship of nature for material bounty is considered a less spiritually evolved conception because even it involves (legal) exploitation of nature. It then goes on to promote prema, which takes one from the non exploitative, non participating position above nature to the healthy non exploitative embrace of nature. Krsna is embracing nature and fully participating in the world without exploiting it for selfish ends because his embrace of the gopis (can’t get much closer to nature than this) is really a distribution of giving to the whole as only the center can.

        • Maharaja,
          I am with you in thinking that Eastern spirituality COULD potentially offer something valuable to the environmental movement. But it is not doing that now. And given the state of the environment in the East, it is hard to imagine the West taking clues from the East in that regard. You do not ask a homeless guy on the street for business tips.

          I think we need to simplify our pro-environment message if we want to make it work – even within our own society. And we have to turn it into something practical and tangible that generates good results. Maybe if we cleaned up the Holy Dhams and improved water quality in Yamuna we would be taken more seriously by the West. It is a very big task, but there are already people working on it because they can’t stand the current neglect.

        • I think that the point is that genuine spirituality is environmentally sensitive and aware. My article merely encourages others to embrace a spirituality that is inherently environmentally friendly over one that is not. Obviously there is much to do from there.

          Eastern spirituality never evolved such that it was theoretically anti environmental. Christianity did, however wrongly. Even today you can find Christian sects that are openly against environmentalism, considering it to be of the Devil. There is a historical and arguably theological reason for this position within some sectors of Christianity. This did not happen in Hinduism, and thus although you may find river worshiping polluters, you cannot find priests who are anti environmentalism in theory. In practice yes, but not in theory.

        • Maharaja, don’t even get me started on the evils of Christianity! 😉
          It is the most overrated religion EVER! 🙂

        • Kula-pavana Prabhu,

          These are very flowery words that you are putting forward. And as Krishna advises Arjuna, most of the vedic literature is filled with such words simply to attract the minds of those who are less intelligent.

          By virtue of the birth, death, old age and disease cycle of samsara, this material world is a hellish place, no matter how environmentally oriented we become. We are not created to live here, but this is a kind of spiritual insane asylum for those souls who are seeking fulfillment apart froom loving devotion to Krishna.

          The therapy that we undergo in this world, the illusory frustrations and hardships of all kinds, are implemented solely and wholely to discourage us from our self-centeredness so that we can become qualified to enter into the realm of eternal blissful life in loving relationship with Krishna.

          If we are accused of being escapists, then the answer is a resounding , “Yes!” The pure devotee does not desire to leave this realm of existence. But that is only because pure, self-satisfied devotion to Krishna already resides within his heart, on the one hand, and on the other, he wants to help other floundering souls in their march towards the Supreme goal.

          It is commonly observed that in prison, the hard-care criminals are not inclined towards qualifying themselves for getting out, but are rather busy with the prospect of persuing their misdirected self-centerd aspirations – improving their quality of life, in their disqualified station of existence. So much for the shamans, pagans, shaktas, and the like. There is nothing good about good karma, other than the accomplishment of a peacful social situation wherein people can go about the real business of going back home, back to Godhead.

          No one can take away from you the right to be bent upon your present orientation. And you can stay here in this realm for eternity if that is your desire, eternally trying to improve environmental quality, the quality of an environment which is 100% designed to implement our destruction, birth after birth. This great allegence to environmental quality as a goal in itself, as opposed to a means to a higher end, is a very myopic orientation at best. We beg you to consider this.

          Hare Krishna! Ishan das

        • A real devotee is not an escapist and has no aspiration to leave this world but to lovingly serve and experience Krishna here and now. Let the escape artists go away and save themselves. There is plenty of real seva to do in this world – merely promising people salvation after death is a typical religious sales pitch or in many cases even a flat out con game. Devotees who see nothing wrong with turning Yamuna into an open sewer as long as they proceed with their planned escape are no inspiration to me.

        • Prabhu, devotees who are indifferent to the condition of Mother Earth are not very inspiring to me, regardless of their excuse.
          I respect those who just wave ghee lamps to Sri Yamuna Devi, but I am very inspired by those who work to actually limit pollution which destroys this great river which is dear to Sri Krishna.
          And whether one is an escapist or not, it would be nice if their activities here on earth were not a source of suffering for other living entities. We do not have such a right to cause trouble for others, even when we claim to be devotees.

          “He for whom no one is put into difficulty…is very dear to Me.” [BG 12.15]

  2. “Churches long preach sex is wrong
    Jesus where is nature gone?”


  3. Atma Prasad Krishna das

    Excellent article Maharaja

  4. There is great diversity of opinion and orientation towards the environment in all faiths, including Christianity. For example, today’s de facto head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (roughly 300 million members),Patriarch Bartholomew, has been dubbed the “Green Patriarch” for his emphasis on environmental stewardship. In the Eastern Church this concept of stewardship has historically taken precedence over an emphasis on environmental subjugation which is often found in the Western, Roman Catholic, Church. In Protestantism, an outgrowth of Roman Catholicism, the worst of anthropocentrism is also found. All branches of Christianity stemmed from a common tradition and common texts and the Roman and Eastern Churches only parted ways in 1054AD. This leads me to believe that there is nothing *inherent* in Christianity that turns a blind eye to, or outright defends, environmental subjugation or destruction for the benefit of man. While we can find in the Hebrew Bible instances of God giving dominion of the Earth to man, we also find a call to stewardship and protection. While at certain times Christianity has emphasized the former, it has also been informed by the latter. I think the same ability to pick and choose a stance towards the environment exists in most all faiths- it’s just a matter of orientation. Still, it seems fairly clear that the religious traditions of the East are less anthropocentric in world-view and therefore less likely to justify on theological grounds the destruction of the natural world.

    Great article, Maharaja.

  5. I might be wrong but I have impression that pollution in India is to some extend caused by misunderstanding the principle of cleanleness that`s given in sastras.
    Higher caste people are supposed to be clean so in fear of polluting themselves and loosing their status they seem to give up cleaning at all, leaving this task for Dalits, who in turn work when are paid for it. And after work they don`t care. And here we go: trash everywhere, including trains, plains, hospitals, temples. “It`s dirty, I won`t touch it anymore.”

    And it`s even worse with the toilets…

  6. Here’s a Huffington Post article, by a scholar illustrating the close link between environmental protection and Hinduism

  7. We have to remember the teachings of Srila Rupa Goswami in his celbrated Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, The Nectar of Devotion, wherein he states that Pure devotion to God, Krishna, has six characteristics.

    The second characteristic that Srila Rupa Goswami points out is that Pure Devotional Service to the Godhead is the beginning of all auspiciousness.

    It is to be understood that when the people of the planet are living a purely devotional life, all of the forces of nature become harmonized. All of the szunmis, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like, are natures backlash upon the Godless civilizations of our world.

    The more Godless we become, the stronger our tendancy to violate and abuse nature. This is natural because the material creation is designed with the intention of bringing us back to the line of devotion. And therefore when we stray from this standard, our activites put us at odds with nature, thereby incurring these natural backlashes.

    There are vaious levels of being in a harmonious reciprocation with nature. But the highest mode of activity and demeanor to that end is simply pure devotion to the Supreme Lord. Not only will such a person automatically not abuse the environment out of self-centerd madness, but more importantly, the very presence of such a person on earth will bring about all manner of environmental benefits directly through higher dispensation. This is the proverbial benefit of the leaf on the tree watering the root of existence, wherein the benefit becomes so unlimitedly widespread. And this is what the Vedas are actually directing us to. Therefore there can be no question of Vedic spirituality not being the the highest form of environmental husbandry.

    We cannot blame the crusades on Christ. So also we cannot attribute environmental abuse by the eastern masses, regardless of denomination, to those forms of theological orientaion. But we can and should understand that the highest form of environmental adminsistration will be a by-product of pure, unalloyed love for God, not official alignment, regardless of the churches’ nomenclature. Religion is not meant to be conceptual only. Rather, it is meant to be heartfelt and realized. And when that connection lives in us, the rest will automatically follow. This is the faith and experience of those who are well situated on the boat of transcendental knowledge.

    Therefore Jesus invited everyone to pray and understand: “Our Father Who abides in the spiritual dimension, Your Name is Sacred and carries all of Your divine potency. Therefore, if we take up the chanting of Your Holy Names, the whole atmosphere on this planet will be enhanced. Thy kingdom come and Your divine will will be done, on this earth, just as it is in the spiritual realm.”

    The Vedic literatures give us the identical advice. And this advice is the basis for the Hare Krishna movement. This chanting is then, the universally prescribed medicine for invoking a total change of heart in the human being, in which love for the environment from our side, and divine dispensation of environmental beauty, on the other, will be the natural state of affaires.

    Therefore we can say, unequivically, that environmental quality begins with sound vibration! There may be so many silver-smith tap, tap, tap approaches to this question of environmental quality. But this divine dsipensation of the chanting of the names of God with it’s resulting effect of living love for God is the blacksmith’s hammer in action. Wham! Automatically, all environmental aspirations are accomplished. There is no other way.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  8. I see the recognition of an ideological basis to the global economy as fundamentally important. As opposed to the assertion that the way things are is simply the result of “human nature” (as in the human nature defined by Hobbes). This assertion has often been aimed at attempts to reform. Free market capitalism seems to rely on the idea that greed, aggression and competition are completely natural and therefore an inescapable part of the human destiny. Even the Darwinian idea of natural selection has been narrowly applied in support of the capitalist idea of free market competition. This carries with it the implication that the capitalist system is the consequence of the natural order and thus attempts at reform are futile.

    It appears that addressing the ideological underpinnings of the current economic system is fundamental to any attempts at real reform.

    One of the primary arguments against this human nature idea is the existence of so many human civilizations in which greed, aggression and competition are not the norm. There are even many languages in the world where no word for “to have” exists, such as Hebrew. I wonder if there is such a word as “have” in sanskrit?

    Also it appears that the Christian ideas are closely tied to the ideology of human exceptionalism. This is one of the philosophical underpinnings of the free market capitalist systems. There are many modern day proponents of this type of ideology that are highly influential in economic, political, medical and educational fields. The Discovery Institute is one think tank that pushes this type of philosophy.

    It is also interesting that the idea of property rights which is so fundamental to capitalism is so different from the perspective of the east or pre-Christian perspectives. Amongst many native Amercian tribes for instance there was no ownership of land and very few personal possessions.

    It seems like it is really important to consider how much we buy into the idea of owning and possessing things and all the implications of such an idea. After all we have all been born into a world which has been inundating us with the idea that acquiring things is one of the primary goals of our existence.

  9. Atmananda Prabhu,

    You are totally over my head. I haven’t the capacity to follow your train of thought, except in very small measure from paragraph to paragraph.

    However I do believe that the purpose of life is to re-awaken our dormant love for Krishna. And that by so-doing, the benefits to our planet at a whole, as a result of the individual’s enhanced capacity to participate, and, from the point of view of how the blessings of nature would be enhanced, in reciprocation, would serve the aspirations that you (and all of us) would like to see manifested.

    As I believe you point out, the variables are overwhelmingly complex, and the question of how to implement wholesome change accordingly so. The ideas I am putting forward on the part of implementing spiritual growth, on an individual basis, as a panecea, are not my own, of course. But for a person like myself, I see no other way to proceed, in spite of my inability to successfully apply these principles in my own life, except to a very tiny extent, so far.

    Sincerely, Ishan das

  10. My dear devotees and friends,

    Please accept my kind greetings and humble request for all of your kind prayers, for this worthless beggar, that he/she might continue to be allowed to participate in such hallowed discussions as this one, which I feel I am truly blessed to have just read!!! And also let us humbly continue such important discussions…….And a special thank you of gratitude to you Tripurari Swami for sparking up such crucial dialog. Hare Krsna

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