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Hindu Ethos and the Planet

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INTRODUCTION

India, being blessed with fertile lands, wide rivers, and regular rainfall, generated surplus wealth for millennia, and therefore, was able to support a thriving intellectual and research community that generated certain timeless ideas. One of these ideas is that the entire planet is a single interconnected and interdependent system, not a bounty to be exploited.  Man is allowed the use of the planet’s resources according to need, not according to greed.

This is the fundamental ethic required for sustainable development. The modern dominant ethic, however, is unending growth in quarterly earnings per share. Money, and the growth of money, are more important than people. The Hindu approach on the other hand is sustainable because it considers the whole system. It is still relevant, indeed necessary, in the present.

This article is about planet-friendly Hindu ideas and their replacement by an expansionist ethic that led over time to the current environmental crisis. It also considers modern and ancient thinking that exhorts transition to a steady-state economy. These ideas can be merged with the modern environmental movement, in which India is a world leader with over 25,000 active organizations and several prestigious awards including a Nobel Prize [1].

THE EARTH IN HINDU THOUGHT

The magnificent Bhumi sukta [2] of Atharvaveda (12.1) in its 63 shlokas establishes the Earth’s divine stature. It lists in detail and praises everything Earth does for living things, as well as for the forces of nature (Space, Air, Fire, and Water). Sri Rudram in Krishna Yajurveda (TS 4.5, 4.7) sees Rudra (Shiva) in all creation and lists many products of the Earth.

The divinity of all creation is not limited to the Vedas. The Bhagavad Gita (7.19, 13.13) and the Bhagavata Purana (2.2.41, 2.2.45), emphasize the Supreme divinity’s presence throughout nature [3]. The Mahabharata states in dozens of places that the universe and every object in it is in Lord Krishna, implying that no single species is superior to others.

Every core Hindu belief has an environmental aspect. Thus, dharma includes taking care of nature, of which man is an integral part. The doctrine of karma includes the cumulative effect of any damage caused to nature. Ahimsa teaches avoidance of injury to living things (except in self-defense). The doctrine of rebirth is a powerful motive to be kind to animals.

In essence, everything in nature including man is divine. This includes all living beings, including invisible organisms, natural features such as rivers, forests, mountains and the sea, and natural phenomena both benign and destructive. The Earth is one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) as opposed to an object for man’s gratification. Therefore, economic growth must take the needs and interests of the whole family (i.e. the planet) into account. Perpetual accumulation of wealth by humans at the expense of the planet is to be avoided.

REALIZATION OF THE PRINCIPLES

The principles just discussed are reflected all across the mammoth Hindu spiritual literature, including the Vedic Samhitas, Upanishads, Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Dharmasastras, etc. Thus, Hindu environmental consciousness is holistic and fundamental, unlike the modern practice of ad-hoc response to impending or actual disasters.

Twenty-five centuries ago, Chanakya in the Mauryan court wrote a secular manual of statecraft called Arthashastra. Among its 150 topics in 15 books of terse Sanskrit, prose are detailed, fine-enforced rules [4] to prevent and manage environmental hazards, both man-made (e.g. housing, animals, agriculture, deforestation, waste, water, and air pollution) and natural (e.g. fire, floods, famines). Implementation of rules is also considered. Patrick Olivelle, the author of the most thorough translation, dated 2013, said that “parts of it are still opaque” [5].

The work goes into great detail, such as rainfall patterns, soil types, geological regions, plants and vegetation, and wild and domestic animals and their ethical treatment. Chanakya says that all forests are owned by the government, which must manage them along with related irrigation as well as mines within, in a sustainable manner. Over two millennia ago, he recommended setting up protected sanctuaries for flora and fauna in non-agricultural lands.

The beauty and grandeur of natural features is a recurring theme in Sanskrit literature, as well as in other art forms such as the Ajanta caves. The earliest cave art at Bhimbetka (occupied by humans for over 100,000 years) shows both animals and plants. Inscriptions and travelogs like that of Xuen Zang indicate kings planting fruit and shade trees. The great Indian rivers on which India’s economy depends are still given goddess rank and worshiped.

The Sangam literature in Tamil describes land uses and agricultural practices in peninsular India. Since the region lacks the monsoon, great attention is paid to rivers, flood management, lakes, fountains, springs, wells, tanks, reservoirs, canals, manual transport, and mechanical lifts. Apart from the legendary Rama Setu, passable on foot until the 15th century [6], suspension bridges were in use, as well as fords and ferries.

There is limited but undeniable evidence of river and ocean travel. Megasthenes, a Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court mentions boats on the Ganges in the 4th century BC. A port dating to 2400 BCE has been found in Lothal, Gujarat. Ancient and medieval references that mention India’s maritime trade describe several ports and routes [7]. And a type of boat still used in Kerala has been shown to be capable of ocean travel.

It is very clear that the Hindu concept of the unity of all creation led to a society that prized and protected its natural resources while avoiding harmful predatory practices. It wasn’t just a case of empty ideals – they infused every regulation, procedure, and practice. Wisdom in resource usage is one of the reasons for the longevity of Indian civilization.

DECLINE OF THE PRINCIPLES

The prosperity of Hindu civilization attracted waves of invaders. Most were repelled, but first Turks-Mongols and finally Britain succeeded. The regions under foreign rule gradually lost touch with Hindu policies. Let us briefly review this story, from the beginning.

The rise of anthropocentrism in Christianity and Islam was the first step. They give the man a supreme position in creation, next only to God. Man’s relationship with nature becomes that of exploiter and beneficiary (Christianity) or that of a steward (Islam). Neither tradition recognizes that the planet’s exploitation by humans irrevocably changes the planet itself.

In essence, anthropocentrism means that humans can use and abuse nature at will, and God will take care of the consequences. Whether it’s depleting underground aquifers, poisoning water bodies, strip mining that denudes the Earth, or radioactive waste, the assumption is that God will somehow manage. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, for example, opened only at the end of 1970. But we’re getting ahead of our story.

The second step was for the anthropocentric and exclusivist nations to seek global conquest and conversion, powered by a supremacist and racist creed. In three centuries of incessant warfare, secular science, technology, production, and finance transformed European man from a religious being to a rapacious being who took over the whole planet. Since his religion preached that nature was unlimited and benevolent, there was no conflict.

In India, Muslim kings relegated Hindus to highly taxed farmland, Islamizing the towns, trades, commerce, and governance. Generations of poverty led Hindus to ignorance and superstition and lack of secular prowess. The next stage was British rule, under which an English school system groomed a competent but self-loathing Hindu elite. They largely ran India during British rule and continued the familiar systems when Britain left after WWII. Their main innovation, a state-controlled mixed economy, ended in default in 1991. Today, India’s economy is booming along with pride in its heritage, and the environment is important again.

PLANETARY KARMA

There is no escape from the Hindu law of karma: it is cumulative action that determines your future. Half a millennium of abusing the environment has caught up with anthropocentrism. The planet, the Kutumb, now faces a terrible future of climate upheavals. Further, mineral resources are dwindling, with dictatorships controlling key minerals. Topsoil erosion is hurting farm productivity, and clean water is scarce. Add drug-resistant bacteria, diseases like cancer, and endlessly mutating viruses, and it’s not a pretty picture.

How did we get here?

We forgot that the Earth is a family. For all but the last few decades, technology and economics ignored our species’ impact on the planet. For example, we celebrated the boom in life expectancy as medical innovation slashed death rates, but it left birth rates alone. The population explosion that ensued was predictable but unpredicted. The world’s population quadrupled in the last 100 years – after quadrupling in the previous 500 [8].

During the last 200 years, America has led the world from agriculture to artificial intelligence and pioneered man-made materials, forms of energy, supply chains, mass production, weapons to make the gods tremble, and artificial methods of fulfilling every human need. Innovation, with world-leading finance, industry, management, and global trade, created unparalleled wealth. But also unparalleled was the 60,000 percent [9] rise in carbon dioxide emissions.

Climate change caught us unawares just like the other crises: population explosion, burning rivers, poisoned communities, microplastic, vanishing species, and mountains of trash, more toxic and exotic every year. Evidently, predictions of disaster aren’t enough. Our planning must include the impact of our actions on the entire planet – and its future.

This brings us back to the beginning: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Hindu values may have fallen out of fashion, but they cannot be wished away, trivialized, or ignored. Man’s conceit that he rules over the Earth has been shattered. Dead or alive, the planet wins in the end.

HOW TO TURN THINGS AROUND

The standard Western problem-solving approach is to address the immediate issue, and hope that everything else will even out in the long run – in any event, it is neglected. But incremental reactions of this nature cannot succeed in the long run, for everything on the Earth is connected. Lasting success can only be achieved by a considerate, whole-planet approach.

Computer modeling of the interconnected planet is one option. Limits to Growth, a pioneering 1970s work [10], used rough nonlinear models of the most important couplings to see how the world as a whole responds. Although loudly criticized then, its main prediction, that economic growth will be limited by environmental effects, has turned out to be correct. But the coping strategies worked out by the authors have been found to be inadequate.

Another theoretical concept is a steady-state economy. The earliest economists, Adam Smith onwards, believed that market forces would lead to a natural equilibrium, marked by zero net profits. They called it a stationary economy. However, it did not account for technological innovation and the ability to create demand by publicity. There is considerable interest in the concept of a steady-state economy [11], pioneered by Herman Daly, but it is far from clear if or when the ideas generated will find their way into actual policy. It is difficult enough to get the countries that are heavy polluters to sign common-sense agreements.

THE HINDU WAY

The Hindu way to a thriving yet bounded economy has two pillars – the fact that the Earth is affected by and affects human action, and the value that human needs ought to be bounded. It follows that human needs can be met in a bounded, steady-state fashion. These two pillars held up the agricultural economy that served humanity for thousands of years.

Similar longevity is possible in the industrial era if three principles of agriculture are followed. First, being driven by cyclic phenomena, it was cyclic and conducive to recycling. Second, it did not require superhuman machines that create super-sized waste products. Third, it conditioned society as a whole to expect and feel comfortable with repeatability.

The recycling principle means that nothing should be discarded. Any materials, processes, energy types, etc. that you use must be designed from inception to be recycled, and the recycling process must be part of the design. At present, absolutely NO products are made by a 100% recycled process. The goal should be to make the entire cohort of inputs, processes and outputs involved in making and using the product recyclable. This is not the case now. For example, no systems exist for recycling millions of electric vehicle batteries.

The scaling principle means that the force/ processes used to perform a task must be scaled to the task at hand. This was difficult in the metal and engine-based era, but properly scaled DC motors, for example, are now readily available. Similarly, Internet-based communication is far less energy intensive than in-person meetings that require flying. Another example is human-powered smart locomotion via skateboards or unicycles. The high-energy economy with downtown business districts and long commutes has to be phased out.

The repeatability principle means that human wants and needs, and the means of satisfying them, must be repeatable. This indeed is the definition of a steady state. This is the principle most incompatible and problematic with respect to the current economy. It is not possible to implement it within an anthropocentric framework, for it is human nature to seek novelty.

We need an education that tempers this need and teaches satisfaction in repeatability. In fact, the Hindu framework achieved this, by eliminating proselytization, conversion, or territorial expansion for the sake of religion. Islam and Christianity made destabilizing expansion of their numbers a religious duty. This built-in imperative for change started in religion but ended in globalization, demand generation, and harmful perpetual growth.

REALISTICALLY ….. ?

In conclusion, let us consider how realistic these prescriptions are. Clearly, there is no chance of getting the world on the Hindu wavelength. The closest thing possible is for Hindus to influence sustainable development and steady-state economy movements. There is sufficient overlap among these pathways that traditional Hindu ideas can contribute.

The bigger issue is one of motivation: is the profit motive compatible with steady state? If not, compulsion and bureaucratic enforcement aren’t going to work, as we know. What other motive can we substitute? The tried and tested solution, religion, doesn’t work anymore. In theory, one can substitute altruism, incentives, or sheer self-preservation, but none of them are known to work in the majority of cases. Will the solution be artificial brains, reprogrammed remotely as in the Matrix movies? Maybe, if it makes enough money?

In this author’s personal view, religion is more effective than the profit motive in getting humans to be considerate, towards each other and towards the planet, but religious expansionism gets in the way. Only Hinduism and Judaism lack an expansion ethic.

APPENDIX: THE CORE HINDU VALUES

The most important value is “the Earth is one family”.  Just like your family, you can’t endlessly exploit and trash the Earth without any consideration. Like your family, it is meant to nurture you and be nurtured. We must care for the planet, including both living and non-living resources. like a family. Like the proverbial golden goose, the Earth cannot go on giving.

An equally important value is respect for all life, in all its forms. Plants and animals have not been created for man’s enjoyment; every species has the same right to be treated respectfully. Man is to use them only as required for his needs. This means, for example, that you don’t club innocent baby seals to death in the arctic just to get a pretty-looking coat.

The third, astonishing, value is the equivalence of all religions. No matter what religion you follow, it is not superior or inferior, truer or less true, than any other religion. Equivalence of religions also means no proselytization and no denunciation of other religions. Imagine the hundreds of millions of human lives this principle would have saved.

The fourth value, or rather practice, is decentralization. Hindu religion and society are based on norms, principles, and laws, as interpreted at the appropriate level, be it individual, family, village, state, or country. Therefore, decisions can adjust to the time, region, village, family or person. There is no priestly hierarchy headed by someone with a direct line to God. The decisions on whom to worship and in what manner, if at all, are made by individuals.

Perhaps the most critical Hindu value, for modern man, concerns material wealth. It is not to be pursued endlessly for its own sake, and not to become emotionally attached to. This is not about the dictatorship of the proletariat, or of anyone else. It simply means that the wealth you accumulate stays in this world, and hence is meant to be shared.

Values are ultimately what society as a whole values. A capitalist society values return on investment. A religious society values faith in the religion’s edicts. An acquisitive society values conquest and colonization. Hindus value intellect above all. The highest respect is given to intellectuals who are disciplined and reject materialism. A society guided by such people will never suffer an excess of materialism – the root cause of pollution.

REFERENCES

  1. Rajendra Pachauri Nobel Prize

Big Thinker: Rajendra Pachauri, in Principal Voices.

https://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/04/01/rajendra.pachauri/index.html

  1. Bhumi Sukta

Environmental Approach in Ancient India, Anand Kale, Pacific University Udaipur India

American International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences v25 iss 1

http://iasir.net/AIJRHASSpapers/AIJRHASS19-105.pdf

  1. Paragraphs of gita, mahabharat:

Ten key hindu environmental teachings, Pankaj Jain, Greenfaith

https://www.faithinwater.org/uploads/4/4/3/0/44307383/hindu_teachings_on_environment.pdf

  1. Chanakya statements on environment

Environment and Ecology in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, by R L Basu, Kolkata, India

https://www.academia.edu/7781197/Environment_and_Ecology_in_Kautilya_s_Arthasastra

  1. Olivelle quote

Section on History of the Manuscripts

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthashastra

  1. Adams bridge passability

Gangaram Garg, Encyclopedia of the Hindu World, South Asia Books, Delhi

https://archive.org/details/encyclopaediaofh0000garg/page/142/mode/2up?q=

  1. Ancient Indian maritime trade

Ancient Maritime Trade of Bharat, by Uday Dokras

Journal of the Indo-Nordic Authors’ Collective, 2019

https://www.academia.edu/44218107/Ancient_Maritime_Trade_of_Bharat_INDIA_

  1. World population history

Select interactive chart of world population since 10,000 BCE, at:

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/population

  1. Carbon emissions history

Select chart of annual CO2 emissions since 1750, at

https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions

  1. Limits to Growth

https://www.clubofrome.org/publication/the-limits-to-growth/

https://donellameadows.org/archives/a-synopsis-limits-to-growth-the-30-year-update/

https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-02-24/the-limits-to-growth-at-50-from-scenarios-to-unfolding-reality/

  1. Steady state economy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steady-state_economy

   – comprehensive article

Economics, Steady-state, by Mark Anderson, University of Maine

https://umaine.edu/soe/wp-content/uploads/sites/199/2013/01/Economics-Steady-State.pdf

About the Author

 Dr. Garg has spent ten years in independent study and research about Hindu issues. Before 2012 he spent 25 years working on various satellites and 7 years in media start-ups. He also has 62 technical publications, patents that are still being flown, and two NASA awards for innovative solutions. 

 

 

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