The Hindu approach to ecology requires that we first understand how Hindu Dharma views the world of nature, which is very different than that of the predominant western religions.
Western religious thought based upon Biblical traditions regards nature as something created by God. If nature is sacred, it is so as God’s creation. This is the basis of the approach to ecology in western religious traditions. They ask us to protect nature as God’s creation, but do not afford nature any sanctity of its own. However, they are generally suspicious of nature Gods and regard worshipping the Earth itself as a form of idolatry. That is why they have historically rejected nature based or pagan religions as unholy, including Hinduism.
The Hindu view of nature is based upon the Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta and their philosophical views, as well as Hindu devotional and ritualistic practices. According to Hindu thought, there is no separation between the Divine and the world of nature. They are the two aspects of the same reality. The cosmic reality is one like the ocean. Nature or the manifest world is like the waves on the surface of the sea. Brahman or the unmanifest Absolute is like the depths of the sea. But it is all water, all the same single ocean.
Ultimately for the Hindu as the Upanishads say, “Everything is Brahman,” Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma. This does not mean that the informed Hindu mindlessly worships the forces of nature on an outer level out of superstition and fear. The Hindu perceives a Divine and sacred presence working behind the forms of nature as their inner spirit, which is the real object of their adoration.
The sacred presence of Brahman, or the Supreme Divine Reality, is there in God, what is called Ishvara or the cosmic lord in Hindu thought. Yet it is also present in the soul or reincarnating entity, what is called the Jiva as our higher Self. And, it is present in the world of nature, Jagat. God, soul and the world are aspects of One Reality, but not in a limited way. Each shares the entirety of the underlying Reality. Each is sacred and holds the same deeper nature of Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat-chit-ananda). The Hindu Yogi can discern the same supreme Reality in the human being, a snake, a particle of dust or a distant star, as well as beyond all time and space!
This Vedic vision of unity is the basis for an ecological approach in which we can honor the entire universe as part of our own higher Self. It takes us beyond the duality of God and the creation. God does not create the world out of nothing. The world, God and the soul are inherent aspects of the same Eternal Being. We need not protect nature as we would an inferior creature. We can honor nature as our own greater life and expression.
In western religions there are many sacred places. However, these holy sites are defined mainly in human terms, even if they occur in a beautiful natural setting. A place is sacred in western religions because some prophet, savior or saint visited there or communicated to God from that location. The place is not itself sacred according to its natural power alone. In western religions one may visit or admire beautiful places in nature, honoring them as Gods’ creation, but one does not worship or honor the place itself as a manifestation of Divinity. Such more important worship is limited to God and his human representatives.
God similarly is looked upon in anthropomorphic terms, as a glorified human being, mainly as a father. It is considered sacrilegious to look at the Divine in the form of an animal, plant or force of nature.
In Hindu thought, there are also many sacred sites. But these are defined primarily in terms of nature, not human activity. Mt. Kailas is sacred as a mountain, for example, and as the abode of Shiva or the higher consciousness. Indeed all mountains are sacred because they afford us access to the higher realms of meditation.
The Ganga is sacred as a river. Indeed all rivers are sacred because they nourish and purify not only the body and mind but the inner being. The sacred nature of such places does not depend upon human activity, though it can be enhanced by human activity as ritual, mantra and meditation.
Similarly, Hindu thought defines the Divine not just in human terms but also in terms of nature. The Divine is not only the father, mother, brother, sister, lord and friend, but also takes form as the sacred animals, plants, rocks, planets and stars. Hindu temples contain not only human representations but also deities with animal heads and animal bodies. They contain sacred plants, flowers, rocks, fire and water as well.
This sense of the Divine in all of nature is the reason why Hindus find sacred places everywhere. The Hindus have sacred mountains and hills, sacred rivers and lakes, sacred trees and groves, sacred flowers and grasses. They can honor the Divine not only in the human form but in all the forms of nature. This Hindu devotional attitude is not mere primitive idolatry as the western religions would like to project. It is not a worship of nature externally. It is a recognition of the Divine reality within all things.
Hindus honor all the forms of the Divine but also recognize the formless Divine even beyond the Creator, extending to the Absolute. Vedanta teaches us that this Absolute or Brahman is the being, self and soul of everything animate and inanimate. It says our very Self is the entire universe and the entire universe dwells within us. To honor nature is to honor ourselves. To honor ourselves, one should honor all of nature.
For the Hindus the Earth is sacred as the very manifestation of the Divine Mother. She is Bhumi Devi, the Earth Goddess. One of the reasons that Hindus honor cows is that the cow represents the energies and qualities of the Earth, selfless caring, sharing and the providing of nourishment to all. Hindu prayers are done at the rising of the Sun, at noon and at sunset, honoring the Divine light that comes to us through the Sun. Nature is always included in the Hindu approach. Even the great Hindu Yogis retire into nature to pursue their practices, taking refuge in the Himalayas and other mountains and wilderness areas where there is a more direct contact with the Divine.
Hindu Science of Ritual and Mantra
Hindu ritual worship works with the forces of nature to bring a higher consciousness and energy into the world. Hindu rituals are part of a comprehensive spiritual science designed to connect us to higher planes of consciousness and creativity. Hindu rituals form probably the most sophisticated ritualistic approach in the world, allowing us to link up with the inner forces of nature in a systematic manner.
Hindu pujas do this with special prayers and mantras, and offerings of subtle sensory essences like flowers, incense, ghee flames, special water or food and fragrant oils. This is designed to allow the Prana or the Spirit of the Deity to enter into the form for worship, whether it is a statue or a natural object, so that the powers of the higher planes and worlds can have a place to bless us here on Earth.
Hindu yajnas or fire rituals offer special substances into a specially consecrated sacred fire like special wood, resins, ghee, grains and seeds for the fire to transform into higher vibrations for the benefit of all. Hindu scriptures explain these rituals in great detail including special methods of performance and special times and places to do them. No one with an open mind can experience these rituals and not feel elevated.
Hindu rituals are designed to harmonize the human being with the world of nature and the higher levels of the universe. The Hindu worship of nature is part of a greater yogic science of accessing all the healing and transformative powers of the greater Conscious Universe of body, mind and spirit. Indeed traditional Yoga practices begin with such rituals.
The Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, pray for peace from the Earth, Atmosphere, Heaven, Mountains, Rivers, Sun, Moon and Stars, from the entire universe. They see peace as a universal reality, not the result of human activity, not just a truce between warring armies. They show us how to access that universal peace that transcends all boundaries and limited identities.
Vedic mantras are composed in special cosmic sounds that connect us to the cosmic mind and the Divine creative energies at work in the universe. Chanting such mantras is one of the most powerful things we can do not only to uplift ourselves but to uplift the planet. Vedic mantras are part of a sophisticated Yoga of sound, which can help us and our world on many levels.
Ecological Value of Hindu Rituals and Mantras
It is important that we bring Hindu rituals and mantras to all countries, particularly to their sites of natural beauty in order to bring the Divine powers back into the world. These rituals are part of a universal science that is helpful for everyone and is particularly crucial in this ecological era, where we are damaging the very fabric of life. We must purify and reenergize the sacred sites in nature, through rituals, mantra and meditation.
There are many such special sacred places on Earth. These are defined by their natural power more so than any human presence. We must learn to recognize these places and go to them to honor the cosmic being, opening up to them as centers of transformation to restore the natural order that we are violating.
Hinduism has a practical yogic ecology of linking us to the greater universe. If we bring Hindus practices into the modern world, we can not only heal the planet and heal ourselves; we can fulfill our highest goal as a species, the liberation of consciousness into the infinite.
Many indigenous cultures and the old pagan traditions of Europe have a similar understanding of all nature as sacred, and recognize the special sacred places in their environment. This is the basis of ancient sacred sites like Stonehenge and the rituals that went at such places. These traditions also need to be honored and their practices revived.
Need for Hindus to Restore their Ecological Awareness
Many modern Hindus have forgotten their traditional sacred approach to nature. This is particularly obvious in India where nature is often degraded and polluted. Under the compulsions caused by overpopulation, lack of education and the need to develop the economy, nature in India everywhere is suffering. Even Hindu temples are not being kept up with proper dignity and respect. In India, the government has taken over many temples and uses them to make money, giving little back to beautify the temple or even keep them clean.
Outside of India, many Hindus have lost their ecological vision as well. They are used to the urban life and often don’t move beyond the cities. It is important that Hindus reclaim the ecological vision inherent in their religion. This means bringing nature back into their lives, not only through rituals, mantras and meditation but pilgrimage to the sacred sites in nature like Kailas, Gangotri, Vaishnodevi and many others, not only in India but all over the world.
It is also important that western thinkers examine the Hindu view of the world and its profound philosophy of Vedanta which sees the unity of all beings in the Self. Vedanta can provide a spiritual and philosophical vision for a deeper ecological approach that we so desperately need to save our natural environment.