Religious Ethic Of Frugality, Thrift And Simplicity
“One of the greatest challenges to contemporary religions is how to respond to the ecological crisis perpetuated by the enormous inroads of materialism and secularization in contemporary societies, especially those societies arising in or influenced by the modern West.”
- Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker
Whether we are actively religious or not, religious belief permeates the very fabric of our existence. Namely, it influences, if not directly shapes, our personal, economic, social, ethical life and also our legal systems. It is then only logical to surmise that religion also influences how we, individually and collectively, view our role with regards to protecting our resources and environment.
What role does religion play in shaping our attitude towards the natural world? One answer was proposed in 1967 by UCLA History Professor Lynn White, Jr., who wrote an article entitled, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (Science 155, 1967). In this article, he said that the Western world's attitudes towards nature were shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition (he also included Islam and Marxism within this overall tradition). This tradition, White wrote, involved the concept of a world created solely for the benefit of man: "God planned all of creation explicitly for man's benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man's purposes." Along with this, Western Christianity separated humans from nature. In older religious traditions, humans were seen as part of nature, rather than the ruler of nature. And in animistic religions, there was believed to be a spirit in every tree, mountain or spring, and all had to be respected. In contrast with paganism and Eastern religions, Christianity "not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." White noted that Christianity was a complex faith, and different branches of it differ in their outlook. But in general, he proposed that Christianity, and Western civilization as a whole, held a view of nature that separated humans from the rest of the natural world, and encouraged exploitation of it for our own ends.
"Christianity," wrote White, "Not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." The emergence of Christianity, many, like White believe, marked the moment humans broke away from previously common held beliefs that all beings, all forms of life, including plants, had spirits (or souls).
"In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian ßspirit," he wrote. And Christianity changed all that, he believed. Man was created in God's image, Christians believed and notably Man was created at the end of Creation and humans therefore inherited the Earth. "By destroying pagan animism," White wrote. "Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects."
There has been much discussion on Lynn White’s articles but in general religion is meant to provide man with a philosophy of life and with prescribing practices that will assist him in living up to its teachings and in becoming a more spiritually conscious being.
Science has no “silver bullet” to fix the environmental crisis. Only a change of values could remedy this. Science is not capable of influencing large numbers of people to change their values; religion is the only force capable of doing this.
Religion is the only force that could bring about the change in values needed to reduce consumption and thus reduce environmental degradation. Environmental crisis is a spiritual one that demands a spiritual solution.
Of course, not every religious teaching is going to be helpful in this regard. Some contemporary manifestations of religion encourage material acquisition and de-emphasize contemplative spiritual practices.
Religions need to be in dialogue with other disciplines (e.g., science, ethics, economics, education, public policy, gender) in seeking comprehensive solutions to both global and local environmental problems. Cultivation of spiritual sources of satisfaction, by prayer and meditation will reduce the burden on natural resources like oil as the urge to drive cars would be lessened.
The "What Would Jesus Drive?" ad campaign asking drivers to forgo gas-chugging SUVs drew both jeers and cheers. Voices of faith are taking stands on environmental issues with increasing boldness. National coalitions have been bolstering and diversifying their membership and now include Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus. Meanwhile, more local groups are organizing educational campaigns and lobbying legislators. Most activity focuses on fuel economy and global climate change, but in all faith traditions and all regions, groups are pressing issues they see as critical to being good stewards of the earth.
How religion influences our dealing with nature and natural resources can be seen from the example of Bishnoism. This is a sect of vedic religion, originating in the desert of Rajasthan, India in the 15th Century. Bishnoism emphasizes love, peace and harmony not only among human beings but also with wild animals and trees. It teaches love, peace, kindness, simple life, honesty, compassion and forgiveness.
Living in inhospitable desert terrain, for centuries Bishnois have fiercely protected the trees and wild life in their areas to follow the teachings of their Guru Jambheshwarji. For Bishnois, caring for God’s creation is their dharma or duty towards God. Time to time, their faith was tested by rulers, poachers and others, but Bishnois always protected the nature, even at the cost of their lives.
In 1730, 363 Bishnois were killed when they opposed cutting of Khejari trees. They hugged the trees and said, “sir santhe runkh rahe to bhi sasto jan”, meaning if trees can be saved at the cost of our heads even then its a good deal. These trees were being cut at the order of the ruler, Raja Abhay Singh for firewood to burn lime stone to construct his palace.
These people will starve to feed other hungry creatures. Such is the awe and reverence these people have for God’s creation that ladies will breast feed an orphan calf. Over the years, hundreds have died in their attempt to save nature and wildlife. This presents a sharp contrast to western mindset which shows utter disregard for nature, environment and other life forms.
Communities like Bishnois, once scorned for being backward, have a valuable lesson to teach us.
The Jain tradition has existed in tandem with Vedic tradition in India since at least 800 BC. Jains developed their own sacred texts and follow the authority of itinerant monks and nuns who wander throughout India preaching the essential principles and practices of the faith. Jainism holds some interesting potential for ecological thinking, though its final goal transcends earthly concerns i.e., ascending to the realm above earth and heaven.
At the core of Jain faith lies five vows that dictate the daily life of Jains. These five vows, which inspired and influenced Mahatma Gandhi, are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), sexual restraint (brahmacarya), and nonpossession (aparigraha). One adheres to these vows in order to minimize harm to all possible life-forms. For observant Jains, to hurt any being results in the thickening of one’s karma, obstructing advancement toward liberation. To reduce karma and prevent its further accrual, Jains avoid activities associated with violence and follow a vegetarian diet. The advanced monks and nuns will sweep their path to avoid harming insects and also work at not harming even ‘one-sensed’ beings such as bacteria.
The worldview of the Jains might be characterized as a biocosmology. Due to their perception of the “livingness” of the world, Jains hold an affinity for the ideals of the environmental movement. The Jain vows can easily be reinterpreted in an ecological fashion. The practice of nonviolence in the Jain context fosters an attitude of respect for all life-forms. The observance of truthfulness prompts an investigation of the interrelatedness of things; a truthful person cannot easily dismiss the suffering caused by uncontrolled waste. The vow of not stealing can be used to reflect on the world’s limited resources and prompt one to think of the needs of future generations. Sexual restraint might help minimize population growth. The discipline of nonpossession gives one pause to think twice before indulging in the acquisition of material goods, one of the root causes of current resource crunch. The monks and nuns, due to the heightened nature of their daily spiritual practice, leave little or no imprint on the broader ecological system.
The Jains are well-suited to reconsider their tradition in an ecological light, particularly because of their history of advocacy against meat eating and animal sacrifice, as well as their success at developing business areas that avoid overt violence. Thus directly and indirectly these qualities can help preservation of finite natural resources like oil.
Vedic tradition is popularly known as Sanatana dharma or Bhagavata dharma. Srila Prabhupada sums up vedic ecology in the following words:
“The human being is the elder brother of all other living beings. He is endowed with intelligence more powerful than animals for realizing the course of nature and the indications of the Almighty Father. Human civilization should depend on the production of mother nature without artificially attempting economic development to turn the world into a chaos of greed and power only for the purpose of artificial luxuries and sense gratification.” (Srimad Bhagavatam 1.10.4 purport)
Bhagavata Dharma considers earth to be one of the seven mothers. Other six mothers are : (1) the real mother, (2) the wife of the spiritual master, (3) the wife of the priest, (4) the wife of the king, (5) the cow, (6) the nurse.
Material nature is considered one of the energies of the Supreme Lord. Bhagavad-gita(6.30) mentions "For one who sees Me everywhere and who sees everything in Me, I am never lost nor is he ever lost to Me." So a follower of Bhagavata dharma perceives the presence of the Supreme Lord everywhere and in everything. As per ‘isavasyam idam sarvam’ concept, everything in this universe is the property of the Supreme Lord and all living beings have been allotted resources of material nature to maintain themselves. We should take our quota and should not encroach upon what is meant to be others’ quota. Therefore in Bhagavata Dharma, there is no scope for hurting environment or wasting natural resources. A householder is responsible for maintenance of not only his own family members but all other living beings.
Srimad Bhagavatam(7-14-9) explains:
atmanah putravat pasyet
tair esam antaram kiyat
One should treat animals such as deer, camels, asses, monkeys, mice, snakes, birds and flies exactly like one's own son. How little difference there actually is between children and these innocent animals!
This is in sharp contrast to the baseless western idea that animals have no soul. Those who propagate such idea and kill poor animals mercilessly in fact do not have soul. Bhagavata vision of equality is explained in Gita (5.18)
vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva sva-pake ca panditah sama-darsinah
The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.
People today have no regard for life, no regard for nature and her precious gifts. But a Bhagavata follower can never lead a wasteful life, squandering away precious natural resources like oil.
In our childhood we were taught by our parents that if a grain of rice falls on the floor, we must pick it up and touch it to our head to show respect. We were taught like this—how to see everything in relationship with Krishna. That is Krishna consciousness.
- Srila Prabhupada