Religion and the Environment

 In Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam

Religion and the Environment

Religion is sometimes defined as the relationship between people and that which they regard as holy, often in supernatural terms. There is a close relationship between religion and environment. Religion has had major positive influences on the natural environment. To suggest that any one religion somehow cares more for the Earth than the others would be foolish and simplistic, but within each belief system there lie subtle differences that, many argue, give an indication as to how we view our position in relation to it. For example, under animism, a view of the world found among many traditional peoples, a spiritual link is made between humans and nature. Many traditional approaches to conservation are based on various kinds of animism, and traditional beliefs have led to the founding of sacred sites. The Baha’i faith teaches that the grandeur and diversity of the natural world are purposeful reflections of God. Buddhism teaches that respect for life in the natural world is essential, underpinning the interconnectedness of all that exists.

All faiths around the world share a common ethic based on harmony with nature, although a wide gap is often perceived between the religious texts and the current practices of the adherents of those religions. On this World Environment Day let us have a look at various Faiths and their interaction with Environment –

Hinduism

Hinduism is an ancient and incredibly complex religion. Because it is practiced in so many varied ways by such a large population of people, it is hard to describe how all Hindus regard the environment. But scholars have identified several themes common to all Hindu faiths:

Belief in one God- The Vedas proclaim, “He is the God of forms infinite in whose glory all things are — smaller than the smallest atom, and yet the Creator of all, ever living in the mystery of His creation” (Krishna Yajur Veda, Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.14-15).

Belief in karma – Karma literally means “deed” or “act” and more broadly names the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, which governs all life. Karma is not fate, for Hindus believe that we all act with free will, creating our own destiny.

Adherence to dharma – Dharma is God’s divine law, the mode of conduct most conducive to spiritual advancement and the righteous path. It is piety and ethical practice, duty and obligation. Adharma is opposition to divine law.

It is clear that the most ancient texts on Hinduism demonstrate through the praise of the deities an ecological awareness and great respect for the natural world. There are many specific teachings on environmental matters contained in all these writings and ecological activists have drawn much inspiration from the text. A few examples are:

* “Do not cut trees, because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda, 6:48:17)

* “Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere.” (Yajur Veda,5:43)

* Destruction of forests is taken as destruction of the state, and reforestation an act of rebuilding the state and advancing its welfare. Protection of animals is considered a sacred duty. (Charak Sanhita)

There are several principles of importance to the human future that can be distilled from the teachings of Hinduism – principles relating to the inevitability of the consequences of one’s actions, the interconnectedness of all things, the linkage between past, present and future, the integrity of the human family, the harmony that is necessary between humanity and the natural order and many others.

Christianity

Christians believe that the world does not belong to men and women.  It belongs to God.  And God will hold humans accountable for the way they treat it. Christians believe that environment is one of the greatest examples we have of God’s power. The word environment encompasses all of God’s most beautiful and awesome works. The environment is his creation, a precious and holy resource with which he entrusted all humans the loving care and wise use of. God asked all humans to be stewards of the environment in Genesis 1:28, when he said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The Bible begins with ancient stories in which God creates the world from nothing.  From the very first it is clear that God has made human beings responsible for care of the planet.  In the ancient stories, the first humans are told to subdue the earth’s wildness, and they are given the right to benefit from what is produced by the planet.  There are duties and there are privileges.  It is repeatedly stated in the Bible that despite temptation to exploit these privileges, God expects men and women to be good stewards.

“Christianity not only talks about dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper end,  holds the belief that all beings, all forms of life — including plants have spirits (or souls).

Judaism

Jewish tradition teaches us to care for our planet in order to preserve that which God has created. Psalm 24 notes, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” a dramatic assertion of God’s ownership of the land. It follows, then, that any act that damages our earth is an offense against the property of God. The Jewish concept of bal tashchit, “do not destroy,” forbids needless destruction.

Judaism emphasizes our need to preserve our natural resources and generate new ones for future generations. The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni, who was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the man replied. Choni then asked, “Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.” In fact, tradition values this concept so much that the rabbis teach that if a man is planting a tree and the messiah appears, he should finish planting the tree before going to greet him (Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b).

We are encouraged l’vadah ul’shamrah, “to till and to tend,” to become the Earth’s stewards. In Isaiah 41:17-18, God promises, “I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places and fountains in the midst of valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water and the dry land springs of water.” In other words, we were given our planet as a loan from God, and we should work to preserve it.

Islam

Islam, as a way of life expects human beings to conserve the environment for several reasons. Its concern for the environment appears in many Qur’anic verses:

“Allah is he who raised The Heavens without any pillars that ye can see… He has subjected the sun and the moon! Each one runs (its course) for a term appointed. He doth regulate all affairs, explaining the Signs in detail… And it is He who spread out The Earth, and set thereon Mountains standing firm, and (flowing) rivers: and fruit of every kind He made in pairs, two and two: He draweth the Night as a veil O’er the day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who consider”(Qur’an 13: 2-4) .

All this is God’s creation and Muslims should therefore seek to protect and preserve their environment. Moreover by so doing they protect God’s creatures who are not merely objects but are believed to have a spirit and purpose of their own. They are in fact believed to pray to God and praise Him. Humankind might not be able to understand how these creatures praise God but this does not mean that they do not do so: “The seven heavens and the earth, And all beings therein, Declare His glory: There is not a thing But celebrates His praise; And yet ye understand not How they declare His Glory!” (Qur’an 17:4)

The Islamic attitude of duty towards the environment is not merely derived from the fact that God is its creator. There are other reasons as well. One is that humans act as the agents of God on earth. This agency is not blind and mechanical but is creative in its own way and moreover it must be fulfilled by operating according to God’s instructions.

Another reason why, in Islam, humans are expected to protect the environment is that no other creature is able to perform this task. Humans are the only beings that God has “entrusted” with the responsibility of looking after the earth. This trusteeship is seen by Islam to be so onerous and burdensome that no other creature could ‘accept’ it. .. It is impermissible in Islam to abuse one’s rights as khalifa (agents or trustees), because the notion of acting in “good faith” underpins Islamic law. The planet was inherited by all humankind and “all its posterity from generation to generation…. Each generation is only the trustee. In other contexts, the concept of khalifa refers to the fact that waves of humanity will continuously succeed each other and inherit planet earth.

Buddhism

Buddhism — with all its different subsets — is viewed by many as the most environmentally-friendly religion of them all, mainly because it believes in the fundamental equality of all sentient beings: We are all born, we all age, then we all die. There is no reason therefore, they believe, why a human’s experience specifically should be any more important than that of a pig or a cow. And as a result all beings deserve equal levels of empathy — or as is oft referred to, ‘loving-kindness.’

Buddhism is very clear in its teaching that often the cause of wrongdoing is ignorance rather than wickedness or sin. The natural corollary of this, in the context of the environment, is the need for environmental education. Buddhism is replete with perspectives on the long-term future. It stresses at every stage the fleeting nature of the present and the transitory nature of present acquisitions.

The noble eight fold path consists of right vision, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right efforts, right mindfulness and right concentration. Treatises could be written on the relevance of each of these to the human future. On right livelihood for example Buddhist teaching requires every person to consider the manner in which the performance of his duties as employee would impact on society and the future. Buddhism specified certain basic virtues of rulers in the Dasa Raja Dharmaya. These included: Generosity, Morality, Nonviolence, Friendliness

According to Cakkavattisihanada Sutta the ideal king is expected to protect not only people but quadrupeds and birds. King Asoka’s 5th Pillar Edict stating that he in fact placed various species of wild animals under protection is one of the earliest recorded instances of a specific governmental policy of conservation.

Jainism, one of the oldest living religions, teaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards human beings and all of nature. It believes in the mutual dependence of all aspects of nature belonging together and bound in an intricate relationship.

Sikhism teaches that all forms in the universe exist under God’s command and that, having brought a life form into being, God will protect it. The teachings of Sikhism are based on a premise of life liberated from conspicuous consumption.

Whether one is an atheist or a religious believer religion effects us as religious beliefs dominate our society in our every day existence. Our legal systems our constitutions our nations’ policy choices all are all based on the religious customs and beliefs. So it is the only logical surmise that religion also influences how we individually and collectively view our role with regards to protecting the environment.

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