Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the environment

July 17, 2007

Following are brief excerpts from three essays examining the teachings of Buddism, Islam, and Hinduism for relevance to ‘the environment and the human future’. Each cites ample scriptural justification for more sustainable behaviour.

C. G. Weeramantry is Emeritus Professor of Law at Monash, a former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice and a founding councillor of the World Future Council.

Islam, the environment and the human future

..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.

‘Being mindful of the needs of current and future generations is an important aspect of piety in Islam. In the words of the hadith, “Act in your life as though you are living forever and act for the Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow” (quoted in Izzi Deen 1990, 194). ..
(7 Jul 2007)

Buddhist contribution to environmental protection

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 has been the inspiration in recent times for much practical work on environmental protection. It is often ranged against governments which seek to improve their economies by rapid “development” which often takes the form of damaging the environmental heritage. The practical movements Buddhism has inspired in several countries are of importance to the rest of the world. To quote a recent review of this activity, “there has been a kind of Buddhist revolt against the deterioration of nature” in countries like Thailand. ..

Buddhism specified certain basic virtues of rulers in the Dasa Raja Dharmaya. These included:

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.

Also, in Sri Lanka, edicts were issued that not a drop of water was to be permitted to flow into the sea without first serving the needs of agriculture. There were also royal edicts prohibiting the felling of virgin forests. ..

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.

It consequently becomes the duty of those interested in the environment to spread knowledge regarding the damaging consequences of the environmental destruction we take for granted. ..
(20 Jun 2007)

Hinduism, the Environment and the Long Term Future

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. ..

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)

All of this is an enormous source of concepts, principles, traditions and practices which is of deep relevance to the study of the future of humanity and of the long-term perspectives which it is so essential to bring into the thought-frames of the present generation. ..

The Bishnois was a small community in the state of Rajasthan who practised environmental conservation as a part of their daily religious duty. The religion is an offshoot of Hinduism and was founded by Guru Maharaj Jambeshwar in the 15th century. He believed that if trees were protected, animal life would be sustained and his community would survive. Therefore he formulated twenty nine injunctions. Principal among them was a ban on the cutting of any green tree and killing of any animal or bird.

The Bishnois people’s defence of the natural environment needs to be more widely known as one of the world’s classic instances of martyrdom in defence of the environment. In 1730 Amrita Devi, a Bishnois woman was at home with her three daughters when she came to know that a party of woodcutters sent by the Maharaja of Jodhpur were on their way to fell a green Khejri tree for the construction of the Maharaja’s new palace. She prevented the woodcutters from felling the tree and was killed by them for her resistance, as were her three daughters. The news spread like wildfire among the Bhishnois community and hundreds of them assembled on the spot, prepared to give their lives in this cause and 363 of them did. This is known as the Khejrali Massacre.

The Maharaja apologised for the conduct of his officials but this has ever since been an inspiration to the environmental protectionists of India. ..
(6 Jun 2007)

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Education