A very famous saying of the Sufi saint of the thirteenth century, Shiekh Nur-ud-Din Wali, translated to 'food will suffice till forests survive'. More than 700 years ago, the saint preached about the indispensability of nature without any scientific research, and without receiving any form of education, religious or materialistic.The twenty-first century has witnessed the manifestation of the adverse effects of climate change, endangering life on earth. This has highlighted the need to explore the relation between religion and environment, where both are intrinsic to human life.
In India, a country of 1.2 billion people, there have to be positive efforts for increasing awareness among the masses at grass-root levels towards the conservation and protection of the environment, as both human lives and its diverse ecology are at stake. Even though there have been efforts to change the status quo, it has certainly not been enough. It is clear from the fact that the capital of the country, still, has not been able to deal with the increasing levels of air pollution. The lack of substantial efforts and initiatives by the government can also be observed from the fact that the government spending on the construction of statues is almost equal to the amount allocated for environment. This begs the question of who will look at that statue when the people have perished from the wrath of climate change? Already we are witnessing a considerable change in seasonal patterns that have a huge impact, especially on agriculture. It has led to droughts and famines in certain parts of the nation and floods in certain others.
There is enough evidence in the cultural history of India, both written and oral, about the need for respecting and involving the ecosystem. Growing up, we have read, heard and seen stories of people fighting to protect the environment. In her article 'Environmental Ethics in the Buddhist Jātaka Stories', Pragati Sahni , mentions the environmental ethics that exist in the Jataka tales from Buddhism. The tales of good triumphing over evil in the Jataka tales or even in the Panchatantra not only provide us with morals but also important lessons. They teach us about the symbiotic relationships and ethics that exist between man and his surroundings, which most fail to see and interpret from the stories.Over the course of time, we have forgotten that there exists a clear pathway regarding the conservation of our surroundings. Today, even in the age of the internet of things (IoT), it is nearly impossible to look for anecdotes from Indian history and mythology about our duty towards the conservation of environment. A number of constructive and eco-friendly initiatives have been undertaken by the government, such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (2014) and the vision of an open-Defecation-Free India (2019), to celebrate the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi . However, the recent events surrounding the Aarey forests in Mumbai suggest that a lot needs to be done, in spite of the significant progress that has been made in terms of tree plantations.
The blame of ignorance regarding the environment and its persistent deterioration has to be shouldered by the religious stakeholders in the country as well. Even today, when someone goes to the mosque on a Friday afternoon, usually the 'imaam' would give a sermon on how to be a good Muslim and follow the five tenets of Islam. However, one hardly hears a lesson on how to treat the environment with care and have a sense of responsibility towards nature. This is the irony of the situation because it is mentioned in the Qu'ran that human beings are the "caretakers" of earth and the Prophet (PBUH) would practice something called 'hima'- which was set up of conservation zones to protect the natural capital. However, neither taking care for the environment nor practicing hima seems to resonate with the present Muslim population of the country. There is a considerable amount of doubt that if people even know that such a practice did even exist. The present Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, which propagate the need to protect and preserve the earth, have been preached by Islam for centuries.
In 2015, Pope Francis, in his papal letter dedicated to the environment, mentioned the dire need to help slow down the global carbon footprint and called climate change “a problem with grave implications”. It further said that there is no need for anyone to think that one has to go back to the stone age to try and save the environment, but look for ways to recover "... the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur. ”However, the irony is that soon after this paper was released, the Pope himself traveledled 11 countries across 5 continents, leaving a huge carbon footprint around the world.
Not only the Muslims and Christians, but ignorance regarding the teachings of the 'Upanishads' and the 'Purans' , about the conservation and the responsibility of the people towards the environment, prevails among the Hindus as well. Manu Smriti, from which one derives the concept of the caste system, states that urine, feces, spit, blood and things involving any one of those should not be cast in the river. Literally, the opposite happens with the rivers which are considered holy and are worshipped being contaminated by the materials mentioned above. All this epitomises living on the wrong side of the religion. We accepted the caste system and engraved it in our DNA, but forgot to take in the positive aspect in our stride. Today, we have a certain vigilante force called the 'gau-rakshaks' (cow vigilantes) who protect the 'gaimata' (Holy Cow), if only we had a vigilante force that protected the 'ganga mata' (Holy Ganges). Probably if vote bank politics depended on the cleaning of our ecosystems, we would have left the world behind, and these vigilantes would go and douse the fires of the Amazon themselves.
This certainly begs the question, would prophets of the old do what religious 'chowkidars' of today do? Preach one thing and practice another thing. The reason why Jesus, Mohammad, and Ram had such huge followings was that they would practice what they preached and constantly thought about others, and how their life would affect the present and future generations. One can't expect the same today, not from the preachers, let alone from the people who are part of the global industrialization. The human greed centred on oneself has eclipsed all other moral sensibilities that used to prevail. Humans have truly become realists, where they are selfish, self-centered, and morally corrupt.
In such a time it is, no doubt, heartening to see that there are people like Greta Thunberg, who preach what they practice. Not only has she stopped flying over short distances, but she also sailed to the United States using a zero-emission sailboat. Hers is a religion we want to follow.
This is not to say that religions are intrinsically wrong, but that the people have been preaching and practicing the wrong side of religion. The water in the ganges in some parts is not fit for bathing, whereas the water in the Yamuna is so polluted that we can't even use it for washing dirty clothes. What hypocrisy has been taught to us in the name of religion? If both (the cow and the ganga) are matas, how can one mata be more important than the other? In praising the glorified Allah / Bhagwan / Lord, we are forgetting his greatest glory - Earth.
(Hassaan Chishti is a second year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2018-20 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.