Hinduism Introduction

Religions of the World and Ecology Series

Hinduism and Ecology Volume

Mary Evelyn Tucker and Christopher Key Chapple, eds.


Christopher Key Chapple


India, the birthplace of Hinduism, boasts the world’s largest environmental movement. More than 950 nongovernmental organizations dedicated to environmental causes can be found in India.1 From the polluted cities to rural lands threatened by dams or deforestation, concerned persons are making their voices heard.

Environmentalism in India
In India, the environmental movement differs significantly from its counterparts in North America and Europe. Ramachandra Guha, for instance, suggests that a Western-style program of environmental preservation will not work in India, due to the immediate, pressing needs of local populations.2 Madhav Gadgil and Guha suggest that a fissure has emerged in Indian society that divides the population into omnivores, ecosystem people, and ecological refugees.3 The omnivores, following the development model of the West, absorb the raw material of India as fuel for the development of urban industrial centers. Benefiting from government support, these people tend to live in cities, seek advanced levels of education, have small families, and surround themselves with “modern amenities such as electricity and tap water, television and agrochemicals.”4 Most of these people are upper caste and constitute India’s much-lauded burgeoning middle class, arguably the largest middle class in the world.

Ecosystem people, by contrast, are rural and largely uneducated. Ecosystem people tend to have large families because their children, not being in school, are able to produce much-needed income at a young age. The women of these communities spend much of their time fetching water and fuel. Because of their impoverishment, this population does not participate in any significant way in the industrial paradigm unless they become ecological refugees. These ecological refugees flee the hardscrabble life of the countryside and flock to the cities, where they generally become day laborers and servants. In most cases, this has not resulted in improved educational opportunities for their children but has created a seemingly permanent underclass in the shantytowns sprinkled throughout India’s urban areas. Though the ecosystem people and the ecological refugees have the highest birth rates and contribute to India’s population crunch, they consume the least amount of resources per capita. Because of India’s failure to create a technological and educational infrastructure “to support the employment of every one of its citizens in the modern sector,”5 the population of ecosystem people and refugees continues to increase.

The environmental movement in India has to respond to these competing constituencies. The urban masses want to enjoy modern material comforts. Rural villagers want access to arable land. Those villagers who fail to thrive in the countryside flee to the cities where they live often marginal lives as uneducated industrial or service workers. Government policies have not created a fully integrated modern society for all segments of the population. Furthermore, in the past the government has advocated massive development projects, such as the damming of the Narmada River, to support the consumerist urban life-style. This reflected little or no regard for the life-paths of traditional peoples whose existence within the ecosystem does not demand the excessive consumption of natural resources found in the cities. In many regards, the environmental movement in India pits the living past against the modernized present, with many traditional peoples asserting that “they will not tolerate the continued degradation of the environment that has resulted from India’s forced march toward industrialization.”6

According to Patrick Peritore, a political scientist who has typologized environmental activists worldwide, Indian ecological advocates fall into three typologies: “Greens,” who emphasize bioregionalism and respect for traditional ways of knowing; “Ecodevelopers,” who advocate responsible programs for economic growth; and “Managers,” who “give priority to human needs and rational management of environmental processes.”7 All three see a need to develop a “Dharmic administrative model” that integrates traditional values with secularism and attempts to create a modern, ecologically responsible world. Peritore notes that “the Gandhian ethos provides the environmental movement with a coherent ethic, metaphysic, and method of struggle as well as strong legitimation on the national political scene.”8 However, he goes on to conclude:

India’s environmental movement has the advantages of Gandhian religion, strong links to native cultural ecomanagement practices, an excellent intellectual and political infrastructure, and multiple points of access to national and local government. But its sophistication and strength is dissipated by a corrupt and bureaucratically tangled government, by a declining economy, and by an ecological and population crisis that surpasses known techniques of environmental repair and management. The movement, far from being a vanguard, is fighting a rearguard action for cultural and ecological survival.9

While acknowledging the vibrancy of environmentalism in India, Peritore provides a grim assessment of the future prospects for environmentalism in India.

Modernization, Industrialization, and Pollution
Although Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign at achieving self-rule (sva-raj) drew deeply from the well of religious inspiration, Jawaharlal Nehru, who served as prime minister of India from 1947 to 1964, mounted a program of industrial development rooted in secularity.10 He urged the newly freed Indians to pursue science and technology as the key to the modernization of India. Gerald Larson has commented that

Just as Gandhi had successfully created a mass political movement based on a Neo-Hindu vision of universalism, firmness in the truth (satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahimsa) in pre-partition India, so Nehru successfully created a comparable mass political movement based on a translation, or perhaps better, a kind of “demythologization,” of that same Neo-Hindu vision in terms of “secularism,” “socialism,” “a mixed economy,” “democracy,” and “non-alignment” in post-partition India.11

In the building of India after independence, the resources of the state were devoted to supporting mass secular education (some minority communities also receive support for religious education) and increasing India’s industrial base.

Nehru’s drive for modernization, which received a boost from the liberalization of economic policies in the 1980s, has been accompanied by a large population increase. In 1951, India’s population was 361 million. Today, it is approximately one billion. Consequently, several environmental problems have emerged. O. P. Dwivedi has identified seven major “side effects” of industrial development:

  1. a brutal assault on the nation’s limited common land
  2. loss of forest cover due to shortage of firewood and fodder, harvesting of trees for commercial purposes, and illegal encroachment
  3. minimal or no pollution abatement for heavy industries
  4. industrial areas located too close to residential areas, as seen in the Bhopal Union Carbide Plant disaster
  5. unplanned urbanization: in 1951 62 million Indians lived in cities; the number has increased to 217 million, over 30 per cent in slums
  6. large scale projects such as dams and mines that have displaced over 14 million people; only 3.9 million have been adequately relocated
  7. severe pesticide pollution, causing several hundred deaths each year.12

Additionally, according to the World Bank, more than forty thousand people die prematurely every year in India because of air pollution.13 New Delhi’s air is rated among the most polluted in the world. Yet Anil Agarwal comments that “the Air Pollution Act does not provide for any government action to control it.”14

Water pollution continues to be a huge problem as well, as noted in India Today:

Each of India’s 13 major river basins—making up 80 percent of the total surface area and home to nearly 85 percent of the population—is so polluted … that bacteria feeding on the water are the only things that have proliferated … river water laced with industrial toxins is irrigating farmland … and urban aquifers … are now filling with sewage.15

Dwivedi notes that only 27 percent of the urban population of India has even limited sewerage facilities and that “out of a total population of 846 million in 1991, only about 14 percent enjoyed adequate sanitation.”16

One of the difficulties encountered by environmental activists stems from a lack of awareness on the part of the general population as well as the government regarding the severity of the ecological ravage being felt throughout India. Part of this is due to the rapid rate of growth. Anil Agarwal notes:

In the period 1975–1995, during which the gross domestic product increased 2.5 times, the industrial pollution load increased four times and the vehicular pollution load increased by eight times… . In 1986, when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had asked me to address his council of ministers on the environmental challenges facing the country, I had told this powerful group that rural environmental problems are more important than urban environmental problems. I had said this because the land and forest degradation affects the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people, especially poor rural women, extremely adversely. Delhi was still quite clean. I had no idea about the speed with which this capital city will turn into a hell-hole in less than ten years. And today every metro and small town is rapidly following suit. I now realize how stupid I was and what poor environmental leadership I had provided to the country’s political leaders. I should have emphasized the importance of preventing the pollution disaster that was soon going to hit us. But I had no idea of the speed with which it would hit us.17

India today faces a level of pollution that once raged throughout North America but that has now been largely corrected through effective legislation and the compliance of government and industry. The level of air pollution in India resembles that of industrial steel towns, such as Pittsburgh, in the 1940s. The degradation of some rivers in India evokes memories of Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which burned in the 1960s.

In the United States and in Western Europe, public sentiment and concern for public health spawned a climate of environmental awareness that resulted in dramatic improvements in air and water quality. Lynn White, Jr., in a now-famous article, suggested that biblical attitudes toward the earth had encouraged overconsumption of natural resources and a callous attitude toward the realm of the nonhuman.18 Institutionalized religion was seen as an impediment to the development of ecological awareness. Lance Nelson and others have argued that aspects of Hindu tradition similarly downgrade the material world and can foster indifference toward the environment.19 Anil Agarwal suggests, in this volume, that the insularity of the Hindu family works counter to the development of a healthy, community-minded ethic. This approach resembles the finger-pointing in the Judeo-Christian traditions, where blame has been placed on dominion theology, the notion that God created the world for human use and pleasure. According to White’s analysis, this predisposed Jews and Christians to regard the environment in terms of its usefulness for human endeavor. This attitude might also be characterized as anthropocentrism, or putting the human person at the center of the cosmos. The Hindu tradition, with its emphasis on personal salvation (moksa) certainly is not exempt from this critique, though several authors in this volume seek to put forward an alternative, more ecofriendly view of Hinduism.

Although cultural values certainly help shape the worldview of a society, pollution is not necessarily a result of religious dogmas but an unfortunate, and probably unintentional, by-product of the rise of technology, increased population, and the advent of manipulative consumerism in the modern era. Thomas Berry has argued that the technological trance, supported by advertising, has taken on mythic proportions and that it will take a new myth to undo the harm done to the planet by industrial pollution, habitat decimation, and a weakened sense of our place in nature.20 The task of the series of conferences held at Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions has been to reconsider the world’s religious traditions in light of this concern.

Hinduism and Environmentalism
In this volume, we will investigate the role of the Hindu religion in the development of ecological awareness in India. The word Hinduism carries many layers of meaning. In its original sense, as coined by the Persians a thousand years ago, it refers to the collective beliefs and practices of those people who live on the other side of the Indus River. This term was taken up by the British during the colonial era (1650 to 1947) and continues to remain in use during postcolonial times to refer to the religious practices of non-Muslim, non-Christian persons of Indian descent. Within Hinduism can be found many gods and goddesses; many competing belief systems, from atheistic materialism to profoundly emotional deistic devotion; various systems of prayer and meditation; and countless groupings and subgroupings of deities and of people.

The word ecology literally denotes a vast range of study, from the living habits of individual species to an overarching concern for the entire planetary system. Ecology, when interpreted in the Hindu context, cannot be separated from its place of origin, the Indian subcontinent, which is home to most of the world’s Hindus. However, because of the diaspora of the Hindu community during both the British colonial period and in more recent times, Hindu views on ecological issues can be influential in such far-flung places as Guyana, Trinidad, Britain, the United States, eastern Africa, the Middle East, and Canada.

The various teachings of Hinduism have been learned and discussed by the Greeks, the Chinese, the Persians, the Arabs, the Europeans, and Americans over the course of twenty-three hundred years. Within India, there is no common agreement about what constitutes “Hinduism.” Similarly, there can be no one definition applied by a non-Indian that can capture the essence of this dynamic, multifaceted tradition. On one extreme, through the prism of non-Indian, primarily missionary cultures, Hinduism has been stereotyped by Orientalists as caste-bound, retrogressive, and lethargic. On the other extreme, from the perspective of Theosophy and the sympathetic interpretations of Christopher Isherwood and others, Hinduism, particularly in its Vedantic form, is seen as a sublime unifying truth.

The anthropologist Agehananda Bharati postulated a threefold interpretation of Hinduism:

  1. Village Hinduism” made up of grassroots, “little tradition” Hindu spirituality including shamanistic traditions of ecstatic experience but with some observance of all-India mainline Hindu practices
  2. Literate or scripture-based “Sanskrit, Vedic Hinduism” of a “great tradition” variety, represented by Brahmin priests, pandits, itinerant ascetics or monastic practitioners and
  3. Renaissance Hinduism” or Neo-Hinduism of what Bharati calls the urban alienate, a portion of the new urban middle class, [often followers] of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Satya Sai Baba and many others.21

Each of these perspectives will in some way be represented in this volume. Some chapters will investigate rituals associated with village life. Others will deal with the “great tradition” approach, which emphasizes text-based reflection. All the papers in some way seek to reexamine the Hindu tradition in light of the current ecological crisis that has thrust vast areas of India out of balance.

In earlier writings, I have noted that environmentalism in India has taken many forms: general information conveyed through the news media, direct action, as found in the Chipko and Narmada movements, and an emphasis on personal decision-making inspired by religious precepts.22 Three primary varieties of religious expression influence this last component. These include tribal insights into ecosystems, Brahminical models that emphasize an intimacy between the human and the cosmos, and the renouncer orthopraxy of the Buddhists, Jainas, and Yogis that advocates nonviolence and minimization of possessions.23 This collection of essays also examines these three approaches through an exploration of religious texts, folk metaphors and rituals, and Gandhian-inspired asceticism. Each of these avenues within the broad spectrum of Hindu faith can help contribute to and define the Hindu approach to environmentalism.

Hindu Scholars, Hindu Voices
In developing this volume, we attempted to incorporate as many voices as possible from the field of Hindu studies. This book includes essays by practicing Hindus. Some are of Indian descent living in India. Some are of Indian descent living overseas. Some are of non-Indian descent who have spent considerable time on the Indian subcontinent.

For the most part, the several essays by nonresident Indians reflect the perspectives of individuals who maintain close ties with the difficulties confronting contemporary India. Essays by scholars and environmental activists not of Indian descent who have studied and immersed themselves in various aspects of Hindu life and culture are included; in some aspects, they might be referred to as non-ethnic Hindus. And this volume also contains the voices of American academics who are experts in the field of Hindu studies but who retain their own Western-based culture as a primary orientation.

Using methods similar to that of constructive theology, which seeks to apply religious truths in contemporary contexts, various scholars examine nature themes from the Vedic and Upanisadic traditions, law Books that recommend nature protection, and philosophical texts that advocate nonviolence. Using a more anthropological approach, other scholars in this volume examine the social realities of the environment in India today and in earlier periods in Indian history.

This book is divided into five sections. The first section examines how traditional concepts of nature from the Hindu tradition might inspire an ecofriendly attitude among modern Hindus. This section also takes a hard look at how traditional Hindu values might impede an environmentalist perspective. The first two essays, by O. P. Dwivedi and K. L. Seshagiri Rao, examine the Hindu notion of dharma, or cultural responsibility, in an ecological context and also discuss the concept of the five elements (mahabhuta), the building blocks of reality cited in Samkhya philosophy that pervade Hindu discourse about the natural world. Laurie Patton discusses Vedic texts and warns against romanticizing the Vedic sacrificial tradition, which, in many ways, stands as the antithesis of some environmentalist values due to its ritual use of animals. Mary McGee studies the dharmasastra and arthasatra literature in light of nature protection, noting that forests, rivers, and other natural resources were to be protected by the king. T. S. Rukmani, in the fifth essay, discusses the role of nature in the Sanskrit literary tradition, with special reference to the story of Sakuntala. Lance Nelson looks at the Bhagavadgita through two prisms, noting that, on the one hand, ecological values can be developed from reading selected portions of the text, while from another perspective, the assertion that materiality is devalued seems to work counter to the idea of ascribing value to nature. Anil Agarwal, in the closing essay of this section, offers a self-criticism, questioning if the emphasis on self and family weakens Hinduism’s capacity for responding to such a staggering social and ecological crisis.

The second section of the book looks to one of the founding fathers of modern India. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized India with his twin projects of nonviolence (ahimsa) and holding to truth (satyagraha). Various sections of his voluminous memoirs advocate minimal consumption, self-reliance, simplicity, and sustainability—all clearly in accord with “green” values. Vinay Lal and Larry Shinn explore the viability of Gandhi’s ethic in light of the contemporary problem of ecological destruction and suggest that his thinking might be readily adapted and embraced for this purpose.

Discussions of forests and groves comprise the third section of the book, beginning with David Lee’s description of the forest biology contained in the Ramayana, an epic text renowned for its sophisticated botanical details. The tension between the dark unknown forest and the safety of the city in the epic texts is explored in Philip Lutgendorf’s essay. Moving more into the “little tradition” aspect of Hinduism, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Pramod Parajuli discuss the sacred grove tradition of Orissa. In the final chapter of this section, Ann Grodzins Gold provides a historical discussion of a Rajasthani king who made forest preservation a top priority of his rule.

The fourth section of the book examines three river systems of India: the Yamuna, the Ganga, and the Narmada. The first two essays lament the degradation of the two major rivers of Uttar Pradesh, which have been fouled by industrial pollutants and human waste. David Haberman examines classical literary sources that underscore the sacrality of the Yamuna, and Kelly Alley discusses the reluctance of some Hindu religious leaders to provide leadership for the cleanup of the Ganga. The last three essays in this section deal with a very different river system in western India. The Narmada River valley, in Maharashtra and Gujarat, remains largely undeveloped. The valley serves as the home of hundreds of thousands of tribal people. No major cities can be found along its course of more than four hundred miles. During the Nehru period, this river was slated for extensive damming to provide hydroelectric power and water for irrigation. In the process, at least one hundred thousand tribal people would have been displaced. Several villages have already been submerged as part of the preliminary phases of the project, thus ejecting thousands from their homes. Because of an extensive resistance campaign, the World Bank has withdrawn funding for the project. Chris Deegan explores the religious significance of the river; William Fisher discusses the political controversies; and Pratyusha Basu and Jael Silliman examine the role of women in the campaign for protection of the Narmada.

The final section of the book continues an exploration of the “little tradition” grassroots approaches to environmental protection. The first two essays, by Vijaya Nagarajan and Madhu Khanna, describe home-based rituals and “embedded ecology,” a sensibility that arises from living within a particular landscape and biosystem, currently threatened by the spread of mass consumer, television culture. The book concludes with George James’s essay on the Chipko movement and the environmentalism practiced by Sunderlal Bahuguna. James challenges the notion that the core theology of Hinduism allows for the degradation of the natural world.

Developing a Hindu Environmental Ethic
Throughout this volume, a tension can be detected, not unlike that generated by Lynn White, Jr., who laid blame for the West’s environmental problems on the fundamental paradigm of exploitation espoused in the Bible. Like White, some of our authors, most notably Lance Nelson, Philip Lutgendorf, Laurie Patton, Kelly Alley, and Anil Agarwal, assert that Hindu philosophy, particularly as found in Vedanta and in select passages from the Mahabharata, dismisses and perhaps denigrates the ontological status of the physical world. Simultaneously, renouncer tendencies place highest religious value on leaving behind the things of the world, again relegating the earth to a secondary status. Personal salvation, or moksa, as the primary religious value leaves little or no room for such worldly concerns as air quality or water quality. However, many other authors argue that “worldly” refers not to the five great elements (mahabharata) but to karmic, ego-based concerns. Through ritual, meditation, and practices of yoga, one can leave behind the realm of pollution and embrace the purity of one’s authentic being in a way quite harmonious with religious values. K. L. Seshagiri Rao and O. P. Dwivedi champion Hindu values as inseparable from environmental values; T. S. Rukmani and Mary McGee see explicitly ecofriendly values in traditional texts; David Lee, Ann Grodzins Gold, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin, and Pramod Parajuli, Vijaya Nagarajan, Madhu Khanna, and George James see concrete evidence of a heightened consciousness of the earth in the day-to-day life of specific Hindus, both village and urban.

Toward the conclusion of the conference at Harvard University, Harry Blair of Bucknell University developed a useful scheme for organizing and defining Hindu approaches to ecology (see appendix 1). He outlined progressive stages, or categories, that indicate increasingly radical commitments to ecological harmony. The first category emphasizes use of natural resources. It promotes development and conquest of the natural order. The second category advocates utility, seeing nature to be in a reciprocal relationship with the human order. This approach emphasizes sustainability and social ecology. It clearly would give voice to persons seeking to support themselves in a simple manner, but it also would allow for some harvesting of natural resources. The third category, romance, sees ultimate reality manifesting itself in the natural world. It respects the divinity of nature and urges its adherents to practice deep ecology. The fourth category, according to Blair, emphasizes asceticism; I would suggest that it also emphasizes transcendentalism. This entails separation from nature through abstinence of various sorts. Following the tradition of the renunciant, or sadhu, this approach advocates withdrawing from the world. Though not practical for all persons and not at all supportive of “omnivore” culture, it nonetheless demonstrates an ecofriendly ethic.

In light of Gadgil and Guha’s characterization mentioned earlier, the omnivores would fall into the use and utility groups. The ecosystem people would fall into the category of romance, while all committed environmentalists could be seen as practicing a form of asceticism. In Patrick Peritore’s system, the greens would represent the phase of romance and asceticism, the ecodevelopers would fall into the category of utility, while the managers could be seen in terms of emphasizing use.

Various authors in this volume criticize the notion of use. Philip Lutgendorf notes that in much of the epic literature, the forest represents raw material to be exploited or destroyed. Laurie Patton reminds the reader that the early Vedic literary and ritual traditions conducted bloody sacrifices, using animals. Kelly Alley and David Haberman decry industrial pollution of India’s rivers as an example of the philosophy of utility. Anil Agarwal suggests that the Hindu emphasis on the self and family allows for the use of people and objects outside one’s own compound.

Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Pramod Parajuli see practical utility in India’s tradition of maintaining sacred groves. By allowing fields to stay fallow for a period of time and then bringing them back into cultivation, the landscape provides a utility without being subjected to undue harm. Ann Gold discusses the role of a twentieth-century raja in Rajasthan in assuring the balance of nature through strict land-use and tree preservaton policies. The dharmasastra and arthasastra injunctions explained by Mary McGee similarly reflect a utility approach to the use of natural resources.

In contrast, T. S. Rukmani’s chapter on the portrayal of nature in traditional Sanskrit literature may be seen in terms of Blair’s category of romance. In a somewhat similar romantic vein, David Lee extols the medicinal value of plants and the powerful beauty of the forest as portrayed in the Ramayana. David Haberman lauds the once-pristine beauty of the Yamuna River.

Vinay Lal and Larry Shinn write about Mahatma Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and abstemiousness. Gandhi may be seen as a prime example of Blair’s description of asceticism. Lance Nelson similarly reads the Bhagavadgita in terms of its emphasis on worldly transcendence through asceticism. O. P. Dwivedi and Seshagiri Rao, while presenting a romanticized view of the elements and love for nature, also emphasize an ascetic need for reducing consumption.

Lutgendorf’s discussion of the forest provides an extended metaphor for the many potential expressions of a Hindu environmental ethic. When seen in terms of use, the forest is an exploitable resource, providing wood for fuel and structures, raw material for the building of cities. The utility of forest lands can be seen in the jangala, which exists in reciprocity with human settlement and provides sustenance for domesticated animals, such as cows and goats, as well as a pastoral landscape for the unfoldment of the human drama. The forest can also be seen as a romantic paradise, a hiding place for lovers. The great ashrams, or ascetic retreats, have traditionally been located in the forests of India. These four interpretations of the forest illustrate various intersecting modalities of Hindu environmentalism. For the managers and ecodevelopers, the forest must be exploited and tapped. For the ecosystem people, the forest provides basic sustenance. For green activists, the forest must be protected from clearcutting and flooding, both to ensure its survival and for its own sake (the romantic view). For the ascetics, the forest must be maintained to provide a continued haven for spiritual retreats or ashrams.

Hinduism and Ecology: Future Prospects
What can be expected in the development of a Hindu-inspired environmentalism? This collection of essays suggests that several avenues can be pursued to lift up Hindu religious imagery and symbolism in the name of environmental protection. However, any visitor to India will see that it is just as likely that the same religious symbols might be used to promote the latest consumer product. As Vasudha Narayanan has noted, “A burgeoning middle class in India is now hungry for the consumer bon-bons of comfortable and luxurious living.”24 Nonetheless, despite the onslaught of advertising and industrialization, ecological consciousness is growing in India. Public urgency has caused wide public discussion of ecological degradation. Some visible changes have been made to improve the state of the environment. For instance, three-wheeled taxis have been banned from the New Delhi airports because they create a great deal of pollution. According to Narayanan:

With the growing awareness of our ecological plight, Hindu communities are pressing into us the many dharmic texts and injunctions, using epics and Puranas as inspiration in planting gardens, and reviving customary lore on the medicinal importance of trees and plants. Women, through song and dance, communicate the assaults on women and nature.25

Narayanan describes a dance performed by Usha Vasanthkumar and Sudha Vijayaraghavan titled Pancha Bootangal, the Five Elements, that dramatically enacts humanity’s greedy attack on the elements, resulting in ecological havoc. Swami Agnivesh of the Arya Samaj order of monks works extensively with the poor and disenfranchised of India, seeking economic justice, protection of children, and universal education. Like Gandhi, he suggests that the village model provides for an ecologically sound lifestyle. He states that simplicity and contentment are needed to counter the juggernaut of industrial development and consumerism that leads to pollution and environmental degradation.26 The swami’s comments reflect a general distrust throughout India of modern life patterned on the Western paradigm. The rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 1990s came about in part due to a wariness of this cultural shift throughout India. As Thomas Blom Hansen has noted:

The entire problematic of consumption of “Western” products—food, styles of dress, electronics gadgets, music—is among Hindu nationalists (and others) linked to the contamination, exposure, and corruption of the body … [A]ccess to electronic implements, motorized transport, and excessive watching of TV divert the attention away from healthier and more physically demanding pursuits.27

Nonetheless, the task of stopping or even slowing the spread of consumerism and industrialization seems quite impossible. It seems that the Nehruvian vision for India has prevailed and that such Gandhian notions as nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonpossession (aparigraha) are insufficient to bring about the changes needed to make India more environmentally conscious.

As Anil Agarwal has noted, this current urban ecological crisis took India by surprise. In his personal life, he has struggled with environmentally induced cancer. In 1994 he was diagnosed with lymphoma and has received extensive treatments in the United States for his condition. He eloquently writes:

The elite of our nation [India] have failed to internalize the ecological principle that every poison we put out into our environment comes right back to us in our air, water, and food. These poisons slowly seep into our bodies and take years to show up as cancer, as immune system disorders, or as hormonal or reproductive system disorders-affecting even the fetus … [T]he Indian people must not remain ignorant and nonchalant about the acute threats they face to their own health and to the health of their children.28

As the general population of India becomes more aware of the great harm and difficulty inflicted by industrial pollution and inappropriate use of resources, it will begin to awaken to the need for voluntary compliance with much-needed clean-up campaigns. Despite the good intentions of government agencies and the passage of various pieces of antipollution legislation, Indians have a long history of ignoring government regulations. Public advocacy, perhaps inspired by the memory of cleaner times, will eventually prompt the government and industries of India to be more attentive to the destructive nature of its current techno-industrial complex. The Hindu religion, with its vast storehouse of text, ritual, and spirituality, can help contribute both theoretical and practical responses to this crisis.





1 N. Patrick Peritore, “Environmental Attitudes of Indian Elites: Challenging Western Postmodernist Models,” Asian Survey 33 (1993): 807.
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2 Ramachandra Guha, “Radical American Environmentalism: A Third World Critique,” in Ethical Perspectives on Environmental Issues in India, ed. George A. James (New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation, 1999) 115–30. First published in Environmental Ethics 11, no.1 (1989): 71–83.
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3 Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Penguin, 1995) 3–5.
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4 Ibid., 180.
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5 Ibid., 182.
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6 Vikram K. Akula, “Grassroots Environmental Resistance in India,” in Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism, ed. Bron Raymond Taylor (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995) 127.
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7 Peritore, “Environmental Attitudes of Indian Elites,” 804.
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8 Ibid., 817.
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9 Ibid., 818.
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10 Payal Sampat, “What Does India Want?” World Watch 11, no. 4 (1998): 31.
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11Gerald James Larson, India’s Agony over Religion (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995) 199.
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12 O. P. Dwivedi, India’s Environmental Policies, Programmes, and Stewardship (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997) 22–23.
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13 India Today, 16 December 1996, 39.
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14 Anil Agarwal, electronic communication from Center for Science and Environment, 22 April 1999.
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15 India Today, 15 January 1997, 121–23.
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16 Dwivedi, India’s Environmental Policies, Programmes and Stewardship, 11.
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17 Anil Agarwal, electronic communication, 3 February 1999.
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18 Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203–1207.
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19 Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, ed. Lance Nelson (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998) 61–81.
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20 Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
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21 Larson, India’s Agony over Religion, 20–21.
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22 Christopher Key Chapple, Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993).
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23 Christopher Key Chapple, “Toward an Indigenous Indian Environmentalism,” Purifying the Earthly Body of God, ed. Nelson.
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24 Vasudha Narayanan, “‘One Tree Is Equal to Ten Sons’: Hindu Responses to the Problems of Ecology, Population, and Consumption,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no. 2 (1991): 321.
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25 Ibid., 311.
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26 Swami Agnivesh, personal conversation, 11 January 1999.
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27 Thomas Blom Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999) 233.
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28 Anil Agarwal, “My Story Today, Your Story Tomorrow: An Environmentalist Searches for the Genesis of His Own Cancer,” Down To Earth 5, no. 13 (30 November 1996): 30–37.
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