Overview Essay

Hinduism: Devotional Love of the World

David L. Haberman, Indiana University

Originally published in the Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology


There is an outright assault on virtually every aspect of Earth’s ecosystems these days: rivers are severely polluted, forests are razed at alarming rates, and mountains are demolished for a variety of industrial purposes.  Enormous damage has already been done to meet the ever-increasing demands of a rapidly growing globalized consumer culture.  We are now gearing up to inflict even greater damage as we prepare to harvest all remaining resources and to squeeze every last drop of fossil fuel from the planet.  At the same time, there seems to be a new planetary awakening that seeks ways beyond our current unsustainable predicament to a healthier human presence on Earth, and religious traditions worldwide are increasingly contributing to this movement.  How do people within the Hindu religious cultures of India regard and struggle with these challenges?  Relatedly, how are natural entities such as rivers, trees, and mountains conceived within these cultures, and what kinds of practices are found within them that might serve to address the unprecedented environmental degradation of our day?

The term Hinduism is a complex one.  Originally used by Persians to denote the religious ways of people who lived on the other side of the Indus River, today it is the accepted designation of a vast array of religious beliefs and practices of the majority of the Indian population.  As in the case of every world religion, it is more accurate to speak not of a single Hinduism, but rather of a rich multiplicity of Hinduisms.  Past overviews of Hinduism and ecology have tended to focus on the philosophical texts and practices of the ascetic traditions.[1]  The notable work of Christopher Chapple, for example, highlights the contributions that the Hindu renouncer values of minimal consumption might make toward an environmentally friendly ethic (Chapple 1998).  While these values are significant in considering ecological possibilities within Hinduism, I find myself in agreement with Vasudha Narayanan who has pressed for a shift away from an emphasis on the ascetic traditions in our understanding of Hinduism and ecology to the bhakti devotional texts and rituals, since “devotional (bhakti) exercises seem to be the greatest potential resource for ecological activists in India” (Narayanan 2001, 202). I propose to take up this recommendation with a presentation of a popular mode of Hinduism and ecology that has received little academic attention in general works on religion and ecology.  This essay is not intended to be a survey, but rather a representation of a fairly widespread form of religiously informed ecological activism that I have encountered both explicitly and implicitly in my explorations of Hinduism and ecology (Haberman 2006, 2013).

Before examining some contemporary instances of Hindu ecological engagement, I briefly take up the question, “Is Hinduism eco-friendly?”  We would be justified in rejecting this question altogether, for it is a simplistic and misleading formulation that both reduces a complex tradition and calls for an answer never intended by any tradition.  Like all world religious traditions, Hinduism is a multifaceted cultural phenomenon that consists of many varied and sometimes contradictory voices.  There is evidence for what could be identified as ecologically damaging views and practices within Hinduism, and there is evidence for what could be identified as ecologically friendly views and practices within Hinduism.  Questioning the concept of the “oriental ecologist,” Ole Bruun and Arne Kalland have argued that Asian philosophies have done little to prevent environmental disasters in a number of Asian societies (Bruun and Kalland 1995, 2-3).  Nonetheless, while acknowledging some aspects of Hinduism have been detrimental to the environment, a number of writers have maintained that Hinduism has much to contribute to addressing the environmental crisis.  Rita Dasgupta Sherma, for example, insists, “In the case of Hinduism, resources exist for the development of a vision that could promote ecological action” (Sherma 1998, 89-90).

We must keep in mind, however, that the current scope of the environmental crisis is a drastically new experience that demands new responses; no religious tradition in its present form is fully prepared to address the current problems.  Poul Pedersen reminds us, “No Buddhist, Hindu, or Islamic scriptures contain concepts like ‘environmental crisis,’ ‘ecosystems,’ or ‘sustainable development,’ or concepts corresponding to them.  To insist that they do is to deny the immense cultural distance that separates traditional religious conceptions of the environment from modern ecological knowledge” (Pedersen 1995, 226).[2]  Religious traditions are always changing in the face of new historical circumstances, and one of the greatest challenges today is the environmental crisis, which is already reshaping religious traditions worldwide.  With these precautions in mind, we can proceed to examine an emerging ecological development within Hindu India and those dimensions of the tradition that might serve as resources for those who employ a Hindu cultural perspective in their struggle with the environmental crisis.

Past representations of Hinduism that were heavily dependent on the ascetic philosophy of Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta often ignored Hinduism’s most common aspect: the devotional cultures of India that focus on interaction with embodied forms of divinity and generally promote a very positive view of the world. To explore what this theistic Hinduism means for environmental thought and action, it would be useful to examine the views expressed in the Bhagavad Gita.  This popular text gives representative expression to concepts that inform much theistic Hinduism.  The Bhagavad Gita has also been important for many involved in early environmental movements in India, especially those influenced by Gandhi who used it for daily meditations.[3] Well-known environmental activists in India, such as the Himalayan forest defenders, have organized readings of the Bhagavad Gita as part of their strategy for environmental protection, and some have used it to articulate a specifically Hindu ecological philosophy.[4]  One can even find examples of such use of the Bhagavad Gita in science-based environmental publications such as Down to Earth, a periodical published by the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.[5]  Most importantly for our considerations, the Bhagavad Gita provides a theological framework for understanding the religious thought that informs much devotionally based environmentalism within Hinduism.[6]

Like Narayanan, I too have found a preeminence of bhakti rituals and devotional texts in my studies of Hinduism, nature and ecology; my comments, therefore, focus on certain devotional beliefs and practices that relate to environmental conceptions, concerns, and practices.  One of the major debates between the ascetic and devotional traditions relates to the status of the world we experience with our senses.  While many of the ascetic traditions teach that the phenomenal world is ultimately an illusion to be transcended, the devotional traditions have tended to affirm the reality of the world, often honored as a divine manifestation.  The position of the Bhagavad Gita is relevant.  Narayanan explains that, “central to the Bhagavadgita is the vision of the universe as the body of Krishna” (Narayanan 2001, 185).  

To introduce a common way of thinking about Hinduism and environmentalism in present-day practice, I highlight four Sanskrit terms prevalent in discourse about conceptualizations of and interaction with natural entities. Since all four terms begin with an “s,” I refer to them as the four “s”s.  Although all of these terms are drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, they are used generally in Hindu discussions about ecology and the natural environment and come up frequently during conversations about environmental activism in India.  The form of environmental activism represented by these terms is not well known outside of India; nonetheless it is quite popular within India, as it is firmly rooted in the devotional practices that center on worshipful interaction with embodied forms of divinity.  The first term, sarvatma-bhava, has to do with the worldview that informs much environmental activism within Hindu culture; the second, svarupa, relates to the devotional object of environmental activism; the third, seva, is increasingly used to denote environmental activism itself; and the fourth, sambandha, identifies the desired outcome of the action.

Among the four terms sarvatma-bhava is perhaps the least utilized in everyday language, but the notion it signifies is prevalent within Hinduism.  It is a technical compound word that proclaims that everything is part of a unified and radically interconnected reality, called alternatively Atman or Brahman, and refers to the largely accepted viewpoint that all is sacred.  In common parlance, this is often expressed theologically as God is everything and everything is God.  This is a concept with deep roots in many Hindu scriptures.  The highly influential Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, declares, “the whole world is Brahman” (1.4).  Granted most Hindus do not have detailed knowledge of Upanishadic texts, but this is an idea that is expressed repeatedly in many later texts and everyday discussions about religion. The better-known Bhagavad Gita states this notion most succinctly in the concise declaration: “Vasudeva (Krishna) is the entire world” (7.19).  Without necessarily referencing texts such as these, many people articulate a similar notion while discussing the relationship between the world and Krishna.  “Everything in this world is a part of Krishna and therefore worthy of reverence (pujaniya),” a man explained to me while discussing the natural landscape.

Early foundational texts, such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, also asserted that there are two aspects of ultimate reality or Brahman: one is identified with all forms (murta), and the other is identified with the realm of the formless (amurta) (2.3).  Brahman as all forms is everything that is manifest and transitory, whereas Brahman as the formless is unmanifest and unchanging.  These are not two separate realities, but rather different modes of the same unified reality.  Although most people are not directly familiar with the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, they are conversant with this principle.  A Hindi-speaking woman expressed this concept theologically: “Some people think of God as with form (sakar), and others think of God as formless (nirakar).  These are just different ways of thinking of God, but God is one (Bhagavan ek hi hai.).”  

The Bhagavad Gita confirms these two aspects of ultimate reality, and adds a third that encompasses and surpasses both: the divine personality called Purushottama.  Devotional traditions aim to establish a relationship with this supreme form.  Although these three dimensions of reality are regarded in a hierarchical fashion, it is important to remember that all three are aspects of divinity, in this instance Krishna.  That is, while it is assumed to be only a portion of a much vaster and unmanifest reality, the entire manifest world of multiple forms that we perceive with our senses is fully divine.  While manifestly diverse, the sense of reality denoted by sarvatma-bhava is that everything is also simultaneously interconnected and unified; in short, the entire world is divine.  The tripartite conception of reality is at the very core of many Hindu schools of thought, and is considered to be the vital foundation for all spiritual development and productive work in the world.  It is also important for understanding specific forms of devotional environmentalism in India.   

Though the whole world is divine, human beings are not good at connecting with abstract universalities.  We are embodied beings designed to connect with concrete particularities.  Universal love is a noble sentiment, for example, but it cannot begin to compare to the passionate engagement of the intimate love of a particular person.  Acknowledging this feature of human emotions and perception leads to the next “s”: svarupa.  The term svarupa has an expedient double meaning.  It literally means “own-form,” and in theological contexts frequently refers to the deity’s own form or an essential manifestation of God, and is understood to refer to a full presence of divinity.  An aspect of the highest reality, it comes to mean a specific embodied form divinity takes in the world.  Divinity within Hinduism is typically understood to be infinite and all pervasive, but assumes particular concrete forms; accordingly, although unified at the unmanifest level, it manifests as a multitude of individual entities.  The second meaning of the term svarupa is the worshiper’s own form of divinity.  The divine unified reality of Brahman is everywhere and everything, but one’s svarupa is a personal and approachable concrete “handle” on the infinite; it is that distinct, intimate form of divinity to which one is especially attracted.  That is, among the countless multitude of forms, this is the particular one to which a person is drawn and develops a special relationship. The particular physical forms of divinity that are svarupas importantly include many natural phenomena, such as rivers, ponds, rocks, mountains, trees and forests.  Everything in the world is understood to be a potential svarupa, but there are natural entities that are favored through cultural selection. Specific examples would include rivers, such as the Yamuna, Ganges, and Narmada; sacred trees such as neem, pipal, and banyan; and mountains such as Govardhan and Arunachal.  And all svarupas are comprised of the three interrelated dimensions of reality.  The form dimension of the Yamuna, for example, is the physical water of the river, the formless is the all-pervasive spiritual dimension, and the divine personality is the goddess Yamuna Devi. The form dimension of Mount Govardhan is the concrete rocky hill, the formless is the all-pervasive undifferentiated dimension, and the divine personality is Krishna in the form of Shri Govardhana Natha-ji.

Recognized as a special form of divine vitality, awareness of the full nature of the svarupa is considered by many to be a key component to beneficial environmental attitudes and actions.  The physical svarupa of a neem tree, for example, is connected with her goddess identity.  A woman who worships a particular neem tree everyday in Varanasi told me: “Ma’s powerful presence is in this tree.  This tree is her svarupa.  I worship her here everyday and now have a special relationship with this tree” (Haberman 2013, 144).  Accordingly, she – as well as many others who share her understanding – would never think of harming or cutting a neem tree.  The svarupa of the Yamuna River too is associated with her divine identity.  A man who lives in a town located on the shore of this river links an awareness of this identity to current environmental concerns: “The people who are not aware of the svarupa are polluting her.  If we could get people to see the goddess in the river, they would worship her and stop polluting her.  People who don't understand the svarupa of Yamuna-ji are polluting her.  We must make them understand the real nature of Yamuna-ji, and then they will stop polluting” (Haberman 2006, 187).  I observed a group of villagers living at the base of Mount Govardhan stop a man from even putting a shovel into the soil of the mountain to plant a tree, so great was their concern for the sensitive personality of the mountain.

How does one connect with a svarupa?   This question leads to another of the four “s”s: seva, a term that means concrete acts of “loving service” or simply “acts of love.” In the context of the religious culture associated with natural sacred entities a few decades ago, the word seva would have referred almost exclusively to ritual acts of honorific worship, such as offering flowers, hymns, and incense.  However, in this age of pollution this term is increasingly being used to designate acts that would in the West be labeled “environmental activism.”  For example, previously it was assumed that Yamuna was a powerful and protective Mother who cared for her human children, but now there is a growing conviction that her children need to care for her.  The term used for this care is seva, loving actions that now take a variety of forms – from picking garbage out of the river to political and legal action aimed to protect it. 

In these bhakti traditions, love has two aspects: feelings and actions, and these two are significantly interconnected.  Feelings set actions in motion, and actions engender further feelings.  Since feelings are more difficult to access than actions, actions are the entryway into an ever-expanding circle of love.  Moreover, the specialness of a being is revealed in the presence of love; while we shrink back into a protective shell when confronted with hostility, we come out and expose ourselves more fully in the presence of love.  Likewise, the deep sacrality of the world reveals itself only in the face of love.  Awareness of the true nature (svarupa) of something generates love for it, and that love enables one to see that true nature more clearly.  Loving acts toward a being generate loving feelings toward that being – rivers, trees, and mountains included – which motivate more loving acts.  This point was driven home to me one day while watching a young man perform acts of worshipful seva to the Yamuna River.  He told me about the transformation in his own life that led him to become a daily worshiper of Yamuna.  “I used to see Yamuna-ji as an ordinary polluted river.  I used to wear my sandals down to her bank (He now views this as a grave insult.).  But then I met my guru, and he told me to start worshipping Yamuna-ji.  At first I was a little resistant, but I did what he said.  Soon, I began to see her svarupa (true form) and realized how wonderful she really is.  So now I worship her everyday with love.  The main benefit of worshipping Yamuna-ji is an ever-expanding love” (Haberman 2006, 185).

Most importantly for ecological considerations, those who reflect on the environmental crisis from this viewpoint say that this deep perspective is the one most needed to restore a healthy relationship with the world.  For the devotees of Yamuna immersed in this perspective, this means opening oneself to the river to the point where one can perceive the svarupa of Yamuna.  Once this occurs, polluting the river becomes as impossible as dumping garbage on the face of one’s lover.  Worshipful acts, then, are the very doorway into an inner world of realization; they are concrete levers for opening up new perspectives that lead to environmental awareness and activism.  While environmental degradation, I was told again and again, is the result of a very limited perspective on the world, many devotees stressed that a positive and ecologically healthy relationship with the natural world depends on a loving awareness of its true nature, or svarupa, which is realized through loving acts of seva.  An awareness of the true nature of reality leads one into a world of divine love wherein destruction and pollution become unthinkable.

Love, therefore, is both a means and an end.  The Hindu eco-theologian Shrivatsa Goswami maintains that, “Love is the key to all sustainability” (Haberman 2006, 157).  Many environmental activists I spoke with in India articulated their actions as expressions of love. The environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna, who worked many years attempting to stop the Tehri Dam on a major Himalayan branch of the Ganges River, told me that his work was motivated by devotional love: “I love rivers because they are God; they are our Mother.  In our philosophy we see God in all nature: mountains, rivers, springs, and other natural forms” (Haberman 2006, 71).  And love for Mount Arunachal as an essential form of Shiva led Ramana Maharshi and his followers to protect the sacred hill from developmental plans and to initiate its reforestation.

The love generated in seva, then, leads not only to a joyful realization of the true form of the “object” of that seva, but also to a deep concern for it. Because of his sentiments toward Yamuna, a pilgrimage priest who resides near the Yamuna River in Mathura experienced much pain while confronting the massive pollution of the river.  “When people come to Mathura and see the condition of the Yamuna,” he reports, “it hurts them and they leave with a broken heart.”  This man’s anguish spurred him into environmental action aimed at cleansing the river.  “When Mother is sick,” he explained, “one cannot throw her out of the house.  We must help her.  Therefore, I do Yamuna seva” (Haberman 2006, 144).  Seva, or loving service, was a word I heard many times in conversations with environmental activists working to restore the Yamuna to health.  This activist priest, who organized demonstrations to raise awareness of the plight of the Yamuna and was the primary instigator of a successful court case that imposed a ban on the release of untreated domestic sewage and industrial effluents into the Yamuna in the Mathura District, represents his environmental activism with this religious term, as do many others in India. For him, restoring the river is a deeply religious act, performed not primarily for the benefit of humans, but for the river herself.

The culminating result of this divine love affair is a firm “connection” or “relationship” with some aspect of the sacred world. This relationship is called sambandha – the final “s”. Worshipful acts of seva designed to honor a particular being have the additional effect of stimulating a deeper loving connection – sambandha – with that being.  As a recipient of loving acts of seva, natural entities such as rivers, trees, and stones from sacred mountains are typically personified and sometimes even adorned in an anthropomorphic manner.  The Yamuna River is draped from shore to shore with a long decorative cloth made from 108 colorful saris on her birthday and other special occasions.  Neem trees in Varanasi are wrapped with ornate cloth and humanlike facemasks are attached to the trunks at eye level.  Faces with prominent eyes are also added to stones from Mount Govardhan, which are then adorned with clothing and jewelry.  Worshipers of these natural entities report that this seva practice is more than a way of honoring the natural entity; they also do this to develop and enhance an intimate relationship with the svarupa

A neem tree worshiper told me: “The face makes darshan (sight) of the goddess easier.  The tree is the goddess, but it is easier to have a relationship with the goddess if a face is there.  It is easier to see the goddess in the tree, or the tree as the goddess with a face on it” (Haberman 2013, 154).  Many tree worshipers report that the face helps them recognize and better bond with the goddess of the neem tree: “When I look into the face of the goddess on the tree,” one woman explained, “I feel a strong connection (sambandha) with this tree” (Haberman 2013, 154).  Worshipers who add faces to stones from Mount Govardhan, which are understood to be naturally embodied forms of Krishna, express similar notions. One told me that this practice “makes it easier to perceive the svarupa, to see the stone as Krishna.”   Another said: “When you put eyes and face on a Govardhan stone you feel it is a person.  It is easier to see the stone as a person with the face and clothing added.  Putting eyes and other ornamentations on the stone makes its personality more perceptible.  This makes a loving relationship with the svarupa more possible.” 

In this context, anthropomorphism seems to function as an intentional cultural means of connecting positively with the nonhuman world.  Current research by social psychologists seems to corroborate the notion that anthropomorphism can function as a means of establishing connection with some nonhuman entity, and that this connection leads to a greater concern for the anthropomorphized agent’s well-being (Epley 2008).  This claim has been confirmed by a group of Hong Kong based psychological researchers who have published a study which demonstrates that anthropomorphizing enhances connectedness to natural entities, and that this results in a stronger commitment to conservation behavior (Tam 2013).

Those who see the Yamuna as a divine goddess are less prone to polluting the river and more committed to restoring it; those who see trees as divine personalities avoid harming them and oversee their protection; and devotees of Mount Govardhan don’t dig into the mountain and some have worked to safeguard it from extractive exploitation.  But how relevant is the concern for a single natural entity toward the larger ethical concern for all such entities?  The possibility of this mode of devotional environmentalism opening out to a more universal ethic was highlighted for me during an instructive conversation.  One day I visited a large pipal tree shrine in Varanasi and there met a sadhvi, a female practitioner who had renounced ordinary domestic life to devote herself to spiritual pursuits.  At one point in our conversation she explained what she thought was the real value of worshiping a tree.  “From the heartfelt worship of a single tree one can see the divinity in that tree and feel love for it.  After some time, with knowledge one can then see the divinity in all trees.  Really, in all life.  All life is sacred because God is everywhere and in everything.  This tree is a svarupa of Vasudeva (Krishna).  As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, from devotion to a svarupa (one’s own particular form of God) comes awareness of the vishvarupa (universal form of God)” (Haberman 2013, 197).  In brief, this knowledgeable woman was advancing the idea that the worship of a particular has the possibility of expanding to a more reverent attitude toward the universal.  Regarding trees, her point was that the worship of a particular tree could lead to the realization of the sacrality of all trees – and by extension, of everything. 

With the comprehension of the universal via the particular we return full circle to the notion of sarvatma-bhava, the idea that everything is sacred. What first began as a proposition is now directly realized in experience.  Many within Hindu religious traditions maintain that it is precisely a reawakening to this deep sacred quality of all life that is the foundation for establishing a more sustainable human presence on the planet. The notions related to the Bhagavad Gita’s four “s’s” are deeply embedded in Hindu devotionalism.  Here, then, is a potential resource that is already in place within popular Hindu culture for an emerging environmental practice and ethic that can extend loving care to all of life.



Ahmed K., Kashyap S., and Sinha S. (2000) “Pollution of Hinduism” Down to Earth Science and Environment Fortnightly published by Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi (February 15th edition) 27-37.  Also now available online at: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/pollution-of-hinduisim-17622.

Bruun O. and Kalland A. (1995) “Images of nature: an introduction to the study of man-environment relations in Asia” in Bruun O. and Kalland A. eds. Asian perceptions of nature Curzon Press, Richmond, UK 1-24.

Chapple C. (1998) “Toward an indigenous Indian environmentalism” in Nelson L. ed. Purifying the earthly body of God: religion and ecology in Hindu India State University of New York Press, Albany 13-37.

Chapple C. and Tucker M. eds. (2000) Hinduism and ecology Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Epley N., Waytz A., Akalis S., and Cacioppo J. (2008) “When we need a human: motivational determinants of anthropomorphism” Social Cognition 26:2, 143-55.

Gadgil M. and Guha R. (1995) Ecology and equity Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Guha R. (1998) “Mahatma Gandhi and the environmental movement in India” in Kalland A. and Persoon G. eds. Environmental movements in Asia Curzon Press, Richmond, UK 65-82.

Guha R. (1999) The unquiet woods: Ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Haberman D. (2006) River of love in an age of pollution: The Yamuna River of northern India University of California Press, Berkeley.

Haberman D. (2013) People trees: Worship of trees in northern India Oxford University Press, New York.

Jacobsen K. (1996) “Bhagavadgita, Ecosophy T, and deep ecology” Inquiry 39:2, 219-38.

Naess A. (1995) “Self-Realization: an ecological approach to being in the world” in Drengson A. and Yuichi I. eds. The Deep Ecology Movement: An introductory anthology North Atlantic Books, Berkeley 13-30.

Narayanan V. (2001) “Water, wood, and wisdom: ecological perspectives from the Hindu tradition” Daedalus 130:4, 179-206.

Nelson L. ed. (1998) Purifying the earthly body of God: Religion and ecology in Hindu India State University of New York Press, Albany.

Nelson L. (2000) “Reading the Bhagavadgita from an ecological perspective” in Chapple C. and Tucker M. eds. Hinduism and ecology Harvard University Press, Cambridge 127-64.

Pedersen P. (1995) “Nature, religion, and cultural identity: the religious environmental paradigm in Asia” in Bruun O. and Kalland A. eds. Asian perceptions of nature Curzon Press, Richmond, UK 258-76.

Sherma R. (1998) “Sacred immanence: reflections on ecofeminism in Hindu Tantra” in Nelson L. ed. Purifying the earthly body of God: Religion and ecology in Hindu India State University of New York Press, Albany 89-131.

Tam K., Lee S., and Chao M. (2013) “Saving Mr. Nature: Anthropomorphism enhances connectedness to and protectiveness toward nature” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49:3 514-21.

Tomalin E. (2004) “Bio-divinity and biodiversity: Perspectives on religion and environmental conservation in India” Numen 51:3 265-95. 

Tomalin E. (2009) Biodivinity and biodiversity: The limits to religious environmentalism Ashgate, Farnham, UK.



[1]In addition to numerous articles and several monographs, former studies of Hinduism and ecology include two useful volumes of essays written by various scholars (Chapple and Tucker 2000, Nelson 1998).

[2]More recently Emma Tomalin has argued for a distinction between what she calls bio-divinity and environmental concerns.  Bio-divinity refers to the notion that nature is infused with divinity.  This is an idea that has been current in India for a long time; the environmental crisis, however, is relatively new, as are the concerns related to it.  Tomalin insists, therefore, that “there is an immense difference between the priorities and concerns of the modern environmentalist and the world-views of much earlier Hindu sages, poets, and philosophers” (Tomalin, 2004, 267).  This does not mean, however, that aspects of Hinduism cannot be interpreted to support contemporary environmental thinking and action. As Tomalin recognizes, “Religious traditions constantly re-invent themselves precisely through making claims about the past in order to accommodate new ideas” (268). Sacred views of nature in India might indeed now be very useful as a resource to promote the protection and care of the environment.  In fact, this is precisely what is currently taking place.  Tomalin has also published a book expanding on this subject (2009).

[3]Ramachandra Guha maintains that “it is probably fair to say that the life and practice of Gandhi have been the single most important influence on the Indian environmental movement” (1998, 65-66).  The Norwegian philosopher and founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, was greatly influenced by Gandhi; he took the conceptually central term “Self-Realization” from Gandhi, who in turn took it from the Bhagavad Gita (Naess 1995).

[4]See Guha (1999, 162).  The environmental activist and Chipko spokesperson Sunderlal Bahuguna frequently quotes from the Bhagavad Gita to support his own ecological theology.  The Chipko Movement and Bahuguna have been key sources for the Indian environmental movement. “Indeed, the origins of the Indian environmental movement can be fairly ascribed to that most celebrated of forest conflicts, the Chipko movement of the central Himalaya” (Gadgil and Guha 1995, 84).

[5]“Conserve ecology or perish – this in short, is one of the messages of the Gita, one of the most important scriptures of the Vedic way of life now known as Hinduism” (Ahmed, Kashyap, and Sinha 2000, 28).

[6]Two recent publications based on Shankaracharaya’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita challenge the validity of this position of the Bhagavad Gita (Jabobsen 1996, Nelson 2000).   See my own critical assessment of these articles (Haberman 2006, 29-37).

Header photo credit: ©Chris Chapple, Floral ceremonial offerings, Haridwar, India