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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hindus Reconsider Mother Earth

Air Date: Week of

Richard Shiffman reports on a green religious movement beginning to take root in India. Hindus are reviving traditional ideas about their relationship to the natural world. Religious activists are using ancient myths to help solve contemporary environmental problems.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For millennia, residents of India lived in something akin to harmony with nature, in one of the most fertile lands on Earth. This balance has been shattered by a booming population and massive industrialization. Richard Shiffman reports that in the face of these challenges, Hindu environmental activists are returning to earlier religious values, which encourage followers to revere nature and protect it.


SHIFFMAN: I'm standing at a railway crossing on the outskirts of the south Indian city of Bangalore. When I first visited this spot nearly 25 years ago, it was a sleepy village where you were more likely to hear the lowing of a cow than the roar of traffic.


SHIFFMAN: Today, it's been swallowed up by one of India's fastest-growing cities, a center for high-tech industries like computers and aeronautics. The pollution belching from motor bikes, trucks, and buses like these has created a public health crisis: soaring lead levels in the blood of children, and epidemics of respiratory disease. Since I first came to this spot, India's population has nearly doubled, and rising consumer demands have led to the fouling of its air, water, and soil. But while the rush to consumerism is accelerating, University of San Diego professor Lance Nelson says that traditional religious values could slow it down.

NELSON: The Hindu tradition has a long-standing emphasis on the idea that in order to attain a higher level of spirituality, one had to have an interior focus in one's life. And in order to do that, one had to reduce one's outer wants and to simplify one's life.

SHIFFMAN: Professor Nelson says these ideas were central to the founder of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi believed that India's villages should be economically self-reliant, independent of urban industries. He was arguably the first advocate for what environmentalists now call sustainable development. But Gandhi's doctrine has fallen out of favor in a modern India intent on maximizing economic growth. Still, his legacy remains very much alive for India's environmental activists. They call for appropriate technology drawing on available natural resources to raise living standards. These ideals have spawned thousands of small-scale local crusades, Nelson says.

NELSON: On a grassroots level, probably India has the largest environmental movement in the world.

(Splashing water, voices)

SHIFFMAN: One place where religious beliefs have inspired environmental activism is on the banks of the Ganges in the holy city of Benares.

MISHRA: For us, this geography is not just a mere land mass and, say, hills and plains and water flowing. For us, there are places which are very sacred, and there are objects and places whom we consider as gods and goddesses.

SHIFFMAN: Mahant Mishra is a professor of hydraulic engineering and also the hereditary leader of a major temple in Benares. For Mishra and other Hindus, the Ganges is a flowing expression of the mother of all life.

MISHRA: The disrespect which we are doing by dumping garbage and sewage into the river is disrespecting of our mother. And we need to be with the mother in this hour of her problem.

SHIFFMAN: Mishra's efforts prodded India's central government to establish an authority to clean up the river. More than a decade and tens of millions of dollars later, the Ganges is still fouled with raw sewage. Mahant Mishra says that, rather than throwing money and advanced technology at the problem, environmentally-friendly low-tech solutions, like sewage settling ponds, are the answer. He's hopeful, he says, because public awareness of the problem is growing.

(Music and applause)

SHIFFMAN: This play on the steps leading down to the Ganges is being staged to encourage residents of Benares to keep their river clean.

(Music, speaking voices)

SHIFFMAN: The assembled deities implore Mother Ganges to come down from Heaven to Earth. She objects that the weight of her descent will shatter the ground. Lord Shiva pledges to break the force of her fall with his own hair. This timeless myth has been inspiring residents of the Himalayas to save their forests, according to Edwin Bernbaum, an authority on sacred mountains.

BERNBAUM: Indian environmentalists have pointed out that the texts say that the forests in the Himalayas are Shiva's hair. So, in the summer, this corresponds to what actually happens. The Ganges does fall from heaven in the form of monsoon rains, and if Shiva's hair is no longer there, if the forests have been cut down, the Earth does shatter, you know, these incredible landslides and floods.

SHIFFMAN: The head priest of the Badrinath Temple in the Himalayas is using the ecological version of the story to encourage pilgrims to plant trees in this badly deforested region. As a result, the once-barren mountain slopes above the temple are now carpeted with a sacred forest.

BERNBAUM: Instead of coming in with the government and saying let's establish a biodiversity conservation area, which is the usual ecological way to do it, doesn't mean a damn thing to people there. However, if you use these sacred forests as cores around which you establish a protected sanctuary, then it means something. And you'll basically get the biodiversity conservation zones. But they'll come out of what's already a practice there, and they'll be rooted in the culture and respected.

SHIFFMAN: Another pilgrimage center has become the focal point for environmental action. The sacred Arunachala Mountain in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

(Animals call)

JAYRAMAN: This hill is known to be an attracter of spiritual seekers.

SHIFFMAN: Seekers like Jayraman, one of the founders of the Anamalai Reforestation Society.

JAYRAMAN: There's a long tradition of many things having come here and songs in praise of the hill.


JAYRAMAN: In their songs they talk of various types of animal. They talk of many waterfalls and streams, and hordes of elephants making their ways to the hill.


SHIFFMAN: The streams have dried up and the elephants have long since disappeared from this agricultural region. But trees and wildlife like this troupe of white-tufted langur monkeys are beginning to return to the southern slope of the hill.

(Monkeys call)

SHIFFMAN: This modest forest has been planted and maintained by the Anamalai Reforestation Society, but not without resistance from the surrounding villagers.

(A woman sings)

SHIFFMAN: The song of a grass cutter seems to waft in out of a simpler age in tune with nature. But grass cutters scorch saplings by setting fires, and they cut down trees for firewood. These forested slopes are patrolled by 2 full-time guards. Local environmentalists now realize, however, that it will take more than guards to protect their ecosystem.

(Women speak)

SHIFFMAN: It's lunch time at an experimental farm a few miles from Arunachala Hill. This 7-acre facility was set up by the Anamalai Reforestation Society as a place to hold classes for local villagers on environmental protection, and to demonstrate techniques for growing trees and food crops without the use of agricultural chemicals.


SHIFFMAN: Organic farming is new to India, and the formulas for home-brewed pesticides and fertilizers are just now being developed at places like this. Already, several local farmers are making a pesticide out of cow's urine and wild herbs for their own use. Other innovations, however, like the farm's cow dung bio-gas plant and solar powered pumps are too costly for small farmers to afford on their own. My guide, Kanikeshwaran, is a retired railway official turned organic farmer. Kanikeshwaran says that in earlier times villagers maintained common lands to grow trees and produce fodder for their livestock. That spirit of cooperation needs to return, he says.

KANIKESHWARAN: Materialism is ruling. That is bad. The man with the highest standard of life is living a poor quality of life.

SHIFFMAN: Kanikeshwaran believes that the solution to India's environmental ills is not just a technical one. People have to recover the ethic of selfless service, or karma yoga. They should also pool their resources and take advantage of appropriate technologies which depend on locally-available inputs. Most important, he says, they need to revere God's gift of plants and animals, even common creatures like the crow.

(Crows caw)

KANIKESHWARAN: Before one takes the food, first one handful of rice is offered to the crow.

SHIFFMAN: So it's an offering to the crow...


SHIFFMAN: ...so that he will continue to clean -- he's the cleaner of the village.

KANIKESHWARAN: Yes. He's called the scavenger in the sky.

(Crows caw)

SHIFFMAN: Westerners often criticize Hindus for worshipping cows, trees, and even crows. But according to Kanikeshwaran, they don't worship animals and plants. They express their gratitude to all creatures whose life supports our own. When that sacred attitude becomes more commonplace, he says, we won't be so likely to despoil the Earth. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Shiffman.



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