Originally written for the magazine “Mandir Vani,” Allegra Lovejoy and Parth Parihar are sharing our article here.
Dharmic traditions are Earth-honoring traditions. While the prevailing response to climate change in the West has emphasized stewardship and responsible management (i.e., for future generations), the dharmic standpoint accords moral value, even divinity, to the environment itself, independently of its utility to humans. That is, while the former view is distinctly anthropocentric in lamenting the destruction of the environment as it affects our children’s ability to partake of this beautiful earth, the dharmic view provides agency to the environment and thus views its destruction as an act of injustice against a manifestation of divinity (hence, the word “Mother” is appended after Bhoomi and Ganga in the Indian lexicon).
We see this ethical view strung throughout our texts. One early example comes from the Rigveda Samhita (RV 3.33), in a famous samvada between Vishwamitra and two rivers, the Vipash and the Shutudri. Here, Vishwamitra must cross the river and seeks their permission to do so. What is distinctive about this conversation is not necessarily the humanization of the rivers, who speak to Vishwamitra— “the most maternal river” (3), “we will listen to your words” (11)—as non-human beings have sentience and voice in Dharmic traditions.
No, what is most insightful is that this exchange places the rivers at a station equal to or higher than Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra’s entreaty to the rivers is: “Wait, a little at my request, in order to gather Soma; rest, waters of truth, a moment in your journey. With powerful prayer asking favor, [Vishwamitra] has called to the river (5).”
Here, it is instructive to note the humility with which this request is made. Vishwamitra repeats, “I ask your favor, you who are worthy of our honor” (11). The samvada ends with Vishwamitra praying that the streams, harmless and without fault, never become empty, reminiscent of the way in which an atithi will wish a generous host good fortune. Here, again, the rivers are called upon for a favor, implying they have the agency to withhold, but do not, out of nobility.
The idea of asking permission and honoring Nature for—faultlessly— supporting and nourishing us is echoed in this Bhoomi Prarthana:
Samudre vasane devi parvata sthana mandale |
Vishnu Patni Namastubhyam Padasparsham Kshamasva me ||
The last two lines, “kshamasva me,” ask that Devi (Bhoomi Mata) who has oceans as Her garments and mountains as Her bosom grant us forgiveness for touching Her with our feet. We could well ask Her for forgiveness for many other things that are commonplace in modern culture. The average American throws away 4.4 lb of garbage per day. In a lifetime, that’s 600 times our body weight.
What about emissions? Americans produce an average of 20 metric tonnes of carbon per year in our consumptive lifestyles; even those consuming the lowest amounts of energy don’t produce less than 8.5 metric tonnes, more than twice the global average.
Our personal and industrial waste and emissions have to go somewhere. Much of it has directly harmful impacts on our local and global ecosystems. In India, 45 million tonnes of garbage are disposed of unsafely every day. In America, up to 10 billion gallons of untreated human and animal waste go into our waterways every year – much of it directly into the water that we drink from, swim in, and fish from. Although our modern lifestyles isolate us from the environmental impact of our waste, the impact on Bhumi Mata is drastic. We can all conjure images of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; animals covered in toxic sludge after the oil spills that seem to happen with increasing frequency; dead brown rivers that once flowed with life; torrential rainstorms and droughts that kill the plants that give us life; the toxic sludge that was once the sacred River Yamuna.
If we ask Bhumi Mata for forgiveness for walking on Her each morning, then we must beg for Her forgiveness for the garbage, emissions, and industrial pollution we collectively dump on Her each day, and for the resources we extract without replenishment.
We can also change this. Dharmic societies lived in harmony with Bhumi Mata, replenishing what they took and generating as little waste as possible. Today, there are many campaigns to use less waste, such as using metal thalis or compostable plates instead of Styrofoam in serving prasad, pursuing low-energy building uses like those highlighted in the LEED program, or saving spent puja items instead of throwing them in the river or ocean. Other communities seek to replenish Bhumi Mata through restoring sacred rivers, protecting cows, supporting sustainable rural development, or investing in regenerative agriculture.
What does it mean to live dharmically in the 21st Century? Sometimes it means swimming against the current of a culture that is, well, not very dharmic and holding fast to the principles taught in our sacred traditions. Dharmic traditions bring special insight into the environmental movement by teaching us to revere and protect the Earth because She is the Divine present in matter, not just because we need to preserve resources for our descendants. As dharmic practitioners, let us contemplate how we can apply our values of ahimsa and tapas in modern culture to return to an Earth-honoring way of life.
 EPA.gov <www.epa.gov/smm/advancing-sustainable-materials-management-facts-and-figures>)
 “Carbon Footprint of Best Conserving Americans Is Still Double Global Average.” Science Daily, April 29, 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080428120658.htm>
 Chaitanya Mallapur, “India’s Real Trash Problem.” Mid Day News, January 31, 2015. <www.mid-day.com/articles/indias-real-trash-problem-3-million-truckloads-of-untreated-garbage-disposed-daily/15953186>
 Mary Ann Evans, “Flushing The Toilet Has Never Been Riskier.” The Atlantic, September 17, 2015. <www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/09/americas-sewage-crisis-public-health/405541/>
 Visit “SaveYamuna.Org” to learn more.