I saw a television program a while back that was looking at attitudes towards environmentalism and conservation The program asked a leader of a Hindu ashram, who said that their attitude was one of detachment. I was disappointed with this answer and I aim to show that Hindus should be concerned with the environment.
I will do this by showing that protection of the environment is seen as a duty of leaders in Hinduism. I will also show that Hinduism has an innate respect and reverence for nature and the environment. Finally I will show that what is seen as the duty of leaders is in these days a duty for us all.
In Hinduism there are many references to the duty of kings to protect the environment. In the Mahabharata the Pandavas are exiled in a forest. After remaining in one place for some time, Yudhishthira dreams that the deer in the forest speak to him about their plight:
We are, O Bharata, those deer that are still alive after them that had been slaughtered. We shall be exterminated totally. Therefore, do thou change thy residence. O mighty king, all thy brothers are heroes, conversant with weapons; they have thinned the ranks of the rangers of the forest. (Mahabharata Section CCLVI)
We ought to feel pity for the dwellers of the forest. We have been feeding on them for a year together and eight months. Let us, therefore, again (repair) to the romantic Kamyakas, that best of forests abounding in wild animals, situated at the head of the desert, near lake Trinavindu. And there let us pleasantly pass the rest of our time. (Mahabharata Section CCLVI)
It is clear here that Yudhisthera sees the protection of the balance of the forest as his responsibility. This responsibility is also shown in the The laws of Manu, where the duty of Kings is set out.
I will declare the duties of kings, (and) show how a king should conduct himself, how he was created, and how (he can obtain) highest success.
A Kshatriya, who has received according to the rule the sacrament prescribed by the Veda, must duly protect this whole (world).
For, when these creatures, being without a king, through fear dispersed in all directions, the Lord created a king for the protection of this whole (creation), (The Laws of Manu Chapter VII)
It is clear from these that kings had a duty to look after the environment. This duty arises for the reverence towards nature held by Hindus. Indeed followers of Advaita Vedana see nature as an aspect of the divine. The Srimad Bhagavatam says:
His waist the oceans and the stack of His bones are the mountains. His veins are the rivers and the plants and trees are the hairs on the body of the Universal Form, o King. The air is His omnipotent breathing, the passing ages are His movement and the reactions of the modes of material nature are His activities. Let me tell you that the hairs on the head of the Supreme Controller are the clouds, o best of the Kurus, and that the intelligence of the Almighty is the prime cause of the material creation, so one says. (Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 2 Chapter 1 vs 32-33)
The Rig Veda (6-48-17) says: “Do not cut the trees because they remove pollution” (from this site).
If you accept the argument that the Kings had a duty to protect nature, the world and the environment, does this mean that it is a duty of all Hindus today? I intend to show that it is a duty for all Hindus.
Some Hindus believe that in the earlier yugas (the golden age), people were by birth suited to their positions (varna). Most Hindus now believe that varna can no longer be decided by birth in this age (the Kuli Yuga). Whereas in the golden age there may have been leaders who were wise, benevolent and carried out their duty, we only have to look at current recent history to see that this is no longer the case. The sage Narada indicates that varna can only be determined by conduct:
When a pious nature and pious deeds are noticeable in even a Sudra, he should, according to my opinion, be held superior to a person of the three regenerate classes. Neither birth, nor the purificatory rites, nor learning, nor offspring, can be regarded as grounds for conferring upon one the regenerate status. Verily, conduct is the only ground. All Brahmanas in this world are Brahmanas in consequence of conduct. A Sudra, if he is established on good conduct, is regarded as possessed of the status of a Brahmana. The status of Brahma, O auspicious lady, is equal wherever it exists. Even this is my opinion. He, indeed, is a Brahmana in whom the status of Brahma exists,–that condition which is bereft of attributes and which has no stain attached to it. (Mahabharata CXLIII).
Here we can see that we should all aspire to the highest level of purity and duty. This includes the duty of kings to care for the environment and of priests (like Manu) to advise them. Failure to do this is a failure of duty. It is not sufficient to remain detached and not act.
This is how democracy works in the modern age. Everyone has a duty to advise the leaders, through voting, writing letters and encouraging everyone to do the same. Democracy does not always give us good leaders. If everyone were to vote according to conscience and duty rather than self interest, and leaders act likewise, then democracy would do.
So, we have seen how Hindus should respect the environment, and how caring for nature was the duty of kings. We have also seen how conduct determines ones worth rather than birth, so we should all aspire to the best of conduct. Through democracy we all share the duty of leadership. Thus it is our duty to support protection of the environment through our governments.
In addition to government action, individual action is also important. I don’t believe I have to argue this point. Hinduism has always supported moderation and avoiding excessive consumption. Add to that the duty to protect nature and the environment and the required action is clear.