Last blog I looked into the latest scientific research on the amazing healing benefits of Mother Earth. This week I explore what yogic philosophy and other wisdom traditions have to say about the importance of nature. With 8 out of every 10 people on this planet subscribing to some sort of spiritual perspective of life, its worthwhile to consider how this might impact the way we treat our natural environment. I have sometimes heard religious people denigrate “greenies.” However my survey of some of the biggest religions in the world reveals that every faith tradition’s holy scriptures are “green.” If you follow a spiritual path you may want to look deeper into what it has to say about nature and conserving natural resources.
Yoga has become synonymous with a certain form of exercise but Asanas (the postures that are practiced) are only one aspect of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali written almost two thousand years ago, yoga is explained as having 8 limbs (or steps). Asanas are the third limb and a relatively new one at that. The first 2 are called yamas and niyamas - ethical ways to live. The aim of the other 5 limbs is to lead the individual soul to union with the universal soul. Yoga means union.
Yoga philosophers believe that there is a life force or energy that permeates the universe at all levels. They call it Prana. The same energy that gives us life is found within animal and plant life, even the smallest organisms we can find. This life force is to be respected and protected.
There is a mantra (a saying) called Mangala that states:
“May the rulers of earth keep to the path of virtue for protecting the welfare of all generations.
May the religious, and all peoples be forever blessed,
May all beings everywhere be happy and free’
Om peace, peace, perfect peace.”
Implied in this is the necessity of caring not only for people but all living things and our natural environment. People who start exercise with yoga will often go on to change other aspects of their life to slow down, simplify and reduce their ecological footprint on the planet.
Traditional Aboriginal peoples have always considered the growth, reproduction and regeneration cycles of plants, animals and birds. To interrupt these natural cycles and patterns was considered to be an act against the laws of nature. Mother Earth was managed to ensure sustainability for the generations to come. Their spiritual teachings emphasize the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms. Each people group have their own practices that tend the land taking only what is needed for sustenance in order to ensure a sustainable supply. Each season is acknowledged and celebrated and there is usually a special time to say thank-you to the creator of life.
Obomsawin, an Abenaki elder from the Odanak reserve in Canada, is credited with this stirring speech:
“Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish caught, the last river polluted, when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize too late that wealth is not in bank accounts and you can’t eat money.”
Buddhists have a huge diversity of practices, partly due to the faith system’s emphasis on the importance of an individual’s personal journey to understanding rather than the blind following of tradition. At the same time, a few core principles can be seen across regional variations, such as the importance of letting go of desire, greed and craving in order to separate oneself from suffering. Buddhist will often engage in conservation activities such as protecting animals, preventing pollution, cleaning up rubbish and choosing a low carbon diet that is low or free from meat. A prominent Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama, says:
“Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.”
Muslims believe that the world was created by God (Allah) and warrants respect, obedience and gratitude. This includes respect of animals, other people and the environment. The Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the direct word of God has around 650 references to ecology and conservation such as:
“And the sky has He raised high, and has devised for all things a balance, so that you might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore your deeds with equity, and do not upset the balance.”
Christianity is the world’s biggest religion. It has a lot to say about our natural world. Christians believe that God created the world, so by extension respecting his creation shows respect to God. Humans were also divinely appointed as stewards of the planet. In Numbers 35: 33-34 they are instructed by God:
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live...You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people.”
Australia’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, who professes to be a practicing Christian and who is also an avid proponent of coal mining and the non-renewable generation of electricity, would do well do review his own sacred texts. Pope Francis, the current leader of the Catholic arm of the Christian church states that “Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same.”
Hinduism can be tricky to define as it has no single founder, no single holy book, and no universal teachings among those who practice the faith. Many scholars consider Hinduism a way of life or a family of religions. Despite the enormous diversity of beliefs and practices, most Hindus believe in one supreme God called Brahman, whose qualities and forms are represented by a multitude of other divine beings. Most Hindus believe in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Each soul passes through a cycle of successive lives. The next version of life for any individual will always be dependent on how the previous one was lived. With this in mind it becomes clear how closely the natural world and Hinduism are connected. People should use the world unselfishly in order to maintain the natural balance and repay God for the gifts he has given.
The Bhagavad Gita, a holy text of Hinduism, states:
“For, so sustained by sacrifice, the God’s will give you the food of your desire. Whoso enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more or less.”
Also the concept of non-violence and respect for life prevents Hindus from causing harm to any creature. This is the reason why many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarian - an inherently low carbon diet.” (3:12)
Jews share the some of the same ancient sacred scriptures as Christians and Muslims. They believe that the environment belongs to God. Followers of Judaism are given permission to enjoy the Creator’s abundant gifts, but must not waste or wantonly destroy anything.
In this 2019 series of blogs I have enjoyed looking at what wisdom traditions have in common with science. I think profound truths are found at this intersection. Philosophy, science and religion are at their best all devoted to the search for truth. Science and all wisdom traditions agree on the importance of gratitude, loving-kindness, non-violence, the interconnectedness of all life and the necessity to protect the environment so that future generations can benefit from it.
Do you follow a philosophy or faith tradition? What have you learnt from it about nature? Please feel free to share in the comment section.