Book Review : ‘Hinduism and Nature’ by Nanditha Krishna
‘Hinduism and Nature’ is a book that blends spirituality, mythology, and an analysis of environmental awareness that is embedded in Hinduism. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, tries to bring out the close harmony between nature and the Hindu faith. The author quotes verses from Sangam literature, Bhagavad Gita, Vedas and Upanishads to explain the commitment that our forefathers had for the environment. This view presented in the introduction was particularly enlightening:
Hinduism has a cosmic, rather than anthropocentric, view of the world, an ontology sharply different from the Abrahamic religions which believe that ‘God created mankind in his own image'(Genesis 1:27) and ‘let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth’ (Genesis 1:26) Hindu traditions acknowledge that all life forms- humans animals and plants are equal and sacred , and thus appropriately placed to take on contemporary concerns like deforestation, intensive farming of animals , global warming and climate change.
The book is filled with stories attached to forests, rivers and mountains across India. While emphasizing on the central role of nature in Sanatan Hindu culture, the author incorporates tribal belief systems and traditions as well in her book.
Nanditha Krishna explains how compassion and respect for animals, plants and our environment is embedded in the Hindu rituals and festivals at appropriate junctures throughout the book. The narrative starts with Rig Vedic people, who worshiped forces of nature like sun, fire, rain and wind. While retaining core values, it is also evident that some evolution has occurred in sacred texts in accordance with changes in material life. This is reflected in post- Vedic texts like Puranas.
In spite of being politically divided, the entire subcontinent was united by Hindu Dharma. From the book, it is evident that the geographical references in Mahabharata and Ramayana were not entirely fictional. When the new capital of Indraprasta was built after burning Khandava forests, a large number of animals and plants were killed. The author remarks that those who built cities over the destroyed forests wanted to take some measures to make amends. The corrective stance was reflected in subsequent religious texts.
Hindu puranas promised incentives to those who plant trees and punishment to those who fell trees. The author quotes Varaha Purana which says promises that a person who plants a banyan, two pomegranates, five mango trees and ten flowering plants/creepers shall never go to hell. The Agni Purana says that plantation of gardens leads to eradication of sins whereas the Padma Purana warns of punishment in hell for felling a green tree. In the light of rapid deforestation and urbanization in modern India, a strong belief in these puranas could help us combat climate change.
While writing about sacred graves of India, the author is aided by her experience as an environmentalist. She outlines the tribal and Hindu traditions wherein religious sanction has been instrumental in conservation of forests and biodiversity. The author laments the erosion of the faith and urbanization that has led to decline in people’s commitment to conserve these forests. The practice of offering terracotta horses to deities of sacred groves described in the book in particularly interesting
The mythological story behind each major river, mountain and lake of India is presented lucidly. It is quite clear from the book that the divinity attached to the water bodies because of these mythological stories helped in their conservation. Hinduism smartly blended the larger interest of society by attaching sacred value to rivers, forests and wildlife even though the society had transformed into a more materialistic civilization over the centuries. I was particularly impressed to learn that a King in Cambodia has build Angkor Wat temple inspired by Meru Parvata .
The book explains that the principle of ahimsa (non violence) was extended to animals as well. Initially Vedas explicitly prohibited killing of animals for food. Later, this message became more implicit as deities like Shiva, Vishnu and other gods became a part of Hindu faith. This was ensured by assigning animals as vehicles to various Hindu deities. The book captures the rationale behind this aspect of Hinduism succinctly. While writing about the sacred value attached to cows, the author clears the air on beef consumption in Vedic society by interpreting the controversial word ‘goghna’ from Panini’s texts. ‘Goghna’ , according to Panini is a ‘receiver of the cow’ and not a ‘killer of the cow’ as translated by leftist historians.
Unfortunately, the boundary of this sacred space, involving rivers, wildlife, lakes and forests around temples is shrinking due to growing population and wants of the people. As the author rightly points out, we have forgotten the art of living in harmony with nature. The author captures the deep reverence that Sanatana Hindu Dharma had for nature convincingly in her book. She also stresses the need to draw lessons from our ancient philosophies and alter our attitudes in order to save the earth
The book is not only informative and seamless in its flow, but also forces the reader to contemplate about the disconnect between ‘modern’ Hindus and nature. It also nudges every reader, irrespective of their religion towards a greener lifestyle and a compassionate attitude towards all living beings.