Deep Ecology and Indian Spiritual Traditions

riding effortlessly on the great green


green sadhu
Tibetan temple, Clementstown, Dehradun
Narayan Sadhu
river prayer

The religious traditions of India are rich and various, offering a depth of perspectives on life and our shared universe. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect here is a ‘green thread’ that runs through each of these spiritual traditions in their shared sense that nature in all its aspects is sacred, conscious, and a source of life and wisdom. Not only that, there is an acute recognition here that nature’s physical manifestations such as forests, trees, plants, flowers, animals, and oceans can bring healing and wellness to humans in many ways – if one could live in harmony and accordance with the laws of the universe. 

Hinduism and Ecology
The Vedic traditions of Hinduism offer imagery that values the power of the natural world. Scholars of the Vedas have held forth various texts and rituals that extol the earth (bhu), the atmosphere (bhuvah), and sky (sva), as well as the goddess associated with the earth (Prthivi), and the gods associated with water (Ap), with fire and heat (Agni), and the wind (Vayu). They have noted that the centrality of these gods and goddesses suggests an underlying ecological sensitivity within the Hindu tradition. In later Indian thought, these Vedic concepts become formalized into the Samkhya denotation of five great elements (mahabhuta): earth (prthivi), water (jal), fire (tejas), air (vayu), and space (akasa). The meditative and ritual processes of Hinduism entail awareness of these constituents of materiality. Daily worship (puja) employs and evokes these five powers.

Hinduism has long revered the tree. Early seals from the Indus Valley cities (ca. 3000 BCE) depict the tree as a powerful symbol of abundance. References to India’s trees can be found in a wide range of literature, particularly in epic and poetic texts. India has a long history of forest protection, from the edicts of Asoka, to the individual work of various Rajas, to the modern Chipko movement, wherein women have staved off forest destruction by surrounding trees with their own bodies.

Trees have been acknowledged in India as carrying a special consciousness and as seats of healing and power. Often, a tree can be found harboring a local shrine or temple and ‘saddhus’ or meditators recognize that they can easily enter states of inner silence in its intimate energy-field. Along the lines of Stanislaus Groff’s research on the deep consciousness of plants and trees, in India, a tree can share its reality with a person if one could listen in silence. This sensitivity to the individuality of plants and trees as living beings is perhaps one of the many extraordinary features of spiritualities in the Indian subcontinent. The older a tree, the more it is revered as an elder of its tribe with an awareness transcending cycles of time. To enter this awareness is to ‘become’ a tree in every way, so the limitations of a human-centered consciousness can dissolve and shift into someone else. The Buddha’s enlightenment occurred under a tree, significantly an ancient banyan, and the stillness of his perfect mind is reflected in it. These mythic images of trees are somehow still embedded in Indian cultural systems and one has but to revision them to bring them back to new life for our times.

meditating in nature
tree deity


meditating Buddha in tree
oak tree

Rivers have been and continue to be an integral part of Hindu religious practice. More than fifty Vedic hymns praise the Sarasvati, a river (now dry) associated with the goddess of learning and culture. The Ganges River which flows through northern India likewise is referred to as a goddess originating from the top of Siva’s head in the Himalaya Mountains, giving sustenance to hundreds of millions of modern Indians. Traditionally, the rivers of India have always been considered pure. Modern industrial contaminants and human wastes have fouled the rivers, though Ganges water still plays an important role in India’s ritual life.

Hinduism offers a variety of cosmological views that may or may not situate the human in the natural world in an ecologically friendly manner. On the one hand, the agrarian and often near-wilderness images of India found in the Vedas, Upanisads, and epic texts present a style of life seemingly in tune with the elements. The Samkhya and Tantra traditions affirm the reality and efficacy of the physical world. On the other hand, the Advaita Vedanta tradition, while adopting the basic principles of Samkhya cosmology, asserts that the highest truth involves a vision of oneness that transcends nature and, in a sense, dismisses the significance of the material world by referring to it as illusion or maya.

One model of Hindu spirituality encourages physicality through yoga practices that enhance the health of the body and the vitality of the senses. Other spiritual paths advocate renunciation of all sensual attachments to the world. However, even within the paths that relegate worldly concerns to a status of secondary importance, the doctrine of Dharma emphasizes a need to act “for the sake of the good of the world.” Particularly in regard to such issues as the building of dams in the Narmada River Valley, this requires taking into account social ecology or the need to integrate environmental policy with the daily needs of tribal and other marginalized peoples.

The current worldwide ecological crisis has only emerged during the past four decades and its effects have been felt within South Asia more recently. As the region copes with decreasing air quality in its cities and degraded water in various regions, religious thinkers and activists have begun to reflect on how the broader values of Hindu tradition might contribute to fostering greater care for the earth. Gandhi’s advocacy of simple living through the principles of nonviolence (ahimsa) and holding to truthfulness (satyagraha) could give some Hindus pause as they consider the lifestyle changes engendered by contemporary consumerism. Most of the Hindu population lives within villages that, barring natural disasters such as flood or drought, are self-sustaining and use resources sparingly. However, as the population of South Asia increases, and as the modern lifestyle continues to demand consumer goods, the balance of sustainability can shatter. With appreciation and acknowledgment of the five great elements, with a new interpretation of social duty (dharma) expanded to include the ecological community, and with remembrance of its ethic of abstemiousness, the Hindu tradition can develop new modalities for caring for the earth.

Indian Goddesses and Ecology 

There appears to be a special connection in Indian spiritual traditions between  the mythology  of goddesses and forests or nature in general. The sheer beauty and loveliness of natural settings – rivers, mountains, trees, flowers and forests – are imaged in feminine deities who represent  and carry their special energies and powers. Forests are nature’s reservoirs of fertile energies and therefore places where goddesses reside in mysterious ways – in rocks, caves, tree-naves, streams, and in plants. ‘Parvati’, the consort of ‘Shiva’ is believed to have left the comfort of her father’s palace and to have spent years as a young woman in forests to earn the love of her partner, ‘Shiva’. Her ‘tapas’ is imaged in legend as becoming a tree and standing in ‘vriksha asana’ ( yoga pose) for eons of time to find the inner stillness and silence that would draw ‘Shiva’ – purest object-free consciousness – to herself.

Similarly, the early and later vedas are filled with songs to goddesses like ‘Usha’ and ‘Prithvi’ who express the utmost beauty and power of our cosmos. The ‘Prithvi Sukta’ in ‘Atharva Veda’ is among the oldest compositions to the earth in known literature. Here, the earth is envisioned as the ‘Queen of all that is and is to be’ with her ‘heart in the highest heaven’ and ‘compassed about with truth’. In a beautiful prayer to her, the poet sings:’ auspicious be thy forests, auspicious be thy hills and snow-clad mountains’ (12th Mandala, 1st Chapter ‘Atharva Veda’).

Devi in a field of flowers














The rich pantheon of feminine nature deities and goddesses in India seem to share a wealth of imagery and symbolism with their pagan counterparts in the ancient Greek and western world. Like ‘Anu’ , ‘Abnoba’, ‘Erecura’ and ‘Aveta’ of celtic mythologies, or ‘Artemis’ and ‘Aphrodite’ in greek mythologies, or ‘Freida’ in norse sagas, Indian deities express all that is enchanting and life-giving in nature and its powerful forces. They have a spiritual essence that mortals seek and feel inspired to worship  – opening both the individual senses and the creative imagination. A goddess is not only beautiful and powerful in these shared trans-continental mythic systems, she expresses the  inconcievable  and energetic wholeness of nature: light and dark, creative and transformative, life and death are both present and balanced in paradoxical and harmonious ways. Like the forests and streams she inhabits, she can cast a spell of wonder on the mortal that may be fortunate to glimpse her here and having struck, she can open doors of perception which enrich lives on earth.

Anu, celtic deity of earth
Isis, goddess of life and death


Jainism and Ecology

The Jaina tradition has existed in tandem with Hinduism in India since at least 800 BCE. Whereas the Hindu faith looks to the Vedas for texts and rituals and to the Brahman caste for religious leadership, the Jainas developed their own sacred texts (including the Acaranga Sutra, ca. 300 BCE) and follow the authority of itinerant monks and nuns who wander throughout India preaching the essential principles and practices of the faith. As indicated above, Hinduism includes both monistic and dualistic theologies, with several variations of each. Jainas ascribe to the belief in plural lifeforms populating a storied universe with hell beings at the base, humans and animals in the middle region, with gods and goddesses in the upper or heavenly domains. The goal within Jainism is to ascend to the Siddha Loka, a world beyond heaven and earth, where all the liberated souls dwell eternally in a state of energy, consciousness, and bliss. Although this goal utterly removes one from all worldly entanglements, the path to reach this highest attainment entails great care in regard to how one lives in relationship to all the other living beings that surround one in the earthly realm. Hence, from the aspect of practice, Jainism holds some interesting potential for ecological thinking, though its final goal transcends earthly (or earthy) concerns.

At the core of Jaina faith lies five vows that dictate the daily life of Jaina laypersons, monks, and nuns. These five vows, which inspired and influenced Mahatma Gandhi, are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), sexual restraint (brahmacarya), and nonpossession (aparigraha). One adheres to these vows in order to minimize harm to all possible life-forms. In Jainism, life is arranged hierarchically according to the number of senses a particular form possesses. For instance, life particles (jiva) in earth, water, fire, air, microorganisms, and plants each experience the world through the sense of touch. Worms add the sense of taste. Crawling bugs can feel, taste, and smell. Flying insects add seeing. Higher level animals, including fish and mammals, can feel, taste, smell, see, hear, and think. For observant Jainas, to hurt any being results in the thickening of one’s karma, obstructing advancement toward liberation. To reduce karma and prevent its further accrual, Jainas avoid activities associated with violence and follow a vegetarian diet. The advanced monks and nuns will sweep their path to avoid harming insects and also work at not harming even one sensed beings such as bacteria and water.

The worldview of the Jainas might be characterized as a biocosmology. Due to their perception of the “livingness” of the world, Jainas hold an affinity for the ideals of the environmental movement. The Jaina vows can easily be reinterpreted in an ecological fashion. The practice of nonviolence in the Jaina context fosters an attitude of respect for all life-forms. The observance of truthfulness prompts an investigation of the interrelatedness of things; a truthful person cannot easily dismiss the suffering caused by uncontrolled waste. The vow of not stealing can be used to reflect on the world’s limited resources and prompt one to think of the needs of future generations. Sexual restraint might help minimize population growth. The discipline of nonpossession gives one pause to think twice before indulging in the acquisition of material goods, one of the root causes of current ecological concerns. The monks and nuns, due to the heightened nature of their daily spiritual practice, leave little or no imprint on the broader ecological system. Jaina laypeople, due to their care and attention to what in other philosophical traditions is none other than inert materiality, can use their experiences of applying nonviolent principles with a new, ecological intention in mind.

The Jainas are particularly well-suited to reconsider their tradition in an ecological light, particularly because of their history of advocacy against meat eating and animal sacrifice, as well as their success at developing business areas that avoid overt violence. However, some challenges remain. One expression of environmentalism involves tree planting projects. Though Jaina laypeople might participate in such activities, their nuns and monks most likely would not plant trees because of the harm caused to the earth in the digging process. Another expression of environmentalism in India has been to establish forest preserves on property surrounding Jaina temple sites. However, this generally requires blocking access to prevent collection of fodder, resulting in a further impoverishment of struggling peasants. In addition to these questions of organic and social life, the extensive involvement of Jainas in heavy industries in India raises issues of appropriate economic activity and environmental health. These instances demonstrate the complexity of effectively applying ecological principles in a religious context.

Hinduism and Jainism offer unique resources for the creation of an earth ethic. The variegated theologies of Hinduism suggest that the earth can be seen as a manifestation of the goddess (Devi) and that she must be treated with respect; that the five elements hold great power; that simple living might serve as a model for the development of sustainable economies; and that the concept of Dharma can be reinterpreted from an earth-friendly perspective. The biocosmology of Jainism presents a worldview that stresses the interrelatedness of life-forms. Its attendant nonviolent ethic might easily be extended to embrace an earth ethics. Both traditions include a strong emphasis on asceticism that might discourage some adherents from placing too much value on earthly concerns, but, as we have seen, Hinduism and Jainism both contain concepts that can lead to the enhancement of core human-earth relations.