Free Speech and Religion

What Lies at the Intersection of Faith and the Environment

April 20, 2022  • Religion & Society Program

The environment plays a critical role in many faith traditions, from the images of the Garden of Eden to the lands that sustain and inspire Native American peoples. Yet, when people discuss the intersection of religion and the environment they tend to highlight the role of faith-inspired actors advocating for—or against—climate justice. To broaden the conversation, the Religion & Society Program has collected reflections from people of faith to explain why their traditions care about the environment and the significance it plays in their beliefs and practices.

The Oneness of People and Nature

Sikhs believe there is one divine being, Waheguru, who created this world and lives within it. Thus, the idea of oneness is a central part of the Sikh faith, which recognizes no hierarchy within groups of people or between people and nature.

ਪਵਣੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਪਾਣੀ ਪਿਤਾ ਮਾਤਾ ਧਰਤਿ ਮਹਤੁ

pavan guroo paanee pithaa maathaa dhharath mehath ||

Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.

The above line is mentioned at the end of Japji Sahib, the daily morning prayer for Sikhs. In the last few decades, society has become increasingly aware of the drastic impact that human activities have had on our climate. To build a future that is habitable for all, we must commit to eradicating the systems of hierarchy that have served as justification for depleting the Earth’s resources and continue to drive our current climate issues. Once we recognize the common thread that unites people and nature, we can work faithfully towards honoring both.

Rajanpreet Kaur is the senior media and communications manager of the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization.

Interdependence and the Practice of Meditation

There are so many ways to approach the importance of the environment within the Buddhist tradition. Many of these are mirrored in the dialogue we hear from scientists and activists around the world. The urgent threat to the natural world is inseparable from the urgent threat to our existence. The concept of dependent co-arising, or pratityasamutpada, is foundational to all forms of Buddhism. This principle acknowledges the interdependence of all things and encourages us to care for all beings. This care though must go beyond concepts or proving something’s worth and has to be rooted in a fundamental appreciation and respect for all beings.

As a Buddhist, one way to do this is through the practice of meditation, to make friends with oneself on a radical level. When we begin to care for ourselves and see how incredibly complex we are as beings, we also begin to extend that same care and attention to everything that surrounds us. It has been said in Buddhism that all beings have been your mother, birthing us, caring for us, nurturing us. With that in mind, for the benefit of all, may we return this same care to the mother of us all, the natural world.

Cheizan Tomcyzk is a reverend at the Sokukoji Buddhist Monastery and a member of the Religion & Society Program’s Powering Pluralism Network in the cohort focused on multi-faith engagement.

The Organic Connection Between the Soul and Environment

“We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life molds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.”

Bahá’u’lláh enjoins His followers to develop a sense of world citizenship, and a commitment to stewardship of the earth.

Baha’i¬ Scriptures teach that, as trustees of the planet’s vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must seek to protect the “heritage [of] future generations;” see in nature a reflection of the divine; approach the earth, the source of material bounties, with humility; temper its actions with moderation; and be guided by the fundamental spiritual truth of our age, the oneness of humanity. The speed and facility with which we establish a sustainable pattern of life will depend, in the final analysis, on the extent to which we are willing to be transformed, through the love of God and obedience to His Laws, into constructive forces in the process of creating an ever-advancing civilization.

Excerpt from a statement of the Bahá’í International Community Office of the Environment, provided by Saba Ayman-Nolley, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at Northeastern Illinois University and a member of Religion & Society’s Powering Pluralism Network.

The Call of the Holy Ganga

There are numerous examples in Hinduism where gods are embodiments of various animals. From the charismatic Hanuman, who is also referred to as the Monkey God (Vaanara) to the children’s favorite,  Gajaanan (meaning the one with an Elephant Head, aka Ganapathi or Ganesha), who is a human with the face of an elephant, our mythology is filled with stories where all species of life interact with one another seamlessly.

Each of our gods and goddesses has a significant part of the biodiversity attached to them as a vehicle (Vaahana), thereby making the biodiversity sacred as well. I cannot recall an animal, fruit, or flower which isn’t associated with religious beliefs; it’s integral for us as a species to take care of our environment and all its inhabitants.

River bodies in Hinduism are given a divine status, which is counterintuitive to the allegations of illegal mining which we see on the banks of river Ganga today. The relevance of the Hindu religion lies in taking the environment as a key component of our day-to-day existence. We can all learn from organizations like Matri Sadan in Rishikesh, which is dedicated to preserving the environment and invokes the Gandhian principle of non-violent civil disobedience (Satyagraha) to fight systemic injustice. Leaders of this organization have given their lives to save our holy river. Holy Ganga is calling each of us to help. Do we have the ears to listen?

Vijayendra Kadalabal is a Chevening Scholar and currently leads a youth movement called Yuva Shakti in Karnataka, India which enables over 5000 youth to become human rights defenders. Kadalabal is also a board member with Hindus for Human Rights.

This piece is part of In Focus: Rising to the Climate Challenge, a multimedia informational campaign that draws on the expertise of Institute programs. We look at four main facets of the climate change issue—labor and the economy, youth and education, public health and safety, and communities. To get campaign updates and other news from the Aspen Institute in your inbox, sign up for our newsletter. 

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