Religion and Global Warming

Religion and Global Warming

Humanity is dealing with a crisis that is affecting all aspects of life. Global warming is often thought of as the one threat that needs to be taken care of. There are many more problems than just global warming however. Society is dealing with deforestation, overfishing, radiation making certain areas unlivable, and garbage pile-ups that will one day become too big to manage. World leaders are currently meeting at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to address climate change. It is likely that many of these issues will get overlooked though. Therefore, it is vital that the religions of the world be called on to urge their followers to help solve these problems before they get out of hand. Native American religions, Hindus, and Buddhists are already doing this by spreading their knowledge of how to take care of the Earth. The traditional Abrahamic religions should follow suit and do the same.

The reason why religion should be contributing to this effort is because it is one of the world’s most represented groups. As of 2010, 84 percent of people in the world have faith. That means that 5.8 billion out of the 6.9 billion people on the planet belong to some kind of church or congregation. The numbers can be broken down even further as well. There are 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists, and 400 million people practicing folk or traditional religions. If just ten percent of these religious people were to be informed of the Earth’s ecology problems through a religious sermon that would mean 580 million people would be exposed to this information. That is a massive amount of people who would be able to wield a tremendous amount of influence if they were to come together and act as one. Environmental protection does not just mean massive clean-up efforts of rivers or the shutting down of factories either. People can make big changes by making smaller changes throughout their daily lives. This means flushing their toilet less, sharing rides to work whenever possible, refraining from buying bottled water, and bringing their own bags to grocery stores. While it might not seem like much to that person, it would make a significant positive impact if millions of people were to make these changes.

It is clear that Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism have already contributed to this effort. Native American religious beliefs can also be put into the same category. For instance, Cherokee herb gatherers would refuse to gather the first three plants they encountered in the wild. It was only when they found a fourth specimen of the same plant did they harvest it. This was to help preserve the species and ensure there would always be a good amount of crops for them to harvest in the future. Some Chinese Buddhists believe in Indra’s Net which is found in the Avatamsaka Sutra. This image of Indra’s Net describes an infinite space full of sparkling jewels. Each jewel reveals the reflection of every other jewel in the universe upon inspection. This kind of metaphorical message teaches that everything is connected and related to one another, and that damaging something such as the biosphere will have a long-lasting impact. Hindus tend to put nature as their top priority and teach that simple living is to be respected. A number of Hindu villages in India have sacred lakes that are surrounded by trees. These trees help to protect the surrounding area by catching rainwater and preventing erosion. The lake serves as a drinking source to local people and act as sanctuaries for wildlife. It seems clear that all three of these religions give some specific instructions on how to better protect the environment, and the other popular religions can learn a lot by potentially adopting some of these practices.

To a Native American, there is nothing more sacred than nature. Nature provides water for drinking, sunlight to grow crops, and animals to hunt. Native Americans were living off of the land for almost their entire existence, so it is no wonder they developed these techniques to try and get the most out of what they had. Their religion also taught them an important distinction which was that they were not just rulers over nature, but that they themselves were a part of nature. This meant they literally saw themselves as an equal to the dirt on the ground. The soil, animals, plants, and other natural resources all came together to form the great chain of being. Having such an interconnected chain meant that harming one aspect of nature meant that you were harming every other aspect of nature. These groups of people took it very seriously if someone was breaking the rules by overfishing or hunting too many deer in an area.

Native Americans saw their relationship with the environment as a relationship of restraint. Their religion helped reinforce this idea by teaching them that preserving the environment is just as sacred an act as going to communion would be for a person of the Christian faith. An example of this would be the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin. Whenever a Menominee Indian would harvest wild rice, he or she would ensure that a certain percentage of rice fell back into the water so that it would grow back next year. This tendency of reseeding was considered part of special prayers or rituals to other tribes. Seneca Indians would build ceremonial fires whenever they encountered useful medicinal herbs. He would then harvest the plant and put out the fire by sprinkling tobacco powder on top of the fire. Whenever he did this he would say a prayer and talk about planting the seed he found so that the plant comes back four times as strong. To these tribes, giving back was not an option but a necessity. If these rituals were not followed then it would almost be seen as a sacrilegious act of heresy.

Native Americans also tend to practice fallowing. This meant that after they hunted and harvested in an area for a certain period of time, they would move on to a new area to ensure that the old area would recover. This is a much different practice compared to the Brazilian rainforest logger or the Japanese fisherman. The logger and the fisherman would wreak havoc upon their respective areas by harvesting the resources until those resources are completely gone. The Native Americans would make sure there would always be enough left so that the area could naturally recover over time. Some Native Americans such as the Ojibwa of Ontario believed that slain animals had shadow spirits that arose whenever they were killed. They thought that these spirits would hang around after death and cause the living animals in the area to become cautious. In order to prevent too many of these spirits from gathering and spooking the animals, they would always be moving around and would never just hunt only in one area. Even if you do not believe in the part of this practice that describes spirits coming out of animals, you have to believe in the fact that this method worked because it ensured that no one piece of land would be completely stripped of its natural resources.

Native Indians also tended to know their local areas very well. To a modern American this might mean that you know about the best place to get an iced coffee, the best place to see an Indie movie, or the best place for meeting people with similar interests. Native Americans also knew a lot about their surroundings, but they focused more on the plants and animals that made up those surroundings. Hopi Indians were known to have documented over 150 types of plants in a single ecosphere, and each Indian knew the role of each plant and how it could best be taken advantage of. If you asked a modern American or European person to identify a number of plants in an ecosystem they might be able to point out a couple different species. If a Native American was brought to that same area it is likely that they would have full knowledge of just about every living thing in the area. This accumulation of knowledge gave them a great deal of respect for their environment because they understood how intricate and vital each individual part is.

The Hindu religion also has its roots in ecology and the natural world. The very gods that make up the religion are direct representations of some of the natural processes found on the Earth. There is the god of Earth named bhu, the god of the sky named sva, the god of water called Ap, the god of fire and heat named Agni, and the god of wind known as Vayu. In addition to these gods, the Samkhya school of philosophy believes in five great elements. These elements are Earth or prthivi, water or jal, fire or tejas, air or vayu, and space or akasa. Groups of Samkhya Hindus will worship these elements in their daily meditative practices. It would be quite strange to a Western Catholic to see water as something that should be worshipped when it can be gathered by simply turning on a faucet. Hindus look at the Earth differently however, water and rivers are crucial elements that make life possible. Therefore, worshipping them makes sense because they directly benefit us and allow life to flourish.

Trees are another important part of Hindu culture. For thousands of years the tree was seen as a symbol of abundance. Some people might take trees for granted, but Hindus see them as crucial parts of life that provide air, shade, food, and lumber. Having a healthy amount of trees to a Hindu would be like having a great deal of material wealth to a Western person. Some women in the Chipko movement or the “embrace” movement saw it necessary to fight against the destruction of forests. They did this by guarding the trees with their own bodies and lives. Trees were so important to them that they saw saving them as necessary an act as pushing someone out of the way of an incoming car. To them this was not just an act of ecology, but a religious test that they needed to overcome.

In combination with trees, rivers are also seen as sacred parts of life to many Hindu peoples. These bodies of water are so important that hymns are written about them and are sung on a regular basis. Over fifty known Vedic hymns exist for the Sarasvati River. This river is important to these people because it is closely associated with their ancestors who thrived by living off of the river bank. The Ganges River is even more important and is perceived to be a literal goddess which flowed from the top of Siva’s head. Despite the fact that these rivers are not as clean as they used to be, they are still seen as crucial parts of Hindu worship. Rarely would a person living in the United States consider the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers as holy objects, but Hindus truly put them on a pedestal. Perhaps if the United States and North America was to respect bodies of water as much as Hindus do then oil spills would become a thing of the past.

It would be impossible to mention the Hindu religion without bringing up the widespread practice of meditation. Meditation is mentioned in the Hindu holy texts known as the Vedas. More specifically it is found in the collection of texts known as the Upanishads. The text outlines how the practice of meditation brings together the five senses with the five elements. We like to think of our sense of smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing as things that we are in direct control of that are separate from the natural world. Hinduism says otherwise and connects the reader by revealing the relationship between the sun and our ability to perceive heat, the wind that we hear rush past our face, and the food that we can identify with our sense of taste. All of these senses allow us to interact with the five great elements, and thus give us the ability to interact with the gods. Having one of these senses restricted by limiting the air we breathe through deforestation or cutting off our food supply through overfishing would be an act of treason to a Hindu person.

Moving on to Buddhism, the Buddhist philosophy teaches that the concept of Dharma means that all things are interconnected. This is similar to the Native American religions that discuss the great chain of being. Buddhist philosophy adds on to this by breaking down social barriers and labels which Buddhists see as things that only create division amongst people. In the United States a janitor would rarely be seen as someone who is equal to a physician, but those who practice Buddhism would see the two as equals. One would be labeled as crazy or insane to see the life of an individual ant as important as the life of a person, but this is not an uncommon thought for a Buddhist to have. This means that in ecological terms a Buddhist would never risk chopping down a forest or creating a factory that produces toxic smog because the potential impact of such actions would cause much more harm than good.

The worldview of Buddhism also tends to benefit the environment by creating empathy for all forms of living beings. The Buddha taught that overcoming suffering is at the core of every living thing, and that all living things are connected because they go through the same cycle of birth, old age, suffering, and death. This means that every living creature is going through the same journey. Therefore people should be more empathetic towards their environment because it experiences suffering the same as you and I do. Most people would tend to see the act of fishing as an innocent practice, but Buddhists would argue that the fisherman is causing nothing but suffering to the fish by accelerating it towards its death. A person’s greatest wish is to live out a healthy natural life, so Buddhists feel that we should extend this philosophy onto the natural world. This is why so many Buddhists and Hindus are vegetarian. They view the killing of animals the same way we view despise the innocent killing of people. Harming an innocent animal would create bad karma that would slow down the Buddhist from reaching his or her goal of Nirvana, or the highest possible state of being. If these teachings were what the majority of people followed, then it is likely the ecological problems that are challenging humanity today would be on a much smaller scale because they would have never arisen in the first place.

In addition to the concept of karma, samara or rebirth is another important Buddhist practice. Buddhists believe that the more good you do in your life, the more karma you earn that carries over into the next life. So a human might be approaching the final stage of nirvana while a spider might be beginning its journey. Ending the life of that spider would prevent it from earning karma however, so that is why Buddhists view all life as sacred. Every being is essentially going through the same journey, and prematurely denying life from a being is denying it potential evolution to the next stage of life. Buddhists have a religious reason to want to preserve animal habitats. They see the death of these animals as denying them their right to build karma and one day reach nirvana. Buddhists hope to live out their life uninterrupted as well, so they do their best to avoid interfering with other living beings because they hope that this good fortune bounces back into their favor.

What is clear as of now is that climate change is a major issue that affects everyone on the planet. What caused these drastic changes is still being debated, but what needs to happen now is a worldwide effort to improve the environment. This is something can be accelerated through the help of religion because it has such a powerful connection with most populations. For centuries, religions like Buddhism and Hinduism have taught these principles. American Indian spiritual practices have also kept their local ecologies healthy and thriving. American Indians did their best to preserve their surroundings by avoiding overhunting and practicing fallowing. Cherokee tribes avoided gathering herbs unless they were certain that there were at least three other herbs in the area. Hindus see trees and rivers as sacred objects, while Buddhists believe that every living being is following the same path and that path should not be interrupted. Religions such as Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam could greatly benefit by taking a page out of the book of these other religions. Christians can still believe in Jesus and the holy trinity, but it would greatly benefit the Earth if they treated plants and animals with the same respect that Native Americans, Buddhists, and Hindus do.

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