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Religion is sometimes defined as the relationship between people and that which they regard as holy, often in supernatural terms. Nine of the world’s major faiths represent billions of people worldwide. They include 750 million Hindus, 10 million Jains, 700 million Buddhists, 12.5 million Jews, just under 2 billion Christians, 1.4 billion Muslims, 16 million Sikhs and 5 million Baha’is. All faiths around the world share a common ethic based on harmony with nature, although a wide gap is often perceived between the religious texts and the current practices of the adherents of those religions.
Whether we are actively religious or not, religious belief permeates the very fabric of our existence. Namely, it influences if not directly shapes our legal systems; and therefore our constitutions; and therefore our nations’ policy choices, both at home and abroad.
It is then only logical to surmise that religion also influences how we individually and collectively view our role with regards to protecting the environment. To suggest that any one religion somehow cares more for the Earth than the others would not be very correct, but within each belief system there lies subtle differences that, many argue, give an indication as to how we view our position in relation to it.
Namely, there appear to be two opposing questions that the world’s religions have sought to answer over time: Are humans an equal part of a greater organism which they should, therefore, respect, serve and nourish? Or is the very purpose of that organism to serve and nourish the human race?
Followers of Hinduism believe in the forces of nature and its interconnectedness with life itself. Certain rivers and mountains are sacred, as they give and sustain life. All plants and animals have souls, and people must serve penance for killing plants and animals for food. The teachings of Hinduism, as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, present a clear description of ecology and the interdependence of all life forms, from bacteria to birds.
Christianity teaches that all creation is a loving act of God and that humanity may not destroy biological diversity or destroy God’s creations without the risk of destroying itself. In the Christian Bible, the book Ecclesiastes states in chapter 3, verse 19: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts … as the one dieth, so dieth the other … so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.” There are other comparable passages in the Bible on the conservation of wildlife (Deuteronomy, chapter 2, verses 6 and 7, and Genesis, chapter 9), agricultural lands (Leviticus, chapter 25, verses 2 to 4) and the preservation of fruit trees (Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verse 19, and Genesis, chapter 19, verses 23 to 25). Christmas itself was originally a time of pagan celebration of the winter solstice, and Christmas trees came from sacred groves dedicated to a pagan goddess.
Islam teaches that the role of people on earth is that of Khalifa, or trustee of God, whereby humans are entrusted with the safekeeping of Earth and its variety of life. The Koran states: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you” (Sura 13 Aya 15). The prophet Mohammed is quoted as saying: “There is a reward in doing good to every living thing”.
Sustainable development from an Islamic perspective is the development and rehabilitation of the Earth in a manner that does not disrupt the equilibrium established by God for everything in this universe. The promotion of consumption patterns characterized by over-exploitation and wastage of resources is noted as costly and harmful to health and to the environment; similarly, Islam strongly encourages the careful conservation of water. Furthermore, the concept of protected areas, haram, is intrinsic to Islam.
All Buddhist teaching revolves around the notion of dharma, which means truth and the path of truth. It teaches that people are responsible for their actions and go through a cycle of rebirths before finally reaching Nirvana. Right actions lead to progress towards Nirvana, and bad actions, such as killing animals, cause regression from that goal. Buddhism cares for wildlife and teaches that the protection of biological diversity is respect for nature and that living in harmony with it is essential.
Jainism, one of the oldest living religions, teaches ahimsa (non-violence) towards human beings and all of nature. It believes in the mutual dependence of all aspects of nature belonging together and bound in an intricate relationship.
In Judaism, the Torah outlines a series of ethical obligations including several relevant to the conservation of nature. The Torah says: “When God created Adam, he showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you. Take care not to corrupt and destroy my universe, for if you destroy it, no one will come after you to put it right'” (Ecclesiastes, Rabbah 7).
The essence of the Bahá’í approach to the environment is founded in the fundamental principle of the harmony of science and religion, which must be in balance. Science without religion tends to materialism, while religion without science can fall into superstition. Science can give us tools to help us live in the physical world, but only religion can tell us how to use those tools for good rather than for evil.
Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, described nature as God’s Will and as its expression in and through the physical world. For Bahá’ís, nature and all the creation reflect the qualities and attributes of God, to be contemplated and admired in all their diversity. The beauty and verdure of the country are seen as the world of the soul. Mercy and compassion must be shown not only to human beings, but to every living creature, and cruelty to animals is prohibited.
The Bahá’í writings refer to the natural world as a unified system in which all beings are connected together, such as in the dependence of plants on carbon dioxide produced by animals and microbes, and of animals on the oxygen produced by plants. Co-operation and reciprocity are seen as essential properties of nature.
Since the beginning of the Sikh religion in the late fifteenth century, the faith has been built upon the message of the ‘oneness of Creation’. Sikhism believes an almighty God created the universe. He himself is the creator and master of all forms of the universe, responsible for all modes of nature and all elements of the world. Sikhism firmly believes God to be the source of the birth, life and death of all things.
Sikhism teaches that the natural environment and the survival of all life forms are closely linked in the rhythm of nature. The history of the Gurus is full of stories of their love and special relationship with the natural environments – with animals, birds, vegetation, earth, rivers, mountains and the sky. There is also a very strong vegetation tradition.
It is for this reason that in Sikhism those who kill for lust of hunting, eating or to make sacrifices are condemned. In Sikh hymns God is often referred to as the provider for all life which God loves and is loved by. God as both father and mother guarantees equality to man and woman in faith and compassion towards all beings and nature.
– Saumya Tripathi
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