Thursday, December 26, 2013


Nature and Ecology in Hinduism

It's a different World, one that could have been,
At times wild and brutal, at times so serene,
Where Life abounds in different tribes,
Where fishes swim and the eagle flies,
For Eons, it has cared for it's own,
And would continue, if left alone,
But Man destroys for his greed,
And uproots Nature like a weed,
Soon the birds and beasts of our shore,
May someday be considered just folklore..

How refreshing it is to walk bare-foot on fresh grass or lounge on the beach with waves lapping at your feet watching the sea-gulls return home.. What freshness the fragrance of a rose brings and the immense comfort one gets petting a dog in your lap is indescribable..

The flora and fauna existing today are a result of billions of years of Evolutionary process and are extremely valuable for the sustenance of our Ecology.

Our Planet, Our Home

Anyone, with a logical mind knows that Man alone can not survive on this planet - Trees and shrubs provide us valuable Oxygen and Food; Birds and Bees pollinate the flowers to form Fruits and later disperse their Seeds spreading the green cover; Terrestrial and Aquatic animals provide numerous products used by mankind since time immemorial.

Yet, in his greed for more and more resources, Man has managed to cut-down millions of hectares of forests and wipe out innumerable species off the face of this planet!!

Ancient Sages of Hinduism, recognized the importance of this diversity and with their immense fore-sight and ingenuity, included them in the popular Mythology. This, undoubtedly, helped pass on the message of INCLUSIVENESS and even today, you see Hindus worshiping the Holy-cow, the Shaligram and the Banyan tree without giving it a second thought!

Krishna and Radha tending to and worshipping cows like simple cowherds

In fact, growing up in an Indian household, you can't help but pick up certain concepts of this rich tradition and I am sharing some examples from my own childhood -

The Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) herb is anti-infective and sacred and should be worshiped every morning; the Cow (Gau-Mata) is compared to a Mother as it provides nourishment and its milk is an essential supplement to the vegan diet; plants should not be disturbed at night coz they are asleep (shows the knowledge of Nyctinasty!!); the Prasadam offered to God can not include articles obtained from killing animals etc..

The scriptures contain innumerable references to plants/animals/birds and marine life and consider each living being on this planet essential for a holistic growth and an Indian kid would generally imbibe and keep following these basic principles even after he grows up.

Even the oldest archaeological civilization of the Indian sub-continent, the Indus-Saraswati Culture had elements of animal worship as evidenced by the Zebu Bull, the Unicorn Seals and numerous mythical powerful animals depicted in their artwork.

The Zebu Bull from an Indus-Saraswati Seal

Sitting on the banks of the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, in the backyard of a Rama-Janaki Temple, I see elements of this tradition scattered throughout the Indian sub-continent.. Such remarkable ecological insight should definitely be explored and learnt from.

Ecology in Hinduism

1. The FIRST and the Most Important Concept in Hinduism, is the belief of being related to every living being on the planet.

Mythologically, it finds mention in the legend of Rishi Kashyap who is considered the Father of not only the Living beings on this planet, but ALL other life forms in our Universe!

All living-beings including the demigods are siblings!

This great Prajapati and progenitor of Life is supposed to have lived in the Kashmir Valley which, BTW derives its name from that of the Rishi. He was married to 14 daughters of Daksh Prajapati for the purpose of expanding creation.

They are the Great-Grand Maters of ALL Life today and it would perhaps be nice to at least know their names :o)

Daksha's Daughters Progeny
Aditi 12 Adityas or Demigods
Krodhavasha Pishachas or Vampires
Kala Asurs and Rakshasas
Diti Daityas or Demons
Danu Danavs or Giants
Ira All Vegetation
Tamra All Birds
Khasa Yakshas
Muni Apsaras
Arishta Gandharvs
Vinta Arun and Garud
Kadru Nagas or Serpents
Sursa Uragas or Dragons
Surbhi Kamdhenu and other cattle

The principle behind this thought is known as Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam. As a kid, I wasn't too sure what the words meant, but as I grew up, I realized how great and all-encompassing the nature of this thought is. It doesn't limit itself to describing one's community/religious clique/country or even Mankind as one's family but considers the ENTIRE world and ALL the species living in it as ONE BIG extended family!!

Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam - All World is my Family

The world can surely do with such a broad encompassing philosophy in current times :o)


2. The SECOND concept is sort of a corollary of the above but has a deeper ramification - It is the belief that God exists in EVERY living thing.

The Bhagvat Puraan declares Shri Kshirodak-shayi Vishnu to be present in each atom of the creation as 'Paramatma' or the Super-soul and various Upanishads agree that every living being has a spark of divinity within itself.

Since various plants and animals are revered in Hinduism to ensure the message of their divinity is not lost in our daily life. Some examples are: - the Sacred Basil or Tulsi mentioned earlier (Ocimum sanctum), the Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa), the Vat Vriksh or Banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis); Nandi, the Bull; Airavat, the Elephant; Garud, the Avian King and Ammonite fossils known as the Shaligram.

Worship of Banyan Tree on Vat-Savitri Purnima
Nandi, the Bull with a Shiva-lingam
Worship of Tulsi on Kartik Purnima

Since all living-beings are extensions of God Himself, it is imperative that we refrain from hurting an insect, animal, bird, reptile or even a plant. This is the first step in developing respect for each and every living-species on this planet and consequently, VEGETARIANISM which involves less blood-shed is given a preference over non-vegetarian food habits.

It is therefore no surprise that the first scientist to demonstrate consciousness and emotion in plants was an Indian -Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose.

Even the poisonous serpents or Nagas are recognized as divine species and worshiped in temples and some of them are given munificent properties - Shesha, the eldest of the Nagas spends his considerable lifetime entirely in the service of Lord Vishnu; Vasuki, the younger brother of Shesha helped churn the ocean to obtain the Nectar of Immortality but did not touch even a drop of it and is content adorning the neck of Lord Shiva.

Shesha always guards Lord Vishnu

Other serpents like Karkotak and Takshak play important roles in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythologies. The Naga king Muchilinda even protected Buddha from wind and rain for seven days while He was meditating.

Buddhist legends prevalent as far away as Japan and China, also mention Eight Dragon-kings derived from the Hindu Nagas - Vasuki, Takshak, Nanda, Upananda, Sagar, Balvan, Anavatapta and Utpal who attended Buddha's discourse on the Lotus Sutra. Clearly, seeing the silver-lining in even the most poisonous of creatures was an art the ancient Indians had mastered!


3. The THIRD concept is the association of different animals and birds with various Gods and Goddesses as their vehicles or Vahan.

I always wondered why divinities used animals and birds to travel around when they have access to Vimanas (space-crafts). For example, if we take the Holy Trinity, Lord Vishnu travels on the Golden-Eagle Garuda, Brahma travels on a humongous swan Hamsa, and the vehicle of Lord Shiva is the Divine Bull Nandi.

Lord Vishnu on Garuda
Lord Brahma riding a swan
Lord Shiva on Nandi, the Bull

But with time, I have realized that the ancient Rishis, in their immense wisdom, coupled the most important animal/bird species with the important divinities so that, in time, the masses would develop as much reverence for them as for the Gods!!

Thus, we find various gods/goddesses associated with different animals and birds that signify or enhance one or the other qualities that the Divinity represents for example:
  • Lord Shiva's bull Nandi represents strength and virility;
  • Ganesha, the God of Wisdom riding Mushak (Rat), the symbol of Ignorance;
  • Kartikeya/Murugan, rides Parvani, the splendid peacock and reigns its vanity;
  • Ganga, rides a Makar or Alligator signifying the most dominant species of its waters;
  • Shani-deva represses the thieving tendencies symbolized by a Raven or Kak;
  • Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune has an Owl Pecheka as her vehicle to remind people of using wealth wisely.

Indra on White Elephant, the sign of Royalty
Durga on a Lion, the symbol of Power and Bravery
Kartikeya and Ganesha enjoying a joyride on their Peacock

Similarly, Surya's chariot is pulled by Seven steeds, Chandra rides an antelope, Saraswati rides a swan, Kaushik Muni is associated with the Heron and Lord Dattatreya is always surrounded by cute little doggies :o)


4. The FOURTH concept is that of ascribing Direct Divinity to certain forms where the animal or hybrid form is worshiped as a god.

  • The first and the most striking example of course is of the Elephant-headed god Ganesha and the Vanar god Hanuman. Both of them are a favorite all over the sub-continent with devotees right from Afghanistan to China.

Ganesha from a Mongolian painting

Both of them are a big hit with people from all age-groups and all sections of the society. Ganesha is the 'Lord-of-Auspicious-beginnings' and no new project starts without worshiping the cute cuddly Lord. Hanuman, on the other hand is the role model for devotional service and an example of how one can overcome his animal instincts and reach the highest pinnacle of devotion to the Supreme Lord.

Hanuman from a popular animation movie

  • The second example is the phenomenon called Dashavatar which we have already encountered in two previous posts {Evolution in Dashavatar} and {Manu - The First Man}. It portrays the ascribing of Divinity to even lowest of life forms and elevating them to the level of Supreme Lord Vishnu Himself.

The 10 incarnations actually form a sub-set of the original 24 Incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Of these, three are animal forms generally considered too low in the hierarchy of life - a Fish (Matsya), Turtle (Kurma) and Wild-boar (Varah).

Matsya Avatar of Lord Vishnu
Kurma Avatar
Varah Avatar

Of the rest, two more are hybrids between a beast and a Man viz. the Half-man-Half-Lion Narsimha and the Matsya-Horse-Human hybrid Hayagreeva.

Lord Narsingh Deva with Prahlad on his lap
Hayagriva Avatar of Lord Vishnu blessing the demon Hayagriva before killing him
Image courtesy Vimanika Comics
{Dashavatar Volume 1}

This way, the ancient Hindu sages raised even the lowest of life forms up to a pedestal and made them worthy of reverence and therefore protection.


5. The FIFTH and Final concept, is the integration and acknowledgement of Animals into everyday life as shown by GOD HIMSELF by means of His incarnations that lived as Human beings amongst us.

Lord Rama developed a special symbiotic relationship with various animals and Humanoid species. The Vanars especially Hanuman and Sugriv became his close allies. Bear-men like Jambavant and birds like Jatayu and Sampaati were irreplaceable in his search for Sita.

Bears and Apes helped Lord Rama get Lady Sita back to Ayodhya

Lord Krishna too was a big-time animal lover! He was the favorite of cows and tended to them with great care. He grew up learning the traits of a cowherd and therefore exhibited deep affection to the animals around Him.

Nand baba and Yashoda maiya's Kanha with his cow

Krishna's all childhood pranks involved animals in one form or another. As a kid, He would steal butter from His mother's kitchen and distribute it amongst the monkeys around. This by the way, was my favorite Leela from Krishna's story during childhood :o)

Makhan-chor Krishna with his monkeys

When Indra opened up the heavens to submerge Vraja-mandal, Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan to keep all his friends and animals safe.He could easily be the poster boy for PETA today ;o)

His flute mesmerized not only human-beings but the entire flora and fauna of Vrindavan and Vraja area. The trees gave bigger fruits, crops yielded healthier crops, cows produced more milk, flowers blossomed everywhere and everyone was at peace with their environment.

Krishna's flute mesmerized every living-soul

Mahabharat states that even in the midst of fierce battle, Krishna told Arjun that He would stop their chariot to give the horses a breather! He asked Arjun to construct an enclosure with his arrows where Krishna could tend to the horses and refresh them before continuing with the battle!!

It is hard to imagine the biggest (and possibly Nuclear) War of ancient World being put on hold by Krishna because He wanted to take care of the poor bleeding horses! This is the LOVE and COMPASSION showed to us humans by Lord and this is what we have to emulate.

If we just follow the above mentioned concepts in practice, it can create a world so much MORE peaceful than the one we have today. I conclude this post with the beautiful verse of the Ishopanishad that succinctly and beautifully summarizes the equality of all species in the World and puts the Human species back in its place:

Ishaavasyam idam sarvam,
Yat kincha jagatyaam jagat,
Tein tyaktein bhunjitha,
Ma gridhah kasya svid dhanam.

Everything within the Universe,
Is owned by the Lord alone,
One should only accept things necessary,
And not lust after other's quota,
Knowing well to Whom they belong.
Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:

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