The secularisation of Indian life and culture that has taken place over the last few decades has led to tragic consequences. Ecology and the climate is one such field where secularisation has skewed the problem and caused considerable harm.
The ancient Indian scriptures held environmental conservation in high priority. The Smriti texts give elaborate instructions and methods regarding maintaining personal hygiene and environmental cleanliness. They further speak about keeping the water, land, and the fire unpolluted.
Arthashastra gives elaborate information regarding the construction and maintenance of water tanks. Even before the British occupation of India, one can see a huge number of water tanks and lakes across the country. Also, the breaching of tanks was severely punished. Manu Smriti says that trees have life, and the Vrikshayurveda suggests that planting a tree is equal to having ten sons.
But, these instructions regarding environmental conservation must not be perceived in isolation. The Hindu scriptures perceived the environment as a living divine force and a mother figure who should be loved, respected, and protected. The Bhoomi Sukta that appears in the Atharva Veda extols the earth with all its ecological features as a living mother, a force that permeates all the objects in nature. The Sukta further calls humans the sons of mother earth.
The secularization of society has distorted the discourse on the environment in two stages. First, it separated the elements like ecology, environmental pollution, and conservation from the elements of divinity and motherhood of nature, and then, it shifted the entire focus of the discourse on the previous ‘secular’ aspect while completely isolating and ignoring the latter ‘sacred’ aspect.
It is the direct result of secularization that what was previously understood as divine manifestation is now perceived as ‘lifeless objects’ and the mother nature herself is seen only as an ‘opportunity to exploit.’ Even in the case of animals or plants, where science recognizes that they do have life, the perception is that their life is somehow inferior to human life.
Thus, secularization has legitimized human greed that perceives humans as conquerors born to conquer and claim ownership over the objects available in nature. This has prepared the ground for complete exploitation and the eventual destruction of the environment.
This disconnect between the faith and the action is the direct result of secularization that has created artificial separation in the minds of the people such that, they now do not even realize that polluting the river goes against the very essence of worship. This secular conservation discourse can at best provide a temporary solution to the environmental problems. But, it does not help in changing the attitudes and perceptions of the people that drive human activities. Human activities will continue to be driven by greed and a sense of ownership, as long as the element of sacredness is not recognized and made integral to the conservation discourse.
Therefore, the Indian conception of the environment and its conservation is deeply rooted in the understanding that the trees, the animals, the air, the water, the land, and every other object in nature are permeated by divinity, and hence they are all worthy of our love, respect, and preservation.
God doesn’t want us to live as shadows of ourselves. To help us value things that are truly valuable, he gives us a variety of rules through the Scriptures. These rules govern our lower desires and irrigate our higher desires. When followed diligently, they empower us to do better things and to become better beings. And the ultimate goal of all rules is love; they help us to be lovingly aligned with the will of God. Such devotional connection and contribution lead us to a life of lasting fulfillment (18.62).