The Ecology and Ethics in the Bhagavadgītā
•A Synopsis of the Bhagavadgītā
•Environmental Ethics & Religion
•Environmental Ethics and Hinduism
•The Employment of the Bhagavadgītā in Ecological Ethics and Activism
•The Bhagavadgītā as Ecologically Unsound and Unethical
•A Devaluation of Nature:
•Amorality and Determinism:
•A Critical Assessment of Nelson and Jacobsen’s Arguments:
•The Ecology and Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā The Pivotal place of Dharma
•The Reformulation of Ahiṃsā, Karma and Sacrifice: A Rebuttal of Individualism
•Identification with the Divine through Action: Power and Freedom
•The Natural World as Inherently Valuable
This Thesis was written for my Master’s in The Traditions & Origins of Yoga & Meditation, SOAS, University of London.
The Bhagavadgītā has inspired seminal developments in Environmental Ethics and activism based on the ecology and ethics it reputedly espouses. Such interpretations view the Bhagavadgītā as a moral call to action; animating man to recognize his place within and duty towards the world in accordance with the overarching narrative of the unity of all beings and imperative of each to maintain worldly harmony. This consecrated activity of preservation is combined with the ascetic ideal of living a devout and frugal life that is at peace with ones surroundings. However, scholars such as Lance Nelson and Knut Jacobsen have recently argued that these environmental and ethical interpretations are based on misapprehensions of the text (Nelson, 2000, p.130 & Jacobsen, 2000, p.231). Further, they argue, an academically sound reading of the text subverts the very values on which ecology, activism and ethics are founded. The following paper will assess the veracity of these statements, arguing that the Bhagavadgītā is profoundly ecological and ethical. Not only may it be viewed as a corrective to ecologically unsound ideals that were developing at the time of its composition, but also it has fundamentally informed the development of Environmental Ethics and may continue to be a reliable guide for ethical and ecological conduct in the world.
After presenting a synopsis of the Bhagavadgītā, this thesis will assess the development of Environmental Ethics to ascertain the values that the Bhagavadgītā should advance in order for it to have a plausible environmental ethic according to modern day standards. The employment of the Bhagavadgītā’s ecological doctrines by environmentalists and activists will then be explored before presenting the counter- arguments to reading ecology and ethics into the Bhagavadgītā. The three main points of contention according to Nelson and Jacobsen revolve around the supposed devaluation of nature, determinism and amorality of the Bhagavadgītā. The thesis will go on to show that such arguments are erroneous, based on extrapolations and comparisons with texts that are themselves at odds with the Bhagavadgītā. The ecology and ethics of the Bhagavadgītā may be correctly discerned by appreciating the centrality of dharma within the text as well as its reformulation of the Vedic sacrifice along with the more heterodox notions of ahiṃsā, karma and mokṣa. Once such developments are considered the text transforms into a deeply ecological and ethical treatise.
A Synopsis of the Bhagavadgītā
The Bhagavadgītā, transmitted as part of the Mahabharata Epic, was likely composed around the first century CE (Miller, 1986, p.3). The text constitutes a dialogue between Arjuna and his comrade and charioteer Krishna and depicts a conflict between two branches of a royal lineage, the Kauravas and the Pandavas that culminates in a battle between the opposing parties. Arjuna, the hero of the epic, raises serious doubts about the legitimacy of the war against his family and dreading the bloodshed to come he declares he will not fight. After venting his despondency Krishna illustrates to Arjuna that his despair is founded on his misinterpretation of the nature of existence and his place within it. What follows is an exhortation to duty and a persuasive call to action. Krishna first gives, in line with Upanisadic thought, an explanation of Absolute reality and the concomitant nature of the eternal and indestructible embodied Self within all beings. Thus, Arjuna should not mourn the physical death of his opponents. Krishna goes on to remind Arjuna that he is a warrior (ksatriya) and therefore it is his ordained duty (dharma) to fight. One’s dharma is grounded in the reciprocal relationship between cosmic and human action. To perform one’s dharma is to maintain and preserve these interdependent relationships and universal order. Addressing his uncertainty, emotional attachments and inability to act Krishna expands Arjuna’s awareness beyond the scope of personal and social values illuminating that duty and right action do not derive from personal passion but from a higher order to which he must sacrifice his worldly attachments and desire. As Krishna descends to earth periodically to restore order at times of chaos for no other reason than the wellbeing of all and maintenance of the universe, so should Arjuna play his part in preserving the peace for the good of the whole.
The Bhagavadgītā propounds that through the proper performance of ones dharma one attains mokṣa, liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The three paths to salvation are united in the description and prescription of perfect action: karmayoga as it is the yoga of action, jñānayoga as it is action performed in true knowledge and awareness, and lastly it bhaktiyoga, the yoga of devotion and full surrender of the Self to the Supreme deity whereby Arjuna acts with equanimity and without attachment. In executing his sacred dharma in such a way Arjuna unites with Krishna and his cosmic purpose thus freeing himself from karma that bind humans to eternal suffering. As Arjuna’s faith and willingness increases, Krishna unveils his divinity before him and Arjuna sees himself mirrored in the divine. In line with the context in which it appears, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavadgītā is essentially an enquiry into the nature of dharma in all its complexity.
Rapid industrialization, voracious consumerism and unbridled technologies have caused, and continue to cause, environmental degradation on a vast scale. In fact, not only are we undermining life on earth and altering the climate to which all beings are dependent, but we are also triggering a mass extinction of species. New York Magazine’s recent and formidable cover story by David Wallace-Wells, ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ dryly outlines where we are headed, warning that ‘absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century’ (Wallace-Wells, 2017). While the article has been criticised as feeding a sense of doom, hopelessness and inevitability, Wallace-Wells’ piece is an explanation of what could happen without ‘aggressive action’ to change our attitudes and behaviour on an individual and global level. This is the area in which Environmental Ethics has been growing.
Environmental Ethics can generally be defined as the efforts to synthesise, articulate and defend systems of value so as to guide human conduct in the natural world (Taylor, 2005, p.597). Environmental Ethics did not emerge as a distinctive subfield within Western religious and philosophical ethics until the 1970s (James, 2014, p.15). The origins of this development are rooted in Aldo Leopold’s pioneering 1949 essay ‘The Land Ethic’ that defines ethics as principles for social or ecological situations based on individual membership in ‘a community of interdependent parts’ (Leopold, 1949, p.239). From such a perspective a transformation occurs in the relationship between humans and nature; ‘from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it’ (Leopold, p.240). Bron Taylor states that there is widespread agreement among environmental ethicists that Leopold provided a benchmark against which subsequent work pertaining to Environmental Ethics could be measured (Taylor, p.598). His groundbreaking work imparted a model of environmental ethics known today as “ecocentrism” (ecosystem-centered ethics), or “biocentrism” (life- centered ethics) (Taylor, p.98). These frameworks challenge the anthropocentric orientation of Western ethics, asserting that the wellbeing of entire ecological communities, rather than individual organisms and species should be the axial moral concern.
The following intellectual landmark in the development of Environmental Ethics was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that for the first time brought widespread public attention to the extent of ecological damage wrought by humans (Carson, 1962, p.52). Setting the stage for distinctly ecocentric Environmental Ethics, Carson condemned industrial society and the instrumental and reductive methodology that distinguished male-dominated Western science since Francis Bacon (1561-1626), therefore tilling the soil for ecofeminism that emerged a decade later (Taylor, p.598). Deepening critique of Western culture was Lynn White’s 1967 essay ‘The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ that blamed Christianity for incubating the ideas responsible for environmental degradation (White, 1967, p.1205). The next watershed, on trend with the growing interest in Asian traditions, occurred in 1972 when Arne Naess, profoundly inspired by the Bhagavadgītā and Gandhi, developed his Ecosophy T (philosophy of ecology) in which he coined the term ‘Deep Ecology’ that was contrasted with anthropocentric ‘shallow ecology’ (Naess, 1973, p.98). Deep Ecology is equated with the belief in the ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ value of nature, independent of human need or desire. This idea, developing in Western popular and academic thought since Leopold, became pivotal in Environmental Ethics. It is against these foundational principles, of nature being inherently valuable and man existeing within a community of interdependent parts, that this investigation into the ethics and ecology of the Bhagavadgītā will be compared to.
Environmental Ethics & Religion
Environmental Ethics was placed on the academic landscape through the work of J. Baird Callicott, a 1970s philosopher. Callicott encouraged ecologists to engage in the study of Asian and Indigenous religions, declaring they offer a more fertile ground for explorations into environmental ethics that were consonant with Leopolds ‘Land Ethics’ (Taylor, p.600). It is interesting that while denouncing their own religious traditions for causing the environmental crisis, scholars and ethicists began to turn to alternative religious traditions; a move seemingly idiosyncratic of academic tendency. Furthermore, the environmental crisis is a new phenomenon resulting from overpopulation, exploitation and industrialization, so why study ancient scripture from a time when such issues did not exist? For many the depth and complexity of the environmental crisis, in terms of both how we arrived here and how we can get out, is the result of not only political, economic and social factors but a crisis of morality and spirituality also (Tucker & Grim, 2000, p.xvi). Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, who together coordinated a vast amount of research involving six hundred participants, religious leaders and environmental specialists, argue that such a crisis can only be addressed by a deeper philosophical and religious understanding of ourselves as ‘creatures of nature, embedded in life cycles and dependent on ecosystems’ (Tucker & Grim, p.xvi).
Historically, religions encapsulate rich ecological dimensions in the way they sync human communities to the rhythms of nature, what Grim and Tucker call ‘religious ecologies’ (Grim & Evelyn, 2014, p. 18). Religious worldviews propel societies into the world with conceptual frameworks that are, as Lawrence Sullivan highlights, ‘primordial, all-encompassing, and unique’ (Sullivan, 2000, p. xii). Primordial in the sense they probe behind secondary appearances compelling communities to take creative action, all-encompassing as they absorb the natural world within them and thus create a mind-set within which manifold ideas comingle in a cosmology thus making ones role in ecology better understood, and lastly, they are unique as the natural world is drawn into another kind of universe that while at one level bears the risk of disinterest in the natural world, can also ground self-conscious relationships and roles that entail limits and responsibilities (Sullivan, p.xii). The majority of environmental ethicists share the conviction espoused by White that ‘what people do about their ecology [i.e. natural environments] depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology [i.e. the way people actually live in their natural environments] is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny’ [White, p.1205].
Environmental Ethics and Hinduism
Religions have been heralded as sources of insight into our current ecological crisis and potential vehicles for change. Despite the similarities within the religious ecologies of different religions, he crossover between Environmental Ethics and religious study has predominantly been within Eastern traditions (Grim & Evelyn, p. 42). While the Western Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam traditionally shared the idea of being embedded within all existence, throughout the modern period acknowledgement of these reciprocal relationships became increasingly focused on god-human and human-human relations, ignoring human- earth relations (Grim & Evelyn, p. 42). This human-focused morality is reinforced by a sense of transcendence of God over nature, identified by ecofeminists as ‘transcendental dualism’ which elevates spirit over matter leading to the all too familiar hierarchy of spirit as the province of male elite and nature identified with birth, death and the feminine (Nelson, 1998, p 61). Lamenting the effects of such dualisitic frameworks, characterized as Western constructs, scholars have taken wistful glances eastwards seeing paradigms of thought based on interconnection rather than dichotomy. In contrast to the idea of being separate from nature by which one may attain dominion over it, Indian thought has viewed humans as intimately connected with nature. S. Cromwell Crawford’s The Evolution of Hindu Ethical Ideals argues that this ‘unitive view’ common in Hindu Philosophy ‘can provide the basis of an environmental ethic’ (Crawford, 1974, p.149).
Scholars such as Jacobsen and Harold Coward have suggested that the interdependent doctrines of ahiṃsā, karma and rebirth can be viewed as examples of environmental ethics in Hinduism (Jacobsen, 1994, p 288; Coward, 1998, p.41). Ahiṃsā, the doctrine of non-injury, presupposes those of karma and rebirth. Due to the persistence of moral value as taught by the notion of karma, Hinduism believes that the pain caused by a human to another must be suffered by that human, whether in this life or a later life (Jacobsen, 1994, p 289). As all life forms are interchangeable, rebirth presupposes ontological unity within a hierarchy of beings, so rather than radical separation ones existence is on a continuum within a circulation of life that is the ecosystem (Jacobsen, 1994, p 289). While the purpose of this ethic was individual liberation from the world rather than efforts to ‘save the earth’, in practice it serves as a strong environmental ethic. Callicott posits that Asain conceptions of the self are more consistent with an environmental conscience, in turn exposing ‘the parochialism and bankruptcy of the Western concept of self’ (Callicott & McRae, 2014, p 379). Holmes Rolston asserts that while Eastern convictions will not transplant Western beliefs, the encounter between the two may provoke the West to reassess its practice and theory resulting in perhaps a less anthropocentric framework, while also able to critique the metaphysical assumptions in technological science and evolutionary ecoscience ‘and thereby help the West to value nature’ (Rolston, 1987, p.174).
The Employment of the Bhagavadgītā in Ecological Ethics and Activism
The Bhagavadgītā delineates several of Environmental Ethics’ foundational principles. The text presents nature as inherently valuable through the notion of God’s divine presence in natural phenomena: ‘I am the taste in the waters... the light in the sun and moon. I am the pure fragrance in earth and brightness in fire. I am the life in all beings’ (7.8-9). This teaching is not peripheral but essential to the Bhagavadgītā’s soteriology; Krishna declares, ‘the yogin who, established in oneness, worships me as dwelling in all things, abides in me’ (6.31). As the divine dwells in all, the true pundit is one who treats a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste with the same respect shown to Brahman (5.18). Delineating a lifestyle in accord with Environmental Ethics, the Bhagavadgītā instructs that happiness can only be attained by setting strict limitations on human propensity to live for the gratification of desires, the senses and ego. As most would deduce ecological consciousness to entail activism, the doctrine of lokasaṁgraha (3.20), literally meaning ‘holding the world together’ or ‘maintenance of the world’ and often interpreted as ‘the wellbeing of the world’, has received much attention from political and environmental activists (Nelson, 2000, p.132). The devotee is taught that as the Supreme Deity need not act yet is constantly engaged in the world, since otherwise order would collapse, so too should the pundit perform their duty of maintaining worldly harmony. Crucially, this action is performed through the abandonment of desire and egoism and without attachment to its ‘fruits’ but rather ‘for the good of the worlds’ and in devotion to Krishna (Brockington, 1997, p.37). These interrelated concepts advanced by the Bhagavadgītā have greatly inspired seminal figures in the development of Environmental Ethics and ecological and political activism.
The Bhagavadgītā’s was the fundamental inspiration for Arne Naess’s Ecosophy T. Naess ascertains that identification of the ‘self’ with ‘Self’, the Supreme Self that abides in all, is the source of deep ecological attitudes (Weber, 1999, p.353). Naess saw Self-realisation as resulting from the awareness of the ultimate unity and equality of all life. This notion is inspired by Krishna’s declaration that the yogin ‘always sees the same way: the self is in all beings and all beings in the self’ (6.29). Naess considered this statement to be ‘the most notable’ verse of the Bhagavadgītā and ‘to be the common denominator for large sections of Indian philosophy’ (Jacobsen, 2000, p.323). While such statements imply that all of nature should be treated with dignity, kindness, and righteousness as all parts have intrinsic value, Deep Ecology goes further and is also about who we are in the larger scheme of things, rather than about value per se (Weber, p.352). The essence of Naess’s Self-realisation presupposes a search for truth and occurs when one acknowledges oneself as immersed in the natural environment and continuous with it (Weber, p.28-33). Such an understanding entails the ethical command of nonviolence towards the natural world, as violence towards the world is violence towards the self that ultimately makes Self-realisation impossible (Weber, p.28-33). Martin Haigh and Thomas Weber argue that the influence of Gandhi on Naess has not received its due recognition (Weber, p.350, Haigh, 2006, p.43). Naess was an ardent student of Gandhi, to whom the Bhagavadgītā was the central text and ‘an infallible guide of conduct’ (an autobiography p. 265). While Naess quoted from the Bhagavadgītā, Jacobsen asserts it was Gandhi’s interpretation of the text that inspired the Ecosophical idea of the expansion of the Self to include all beings and thus the wellbeing of all is seen as identical to one’s own (Jacobsen, 2000, p.242). The principles of Self-realisation, nonviolent action and unity with all life was as fundamental to Gandhi as it was to Naess’s Ecosophy. From Gandhi Naess learnt that all work and all action can function as a form of Self-realisation, and it was Gandhi who provided him with the assumption that ‘the rock-bottom foundation of the technique for achieving the power of non-violence is belief in the essential oneness of all life’ (Lal, 2000, p.5).
Gandhi was a vociferous critic of man’s exploitation of nature and the excesses of industrial civilisation, summed up in his famous declaration that ‘the earth has enough to satisfy everyone's needs but not everyone's greed’ (Lal, 2000, p.1). As for Naess, Gandhi saw the essential teaching of the Bhagavadgītā in the last twenty versus of chapter two that describe the devotee as ‘The person who casts away all desires, who moves away from clinging, who has no idea of ‘mine’, and who has no idea of ‘I’, that one comes to peace’ (2.71-72.). Inspired by the Bhagavadgītā, Gandhi saw nonattachment and control to constitute the foundation for devotion to God (Swādhyāya) and the examination of oneself in light of sacred scriptures (Ishvar pranidhān), which resultantly situates the person within an intricate web of life with both duties and responsibilities to act for the welfare of all (James, p. 18). The fact that Gandhi never directly sparked an environmental movement, nor mentioned the word ‘ecology’ in any of his writings has been highlighted by Vinay Lal as peculiar (Lal, p.155). However, Gandhi’s focus was not explicitly environmental as the context in which he was operating in was the Indian Nationalist Movement and dire social injustices. Furthermore, the environmental movement was several decades away from being inaugurated. The activist tendencies of the Bhagavadgītā became a source of inspiration for many other anti-colonialists and a means to repudiate missionary critique of Hindu fatalism and passivity (Nelson, 2000, p.130). While British rule had marginalised Hindu thought, the end of the nineteenth century witnessed a renaissance of Indian philosophy that not only bolstered a cultural identity but also functioned as spiritual and practical guidance (James, p.7). During this time Gandhi asserted that the Bhagavadgītā as “not only my Bible or my Quran; it is more than that—it is my mother” (Lal, p.152).
While Gandhi may not have ignited an environmental movement himself, it is indeed the general consensus of Indian environmentalists that his philosophy of nonviolent activism, wholly inspired by the Bhagavadgītā, fathered the Indian environmental movement (Lal, p.163). Larry Shin describes an ‘inner logic of Gandhian ecology’ by which the economic and political mode of living that he expressed is transmitted into practical environmental action that is grounded in ultimate values and truth-seeking (Shinn, 2000, p.236). His disciples, Mirabehn and Saralabehn, came to fundamentally influence the famous Chikpo agitation, a movement to ensure, as the women activists declared, that the Himalayan forests continue to bear ‘soil, water and pure air for present and future generations’ (Shinn, p.228). Through Gandhi, the Bhagavadgītā has greatly inspired environmentalists to address behavioural change and values. This is evidenced in Chandi Prasad of the Chikpo crusade’s statement that ‘Our movement goes beyond the erosion of land, to the erosion of human values.... If we are not in a good relationship with the environment, the environment will be destroyed, and we will loose our ground. But if you halt the erosion of humankind, humankind will halt the erosion of the soil’ (Shinn, p. 215).
The Bhagavadgītā as Ecologically Unsound and Unethical
While the Bhagavadgītā has remained a relevant text throughout the centuries, inspiring nonviolent truth-seekers and ecological activists, Nelson and Jacobsen argue that an accurate interpretation of the text subverts the very values on which environmental ethics and activism are founded. In contrast to Naess and Gandhi’s interpretations, these scholars argue that the Bhagavadgītā undermines any ideal of nature being intrinsically valuable and subverts the command to identify with the natural world on the basis of the interdependent nature of existence that constitutes Gandhi’s interpretation of Self-realisation according to the Bhagavadgītā. Therefore, far from informing modern day environmentalism, let alone ethics, they argue for the ‘text’s profound otherness to the prevailing moods of our day’ (Nelson, 2000, p.152).
A Devaluation of Nature:
Nelson contends that it is only by extracting certain ideas from the contexts in which they are embedded, in particular the worldviews that conditioned their significance, that they may appear as ‘eco-friendly’ (Nelson, 2000, p.135). Critiquing Naess’s interpretation of 6.29 as supporting a ‘philosophy of oneness’, Nelson and Jacobsen convincingly argue that none of the classical Vedānta commentators interpreted these versus in this way (Jacobsen, 2000, p.240 & Nelson, 2000, p.140). Śaṅkara’s (ca. 700- 750) commentary, Advaitabhāṣya, is the oldest available on the Bhagavadgītā and presents his Advaita (non-dual) philosophy, one of the systematic demonstrations of the tendency towards monism in Hinduism. In contrast to Naess, Śaṅkara’s explanation of the Bhagavadgītā 6.29 reads: ‘Now is shown the result of yoga which is the realization of oneness of Brahman and which is the cause of the cessation of the whole world of rebirth (saṃsara)’ (Jacobsen, 2000, p.236). Rather than identification with the world, the true pundit transcends materiality (prakṛti) and seeks identification solely with Brahman. Classical Advaita Vedānta posits that all beings share the same Self and everything is Brahman as nothing can exist apart from this principle. Therefore, the world of plurality is understood as, māyā, an appearance and illusion, created by the ‘lower Brahman’ ‘who is not ultimately real, although he is real for all practical purposes’ (Jacobsen, 2000, p.234). In contrast to Gandhi and Naess, Self-realisation for Śaṅkara entails realizing that the Self is identical with the unchangeable source and to identify with the material world is to fall victim to an illusion. Supreme bliss is the cessation of the world and therefore the end of change and plurality. Thus, Jacobsen argues that there is ‘great divergence between Advaita in Śaṅkara and Advaita in Ecosophy T ‘ (Jacobsen, 2000, p.236). Nelson substantiates this in ‘The Dualism of Nondualism: Advaita Vedānta and the Irrelevance of Nature’, asserting that for Śaṅkara there is no inherent value in nature, in fact it is utterly devalued, not revered but tolerated until it passes away and thus it does not constitute ‘the kind of nondualism that those searching for ecologically supportive modes of thought might wish it to be’ (Nelson, 1998, p.65).
Far from offering a critique to the transcendental dualism associated with Western paradigms, Jacobsen and Nelson both deduce dualism, and therefore hierarchy, within the Bhagavadgītā. Despite all beings sharing the same Self, Jacobsen states that according to Advaita Vedānta the mind and body are situated in a disharmonious, painful, illusory and hierarchical world generated by the individuals karma (Jacobsen, 2000, p.235). Nelson questions whether the Bhagavadgītā really moves beyond anthropocentrism, discerning hierarchy in Śaṅkara’s interpretation of the text (Nelson, 2000, p.139). Nelson goes on to remind the reader that Krishna is presented as the author and champion of the system of varṇas, or caste-categories (Nelson, 2000, p.139). Nelson argues that we encounter in verse 6.29 of the Bhagavadgītā not the ‘unitive vision’ of Hinduism, but instead the same hierarchical, essentially dualistic outlook that involves the same elevation of spirit over matter, for which ecothinkers and feminists have been faulting in Christianity and Judaism for some time (Nelson, 2000, p.140). Furthermore, from a soteriological point of view, the concept of karmic connections uniting all living entities together is instead construed as bondage and fetters to be cut as their result is the perpetuation of suffering (Nelson, 2000, p.160). Therefore, Nelson argues that there is little basis in the Bhagavadgītā to build a positive ecological interpretation of karmic interconnectedness (Nelson, 2000, p.160).
Amorality and Determinism:
In contrast to the interpretation that the Bhagavadgītā serves as an ethical guide in moral dilemmas, some scholars argue that it encourages a spiritual self-consciousness inimical to moral action (Mathur, 1974, p. 35). D. Mathur argues that viewing every moral action within the soteriological framework in which mokṣa is the ultimate goal, has the potentially dangerous outcome of real-life situations being lifted out of their concrete contexts into a haze of metaphysical doctrines that undermine ‘the autonomy of moral action and subordinates it to a metaphysical precommitment’ (Mathur, p. 35). Nelson also contends that the endeavour to focus on a single, ultimate reality leads to a marked drift toward amoralism (or perhaps transmoralism) in the absolute realm that should be worrying from an ecological perspective (Nelson, 2000, p.144). Nelson points out the doctrine of the immutable and untouchable spirit, that leads to the message that only the ignorant perceive violation of physical existence as an assault on true being, undermines any moral argument that physical harm, be it the deaths of individuals or toxic waste from ecological degradation, should be of any real concern (Nelson, 2000, p.142). Consequently, Nelson declares that ‘the main thrust of the Bhagavadgītā’s discourse... runs very much counter to ahiṃsā (Nelson, 2000, p.142).
Scholars have interpreted the Bhagavadgītā as potentially offering karmic impunity to perpetrators of immoral acts. The Bhagavadgītā’s reveals that the knower of Brahman is beyond good and evil, a notion in line with Upanisadic thought. The Bhagavadgītā teaches that the enlightened sage is one who has ‘abandoned both good and evil’ (12.17) and that even the worst transgressors of morality may transcend their karma by knowledge and devotion to the Lord (4.36, 9.29). The message that the yogin should imitate the activity of the divine has also alarmed some ethicists as while in the third chapter divine activity is depicted as both the creation and maintenance of the world, by the eleventh chapter Krishna declares he has ‘come forth to destroy the worlds’ (11:32). Nelson highlights that ecologists concerned with preserving the planet might be somewhat perturbed by such a statement as a host of ecological or social atrocities could be seen as divinely sanctioned. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on dharma by ecologists and ethicists is essentially undermined ‘by the tradition’s final mokṣa orientation’ (Nelson, 2000, p.144). Nelson argues dharma is subverted when Krishna declares, ‘Having abandoned all dharmas, come to me as your sole refuge. I will liberation you from all sins’ (Nelson, 2000, p.145). While the Vedānta commentary suggests that this abandonment of dharma means to give up adharma also, Nelson argues that it nevertheless depicts dharma as secondary to devotion of God (Nelson, 2000, p.145).
As the Deity reveals himself to be the Lord of Dissolution, suggesting that there are perhaps limits to God’s concern for the maintenance of the world and welfare of all (lokasaṁgraha), ethical ambiguity, if not transcendental-amorality, seemingly intensifies as elements of determinism come to the fore. Chapter 11 advances that Arjuna, and all humans, are mere instruments subject to the will of the Bhagavadgītā. Thus we read: ‘So stand up, and gain honour! .... I’ve already destroyed them. You who sling arrows from the left and the right, be an instrument, and nothing more’ (11.33). Will Johnson argues that in the Bhagavadgītā ‘individual choice is essentially an illusion, since God is the only real chooser... all that is left to humans is to correctly attribute the result of their apparent actions to the real agent’ (Johnson, 1961, p.95). Such a perspective implies that on the empirical level the individual has diminished moral responsibility, whilst on the level of their true Self, moral accountability is reduced to zero and thus the actor is once again insulated from the consequences of their action. Such a deterministic interpretation may lead one to ask if the ecological crisis is merely part of the cosmic play in which we have no agency? Nelson posits that against this deterministic backdrop the instruction to cultivate an attitude of samatva (equanimity) is hardly surprising (Nelson, 1998, p.148). Nelson translates 12.15 to mean, ‘They should not disturb the world, to be sure, but neither should they be disturbed by the world’ (Nelson, 1998, p.148). From this perspective the ultimate goal is the attainment of tranquillity and peace while the immediate goal is the maintenance of the status quo, contradicting any activist or ecological and ethical interpretation.
In contrast to the Bhagavadgītā presenting a guide for ethical activism, Mathur contends that the concept of equanimity and disinterested action coupled with the exhortation to dutifully perform one’s dharma regardless of the consequences may be held accountable for ‘the relatively static character of Indian society’ (Mathur, p.37). Therefore, he argues, the Bhagavadgītā is unsuitable for ‘meeting the needs of changing and revolutionary times’ as there is conflict in the relationship between the belief in an unchanging eternal nature of Reality and the changing character of a moral situation (Mathur, p.40). Furthermore, a heightened awareness of one’s transcendental freedom alongside diminished autonomy on an empirical level may result in passivity and the attribution of ones circumstance to the mysterious operation of karma. Mathur declares that the deterministic message that traditional class duties cannot be avoided and that the social order is a sine qua non of any quest for liberation ‘is fraught with the greatest danger’ (Mathur, p.42). In contrast to the recent employment of the Bhagavadgītā as a text for social reform, Krishna’s polemic on one level clearly functions to encourage Arjuna to maintain the status quo by carrying out his duty as a warrior. Although the Bhagavadgītā does not recommend non-action, Nelson argues it is action of a ‘carefully circumscribed kind: action to support the conventional social order of dharma, a hierarchical system the norms of which were defined and enforced by the elite’ (Nelson, 2000, p.149). Thus, it is argued that the Bhagavadgītā provides no mandate for the profound changes in social, ideological and political structures that ecologists assert we need.
The above arguments from Nelson, Jacobsen and Mathur subvert the notion that the Bhagavadgītā entails an environmental ethic. Firstly, far from a ‘philosophy of oneness’ whereby the natural world is adorned with inherent value, identification with the physical world is to fall victim to an illusion and to squander any hope of liberation. The supposedly ecological notions equivalent to Environmental Ethics, namely ahiṃsā, karma and the Self (puruṣa) are concepts that are meant to teach the transcendence of nature and materiality, not its identification or its preservation. Secondly, physical harm ultimately does not matter while the knower and devotee of God may act with karmic impunity, thus entering into a realm of transcendental amorality. And thirdly, the determinism inferred undermines the belief individuals are responsible for the welfare of the world, whilst the concept of disinterested action and equanimity induces one to passively accept their lot and maintain the status quo while fixing their minds on eventual liberation. If Nelson and Jacobsens’ critiques are well established the may prove it not to be the reliable source of ecological inspiration that many have believed.
A Critical Assessment of Nelson and Jacobsen’s Arguments:
Arguments for the ecologically unsound and ethically ambiguous nature of the Bhagavadgītā appear well reasoned yet their validity is undermined as they are based on either fragments of the text or on later commentaries. Jacobsen’s essay ‘The Bhagavadgītā, Ecosophy T, and Deep Ecology’ critiques the place of nature in the Bhagavadgītā based on Classical Advaita Vedānta interpretations of verse 6.29. He then contrasts them to interpretations of Naess and other environmental ethicists to conclude that these modern readings are inconsistent with the Bhagavadgītā’s original intention. Similarly Nelson, in ‘Reading the Bhagavadgītā from an Ecological Perspective’, looks at how the potentially “ecofriendly” verses of 6.29-31 have been received by Classical Advaita, concluding that the discord shows there is little basis in the Bhagavadgītā on which to build a positive ecological reading. The issue with their critiques is that the ecological interpretation of these versus, lifted from their contexts, are dissected from the perspective of a later commentary that is itself inconsistent with the teachings of the Bhagavadgītā as whole. The result seems to be that rather than critiquing the ecology of the Bhagavadgītā, Jacobsen and Nelson are critiquing the illusion Naess and others make to nonduality in its classical formulation. Two issues with this are that firstly, Naess does not refer to classical advaita Vedānta and there are in fact other formulations of nondualism, such as Rāmānuja’s (1017-1137 CE) qualified nondualism, which do not devalue nature or mans place within it. Secondly, Naess was inspired by notions of nonduality in the Bhagavadgītā that are enmeshed within a context of sacred duty towards the world and which values the physical world and mans place within it. The Bhagavadgītā’s metaphysics is not equivalent to Śaṅkara’s Classical Advaita Vedānta. Advaita Vedānta is a later culmination of ideals developing within the Upaniṣads. It was these ideals that were undermining the Brahminical worlview and to which the Bhagavadgītā refuted and reformed.
Jacobsen finds incongruous that the interconnected concepts of the oneness of all living beings (advaita), non-injury (ahiṃsā) and Self-realization (mokṣa) have become common place in environmental vocabulary considering these concepts were originally related to ascetics whose lives were orientated to freedom of the Self from bondage to the empirical world (Jacobsen, 2000, p.231). Nelson and Jacobsen contrast the monastic tradition of Classical Advaita with modern day environmental thinkers, arguing that while the former wish to escape samara the latter wish to merge with it (Jacobsen, 2000, p.245). Both scholars however fail to realise that the Bhagavadgītā is a direct response to such a tension. As Bronkhorst and many scholars have authenticated, the Bhagavadgītā is a reconciliation of action and renunciation (Bronkhorst, 2015, p.8). Thereby it proposed a ‘solution to the threat to Brahmanism that came from the newly popular belief in rebirth and karmic retribution’ (Bronkhorst, 2015, p.8). In the assimilation of these new concepts into the Vedic worldview they turned the situation around, once again establishing the strength of the Brahminical vision of society. Jacobsen attempts to argue for the discrepancy between Naess’s Ecosophy T and the Bhagavadgītā, highlighting that he does not recommend the cessation of the material world, yet fails to acknowledge that Śaṅkara commands his followers to relinquish their role in society—a discourse in direct contradistinction to the Bhagavadgītā and the reason behind the its formulation (Bronkhorst, 2015, p.10). Both Jacobsen and Nelson are critiquing ecological interpretations based on a philosophy that is fundamentally at odds with the text itself. Nelson undercuts his argument when he declares, ‘I’m not of course suggesting that the Bhagavadgītā, when rightly understood, sanctions overtly immoral or destructive behavior. I will be suggesting, however, that the Bhagavadgītā contains elements that could easily be misappropriated to justify diminished moral concerns about many things, including the environment’ (Nelson, 2000, p.144). It seems unfair, however, to evaluate the ethics of a text based on its potential misinterpretations. And crucially, the Bhagavadgītā synthesised previously contradictory ideals and therefore interpretations abound as certain threads may easily be extracted from the context that delicately weaves them together. To truly comprehend the Bhagavadgītā’s profound and unique teachings, inluding that of ecology and ethics, the text must be read as a whole.
The Ecology and Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā The Pivotal place of Dharma
The Bhagavadgītā is about action in accordance with ones dharma and how one orients oneself towards that duty. Dharma is the cosmically ordained activity of all living beings to maintain harmonious order in the world (Van Buitenen, 1957, p. 35). Furthermore, not only is dharma the powerful activity that operates the universe but it constitutes the universe. Dharma is revealed explicitly in the fourfold social system of caste, a pervasive pattern of ranked relationships that connects humans with all other aspects of creation thus establishing cosmological interdependencies (Shinn, p.223). It is therefore every individual’s responsibility to help maintain cosmological balance by carrying out his or her particular dharma. While dharma upholds the established order, adharma threatens it. Without acknowledging the pivotal function of dharma as the text’s binding agent, certain versus or sections can be read as environmentally unsound by undercutting the value of nature, let alone wholly unethical, deterministic and fatalistic. At the time of the Bhagavadgītā’s composition the Brahminical hold over society was being challenged by new heterodox understandings of karma and ahiṃsā (Bronkhorst, p.6). The development of ahiṃsā alongside the burgeoning doctrine of karma, positing that all deeds whether good or bad carry fruit into the next life and therefore one must stop all activity, bodily and mental, so as to attain final liberation from rebirth, created an escalation in renunciation and asceticism (Bronkhorst, p.6). Due to convinction in the doctrine of dharma, the renunciation of action not only threatened the power of the Brahmins but the stability and harmony of the cosmic order itself. The Bhagavadgītā successfully responded to this threat by absorbing the new ideas around karma and ahiṃsā into its own conceptual framework and soteriological path, assimilating them with action in the world, yet not without significant reformation. In this way the Bhagavadgītā circumvented the tendency to render nature, and duty towards it, as irrelevant and a form of bondage.
The Reformulation of Ahiṃsā, Karma and Sacrifice: A Rebuttal of Individualism
The Bhagavadgītā reformulated the notion of nonviolence by absorbing the newly enhanced ideal into the Vedic cosmology and dharma. As such they combatted the individualistic tendency arising in heterodox groups as a result of ahiṃsā rising to become the supreme dharma at the expense of dharma itself. Upanisadic literature and renunciate groups had developed the meaning ahiṃsā to be the non-harming of ‘all beings’ (Arapura, 1991, p.201). Jacobsen contrasts the Vedic and renunciate views of man’s relationship to the natural world (Jacobsen, 1994, p 299). The Vedic sacrificial cult was founded on a hierarchical worldview that depicted social relationships between superior and inferior humans as a relationship between the eater and the eaten (Jacobsen, 1994, p 287). As ahiṃsā became an all-encompassing and dominating doctrine, the ascetic renunciates attempted to overturn this hierarchical food-chain ethics declaring every living being was of equal value and liberation is not possible if harm is caused to anyone of them as the perpetrator accumulates karma that necessitates rebirth (Jacobsen, 1994, p 287). While in theory ecological, in practice it is individualistic and constitutes the tendency, seen in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, to render the natural world as irrelevant and the obstacle to liberation. Awareness of the fact that to be alive presupposes harm to other beings meant those seeking liberation withdrew from society and the food chain. From a Vedic perspective, however, to renounce ones place within the ecosystem is to renounce ones place within the cosmos, which is not only defective but a performance of adharma, thus in complete contradistinction to ahiṃsā.
From the Vedic sacrificial and ritual point of view death is not always seen as hiṃsā (harm). Rather, the merit of a ritual act is judged from a cosmo-ethical perspective and thereby assessed by the extent to which it helps support cosmic harmony. Gandhi reflects this in the critical primacy he placed on satya (truth) over ahiṃsā: ‘merely taking life is not always hiṃsā, one may even say that there is sometimes more hiṃsā in not taking life’ (Lal, p.22). Shinn explains that in Vedic philosophical texts satya is directly associated with dharma and ṛta, the fundamental order and structure of the natural world (Shinn, p.217). In the Vedas the compound hiṁsā-karman (hiṁsā-act) relates to injury, destruction, murder or harm caused by magical rites, which were condemned as sinful (Arapura, p.199). Sacrifices were distinguished as good or bad in relation to whether or not they were in the nature of dharma, meaning if they were in harmony with reality (Arapura, p.199). James Preston elucidates that ‘a ritual sacrifice is never meant as a violent act against a particular animal. The ceremonies that surround the event are intended instead to establish relationship between man and god’ (Preston, 1980, p.69). Sacrificial acts are essential in establishing human harmony with natural forces. In contrast to the Upanisadic ideal, there was a place for death and destruction that did not undermine cosmological and ecological harmony but which actually established it. In chapter 3, versus 13-16, Krishna presents the wheel of interdependencies declaring ‘Beings exist through food; Parjanya, the rain, is the source of food. Parjanya exists through sacrifice and sacrifice exists through action’ (3.14). Here Krishna employs traditional sacrificial imagery to address the larger question of sacrificial action as the archetypal and paragon of all action. Krishna asserts ‘the one who does not set the wheel in motion here on earth lives uselessly, wanting to hurt, impassioned by the senses’ (3.16). The Bhagavadgītā thus expands the notion of sacrifice, imploring man to perform ritual in his daily acts by the sacrifice of his ego and attachments for the good of the whole, lokasaṁgraha.
The Bhagavadgītā reconciled action in the world with the doctrine of karma. Brockington explains this was possible as the text reformulates the karma doctrine in two significant ways (Brockington, 1997, p.37). Firstly, karma accumulates as a result of the intention behind the act rather than the act itself. Thus, acts in line with karmayoga, which are selfless acts in accordance with one’s dharma, are free from karmic bondage. Secondly, inactivity is an illusion due to the ever-changing nature of materiality (prakṛti), therefore rather than renouncing activity in search for liberation one transforms their orientation towards action in a way that unites with the divine. This new conceptualisation of right action internalises the sacrifice within the individual, making ‘every action become a ritual, just as every effort to kill desire becomes a war’ (Brockington, 1997, p.37). The most ethical choice for Arjuna is to fight even though he knows the outcome with be the death of his relatives. Arjuna must overcome his cowardice and sacrifice his desire. While it seemingly appears just and righteous to desire not to kill, it is a desire that is rooted in worldly, human- human ethics that must be subordinated for the maintenance of cosmic harmony. In essence, Arjuna offers himself up to Krishna becoming the sacrificial victim himself. By performing his dharma he establishes a relationship between himself and God and restores order on a worldly and cosmic plane. As Arapura delineates, while maintaining its original Vedic meaning, ahiṃsā comes into new life in the Bhagavadgītā and by the end of the text ahiṃsā is not a single concept but ‘the quintessence of all course-of-conduct’ (Arapura, p.208). This occurs through the sacrificial and dharmic paradigm that the Bhagavadgītā expands to encompass the daily acts of its devotees. Without this understanding the reader may conclude, as Nelson does, that it is ‘difficult to argue convincingly that nonviolence was a central message of the Bhagavadgītā’ (Nelson, 2000, p.134). The text entails a profound environmental ethic by guiding behaviour and attitudes that are grounded in mans understanding of being part of a community of interdependent parts, to which all are responsible to ensure its harmonious functioning.
The Vedic sacrifice teaches what it means to rebalance the natural world through the process of destruction; what it means to quicken the natural processes of life and death, growth and decay in the interests of an all-encompassing cosmological perspective, and how harmony with nature and sacrifice go hand in hand. Patton explores some “nature hymns” of the Rgveda to show that appreciation of the natural world was closely followed by sacrifice and destruction (Patton, 2000, p.49). Rgveda 10.125 depicts the creation of the world by Vāc, the goddesss of speech. (Patton, p.49)
I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the enemy of prayer. I incite the contest among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth. I gave birth to the father on the head of this [world]. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread through all creatures and touch the sky with the crown of my head.
I am the one who breaths forth like the wind, embracing all creatures.
Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so vast am I in my greatness
While pronouncing divine presence in natural phenomena and celebrating creation it also highlights divine intervention when forces disrupt cosmological, including ecological, balance. Similarly, while in the first chapters of the Bhagavadgītā Krishna is depicted as the creator and maintainer of the world, by chapter eleven he shows himself to also be the Lord of Dissolution (11.32). More precisely, and in reflection with Rgveda 10.125, before revealing himself to be ‘the one who makes the world perish’ and who has ‘come forth to destroy the worlds’ (11.32) Krishna tells Arjuna: ‘See now the whole world, with all things moving and unmoving standing together in my body’ (11.7). Arjuna reacts declaring ‘I see you everywhere: arms, bellies, faces, eyes – form without end. I see you, Lord of the Universe, Manifold One, you have no beginning, no middle, no end’ (11.16). In line with the Rgveda Krishna is the creator in which all is sustained and united, while also the destroyer of that which threatens this harmony, adharma. Thus, death is not adverse to living in accordance with the divine, yet it is a crucial aspect of maintaining order as the Lord intends. So, far from advocating passivity, the Bhagavadgītā advocates a particular type of activism that advances the natural flourishing of life.
Identification with the Divine through Action: Power and Freedom
The performance of sacrificial acts in accordance with dharma, satya and ṛta are acts in the manner of the Lord. The Bhagavadgītā asserts ‘Know the origin of sacrificial action as Brahman, arising from the eternal nature of Brahman; thus all-pervading Brahman is eternally fixed in sacrifice’ (3.15). Three central passages express the essence of divine activity: (1) ‘That one sets the standard that the world then follows. Son of Pritha: for me, nothing at all is to be done in the three worlds; there is nothing to be reached which has not been reached. Even so, I move in action. Surely if I, who am inexhaustible, did not undertake any action at all, humankind would follow my path everywhere, Son of Pritha. If I did not perform actions, these worlds would sink down; I would be a creator of scattered confusion, and I would destroy these human beings’ (3, 21-24); (2) ‘The four castes were brought forth by me, distributing gunas with actions; although I am the Creator of the world, know me as the Imperishable who does not act. Actions do not stain me, nor do I desire the fruits of actions. So too, the one who knows me is not bound by actions’ (4, 13-14); (3) ‘Winner of Wealth, yet these acts do not bind me; I sit, as one sitting apart, not clinging to these acts’ (9,9). These passages outline the nature of divine activity that is the model for all natural worldly actions. The purpose of divine activity is the preservation of the universe and the maintenance of its orderly course; while purposeful it yields no personal fruit, therefore it is unconditioned by desire and nonbinding; consequently he remains ideally indifferent, in whom karma is reconciled, though in practice the Doer, through his changelessness and equanimity he is the Non-Doer. Richard De Smet succinctly argues that the originality of the Bhagavadgītā’s karma doctrine is based on the adoption of monotheism as the cornerstone of the teaching (De Smet, 1977, p.62). As Copernicus reversed the secular point of view that earth was the pivot of the cosmos around which sun and stars spun, so the Bhagavadgītā overturns the secular man- centered conception of karma, teaching ‘the saving truth that all our actions are rooted in the transcendent activity of God which they are meant to channelize, imitate, and conform with’ (De Smet, p. 63).
The training delineated by the Bhagavadgītā, which sets out the means by which man may mirror divine activity, also presents an almost infallible guide to ethical action. The Bhagavadgītā teaches jhana-yoga so man may release himself from ignorance and desire as he disentangles himself from doubts, distracting thoughts and erroneous beliefs, fixing himself on the true understating of reality. Based on this premise karma-yoga is performed. Krishna makes clear the adept is ‘the one who begins to rein in the senses through the mind and who, without clinging, begins the yoga of action’ (3.7). Through bhakti-yoga, man acts in devotion for the good of the world. While scholars critique the Bhagavadgītā as potentially justifying atrocities, a person truly committed to the Bhagavadgītā’s spiritual training of mental purification, sublimation of the ego and diminishment of desire and who devotes their actions to the good of all, understanding ahiṃsā in its cosmo-ethical sense, would unlikely commit any iniquitous act. Michael King draws a parallel between Aquinas’s Natural Law and the Bhagavadgītā stating that Aquinas advanced that there is an eternal law, a “Divine Wisdom” that is promulgated through the mind of man (King, 2003, p. 408). From this perspective, all errant behaviour arises from some defect in the functioning of the psyche (King, 2003, p. 408). Correspondingly, Vedic teaching reveals a universal field of consciousness constituting the foundation of universal existence; an underlying field of intelligence that is the substratum from which the laws of nature that structure and preserve the universe arise (King, 2003, p. 399). Through jnana-yoga the devotee purifies his mind of defects so as to act in harmony with nature, thus aligning with his dharma, therefore acting in harmony with Brahman. Johannes Van Buitenen also describes dharma as a Natural Law on all beings; the initiating of such action is not a moral act dependent on his disposition, ‘but an innate characteristic, that which makes a being what it is, assigning the part it is to play in concert’ (Van Buitenen, 1957, p. 36). As such, it is the dharma of the rivers to flow, of the sun to shine, of the cow to yield milk, of the Brahmin to officiate, the kṣatriya to rule, the vailya to farm (Van Buitenen, 1957, p. 36). Such an understanding renders the Bhagavadgītā deeply ecological and ethical; through spiritual training you may follow your dharma and act in complete harmony with nature and in oneness with Brahman.
In contrast to the notion that the Bhagavadgītā espouses a deterministic worldview that cultivates apathy and fatalism, the message is one of empowerment and agency. The Bhagavadgītā depicts a nuanced understanding of power and freedom within the world. On the one hand, human aspirations are limited by karma, propelled forward by the activity of prakṛti and seen as being mere ‘instruments’ to the will of God. On the other hand, humans may acquire exceptional power through ritual and ascetic techniques whist the stability of the cosmos is dependent on their actions. Mathur argues that in order to make the Bhagavadgītā relevant to todays need for controlled social change one should steer clear between the extremes of radical freedom of the transcendent self and the rigid determinism of the empirical self (Mathur, p.45). Yet the Bhagavadgītā does just this, depicting a dialectic between freedom and determinism, choice and freedom. We are free to choose, yet not as free as be may think, deeper forces within continually contribute to the nature of our actinos and thoughts. While there are constraights to moral action, the Bhagavadgītā makes clear that a core of moral autonomy remains intact.
To be an ‘instrument’ of the divine does not diminish freewill but rather offers the opportunity to tap into and channel the source of all power. Furthermore, in contrast to other species who conduct themselves according to their dharma, it is only humans, as a result of their freewill, who may choose to act in an adharmic way (Dwivedi, 2000, p.13). The Bhagavadgītā teaches that it is only by acting on the knowledge of the interdependent nature of existence that one has access to this power. The individual who stands alone, acting against the welfare of the whole will perish. While this seems theatrical it is in line with reality. It is increasingly acknowledged in modern science that individual existence is only achievable through its relation with others. Harold Morowitz’s ‘Biology of a Cosmological Science’ documents two paradoxical trends in modern biology: Genetics stresses radical individuality while biology has shifted from looking at individual organisms to the more abstract notion of species (Morowitz, 1989, p.45). This latter trend perceives life not so much as a characteristic of the individual but a characteristic of the entire planetary surface: Individuals cannot exist in that an individual of one species can only exist in so far as he is part of the food chain (Morowitz, p.45). Over the past century, explains Morowitz, ‘the object-centered view of Western culture has been moving very steadily toward a continuum view’ (Morowitz, p.45). This represents what is potentially ‘the most profound intellectual merging of East and West’ (Morowitz, p.46). Rolston asserts ‘an ecologically informed valuer wants a discriminating pluralism that preserves biological integrity at the level of both organisms and systems’ (Rolston, 1987, p.182). The ecology of the Bhagavadgītā appears to present such an ethic, bridging the two seemingly opposing trends delineated by Morowitz. The individual is not subsumed into the rubric of the whole but retains value, power and identity in their particular means of maintaining the world. Yet, crucially, this power and value is purely the result of it acknowledging its existence being dependent on an interrelated web of existence.
The Natural World as Inherently Valuable
The Bhagavadgītā teaches that the obstacle to attaining liberation (mokṣa) lies in one’s orientation towards the physical word, rather than the physical world itself. This contrast with Upanisadic and renunciatory tendency to render nature as a source of bondage. Nelson reads this tendency into the Bhagavadgītā translating verse 5.19 as ‘they have conquered nature... therefore they are established in Brahman’ (Nelson, 2000, p.131). In contrast Patton translates 5.19 as ‘Rebirth is conquered here in this world by those whose minds abide in that sameness; Brahman has no fault, and so they abide in Brahman’. The latter translation highlights it is mans disposition to nature which is the obstacle to liberation. Rather than transcending nature and thus devaluing it, one transcends, or sacrifices, the aspects of the self which makes action in the world binding. Significantly Patton’s translation states rebirth is conquered ‘here in this world’. Thus, the natural world is of the upmost importance; it is the stage on which one performs their sacred duty in life to eventually attain liberation. This also goes some way in undermining Nelson’s argument that the mokṣa orientation of the Bhagavadgītā undermines its exhortation of lokasaṁgraha and dharma as, for the majority, it is only by acting in the world that mokṣa may be attained. That preservation of the natural world is a stepping stone to liberation does not devalue the act but furnishes it with divinity.
The notion that nature is de-sanctified by its association with God’s “lower nature” (7.5) is subverted by David White’s synopsis of the interrelationship between the three levels of the Bhagavadgītā’s basic metaphysics. According to David White the Bhagavadgītā synthesizes the contemporaneous Upanis.adic, Vedānta and proto- Sāṁkhya thinking in terms of a nondualist Krsna-theism (White, 1979, p.506). Level one is phenomenal existence; level two is a “higher” existence, the immediate source of level one and the object of intuitive knowledge (jnana); and level three is the “highest” level of being, which is the deity’s “own highest state”, only attained by undeviating devotion (White, 1979, p.503). While differentiated they ultimately sustain each other, the third level is the source of the second which is the source of the first, thus there is a continuum in which God pervades all (White, 1979, p.505). Krishna declares there is nothing in the world that is not divine, the highest Brahman ‘has hearing in all places; it is present, pervading all.... Among beings, it is not separate, yet it stands as if separated’ (13.12-16). To explain the relationship between God and prakṛti, Rao Seshagiri eloquently points out that the waves may belong to the ocean, but the ocean does not belong to the waves (Rao, 2000, p.26). So in rebuttal to the Bhagavadgītā’s devaluation of nature as posited by Jacobsen and Nelson, David White points out its originality lies in its successful synthesis of the nondualism of Upanis.adic Vedānta and the dualism and plurality of proto-Sāṁkhya thinking (White, 1979, p.501).
In its reformulation and assimilation of the previously conflicting ideals of dharmic duty, action and sacrifice of orthodox Vedic tradition with the more heterodox notions of ahiṃsā, karma and mokṣa, not only did the Bhagavadgītā lend support to the Brahminical hold over society and allow the Vedic worldview to prevail, but it also circumvented the renunciate tendency to view nature as irrelevant whilst undermining the notion that humans are obliged to establish or maintain worldly harmony. Nelson and Jacobsen refute the ecology of the Bhagavadgītā based on a philosophy that the Bhagavadgītā itself was at odds with. In contrast to their arguments, the influence the Bhagavadgītā has had on environmental ethics and activists is corroborated by a close academic assessment of text. The Bhagavadgītā encapsulates and evolves the foundational principles of environmental ethics and constitutes a religious ecology. The text espouses a “unitive view” as Crawford argues, an expanded notion of community to include all natural phenomena as Leopold suggests and attributes direct moral standing to nature that is pivotal in ecocentrism and Naess’s Deep Ecology. As such it may serve as a critique to transcendental dualism that leads to a separation from, hierarchy within and domination of the natural world.
The Bhagavadgītā synthesises, articulates and defends a system of value that guides ethical human conduct in the natural world. The ethics are fundamentally a cosmo- ethics meaning the ethical norms are not derived from a world in which humans are at the centre, thus shifting from anthropocentric to anthropocosmic frameworks on the basis of the interconnection between the divine, human and natural world. To follow the teaching of the Bhagavadgītā is to make every act a ritual, in which ego, personal desires and attachments are sacrificed for the welfare of all. Simply put, acts that re- establish or preserve the natural order, which is harmonious, are ethical. Acts that prevent the natural order from flourishing as it should are unethical. It teaches not to deny or try to transcend what is natural, but to act in accordance with it, thus there is a place for death and destruction. Van Buitenen illuminates one should not think of dharma ‘as something static, but as a balance which is constantly being struck’ (Van Buitenen, 1957, p. 36). Therefore humans are obliged to mirror divine activity, being the creator and maintainer of cosmic harmony, dharma, as well as the destroyer of that which threatens it, adharma. In this way the Bhagavadgītā presents not only an environmental ethic but also a call to action to play ones part in the re-establishing and maintaining ecological balance.
Arapura, John G. ‘Ahimsa in Basic Hindu Scriptures, with Reference to Cosmo Ethics’, Journal of Dharma (1991), pp. 197-210.
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