Spiritual take on earthly problems

Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia
December 13, 2002

In the West, environmental and development issues are often unrelated, whereas in the developing world environmental questions are mostly experienced as integral to their social context. Some western environmentalists ignore the big questions of nuclear weaponry or irresponsible multinationals and concentrate on destroying genetically modified crops or protesting about nuclear waste. In poorer Asian societies, the destruction of any food is irresponsible, and nuclear power is an integral part of energy planning.

These are some of the introductory contentions in David Gosling's discussion of the implications of religious thought on the attitudes and values that underlie many environmental issues in India and Southeast Asia. Gosling is a former nuclear physicist who later worked at the World Council of Churches before teaching for four years in India.

In the run-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the United Nations acknowledged the role the world's religions could play in promoting values and attitudes needed for sustainable development. The interconnectedness of religion, culture, politics and science in the Hindu traditions, with the considerable affinity between humans and nature, holds together approaches to the environment that western science and politics often ignore. Global warming that affects the rich nations was dealt with at Rio; desertification that affected the poor was ignored.

Gosling provides a historical outline of the ecological dimensions in Hindu thought from the early Vedic period. Despite its secular foundation, modern India is deeply rooted in religion, from scientists such as S. N. Bose, for whom science was a religious quest, to Gandhi, who challenged the western anthropocentric view that human beings possess the right of unrestrained domination over nature. The development of Indian protest movements against deforestation, with their roots in religious culture as well as science, are examples of a total response to the destruction of communities and their habitats.

Two chapters on ecology and Buddhism, including fieldwork by the author, illustrate the Buddha's affirmation of the value of non-human life - a non-personal ideology that is powerful in addressing social and environmental problems in Thailand.

Gosling traces the political movements in contemporary India, leading to the rise of the Hindu right, and seeks to evaluate programmes for the restructuring of Indian society that might reduce poverty and the abuse of nature. He discusses the environmental approach of Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, and then the more economics-based approach of Jean Dreze and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Sen's work on participatory development, the importance of education, health and literacy and the reduction of the gender imbalance are illustrated. Gosling sees signs of hope rooted in Hindu traditions and engaging with contemporary social and political realities.

Gosling's work is clearly and passionately written, betraying careful scholarship in science and religious studies. It should help to clarify the role of religious traditions in increasing ecological awareness, and, it is to be hoped, in promoting some resolution of the social and environmental problems our world faces.

Rt Revd David Atkinson is bishop of Thetford.

Religion and Ecology in India and Southeast Asia

Author - David Gosling
ISBN - 0 415 24030 1 and 24031 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 210

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