Relevance of Dharma in 21st Century
As of today, our planet is still the only living entity, that we know of, in the infinite and largely unexplored universe. Although it has survived many disasters, catastrophes, and wars so far, mother earth seems to be in serious crises in our times. The two biggest crises that are threatening our very existence are the climate change and terrorism. In this article, let us explore if and how dharma can be relevant as a solution against climate change.
In my research, I have sought to explore the contemporary movements and communities that have taken inspiration from their religious traditions to preserve and protect their ecological resources. For such communities, dharma has continued to be relevant. Dharmic virtues had innovatively inspired Mahatma Gandhi and a large number of Indians to nonviolently fight against the British Raj. Dharmic virtues have continued to inspire people in Uttarakhand where Chipko movement succeeded in prohibiting the felling of thousands of trees (James 2016) in 1970s. Similarly, since 15th century, Bishnoi community in Rajasthan’s Thar desert (Jain 2011) have taken care of their flora and fauna by applying their guru’s teachings. In our own times, Swadhyaya movement has constructed new tree temples and other socio-ecological institutions as their version of devotional activism with teachings of the Bhagavad Gita as their foundation.
In other parts of the world, Dalai Lama, based on Buddhist values, is now working with researchers on the intersection of consciousness and science. Many other researches are working on yoga and meditation and their relevance in healthcare. Similarly, vegetarianism that was once limited to some communities in India has now acquired global relevance as an effective tool against climate change. Meat consumption is one of the leading factors in ecological destruction across the world, as shown by several scientific studies regularly appearing in academic and popular publications. India’s Jain tradition, in particular, emphasizes vegetarianism thus transcending temporal and spatial boundaries. The ten virtues that Jains celebrate (Jain 2017), for instance, remain relevant in our world marred by all kinds of violence, physical, emotional, and intellectual.
Although religion is often accused of violence, especially in the media and even in academia, the silent nonviolent constructive work done by various religious communities is rarely noticed by academic, journalistic, or general public. In its most fundamental semantics in Asian contexts at least, religion transcends the dichotomy of religion vs. secular. For instance, the Sanskrit word dharma comes from the root dhri, to sustain, that gives us the word sustainability. Therefore, dharma can and is practiced by various communities with sustainability as a foundational principle. The Chinese term Tao has similar dimensions that inspires harmony with nature rather than conflict with it. Similarly, the Japanese term Shinto inspires its practitioners to see divinities in all the natural entities such as the trees, mountains, rivers, and beyond.
As Buddhism spread across Asia, it reinforced this universal reverence into China, Japan, and other Asian countries even deeper. One of the key Asian concepts propounded both by Hinduism and Buddhism is Indra Jaal, often translated as the Jewel Net of Indra, is one of the key concepts in Hua-Yen Buddhism in China and in ancient Hindu texts. According to this concept, each particle in the universe, being empty in its most fundamental essence, has the Buddha nature and is therefore sacred and interconnected. Each particle reflects infinite images of other infinite particles in the universe giving rise to the interconnected Indra Jaal. Every particle in the universe is thus sacred and interconnected.
In conclusion, we see some inspiring virtues and contemporary examples inspired by Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain dharma that will remain relevant for our planetary future for a long time. These are the virtues that have sustained the planet for thousands of years even as China and India (“Chindia”) dominated economically until 18th century. Of course, the economic importance of Asia and Euro-America seemed to have swapped in last couple of centuries. However, this economic decline of Chindia has, sadly, meant that the dharmic virtues have been replaced by materialistic industrial exploitation of the planet resulting in one of the biggest existential crisis for our planet.
Cook, Francis H. Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra. Penn State University Press, 1977.
Jain, Pankaj. Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability. Routledge, 2016.
James, George A. Ecology Is Permanent Economy: The Activism and Environmental Philosophy of Sunderlal Bahuguna. SUNY Press, 2014.