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How secularization of society has affected environment

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By Nithin Sridhar

It is well known that ‘secularism’ has become an inseparable part of any discourse on politics in India. But, what is often not realized is how the notion of ‘secularism’- the separation of the ‘secular’ from the ‘sacred’ has completely overtaken the discourse on any issue related to Indian society.

Secularism is a western notion that historically arose in response to European problems. It is not only alien to Indian society, it is highly unsuitable as it completely ignores Indian ethos that are rooted in the notion of ‘dharma’ (duty/righteousness). Hence, the secularization of Indian life and society that has been carried out in the last many decades has resulted in disastrous consequences. One such area where secularization has distorted the issue and has caused enormous damage is ecology and environment.

Indian view of Environment

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 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 the humans as the sons of the mother earth.

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.

This holistic vision of the environment that was once integral to the Indian way of life has been completely distorted and destroyed by the secularization of the Indian society in the last century.

The result of secularization

The secularization of the 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 a life, the perception is that their life is somehow inferior to human life.

Thus, the 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.

The current debate over people’s right to eat beef is one example. Illegal and uncontrolled mining and the pollution of rivers like Ganga are other examples. The point being made here is that because the environmental objects are perceived as lifeless or inferior entities and not as manifestations of divine, humans are committing huge Himsa (violence) on the environment.

The effect of secularization is such that even the religiously devout fail to perceive the environmental in an integral holistic manner. For example, though the religious people worship River Ganga as a divine Mother who removes all sins, the very same people also through plastic, soap, and other such things into the river. Similarly, factory owner’s discharge untreated industrial wastes into Ganga water, though privately they may be great devotees.

This disconnect between the faith and the action is the direct result of secularization that has created an 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.

Now coming to the cleaning and conservation activities taking place around river Ganga, many people who are involved in this view the river only as a water resource and not as a living mother. The situation is not quite different in discourses about global warming and climate change as well.

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 sense of ownership, as long as the element of sacredness is not recognized and made integral to the conservation discourse.

People’s growth is important, nation’s development is also important. But, such growth and development should not only take into account the environmental aspects but should also be driven by a sense of sacredness and Dharmic righteousness. Only such a progress will be progress in a real sense. The current secularized treatment of the environment will only lead to further deterioration of the environment and eventual destruction of the entire planet.

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Temple, Mosque, Gurudwara Join Hands In This UP Town

In another incidents, last year in September, when dates of Durgapuja and Muharram clashed, Mishra and Muhammad Rizwan, Haneef's son, took charge

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All religions joined hands together to clean the polluted river. IANS

With inter-community violence reported from many parts of India in a society increasingly polarised on religious and caste lines, a small town in Uttar Pradesh is setting an extraordinary example where a temple, a mosque, and even a gurdwara, have joined hands to clean a polluted river while bringing their communities together.

About 100 km from the state capital Lucknow is the town named Maholi in district Sitapur. Here lies an old Shiva and a Radha-Krishna temple along with Pragyana Satsang Ashram and a mosque, all at a stone’s throw of each other.

Tirthan River is beautifully calm and you'll find many different kinds of fishes in it. Wikimedia Commons
The river in Sitapur is really polluted. Wikimedia Commons

Along the periphery of this amalgamated religious campus, passes a polluted river called Kathina, that merges into the highly polluted Gomti River, a tributary of the mighty but polluted Ganga. Often used as dumping site by dozens of villages and devotees, the stink from Kathina was increasing daily. The solution — Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (a term used for a fusion of Hindu and Muslim elements) – of Awadh.

“The river belongs to everyone. Hindus use it for ‘aachman’ (a Hindu ritual for spiritual purification), Muslims use it for ‘wazu’ or ablution. Due to lack of awareness, people had been dumping solid and bio waste here, and also doing open defecation. The situation was worsening. Only solution was to start cleaning it ourselves,” said Swami Vigyananad Saraswati, head of the Pragyana Satsang Ashram, as he inspects the river stretch along with Muhammad Haneef, head of the mosque’s managing committee.

Swami said that once the ashram and temple administration began rallying volunteers for the cleaning drive, the mosque also came around to help. Even Maholi’s Sikh gurudwara committee came forward and brought along many volunteers from the Sikh community.

“Once the communities came together, number of volunteers multiplied. The initiative has now become a kind of an environment-movement which is being driven by religious fervor and bonding. Watching our efforts, the local administration also offered help, and other unions like traders and Sikh gurudwara committee also joined hand for cleaning the river,” Swami told IANS pointing out the potential of possibilities when different communities join hands for good.

Ujagar Singh, a member of the Sikh gurdwara committee, equated the effort in cleaning the river with ‘sewa’, an important aspect of Sikhism to provide a service to the community. “Keeping our rivers clean is our duty and we will continue sewa whenever required,” he said.

The temple and mosque, near the town’s police station, were both built in 1962 by then Inspector Jaikaran Singh. The communal fervor is shared since years. During ‘namaaz’, the ashram switches off its loudspeakers and on Hindu festivals and special occasions, the mosque committee helps the temple with arrangements. Still underway, the joint Hindu-Muslim team began cleaning the river from March 14. According to the volunteers, it took three days alone to get the river front cleaned of defecation.

Also Read: All Religions Flourished In India: Modi

“Many villages do not have toilets and volunteers had to stay here round the clock to stop people from defecating or throwing waste. The work was divided. Muslims volunteers would take over the Muslim majority areas and Hindus would tackle other areas, convincing people to stop pollution further while we clean,” Muhammad Haneef told IANS.

The actual cleaning of the river began from March 17, when about 400 volunteers got into the waters, while about 700 of them cleaned the shores. “Several trolleys of garbage — that included plastic, polythene, shoes, rubber, animal carcasses, human waste, glass and ceramic waste, and even some old boat wreck — were taken out of the river.

“Apart from that, several trolleys of water hyacinth, an invasive species of water plant, was removed. It obstructs the flow of the river,” Sarvesh Shukla, executive officer of Maholi town told IANS. Stating that such drive is not possible unless people come together, Shukla said that since ‘mandir-masjid’ joined hand, it was very easy to convince people to cooperate. However, with poor garbage management system of small town, Swami and Haneef looked up to the administration for help.

“Few days back, some butchers were taking waste towards the river. We stopped them and there was a heated debate. Soon other elders of the community joined and we did not let them dump the waste into the river,” said Haneef, pointing out that stopping people without proper management could be daunting in future.

Swami said that they would need disilting machines to clean the river towards the second phase. According to Abdul Rauf from the mosque committee, the work is only half done. “The challenge is to maintain the cleanliness. We could clean only a small stretch of the river. We will rally again and take movement to second phase once we get directions from our elder brother Swami ji,” says Rauf. Nearly one kilometer of the stretch has been cleaned. The volunteers are aiming to clean another kilometer of it. However, be it river or communal fervor, the challenge, as residents of Maholi find, is consistency of the good.

Rohingya refugee
All came together to clean the river.

“There are bad elements everywhere. Few weeks back, a fringe group named Vishwa Hindu Jagran Parishad entered a Muslim-majority area and started hurling abuses. Before they would do more damage, the Hindus of that area came forward and retaliated. The group never returned since,” said Shailendra Mishra, a local resident and member of temple committee. In another incidents, last year in September, when dates of Durgapuja and Muharram clashed, Mishra and Muhammad Rizwan, Haneef’s son, took charge.

“All we had to do was keep a few notorious people from both communities at bay. About 5,000 strong Hindu’s Devi Shakti procession and about 2,000 strong Muslim Tazia procession of Muharram used the same road at the same time. Not a single untoward incident happened,” Haneef said. IANS