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Pankaj Jain, Ph.D. Headshot

The Environmental Sustainability of Indian Spirituality

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I had arrived at New York's JFK Airport on Nov. 19, 1996 and was immediately struck by the hundreds of cars all around the airport plying on various "spaghetti" flyovers and highways. Born in a small sleepy town of Pali in Rajasthan and having lived most of my life in small towns in India, I was ready for all cultural shocks, the very first being the environmental one. I asked my friend Ajay who had come to pick me up, "How exactly are all these cars be sustained once the fuel supply is over?" Ajay, having arrived just a couple of months before me, also from India as a software engineer like myself, proudly declared, "Oh! This is America! They can run their cars even on water, don't worry!"

Such was the faith of many Indians, Americans and others who rely on modern science and technological aids such as cars and cell phones, mostly invented in America. With the impending environmental crisis looming large over the humankind, is this faith weakening in the second decade of the 21st century, almost 20 years after my first American encounter? Last month, after my latest visit to New York, I posted this on my Facebook:

1st thought whenever I reach NYC, how will all this sustain itself? 1st thought whenever I reach India, how has all this sustained itself?

And immediately, one of the grad students challenged me, "For someone who works and teaches in the Anthropology department, how can you be so comfortable making such a broad, over-simplified, and generalized statement like that?" What ensued was my defense of India as the sustainable country and USA at the other extreme.

First, I compared the meat-consumption of India with the U.S., U.K., China, Brazil and many other countries and concluded that India remains the most vegetarian country in the world, even in the 21st century. Although only a minority of Indians practices asceticism, fasting and celibacy, the main diet of majority of Indians largely consists of rice, wheat, pulses and vegetables. Even those who are classified as "non-vegetarians" depend largely on vegetarian food as the chief components of their diet, while egg, meat and fish are consumed occasionally.

This shows that even after the advent of modernity and globalization, Indians have successfully preserved their vegetarian habits that were laid down by their dharmic traditions several millennia ago. Interestingly, meat eating is now linked to global warming. In a groundbreaking 2006 report, the United Nations said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization official Henning Steinfeld reported that the meat industry is "one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems." On the one hand, we find a long tradition of avoiding the meat in Indian dietary habits, and on the other hand, the latest reports from U.N. declare that the meat eating is one of the main reasons for global warming. Even after Western media reported about the connection of meat eating with global warming, leading environmentalists such as Al Gore, who got the Nobel Prize for his work in this regard, failed to take any notice of meat consumption in the food habits of Western society.

Even such clear evidences have so far been ignored by the Western society in general and the environmentalists, such as Gore, in particular. Thomas Friedman, a leading New York Times columnist, noted this and even rejected any changes needed in the Western lifestyle, while demanding "greener" initiatives from the U.S. government (April 15, 2007). This Western dichotomy between expecting the "environmentalist" initiatives from the governments and businesses without changing personal lifestyles was the subject of the conclusion of Ramachandra Guha's book with an appropriate title, "How much should a person consume?" Guha observes that the Western society consists of 20 percent of the world but consumes about 80 percent of the production of the world. The rest of the world consisting of the 80 percent of the world population consumes only about 20 percent of the production of the world. Guha agrees with conservationist Ashish Kothari and criticizes the "hypocrisy" of the developed world:

It is, the allegedly civilized, who have decimated forests and the wildlife that previously sustained both tiger and tribal. With rifles and quest for trophies, [they] first hunted wild species to extinction; now [they] disguise [themselves] as conservationists and complain that adivasis are getting in the way. The real "population problem" is in America, where the birth of one child has the same impact on the global environment as the birth of about seventy Indonesian children. Worse, the birth of an American dog or cat was the ecological equivalent of the birth of a dozen Bangladeshi children."

What is even more striking is that due to the dharmic traditions inspired and founded by gurus and sages such as the Buddha and Mahāvīra, Indian society had successfully moved away from animal sacrifices and killings prevalent in the Vedic era to lifestyles largely based on vegetarianism. Ironically, scholars seem to have largely ignored vegetarianism as one of the most important dharmic lessons inspired by Indic tradition that can greatly help reduce global warming. Incidentally, both Bishnois and Swadhyayis are vegetarians and even Bhils have turned into vegetarianism especially after the Bhagat movements' influences on them as I have shown above. Out of several such lifestyle changes that were inspired by the dharmic teachings of the Buddha and others, I have just shown one here. We can similarly note others such as Aparigraha (non-accumulation), which have continued to be an "obstacle" against the consumerist revolution in India. Only in 1990s, finally, India also started embracing Western capitalist model of economy and now market forces are fast transcending the proverbial "Hindu rate of economic growth." Until this Western market invasion, the so-called Hindu rate of growth might have been both the result and the reason for limited Indian spending for consumer goods as shown by Professor Ann Gold in her 2001 article on how consumption is severely constrained and morally limited by ideals of self-restraint in Hindu traditions (fasting, eating only what is appropriate and so forth).

All the above arguments were verified for four consecutive Greendex Sustainability Survey in 2008, 2009, 2010, as well as in 2012, conducted by National Geographic magazine, in which India continues to be at the top and the USA continues to be at the bottom. This survey compares major parameters of a country housing, transportation and food. And in all these areas, Indian habits were observed to be more sustainable compared to the U.S. or U.K. The majority of Indian houses continue to avoid or lack air-conditioning, heating and 24/7 hot water, and the dwelling sizes are much smaller. In terms of transportation, Indians' ownership rates and average usage of personal cars continue to be less compared to other major countries. Indians continue to prefer the public transport for their daily commutes to work or school. In terms of food, Indians' consumption of locally produced foods remains high while their consumption of bottled water, meat and seafood continues to be less than others as the FAO survey also confirmed above.