A Critique of O. P. Dwivedis Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit of Hinduism

A Critique of O. P. Dwivedis Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit of Hinduism

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A Critique of O. P. Dwivedis Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit of Hinduism

In his article Satyagraha for Conservation: Awakening the Spirit

of Hinduism, O. P. Dwivedi argues that we must reawaken religious values

if the world is going to reduce the current level of environmental

degradation. He suggests that religious beliefs can serve as a crucial

foundation in helping to create a self-consciously moral society which

would put conservation and respect for Gods creation first, and relegate

individualism, materialism, and our modern desire to dominate nature in a

subordinate place. Dwivedi further argues that religion helps to make

humans aware of the limits of our control. He uses the example of Hindu

religious beliefs to explain how reawakening religious beliefs might

create a change in attitudes toward nature. Although I agree with Dwivedis

contention that religious values can serve to support environmental

movements, I would argue that his article presents an overly simplistic

view of the power of religion. Dwivedi fails to address the constantly

changing nature of religious traditions. In addition, he does not address

the fact that India (a predominantly Hindu country) is severely polluted

today. I felt that Dwivedis argument was weakened by his failure to deal

with these issues. As a result, I would like to explore some of the gaps

in Dwivedis article. I will also deal briefly with Guhas article and the

need for a reawakening of religious values to be accompanied by a

simultaneous change in social and economic realities.

According to Dwivedi, the Hindu religion is one of many religious

traditions which support ecological preservation and respect for the

Earth. He argues that many of Hinduisms basic tenets reflect the idea that

humans are meant to care for their environment. Although I do not disagree

that this is one interpretation of the Hindu texts, I would suggest that

Hinduism (like many religions) can also be presented as encouraging human

control over the earth. Yes, many of the texts do support non-violence and

care for the earth but there are also some passages/texts which support

violence and human control over the earth (examples include The

Bhagavad-Gita and passages with the RgVeda). Overall, I would say that

Dwivedis argument for the ecological consciousness of Hinduism is the more

accurate interpretation of the texts. However, it is crucial to recognize

that there are alternative and opposing interpretations.In his article,

Dwivedi writes as if incorporating religious values into the secular world

will necessarily support environmental preservation. Although it is

possible that this could happen, it is also possible that religions could

be used to argue the other side of the issue.

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During my study of religion

here at Swarthmore, I have come to realize that the religions which

survive are those which are adaptable to changes in the society. If a

religion cannot evolve along with those who practice it, then the religion

fades away. Since religions need to be adaptable, they also sometimes

require conflicting texts to support different periods in history.

Dwivedis failure to address the changing nature of religious traditions

and the issue of conflicting texts is problematic because it leaves him

without any rationale or explanation for why a country with so many

faithful Hindus (India) is horribly polluted.

In reading Dwivedis article, I felt that he undermined his own

argument by neglecting to address the extreme levels of pollution in

India. For example, Dwivedi explains that many rivers and bodies of water

are considered sacred in India. Among these rivers, he noted that the

river Ganges is considered by Hindus as the most sacred and respectable.

He goes on to explain that any pollution of the Ganges is absolutely

forbidden in the Hindu religion. From reading Dwivedis article, I would

expect the Ganges to be one of the cleanest rivers in the world. The

reality, however, directly contradicts this perception. The Ganges today

is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. One professor who visited

Swarthmore this year (Prof. David Haberman) actually did a presentation

about the extreme pollution of sacred rivers in India. He brought slides

which showed how the river Ganges had turned completely black in certain

areas of the country, due to pollution. The Ganges is not the only example

where Dwivedis explanation of Hinduism seems to directly contradict the

reality. Other examples include: air pollution (Delhi is one of the top

ten cities in the world as far as air pollution), garbage on the streets

and human excrement everywhere.

From what I have already said, you may think that the obvious

explanation for this contradiction between Dwivedis account and the

reality of life in India is due to different interpretations of Hindu

texts. Although I believe that this is part of the cause, I would also

like to look at why different readings might have come about. In his

article, Dwivedi briefly mentions that religious values which [once] acted

as sanctions against environmental destruction do not retain a high

priority because people have to worry abut their very survival and

freedom; hence, respect for nature gets displaced by economic factors.

Indeed, I think this is exactly what happened in India. Its not that

people became less religious; rather economic circumstances caused the

religion to evolve in such a way that the ecologically-conscious values

were pushed aside in light of more pressing survival issues.

It is these economic circumstances which I would now like to

address briefly. In reading Dwivedis article, I felt that one of his

biggest weaknesses was failing to address political and economic realities

which have prevented ecological preservation from succeeding in India. By

leaving out a discussion of non-religious factors, it seems to me that

Dwivedi leaves the reader with an unrealistic approach for creating

ecological consciousness through the integration of religious values into

daily life. Dwivedi argues that religious values must be reawakened in

order for a reversal of environmental destruction to take place. I agree

with Dwivedi that a change in values must occur (regardless of whether or

not this change is based in religion). However, I think this change will

only take place and will only succeed if it is accompanied by political

and social changes. This is where Ramachandra Guhas article comes in.

In his article, Guha explains that a shift in cultural values must

be accompanied by the creation of alternate economic and political

structures. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement and would like to

spend a bit of time explaining how this approach fills in some of the gaps

in Dwivedis approach. Essentially, what Dwivedi leaves out is the reality

that belief changes wont have a major impact until they are accompanied by

this creation of alternative structures. Although it is a huge subject

which cannot be fully addressed in this paper, I would like to touch

briefly upon the economic factors which may have inhibited people in India

(and hundreds of other countries) from being able to control the levels of

pollution in their country.

To sum it up, the main problem is that people dont know how much

damage theyre doing because its not direct damage. Under the current

economic system where free trade and capitalism are held up as the ideals,

monetary power lies mainly in the hands of transnational corporations

(TNCs). Currently, 70-75 percent of world trade is controlled by 100

transnational corporations, while 1 percent of the TNCs own half the total

stock of direct foreign investment. The dominance of these TNCs has

resulted in a decline of small, local businesses which couldnt compete

with such large industries. Simultaneously, as the TNCs have gained

control over agribusiness, there has also been a drastic decline of small

farmers. The combination of these declines has resulted in a world where,

on average, food travels two thousand miles before making it to a persons

plate. This transportation requires fossil fuel consumption, increased

packaging and preservatives, and increased waste products.

The example of TNCs control over food and agribusiness is one of

many examples to explain how power has been taken out of the hands of

individuals and small communities throughout the world. With the world

economy/political situation as it stands today, it is almost impossible to

avoid participating in environmental destruction on some level (without

withdrawing from society and becoming a hermit that is). The vast majority

of environmental degradation occurs not because some guy named Billy

forgot to recycle his soda can but because we are all supporting

corporations and systems which are often not concerned with environmental

consciousness. As long as consumers continue to support corporations which

use excessive resources, those corporations will continue to contribute to

environmental degradation.

Unfortunately, as things stand right now, many of us dont have

enough alternatives. For example, in India, many people might be concerned

about the preservation of the Ganges River because of their religious

beliefs. However, since these people get their energy from the power plant

which is dumping toxins into the river, they are left with the option of

boycotting the plant and losing power or dealing with the way things are.

For those who spend most of their energy on basic survival, the tendency

is usually to ignore the power plant and focus on getting enough food for

the day. As a result, the Ganges goes on being polluted and life continues

as normal. Although this is an hypothetical example, it also reflects the

reality of how much environmental destruction takes place. The Ganges

didnt become polluted because no one valued it or was willing to fight for

it. It became polluted because people saw no viable alternative which

might keep it clean. This is where the necessity for creating economic and

social alternatives comes in.

I think that Dwivedis idea of reawakening religious values is an

important one. Unfortunately, Ive found that many people already do value

the earths resources but these same people often dont know where to begin

to fight for its protection. In Dwivedis article, he writes as if

reawakening religious values will reverse environmental destruction.

Unfortunately, the realities are not that simple in todays world. In

addition to reawakening their values people need to have viable methods

for applying these values in their lives. I firmly believe that the key to

this lies in giving power back to small communities. From India to Mexico

to the US, environmental destruction will continue until people take power

out of the hands of big business and begin demanding environmentally sound


When I talk about alternative economic and social structures, I

realize that this terminology encompasses a huge array of issues. I could

list hundreds of alternatives which I think need to be created. Ultimately

though, the first step lies in communities reasserting their power along

with the reawakening of their beliefs. Once a community has alternative

food and energy sources, then that community can have a deep impact on the

global economic system and begin changing the policies of TNCs. In a large

majority of communities around the world, it is possible to grow food

locally and be at least partially self-sufficient. However, people need to

be educated about the impact which this transition could have on

environmental and health issues. Devout Hindus in India, for example,

arent going to stop buying processed goods unless they know that the

alternative will help them to be true to their religious beliefs.

Just to clarify at this point, I understand that Dwivedi was just

writing one article and couldnt cover all subjects. However, I felt that

his discussion of reawakening religious values was weakened by his failure

to adequately address the changing nature of religions and the economic

realities facing the world today. I hope I have been clear about why I

agree with Guha that there must be a simultaneous altering of the economic

situation in order for religious values to have any impact. As it stands

today, some of the countries with the strongest religious foundation for

environmental preservation (India, China, etc) are also the countries with

some of the worst pollution problems in the world. This, in and of itself,

proves to me that the religious values arent enough when the power lies in

the hands of a few corporations looking to make money (especially when the

religious values adapt to the economic realities of the time period).
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