Section VII: Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions—B

Track 1: Hindu & Indic Practices and Perspectives on Sustainability
(Rita Sherma)

Do Hindu and Indic perspectives and practices have anything to offer for the strengthening of sustainable thought and action? This track is based on visions that integrate principles from Hindu and Indic knowledge systems that evince an ecological consciousness that can support sustainability, contemplative action, pluralism, inclusivism, and the assimilation of organic approaches into various fields in order to foster transformative ideas and action leading towards a more stable, equitable, and holistic worldview. It seeks to identify and spread the knowledge of the most universally applicable and ecologically relevant Hindu and Indic traditional insights which, together, form an extensive, related, organized and comprehensive network of alternate ways of knowing and understanding nature and our place in it.

Hindu & Indic Practices and Perspectives on Sustainability

Panel I

Saturday June 6th, 10:00 AM—12:30 PM

Presiding: Rita Sherma, PhD, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley

1) Joseph Prabhu, PhD, California State University, Los Angeles

Dharma and Co-dependent Co-arising: A Hindu-Buddhist Ecological Dialogue”


Both the classical Hindu doctrines of dharma and the Buddhist notion of pratityasamutpada offer promising philosophical/ spiritual perspectives for environmental engagement. They are largely free from the western dualisms of mind/body, humans/nature, and spiritual/material that have bedeviled western reflection after Descartes. By contrast the Indic perspectives offer a metaphysic of interrelatedness that allows us to see the natural environment as both our habitat and our habitus. My presentation will spell out the further implications of this metaphysic.

2) Kusumita P. Pedersen, PhD, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, St. Francis College, NY

“Sri Chinmoy on Nature, the Environment and Spiritual Experience”


The extensive writings in both prose and poetry of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) set forth his philosophical thought rooted in modern Vedantic tradition and contemplative practice. This paper will offer a constructive account of his philosophy of Nature, his view of the reasons for the environmental crisis and the role of spiritual experience in establishing mutually enhancing human-Nature relations. For Sri Chinmoy Nature is the universal and manifested aspect of the Divine, “God the creation,” which has its Source in the transcendent Supreme, “God the Creator.” There is no ontological gap between God and Nature, which are aspects of one reality, and the beauty of Nature is a direct revelation of the Divine. The universe is evolving in a dynamic open-ended process of self-transcendence in which every form of existence is necessary and infinitely loved by the Creator. Human destruction of the environment stems from ignorance of our oneness with the totality of existence and the resulting insatiable greed and desire for power. Meditation on Nature, centered in the heart, spiritually nourishes the practitioner and deepens into the realization of conscious oneness with both God the Creator and God the Creation. This oneness is expressed in self-offering to both: “The very nature of the heart/ Is to love God the Creator / And to serve God the Creation.”

3) Debashish Banerji, PhD, University of Philosophical Research

“Relationality, Process and the Integral Advaita of Sri Aurobindo”


Mystical traditions have tended to develop in one of two directions – spirituality, the search for transcendence; or magic, the knowledge and control of the forces of nature for power and enjoyment. In Hinduism, the first of these tendencies is characterized by Vedanta and the second by Tantra. In actual practice most traditions represent a combination of these two tendencies, with one being privileged over the other. The philosophy of Sri Aurobindo aims for the identity of these two tendencies, making transcendence (mukti) the condition for the enjoyment of nature (bhukti). This is achieved through a sustainable and life-empowering creative praxis based in relationality and process, invoking a transcendental conscious force as a progressive transformational agent.

4) Veena Howard, PhD, California State University, Fresno

The Question of Animal Justice: Analyzing the Ecological Consciousness in the Mahabharata.”


According to Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way its animals are treated.” In recent years, ecocritics have investigated the relationship of humans and the natural world in literature. Their focus highlights the question of the human/nature interrelationship, which has become central to debates about environmental issues. However, in Hindu sacred literature the existential reality of nature and humans is rarely polarized and, therefore, the questions regarding the relationship between nature and humans in literature take an unconventional tone. This is most explicitly evident in the portrayal of animals. In particular, the Mahabharata is considered the “fifth Veda” by popular convention, and it depicts seamless engagement between celestial beings, humans, and animals. The text develops ethical discussions that encompass human and nonhuman animals within a same system of dharma ethics. Through various narrative strategies it engages with nonhuman animals to think about the difficult questions of justice, equality, and right to existence. Furthermore, animals ubiquitously engage with humans, they present moral dilemmas and tests, and they impart dharma (moral) lessons. Celestial beings often disguise themselves as animals to test human fortitude and their commitment to service. In this essay, I analyze select narrative strategies that seek to disorient the readers’ mind and disrupt the anthropocentric mindset, and investigate how these narratives arguing shared concerns can be an important supplement to the present day discussions of animal rights.

Hindu & Indic Practices and Perspectives on Sustainability

Panel II

Saturday June 6th, 1:30 AM—3:00 PM

Presiding: Rita D. Sherma, PhD, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley

1) Swami Atmatattvananda, Vedanta Society Hollywood

Journey of the Spirit: Whiteheadian Process Thought in Dialogue with Vedanta”


During the Mid-century (post 1951) period of the twentieth century, a sea-change occurred in philosophy in the United States. Philosophy, per se, influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein, threw metaphysics in a lateral pass, I would aver, to Religious Studies—particularly, mysticism. Such questions as Being Itself, the origin and destiny of the universe, and even its present workings and functioning, all of the “big questions,” were relegated to process theology and religion departments (and, yes, the Vedanta Society representing the Ramakarishna Order of India). Even Wittgenstein allowed that the important or big questions and their domains existed, but lay, so to speak, over the rainbow—in a realm inaccessible to modern, especially linguistic analysis. In this presentation, similarities in this remaining sphere between Whiteheadian principles and Indian thought are examined. Water, as an example of Indian (or dharmic) environmental insight, against this background, is considered. Procedural or practical responses to the current ecological crisis endangering the survival of the human species, will be presented.

2) Loriliai Biernacki, PhD, University of Colorado, Boulder

Varieties of Immanence: Tantric Possibilities for Demonstrating how Matter matters”


We see on the edges of contemporary discussion a fraying of established paradigms for understanding the nature of our world. Science philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False is perhaps emblematic. This paper argues that a comparative analysis of some contemporary critiques of eliminative materialism inadvertently find welcome bedfellows in some respects with medieval non-dual Kashmiri Śaiva Tantric representations of materiality.

3) Gerald Larson, PhD, University of California, Irvine

“Constructing a New Hindu-Buddhist Hermeneutic for Environmental Ethics”


Utilizing primarily Samkhya-yoga, Nyaya, and some early Buddhist philosophical categories together with what Gananath Obeyesekere has characterized as the “…karmic eschatologies…found only in Indic religions,” I shall argue that it is possible to construct what might be called a “karmic hermeneutic” for environmental ethics. Obeyesekere in his massive study entitled, Imagining Karma, documents a fundamental distinction between “rebirth eschatologies” and “karmic eschatologies.” The former, rebirth eschatologies, are found throughout the world, often in small-scale tribal contexts, or in more complex social contexts (for example, the Pythagoreans in Hellenic and Hellenistic traditions, and so forth), frequently linked with ancestor-rituals, and with or without “ethicization.” The latter, karmic eschatologies, are unique to Indic traditions and have highly ramified accounts of “ethicization” in terms of good and evil deeds, appropriate moral behavior, moral retribution, and so forth. Max Weber, the great historical sociologist, once commented that there have been only three “theodices” ever devised in the history of the human species, (1) the deus-absconditus theodicy of western thought; (2) the dualist Zoroastrian theodicy of the struggle between good and evil; and (3) the karma/rebirth “theodicy”/eschatology of Hindu-Buddhist thought. The degradation of the environment, the true evil in our time, has never been explored philosophically from the perspective of karma and rebirth. This paper will be an attempt to take some first steps in this direction.

Hindu & Indic Practices and Perspectives on Sustainability

Panel III

Saturday June 6th, 3:30 AM—5:30 PM

Presiding: Phyllis Herman, PhD, California State University, Northridge

1) Vinayak Bharne, Adjunct Associate Professor, Sol Price School of Public Policy, and Lecturer, the School of Architecture, University of Southern California

“From Anonymity to Divinity: The Urbanism of Hindu Temples and Their Significance to the Future of India”


Across India, thousands of anonymous, illegal wayside shrines and morphing into temples and identifiable sacred places through communal patronage and fervor. Many of India’s biggest temples in fact originated this way. This phenomenon, therefore, is living evidence of an enduring millennial sacred urbanism that will continue to shape Indian urbanity. This presentation will elaborate on the components and working of this urbanism, and provoke reflections on its relevance to the future of the Indian city.

2) Mughdha Yeolekar, PhD, Loyola Marymount University

Ecological Consciousness & Rituals of Nature: Texts and Trees: Ritual Engagements with the Audumbar Tree in the Dattatreya Sampradāya”


Ritualizing around sacred trees is very common in various Hindu traditions. Several trees (Mango, aśvattha, Neem, Pipal, vaṭa, Śami etc.) are mentioned as having some sacral qualities as early as the Indus valley civilization. In the contemporary Hindu world some of these trees are considered to be embodiments of divinity in the form of a particular deity. Sometimes they acquire sanctity due to their healing qualities. Many Hindu temples in contemporary India have one or two specific trees that are believed to have existed since time immemorial. In this case, a tree becomes powerful for being “hierophanic outside time” (Nugteren 2005: 298). One such tree, called Audumbar (Skt. Udumbara) is highly revered in the Dattatreya sampradāya in Maharashtra. Audumbar and Dattatreya are invariably connected in ritual practices of Dattaterya sampradāya. There is always an Audumbar tree in a Dattatreya temple. During my fieldwork I met with several devotees who pointed out that the spontaneous sprouting of an Audumbar is interpreted as a divine message to build a temple for Datta. Therefore, many Dattatreya temples are built in places where there is an Audumbar sprout. At a minimum, Dattatreya devotees do circumambulation to Audumbar trees in the premises of the temple after taking darśana of the Dattatreya icon. Sometimes, there are also sakām bhakti engagements with Audumbar such as making 108 circumambulations in order to be blessed with a child. In this presentation, I explore the textual and practical engagements of Dattatreya devotees with the Audumbar tree based on my ethnographic research on the Gurucaritra parayana. I ask: are there any scriptural references to the healing functions of the Audumbar tree? How do various texts in Datta tradition(s) explain the connection between Dattāttreya and the Audumbar? Furthermore, from this particular instance of engagement with trees, what do we learn about Hindu perspectives on ecology?

3) Deepak Shimkhada, PhD, Claremont School of Theology

Pancavati—A Foundation for Ecologically Sustainable Green Earth”


This paper examines the meaning, history and uses of the word Pancavati in light of today’s environmental and ecological degradation. Pancavati in Hindu religious texts symbolizes sacred grove consisting of five important trees. While they have medicinal properties, they can be taken as a metaphor of five essential elements necessary for our survival or cognition. At a time when the earth is threatened by climate change as a result of the greenhouse effect as well as air and water pollution, it is imperative to return to the ancient practices that promote ecological sustainability by charting alternatives. Ancient wisdom found in the Dharmic traditions speaks of ecological harmonies between humans and nature. A discussion of how that can be brought into balance within the contexts of traditional and contemporary practices will be the focus of this paper.

4) Narayan Dhakal, Ph.D., University of Minnesota, Independent Scholar

Adapting Climate Change through Experiencing Self in the Vedanta Philosophy”


Unchanging materialistic human behavior is the primary factor of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with constant increment of Carbon-di-oxide. The impact of climate change is multifold it affects global economy, food, health, wellbeing and happiness. Cultural knowledge that has been practiced for centuries on the Indian subcontinent offers an immense resource for protecting the environment. These ancient belief systems teach respect for, and profoundly value all aspects of the environment and state “water, forest, wind, and animals” all are part of nature, to be understood as providing optimal value. Vedanta school of philosophy based on the Upanishads, which has been practiced for millennia, provides a reservoir of knowledge that can enable people to live a happy life in harmony with nature. Such knowledge is available from the Taittiriya Upanishad (amongst other sources) and provides important stepping stones for living a sustainable life with greater happiness.