Hindu rituals offer opportunities to incorporate environmental beliefs, values, messages, and practices, in a similar fashion to the many ways that communities are greening Hindu holidays and festivals. With that in mind, we offer the following list of five tips for how to green rituals and worship services, followed by resources covering several Hindu holidays.
Let there be peace in the heavens, the Earth, the atmosphere, the water, the herbs, the vegetation, among the divine beings and in Brahman, the absolute reality. Let everything be at peace and in peace. Only then will we find peace."
Hindu Eco-Spirituality Tips
By Dr. Pankaj Jain (University of North Texas) and Dr. Ved Chaudhary (Hindu America Seva Communities)
Many Hindu temples are integrating and re-introducing earth, nature and environment-oriented themes more directly into their rituals and worship services – while re-emphasizing the environmental themes that have been an important part of Hindu religious concepts and rituals for millennia.
Here are five tips for how to do this well.
Too often, we might feel disconnected from the natural world, and the divine presence within it. There are several ways that temples can integrate creation’s presence into rituals.
“Raw” Nature in Ritual
Ritual priests and lay leaders must emphasize the use of “raw” natural elements in ritual services. For example, many Hindu rituals must include calash (jar) of water, milk, yogurt, ghee , as well as variety of fruits, earthen pots, plants such as banana, and tulsi and flowers such as marigold, jasmine, sunflower, leaves of mango trees or other local trees, and samidha(dry twigs) for havan (ritual fire), or other natural elements placed in the ritual space and visible to all. These natural elements can beautify a temple and deepen worshippers’ relationship with the divine.
We recommend that members of temple congregations should also be advised to bring organic milk, flowers and fruits to the temple. Copious amounts of pesticides are used in normal agriculture in the US; these pesticides are poisonous substances that are not only harmful for human consumption but also kill all kinds of creatures – both microscopic and visible - that depend on tree leaves and fruits for their survival. From a Hindu perspective, the use of products treated with pesticides should become unacceptable.
If possible, it is a best practice for Hindu temples to maintain a flower garden to grow plants such as banana and tulsi for ritual use in the temple (and to distribute them to members of congregation for their home use) and flowering plants such as marigold, jasmine, sunflower. It is best for these gardens to be organic, maintained without using fertilizers and pesticides.
Engage the 5 Senses
All Hindu Puja (ritual worship) involves experiencing the divine with all five senses. Here are some ways that temples can engage the senses of their fellow worshippers:
- Sound - Sounds of conch shells, bells, singing of kirtan , or reading of hymns
- Sight - Vision of Devis , Devas (divine images), flowers, plants
- Smell - Smells of incense, ghee (clarified butter), flowers
- Touch - Touch of mother earth through sahstang dandvat/pranam (prostrating in front of the deity), holding and offering flower petals, holding and placing earthen lamps on altar
- Taste - all Hindu temples offer sanctified Prasad (food) whether it is only a fruit or a few almonds and raisins, or a full sumptuous dinner.
“Refined” Nature in Ritual
Ritual leaders can also use “refined” natural products or services shaped by human effort – to strengthen worshippers’ bond with the earth. For example, ritual leaders can use cuttings of local, seasonal flowers and greenery, earthen lamps, and organic fruits and home cooked foods for Prasad to offer respect for Mother Earth and to create a more engaging relationship with the divine.
When one’s food is pure, one’s being becomes pure
Chāndogya Upaniṣad 7.26.2
This practice can be taken further. For example, temples can use ritual bulletins printed only on 100% recycled paper, reduce their energy use during ritual through energy-efficient lighting (or turning lights off, only using diya (earthen lamps), or purchasing renewable energy credits to offset carbon emissions from energy used during rituals. On certain occasions, priests or lay leaders should remind the attendees that such a use of “refined” but organic natural materials expresses gratitude for the earth’s generosity and an appreciation of ecologically respectful human activity.
As a further example of this kind of activity, many Hindu temples are now using biodegradable/recyclable paper products (instead of foam plates and cups) for Prasad (serving food) after worship services.
Nature Present through Technology
Technology makes it possible to increase worshippers’ sense of nature’s presence through images and sounds. It is a good practice for temples to use PowerPoint slides with photographs of nature alongside the words of hymns, readings, or prayers. The traditional sound of conch shells is a long-standing Hindu devotional practice. A real conch shell should be used whenever possible. When an expert in blowing the conch shells is not available, a recorded sound may be played for the same effect.
Sometimes, words aren’t necessary – the sacred sounds, serene pictures of scenic natural beauty, photographs or images can be used on their own – as visual accompaniments, or prayers.
Collective Silence and Meditation
Collective silence is a fourth way that leaders can integrate the environment into ritual. Through silence, worshippers become more aware of surrounding sounds, natural and man-made. They have their senses sharpened, and can develop a stronger relationship with their surroundings. In 30-60 seconds of silence, worshippers can experience a bird’s call, the rumble of traffic, the sound of a breeze. Many people commented that silence increases their awareness of their neighborhood and deepens their spirituality.
Silence followed by a few minutes of meditation can be a most rewarding experience.
Many Hindu prayers already make reference to the earth. Ritual leaders are increasingly integrating a particular emphasis on the significance of these references in relation to contemporary environmental concerns.
A priest, swami, or lay leader’s teaching about the earth - and our obligation to conserve it – can be a life-changing experience for many people. Many people have never heard such a teaching, and therefore lack a well-grounded Hindu perspective on the environment.
There are many ways to integrate environmental themes into temple teachings. As part of interpreting the Hindu sacred texts in relation to the environment, priests or teachers can:
- Tell stories that describe outdoor spiritual experiences.
- Describe the scientific evidence that human activity is harming creation, and preach on the need for preserving and protecting the environment.
- Share stories that link pollution to human health impacts, emphasizing Hinduism’s commitment to living a healthy life in harmony with the nature.
- Describe the impact of environmental degradation on the poor, and Hinduism’s commitment to those who are most vulnerable.
- Discuss Hindu teachings about restrained material consumption as an expression of moral maturity.
A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance instead of a help. Therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare.
Most significantly, temples can decorate an area at a prominent, well lighted spot near the temple entrance with the first verse of the Ishopanishad in Sanskrit followed by a detailed translation of it and commentary that emphasizes the relationship of Isha (God) with the nature:
“Isha vasyam idam sarvam, yat kinch jagatyam jagat
Tain tyaktain bhunjhitha, ma gridh kasyasvid dhanam”
One translation and commentary is as follows:
Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is pervaded by Isha (God). One should therefore consume only what is necessary for himself, with an attitude of caring and detachment; God has provided us with the natural abundance but one must not hoard things (that are not needed) – and thus depriving others who may need them. After all, whose wealth it is? (Land and its resources are not wealth of any individual, it all belongs to God).
Each Sampradaya head/swami can provide their own translation and commentary.
Also the display may be decorated with images of the earth and environmental themes (streams, mountains, trees, birds, flowers, …) To teach Hindu youth about the importance of this teaching, students in the congregation may be asked once every year to write an essay on this verse and prizes awarded to the three best essays.
Certain Hindu holy days or readings lend themselves particularly well to a focus on the earth. Some of these days are more commonly observed than others – but they all offer an opportunity to celebrate the bond between the divine, people and the earth.
Here’s a short listing of some of these holy days, with links to articles about how to make their observance more environmentally respectful:
- Raksha Bandhan
- Ganesh Chaturthi
Holi (also Baisakhi and Ugadi ) – the spring festivals, celebrated as the festival of color, in the month of March. Traditionally, every Hindu family used certain kind of flowers steeped in water for 24 hours, with the flower’s color drawn into the water.
Young and old alike used to play with that colored water throughout their neighborhood. Today, however, many artificial colors and dyes – some of them harmful - are used to color flowers. Temple priests and lay leaders should encourage use of natural substances for color. Also, traditionally, a large bonfire is lit on this holiday, and new harvest produce is roasted. In many US temples no longer light a fire or, if they do, allow children to roast marshmallows. Priests and lay leaders of the congregation should remind participants to make use of natural grains on this occasion.
Janmashtami (birthday of Sri Krishna) – In many places in India, one or two weeks before Janmashtami is celebrated, people made very elaborate Jhanki (displays) of natural beauty of Vrindavan where Sri Krishna was born. The displays included a stream (representing the Yamuna river), a mountain ( Govardhan ) and many trees, flowers, peacocks, cows and calves. Hindu temples can recreate this tradition which is very enjoyable to all, especially children, and it connect this celebration with a very strong environmental message.
Worshipping outdoors is a powerful way to connect people with God in and through the earth. Many Hindu rituals offer opportunities to do this – such as Yagna , Havan (fire worship) and most Hindu festivals. Here are a couple of tips to make your outdoor ritual more meaningful and more enjoyable to young generation.
- Make sure that there is safe seating and footing and places to set up chairs (or blankets) in a secure fashion.
- Use silence or chanting of traditional prayers. Especially outdoors, periods of silence can be powerful ways to help people connect with the divine. In 30 seconds of silence outdoors, people will hear a range of sounds they don’t normally notice – wind, birds, and a range of human sounds. Silence can help people relax, and allow the divine into their lives.
- Encourage movement and body awareness. Too often, people don’t move during ritual, and their bodies don’t get to enjoy the experience of movement as a way to connect with the divine. Make it possible for people to move freely, whether together or individually.
- In good weather, organize outdoors Yoga sessions, meditation sessions. Different times of day evoke different moods, and different ways to connect with the sacred. Hold rituals as the sun is rising or setting, or by diya (earthen lamps) or candlelight in darkness.
- Burning incense outdoors or waving a banner in the breeze, can heighten people’s awareness that the divine presence surrounds and envelops us.
- Connect sacred texts with the earth. If you are worshipping near a stream or the ocean, consider using a reading that refers to Mother Earth.
- Add a social element to outdoor rituals. When you’ve finished your outdoor ritual, make it easy for people to stay outside to enjoy refreshments and each others’ company.
Living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rains. Rains are produced from performance of yajna sacrifice, and yajna is born of prescribed duties. Regulated activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas are directly manifested from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Consequently the all-pervading Transcendence is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice. My dear Arjuna, one who does not follow in human life the cycle of sacrifice thus established by the Vedas certainly lives a life full of sin. Living only for the satisfaction of the senses, such a person lives in vain.
Bhagavad Gita 3:14-16
We have organized available GreenFaith resources according to the holidays listed under Use Hindu Holidays or Certain Sacred Readings to Affirm the Significance of the Earth. Please either select a holiday below or simply scroll down to browse the full listing.