Articles and Commentaries |
September 2, 2023

Spiritual Ethics, Environmental Crises and Remedial Measures

Written By: S. R. Bhatt


Philosophy, of which ethics is a significant ingredient, is a systematic reflection upon lived experiences, both present and past, in order to be benefited by the same for realization of quality of worldly life and ultimately the summum bonum of life. So, philosophy begins with philosophy of life, lived and to be lived in this cosmos. It is a quest for the ideals of life along with an endeavor to realize the same. It has an essential practical orientation. But this activity is to be undertaken keeping in view the entire wide and variegated Reality. By its very nature it cannot be a piecemeal and compartmentalized thinking even though there can be selective focus on some aspects with some specific objective. The complex Reality can only be understood by integrating multiple, even seemingly contradictory experiences.  It has to be a holistic reflection from varied perspectives and multiple approaches. It has to be done with the objective of being benefited by it in shaping the cosmic and human existence for universal well-being. Naturally therefore the individual human existence, human society, natural environment, scientific and technological enterprises, and social, economic and political organizations become crucial points in a purposeful deliberation. Consideration of deeper issues. concerning these areas provides it practical orientation in the context of human life planning, social engineering, science policy and environmental stewardship.

The present paper is an exercise in a very problematic but highly significant enigma of human life concerning freedom and responsibility and concerning the environmental disruption and pollution and consequent ill effects experienced in our concrete day to day living all over the globe due to misuse of freedom and lack of responsibility. It is enigma in the sense that we are aware of the prevailing disastrous situation and its destructive consequences and yet we do not make serious and sincere efforts to get rid of it. We do raise environmental concerns at different forums but we do not cultivate environmental consciousness which was inculcated in us by our ancient seers. If we are sincere in this endeavour we may derive helpful guidance and redemption from the deep insights and enlightening visions of Indian seers and sages.

Human being as highest emergent

Human being in the worldly existence is the highest emergent in the cosmic process so far. Shaped by genetic endowment, ecological interaction and cultural transformation human existence is multi relational, multi-dimensional and multi-layered. It has individual, social and cosmic aspects in a holistic and organic framework. It is intimately related with Nature, with other human beings and non-human species. Human identity, therefore, cannot be determined by any one of these facets alone in isolation with others; it is constituted by the totality and intricate unity of all of them.

Human being as rational, free and responsible agent

Human being, ideally speaking, is ratiocinative, goal-oriented, free and responsible agent. He/She is a knower, responsible agent and enjoyer through innate competence and overt performance. As a self-conscious and reflective person, he/She has the capacity to understand one’s own self as also others. The term used in Indian culture for such a human being is puruṣa. And his/her planned, purposive and methodical action is termed as puruṣārtha. As ratiocinative knower human being is endowed with the capacity to know, to discriminate and to form judgment. He/She has freedom of will and can make a choice. He/She is also a responsible agent and has to be accountable for his/her actions.  The free will is regulated will. All his/her willful actions should therefore be in the form of puruṣartha. He/She has to perform actions with full knowledge, freedom and responsibility. They should be in the form of “artha” (conducive and leading to well-being) and not “anartha” (detrimental and harmful). Activity is the law of life and every human being must act as puruṣa for survival, sustenance and for enhancement of quality of life. So, there is inclusive alternation between freedom and determinism, free choice and circumstantial limitations. Rationality as discriminative ability implies freedom to choose but being guided by certain norms. It also implies responsibility for the consequences so generated by one’s actions.

Human being responsible for environmental pollution

Unfortunately, under the influence of ignorance human mind is prone to perversion and susceptible to wrong-doing and evil. The perversity-prone human mind more often than not indulges in law-violation rather than law-abidance in this lawful cosmos.  This leads to ecological and environmental disruption and pollutions at the physical, mental and intellectual levels. The pollution is not just physical in earth, water, air, fire and space. It is all-round at the individual level, at the family level, at the community level, at the social organizational level and at the cosmic level. Sometimes this is caused out of ignorance, sometimes by selfishness, sometimes by force of circumstances but more often by weakness of will or perverse habit of mind. It is not unnatural as its seeds are potentially present in human mind because of the past karmas start fructification before one becomes aware of it or makes an attempt to get rid of it. This is one of the facets of the operation of the law of karma. This law has attributive, retributive and distributive facets which need to be understood properly. But it is very difficult to understand this operation and go beyond its labyrinth.

Significance of health and hygiene

Environmental disruption and pollution, imbalance and degradation, are anti-thesis of health and hygiene. Recognition of value of internal and external health and hygiene, both individual and social, is a hall mark of civilized society. Health and hygiene are essential for socio-economic as also for total development. It is a truism to say that only in a healthy body healthy mind resides and when there is psycho-physical health there is spiritual solace. For this apart from cleanliness of body and external surroundings, purity of eatables and drinkables leading to purity of mind is also necessary along with considerations of quality, quantity and modality of their intake. Health is primarily an individual value (though figuratively we do call health of the society or nation) whereas hygiene is both individual and social. Maintenance of both is human responsibility for which purity of thought and conduct are essential prerequisites.

Genesis of the problem

The genesis of all worldly problems is anthropocentric individualistic attitude of humans. He/She thinks that the cosmos is for his/her purpose and he/she is the master of all and everything exists for his/ her sake. He/She is the measure of all and center of the cosmos. This ignorance breeds greed and selfishness. It is this aberration in thought and practice which is responsible for absence of symbiotic life style in a holistic globe. It is this which generates all conflicts, tensions and disorder. As stated earlier, the problem pervades all levels of existence, individual, social and global. It has become deep rooted. We may wish to overcome it yet we do not have the required will and the concerted efforts at all levels. We may only hope that saner sense will prevail upon humanity.

Need for ethics and morality

Since all pollution and perversion is human making there is need to regulate human conduct. There is moral degeneration everywhere. The discipline of ethics is primarily concerned with postulation of norms for good human life and regulation of human conduct in accordance with these norms. On the presumption that human being is a puruṣa ethical considerations, ethical theorizing and ethical judgments are undertaken. As stated earlier, rationality as discriminative ability implies freedom to choose but being guided by certain norms. The determination and choice of alternatives requires norm-prescription but human freedom also implies a scope for both norm-adherence and norm-violation. Values to be pursued and disvalues to be shunned are both equally central to moral considerations. Body, senses, breath and mind are governed by the subtle vibrations. The mind, in turn, leads and shapes the entire cosmic process. If we have kuśala citta (righteous mind shaped by right knowledge) we perform good deeds and virtues spread. But if we have akuśala citta (vicious mind) we indulge in bad deeds and vices spread.  Delusion produces infatuation and dereliction which in turn give rise to passions like greed, hatred and all other vices. Moral degeneration results in pollution within and without. The point to be noted is that no event and no phenomenon, good or bad, is self-existent or eternal.  The implication to be derived is that all ecological pollutions have a causal origin and all these are caused by human mind and resulting harmful actions. Their annihilation also is to be caused by human mind only. As a most evolved species in the cosmic evolution human has acquired the capacity to preserve Nature or harm Nature. Since we have caused the evils and consequent undesirable suffering, it is our responsibility to eliminate them. This is what can be termed as ‘Universal Responsibility’.  We carry a universal responsibility not to create ecological imbalance and to rectify whatever imbalance we have caused because of our folly. As stated earlier our entire actions stem from our consciousness. If we have pure consciousness (kuśala citta) our actions will be good and conducive to well-being. If we have impure consciousness our actions will certainly be bad and they will lead to all miseries and sufferings. Through our actions we help or harm others and ourselves.  All our thoughts, words and deeds are results of our past actions and shape our experiences of the present and the future. What we shall be depends on what we are at present and how we behave in the present. We have therefore to cultivate right attitude towards life and Reality.  We have only to cater to our needs and not to feed our greed.  We have become too much selfish, consumerists and exploitative. We have ceased to respect our authentic existence and also the authentic existence of others. Indian culture advocates a balanced view of life. Mere material prosperity with the development of science and technology or mere moral and spiritual preaching cannot mitigate worldly sufferings. For a meaningful solution a symbiosis of the two is needed. Eradication of egocentricity and cultivation of existential openness and universal sameness based on the principles of interdependent existence and interconnectedness of all phenomena enunciated in the Indian tradition are remarkable and the most distinguishing features of Indian ethics that have great relevance and significance in contemporary times and in the new millennium to bring about universal peace, harmony, prosperity and well -being.

Cosmo-centric Global Eco-ethics

From the doctrine of interdependent existence of all phenomena it follows that Indian approach to Reality and hence to ecology is holistic and integral. It does not entertain at the empirical level dichotomy of human-Nature or Nature-culture or body-mind or heredity-environment or theory-praxis or thought–action.  A holistic approach accommodates differences which may appear to be opposites.  Here there is no exclusive ‘either-or’ but inclusive ‘either-or’. There are no rigid structures, no globalized one-size-fits all approach.

Leading an ecologically responsible life is possible by synchronizing five environments surrounding an individual-family, community, society, nation and cosmos. The guiding principles for this are rightness and mutual support.  It is an ethical path of enlightened knowledge and conduct. The entire cosmos is a network of mutuality of events characterized by universal interdependence, interpenetration, interconnectedness and interrelationships. In this undivided world everything miraculously supports everything else. It exhibits ‘mutual interpenetration and interfusion of all phenomena’.

The point is that there is wholeness of life, self –sameness of all existences and therefore we must cultivate universal love, universal compassion, universal kindness and respect for all lives and all existences.

Further, this approach being spiritualistic and teleological from this we get a vision and an approach to cosmo-centric eco-ethics, a widening of moral sensitivity as it views human actions in a cosmic context. In modern times we need such eco-conduct to solve eco-crises.

All natural objects have a spirit residing in them. They are our co-inhabitants. As we have a right to live, they also have a right to live. It is therefore a sin to harm or pollute or destroy them. This sort of panpsychism is an outcome of spiritual approach to Reality and life. It also reveals the interconnectedness and interpenetration of all phenomena.

Further, in loving all beings and Nature there has to be a life of collectivity, a samgha jīvana. The real meaning of life is to be found in the midst of this network of collectivity, a network of interrelationship we call ‘life’. Life is to be lived meaningfully in the spirit of cooperation, of mutual give and take, with love, compassion and respect for all. Indian ecology is based on conservation ethics of mutual care and share and therefore Love, compassion and concern for others should be as natural and instinctive as it is for our own selves.  It is living with others and living for others and not living on others.   The cardinal principle of Indian eco-ethics is, “In joy and safety let every creature’s heart rejoice”. There are two very catching and apt words for this idea i.e., feeling of sameness with others (parātma samatā) and identification of oneself with other selves (parātma parivartana)2. This feeling of oneness is not physical or geographical but mental and psychological. The root cause of suffering is delusion (avidyā) and mental afflictions (rāga-dveṣa). The consequence of it is feeling of separateness, fragmentation, a sense of separate and independent existence, separated from each other, separated from the environment that sustains us and separate from the things we are inextricably related with. The ecological crises we witness today are the result of this delusion which gives rise to greed, hatred and stupidity.

From Indian teachings we learn another lesson that ecology is not a mere matter of theorizing or sermonizing but something to be practiced. So, all of us have to be ‘engaged persons’ irrespective of our religious affiliation. Instead of crying hoarse over environmental pollutions it is time to act and not to be occupied in discussions and debates or throwing the ball in one another’s court. This is important and relevant for us to save this planet from disaster. In this sense message of Indian culture is perennial and eternal. This is enlightenment.

Indian view of surface and deep ecology

The western ecology is utilitarian, materialistic and mechanical but Indian ecology is spiritual and teleological. In Indian teachings we have both surface and deep ecological thinking but their meanings are different than the ones understood by the western thinkers. By deep ecology the Indian mind would mean that we have to attend to the functioning of our mind.  All good and evil proceed from the mind. Mind occasions our conduct and makes it good or bad. So, we should educate our mind first. This is the foundation of all ecology. This is the real deep ecology that pertains to inner environment. The surface ecology pertains to our actions that constitute outer environment. We feel affected by our actions. They alone are visible and tangible.  But they are not basic. They only result from our thinking. Their roots are in our thinking. Knowledge and conduct are two sides of the same coin, but knowledge is more basic. The point is that ecological consciousness is fundamental to ecological conduct. Consciousness operates at the deeper level and actions are its outward expression at the surface level. Although internal and external aspects can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. They are mutually interdependent. There is another dimension of deep ecology. Because of its spiritual orientation it talks of essential unity of all existences. All entities exist in the same form. All existences have mutuality and participatory being. Actually, there is no ‘other’ in ecological considerations. This interconnectedness may not be experienced by deluded empirical mind and this requires spiritual vision for true understanding of Reality.

Remedial measures

Having viewed the Indian approach to ecology we may now discuss the remedial measures. It is to be noted that the problem of environmental pollution is not individual but collective and cosmic and therefore the remedial measures also have to be collective and global.

Respect for Nature ingrained in Indian mind

It is to be highlighted that Nature has its intrinsic value as well as instrumental worth. We have forgotten the intrinsic value of Nature and have taken it as merely instrumental. We forget that we are products of Nature since we are embodied self and we are sustained by Nature. Instead, we try to conquer Nature and have mastery over it. This is our ignorance, our mithyā dṛṣṭi (wrong view). Indian sages and seers always respected and loved Nature and wanted to be in the lap of Nature. If we care for Nature, Nature will care for us. If we destroy Nature, Nature will destroy us. This is the simple principle of interdependence. So, it is saner to preserve and protect Nature, rather worship Nature as a spiritual entity. Nature is beautiful and bountiful. It is full of joy and it gives joy to us. It is joyful and joy-yielding. Let us appreciate and preserve this quality of Nature. Nature is to be approached with respect and gratitude. A life in the lap of Nature is a mark of spiritual freedom. It is freedom from all restraints, physical and mental. It is widening, deepening and heightening of spirit. It is a life of purity, internal and external. Life in Nature is natural life. We should ideally lead a life of a ‘green monk or nun’ caring for Nature and sharing the bounties of Nature. To repeat, if we care for Nature, Nature will care for us. If we pollute Nature, it adversely affects our existence. Nature is an ‘Embodied Love’ and ‘Embodied Benevolence’. For example, trees do not exist for themselves, they stand in the sun and provide shadow not to themselves, and they yield fruits and other benefits not for themselves. They do so for the sake of others. The same is the case with rivers, mountains and other objects of Nature. In this respect Nature is a great master and a teacher practicing and teaching maitrī (loving kindness), karuṇā (compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy) and upekṣa (equanimity), kṣamā (forgiveness), sahiṣnutā (tolerance) and samatva (selfsameness).

Doctrine of Ahimsā as a guide to ecology

As stated earlier, the physical and external pollution is due to mental and internal pollution. it is due to akuśala citta. This moral degradation affects the individual as well as his or her surroundings. The remedy lies in recovering the lost vision of wholeness and practicing Ahimsā . The need is to establish a vratisamāja (Value-based society).

The doctrine of Ahimsā provides a foundation to an environmental perspective to be offered to humanity to meet the present-day crises that are endangering and threatening all existences human as well as non-human. It also deals with the cardinal Indian teachings that can help in bringing about an ecological lifestyle. Ecological thinking and ecological living go hand in hand and a symbiosis of the two has been the keynote of the Indian view and way of life. Concern for the well-being of the living beings and the physical world has been an important element throughout the history of India. Human existence and destiny are inextricably linked with environments. Recognition that human beings are essentially dependent upon and interconnected with their environments has given rise to instinctive respect and care for all living beings and Nature. Every existence from elementary particles to plants, animals, birds and human are participatory members of the planetary community having personal dignity, inherent worth and inviolable rights to exist and grow.

Ahimsā is not just non-killing but a positive action in the form of unselfish friendliness and compassion for all existences based on the spirit that all existence is as sacred as our own existence. It therefore preserves life and ensures durable peace. Ahimsā further implies giving due opportunities to all existences for self-preservation and self-development. There should be no deprivation or exploitation. Ahimsā also means removal of suffering of others, offering joy to them, service to all needy and active involvement for good of all. Apart from loving Nature the Indian culture has always advocated love and respect for all beings. All living beings are creatures of Nature. Nature provides them physical form and sustains them. Nature environs them and provides them nourishment. So, the principle of Ahimsā tells us that one which you want to kill is your own self as your existence depends on that thing. So, earth, water, air, fire and space all have life to be respected and preserved.  and insistence in the lap of Nature is highlighted.

There is another reason for respecting the life of all living beings. Indian culture has advocated the doctrine of cycle of birth and rebirth. This implies kinship with all creatures. We may take rebirth as any of such creatures depending upon our karmas. These creatures could have been our parents or sons or daughters in their previous births. So, to kill some being is to kill one’s own relative. Therefore, vegetarianism is the safest practice to escape from this eventuality. Vegetarianism is good for healthy living also.

Doctrines of Aparigraha and Samyam as guiding principles of eco-ethics

Indian tradition emphasise the doctrine of  śama. It means samyam which means limitations of wants, desires and possessions (parigrahaparimāṇa and icchāparimāṇa), curb on unlimited cravings, unlimited accumulation and unlimited consumption. Acquisition of wealth is not bad, only attachment to it or its misuse is to be avoided. The guiding principle is, “Use that which is needful and give the surplus for charity”. The doctrine of aparigraha advocates limited use of natural resources, non-violence and vegetarianism (āhārasuddhehsattvaśuddhi)

There has to be sustainable production and fair distribution. Everyone has equal right to share the natural resources and therefore there should be no deprivation. This implies intra-generational justice and fair play and also inter-general justice and fair play.

Thus, aparigraha stands for non-consumerist attitude where in the policy is, there should be production only if needed and not first production and then arousal of needs as is the practice these days. The present-day policy of advertisement and seduction should be stopped. True renunciation is a state of mind of a human being. It is not only renunciation of unnecessary material goods or consumerist mindset but also evil thoughts and feelings (kaṣāyas), rigid attitudes and wrong beliefs. Carelessness, selfishness, obstinacy and greed are the causes of violence. Their eradication requires cultivation of pious mind by dhyāna and practice of virtuous conduct by observation of vows, particularly of giving up something as self -restraint.

New Paradigm of Economic Order- economics of non-violence and peace

Apart from individual and social moral disciplines referred to above we have to attend to world economic order which is closely related to and dependent upon the environment. The ignorance or failure of modern economic theory to acknowledge this fact has resulted in multiple ills and evils in the world. It has become a threat to the very system which has created it. The growth attained under this model is unsustainable. This apart it has made human self-centered, greedy, insensitive and violent. What is needed is a radical paradigm shift in economic planning and execution in the form of “Relative Economics”, “Regenerative Economics” and “Compassionate Economics”.

Need for cosmic vision

The vision of self-sameness of all existences and zealous longing for eradication of sufferings of others as one’s own cross all barriers of race, creed, country and even humanity. The benevolent teachings of universal compassion and cosmic goodwill, living and working for totality, all these have a significant message for the present-day distracted humankind suffering from exhaustion of spirit and languishing in the narrow and rigid confinements of ego-centrism, parochialism and disastrous materialistic consumerism. There is a dire need for a total transformation of our values, ideals, beliefs and attitudes. A time has come for the beginning of a cultural renaissance for which the Indian teachings can play a vital and pivotal role. Indian culture has come into existence as a problem-solving exercise both in terms of prevention and of cure. Indian teachings are of great relevance and significance in contemporary times and in the new millennium to bring about universal peace, prosperity and well-being. These should be our guiding lights for our ecological thinking and doings. On account of lack of restraints, selfishness and proneness to feed greed rather than catering to the needs there has been all round pollution of environment at all levels—physical, mental, emotional and intellectual. In modern times we are voicing concerns only for physical environment without paying due attention to other types with the result that not much headway is made even in protecting the physical. There cannot be divisive and lopsided approach to environment. Even at the physical level all the pañcabhūtas are to be taken care of. Environmental stewardship implies a sense of mutual care to be spearheaded by human being only.

These and related issues may be taken up for threadbare analysis. But apart from theorizing practical concerns must be paramount.  Knowledge without action is futile. In the Indian tradition it has been emphasized that right knowledge (samyak jñāna) has to fructify in right conduct (samyak charitra). In Indian culture great emphasis is laid on proper knowledge (samyak jñāna ). Knowledge is the only and surest way to spiritual perfection. The Indian scriptures therefore emphasize that we must draw a clear distinction between samyak jñāna and mithyā jñāna. Mithyā jñāna entangles us in the vicissitudes of worldly life. It is bewitching and bewildering and it springs from avidyā or ignorance. In order to have right knowledge right attitude or right mental make-up is necessary. This is samyak dṛṣṭi. Opposed to this is mithyā dṛṣṭi with which we generally suffer. Samyak dṛṣṭi leads to samyak jñāna, and the latter alone is the path way to mokṣa. Mithyā dṛṣṭi and mithyā jñāna do not serve any genuine purpose and hence they must be discarded. For an aspirant of mokṣa/mukti only samyak dṛṣṭi and jñāna are helpful. This is the main theme of the teachings of the scriptures, sages and saints. Samyak jñāna always leads to samyak caritra. The value and purpose of knowledge is not theoretical but necessarily practical. Right conduct ensues only from right knowledge. Conduct without knowledge is blind and knowledge without conduct is lame. The two are complimentary to each other. And therefore, knowledge has to lead to the corresponding conduct. Without right conduct deliverance from worldly miseries, trials and tribulations is impossible and without complete deliverance from these, no permanent happiness can be achieved. As said earlier, these are the three jewels of life which every human being must wear. But this wearing is not decoration but actual practice and concrete realization. However, this is not easy to achieve. It requires tapas and sādhanā, a rigorous control of body, will and mind. So, knowledge without conduct is useless. Merely listening to the discourses is wastage of time and futile. It does not help us in any way. What is needed is the ensuing conduct. But unfortunately, most of us forget this. We listen to the sermons of the spiritual persons but do not practice them. We take it as a past time or a matter of routine of life. Our knowledge remains mere information at the mental level. The Daśavaikālika sūtra (IV) compares a person having knowledge without practice to a donkey who carries burden of sandal wood without knowing its value or utility. As the donkey bears the burden of sandal wood but has no share in the wealth of his load, similarly a person without practice merely bears the burden of his knowledge. He cannot enjoy spiritual progress which is the real fruit of knowledge. Instead, he indulges in evanescent and fleeting worldly pleasures which invariably end up in pain and suffering or mental unhappiness or a feeling of vanity of life. Knowledge is useless without conduct and conduct is useless without knowledge. In Indian culture, philosophy and religion, view and way, theory and practice, are not divorced and segregated. Darśana is not mere reflection upon the nature of Reality but also a quest for and a realization of values. Basically, it is a mokṣa śāstra. There is a definite purpose in life and Reality if we care to know and a definite goal to achieve if we have a will to do so. Our existence is not meaningless. It has a value and significance. But we must first of all know what we are, what is the nature and purpose of life, what we should be in our life and how we can be so etc. The aim of human existence should be spiritual perfection through material progress. But material progress is only a means and not an end. The end is self-realization which is achieved through the removal of karmic matter and liberation from samsāra. There is potential divinity in human being and there must be effort for divinization. This is the ultimate teaching of all Indian scriptures (Āgamas).

What is role of education?

Education is a conscious, deliberate and planned process of modification in the natural growth and development of human being and the surroundings. If proper and adequate it ensures accelerated processes of development in human life in right rhythm. It is therefore a means for betterment and enhancement of quality of life. It is useful for personality development, character building, and for livelihood. It is a hall mark of civil society. But all this becomes utopia if it is not properly conceived and implemented.  If we have to draw eco-syllabus for eco-education it has to be on Indian foundation to be meaningful, efficacious and practical.


While concluding it should be reminded that human being is at the climax of evolutionary process. He/She possesses vast potentials for betterment or devastation. He/She can be a super-being or super-malignancy. He/She has a choice and also the capacity of judicious discrimination. Since he/she is the most evolved he/she should be the most responsible. He/She has not only to voice environmental concern but also to cultivate environmental consciousness. Mere sermons and seminars will not help. Unless the overall physical and social environment is congenial and symbiotic nothing will improve substantially.  For this we need environment friendly value system and a suitable code of conduct. There has to be inner moral conviction and a moral attitude.  We have to induce ecological age and ecological mind. Through proper education alone this is possible.


Author Brief Bio: Prof. S. R. Bhatt is Chairman, Indian Philosophy Congress; Chairman, Asian-African Philosophy Congress; Former Chairman, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, and Former Professor & Head, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi.

Latest News

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twelve − two =