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Purifying the Earthly Body of God Review


There has been much talk in the last several decades about the relationship between religion and ecology. Much of this is devoted to Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions, with the charge leveled at them being that they are divorced from nature, that they give humanity control over and empowerment to dominate nature, and that they desacralize nature and make it open for human ravages. Thus the roots of environmental decline lie in religions like Christianity, and the decline in nature’s special place in the human consciousness. But to examine claims like this there are also comparative analyses which can be made: one of the premier examples of this is India, and Hinduism, which has a completely different ethic concerning the unity of existence and spiritualism.

Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India is a collection of articles compiled from multiple authors and edited together by Lance E. Nelson This diversity is its saving grace as well as its shortcoming. It deals with two principle themes, the first being Indian theology and abstract religious beliefs in relation to ecology, and the other with contemporary actual relationships of Indian people to the environment through the lens of religion. Despite the commonalities, the two are treated distinctly: the first is extremely abstract, and, save for those definitively interested in theology, very difficult to understand. Getting through it is quite a challenge, and the general take-away that Indian religious thought has been traditionally uninterested in ecology could have been conveyed far more quickly. In contrast, the field studies are much more enlightening, and reveal that there is no contradiction between holding the natural world as sacred and yet also polluting it.

For example, the Ganges is the most sacred of all Hindu rivers, and yet this spiritual power is part of why it is allowed to become so polluted. This reached the extent of large amounts of corpses floating in the river, with the amusing anecdote that there was even a plan to release flesh eating turtles in to clean it up! The people assume that such a mighty spiritually force can not be touched by pollution. The power of spiritual beliefs surrounding the power of nature is enough to render a license to pollute.

Ironically the very sacredness of the Ganges makes it permissible to be polluted.

Ironically the very sacredness of the Ganges makes it permissible to be polluted.

There is also some fascinating material on how Indians consider the relationship between human emotions and morality and pollution. In the Indian religious mentality, there is a connection between the two, so that pollution is blamed for causing people to be less generous, to have shorter tempers, to be worse - a fascinating example of Indian belief in the essential inter-relatedness of life. All are bound up in Yali Kuga ides of decline and how everything relates to each other. Of course, projecting the internal political battles of your nation abroad is an exercise in futility, but it is also intriguing that the more conservative elements in villages are very concerned about pollution too, while seeing it alongside the breakdown of the caste system as an interlinked problem - by our standards, certainly not a liberal outlook.

The book has fascinating pages about this, but the binary of either abstract religious principles or common life makes for a book which will alienate at least one group of readers. And in doing so it eliminates the history of environmental thought in India, reducing it to only religion or fieldwork. It is still a great leap forward in the study of Hindu ecology and its religious dimension, but also one which shows that much work remains to be done.

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