What I am attempting here is to briefly present two areas of ethical interest as examples of possible dialogue and communication—ecology and sexuality. With regard to ecology the possibility of convergence is more, whereas regarding sexuality, the differences may be more conspicuous.
5.1. Ecotheological Ethics
At least from the time of the publication of Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (White 1967
), Christianity has been accused of having been responsible for the ecological crisis. Environmental activists and philosophers sharply criticize that Christianity, assigning to the humans the role of ‘subduing the earth’ and ‘dominating’ it, promoted unbridled exploitation of the nature leading to the present crisis. Any attempt to consider the nature as sacred would be labelled as pantheism and idolatry. Based mainly on the interpretations given to the creation narratives, the Christian tradition developed an anthropocentric perspective, which considered the natural world “a resource for human utility and not as a functioning community of mutually supporting life-systems within which the human must discover its proper role” (Chethimattam 1991, p. 54
). In this worldview, the nature has only a secondary importance (Tucker and Grim 2002, p. xxi
). Creation, redemption, incarnation, resurrection, and parousia were interpreted in an anthropocentric way, though other perspectives also are present in the bible. However, Christian theology of ecology has drastically changed in recent decades. Creation stories, and other biblical passages are (re-) interpreted in such a way that a more important place is given to the eco-system, the earth, and nature as a whole. The encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, On the Care of Our Common Home
), reflects this renewed understanding and the urgency of the issue.
Hinduism has been a strong proponent of the sacredness of the earth and everything created. One of the fundamental cosmological insights of the Indian tradition regarding this world is that it is indwelt by the Lord of the Universe and hence it is sacred:
“Isavasyam idam sarvam yatkinça jagatyam jagat.
” (=This revolving world together with every minute particle in it is indwelt by the Lord) (Isa Upanișd,
1). As Nanditha Krishna, a noted Hindu expert on ecotheology in Hinduism, comments, “Hinduism believes that the earth and all life forms—human, animal and plant—are a part of Divinity. Man [sic] evolved out of these life forms and is a part of the creative process, neither separate nor superior.” She further underscores that we should change our lifestyle and habits to simplify our material desires, without taking more than our reasonable share of resources (Krishna 2017, p. 223
The same insight can be seen in the Bhagavad Gita
: “Sarvasya çāham hŗdi sannivişti
.” (=And I have inserted myself into the heart of everything) (Bhagavad Gita
, 15:15). This is a basic Hindu conviction, and hence, nature is venerated by them, because they believe that “nature is a manifestation of the divine” (Krishna 2017, p. 11
Bŗhadaranyaka Upanişd affirms this further, pointing out the simultaneous immanence and transcendence of the Divine:
He who is abiding in the earth, yet different from earth, …
He who is abiding in the water, yet different from the water, …
He who is abiding in the wind, yet different from the wind … (Bŗhadaranyaka Upanișd, III, 7).
The Hindu vision affirms the sacredness not only of the human being, but everything in nature. The Hindu tradition reveres all life—human, non-human, plant, and animal. When humans imbibe this vision, they become servants of the Divine and all their actions, including those for protection of the world around them and all the beings therein, become acts of worship (Krishna 2017, p. 222
). This calls for a new dimension in the human’s relationship with nature: “Human life is sacred, as it is a sparkle of the Divine; so also is its environment. Since life and its setting are both sacred, we have to relate ourselves to humanity and nature on an equal footing” (Manickam 2008, p. 2
Particularly of interest is the Hindu concept of the earth:
The Vedic attitude toward the earth springs from mankind’s primordial experience of being on the one hand a guest, and on the other an offspring… The earth is the foundation, the basis out of which emerges all that exists and on which everything rests. The earth is the basis of life and, when considered as divine being, she always occupies a special place among the Gods (Panikkar 1977, p. 120
The worshipping of the earth is not adoration of a creature as an absolute, that is, it is not idolatry. In fact, it is the veneration of the highest value in the hierarchy of existence, for “undoubtedly this earth is the firstborn of being” (Satapada Brahmana
, XIV, 1, 2, 10; Panikkar 1977, p. 121
In the Hindu tradition, there is an underlying unity of all life, the world, and all that exists. The interconnectedness of all life and all creatures is affirmed by the scriptures (Bhattacharya 2006, p. 65
Animals, in the Vedic vision, are not inferior creatures, but manifestations of gods on the lower scale of evolution compared to man. Animals like monkey, elephant, tiger, cow, bull, etc., occupy important places in the spectrum of gods. “Spiritually, there is no distinction between human beings and other forms of life. All forms, including plants and animals, are manifestations of god as limited beings (jivas
). Even microorganisms are jivas
, having souls of their own” (Cherian 2008, p. 191
). The protection and worship of the cow symbolizes human responsibility to the sub-human world. This also stresses the reverence for all forms of life.
This attitude of reverence and gratitude to the earth and the whole cosmos in Hinduism shows us the possibility of working together to face the ecological crisis and to respond together to the spiritual inadequacy that many feel in the face of this crisis. There are differences in the basic faith vision and convictions, but a more critical re-evaluation of interpreting Hindu approach to nature as pantheistic and naturalistic will help us to understand better the richness of these traditions and to find common grounds to work together. Many have said the same regarding African religions, which have a reverential approach to the nature. Besides convincing us of the possibility of working together, this will also help us to re-discover our own eco-theology and eco-ethics, to reconsider the interpretations in the past, and to correct the imbalances.
The concept of nature and the approach of the two traditions may look different. However, we can notice that areas of convergence are identified today. Ecological ethics is an area where people belonging to different religions and cultures have begun to work together. There are publications in which scholars from various religions, including Christianity and Hinduism, have contributed. Some of the theological journals also have taken up the theme of ecotheology with the contribution of Hindu and Christian scholars. Recently, an inter-Asian workshop on the “Spirituality and Theology of Creation,” under the leadership of Missio, Aachen, was conducted at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore, India from 19–21 February 2019. This workshop was an attempt to look at the ecological issue from an intercultural, interreligious, and comparative perspective so as to promote the interreligious and intercultural dialogue on creation theology and environmental ethics. Scholars from Hinduism and Christianity presented papers and the papers will be published soon.5
Scholars from Hinduism and Christianity find great possibilities for working together on ecological issues and for developing together an ecological ethics. However, not much has been achieved so far to concretize the possibility of developing an ecotheolgical ethics together. The rise of fundamentalist ideas, promoted by some groups including political parties, may be one of the main factors behind the reluctance to work together on such issues.
Christianity understands sexuality as good, willed by God, and as integral to the creative design of God. Based on the scripture, tradition, and theological developments, sexuality is understood to have basically three meanings or aspects: Love, procreation, and pleasure. Since most of the readers may be familiar with the Christian understanding of sexuality, I do not venture into a detailed discussion on this. Although these three are considered the basic aspects of sexuality, the understanding of the interrelationship among them has changed over time. For example, Augustine considered procreation as the primary good (of sexual relationship); for Aquinas, procreation was the primary end. From the time of Vatican II, the Catholic Church holds that procreation and love are the two inseparable purposes of marriage/marital sexuality. A theology of sexual pleasure is still in the phase of development.6
Moreover, marriage is understood as the only legitimate context of sexual relationship and sexual enjoyment. With this brief consideration, let us turn to Hinduism to see how it visualizes the meaning of sexuality.
“Nowhere have close relationships of religion and sex been displayed more clearly than in India and, with divine and human models of sexual activity, sacramental views of sex were abundantly illustrated” (Parrinder 1980, p. 5
). The Hindu conception of a full life consists in the harmony of Dharma (righteousness), Artha
(wealth), and Kama (sexuality/sexual desire). Although Dharma has primacy, it is equally emphasized that neither Artha
is to be neglected by a normally by a person.7
Different approaches to sexuality can be identified in the Indian religious tradition. They may be perhaps broadly classified as follows:8
5.2.1. Mythical and Ritualistic Concept of Sexuality
In this approach, sexuality is considered godly. This is especially depicted in the creation stories, where the work of creation is presented as the result of the sexual desire and sexual act of god/gods. The Upanişads contain descriptions of ritual intercourse. The stories of creation as the result of the sexual intercourse of Prajapati are examples (Brihadaranyaka Upanişad
, 1.4). Brihadaranyaka Upanişad describes sexual intercourse as a ceremony. The woman is considered the consecrated place where sacrifice is to be performed (Brihadaranyaka Upanişad
, 6.4). Moreover, the godheads are always represented with their female consorts (Kapoor 2002, p. 3
). The stories of gods engaging in love and sexual intercourse with goddesses or humans also have as their underlying principle this approach to sexuality. This is in general the basis of fertility cults and rites. Here, what is emphasized more is the procreative dimension of sexuality, although the recreational dimension also is not lacking. The whole creation, fertility, and prosperity are considered to be the blessings of gods, who have engaged/engage in sexual activity. By worshipping the sexual powers of gods—which is often expressed by worshipping representation of the sexual organs of gods—and by engaging in ritual sexual intercourse, the devotees believe to attain fertility and prosperity.
5.2.2. Mystical Concept of Sexuality
The relationship and union between God and the human being/soul are symbolically presented in sensual and erotic language. The longing of the soul/human for God is described in vivid and explicit imageries of the sexual love and union of the devotee with the deity. Uninhibited description and narrative of the desire for the lover/deity, the pain of separation, and the joy in union are presented in sexual terms. Usually, the devotee is the female and the deity is the male. The Kŗşnaleela
, especially the love-play of Kŗşna and Radha, in the Bhagavata Purana,
is the best example for this. Other works in the Bhakti
tradition also contain many such descriptions and stories.9
Sexuality here is the symbol of the highest union and intimacy that is possible between the bhakta
and the deity. Thus, sexuality is raised into the realm of spirituality and mysticism.
5.2.3. Tantric Concept of Sexuality
In the Tantric
system, in which mainly the Mother Goddess is worshipped, sexuality occupies a central role. Tantra
, instead of a withdrawal, encourages the fullest acceptance of human desires and feelings, since they are the via media between the physical world and the inner reality. The aim is not the discovery of the unknown, but the realization of the real: “What is here, is elsewhere; what is not here, is nowhere” (Pande and Dane 2001, p. 80
). That is, Tantra
is not a philosophy of the denial of the world or the physical, but of their affirmation. The world and the body are means of attaining spiritual realization. The body is not the enemy of the soul; the matter and spirit are not two opposing forces fighting with each other. The body is the means, through which alone the human can come to spiritual fulfilment. Spiritual powers are hidden in the body itself. Sex is a means of awakening the kundalini
, of joining the female and male principles in the body, through which alone the spiritual powers of the body will be ultimately released and realized. Hence, sexual union becomes a ritual for spiritual realization.
This is the science of love and sex. This can be said to be the Indian sexology. Elements of Ayurveda and eugenics also can be seen in this. Kāmaśāstra
is concerned merely to teach the means and manner through which man may enjoy kāma
the best (Kapoor 2002, p. 35
, although often understood as sexual pleasure, “denotes the whole range of possible experience within the sphere of love, sex, sensual gratification and delight. Kāma
is wish, desire, carnal gratification, lust, love, and affection” (Zimmer 1990, p. 145
by Vatsyayana is the most well-known work of Kāmaśāstras. Kāmaśāstras
deal with the sex and man–woman relationship. Their chief concern is to help the human being attain pleasure. They also speak about family and the importance of the progeny, but what they underscore is the dimension of man–woman relationship and the attainment of pleasure in their union.
These different approaches to sexuality existed side by side in Hinduism, with some traditions or sects giving more importance to a particular approach or adopting only one. However, there was no attempt from a particular sect or tradition to condemn other approaches to sexuality. Different approaches were accepted as equally valid and as having their own value.
Comparing both the Catholic and Hindu concepts of sexuality, we can identify that the basic meanings are the sam; namely, love, procreation, and pleasure. However, the way they are understood and practiced, and the understanding of the interrelationship among them, are different. This does not mean that there is no possibility of dialogue or convergence. For example, especially for a better understanding of the positive value of sexual pleasure, Catholic theology can be helped by the Hindu approach to sexual pleasure. However, such initiatives need more profound dialogue. Moreover, it is also important to situate the values in sexual morality in the overall vision of values in human life.