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Re l ig ions hav e had important roles in influencing people in environmental and societal conduct.
To begin with an example from the religions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism, or Vedism as it was first known, was based on the worship of nature with three gods-Indra (rain), Surya (sun), and Agni (fire). In the present day, the reverence for cows is well-known, and there are many animals represented as gods such as Nandi (bull), Ganesha (elephant), and Hanuman (monkey). This has led to many actual animals being cherished in Hindu temples. The Karni Mata temple in Rajasthan, India, is inhabited by thousands of rats; and there are also monkeys in many Hindu temples, the Durga Temple at Varanasi (Benares) is home to hundreds of them, and the Sangeh Monkey Forest on the Indonesian island of Bali adjoins a seventeenth century Hindu temple. Also in Bali there is the Goa Gajah Elephant Cave, although it has been a long time since elephants have been there.
One of the predominant social aspects of the Hindu society is the caste system by which particular castes have specific social positions that cannot be changed. The Brahmans, the highest caste, are priests and religious teachers, while the lowest, the untouchables, collect trash and work in the most unpleasant jobs. In between there are castes for kings, warriors, and officials, another for merchants, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and the like. Another lower position is reserved for farmers, servants, and those engaged in menial but not unpleasant tasks. How much the caste system owes to long entrenched Hinduism, or is just a necessary social/ racial divide in the vast Indian society is an area in which experts cannot agree.
The personal habits of Hindus, such as vegetarianism, spring from the reverence for nature and the belief in reincarnation. Hindus should avoid intoxicants and take part in numerous pilgrimages, the most important being washing themselves in the Ganges River. While cremation is a feature of Hindu belief, it may well have a basis in commonsense hygiene, as of course do most, if not all, the dietary requirements.
Another religious belief emanating from India is Jainism. In this monastic order, monks take a vow of nonviolence and keep a strict vegetarian diet and don’t eat after dark because it increases the possibility of harming insects that might be attracted to the food. All drinking water must be carefully strained first to ensure there are no life forms in it. A very fine net mask is also used to breathe through to prevent the accidental breathing in of insects.
Buddhism, which also originated in India, preaches nonviolence, and most Buddhists try to develop a certain harmony with their natural environment, with many Buddhists being vegetarians. Lord Buddha (624-544 B.C.E.) himself grew up in a very sheltered environment, with his parents anxious not to expose him to bad things in life. However, he once alighted from his carriage, according to legend, and saw the suffering of the people-the beggars, the diseased, the old, and the dead-and he cut his long hair, put on old worn clothes, and went out into the world. Out of this long episode came his teachings about life. He talked of conduct toward others providing a social code that was much needed at that time and ever since-it became known as the Middle Path. This was developed by people who wish to achieve Nirvana, and thus avoid the pain of rebirth, an ever-present threat in Hinduism.
Buddha also made a statement against having large families, which was used by Mechai Viravaidya in Thailand to promote his family planning programs from the 1970s. The teachings of Buddha have spread throughout Asia, Europe, Australia, and North America. Mention should also be made of Shintoism, the national religion of Japan, and Taoism and Confucianism in China. All of them involve reverence for ancestors, and maintaining one’s order with nature.
Sikhs owe their existence to Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a teacher who founded what is a brotherhood based on common beliefs between Hinduism and Islam. Converts can become Sikhs if they accept the reformed Hinduism they preach, with the basic tenet referring to the worship of nature. The Sikhs have, probably because of their early battles for survival, as Punjabis, a strong political and military outlook with a definite strict personal code of conduct. Socially Sikhs place great importance on loyalty, showing of gratitude, philanthropy, justice, and honesty. In civilian life, Sikhs gravitate to skilled trades such as farming and mechanics. There are Sikh communities around the world.
In terms of worshiping, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist societies have all built temples. Many of these are modest, but some are massive and tower over where the worshippers live. Buddhists in particular have built massive statues of Buddha-such as the 8,202-feet-high Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan (destroyed in 2001) and reclining Buddhas like those in Thailand, Japan, or Sri Lanka.
Middle Eastern Religions
Moving to the great religions of the Middle East, Abraham (c. 2100-2000 B.C.E.) is recognized as the father of Israel, from which the monotheistic Jewish religion has developed over the centuries. Moses (14th-13th centuries B.C.E.), after his flight from Egypt with the Hebrew slaves and others, received further teachings at Sinai, and proceeded to the Promised Land, which Abraham had previously known, but Moses only got to see from a distance. His followers went on and settled in what is now Israel and Palestine.
From the books of the Old Testament and other sources came the Talmud, the main statement on Judaic law and ethics, based on justice and righteousness. In terms of the environment, Judaism has definite rules detailed in the Talmud. It is forbidden to destroy fruit-bearing trees, things of nature that are useful, such as plants and other living creatures, food, and discarded objects that may be useful to other people. Not to pay attention to the needs and feelings of animals and birds is also wrong-indeed it is taught that the animals should be fed first and attended to before the owner commences his own meal.
In social and relational terms, the Talmud has firm rules about human rights, possession, and sharing of property, business conduct and the treatment of labor. On an individual level, lying, obtaining information by deceit, and reminding a person of his past or his origin to his detriment is forbidden. Conditions apply to the types of food to be eaten and their preparation and mode of consumption. The care of the poor is a major concern in Judaism, not least is the concept of constructive charity whereby a person who is down on his luck is offered a way to change his life. Charity is regarded more in this way than a permanent source of help, except, of course, for the aged and infirm.
Followers of Zoroaster (c. 589-39 B.C.E.) originated in present-day Iran, but persecution of them over many years has seen large considerable communities established in India. Because of their respect for the elements-fire, water, and earth-they reject cremation and burial, and instead place their dead on open towers where the flesh will be eaten by birds of prey. Education plays a large part in Zoroastrian or Parsee/Parsi households, with girls’ education and social freedom a strong feature. Parsees are, as a rule, very successful businessmen and women, and are known for their charitable work, giving money to other groups. In India, the Parsees were the first to take up cricket, endearing them to the British in India.
Islam owes its origin to Mohammed (c. 555-619 C.E.), born in Mecca, orphaned young, and adopted by an uncle. In his mid-20s he married Khadiyah, a woman of means, and some 15 years older than himself. They had six children, and from one daughter’s (Fatima’s) union with Ali, Mohammed’s cousin, the direct line of the family begins. Mohammed was 40 when he had a vision of the Archangel Gabriel who revealed the basic ideas of the monotheistic religion, consolidated in the Koran. Islam came into being in an arid and harsh natural environment, and it is no surprise that the belief spread to more fertile areas. Great emphasis has been placed on gardens, flowing water, cool buildings, and city quartersKasbahs-that maintained a steady environment regardless of the climate outside.
Perhaps the most significant social asset of Islam is that there is no distinction among the faithful of color or race, symbolized on the Hadj-the pilgrimage to Mecca-by the universal wearing of a seamless white garment, so that everyone, regardless of wealth and position, is the same before God. At a personal level, Islam forbids gambling, usury, intoxicants, idolatry, and the consumption of pork. Prayers are said five times a day with certain disciplines to be observed. Various Islamic organizations, with access to funds never before available, now conduct many social services, such as housing, health, education, and security.
The Christian Church dates from the birth of Jesus Christ in c. 6 B.C.E., and incorporates much of the teachings and tenets of Judaism as in the Old Testament. Thus, its initial attitude to the environment and society were not much different to those of Judaism. Perhaps because Christianity has spread so widely over time, it has demonstrated the ability in most areas to change its ideas and cope with new ones. The treatment of nonbelievers, of women, of animals, and other living things has undergone significant changes.
Socially the embracing of the equality of the sexes, while taking centuries to accomplish, now provides opportunities for all, both in moral terms, and also legally. Education is now a basic tenet, as is access to health services and a decent standard of living. The social work of the Christian Church is today widespread and draws no distinction between believers and nonbelievers. At a personal level, there are customs that arose during medieval times, including the eating of fish on Fridays, and fasting or giving up something during Lent, which still exist. During the period after the Protestant Reformation, the Anglicans and Episcopalians, the Baptists, the Calvinists, the Lutherans, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians have all followed different rules of religious and societal conduct. Some groups such as the Amish and the Quakers have followed much stricter rules of societal conduct especially in regards to nonviolence.
- Isidore Epstein, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (Penguin Books, 1959); Alfred Guillaume, Islam (Penguin Books, 1954);
- Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism (Penguin Books, 1962); K.M. Sen, Hinduism (Penguin Books, 1961).