Philosophy, action and reflection
Author: Haliehana Stepetin
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A view of the pollution of a small river flowing into the Ganges.
My first experience with pollution in India was in the metropolis of Kolkata. Excited to see everything the city had to offer, I went outside with expectations influenced by the only glimpse of India I had ever had: through the media. I imagined a beautiful spiritual place filled with people doing yoga in the streets, spiritual gurus, women decorated in beautiful clothing and make up (which is a reality), and babies on fancy pillows wearing cute little hats like in Aladdin. For the most part, my cultural assumptions were very far off. The scene I walked into was one of drastic contrast to the image I had in my mind. There was pollution everywhere. The streets are polluted with garbage, plastic, feces, alongside shanty homes, naked children playing, elderly people in the streets asking for money, lethargic cows laying around, all while economic transactions occurred and life went on, regardless of the environmental status. I stepped over a pile of garbage and dodged a cow pie to go into a shop to buy an ice cream cone to help me tolerate the miserable heat.
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. The view shows the sharp socioeconomic contrast everywhere in India. While I was enjoying the relatively cheap luxuries of my clean resort hotel, families lived just below us in heaps of garbage and shanty homes.
As an Alaska Native, with a worldview that incorporates a stewardship relationship with the environment, natural world, and humans, I found it overwhelming and alarming to see the huge amount of pollution everywhere. I was raised with the understanding that humans need animals and the natural world to survive, so we must treat them with the utmost respect and reverence. The way this relationship was illustrated to me as a child was that if humans were removed from the earth, all the animals and plants would thrive. On the other hand, if the animals and plants were removed from the earth, there is no way humans could survive. With this knowledge, we know the animals and plants sacrifice themselves for our survival. Living in stewardship with the world directly affects our survival. We believe that if we stop respecting the animals and environment, we will be punished. In following Buddhist philosophy, one could say Indigenous philosophy also believes in karma in this way. If we disrespect the environment or plants, it will turn against us in the form of natural disasters, climate change, and animal attacks. Disrespect of the natural world is blatantly inconsiderate to their survival. I wonder how the people in India view the natural world? I wonder why religion prevails, but respect and reverence for the environment does not?
When discovering that vegetarianism is practiced in Buddhism, and specifically after attending Dr. Tsering’s lecture on the Essence of Buddhist Practice, I asked a question regarding the geographic location of the formation of Buddhism. This connection intrigued me because India has an agricultural abundance of produce and different plants, making it easy for people to choose vegetarianism. However, in colder climates where vegetation may be limited most of the year, it is very difficult and inefficient to be vegetarian. In Alaska for example, there is no way I could live in my remote village and be a vegetarian. Regarding the Indigenous relationship, respect, and reverence for the animal world, I asked a question about eating meat for cultural subsistence purposes. Dr. Tsering, on the value of animals in Buddhist philosophy, says: “We consider that human life is more valuable compared to that of animals . . . ” (p. 3), which sparked my questions about vegetarianism and their hierarchical level of respect for animals and the natural world to humans. I wonder if there is a connection between the belief that animals are less valuable than humans and the indifferent treatment of Mother Earth that leads to the extremely visible pollution of her in India. If there is a hierarchy of value of life with humans at the top, it makes a little more sense to me that such disrespect to the environment can occur. However, it still makes me extremely uncomfortable and sad. Of course, I am projecting my animistic worldview and Indigenous perspective of stewardship with the environment upon my experience.
I realize that in the U.S., and all around the world for that matter, pollution is either extremely visible in more impoverished societies, or covertly present in “developed” societies. Pollution in a post-industrial society is seemingly inevitable, unless manageable on small-scale spectrums in cultures that respect and revere nature (my small rural village in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, for example). I wonder then, what leads societies to care more or less about the appearance of pollution? Does the Hindu and Buddhist religious practice lend itself to the indifference towards nature because it is expected that the gods have ultimate control? Or that karma is the ultimate determiner in fate, even if the fate of the environment is at stake? What would it take to make societal changes regarding the maintenance and preservation of the natural world, which ultimately sustains human life? If the masses devoutly follow a religion that informs the way they view nature or animals as hierarchically less valuable than humans, how can we and do we even have a place in developing more sustainable practices with the environment? Is it possible to create a future of environmental cleanliness and stability that learns from the faults our “developed” society has already experienced in relation to our industrial society dependent upon fossil fuels?
Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A beautiful path on the Central University of Tibetan Studies campus to show that not everywhere in India is polluted. In small, managed areas, plant life flourishes and is well maintained.