Náboženství, příroda a její ochrana

Rohan Wickramasinghe
Zapojení příslušníků různých náboženství do programů environmentálního vzdělávání se může ukázat jako velmi přínosné – stoupá počet těch, které zasáhla environmetální krize a kdo vnímají pocit naléhavosti.


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Religion, environment and conservation

2007-08-31 08:09:52

Rohan Wickramasinghe

Involving adherents of the various religious faiths in environmental education could prove very beneficial in increasing the numbers of those concerned about the developing environmental crisis and in imparting a sense of urgency.

The article was presented at the World Environmental Education Congress 2007 held in Durban, South Africa from 2 to 6 July 2007.
Any comments on this concept by both specialists and the general public are most welcome.

The French physiologist, Claude Bernard, coined the term le milieu interieur (or the internal environment) in the 19th century. The concept, which was later expressed in the English language by the term homoeostasis, held that within the body there are a number and variety of mechanisms which act to keep the internal composition and conditions within reasonably narrow ranges. Claude Bernard expressed the concept very elegantly and precisely as follows: ‘The constancy of the internal environment is the pre-requisite of a free and independent life: […] The constancy of this environment presupposes the development of the organism to an extent such that variations in the surroundings shall be constantly compensated for and accommodated. In consequence, the higher animal is far from being indifferent to its surroundings. On the contrary, it is in a close and knowing relationship with it; to such an extent that its equilibrium is the result of a continuous and delicate compensation established as by the most sensitive of balances.’ (1878; translation from the French).

The characteristics of Bernard’s ‘internal environment’ would encompass such diverse aspects as the mineral and organic composition of intracellular and body fluids, gaseous exchanges within the body and body temperature. The mechanisms would have evolved to operate in an animal living in a ‘natural’ unpolluted external environment.

It would not be out of place to mention briefly here some earlier researches relating to the biosynthesis of the mineralocorticoid hormones by the mammalian adrenal cortex (Wickramasinghe, 1973a,b). These mineralocorticoid hormones are largely concerned with the control of the absolute levels and relative proportions of the sodium and potassium ions in body fluids. It was found that the control of the rate of biosynthesis of these mineralocorticoid hormones could be differently modified by sodium and potassium ions; owing to the minute differences in radii of these two species of ions (to expand the theory, sodium and potassium ions are said to affect the dielectric constant in their vicinity differently).

The foregoing preamble was presented to clarify that certain body functions can be seriously affected by disturbances of the order of the minute dimensions of radii of ions found within intra-cellular fluids. When one considers the massive man-caused disturbances in the external environment, it is truly wonderful that the body has been able to cushion and withstand adverse effects to a certain extent up to the present.

Another component of the protective defences of the body is the mixed-function oxidase (MFO) enzyme system found in the liver (Wickramasinghe, 1990). The MFO-system has, among others, functions of the detoxification of carcinogens, pesticides and other noxious chemicals, which are xenobiotics (ie. which enter the body from outside).

These two foregoing protective mechanisms are just two of the many which have evolved over billions of years to provide the body with defences against ‘assaults’ which arise from outside.

When one looks around and regards the numbers and diversity of organisms living in a variety of ecological niches today, it becomes evident that the protective mechanisms, which have evolved in them, have largely been successful until very recent times in safeguarding them from natural hazards. (Indeed, while we fear about the accelerated extinction of species in modern times, many orchid specialists are of the view that these plants are at a stage of actively evolving and diversifying from the over 30 000 species found in nature.)

The onslaught of civilisation and of technological progress is changing the world as we knew it. Part of the problem is the rush to commercialise a new technology or product before fully understanding what consequences may flow from its adoption and widespread use. For instance, while some new chemical products may be tested for their carcinogenic and/or teratogenic properties, how many are evaluated as to what their influence may be on the dielectric constant in the immediate vicinity of enzyme systems, as noted above? Again, has enough study been done on the effect of the explosion in electronic communications on migration and disorientation in birds? There is some experience that homing pigeons may be disoriented when passing by a radio-transmitting station. Perhaps more use should be made of the ‘Precautionary Principle’!

Science has brought many benefits to mankind and will continue to do so. However, hurtling along into technological ‘progress’ has opened a Pandora’s Box of ills. Parochial interests have also, on occasion, tended to obstruct progress in desirable directions. Vested interests are said to hinder progress in the development of power by photoelectric technology.

It is often noted by many that there are abundant environmental problems in the world today. Others counter-claim that the problems originate mainly in the minds of men. Certainly, fresh and sometimes radical thinking on certain problems is vital if we are not to be engulfed by an impending crisis of major proportions. We have but to consider the thousands of synthetic chemicals released into our surroundings; many of which are not degraded by living organisms, abiotic processes or other means.

Battling environmental problems is today often undertaken by a limited number of well known enforcement strategies, such as passing of laws and regulations, setting of standards and limits, requiring environmental impact assessments etc. Such strategies will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future. However, they are not always completely satisfactory, especially in poorer countries.

One problem is the difficulty of policing. For instance, while the dugong (a marine mammal, which in former times may have been mistaken for a ‘mermaid’) is protected in Sri Lanka, the police force is too over extended with other duties to apprehend those who slaughter and butcher these animals in the open sea.

Another obstacle to implementing existing strategies successfully is economic and technical. For instance, considerable funds, competent staff, test protocols and time would be required for research on many existing and novel chemicals to ascertain their characteristics, e.g. their effect on the dielectric constant of the intracellular fluid in the vicinity.

The numerous other obstacles which tend to impede implementation of existing enforcement strategies lead one to question as to whether all avenues have been explored as regards available resources for environmental education. Environmental education is one tool for achieving environmentally desirable goals without resorting to enforcement strategies. Enforcement strategies are often costly, time consuming and not very effective. Witness the man-made episodes of air pollution experienced frequently in South and South-East Asia!

Environmental education strategies often focus on programmes conveying technical arguments to an audience which may, for instance, be school children, people (students, staff etc.) associated with universities (Wickramasinghe, 1994) and members of voluntary organisations and government departments and other technologically relatively savvy individuals. Other efforts may be directed at the general public through public lectures, articles in newspapers, interviews on radio, documentaries on television etc.

However, a very substantial segment of the public worldwide, including many elderly persons and the illiterate and semi-literate, have minimal technical competence. In such cases, arguments on, for instance, the dangers inherent in using chlorofluorocarbons for the operation of refrigerators may be too technical for comprehension. In addition, scientists, who attempt to convey such information, may use language and terminology, which distance themselves from their audience.

The thrust of the present presentation is that a considerable segment of the world’s population are not presently receiving or, at least, paying attention with any sense of urgency to environmental messages formulated and disseminated by academic and technological communities and agencies concerned with various aspects of the environment.

Further it is proposed that a significant number from those constituting this segment, which has not been reached thus far but could constitute a rich resource, may be brought in to show more concern for the environment if their religious leaders would assist in this effort. Environmental degradation is reaching the proportions of a major crisis and, in the face of this common threat to our survival, it may be possible for the religions and faiths of the world to agree on a common programme to bring the various messages relating to environmental conservation to their respective adherents.

Such a cooperative effort between various efforts may be more readily realised than may appear initially. Among the peoples of Sri Lanka are communities of those, who belong, by birth or conviction, to the religions or faiths of Buddhism (76,71 %), Islam (8,48 %), Hinduism (7,76 %), Christians (7,01 %) and other faiths (0,0 5%) (Wickramasinghe, 2006). Among the ‘other faiths’ included in this census of 2001 are the Parsees or Zoroastrians and the Veddahs (remnants of the group which was traditionally of hunter-gatherers). The religions or faiths of all these groups include elements, which demonstrate in their teachings and practices awareness of what we in our times refer to as the need for environmental conservation.

This presentation continues with notes of environmental significance in relation to various ‘Asian’ religions and faiths. Most of the material originates in age-old texts and beliefs. It is not possible to include much material in the space and time available.


  1. Trees played a central role in the life of the Buddha and in the history of Buddhism in general. The Bodhisattva (i.e. the Buddha before he received Enlightenment) was born to Queen Maya in the Garden of Lumbini in India beneath a Sal (Shorea robusta) tree, received Enlightenment under a Bo (Ficus religiosa) tree and passed away under another Sal tree at Kushinara. All three events took place during the times of the New Moon of April–May. A sapling of the sacred Bo tree was brought from India to Lanka by the nun, Sanghamitta, and, since the parent tree has since passed away, is probably the oldest historical tree in the world.

  2. Large extents of forests in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma owe their conservation today to the presence of forest-dwelling (arannavasi) Buddhist monks, who act as unofficial guardians.

  3. The monk and sage Mahinda (son of Emperor Asoka of India) was sent by his father to bring the message of Buddhism to Sri Lanka’s King Devanampiyatissa in 247 B.C. and encountered him hunting a deer on the hill of Mihintale. In a sermon, which resulted in the conversion of the king to Buddhism, Mahinda noted that all creatures have as much right as the king to live in any part of the world they wish. He noted that the world belongs to all and the king is only a guardian (of a portion of it). Devanampiyatissa subsequently declared the site a protected area and sanctuary. Similarly, Emperor Asoka declared sanctuaries in many parts of India.

  4. The Buddha advised monks against being miserly, extravagant or wasteful but to be frugal instead. His illustration in this context is often quoted:

While Buddhist monks in his time had few material possessions, they received gifts of robes from devotees. The Buddha advised monks that, when they received gifts of new robes, they should not dispose of the old but use them as coverlets. Worn out coverlets should likewise be made up into mattress covers. Old mattress covers may be used as rugs and worn out rugs as dusters. Finally, discarded dusters could be ripped into shreds and used (with clay binder) for repairs of cracks in the floors and walls of their residences (Wickramasinghe, 2006).

  1. The Buddhist theory of karma is a theory of cause and effect (but not in the sense of justice or of reward and punishment) (Rahula, 1998). The theory cannot be discussed in detail here but merits consideration by environmentalists, preparers of environmental impact assessments etc.
  2. The five precepts of the Buddhist faith include concern with environmental questions, as well as the sanctity of life.

  3. ‘May all beings be well and happy’ (the dictum which occurs in the Metta Sutta) includes not merely humans but all sentient beings.


Abdur Razzaq Lubis of Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia) has considered (Gyallay-Pap and Bottomley, 1998) environmental ethics from the point of view of Islam. He observes that the accelerating degradation of the environment is more a human problem than one of the environment with roots in a distorted and unbalanced view of existence. He quotes a passage from the Qu’ran, as follows:

‘Greater indeed than the creation of man is

the creation of the heavens and the earth;

Yet most men do not understand.’

(Qu’ran 40:57)

He further notes that the prophet is reported to have said:

‘All creatures are God’s dependents and

the most beloved to God, among them,

is he who does good to God’s dependents.’

On the Day of Judgement, we will be responsible for how we treated other living creatures. Man has a position of trust (amana) and is accountable for his behaviour towards other humans, other creatures and the Earth.


Justice C. V. Wigneswaran of Sri Lanka notes that in Hinduism the five elements forming the environment are deified. The five elements are 1) Prithivi (Earth), 2) Vayu (Air), 3) Appu (Water), 4) Agni or Theyu (Fire) and 5) Akash (Space or Ether). He notes that if you deify the five elements you will not pollute or harm them.

He, also, notes that another aspect of Hinduism, which is of value to a discussion on environment, is the placing of greater emphasis on duty as against rights. Society was traditionally formed of four groups: 1) Priests (intellectuals), 2) Warriors (including kings and administrators), 3) Traders and 4) the working class. Each group placed more emphasis on duties towards society rather than rights. They, also, emphasized that every living being formed part and parcel of this interdependent world.


There are reams in the Christian literature of relevance to environmental matters; most notably, perhaps, in the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible. One passage reads:

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’

(Matthew 6: 28–33)


The Zoroastrians or Parsees are a small, cultured and much respected community in Sri Lanka. Originally, Zoroastrianism was the major ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Islam won a decisive victory in 635 A.D. and from the 10th century Parsees emigrated to the Indian subcontinent. Their religion is too complex to be analysed here but it should be noted that the authority, R. C. Zaehner, has observed that Zoroastrianism’s ‘theological premises are based on an essentially moralistic view of life’ (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1993).


Another small community in Sri Lanka are the Veddahs or remnants of the hunter-gatherers of the country. In common with hunter-gatherers elsewhere, they are said to have an affinity and reverence for nature in contrast to more urbanised peoples. In addition to a deep knowledge of the qualities and properties of jungle products, they had their jungle gods and took from the jungle only what they required.


The foregoing attempts to develop an argument for the need to involve religions and religious leaders more widely in a unified programme of environmental education. We are aware of some steps which have already been taken in the direction of involving clergy in environmental activities. An example is the incorporation of a senior advisor for monk environmental education in the UNDP/ETAP (United Nations Development Programme/Environmental Technical Advisory Programme). However, abundant opportunities exist to develop such initiatives further.

A programme to develop interfaith discussion and the widespread collaboration of various religions may be achievable (given time and patience) considering the immensity of the common challenge facing humanity and the Earth. If and when this co-operative effort is brought on stream, it has the potential of bringing a rich resource of many millions of hitherto uncommitted individuals into the mainstream of environmental consciousness. Such initiatives are preferable to losing heart when one contemplates the immensity of the environmental challenges currently confronting us.


I am grateful to Father James Ratnanayagam, Father Mervyn Fernando, Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, Ravi Algama, Mrs. Christine Spittel Wilson and others for interesting discussions.

Professional information is on the website: http://www.geocities.com/rohan_wickramasinghe/index.html and other pages referred to on the website.

Author would like to hear from others about their views regarding the articles and other matters. Contact email address:
Rohan Wickramasinghe, Institute for Tropical Environmental Studies


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