Eco-Spirituality, Neo-Paganism and the Hindu Right

By Nanda, Meera | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall/Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Eco-Spirituality, Neo-Paganism and the Hindu Right


Nanda, Meera, Women & Environments International Magazine


The Dangers of Religious Environmentalism

In recent years, neo-pagan eco-spirituality has found a welcome home in the women's movement. Inspired by the ecofeminist writings of Starhawk, Charlene Spretnak, and Vandana Shiva, the growing popularity of eco-spiritual activism in the environmentalist and, more recently, the anti-globalization movements shows that many women (and men) are attracted to the pagan vision of nature as a living, conscious, and sacred entity. They seek to replace the patriarchal and distant Father God of the Judeo-Christian tradition with the loving and welcoming Mother Earth of the preChristian, Native American, and Eastern religious traditions. By and large, this turn to the goddess tradition is seen as politically progressive, for it is seen as a powerful motivating force for environmental, feminist, and other forms of activism.

I want to initiate a rethinking about the place of the sacred in environmental activism, including environmental activism within the anti-globalization movement. We can refer to the example of Chipko (the famous women-hugging-the-trees movement from India) to argue that when new social movements invoke the sacredness of nature for environmental causes, they run the risk of aiding and comforting the religious right and the ultra-nationalistic politics it stands for. While the turn to goddess and pagan traditions might be seen as counter-cultural in the West, this kind of religiosity is a part of the dominant Hindu culture in India which has had a long history of patriarchy and caste hierarchy.

Lessons from India, however, apply to the new social movements in the West. For one, as mentioned above, the tendency to sacralize nature - to turn rivers, trees and soil into objects of worship is gaining ground among the deep ecology, eco-feminist and neo-pagan movements in the West. second - and this is more problematic - the Hindu Right cannot be treated as a domestic problem of India alone, for it has aspirations to become the leader of worldwide, anti-Judeo-Christian, neo-pagan movement. Hindu nationalists want to project India as the sole surviving nation that has preserved its polytheistic, pagan culture and therefore as the natural leader of neopagan revivals around the world.

What is Paganism?

According to the most recent social scientific data collected by James Proctor, a geographer at University of California, and reported by Catherine Albanese in her remarkable book, Reconsidering Nature Religions:

* Only 32% of environmental activists in the US are secularists; that is, they think that nature is important but not sacred in itself.

* About 25% or so are Christian theists; that is, they think that nature is sacred because it was created by God.

* The largest percentage, about 40%, are eco-spiritualists; that is, they think that nature is sacred in itself because it is animated by the presence of a cosmic life force.

It is in this last category that we see a revival of a vast range of neo-pagan ideas. From deep ecology, eco-feminism, and New Age to witchcraft, Druidism, and other practices oriented around ancient gods and goddesses, eco-spirituality is presently thriving. All forms of eco-spirituality share two defining features. First, they see divinity as manifested in entities and processes of nature. For the pagans, God is not up there in the sky, but down here in trees, rivers, birds, animals, and human beings. second, they are holists or anti-dualists. Because they see all things as manifestations of the divine, they reject distinctions between the spiritual and material, sacred and secular, humans and gods, or humans and other species.

Because they venerate nature, nearly all modern pagans consider it their sacred duty to protect the earth. Some groups, like Earth First! or Vandana Shiva's Research Foundation in India, are more aggressive in the commitment to defend the earth. Others are more inward-looking, more drawn to life-style rituals than political activism. …

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