India’s philosophical traditions include an ethical framework based on the concept of Rta, which was formulated more than 5000 years ago in ancient texts known as the Vedas. Translated as “the right way”, Rta is often interpreted as “the cosmic order”. It conveys the idea of aligning oneself with the laws of nature – its cycles, patterns of growth and other universal principles.
Around the beginning of the Common Era texts were written in India to convey how one should behave in order to uphold and harmoniously align with Rta. They are centred on the notion of dharma, a Sanskrit word expressing the need to fulfil one’s duty in life – to act altruistically for the good of all. The verbal root of dharma is dhri, “to uphold or bear up”, so it concerns behaviour aligned with a power that upholds the functioning of the universe.
A well-known text dealing with dharma was the Lawbook of Manu, which includes a strong message that damaging or polluting the environment is a serious offense. The book says, for example, that a person who killed trees could be expelled from their village!
According to contemporary writer Ranchor Prime, author of Vedic Ecology, many Hindu rituals were designed to create a harmonious relationship with three levels of reality: the natural environment, the social environment and a person’s own inner environment. As an example, Prime mentions the ritual of repeating Om shanti, shanti, shanti (peace, peace, peace) before every prayer. He says, “The first ‘shanti’ means peace with nature, ecological peace; the second means peace in society, between human beings, communities, nations and peoples; the third means shanti within oneself, spiritual peace”.
Yoga’s link with this aspect of Hinduism can be seen in its utilisation of this chant, often at the end of a yoga class – expressing an appreciation of the peace and harmony that is so crucial to planetary wellbeing on all levels.
The ethical principals of yoga philosophy place great emphasis on non-violence (ahimsa) towards all facets of creation. Codes of conduct in some of the ancient texts expressed this principle, helping to shape the compassionate stance of the spiritual traditions linked with yoga.
A well-known example is found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Book II of the Sutras contains a list of five yamas or rules of social behaviour by which a person dedicated to the yogic lifestyle should live. Non-violence (ahimsa) is often considered one of the most important of these lifestyle “regulations”. (The others are truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation of sensory drives and lack of greed.)
While ahimsa conveys the importance of not harming other people, it is considered a principal that extends to all creation. This means that ideally all of one’s thoughts, words and actions should be geared towards not harming others – or one’s environment – in any way.
Of the four other yamas (rules of conduct) listed by Patanjali, it’s also worth mentioning aparigraha: lack of greed. This conveys the important concept of taking only what you need in life, so as to conserve resources and thereby act for the benefit of all. In our age of excessive consumerism, it’s a reminder to exercise the self-discipline and restraint encouraged by yoga and its associated practices.
For thousands of years yoga and meditation have provided an enduring system for both maintaining internal balance and harmonising human activities with the world of nature. Today, as the planet suffers from the consequences of activities that go against its natural laws, the yogic worldview provides a holistic, compassionate, eco-friendly framework we can turn to.