Most religions practiced in South Asia did not see humanity as separate from nature. Instead they conceived nature as an expression of divinity, with humans evolved from it. Nature was not conceived for the benefit of humans and for them to rule it. They were part of the environment, albeit a highly evolved form of it.
From the delight expressed by the ancient Vedic peoples in the beauty and bounty of nature grew a culture where all living things had great value and ahimsa or non-violence was an important article of faith. The very doctrine of karma, or consequences of action, taught unselfishness and self-control.
The poetic vision of the Hindu Vedas extolled the power of nature in its various forms. Vedic gods were embodiments of nature and its forces such as Dyaus (sky), Prithvi (earth) and Varuna (waters). In the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, the five powers of earth (prithvi), water (jal), fire (tejas), air (vayu) and space (akasha) are evoked in the rituals and meditational techniques of Hinduism and in daily worship or puja they are employed as symbols.
Early seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation depict the tree as a symbol of abundance and veneration. The rivers of the sub-continent are often sacred and worshipped as embodiments of goddesses. Besides trees and rivers, rocks and mountains, indeed all forms of nature were believed to have spirits to be respected.
Other religions likewise stress the need for human care of the environment. For example, in Islam, Muslims believe that Allah created humans to be guardians of his creation, and there is an emphasis on maintaining the unity of humans and nature. Similar values are found in Jainism, Buddhism and other religions.
A future role?
In contemporary South Asia the environment is under tremendous pressure as societies development rapidly. The original values of the sub-continent of simple living, abstention and social duty or dharma are under threat. However, strands of religious heritage could be interpreted and expanded to formulate an ecological consciousness. A number of organisations are active in promoting an alliance between religious and environmental values.