Climate change reshaping ancient religion from bliss to punishment

Climate change reshaping ancient religion from bliss to punishment


The Impact of Climate Change on Sacred Sites in the Himalayas

Millions of people visit the Himalayan region each year as part of the Char Dham Yatra, a pilgrimage to four sacred mountainous abodes dedicated to different gods and goddesses. One of these destinations is Kedarnath, situated at the base of 20,000-foot snowy peaks. The region holds great religious significance, with the mighty Hindu god Shiva believed to have manifested as a conical rock formation worshipped as a lingam, an embodied form of the deity. However, climate change now poses a threat to these sacred sites, putting their future at risk.

I have personally visited this region multiple times as part of my research on religion, nature, and ecology. Many pilgrims I encountered during the Char Dham Yatra expressed the belief that undertaking this pilgrimage is an important journey in their lifetime, often considering it the most significant. However, as global temperatures rise, the glaciers on the 20,000-foot peaks above Kedarnath, which are vital sources of the Mandakini River, are melting and retreating at alarming rates. This poses a significant threat to the region and its religious heritage. Climate change disasters, as I discuss in my book “Understanding Climate Change through Religious Lifeworlds,” also act as powerful drivers of religious transformations, reshaping religious ideas and practices.

The Vulnerability of the Himalayan Region

Glacial deterioration is a global phenomenon, but subtropical glaciers in high mountainous areas, such as the Indian Himalayas, are particularly vulnerable due to their low latitudes. Many climate scientists believe that the Himalayas are being disproportionately affected by climate change. Melting glaciers lead to the formation of lakes held in place by unstable natural dams made of rubble. These dams, formed when the glaciers were healthy, become increasingly prone to glacial lake outburst floods as the glaciers shrink. Another danger posed by global warming is the shift from snow to extreme rain at higher altitudes. Rain rushes down slopes immediately, causing erosion, landslides, and deluges. The combination of extreme rain and glacial lake outburst floods can result in deadly flooding, as tragically evidenced by the Kedarnath disaster in 2013.

The Catastrophic Kedarnath Disaster

In June 2013, Kedarnath experienced a devastating catastrophe. Unprecedented rainfall of over a foot within 24 hours led to the entire watershed above Kedarnath being filled with raging water. The resulting landslides and flooding caused by the Mandakini River bursting its banks led to widespread destruction. In addition, the previously mentioned rubble dam holding back the glacial lake formed by the melting Chorabari Glacier suddenly breached, releasing a massive wall of crashing water. Amidst this chaos, the ancient temple in Kedarnath miraculously remained standing, protected by a 30-foot boulder that rolled down the mountain and stopped just before it. However, most of the town was demolished, and thousands of lives were lost, primarily among the pilgrims.

Changing Beliefs: The Gods as Punishers

The destructive flooding brought about by climate change is transforming people’s beliefs in the region. The gods of this area are closely associated with the land itself, and the interconnectedness of the gods, nature, and humans is deeply ingrained in the local understanding. Many residents believe that weather-related disasters are a result of human beings’ immoral actions, particularly their disregard for the environment.

The gods, who were once seen as benevolent beings who granted blessings, are now increasingly perceived as punishers. People attribute the climate changes and destructive storms to the sins and pollution of humanity. This transformative shift in theological views highlights the intimate link between human morality and the environment. While the connection between human behavior and the natural world has long been recognized, the magnitude of the changes currently unfolding has heightened concerns.

Conditional Hope: Restoring a Respectful Relationship

Amidst the uncertainty, there remains hope for a better outcome. Many residents express a belief that if humans are willing to change their ways, the worst effects of climate change can be avoided. This change involves returning to a more respectful relationship with the gods of the land, which is essentially treating nature with respect as well. The floods are viewed as a warning, urging people to wake up and alter their ways before it’s too late.

Residents stress the choice humans have to establish mutually beneficial relationships with the natural world. However, if the warnings of the gods are ignored, the consequences may be catastrophic. The destructive floods continue to occur in the central Himalayas with increasing force and frequency. The suspension of the Kedarnath pilgrimage in 2022 due to landslides and flooding is indicative of the mounting challenges faced by the region. The Indian government’s promotion of religious tourism in the area exacerbates the strain on the land, with more buildings, crowded roads, and polluting vehicles further degrading the environment.

An Uncertain Future

With greenhouse gas emissions still on the rise due to human activities, the planet is warming at an alarming rate. This raises concerns among experts that disasters like the one in Kedarnath in 2013 will become more common. The delicate ecological balance of the Himalayas is under threat, and the sacred sites that have drawn pilgrims for centuries are now facing an uncertain future. It is imperative that we recognize the link between climate change and religious lifeworlds and take necessary steps to mitigate its impact.

David L. Haberman is Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, Indiana University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.