Lower Carbon Footprint of the Dead, Says India Court

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Body to the river (Photo by Michal Huniewicz available on Flickr)

The Ganges River, a source of spiritual purification for Hindus, is polluted. Every breath inhaled and exhaled at ashrams in Delhi, Jaipur, and Patna is polluted. Indians’ health is suffering as their country’s forests are disappearing. But last week, a federal environmental court took an important step to protect the Ganges, the air, the people, and the planet. It ordered authorities to reduce the environmental impact of the dead.

For centuries, Hindus have cremated their deceased loved ones. Traditionally, they wash the body in a river and then place it on a wood pyre with feet facing south, where the deceased is burned. Hindus believe the soul of a dead person must be completely detached from the body to attain moksha  — a release from the cycle of rebirth. For this to happen, open cremation is necessary, so the soul can be released easily. The ashes are then put in the river.

But this centuries-old practice is having devastating effects today according to D.M. Bhalla, a Delhi-based lawyer, who petitioned the National Green Tribunal, India’s environmental court. He argued the number of trees felled to obtain wood for funeral pyres and the carbon-dioxide emissions produced by cremation was “alarming.” While acknowledging the issue is “sensitive, touching religious sentiments,” Mr. Bhalla’s petition asserted that “such sentiments cannot be a hurdle in protection of environment and health of the public at large.”

The negative environmental impact of traditional-Hindu cremation comes as no surprise. The National Ganga River Basin Authority has calculated that about 32,000 bodies are cremated every year in Varnasi. For this about 16,000 tons of firewood is required and 7,000 tons of ash is released into the Ganges. And with the high cost of firewood, many of the bodies are not cremated fully, leading to up to 300 tons of charred human flesh being tossed into the river annually.

In response to Mr. Bhalla’s petition and growing concern about the environment in India, the National Green Tribunal directed the country’s Environment Ministry and the Delhi government to initiate programs to provide alternative modes of cremation and change the mindset of the people.”

“The issue involves question of faith and circumstances in which the people live, . . . It is, therefore, the responsibility of the men who lead, particularly religious leaders, to steer the faith in a direction so as to change the mindset of people practicing their faith and make them adopt the practices which are environment-friendly,” said the green court.

“It is also the responsibility of the government to facilitate the making of the mindset of the citizens as well as to provide environment-friendly alternatives for cremation to its citizenry,” it added.

While directing governments to initiate programs is not as meaningful as requiring governments to provide alternative modes of cremation, the National Green Tribunal’s order sends a message to Hindus who care about the living as much as their deceased loved ones. People of faith must evolve their traditions to protect their homes, their families, and themselves.

Now if only more people of faith in the United States would do the same when it comes to climate change.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .