Brian Pennington receives grant, presents new research on Hinduism and climate change

Pennington’s long-term research in the Indian Himalayas was extended by a grant from the American Academy of Religion to study how local Hindus respond to recent catastrophic floods

Professor Brian Pennington, director of Elon’s Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society, was honored at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting Nov. 21-25, 2014 in San Diego in recognition of his 2014 Individual Research Grant to study post-disaster religious rhetoric in North India.

The competitive grant was awarded to Pennington to return to his long-term research site, the pilgrimage city of Uttarkashi in the central Himalayan Mountains, to conduct interviews with local religious and civic leaders following catastrophic floods in June 2013.

In a paper titled, “Climate Change, Natural Disaster, and Anti-theodicy in the Hindu Himalayas,” Pennington reported the results of that research, conducted in January 2014, seven months after violent monsoon flooding along the Ganges River killed an estimated 10,000 people. These floods devastated the infrastructure and economy in Uttarkashi and other remote towns in a region regarded by Hindus around the world as the abode of the gods.

Uttarkashi is an ancient city celebrated for its religious atmosphere in 10th century Sanskrit texts. Long believed to be a supremely spiritual city, in recent decades it has functioned as a hub for an important pilgrimage circuit called the Char Dham Yatra, or Pilgrimage to the Four Abodes of the Divine. During this pilgrimage, Hindus travel long distances along difficult roads to four temples at elevations of over 10,000 feet situated at the glacial sources of tributaries of the Ganges River. As private automobile ownership has increased in India, religious tourism in these areas has exploded, and local economies have flourished.

These are ecologically and seismically sensitive areas, explained Pennington, and Uttarkashi has been victim to multiple, large-scale natural disasters: major earthquakes in 1991 and 1998, a massive landslide that destroyed a main business area in the town in 2003, and increasingly destructive monsoon rains. In 2012, a major flood destroyed the most important bridge in the town, and in June 2013, even stronger flooding destroyed the remaining bridges, dozens of homes, hotels, and other structures, and inflicted major damage on hundreds of others. The culprit, says Pennington, is climate change.

“The micro-climates created in mountainous regions magnify the effects of a warming planet: rains become locally violent and unpredictable, water supplies dry up as glaciers retreat, and extended droughts stretch out every summer,” he said.

The question Pennington wanted to pursue was this: in these disastrous times, how would religious people explain their plight? “Since 2006 I have recorded people predicting that the gods would punish them for the commercialization of this holy territory that the expanding tourist economy had entailed,” he said. When he arrived, he was shocked by the scale of the destruction. “Whole neighborhoods were wiped out without a trace; wrecked buildings were everywhere; the roads were virtually unpassable in places.” 

Post-flood river bank with damaged homes in Uttarkashi, India


But in spite of his previous research predicted, people identified human causes for this destruction.

“I was surprised to find, again and again, that people did not blame god—they blamed the government: for poor disaster management, for failing to prepare for such predictable events, and for allowing the construction of dams that made the damage from the floods worse than it would have been,” Pennington said.

The main reason for this unexpected public anger at the government was the work done by local religious organizations dedicated to the Ganges River to educate the public about climate change and managing its effects.

“These people are devoted to the river as a goddess,” he said. “For them, she is their mother, a source of life and a divine presence in the mountains. Their main objective is to protect her from the ravages of a developing society.”

By educating the public about climate science, the effects of dams, and disaster management, they have caused local people to think differently about their environment and their lives. “It is a lesson,” Pennington said, “in the power of community organizations to make major changes to peoples’ mindsets.”

The research will be included in a book about religious change in a rapidly developing Uttarkashi that Pennington is currently writing, “God’s Fifth Abode: Entrepreneurial Hinduism in the Indian Himalayas.”