Today, June 5th, 2019, the world celebrates the 45th anniversary of World Environment Day. No time is more opportune to unearth the wisdom our ancestors possessed of the value of Earth’s resources and their prudent use. So have we unlearned wisdom over the many centuries for our selfish needs?
(O goddess Earth, the consort of Vishnu, you whose garments are the oceans and whose breasts are the hills and mountain ranges; please forgive me as I walk on you this day.)
This Sanskrit shloka recited before one rises in the morning reveres the Earth alongside Lord Vishnu as Bhoodevi, one of his consorts, in most temples.
Scholars of the Vedas constantly hark back to texts and rituals that exalt the earth (prithvi), water (jala), fire (agni), air (vayu), and ether (akasa), suggesting an underlying ecological sensitivity within the Hindu tradition. It is interesting to note that even Charvaka, the atheist philosopher of ancient India, who rejected the Vedas, considered the principles of vayu, bhumi, jala, akasa and agni as important factors regulating living things. The Bhoomi pooja before laying the foundation of a building is performed to ask Mother Earth forgiveness for disturbing her. Vedic ecology believes the Earth is not inanimate but a force of consciousness that helps all creatures evolve.
As creatures living on this planet, we are totally dependent on what the Earth bestows upon us-for food, water, minerals and energy resources. It has taken millions of years for the Earth to evolve into her present state. She has perfected the web of life during this time. This web of life exists not as a haphazard assembly of competing species but as an interwoven and interdependent, mutually supporting tapestry of life. Thus, to pull one string would mean affecting the whole web; pulling at a dozen strings simultaneously would upset the overall ecological balance. Yet, Mother Earth remains tenacious.
In the Mahabharata, Sanjaya explains in detail to Dhritharashtra that there is no place like Mother Earth: “Everything is born out of this Earth and finally goes back to Her. She is the father, mother, son, space, heaven, and everything. Whatever may be your faults, She regards everybody with equal affection.” (Bhishma Parva, 10-74).
The Vedic traditions of Hinduism offer imagery that values the power of the natural world. Ancient Hindus sensed the supreme spirit or Brahman’s presence everywhere. The Purushasookta states that humans, gods and nature were integral parts of one ‘organic whole’.
Natural beauty is bountiful in India. The magnificent Himalayas have served as a spiritual parent to the sages over centuries. You cannot get closer to nature than amid its snow-covered peaks, its meandering streams and unique flora. Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, had this to say about sages and life in the Himalayas: “That gentle and amiable sage of the Himalayas had only one entrancing theme: love-for nature, for creatures, and for the whole. The Himalayan sages taught me the gospel of nature… The gospel of nature reveals that emphatic knowledge through which one learns truth and beholds good in all its majesty and glory… When one learns to hear the music of nature and to appreciate her beauty, then his soul moves in harmony with the entire environment.”
Conservation practices too were not unfamiliar to ancient India. History speaks of Emperor Ashoka who in third century B. C. set up sanctuaries for the protection of wild animals. Sacred groves found in many parts of India are protected by local communities and are considered the residence of local deities and hence are a site for cultural rituals. This concept has been around for centuries and represents how precious the forest resource was considered.
Professor Madhav Gadgil, the well known and respected ecologist, who has studied sacred groves and trees in the Uttara Kannada region in Karnataka for several years, observes: “All over the country, various tribes and communities had their local deity to whom a stretch of forest land was dedicated. These were termed as sacred groves and were tracts of virgin forest ranging from a few trees to dense forests spanning several hundred acres.”
The concept of sacred groves was essentially what ecologists called social fencing. The protection of sacred ponds and groves is a remarkable feature of the Indian subcontinent. One of the most widespread of the traditions in India is the protection given to trees of the genus Ficus, which dot the countryside and are often the only large trees in the midst of towns and cities. Biologists now recognize them as key members of tropical forests, often fruiting at times when most other species are without fruits. Ficus religiosa, the Ashvattha tree, more popular as the Peepul, known for its great size and longevity, features metaphorically in the Bhagavad Gita as the Tree of Life.
Renowned ecologists from over the world have acknowledged the wisdom of our traditional agricultural practices. P.S. Ashton, a tropical forest ecologist, in his essay, A Question of Sustainable Use, in the book People of the Tropical Rain Forest (1988) says this about the traditional Indian perceptions of the sacred in nature: “The Indian sub-continent is without doubt the world center of human cultural diversity. . . The Hindus have inherited perceptions of a people who have lived since ancient times in a humid climate particularly favorable for forest life. Settled people, they see themselves as one with the natural world, as both custodians and dependents. The people of India continue to harvest an astonishing diversity of products from the forest. Forests of the mountains and watersheds have traditionally been sacred; springs and the natural landscape in their vicinity have attracted special veneration. The Hindus learned from their predecessors millennia ago, a mythology, sociology and technology of irrigation that has enabled the most intensive yet sustainable agriculture humanity has so far devised.”
Many of our traditions need to be preserved and guarded zealously. For instance, Vandana Shiva in her book Stolen Harvest emphasizes the worldview of women in India as symbolizing abundance. They left food for ants at their doorstep when they created art in the form of rangoli and wove beautiful designs of paddy so that birds could feed on them. The spirit of sharing with all in the world is our underlying theme. Tribal traditions in India also encourage mixing of harvest seeds among families, which affirms that biodiversity belongs to everyone. This practice has a strong scientific advantage as this also improves genetic vigor in the seeds making them less susceptible to diseases and pests.
It is time Indians rediscovered these traditional methods of conservation, which had served them so well before the forces of colonialism dismantled them. We need to view the Earth as a sacred treasure, which will help human consciousness move towards higher wisdom and awareness. As humans our view of the environment has turned completely anthropocentric. We assume that it is our divine right to milk its resources to fill our needs and decide upon the fate of a piece of land and the species it supports. Hence, it is not surprising that the quality of life for all species is deteriorating in direct correlation to the degree with which we exploit our natural resources.
Mahatma Gandhi had this to say about the role of human beings in the ecological hierarchy: “It is an arrogant assumption to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, being endowed with greater things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom. Civilization, in the real sense of the term; consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment, and increases the capacity for service.”
In her essay, One Tree is Equal to Ten Sons: Hindu Responses to the Problems of Ecology, Population and Consumption, Vasudha Narayanan, Professor of Religion at University of Florida, echoes this sentiment: “The Earth belongs to us only in our egos and avaricious hands. In reality, it is we who belong to the Earth, and by wrongly usurping what is not ours and what should be shared with the future generations of human beings, we are indulging in adharmic or unrighteous behaviour.”
The need of the hour is to approach the preservation of the planet spiritually yet in a practical manner. Spiritual ecology is an insightful and empowering answer to the alienation and destruction wreaked by a worldview that sees humans as separate from the whole. Let us pledge to preserve our planet. It is the only one we have.
A version of this article written by the author was first published in Life Positive, 2005