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Environmentalism In Hindu Thought – Part I


The Kamandakiya Nitisastra, which was studied closely by Mahamahopadhyay Pandurang Vaman Kane, compiler of the magisterial ‘History of Dharmasastra’, has this to say about rastra, the territory of the state: “That land is preferred for the sake of prosperity that is endowed with various crops and minerals, is full of merchandise, mines and various substances, that is favourable to cattle-rearing, that abounds in water, is inhabited by well-conducted people, is charming, has forests and elephants, has facilities of water and road transport and does not depend on rain water only.”

“A country is to be preferred that yields livelihood easily, is possessed of the qualities of good land, is full of water, that has hills in it, that consists mostly of sudras, artisans and merchants, the husbandmen in which undertake great projects, that is loyal to the king and averse to the king’s enemy, that can put up with troubles and taxes, that is large in extent, full of people from various countries, that follows the right path, that possesses plenty of cattle and wealth, the principal men in which are not foolish or vicious.”

Kane has explained using references to the Agnipurana (239, 2) that rastra is the most important of all elements of the State, to the Atharvaveda (12, 1, 8 and 10) that the earth is called mother and invoked to impart to the rastra “strength and brilliance of energy”, and to the Manusmriti (7, 69), the Yajurveda (1, 321) and the Visnudharmasutra (3, 4-5), to emphasise the central place that rastra has in the Hindu conception of state.

It is a conception that is attached umbilically to the Vedic-era praise shlokas to the deities of the earth, thunder, atmosphere, rain, sky, sun and wind, the natural phenomena with a divine source, and is also attached to every aspect of the existence of the whole (in which man is, or must be, a harmonious part), whose aspects are physical, material, philosophical, ethical and cosmic. It was Priyavrata, son of Svayambhu Manu, who rode his chariot around the earth seven times, the wheels of which made seven furrows that became the seven seas, and the raised surfaces in between them became the seven dvipas upon which, the Lingapurana says (52, 35-39), people lived.

Such was the enormity and immensity of Prithvi the mother earth, whose rhythms govern the lives of the smallest insects, to the seasons of our luni-solar calendar, and to the great 60-year cycles of time and beyond. These cycles – minute, small, large, immense – are grounded in rta, the principle of universal order and ethics which sustains nature. The rajas of the rastra and the praja of the rastra, living their own cycles amidst many other cycles, saw with complete clarity that they are related to the elements (panchabhuta), nature, animal and plant life, and themselves as embodiments of the panchabhuta and forces of nature.

They were guided by the six darsanas, the shaddarshan, for each of which there is a rishi who gives its principles in the form of aphorisms, sutras and bhasyam (a commentary, regarded as authoritative). The rishi of Nyaya, the system of logic, is Gautama, and his sutras are divided into five books. He lays down 16 padartha, or topics, into which he divides knowledge. The Vaisheshika, the system of particulars, has for its rishi Kanada, who set down six padartha, under which all nameable things could be classified. Kanada has nine sub-divisions under the head of substances: the five elements, kalah (time), dik (space), atma (the self) and manah (mind).

The Sankhya, the system of number, looks back to Kapila as the giver of its sutras. In Sankhya, there are two primary roots of all we see around us, purushah (spirit) and prakritih (matter). Prakritih is the object side of existence, and produces 23 substances, seven of which share the name of prakritih, and 16 are vikarah (or vikritayah), modifications. Prakritih, as the opposite of purusha, is avyaktam, the unmanifested, the producer of all, but itself unproduced.

The Sankhya holds the triple nature of matter, its three gunas (traigunyam) or constituent factors are tamah, rajah, and sattvam. When these are in equilibrium there is no activity, no evolution. When they are out of equilibrium, evolution begins. The Yoga, the system of Union, has as the giver of its sutras Patanjali, and have as their aim the exposition of the means of stopping the constant movements of the chittam, the thinking principle, and thus reaching samadhih, the perfectly steady and balanced condition, from which kaivalyam, the isolation of the purusha, and the separation from prakritih, can be gained.

In this way, the darsanas of the civilisation of Bharatavarsha, or Aryavarta, gave its inhabitants the foundations with which to regard the nature that surrounded them, the divinity that pervaded nature in its smallest structure and largest and most vigorous manifestation, gave them the classifications through which they may discern materials and their qualities, substances and their characteristics, the forces that act on all these, and their own relation to the whole or to those parts with which they were acquainted for livelihood, or art or devotional practice.

This is the profound intellectual organisation, perfected through centuries of contemplation and revision following the Vedic era, through the later Vedic, and classical ages until the arrival of the Islamic invasions in the 8th century of the common era, and then in the 11th. As an organisation of inquiry, science, practice and both commercial and devotional activities, the darsanas together survived the first colonial occupation (Mughal) and the second (British). We have yet to ensure that they survive the third colonial occupation of India, that of the western ideology of globalisation.

By the beginning of the 1980s, India was slowly becoming familiar with a few new terms and words that had made their appearance. There was ‘environment’, there was ‘biosphere’, there was ‘pollution control’, there was ‘wasteland’, there was ‘deforestation’, there was ‘unplanned urban growth’. From 1984, after the Bhopal gas tragedy, ‘industrial accident’ would be added. ‘Ecosystem’ and ‘ecology’ had still to enter public conversation and news reports. Globalisation was already being spoken of in commercial and trade circles, for the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was being led towards what would become its successor, the World Trade Organisation.

The India of the late 1970s and early 1980s was still being described, in economic terms, as a country plodding along at what used to, rather derisively, be called the “Hindu rate of growth”, by which was meant the enlargement of the gross domestic product (GDP) by about 3 per cent per year. Thirty-five years after Independence, India was still a predominantly agricultural country, with the village population far outnumbering that of the cities and towns.

Concerns about what was then, somewhat haltingly, understood as ‘environment’ related mainly to how land and water were being used (or overused). Organisations that were part of one or another ministry, or that were academic, were becoming known for their work on particular aspects of what was understood as ‘environment’. Amongst these were the National Committee on Environmental Planning, the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, the Tribal Development Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

The construction of big dams, and the areas that their reservoirs submerged (and would submerge) had become cause célèbres by the early 1980s. The protest against the Silent Valley hydro-electric project in Kerala was started by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad which was described as “a grassroots organisation involved in mobilising people in a variety of ways, including non-formal science education”. Silent Valley was a forest, and because of the protest, was now being described, perhaps more effectively abroad than at home, as “a rich biosphere”. The central government in response appointed a committee headed by a then member of the Planning Commission, Prof M G K Menon, whose direction although inconclusive leaned towards the advocacy of the conservationists. The project was cancelled when former prime minister Indira Gandhi prevailed upon the state government in Kerala, which had supported it.

Thereafter, Silent Valley ranked as foremost amongst place-names that were associated either with big dams, or forested tracts, or large projects classified as ‘development’, and against which public mobilisation of the kind mustered by the Parishad, had also emerged. There was the Chipko movement in the Garhwal Himalaya to stop the Tehri dam (then in Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand) led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, and its counterpart in Karnataka, Appiko, in the state’s Sirsi district (which recalled a ‘jungle satyagraha’ in 1831 against the reservation of forests policy of the British raj).

There were the Koel Karo Jana Sanghatana (the Munda tribals of Chhota Nagpur), the Narmada Bachao Andolan which was spread across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in as many sites as the Narmada Basin Development Programme – as it was called then – had construction or in which construction was planned, there was the Pong dam on the river Beas in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh, the Ukai dam in Gujarat.

Preceding all these were the dams in Maharashtra: Koyna, Panshet, Veer, Ujhari, Verasgaon and Kukri which, beginning with Koyna in 1958, gave rise to a new phenomenon that combined within itself the problems arising from ‘development’ and from what was considered necessary to protect ‘environment’. This phenomenon was ‘project affected people’, those who were displaced from their homes and habitats, and whose displacement was brought to the notice of both administration and the public by the mobilisation that took place from 1958 and throughout the 1960s (there had been a big demonstration before the Maharashtra Vidhan Sanbha in 1969) which for the most part was coordinated by the Maharashtra Dharam Evam Prakalpa Grasth Shetkari Parishad.

These names, of places and organisations, became better known by the 1990s for their being theatres of environmental struggle instead of the hill range, river, forest, or teertha that they were until then associated with. The use of a modern, western-derived language and idiom to describe these struggles – presented as people versus the state – was deliberate and designed to attract especially a new generation of young Indians who had already been prepared to receive such messages by the increasingly ‘liberal’ cast of the tertiary education they received. This young generation was tutored likewise by a new kind of Indian, one which had partaken of the west European ‘liberal’ education in universities there, and who, brandishing foreign degrees in subjects unheard of at home in India, proceeded to attack vigorously the time-tested socio-cultural system that had given us raja and praja, rastra and grama.

The tutors had been trained well, and their range of talents included not only framing the messages of environmental damage and its consequence, long-term ecological doom, but also setting the terms of public discourse on the subject, and, not least of all, setting up and equipping the organisations (‘andolan’, ‘samiti’ and ‘sanghatana’ were often part of their formal names) that would receive donor money from abroad. Their allies were a similarly new academic class, which lent some gravity to the new discourses about ‘struggle’ and ‘dispossession’, and which also endorsed the objectives of the new environmentalism in India, one that had been wrenched away forcefully from our shaddarshan, our Dharmasastras and our Vedic wellsprings of knowledge.

It did not help the view of Hindu society, on this subject – for it had already taken shape as a subject and made as deliberately separate as possible from its Indic roots – that administrative India, even in the 1950s and 1960s when resources were few and development needs many, seemed unable to reconcile the protection of nature with the provision of the means to development. The new environmentalists and the grassroots movements they spoke for (as much in international circles as at home) presented their efforts as being the path that led the ‘dispossessed’ and the ‘marginalised’ away from a multiplicity of bogeys: bondage to local feudal elites, weakness because of illiteracy and absence of organisation, at the receiving end of misinterpretations of laws and regulations concerning forests, the handicap of being tribal or scheduled caste. The framing of the subject of environment in developing India had perhaps more to do with other areas, than with what was commonly understood as being environmental, or ecological, or connected with nature.

They followed, as much as any western liberal did, the marked dislike of the socio-cultural institutions still extant, and the more so when those institutions were Hindu. They tended much more towards the outlook of James Mill (who wrote the ‘History of British India’, first published in 1818), than of Sir William Jones (the jurist and philologist). Mill had set for himself the task of ascertaining India’s “true state” in the “scale of civilisation”, and who relegated the Hindu society of India as being a “rude” people who had made “but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilisation” because there existed in the India that he saw (or imagined himself as seeing), “hideous state of society”, inferior even to that of the European feudal age.

In the overactive imagination of Mill, India had been bound down to despotism and to “a system of priestcraft, built upon the most enormous and tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded any portion of mankind”, the Hindus had become “the most enslaved portion of the human race”. Moreover, Mill had written, “in beholding the Hindus of the present day, we are beholding the Hindus of many ages past; and are carried back, as it were, into the deepest recesses of antiquity”.

In this way, the sources that found for us some equivalence between the new terminologies of environment and ecology, and the philosophies and practices of India until the modern era, were violently obscured and wherever possible snuffed out. But the new terminologies required a science and a method to provide them substance. Discarded entirely was the method, full with implicit science, already widely known and performed – Akshay Tritiya, Guru Purnima, Naag Panchami, Ganesh Chauth, Rishi Panchami, Sharad Purnima, Tulsi Vivah, Sankranti, Basant Panchami, to name but a few of the observances through the course of the Hindu year.

These – plus the many more through the year of Chaitra to Phalgun, and with the vrat (or upvaas), the ekadashis, amavasyas, purnima, the individual preferences of our deities for certain foods, leaves, fruits and flowers – encoded for Hindu society the all-encompassing embrace of the elements (panchabhuta), and the relation between purushah (spirit) and prakritih (matter) through the course of the annual ritus, the transitions from one paksh of the month to the next. Under none of our saddarshane can the extraction, so to speak, of an embedded knowledge (such as the understanding of prakritih) into a distinct subject become possible, nor is it desirable.

Swami Nirvedanandji of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture had in 1953 observed that “young minds began to swallow queer cultural shibboleths, such as India has no culture worth the name, that her entire past was (one big error best forgotten) a foolish quest after false ideals, that if she wanted to live seriously she would have to re-mould herself thoroughly”. Intellectual conditions like this were justification for the post-Independence wave of technocrats and their allies in our administration to point at the technological milestones (for so they were presented) of industrialising and colonial Europe (and Britain), find no comparable innovations in India for the period, and so zealously usher in the successors to the seed drill of Tull, the fly shuttle (Kay), the spinning jenny (Hargreaves), the coke-smelted cast iron forge (Darby) and the steam engine (Watt).

As had been the sequence in early industrial and colonial Europe, it was the laying of railway lines in India which, as Fernand Braudel (in his three volume ‘Civilisation and Capitalism) explained with regard to Europe, opened the expansion of the iron and steel industry, the large-scale mining of coal and iron ore (with coal substituting wood as the primary fuel), which in turn demanded heavy capital investment in transport. Whereas in the European 18th century coal replaced wood as the primary fuel, the reasons for this replacement are elementary. Europe’s forests had been steadily depleted by the industrial production (and home heating) of previous centuries. By the late 18th century, the lack of wood was cited as stifling the still nascent industrial revolution. By copying this replacement in India from the late 19th century onwards, several consequences, perhaps not considered at all or considered only fleetingly, became visible in the subsequent decades and midwived the environmental concept and that of the ecological crisis.

Continued in part 2.


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