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Environmentalism In Hindu Thought – Part II


Read part I here.

It was the railways – seen by the early administration of Independent India as having been bestowed by the British crown – that led to the greatest transformation of what had, for centuries until then, been the the largest physical feature of the rastra, and that was our forests, the great aranyas. In 1874, in an address to the Royal Scottish Arboricultural Society, Hugh Cleghorn, the first Inspector General of Forests in India, said that “the government in India began to be seriously embarrassed by the scarcity of timber; its attention was directed to the management of the indigenous forests”. Between 1853 and 1910, the network of railway lines in British colonial India increased from 32 kilometres to over 51,650 kilometres. The construction of the railways required an enormous amount of timber because to build two kilometres of track almost 900 sleepers were needed. Indian trees, particular sal (shorea robusta), deodar cedar (cedrus deodara), and teak (tectona grandis) were preferred as sleepers.

What remain today, as minuscule fragments of the immense spread of the legendary aranyas of Naimisharanya, Dandakaranya, Oshadhiparvatam, Pancavati and Kishkinda, are what in the poverty of English are called ‘sacred groves’. These represent the natural maximum flourishing of the vegetation of that geographical location, has (usually one) residing deity and strict associated regulations (again, in the miserly anthropological English of our age, are also called ‘taboo’). In many of these sacred groves, offerings to the deities are made in fulfilment of vows. These original forest enclaves shelter medicinal plants of great value – an important source of raw materials for ayurvedic formulations, and the hereditary circuit of practising vaids was to visit the associated mandirs not only to gather what was permitted at certain times but while visiting, to exchange experience and knowledge about the curative properties of the medicinal plants and their effects on patients.

Compared with elsewhere in India, the sacred groves of the Barak valley in Assam tend to be relatively smaller, are called ‘thans‘ and are maintained by tribals who have usually found work in the tea gardens, and also by the Bengali Hindu community in Assam (the Vaishnav mathas all over Assam are commonly associated with neighboring ‘thans‘). One or more deities are associated with these ‘thans‘ where total conservation is enforced. Lopping off branches or twigs, removal of leaf litter and of dead wood is prohibited, violation of which is said to incur the wrath of the presiding deity and is much more effective than any written regulation can ever be.

Visitors to the ‘thans‘ are required to be respectful, to remove their footwear and to purge their minds of unclean or nasty thoughts before entering it. Animals whose night or day time residence is inside the grove are also protected and that is why the ‘thans‘, like their counterparts elsewhere, contain much greater animal diversity in the form of spiders and insect, mammals like squirrel, civet, mongoose, monkeys, several species of birds and snakes, as compared with other areas which, even if wooded, are not sacred groves.

The local nomenclature is as wide and as colorful as is the biodiversity they are home to. In Chhattisgarh, sacred groves are called ‘matagudi‘, ‘devgudi‘ and ‘gaondevi‘. In Goa and the neighbouring mid-Konkan region (Sindhudurg district to Uttara Kannada district) they are known as ‘devrai‘, ‘devgal‘, ‘devran‘ or ‘dev van‘. All forms of life inside the grove are considered sacred and protected and all hunting in the groves is prohibited. In Himachal Pradesh the sacred groves, also usually known as ‘dev van‘, are invaluable for maintaining perennial sources of water. Larger ‘dev van‘, which may spread over several hectares, may be used for resources by local residents subject, as is the case elsewhere, to strict controls. The ‘dev van‘ are usually attached to mandirs and are considered as belonging to the deity of the associated mandir.

In Jharkhand sacred groves are usually small forest patches of about an acre in spatial extent. They are known as ‘sarana‘ or ‘jaherthan‘ and depending on their proximity to the village are given different names: ‘sarhul‘ for near the village, ‘phool‘ when in the village, ‘kadamara‘ when away from the village, ‘mahadani‘ when at the village boundary. In various parts of Karnataka sacred groves are given different names: ‘devarabana‘, ‘devarakadu‘, ‘hulidevarakadu‘, ‘nagabana‘, ‘bhutappanbana‘, ‘jataka-ppanbana‘, ‘chowdibana‘ etc. The smaller groves are fully protected and no tree felling or extraction of any kind of wood, nor produce nor plant matter is allowed. From larger groves, under regulation, local residents may gather fallen deadwood, non-wood produce such as pepper, mango, jackfruit and may be allowed to tap toddy from a palm.

The ‘kans‘ in the ghat regions of Karnataka are large forested tracts not only harbour high species diversity but are also a form of traditional land use (recognised by the erstwhile Mysore State for which rules and regulations were framed that did not alter nor restrict the customary rights of residents over the ‘kans‘). In Kerala, sacred groves are owned and managed collectively by villagers and are mostly dedicated to Ayyappa (called ‘ayyappan kavu‘ or ‘sastham kavu‘) and those dedicated to Bhagwathi (called ‘bhagwati kavu‘ or ‘amman kavu‘). Sacred groves dedicated to ‘vanadevtha‘, the deity of the forest or to the spirits or ancestors. Such groves are known as ‘madan kavu‘ or ‘yekshi kavu‘.

It was when the modern, post-1970s environmental science (allied with environmental activism) establishment learned about the sacred groves of India, that the ‘devrai‘ became subject to yet another distortion of the relationship between purushah and prakritih. The influence of the environmental researchers of the west – with their talent for finding those regions of the former Third World pursuing material development, but which were at the same time visibly showing the scars of that same mode of development – became quickly apparent. Sacred groves, under such a view, were either ‘nature worship’ (a green-hued variation of the Christian judgment that Hinduism is heathen and rudely animistic) or, in a more politically charged version, that they are locations of ‘non-Brahmanical Hinduism’.

When treated in this way, the ‘devrai’, ‘kavu’, ‘devarakadu’ or ‘than’ were hailed as exemplary forms of ‘traditional community resource management’, a label (made pointlessly complex) that was invented by the fast-expanding ‘development’ industry which found itself well funded and well employed following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 at Rio de Janeiro (also called the Earth Summit). The ‘forested shrines’ were considered, by the western-educated and western-funded ecological anthropologists of India, as being ‘shrines to nature’, to present which they were cut away completely from their Hindu foundations. But the Kulmi of south Goa, considered amongst the oldest original inhabitants of the Konkan region, give a call during their songs before the monsoon, to ‘dhartarimaay’, Prithvi the mother earth, to come and take a seat with them. Moreover, the story that underlies their most loved folk song expresses the role of the pancabhuta in the life cycle of their society.

In western Europe, as monarchies yielded to social democracy, turgid theories of the state (the state and the individual, the state and the clergy, the state and culture, and other allied subjects) flowed thick and fast. Those models of statecraft, one replacing another within intervals of even less than two generations, also gave rise to the invention of concepts and nomenclature followed by their obsolescence. It is an ailment that has not quit the west. In comparison, India is well grounded with Dharmasastra that has regulated Hindu society firmly, with flexibility, sensitively, and which is guided by an ethical outlook unmatched by any other civilisation in the world, ancient or modern.

Our scholars generally refer to the works of no less than twenty exponents of Dharmasastra including Manu, Atri, Yajnavalkya, Katyayana, Vyasa, Vasistha, Angiras and Prasara. The srautasutras, those dealing with the Vedic rites, the grhyasutras, for domestic rites, and the dharmasutras, which deal with royal duties, rules of conduct and legal matters, each in their own way pay close – if not minute – attention to the physical basis of Hindu society (the myriad forms of prakritih) and advise the respectful and balanced employment of the elements (panchabhuta), nature (water, forest, field, pasture, orchard), and of animal and plant life.

In the annals of rulers and their dynasties, whether in the glittering nagaras or in the familiar precincts of the grama, we see that vrksa (the tree) – that most evocative symbol of mother Earth – has been venerated in India (or Bharatavarsha, or Aryavrata) since the Vedic era. Tree worship is depicted on one of the seals found in Mohenjodaro and was commonplace throughout the Saraswati-Sindhu civilisation. The peepal tree, also known as ashvattha, represents the trimurti, the roots being considered as Brahma, the trunk Visnu and the leaves Shiva. But naturally, not only is it forbidden to take a blade to the tree – the Skanda Purana has a passage which explains that cutting a peepal tree is a sin – but even the use of its wood in any way is certain to bring the wrath of the deities down upon the head of the offender. The vad, or banyan, is one of the most venerated, invariably found in front of temples and is mentioned in several texts as a tree of immortality.

Many mandirs have begun as trees. Shading a stone brightly besmeared with kumkum, or a small portrait of a divinity, marked with flags and banners, the vrksa is a devasthan, whether along a roadside or in a remote field. Some villages in north India have two gramadevtas, one feminine and the other masculine, each occupying a tree, while seven mothers, the saptamatrika, are believed to guard villages all over India, and are manifest as a row of seven sacred stones under a tree.

It was Savitri who established the fasting ritual called vat-savitri vrata where under the purnima in Jyeshtha married women fast and circumambulate a vad to pray for the long lives of their husbands. When a positive change takes place in the village community, gifts are made by the residents of the grama to the trees that have known their parents and grand-parents. Even when, in a few generations, a tree dies, the place it occupies remains sacred, vibrant with the energies of the innumerable rituals that had been conducted beneath its living boughs. Thousands of mandirs in India have been built on spots where such gramadevtas have been worshipped for centuries.

Where those mandirs stand has much to do with an Indic knowledge system before which the modern disciplines that collectively comprise ‘environmental sciences’, for all their sophistication and employment of 21st century technology, pale. A detailed account of the examination of the ground (bhumi-pariksa) is given in the classic work on architecture, the Samarangana-sutra-dhara, which mentions the particulars of the three varieties of the ground (desa), these being jangala, anupa and sadharana on the basis of physical characteristics, and which also lists the sixteen varieties of land (desabhumi): balisa-svamini, bhogya, sita-gochara-rakshini, apasraya-vati, kanta, khanimati, atma-dharini, vanik-prasadhita, dravyavati, amitra-ghatini, asrenipurusha, sakya-samanta, deva-matrka, dhanya, hasti-vanopeta, suraksha.

The set of authoritative works collectively called vastuvidya or vastushastra (led by the Manasara and including the Visvakarmaprakasa, Silparatna, Visvakarmasilpa) are exceptionally detailed with regard to the selection of sites for mandirs. Thus land is broadly divided into sixteen varieties, eight directions (four diks and four vidiks) and eight intermediate areas (antarala). Before selecting the site for a mandir the sounds, tactile impressions, forms, tastes, and smells that one encounters on the site are to be examined, for they indicate the suitability of the subtler characteristics of a site. These subtler signals were treated with due importance, for the codes given concerning the use of a site included employing the mantra meant to induce the living creatures below the soil to vacate the spot, a degree of concern for all life which observes rta, the principle of universal order and ethics that sustains nature.

This is a principle also specified by the Padmasamhita (one of the Pancaratra agamas), which classifies the land into four types: supadma, bhadra, purna, dhumra. The best land, the Padmasamhita advises, is that which abounds in lotus and lilies and which inclines downwards towards east or north. The text also mentions plants that are auspicious and which should grow on the site for a mandir. The plants mentioned are kshira-vriksha, four trees containing milky sap and these are the nyagrodha (or the vad, banyan), udumbara (audumber or gular), asvattha (peepal or bodhi) and madhuka (mahua). Likewise categorical, Kasyapa’s Jnana-kanda gives a general account of the nature of the site suitable (grahya-bhumi) and classifies the land into nine types depending amongst other criteria on the plants that grow thereupon: vaishnava, brahma, raudra, indra, garuda, bhautika, asura, rakshasa, paisacha.

The one centre of Hindu society that brought together the lessons contained in our Dharmasastra, which encouraged the application of the shaddarshan in daily life, which judicially balanced the economic interplay of the several communities of the grama (or the many of the nagara) and which has been conspicuously, deliberately removed from the limiting modern and western-derived conception of environmental or ecological science, is the mandir. Until the Islamic invasions in the 8th century of the common era, and then in the 11th, and continuing their cultural devastation through the Mughal and British colonial occupations of India, it was mandirs (and their associated agraharas, mathas and brahmapuris) that guided all the aspects of spiritual, community, temporal and artistic activity.

Our historians, among whom are those who have painstakingly researched and documented the attacks upon and destruction of mandirs, have also profusely commented upon their economic importance. No less important – for mandirs were landholders, employers, banks and consumers of goods and services – is their central role in the sound management and maintenance of what are today known as biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Often with land endowments (devadana) which included cultivated plots, portions of villages or entire villages, mandirs had a direct interest in ensuring the purity, suitability for various needs, and sanctity (of the ‘devrai‘, ‘kavu‘, ‘devarakadu‘ or ‘than‘ in the vicinity) of that part of the rastra.

Mandirs were also an important agency for all agricultural activity. They served as warehouses for grain, as keepers of food staples seed (and also the fruit and flowers, those to be grown and used as offerings to the deity), as providers of capital for agrarian development, even as initiators of irrigation works (as was done during the Chola and Vijayanagar periods). Just as valuable was the mandir as the locus of the products of handicrafts and hand weaves, for the string of auspicious events and observances that dotted the Hindu calendar year required a wide variety of ritual goods, crafts, textiles and cooked foods. These were fashioned from the natural materials available locally, and supplied by the artisans and households.

“The intimate absorption of Hindu life in the unseen realities of man’s spiritual consciousness is seldom sufficiently acknowledged by Europeans, and indeed cannot be fully comprehended by men whose belief in the supernatural has been destroyed by the prevailing material ideas of modern society,” George C M Birdwood wrote in ‘The Industrial Arts of India’ (1884), a volume whose perfunctory title belies the insights available into the relationship between purushah and prakritih contained within (albeit not with those terms nor with that intent). “Every thought, word and deed of the Hindus belongs to the world of the unseen as well as of the seen; and nothing shows this more strikingly than the traditional arts of India. Everything that is made is for direct religious use, or has some religious significance. The materials of which different articles are fashioned, their weight, and the colours in which they are painted, are fixed by religious rule. “

The modern (late 20th and early 21st century) environmental method does not possess the sensibility to observe the innate consideration and reliance upon nature that infuses the arts of India, whose symbolism of material, colour, meaning and sundaram is to be traced in all their forms, even for the humblest domestic uses. The importance that the modern western subject of environmental sciences has arrogated to itself, has blinded it to all other views, all other darsanas. With it, eco-activism, its ally, formal environmental research, and the fashionable ‘inter-disciplinarity’ of ecological studies, all supplied with and directed by the conceptual terminologies of the west, are crippled too. We in India have only to acknowledge the wisdom that was presented to us, by our pitrs and by theirs in turn, of the much greater conceptual edifice, and apply for our times the wit to employ it.


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