An ancient Indian perspective on the environment

An ancient Indian perspective on the environment

Dr Jonathan Duquette is a scholar of South Asian religions and philosophies whose work concentrates primarily on the history of late medieval and early modern Sanskrit intellectual traditions in India.

In this column, he delves into how early Indian texts reveal a sharp awareness of the natural world and the delicate balance that holds between humans and other living beings as part of his interest in the dialogue between natural sciences and religions.

We currently face unprecedented challenges. While millions of people continue to test positive for Covid-19, climate change manifests itself globally in a myriad of different ways: storms, record floods, wildfires, drought. Perhaps at no other point in time have people become so acutely aware of the fragility of our environment and the need to preserve the ecological balance. How we are to meet this ordeal will define us and the generations to come. However, environmental issues are nothing new. Cultures of the past nurtured a close relation to nature and were also much aware of the importance of protecting the environment.

Animals, plants and nature

Early Indian texts reveal a sharp awareness of the natural world and the delicate balance that holds between humans and other living beings. Ancient Indian treatises typically divide the world into several categories that span the whole natural realm such as microbes, ants, vegetables, living beings with placenta, various types of trees, varieties of grass and grains. Each living thing, ‘from Brahmā to the blade of grass’, is held to play an important role in the functioning of the world. This includes humans and gods as well. Ancient Vedic priests believed that their primary duty was to perform sacrifices and honour the gods in order to attract good crop to feed the living. The worldview they ushered in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism, was one in which dharma—a broad term encompassing natural law, cosmic order and truth—had to be constantly upheld for the benefit of all.

Animals formed an integral part of human life in ancient India. One of the five daily sacrifices that is still incumbent upon every traditional Hindu is the bhūtayajñā, the "sacrifice for the living beings," which typically consists in placing food-offerings on the ground to feed birds, insects and other small animals. Plants too were known and appreciated for their medicinal properties. In the famous Hindu epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, the divine monkey Hanumān—son of the wind-god and companion of Rāma, the hero of the story—flies from the south of India all the way to the Himalayas to gather the saṃjīvanī, a rare life rejuvenating plant, in order to save Rāma's army during wartime. This story shows an awareness of the healing power of plants but also of their biological rarity.

Several natural sites had spiritual significance to peoples of ancient India, including mountains (the Himalaya is an example), forests, caves, groves, springs and rivers. More than 10,000 sacred groves are reported to exist in India, several of which continue to be important pilgrimage sites nowadays. Perhaps the most revered natural site in India is the Ganges, a 1.7 mile river flowing from the western Himalayas to the Gangetic plain. Every year millions of people come to pay homage to the river and perform their ritual bathing.

The world as God's body

The sacredness of nature is also reflected in the Indian religious belief in the omnipresence of God. The idea that God resides in everything finds various expressions in the vast religious literature of India. A poignant example is found in the Bhagavadgītā (2nd cent. BCE), a philosophical song in the form of a dialogue between the prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. The dialogue takes place during a great war involving Arjuna's relatives. After instructing Arjuna on how best to approach the moral dilemma he is facing, Krishna reveals his divine form:

O Arjuna, behold My hundreds and thousands of multifarious divine forms, various in kind, shape and hue....Here, today, behold the whole world with all that is moving and unmoving, and whatever else you wish to see, all unified in My body.

The concept of God's body acquires a more systematic expression in the work of Hindu theologians of the medieval period. For the late 13th-century Vedānta theologian Veṅkaṭanātha, the ‘body’ of God encompasses not only conscious and living beings but also trees, plants and rocks. All existing entities are God's body and partake of His divinity insofar as God experiences the world through them. Such a worldview entices care and respect for all things on Earth.

Natural disasters and pollution

Ancient Indians fully acknowledged the inevitability of natural disasters. In the Sāṃkhyakārikā, an influential philosophical text written at the beginning of the first millennium, the opening statement reads:

From the torment of the three sufferings there arises in human beings the desire to know how to eradicate them.

The mere fact of living comes with the experience of pain in various forms, and with it the necessity of finding a solution. Among the three standard form of sufferings that continuously affect human life are natural disasters such as fire, flood, disease, famine and epidemic. In his celebrated treatise on statecraft, the Arthaśāstra, Kauṭilya discusses in detail how rulers should deal with such calamities. While disease affects a single region and can be eradicated through proper remedies, epidemic and famine affect much larger regions and deprive living beings of their livelihood. Kauṭilya contends that solutions cannot always be found and that some natural disasters are worse than others.

Ancient Indians were very much aware of their own impact on nature and of pollution problems. In the Śuśrutasaṃhitā, an old treatise on medicine and surgery, different types of poison are described to have a potentially bad effect on one's health. Aside from poisons with herbal, mineral and animal origins, there are also man-made poisons that can contaminate the food we intake and the vessels we use to cook it. In another text dealing with medicine, the Carakasaṃhitā (pre-2nd cent. CE), we are told how to recognise water contamination by paying attention to abnormal smells, colours and textures. If water contains such abnormalities, it should expressly not be consumed to avoid epistemic diseases.

Protecting nature: A duty

In the above-mentioned Arthaśāstra, Kauṭilya suggests that rulers should fine people who mistreat nature. The text provides a detailed list of fines for various types of offenses involving for instance the damage of trees in public spaces and pilgrimage sites. While such measures might have been implemented only to protect the public good, it shows that ancient Indians were concerned with the protection of their environment. This ideal finds its culminating point in the Indian practice of non-violence (ahiṃsā) which Gandhi made famous worldwide. Non-violence actually means to cause no harm—physical, verbal or mental—not only to other human beings but to any living entity, however small and insignificant it appears to be.

In one of the most evocative prayers to Earth found in the Atharvaveda, an Indian scripture whose origins go back at least to 1000 BC., we are told: "Earth is my mother and I am her child." More than a prayer, this is meant as an invitation to fulfill a responsibility. A few verses later in the same text, we are indeed told:

O Earth! Let whatever I dig out of you be filled over quickly. O purifier, let me not hit your vitals, nor your heart.

One should be careful while taking resources from the Earth, and ensure that not too much is taken and that resources can renew themselves.

As we self-isolate and try to raise awareness about the wide-ranging consequences of climate changes, let us be inspired by visions of old and remember to protect the one thing we all share in common — our planet.

by Jonathan Duquette

Dr Jonathan Duquette is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

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