know about Janapada Sampada
|The Indian World-view and
R. P. Misra
The environmental crisis is no longer a danger still in the womb of time. It is already at our door. The people who feel concerned about the crisis ahead are ever growing in numbers, and they come from all walks of life: academics, intellectuals, scientists, technologists and artists. The search for a paradigm which can ensure economic development without jeopardising environmental quality is being intensified. This search is, however, still within the Western civilizational frame of reference. In fact, there is no serious attempt to look beyond the Cartesian world-view. We are not yet prepared to modify the development paradigm in vogue. We appear to be afraid of the future, not only the emerging future but also the alternative future.
The dominant groups in all societies still subscribe to the view that human ingenuity will triumph in the future as it has triumphed in the past. Science and technology will come to man’s help and rescue him from ecological disaster. This group also believes that progress without tears is impossible. Humanity has always paid a price for development, and it will continue to pay it. The environmental crisis that looms large today is nothing but the price of progress.
This paper explores the potential of an alternative world-view in resolving the environmental crisis. It looks for avenues in Indian culture: its philosophy; its thinking; its life-style; and its approach to solving human problems.
The Indian world-view
India’s written history goes back to over 5,000 years. Archaeological records take this culture further in the past. Its philosophy, thoughts, values and ethics have always had reverence for all that exists in nature, so much so that it evolved the concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, i.e. all that is alive, from plants to human species, belongs to a single family. They have originated from a common source and are interdependent. This cultural dictum was accepted not only by the people whom we now call Hindus, but also by other religions like Buddhists and Jains. Even religions like Christianity and Islam have been influenced by these values in India. The question is: Can the Indian world-view, as evident from its cultural heritage, be used as a paradigm for what Gandhi called a ‘modern civilization’, a civilization which treats nature not only as a source of livelihood but also as a source of life.
Indian culture is deeply rooted in two different but interacting traditions. The Aryans had their sway in the Indus and subsequently in the Ganga Valley: and the Dravidians to the south of the Vindhyas. The two interacted to produce not only the Vedic and post-Vedic cultures but also perhaps the Indus civilization. Many of statuettes and seals found in Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, and later in part of Gujarat and Rajasthan, indicate that some of the concepts which now constitute the core of Indian culture were present in their incipient even then. For example, the statuette of the Mother found in Mohenjo-Daro points to what later gave rise to the concept of Mother Earth or Sakti.
Origin of life
True, many schools of thought propounded by rsis like Carvak deny the existence of God or paramatma. What has, however, gripped the mind of India is not the deviations but a cross-current that ‘there is One without a second’, or "All this is Brahman’. Brahman is devoid of any attribute. Nothing can be positively postulated about him. He can be indicated only by ‘not this, not this’.
This God without form is perceived by humans differently. These perceptions when generalized and collectivized give rise to various philosophies and religions. Religions are nothing but paths to one and the same reality. The concept of God unites all human beings into a single family. Nay, it unites all that exists in the universe — living and non-living — making them interdependent.
The Brahman reveals Himself in two ways: as unconscious or matter (jada) or conscious or live (jiva). It could also be called non-self (acetana) and self (cetana). While the non-self or unconscious is not eternal, the self or the conscious is eternal. The non-eternal ultimately ends as the atoms which went to create it. The atman is indestructible, it is part of paramatman. It cannot be reduced to atoms.
The concept of unity of life is not limited to the human species. It covers all forms of life which may be classified into:
The first are born of placenta, like human beings and animals; the second of eggs, like birds and reptiles; the third break through the earth, like plants; and the fourth are born of heat and moisture, like bacteria. Inorganic matter (jada) does not possess the above qualities even though the process of production of the two is the same.
Creation, according to Hindu thought, is not purposeless, nor it is random. Its goal is to move towards a perfect human being; towards moksa or bliss. Anything that endangers life on earth or which interferes with the processes to reach that goal, is undesirable. If there is anything that comes close to the Indian theory of evolution of life, it is the Gian theory.
Concept of progress
The Indian concept of progress is different from the one currently in vogue. Development, in the modern sense, essentially means economic development. It means higher GNP and per capita income and more consumption goods. A progressive society is one whose values do not clash with these developmental values. To receive development, people have to make certain sacrifices. They have to discard all those values which come in the way of development. To see divinity in nature is anti-developmental, for divinity is unintelligible. To think of unity of life is anti-developmental, for all other life forms are resources for the benefit of man. He can use them the way he wants.
Indian culture has a different concept of development called mangalya. It means a state in which man has no insurmountable problems and the natural, cultural and social environment in which he lives is conducive to his overall welfare. Mangalya is not limited to an individual; it covers all those humans and other lives in and around the individual. It is collective welfare. It carries man towards a blissful life. The collectivity includes all living and non-living entities the individual in question is linked to. Modern development can take place at the cost of other people and lives, and indeed at the cost of nature. But not mangalya.
There is another word that goes with mangalya: kusala. This conveys welfare in general, while mangalya conveys bliss. Indian culture has always aspired to achieve kusala and mangala. True, it has at times deviated from this path, but the goal was fixed, and society after brief interludes of deviations returned to the path of sanity, if we may say so.
Indian culture goes beyond human beings to take care of all that is living, from plants to elephants. It does not prohibit the use of nature. Rather, it encourages its use but only to the extent that its vitality is not adversely affected. One of the ways to maintain this vitality is to practise simple living and high thinking, and the other way is to insist on duties more than on rights of individuals. A farmer has the right to cut a tree, but only if he fulfils his duty to plant five other trees. The idea is that if everyone performs his duties honestly, the rights of all will be automatically preserved.
Ecological basis of Indian culture
It is for this reason that ever since the Indus valley civilization and more so from Vedic times, Indian culture has preached reverence for nature. It never thought nature to be a resource for exploitation. It always treated it as a source of not only sustenance, survival and happiness but also as a system of which humans are an inseparable part.
Nature is sacred
All that exists in nature is essential for life. If nature were not evolved the way it has evolved, there would have been no life, or life would have taken a different form. Mountains, rivers, oceans, animals and plants are therefore sacred. They cannot be defiled. They should be used, but only with compassion and without jeopardizing their species. Beliefs that all that is valuable has come from the ocean, that the Himalayas are the abode of Siva, that the Ganga’s water purifies everything, that the Ganga is a mother for the teeming millions even today, that the cow is sacred, all these have philosophical and scientific bases. God has come down to earth in animal forms too, like fish, boar, half-lion and half-human. Ganesa, who is worshiped all over India, is half elephant and half human. Almost all gods and goddesses have animals as their vahan (vehicles). Even the snake deserves our protection and reverence. Trees have received very special consideration, for they are the source of fruits, medicines and oxygen. Concepts of kalpavrksa, the tree which gives everything, and of kamadhenu, the cow which fulfils all desires, represent our values towards nature and life in general.
To say that all primitive societies had similar approaches to nature and that the modern scientific world cannot depend on such ideas for progress is to exhibit ignorance of what lies behind these traditions.
Modern man, proud as he is of his scientific and technological achievements, has been trying to develop methods and processes to uncover the mysteries of nature and use the knowledge so derived to control it and thus to induce higher productivity and secure a wide range of consumer goods which did not exist earlier. But any attempt to control nature can succeed only in the short run. In the long run nature appears to take revenge, because the natural system, including human beings, is governed by certain cosmic laws of integration and balance which the Vedas call Rta.
To obtain nature’s bounty, man must obey Rta: ‘for one who lives according to Eternal Law, the winds are full of sweetness, the rivers pour sweet. So may the plants be full of sweetness for us’. The Vedic poet Atharva thus clearly reveals the human dependence on the order of the cosmos and the human role in maintaining it by observing the ancient law. He was perhaps the first deep ecologist of the world.
The same concept later finds a place in Buddha’s dharmacakra. When a Buddhist lama turns his prayer wheel, he reminds us all of the Rta. As Jane Harrison notes, ‘He finds himself in sympathetic touch with the Wheel of the Universe when he performs the act Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana (justice wheel setting in motion). He dare not turn the Wheel contrariwise lest that were to upset the whole order of nature’.
The concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam still prevails among the indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. It was also present in other great civilizations and cultures which gave rise to the great religions of the world. Raphael Patai in Man and Temple in Ancient Jewish Myth and Ritual says:
Jane Harrison in Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion says,
This integrated approach to life continued in India until modern times, because Indian culture never became a matter of history and museums. It has been alive and vibrant ever since it began. Indians, incidentally, believe that it had no origin, that it is sanatana.
Concept of Panca Bhuta
According to the Indian cultural traditions, all that exists in the universe, whether organic and inorganic, has five constituent elements. These are:
Everything comes from varying combinations of these five elements and everything ultimately returns to them. These together create nature.
Concept of Mother Earth
When the disciple asks Atharva Rsi about the nature of the relationship between man and Earth, the rsi says:
Earth is the Mother; and we are her children.
When the pupil asks what is the nature of the Earth the rsi replies: ‘The Earth has hills and snow-covered mountains; it has dense forests and soils of different colours; it is the mother of herbs, it has fire inside, and also gets energy from the sun; it produces a special odour which enriches all that exists and grows on it’.
The rsi adds, ‘to protect us from all that is evil, the Earth contains pure water. It purifies all that is impure. It cleans everything that goes in it. Earth is a real purifier of all that is undesirable and unclean. Let us not hurt its vitals and its heart. Let us use it judiciously’. And he goes on:
‘The earth is full of variety; it contains people speaking different dialects and speech, of diverse religious customs, each living according to what they think is right. The earth contains innumerable valuable things. It bears trees and plants of great diversity. We should pay homage to that Earth’.
The Prthivi Sukta of the Atharvaveda represents the main currents of Indian thought insofar as man’s relation to the Earth is concerned. The post-Vedic literature of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought is imbued with reverence, love, and compassion for nature and also with concepts of not only the unity of life but also the unity of what is cetana (living) and what is acetana (non-living). The Svetasvatara Upanisad captures the essence of this integration and unity when it describes nature in the following terms:
The God who is in fire, who is in water, who pervades the whole universe, who is in medicines, who is in vegetation, we salute that God.
Indian culture paid special attention to land. Soil conservation methods developed in India are still unmatched. Green manuring, barn manure, crop rotation, intercropping, ploughing, irrigation and other agricultural methods and practices were designed to maintain and enhance the fertility of the soil. Soil erosion did occur on a minor scale, but the rainwater carrying the topsoil was never allowed to go down the streams. It was captured in ponds and tanks. These little water bodies of a few acres were excavated in summer and the soil removed was taken to the land again. It was also used for the construction or repair of houses. And thus the cycle continued.
Water, the purifier
Pure and uncontaminated water commands a high value in Indian culture. No ceremony, from birth to death, is complete and perfect without gangajal (water of the river Ganga). The story of the descent of the Ganga has formed the subject-matter of many great books. In scientific terminology, it is a description of the hydrological cycle and of monsoon clouds bursting over the greater Himalayas. The water so released gets locked as snow. Snow flows through glaciers which ultimately form rivers like Ganga. But for the Ganga, the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas would have not nurtured such a great culture. The same applies to other Indian rivers, Sindhu, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Narmada and Tapti. Each one of them is sacred.
India has the distinction of developing unique irrigation systems as early as 3,000 years ago which conserved and replenished surface and ground water and improved the living environment. Those of us who are familiar with the Deccan plateau know that thousands of tanks which dot this region and around which villages are built provide an excellent example of how man can improve the environment. But for these artificial tanks, much of the plateau would have been barren and human existence precarious.
The annecuts that our forefathers built across rivers in South India point to what could be done to avoid the human tragedies of the Narmada project, for example. Wells of drinking water dotted the villages and towns of India. The water of these wells was kept clean by frequent withdrawal for irrigation. There was no chance of contamination.
One can give several examples of water management, particularly watershed planning and water harvesting. The choice of crops and trees depended on the climatic conditions, particularly rainfall. So even in the Rajasthan desert, people were able to maintain forests. Our forefathers knew the close relationship between trees, rainfall, water table and soil moisture. Cropping patterns were designed to conserve water and tanks were constructed to harvest it.
The forest: the abode of the gods
Forests constitute a very important part of Indian culture. Most of the ancient books like the Vedas, Puranas, Brahmanas and Aranyakas were written by rsis living in forests, sometimes high up in the mountains. One finds references to three main types of forests (vana) in ancient times. These are:
Mahavana was a dense, virgin and natural forest covering large mountainous, hilly and low-lying areas. Such forests were devoid of human habitation and human interference was therefore negligible. They were rich in biodiversity. They were the main sources of medicines. Lord Siva is the presiding deity of the mahavanas. No one dared to encroach upon them. They remained virgin and covered a large part of India.
The tapovana, as the very name, indicates was the forest where sages did tapas (penance and meditation). It had asramas where gurus taught their pupils. Asramas were away from human habitation and in the interior, but people had access to them for religious and educational purposes. They were full of plants and trees which gave edible and medicinal leaves, roots, fruits shade and soothing climate. It was in these forests that our Upanisadas and Aranyakas were written. There are still some tapovanas like the one near Haridvar.
Most of the tapovanas were destroyed during the last 500 years or so. And thus the tradition of rsis and sadhus living detached from the common people and engaging themselves in meditation, writing, and teaching died. It is pertinent to note that the tapovanas abounded in wildlife, but none was allowed to kill animals. Even princes were punished for killing animals as game. It was in these forests that training in the use of weapons was also imparted. It was part of the overall education of pupils. Thus matters pertaining to peace as well as war were really in the hands of saintly people. Trainees were prohibited from using arms for purposes which were outside dharma or moral duty. This is what ensured peace in society. People dejected with life went to the tapovana instead of committing suicide as happens today. Excommunicated criminals also went there for repentance and cleansing themselves under the feet of the samnyasins.
Srivanas were local (village or town) forests. They were not within human habitation; rather human habitation was within them. These forests were managed by village and town pancayats. People depended on them for fuel, medicines, fruits and other day-to-day domestic needs. While they had access to these forests, they also had the duty to conserve, protect, replenish and enrich them. Enriching was done through planting of trees in replacement of trees cut.
Srivanas had various kinds of trees, depending on soil, climate and other environmental conditions and local needs. Tulsi (basil) was found in abundance, for it was medicinal and at the same time improved the fertility of the soil. No puja of a Hindu god is complete even today without tulsi leaves. Srivanas abounded in fruit orchards. The concept of social forestry thus was known to Indians even in that deep past. We are now trying to import it from the World Bank.
Five species of trees were a must in the Srivanas. These were banyan, peepal, asoka, bela and harada. The banyan is a self-generating plant. It does not die. In fact it acquires the form of a grove in course of time. It is therefore associated with fertility and longevity. It is the abode of Lord Siva and Devi Parvati. It is shady, healthful and medicinal. The peepal (ficus religiosa) is perhaps the most sacred tree in India. It is the only tree that gives oxygen for more than 20 hours a day. It is on this tree that Hindus’ ancestors reside. It is the incarnation of Lord Visnu. Every part of the peepal has medicinal value.
The asoka tree under which Sita, Lord Ram’s consort, spent much time in Lanka, is a pain-killer, as the name indicates, apart from being shady. The bela (aegle marmelos) bears fruit of great curative value. It is useful in a large number of diseases. Its leaves are offered to Lord Siva. That is why wherever there is a Siva temple, there invariably are bela trees. The last of the five trees is the harad (myrobalem terminalia shebual). It is perhaps the most commonly used medicinal plant. It has great curative qualities and is relevant for practically all diseases.
The name pancavati is derived from these five trees. Every village had a pancavati even if it did not have a srivana. The trees were not necessarily the same as listed above, nor was the number of trees fixed. They differed from region to region and sometimes from place to place and people to people.
Air contains pranvayu
Clear air was always cherished by Indians. They knew that trees gave oxygen, pranvayu. That is why breathing exercises were done in the forests or pancavatis and forests were given such prominence. And that is why every village had to have trees. Look at the old Indian architecture, the open spaces, the verandahs, the aspect of buildings, the windows, etc. All ensured the entry of fresh air. All religious ceremonies were performed in the open. People slept in the open except in winter. One has to go through the slokas of the Rgveda, the most ancient book of India, to realize the importance Indians gave to the natural environment and nature’s laws. A glimpse at the miniatures of the Mughal period gives a clear indication of the importance that even the Muslim rulers of India gave to trees, foliage, plants and animals.
Indian and Western world-views compared
As Richard St. Barbe-baker says, ‘this generation may either be the last to exist in any semblance of civilized world or it will be the last to have the vision, the bearing and the greatness to say "I will have nothing to do with this destruction of life; I will play no part in this devastation of land; I am determined to live and work for peaceful construction for I am morally responsible for the world of today and the generations of tomorrow".’ He perhaps did not know that this is exactly what Indian sages said some 5,000 years ago and what many of the so-called primitive societies not only say but live even today.
Barbe-baker has in view the Western world-view and the man in the West who ‘has lost his way in the jungle of chemistry and engineering and will have to retrace his steps, however painful this may be. He will have to discover where he went wrong and make his peace with nature. In so doing, perhaps he may be able to recapture the rhythm of life and the love of the simple things of life which will be an ever unfolding joy to him’.
Many others have expressed similar views. But those who still think that man will ultimately overcome all hurdles and that science and technology will resolve the environmental problems too, as they resolved other problems in the past, are not in a minority. In fact, the ruling elites all over the world subscribe to this view, and no amount of evidence that disapproves of their thinking can induce them to change their perspective. If they ultimately do accept a new world-view, it will be only because the ruling paradigms would have changed so much that facts no longer appeared credible. They flow with the current. When the current has changed, they will flow with the new current.
Thus the Indian world-view cannot stand the test of today’s modernity, a product of the Western world-view. Within this paradigm, no argument in favour of an alternative paradigm will be accepted. The whole structure and superstructure of society today is built and sustained by the paradigm of modernism. A shift from this would be as painful as conversion to another religion. The whole pattern of life, mental constructs and images will have to change. As religious conversions have take place only under very special circumstances, the shift from the developmental paradigm to the ecological paradigm will also occur only under special circumstances of stresses and strains. It is the contention of this paper that such stresses and strains have already become visible. There are signs of a stir in the minds of people, elites as well as common people, which are portentous for the ruling paradigm.
What we see today in the world is an environment of crises. There is an ethical crisis leading to movements to reconstruct the polity. What happened in the USSR, Italy and Japan in recent months is a sign of the beginning of a new moral order. The environmental crisis has gripped the whole world — rich and poor alike. While the mainstream nations and people still pin their hopes on science and technology, strong voices calling for a new style of life and a new paradigm have now become audible. Grassroots level movements, small to start with, have begun networking themselves to have universal appeal and global impact.
Elsewhere there are revivalist movements, at times not very peaceful. They also are, in a way, voices of dissent, signs of frustration and attempts to get out of the Western bandwagon on which they were forced to travel. The revival of religiosity such as in Iran or Afghanistan should not be seen only as a craving for the dead past but also as a rebellion against the prevailing world order. Religion is only a rallying point. Attempts to crush such movements by force would make them more obscurantist. The unscrupulous will take advantage of the situation to divert the movement towards unintended goals.
In India too, rethinking has begun. More and more scientists, artists, scholars, men in public life, and people in general have started looking into their rich traditions which were lost as the Western paradigm superseded Indian values. In fact, the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophies have started getting new adherents all over the world. Any attempt to delink Indian society from dharma or even religion in that sense is resisted. Even the modern Carvaks, for whom religion is the opium of the people, are changing. The citadel of communism has already fallen. Religion has come back in what was the USSR. It is now only a matter of years, not even of decades, for the Indian world-view to take root in India again.
We have had the great fortune of having persons like Mahatma Gandhi, Aurobindo and Vivekanand in the first half of this century, and saints like Acarya Tulsi, the Dalai Lama, Satya Sai Baba, the Paramacarya of Kanchi and many other dharmacaryas in the second half of this century to guide the destiny of India. Gandhi’s greatest contribution was not the Independence of India, for India could not have remained in bondage longer than it was, but the framework of an alternative world-view and the methodology of achieving it. He gave the outline of an alternative civilization and a creative future for mankind. His genius encompassed all religious traditions of the world, for they were one and the same as far as the essentials were concerned. Rituals differ but the goals are the same, the methods are the same and the message is the same. They all are ecological and human. His often cited quotation that ‘Earth has enough to meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed’ is the centrepiece of the world-view of ecology and humanism that we are looking for. Let us not be carried away by the mesmerism of the Western world-view and heed the warning he gave to the world several decades before his assassination in 1948:
Attempts at value education
Incorporation of the time-honoured Indian values discussed above in the educational system in India has been stressed from time to time. Mahatma Gandhi offered a new concept of education wherein head, heart and hand could be trained to work in unison and give rise to creative human beings. He termed it nai talim or New Education. It was new in the sense that it was completely different from the Western model of education in vogue. Nai talim laid great stress on pupils’ contact with nature through manual work and on the concept of unity of life.
Somehow, the concept of Basic Education was completely rejected by India after Independence. The educational system which the British had created was not only retained but also strengthened. This was, however, not an isolated step. Other Gandhian concepts including that of development were also rejected. Now in the 1990, we hear more of Gandhi than we did in the 1960s through the 1980s.
As early as 1959, the Sri Prakasa Committee on Religious and Moral Education set up by the Ministry of Education stated,
Let us note here that in the Indian context, religious and moral education incorporate ecological and environmental education.
The Commission on Education (1964-66) chaired by the late Professor D.S. Kothari was more vocal on the issue of value education:
Several other committees, commissions, seminars, conferences and plan documents have since then repeated these views. Not much, however, happened in policy and programme terms, and the educational system of the country continued as usual. The call for a new education policy, however, became so persistent that Parliament, under the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976, inserted Fundamental Duties to match the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Among these duties, at least five were pertinent to the environment. These are:
The incorporation of environmental protection among the statutory duties of Indian citizens was perhaps inspired by the Stockholm conference on the environment in which Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, played a leading role.
The National Education Policy Statement, 1986 included these points and suggested a national curricular framework which included:
The Ramamurthy Committee, which reviewed this policy in 1990, had this to say:
The five-year plans of India have consistently upheld the need to promote value education. The Seventh Plan (1985-90) stated:
Earlier, in 1981, a seminar on value education held at Shimla said:
Light in the darkness
Even though the educational system of the country has not yet responded favourably to the above recommendation and business of education is as usual, attempts at value education have not been lacking. A number of institutions have taken up this challenge with all earnestness and have shown quite encouraging results. Among these institutions, mention may be made of:
A recent report on the work-load on pupils in primary and secondary education (Yash Pal Committee Report, 1993) strongly recommended the Gandhian approach to learning (without mentioning Gandhi’s name).
There are many other institutions in different parts of the country. Those listed above use different approaches and methodologies with the same end results. What runs through them all is the thread of spirituality and ecological thinking. All these institutions instil value education through coursework as well as practice. The fact that their network is expanding, and they are being voluntarily accepted by parents as the right institutions for their children, is indicative of the wind of change.
In addition to these institutions, a large number of NGOs and voluntary agencies have now entered the field of value education in India. Some of them have evolved innovative programmes, particularly in the area of environmental education. Recent attempts to learn from the environmental values of tribal and village communities are indicative of the approaching scenario. The great religious traditions are being explored again to distill much of the environmental values which are now lost or getting lost, and which need to be revived, to bring about an eco-development process. We do thus see some light in the darkness.
That the right path of development is the ecological path is the message of Indian culture.
©1997 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi