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Ecology and Indian Myth

Kapila Vatsyayan


In October 1977 an Inter-governmental Conference on Environmental Education was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, USSR. The declaration began with the following words:

In the last few decades man has, through his power to transform his environment, wrought accelerated changes in the balance of nature. The result is frequent exposure of living species to dangers which may prove irreversible. 1

It was a significant coincidence that the Conference should have been held in Georgia, USSR, because by some accounts, major Indo-Ëryan migrations of Man took place from this region to the sub-continent of India. It was Man + men from these regions who settled in India and who ultimately gave India the most complete holistic perspective of the Universe. The cosmology, the science and philosophy, in short the total worldview, has been sustained by this civilization through millennia. The Man-Nature relationship was at the core of this vision enunciated repeatedly at all dimension - biological, physical, psychical, philosophical, metaphysical and spiritual. All life was interrelated and inter-woven: the process of transmutation and cyclic degeneration and regeneration of life was a perennial postulate.

We have come a long, long way since then, Despite the traditional holistic view embedded in each and every discipline, articulated through sacred incantations and systematised as ritual for constant reminder of the need to sustain and foster the ecological balances of nature, we stand at the threshold of disaster in a manner never before faced by Man, who as the Tbilisi declaration states, has "used his power to transform his environment". We may even substitute the word 'transform' with words like 'conquer', 'destroy',  'desecrate', 'plunder', so as to bring home the fact that a single factor of Man who can be distinguished from all living matter through his distinctive power to reflect, to articulate and be wise, has been the very instrument of these ecological imbalances - imbalances which threaten the very existence of Man. As one eminent scientist - philosopher put it in the context of India: "Even more than population explosion, the imbalance in the environment and ecology is the greatest threat to the continent. We may be able to control the first, but the process of devastation we have begun in the second may bring final doom."

          The question to be asked is what are the diverse components of the disturbance, the ecological imbalances and what are the diverse components of the disturbance, the ecological imbalances and what methodologies and strategies were adopted in the past to sustain these balance. Can we, even at this state, learn any lesson from the past for equipping ourselves to face the human predicaments today? 

          Let us begin by enumerating the principal components of the environment          most polluted, species most threatened and how each disturbs the ecological balance. Thereafter, we can return to the worldview of the historical past, the myth, ritual and art of this country or for that matter, practically all cultures, pre-renaissance. The worldview is mercifully sustained by so-called primitive societies, be it in India, Africa, Australia or America. At the philosophic speculative level, the living continuities can be seen only in India.

          So today, this moment where four-fifths of humanity lives (i.e., India and Asia), what is threatened? What are we polluting, destroying, thus bringing forebodings of the annihilation of Man on earth? What is the quality of life we can hope for?

          First and foremost it water, the basic sustaining principle - clean water or to use a traditional phrase 'pure or unpolluted (¿uddha) water' - is becoming scarce. Water systems are increasingly over-exploited and polluted. Any India is familiar with the daily rituals which serve as reminders of the concept of pure and, therefore, holy water. No daily, monthly, annual ceremony is complete without ritual purification with water. At birth, marriage, death, this concept is articulated and yet we have polluted these waters of life

          Next, the pollution of the earth - Mother Earth, floating free ball beneath the most gleaming membrane of bright blue sky. And what have we done to it? Arid lands have increased, soil which was venerated has been eroded and infertility, sand and salt have taken over. It is estimated that in this part of the world, a million hectares are being desertified each year. Desecration of the bowels of the earth through excessive quarrying is common. Man's power has hollowed the still centre of life. P¤thiv¢, the eternal mother, has been polluted and desecrated.

          Related to the pollution of water and earth is the massive unprecedented deforestation. The Indian sub-continent has been progressively deforested: the soil's ability to absorb and hold water has diminished. Severe floods have occurred more frequently and deforestation has affected most adversely the eco-system of the Himalayas where our major river systems - the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra - originate. Each day we learn of the increase in wastelands and the consequent effect upon rural life, be they the forests of Bastar or the hills of the Himalayan range. In the language of Indian myth, this is the rape of the tree and river goddess, the V¤kÀik¡s, and the destruction of the gods of the woods, the Vanadevat¡. No wonder the Chipko Movement and Protect the Silent Valley is a cry of anguish. Most of all, the present destruction is a dangerous play with the mythical centre - Sumeru, the world axis, the Himalayas.

          The disturbance in water, earth, vegetation, river and mountain ecology systems has naturally threatened all manner of life - aquatic, terrestrial and celestial. Mythically, áeÀan¡ga upholds the earth, the Ga´g¡ rides the crocodile, Yamun¡ the tortoise and each is threatened. Boars and elephants upheld the earth; they too are dying. So who upholds the earth now? The birds of heaven, the Swan, the Garu·a and other who carried the gods are vanishing. So who sustains the moral and cosmic order? There can only be chaos.

          And worst of all, there is the pollution of the holy space - the air, V¡yu and the sky which permeates and envelopes all life. The tragedy of Bhopal is too close for comment, but equally demonic are the ¡suric chimneys of black t¡masic forces which pollute the 'lungs' of life. Acid rains are common elsewhere and man looks in vain for the purity of the water to flow from the rain-filled clouds. Destruction is writ large on the balmy skies, once azure blue, today smoke grey.

          Finally, we have polluted holy sound, the primeval Nada, through the chaos of our life. Noise pollution makes Man deaf to the inner voices of his wisdom.

          And so Man aspires higher and higher, beyond the pollution of his making, to that one source which sustains all and is yet beyond his reach, namely, the Sun - Ëditya - the giver of light in the sky and fire on earth - Agni - the source of energy which appears unpollutable unlike the fuel of his making. This energy, physically and metaphysically, is Man's only ray of hope for the continuance of life.

          The brief description given above can be multiplied a hundredfold to underline the disastrous effects of wind and land erosion, the infertility of soil, disturbance of bio-ecology of aquatic, terrestrial and celestial life, and to speak of the pollution of the SuÀumn¡ n¡d¢, the central artery of the Indo-Gangetic plains - the Ga´g¡.

          But perhaps these illustrative examples will suffice to convince us that stated differently or stated in the traditional language understood by the literate and illiterate of this country, Man has disturbed the cosmic order, the rhythm of the movement of the earth, water, fire, ether and Agni (S£rya), i.e., the five elements, where interaction, inter-connection and inter-weaving was the rule rather than the exception. The sustenance of the ecological balance was Man's first and last duty for only then the moral order of the world, Îta as also Dharma in their fundamental connotation, could be or would be sustained. The emphasis was both on the notion of purity and non-pollution as also on ecological balance. Any assertion of greed or power disturbed the balance, and this is the story of all those who are called Asuras in mythical terms. Restraint in the use of power was the central message.

          My limited purpose here is to revive the collective psychical memory of this heritage, to draw attention to the myths, art and ritual, science, religion and philosophy in India, the strategies through which this holistic worldview of ecological balance was articulated.

          Cutting across historical developments, philosophic debates, scientific controversies, religious sects and cults, the one principle which underlies and provides unity as also continuity of vision and perception is the assertion that Man is only one among all living matter; in short, the notion of the J¢va. Man's life depends upon and is conditioned by all that surrounds him and sustains him, namely, inanimate, mineral and animate, aquatic, vegetative, animal and gaseous life. It is, therefore, Man's duty constantly to remind himself - in individual and collective fear; it is wisdom contained in the language of myth and symbol. Their efficacy lies in their capacity of multiple interpretation at the biological function, societal, philosophic and religious levels. The pivot around which Indian myth moves, not unlike that of other parts of ancient world, is ecological balance.

          Developments in Indian science specially mathematics, chemistry, biology, owe their systems to this holistic worldview of ecological balance. The philosophic systems, whether from the polarity of the realist Caraka or the S¡Ækhya assert it, the language of Indian myth and art manifest it in an unparalleled lucidity of narrative statement and depth of thought, meaning and clarity of message which has a validity here and now.

          Although we can discuss separately the five principal components of the environment or what in traditional language are called the five basic elements of water, earth, air, space and fire, which comprise the microcosm of the bio-logical Man as also the macrocosm of the universe, it must be remembered that no single element is autonomous. It is in their ecological interaction that they assume significance.

          Let us begin with primary elements. First, the water that sustains life, the first principle of fertility and of life whether of ocean or river or clouds or sky. The archaeological evidence of Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Lothal and the recent excavations of Ga´g¡ valley leave no doubt about the fundamental ritual importance accorded to water and its fecundity. The Vedas devote many hymns to waters. Mythically, Varuna is the god of the waters; he is considered the great superintendent of the cosmic moral order (Îta); he is the guardian of the West. In a hymn dedicated to Varu¸a in the Atharva Veda (IV.16), it is said:

This earth is King Varu¸a's as also this great far-flung sky: the two seas are his belly (appetite); at the same time he is hidden in this little water. Even we who may cross the sky will not escape King Varuna; from heaven his spies are patrolling this earth with a thousand eyes; they scan through the earth. King Varu¸a sees all that is between heaven and earth and that which is beyond (them).


Perhaps there is no need to decode the myth. In saying that Varu¸a's sphere is the earth and heaven and in the waters, the Vedic poet is referring to an eternally known natural phenomenon of the primeval waters rising as vapour (as spies) in the sky only to descend again to Earth. Understandably, the emblem of Varu¸a is 'fish', his vehicle the crocodile, the wind is his breath (as Dikp¡la V¡yu or wind is the guardian of the North West). He spans boundless paths for the sun and ensures that the rivers fall into the ocean. He knows the paths of ships on the ocean and the flight of birds in the sky. He punishes those who transgress his laws.

          Indeed, in the Indian worldview, as also of other ancient civilizations and culture, life on earth emerges from the eternal waters that hold the potency of fire: the two together transform into forms of world, mineral, plant, animal and divine. Form the primeval waters emerge stones in the shapes of ovoid pebbles and spheres with ammonites going back to millions of years. Many a devout Indian is familiar with b¡¸ali´gas and ¿¡lagr¡mas which are sought and collected for worship. Perhaps the modern Indian has not paused to ponder over the significance of the myth of the Varu¸a, the vigilant superintendent and the symbolic ecological significance of the b¡¸ali´gam and ¿¡lagr¡ma.  Stated differently, they articulate an intuitive scientific comprehensive or wisdom through a conceptual parallel in imaginative form. While on the surface, myth has a dreamlike structure, its meaning and value lies in its pointing at natural phenomenon. As has been pointed out, Indian science and philosophy and thus its symbols develop on the postulate of the perpetual movement of creation, degeneration and regeneration of the cosmos. This is quite distinct from an evolutionary model. Time and existence are conceived of as systems of interconnected cycles, not in linear terms starting from one specific divine act of creation. Resultantly, Indian cosmology tends to be circular or what was the fluid within is the ocean.

          It is obvious that intuitively, without perhaps empirical verification and analysis, this is an ecological statement through metaphor of the greatest significance. The b¡¸ali´ga form the Narmad¡, i.e. waters and the ¿¡lagr¡mas, i.e., the ammonite fossils coming from the waters and solar energy. The radial lines and a projecting centre of the ¿¡lagr¡mas point at the latter. Equally widespread is the myth of their personifying the horizontally floating golden egg, i.e., ViÀ¸u himself lying upon an undulating serpent which represents the inexhaustible primordial ocean of pralaya. The symbolic significance of these simple stones reflects a sensitive comprehension of ecology, specially when it is further said that fire rises from the waters or the sun from the ocean. In sum, the waters and these stones are a meditative help leading to a comprehension of continuous evolution and devolution process of all time and existence.

          The myths of water take innumerable other forms relating to the ocean (S¡gara), the rivers and the nymphs of the skies. Indian literature is replete with their names - Sarasvat¢, Ga´g¡, Yamun¡, Urva¿¢ or Menak¡. Indian folklore sanctifies these. All these deities are members of the vast water cosmogony so vital and central to Indian thought. Little wonder that from the simplest tribal to the most sophisticated the Indian venerates water in some form or the other. Rituals of purity of waters are known to all parts of India. The Indian is familiar with the common (but little understood today) custom of a full pitcher greeting guests and being kept at the entrance of the house. Has he reflected over what cosmic significance this may hold?

          From Varu¸a, let us turn our attention to the great river systems of India, i.e., Indus, Ga´g¡ and Brahmaputra. Countless myths have been woven around the eco-systems of these rivers - sensitive, meaningful stories narrate imaginatively the ecological movements. As an example, from the vast storehouse of  these myths, we chose the most familiar one which has sustained Indian life and one most polluted. Our anxiety for its physical purity is obvious in the establishment of the Ga´g¡ Authority. But let us see how she dominates Indian myth and cosmogony from earliest times. Jawaharlal Nehru had called her a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever changing , ever flowing, and yet ever the dame Ga´g¡. The Indira Gandhi did not consider it strange that the "Ga´g¡ should have such an extraordinary hold on the imagination of the peoples of India. For millennia, she has watered and nurtured an entire civilization, and become a symbol of eternity - a theme of art, myth, legend and literature. The moods of rivers are fascinating to watch but even more so are the faith and reverence they evoke in the heart of millions".

          And what is the myth of the creation of this great river Ga´g¡  and how has she captured the imagination?

          Ga´g¡ like the ¿¡lagr¡mas and the floating egg on the serpent of undifferentiated waters continues to be related to serpents, crocodiles, and aquatic life. In Indian myth and iconography, she often assumes a mermaid form protected be a hood of snakes

If  Varu¸a has spies in heaven, Ga´g¡  descends from heaven. She is the holy water in the Kama¸dala of Brahm¡ which purified the world; she descends from the heavens from the foot of ViÀ¸u as Trivikrama when he traversed the three orders of space, nether, terrestrial and celestial, with his three steps, but most important she is the drop of  water from the celestial heavens which fills the ocean (S¡gara). The descent of the Ga´g¡  from the heavens evolves through centuries in the form of an elaborate, ecologically charged myth.

          Several versions of the myth are found in the R¡m¡ga¸a, Mah¡bh¡rata and the several Pur¡¸as, while details of names of saints and heroes differ  in many cases and sometimes becomes localised. Central to the myth is the connection of the ocean and the sky and the channellization of river systems through human effort. In traditional language, it is the story of the King of Oceans, Sagara; the Milky Way of the sky, Ga´g¡; the saint Agastya; the tapas or austerities of Bhagiratha, the Man; and the forests of the locks of  Siva.

                    In one version, Agastya who in some ways is related to solar energy, once swallowed the entire ocean. Although he meant well as he wanted to expose the demons hiding in the sea, it had the effect of depriving the earth and all beings of the necessary life-sustaining water. This made it necessary for the celestial river, a kind of Milky Way, to descend from the sky.

          Now it fell to the share of another human, the pious Bhag¢ratha to undertake great austerities so as to bring the heavenly Ga´g¡ to earth. He was sorely in need of water to appease and gratify the ashes and souls of his deceased forefathers who had perished in a similar natural catastrophe of drought. Leaving the administration of his kingdom to his ministers, He left for a place in South India called Gokar¸a (Cow's ear). With unflinching determination and perseverance, he practised austerities, tapas through discipline and commitment. Eventually, Brahm¡ was pleased and promised to grant him a  wish. Bhag¢ratha asked the god to let Ga´g¡  descend to earth. Brahm¡ agreed but drew attention to the necessity of soliciting áiva's help and grace. He feared that if the mighty river of heaven with her torrential water were to descend directly, it may cleave the earth and shatter it. Someone would have to break the fall by receiving the gigantic cataract on his head. This only áiva could do. Bhag¢ratha once again continued his austerities until the god was appeased. He stood on one leg with his arms uplifted (£rdhvab¡hu); he practised the penance of the five fires (paµcatapas) and finally áiva appeared and acquiesced. The head of the great god took the first full impact of Ga´g¡ 's torrential flow. The matted hair of the ja¶¡s plied high,, delayed the cascading current which then in meandering through the labyrinths of the forest of his ja¶¡s lost its force, was tamed and channellized. Itsd water descended gently to the Himalayas and then, Majestically, to the Indian plains, and thus the earth and its creatures were rejuvenated, for she was the life-giving boon. 

          The ecological message of the myth is as clear as the physical reality of the course of the Ga´g¡; with its origin in the Himalayas whether mythically Kailasa or actually Gomukha or Ga´gotr¢, the Vasunddhar¡ falls into the rich Deodar forests through which it meanders, the several  streams into which it breaks before reaching Haridv¡ra (literally the entrance to Hara áiva). What is sanctified in the myth is both the ecological order and not to destroy it. Man, if he so wills, can accumulate an immense reservoir of physical and psychical energy through concentration and discipline. Tapas is the power, armour or commitment that becomes a high power electric charge, which in a flash can cut through and melt all resistance. Today, man's tapas lies in keeping the great river pure and clean at the source and through all its meandering journey through he forests, plains, field, village and cities, it is again received by the ocean, S¡gara. The celestial skies are the pilgrim centres of Kail¡sa, Gomukha or Ga´gotri which must be nurtured, the locks of áiva are the Himalayan forest which must tame the river so as to avoid wrathful floods and landslides and the tapas of Man is the exercise of his selective discriminating power for using water for hydro-electric energy. The ecological connection of the North and the South and their inter-connected systems is reflected by Bhag¢ratha's undertaking his austerities in Gokar¸a in the South.

The myth is eleborated in many ways in all regions of India and throughout Indian history. It assumes paramount significance on account of the present state of pollution. The work of scientists, programmes of afforestation, rural and urban sewage systems have only to reach out for support and reinforcement in Indian art. Indeed, Indian architecture, sculpture and painting is the most effective, aesthetically pleasing, symbolically loaded message totally contemporary and valid statement of the ecology and concern - if only it could be utilised. To use and inelegant phrase, the great temples of India, ranging from Badr¢n¡tha, to Ga´gaiko¸·acholapuram to the countless figures of Ga´g¡ riding a crocodile, surrounded by aquatic life sustaining life are the natural hoardings of mass media only if we had eyes to see and a mind to comprehend, and ears to hear the incantation of thousands to Ga´g¡  as sukhad¡ and mokÀad¡. Countless images and mantras lie all over India in every nook and corner from Assam to Rajasthan and Gujrat, Kashmir to Kany¡kum¡r¢. Are they hollow and ineffective? Can new meaning and significance not be given?

Surpassing in stature, beauty and ecological significance is the monumental dramatic relief of all time in Mamallapuram. It represents the celebrated myth of the descent of the Ga´g¡  in a manner which leaves an indelible impression. On a huge wall of rock rising vertically towards the clear blue skies of South India, a cosmic tableaux in relief is enacted on a space of twenty-seven meters length, nine in beight. It is teaming with hosts of serpents, plants animals, men, women, Apsaras and Ganddharvas, all converging towards a natural cleft in the middle of the composition. The decisive moment of the effectiveness of Bhag¢raths's tapas no doubt dramatically captured, but what is more, the series of events or ecological phases are all depicted in one setting. The celestial stream rushed down metaphorically through a cistern above the great rock. Today we imagine this stream. A giant serpent king (N¡gar¡ja) is covered by the torrent, moves upward in undulating movements, i.e., all aquatic life rejoices at her descent. To the right of the saint are large aquatic birds, large geese. All manner of life flocks together - reptiles, animals, birds, gods and goddesses. Here are elephants, families of perching monkeys, deers, lions, Apsaras and Gandharvas - all watch the miracle. In a superb animated sculptural style, this is the true celebration and consecration of life, asserting, reaffirming the basic kinship of all living creatures. All is sustained by one life source, one life giving  energy; this is universal eternal play of matter and energy. The waters of the dried S¡gara descend from heaven to purify all.

One could to on ad infinitum not only about the myth and this serpent relief, but about the innumerable masterly examples of Ga´g¡  and of áiva, as Ga´g¡dhara and Ga´g¡, as women descending through the dance movement called Ga´g¡vatara¸a.

But from the Ga´g¡  water, we must move to the first vegetative and aquatic life principle. The lotus and the snake in botanical and zoological terms are born of the waters. In mythical terms, the lotus emerges from the primeval waters, whether river or pond. It is the most important of vegetative forms born of water, connected to the mythical centre of the earth through its stem, and always above the water; its leaf the symbol of untainted purity, its flower blossoming with fragrance. Physically, the lotus is a typical ecological statement of the processes of nature. Symbolically, it assumes the greatest importance in Indian myth, art and ritual. The metaphor of the lotus leaf, the lotus flower and stem permeates Indian literature in practically all languages. If the motif of the lotus was excluded from Indian mantra, tantra, yantra, poetry, prose, music, dance, sculpture, monumental as the free standing pillars with inverted lotus, or relief as the magnificent panels in Sanchi, or Indian painting, the Indian heritage would be impoverished beyond recognition.

The lotus is a comparatively late entrant into Indian myth, but once it finds a place Hindu, Jain, Buddhist art, thought and and myth consider it indispensable . In all cases, whether as seat (¡sana) or as emblem or epithet, it denotes fecundity, abundance, well-being. Logically, lotus becomes goddess and is personified as Sr¢ and LakÀm¢. She is praised as lotus-born (padmasambhav¡), sanding on a lotus (padmasthit¡), lotus coloured (padmavar¸¡), lotus-thighed (padma-£ru), lotus-eyed (padm¡kÀ¢), abounding in lotuses (padmin¢), decked with lotus garlands (padmam¡lin¢), and a thousand  other names. We are familiar with Bodhisattva Padmap¡n¢, the female Prajµ¡ as counterpart, P¡ramit¡ who sits on a lotus and holds a lotus. Underlying this preoccupation with lotus as symbol, is the  sheer physical reality of the lotus: ultimately the lotus and its petals are the multiplicity of form. Its centre corresponds to the centre of the universe, the navel of the earth, all is held together by the stem and the eternal waters. T¡ntric physiology regards the nervous system as a series of  lotuses, and the sacred geometry of lotus is called the ár¢yantra.

The life of the waters is intrinsically related to that of other species, the first creations of nature, namely the reptiles. Just as the lotus connects earth, water and air, so also the reptiles represent that moment of transition. All ancient religions have given a special significance to the snake. The coiled and intertwined snake represents a moment in the undifferentiated condition of creation on which human life rests. The snake is the symbol of this interconnection - swift, silent, limbless and deadly. The sign of transition is vital to man, who must be assured that this world is a cohesive unity: he cannot exist either in chaos or isolation. Thus, ViÀ¸u at the moment before the creation of the universe, is depicted lying in a yogic sleep upon the serpent Ananta (Endless) with its multiple cobra heads forming a canopy. Man and reptile as man and water and vegetation are inter-related and inter-dependent.

The countless myths relating to snakes again pervade the Indian psyche in all regions, all levels of society giving rise to major cults which have great ecological significance. Its detailed unfolding could fill volumes. In art, N¡gas and N¡gin¢s abound in Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina art. In a beautiful relief of the Su´ga period (Pauni, Maharashtra), beneath the Bodhi tree, the multiheaded cobra, King muchilinda, rises up to protect the seated Buddha. Eastern India defies the snake goddess as Manas¡. B¡d¡m¢ caves have the coiled serpent as the eternal movement of cyclic time on the ceiling and the coiled N¡ga from the C¡lukyan period is a perfect geometric statement of the lotus - N¡ga, water and earth.

The snakes and reptiles in a dramatic moment of biological mutation acquire wings and become birds. They are inter-related antagonist and yet complementary. Intuitively, the Indian sees this ecological connection and Indian myth provides many examples of reptiles changing to birds or reptiles and birds seemingly antagonistic to each other being vehicles of gods. Thus, ViÀ¸u lies on the Ananta áeÀnaga and he rides the Garu·a. The animals follow suit, and the entire range of evolution, from the hare to the lion, from the rodent to the primate, is vividly represented. They crowd the outer walls and lower lintels of Indian St£pas and temples by t he hundred, sometimes in processional rows, in pairs, or yet again in conjunction with trees, floral motif, and as conjoined images of fantasy. Occasionally they are aquatic, as in the mythical crocodile (makara) who is the vehicle of Ga´g¡; at other times, they are of the earth or the desert, as are the elephants and lions; while others are monkeys who befriend man.

Amongst the creations of fantasy are the mythical lion or tiger, the ¿¡rd£la; more fearsome is the uy¡la, the vicious beast. These mythic animals appear either in isolation or in conjunction with dwarfs and women on temple walls, guarding sanctuaries. There are also the many-winged animals called suparnas. Each animal acquires its own symbolism, and by the forth century they develop into a systematised pantheon closely related to the world of humans and celestials. Most Indian sculpture is structured to comprehend the world of aquatic plant, animal and human life. Each is an aspect of the other; superficially they appear as decoration, yet at a deeper level, the aquatic, vegetative, and animal elements represent aspect of the human psyche. Metamorphoses and transmutation is logical and traditional. This rich abundance of nature, its manifold creations and organic coherence, logically culminates in the universal fertility theme known to all ancient religions.

But we must pass on to the next most important element of environment which has provided the world with vast oceans of myth. Earth is known to all civilizations and cultures as the great Mother Goddess. Predating the Vedas are the figures of Mother Earth Goddess in the form of ring stones. The Vedas dedicate many hymns to P¤thiv¢, the Bh£mis£kha being one of the greatest hymns. She is the creator, the sustainer. In the Atharva Veda there is a prayer which draws attention once again to ecological balance and how the earth, like Varu¸a, is the upholder of the moral order. Like the river goddess, she represents fecundity. Truth and moral order sustain her. She is the mistress of past and future, giver of the wide and wildlife world of human life. She has high heights, stretches on level ground, reaches to the sea, bears herbs of manifold potency, on whom food and crops grow and animals roam whom Indra from the sky fertilises, and that earth is invoked as Mother. Man says "I am the son of the earth, the rains are my father, let him, the Lord of the rain, fill the Earth for us. O Earth, protect us, purify us. Let people milk her with amity. O Earth, give us sweet words. The snowy mountain heights and thy forests, O Earth, shall be kind to us and we to them."

What could be a more lucid ecological statement of the intrinsic relationship of water, earth, air, sky and sun, and Man. As in the case of water, the emphasis is on purification-purity, i.e., non-pollution.

Her fertility is symbolized through the image of the brimming vase, the bowl of plenty. Foliage and the lotus emerge from the bowl: the waters below the life-giving forces of regeneration and energy of sun blossoms as the vegetation is the sap of life (the rasa). Water, earth, plant, animal, human and the divine come together in images of the goddess P¤thiv¢, also identified as Dev¢.

 P¤thiv¢,, the Mother Earth, sustains plant life in all its multitudinous variety. Volumes could be written on the veneration of plants, forests and herbs in India. The tree is sacred to one and all. In the Himalayas, the Deodara is considered the abode of the gods; one may cut a tree only at his own peril; when they were felled, it was with due ceremony. Plural planting was the norm. The Sal is equally venerated in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The forests of Deodara and Sal, the flowering Asi-okka, the Kadamba, the Rudraksa, the Parijata, the Campaka are all sacred. So also are Palasa and Amalatasa and Ketaki. The Asvattha, Basnyan, Neem, coconut, palm and bamboo are ecologically important, mythically central; herbs of all verieties, the Tulasi, the Kesar and grass, Durvaghas to Munja are venerated.

Have we paused to question why the Indian psyche paid this attention to trees, herbs, plants, and related them to characters, divine, human, seasons, moods, rasas, bhavas? It is these life-giving plants and trees where the gods dwells who have been vital and crucial for maintenance of ecological balances whom we have desecrated and destrouyed. Myths evolved around each and everyone of these trees and plants. Asvattha was central, so also was Bilva, the mango, the Sal, the coconut and the bamboo. If one was the tree of life, the other was of the upturned tree of Unanisadic thought. The Sal is not only central and vital to the ecological cycle of the forests of Bihar and Bastar providing vast communities with the famous Karma festival, but it is the Sal tree whom Maya embraced as the Buddha was born. The significance of the coconut tree is botanical, functional, nutritional and mythical in ritual terms, and this is too well-known to need recounting.

          In Udatagiri the myth of Prthivi is carved in stone. This time the Var¡ha, the bear in mundane terms, the wild pig, the scavanger of the terrestrial space, rescues her from the deluge. ViÀ¸u Var¡ha rises from the waters where cosmic upheavals have taken place. In the relief the gigantic Var¡ha rises from the waters, seen as incised wavy patterns, unruffled and effortlessly lifts P¤thiv¢,, the mother goddess with garland and lotus stalk. His monumental body, the strong legs, the posture of alidha are in contrast with the delicacy and kindness with which he lifts Prthivi. A total cosmic drama is enacted in monumental proportions in stone as in Mamallapuram where the joviga the myth is recreated in plastic form of all proportions.

          The Udayagiri relief is another powerful statement of ecological balance where the waters, the N¡gas, the animals and human are inter-connected. The Var¡ha deity represents the primeval organic relationship of animal and humans - so necessary  for conserving the life energy of our planet.

          The tree-woman relationship dominates Indian myth. The most functionally meaningful and inspirer of countless myths and the richest treasure of Indian sculptural motif is the V¤kÀik¡, also called by other names - YakÀ¢, Surasundar¢ and many others. They stand against trees, embrace them and thus become an aspect of the tree articulating the interpretation of the plant and the human. The tree is dependent upon the woman for its fertility as is the woman on the tree.

          These V¤kÀik¡s, or YakÀ¢s are the creatures of the water, earth, plant and human. No wonder in point of time the original river goddesses - prinicipally Ga´g¡, Yamun¡ and Sarasvat¢ - submerge into each other. YakÀ¢s along with Ga´g¡, Yamun¡ and Sarasvat¢ standing on their respective aquatic vehicles,  the crocodile, tortoise and swan, are guardian of sanctuaries and prepare the devotee for the inner journey.

          Fergusson considers them as the pictorial representation of the primitive faiths of the casteless D¡sas (slaves) who inhabited northern India before the advent of the Ëryans. Vogel studies them as part of the N¡ga or serpent cult. Vincent Smith speaks of them as fertility goddesses, and coomaraswamy wrote one of his earliest book on them and their male counterparts the YakÀas. They are seen in Indian art from the earliest Mauryan remains (second century B.C.) to the medieval sculpture and painting. They are mentioned in classical Sanskrit literature and K¡lid¡sa centres the plot of one plat, M¡lavik¡gnimitra, around the ceremony of the woman and the tree (the A¿oka dohada motif). The myth in all its diversity of manifestation is an excellent example of a purely functional aspect of life being transmitted into myth. The A¿oka three is known for its medicinal value in curing certain feminine diseases. Its bark and flower is used in indigenous medicine even today. The tree is essential for the natural health and regularity of women's biological system. The myth inverts the functions and transforms it into the woman's embrace being essential for the flowering of A¿oka tree: thus the word A¿oka dohada or the generic work á¡labhaµjik¡ (she who leans on the tree). In some parts of India, there continues still a periodic ritual where women embrace the tree and partake of its bark or flower.

            The myth then enters literature, and sculpture and becomes a dominant artistic motif. Viewers of Indian art will easily racall the outstanding example of the motif in Sanchi where she performs a purely architectural function as a diagonal bracket and is the symbol of the fullness of vegetation and life. She appears repeatedly in Indian art of all ages and regions as brackets or ceiling figures, isolated reliefs in conjunction with trees, plants and animals. The medieval temple s of Khajuraho, Bhuvaneswara, the temples of Mount Abu and Ranakapura are crowded with these figures on the outer walls and as pillar or ceiling figures. While she is tree and plant, she is also the celestial beauty (the Surasundar¢) and the dancer. In plastic form she is invariably in the attitude of dance and often holds musical instruments symbolising  the sound of music and harmony. She is in close proximity with animals or occasionally rides them. Nameless, she is the ecological balance between the natural and the human. The YakÀ¢ is another manifestation of the goddess of the forest, the Ara¸y¡n¢ or the Vedas. The poet invokes her:


Goddess of wild and forest who

Seemest to vanish from sight

The goddess never slays unless

Some murderous enemy approaches.

Now have I praised the Forest Queen,

Sweet scented redolent of balm

The mother of all sylvan things,

Who tells not but hath stores of food.


Water, earth, tree provide the basis of three distinct types of goddesses and women in myth and art. The sky although the father is the atmosphere which sustains other goddesses. Predominant amongst the goddesses of the atmosphere is Dawn (UÀas) and her companion the night (R¡tri). A famous hymn of the Îgveda invokes Dawn; she is described as a dancer who appears on the stage and unveils herself. She is the provider of light and life. The verse runs:

Oh UÀas, Nobly bor

Bestow thou on us vast and glorious riches     

Preserve us, evermore ye gods with blessings


and again

          The fire well kindled

          Sings aloud to greed her

          And with heir hymns

          The priests are chanting welcome

          UÀas approaches in her splendour, driving

          All evil darkness far away, the goddess.

A complementary theme is that of R¡tri, the night. The night too is invoked as a goddess, a Dev¢, who is the daughter of the heavens above, who pervades the worlds, who protects all beings and gives them shelter. Later this night is explained as coming forth from the M¡y¡ (creative power) of Brahman. She is then called Bhuvane¿var¢ (the sovereign power over the worlds). The poets invoke her as follows:

With all her eyes the goddess Night

Looks forth approaching many a spot.

She hath put all her glories on Immortal,

She hath filled the waste,

The goddess hath filled height and depth.

She conquers darkness with her light.

The goddess as she comes,

Has put her sister Dawn in her place.


The Dawn and the Morning are seen in their dual divinity. The two goddesses endlessly yellow similar paths but they never cross nor is there any rivalry between them. They are indeed the divine mother of the celestial order (Îta).

          Water, earth, tree and plant maintain the spatial balance of the cosmos, the night and dawn are the keepers of celestial temporal order and each is the goddess, mother, wife, woman or girl. They are essential for the celestial or terrestrial order, the Îta - a central concept of Indian cosmology and philosophic thought. Any disturbance in the order needs penance, ritual or sacrifice.

          But the earth and water, the sky and the nether-world must have a centre, and hub around it which the wheel moves spatially and temporally. This mythical centre is the Mount Meru or Mandara known by different names in other cosmologies.

          In physical geographical terms, it is the peak of the Himalayas, the Kail¡sa and Tri¿£l, the ranges of Ked¡r and Badr¢. They represent the central axis. The symbol of a mountain, tree or a column situated at the centre of the world is widely distributed in all ancient cosmologies, specially the Orient. Corresponding to the Sumeru  of Indian mythology, is the concept of Haraberazait of the Iranians, Norse the Himingbjo of Mound of the Lands in the Mesopotamain tradition, MOunt tabor and Gerizim of the Palestinian tradition and Golotha of the Christian tradition. In India, the Kail¡sa and the Himalayas are the final journey of man's ascension; all aspire to this goal  of reaching the heights and moving inward. Ecologically important, psychically and metaphorically the mountains, their height and their being equated to the centre of the cosmos naturally led to other correspondences, first the cosmic tree, then the straight column, the y£pa of the yajµa and ultimately the building of temples, st£pas and even masjids in India, as a human endeavour, recall the experience of the Himalayas, specially the Kail¡sa.

          Kail¡sa and M¡nasarovara are important pilgrimage places, conssecrated and revered. Men made Kail¡sa of Ellora, Kanchipuram and innumerable other temples concretised through rock, stone and brick the mightly all pervasive myths of the mountain Kail¡sa. Again in the myth, importance is attached to the mountain merging from the egg-shaped cosmos. The slopes of this mountain are propelled by a multitude of life, creation of the water, the vegetation of the earth, forests and fields, the animals deer, monkey and lions, the human gnomes, dwarfs and the flying celestials. The reality and the myth is recreated in architecture, for the summit of temples and stupas, Amar¡vat¢ (the eternal or immortal city). Early Buddhist st£paas, Bharhut, Sanchi and Amar¡vat¢ are an architectural statement of the myth. Indian temples, throughout the lenght and breadth of India relive the physical journey to Kail¡sa through the ritual circumbambulation of the  temple and the pilgrimage from the outer to the inner. The metaphor is logically worked out for the áikhara of temples rising from the hypothetical navel, the garbhag¤ha, the centre to the summit.

          Whether Amarn¡th in Kashmir or Badr¢n¡th or Kail¡sa, the HImalayas are the abode of the gods, particularly áiva. He dominates the mountains as does ViÀ¸u the water and earth. The two, along with Brahm¡, are the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. The mythology relating to the Himalayas is natuarally intrinsically cannected with the Ga´g¡ and of course that other symbol of purity, virginity, austerity - Um¡, P¡rvat¢, Dev¢. Although áiva appeears in the Vedas only as Rudra and áatarydriya, the Pur¡¸as, specially áiva Pur¡¸as, are full of descriptions, myths and stories full of ecoloical significance and meaning. In this case also, áiva as the Lord of animals, Pa¿upati, and the Lord of place, V¡stoÀpati. Significantly, among his progeny, one belongs to the animal kingdom, Ga¸e¿a, and the other to water and fire. K¡rttikeya Somaskanda rides a peacock. ViÀ¸u lies on the snake. áiva rides the mighty bull, his friend and companion, in effect an aspect of his nature which he must transcend. Each of these myths moves concurrently on an ecological, biophysical and psychical plane. Each in the iconographical form is a complete ecological statement and yet none can be conceived without the other. So áiva is incomplete in art without áakti, ViÀ¸u without LakÀm¢, and the two are complete in the fusion of the conjoined image Hari-Hara.

          The dance of áiva is another perfect icpnographical statement of ecology. What are his emblems? Agni and deer What are his locks? They are the forests. Whom does he hide within himself? Ga´g¡ (water). What adorns his hair? The sun and the moon. What are his garlands? The snakes. What does he wear? The tiger skin. And what he brings to this world is the cosmic rhythm of his ·amaru in the incessant process of cyclic creation, degeneration and regeneration and finally of enlightenment, of knowledge and wisdom by trampling upon the dwarf, demon of darkness, ignorance and finally he blesses with the gesture of beatitude of life. And his evergy is áakti. Without her, he is incomplete. She herself, the daughter of the Himalayas, must undergo penance and austerities. The emphasis here is like in the case of Bhag¢ratha on discipline and austerity, purity and concentration.

          Before we finally reach that ultimate source of energy, the Sun, we have to pause to look briefly at two other elements: one V¡yu (air), and other Ëk¡¿a (space). We can only mention the other deities of the skies - the A¿vin¢s and the Maruts.

          Many beautiful hymns are dedicated to V¡yu, the pure air. Mythical V¡yu in the Vedic pantheon, is associated with Indra; he rides the same chariot with him, indeed Indra and V¡yu are often identifies with each other. We know that Indra is the most powerful god of the skies and free spaces. Logically, just as ViÀ¸u and áiva are inter-connected and finally conjoined as áiva-áakti, Agni, V¡yu and S£rya constitute a distinct group. The place of Agni is on earth, of V¡yu (air) or Indra in space and of S£rya in heaven. V¡yu is the guardian of the north-western region, and thus in close proximity to Varu¸a. Its indispensability is obvious: V¡yu is limitless, effortlessly it crosses boundaries of land and sea, earth and water. Invisibly, it pervades all that lives, and without it all would die; it pervades all space, crossing the ocean and continents and is higher than the reach of fire, the flight paths of migrating birdsor clouds. It is the force which protects ships across the seas or down the rivers, which moves the water and the forests, which kindles and nurtures fire, drives it forward and brings rain clouds.

          Finally, air is that pure breath of life (pr¡¸a) through the control of which man attains a state of consciousness which is at one with the empyrean. Like the holy waters of the Ga´g¡, it is also giver of mokÀa, release and emancipation. Hymns and myths of such intensity could not have been created by those who feared the elements; they were created by those who were intuitively aware of the necessity to keep the environment pure and clean within men and without. The V¡yu Pur¡¸a elaborates upon the myth here. V¡yu is like Varu¸a and P¤thiv¢ is the upholder of the cosmic moral order, Îta and Dharma.

          Myths relating to the skies and space are innumerable. The most powerful  amongst these is about Indra. He is the most important war god. He is naturally connected with rainfull and hence thunder storms and wields the thunderbolt. The consciousness of the life-giving function of clouds and thunder, its relation with water and fire is also common everyday knowledge too often taken for granted without noting its significance. The companions of Indra are the twin gods A ¿vin and Maruts.

          And finally to that source of energy, fire, belonging to the nether, terrestrial and fire in the context of the myth of Varu¸a. At the terrestrial level, Agni is venerated as the sacrificial fire of the Yayµa. The three ritual fires of the Yajµa represent the domestic, terrestrial and celestial fires. The altars are made in the shape of a semicircle, circle and square. This symbolically states the interconnection of three order of energy. We may not try to find modern equivalents of bio-mass, bio-spheres and solar energy, but the parallels are not far to seek. Innumerable epithets suggest the many forms of Agni.

          And finally to that great ball of fire, the Sun, to whom all aspire and which is our one ray of hope.

          Like water, earth, mountain and forests, the Sun also dominates all mythologies of the ancient world.

          Form the pygmies of Congo to the Pharoahs of Egypt, from the Incas of Mexico and Peru to the fire-worshippers of ancient Iran the SUn has been a symbol of moral light. He is again Îta. He takes different shapes, names and forms in different cultures and civilizations recognised as Ahura Mazda, Shamash, Helios and of course Apollo. In India, he is S£rya, Ëditya. He is the first principle of the non-manifest into the manifest. Vedic rituals consecrate through the chanting of Mantras for this light and life-giving energy. In the ritual or domestic routine of tribal and rural societies, Agni and S£rya are central. Myths relating to Sun. Ëditya, abound. Son of aditi, who had eight sons, but approached the gods with seven having cast away the eighth M¡rta¸·a (the Sun). Myth and ritual of S£rya, from the daily S£rya namask¡ra to the metaphysical significance of the Sun representing the process of self-awareness, has been consecrated like the Ga´g¡, P¤thiv¢, Himalaya in architectural edifices and sculptural statements of the deepest significance.

          Temples are dedicated to S£rya in all parts of INdia: M¡rta¸·a in Kashmir, Modhera in Gujarat, Ko¸¡rka in the East. S£rya is personified as thecharioteer riding the seven horses, and images of the finest quality, again made ecologically valid plastic statements of the myth, are found in all parts and in all ages.

          Like the Descent of Ga´g¡ panel at Mamallapuram, the monument of supreme beauty, juxtaposed with the first principle of the mightly ocean, the open skies shrouded by vegetation and glowing with energy is Ko¸¡rka, the Sun Temple. Will we maintain its purity physically, i.e., of the environs of Ko¸¡rka, the cultural heritage, significance of the myth, by asking, pleading for light and life?

          The energy of the Sun, the relationship of Sun, Earth, Vegetation and water gives rise to a whole aesthetics in India where the changing seasons, the B¡ram¡sa, the n¡yakas, the r¡gas and r¡gi¸¢s are all myths of ecology. Another chapter of ecology is unfolded in Indian Aesthetics. We must end this article with a prayer of peace and well-being:

Pure and peaceful be earth,

peaceful ether, peaceful heaven,

peaceful water, peaceful herbs, peaceful trees,

may all gods and environs be pure and peaceful;

my there be purity, non-pollution and peace

through these invocations.

So the lessons are obvious. Non-pollution, discipline, restraint, awareness of inter-dependability and inter-relatedness is taught to us through custom, daily routine, myth and ritual, but we don't learn. We should learn before it is too late.

1 UNESCO, UNDP Inter-Governmental Conference on Environment Education, Tbilisi, USSR,14-26 October,1977. Final Report, Paris, UNESCO, 1978,p.67.


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