Nature as the Divine
Looking back as far as we can see, in the Rig Veda we find Earth and Heaven often addressed in union as a single being (dyáváprithiví) and honoured together; they are ‘parents of the gods’ (7.53), ‘father and mother’ but also the ‘twins’ (1.159); together they ‘keep all creatures safe’ (1.160). From the beginning, therefore, our planet is essentially divine, as is the rest of the creation: the biblical gulf between the creator and the created finds no place here.
Further proof of the earth’s divinity is that she holds in her depths the hidden sun, Mártanda, and the divine Fire, Agni, another name for whom is Vanaspati, the tree-lord of the forest:
O Agni, that splendour of yours which is in heaven and in the earth and its growths and its waters. (3.22.2)
He is the child of the waters, the child of the forests, the child of things stable and the child of things that move. Even in the stone he is there. (1.70.2)
In fact, the Rig Veda sees the cosmos as a thousand-branched tree (3.8.11, 9.5.10). Building on this symbol, the Gítá uses the striking image of the cosmic ashvattha (the pipal or holy fig tree, Ficus religiosa) with its roots above and branches below, to remind us of the real source of this manifestation. Elsewhere in the Mahábhárata, it is said that he who worships the ashvattha worships the universe: such is the often forgotten concept behind the worship of sacred trees in India, particularly in temples—once again, the universal at the centre of daily life. In the same line, the kalpavriksha or kalpataru, the heavenly tree, grants our every desire, since there is nothing the universe cannot give us.
The Atharva Veda movingly sings the earth’s beauties and bounties in its famous hymn Bhúmi súkta (12.1). Indeed, the Vedas are replete with images drawn from nature—from mighty mountains, impetuous rivers and oceans, to majestic trees such as the pipal or the banyan. Some hymns ask not only the gods but the waters, trees and other plants to accept the bard’s prayer; the Black Yajur Veda (4.2.6) even invokes plants as ‘goddesses’. India’s ancient medical system, ayurveda, which makes use of thousands of medicinal plants, is rooted in this attitude; a branch of it, vriksháyurveda, is entirely dedicated to the treatment of trees, plants and seeds.
Of course, this closeness to nature was not confined to the Scriptures. We find representations of trees (especially the pipal, again) on artefacts of the Indus Valley civilization. There is also an intriguing seal depicting a supine woman from whose womb a plant emerges. As in many prehistoric (but not necessarily ‘primitive’) societies, a mother-goddess cult seems to have been closely associated with nature. In historical times, art forms whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain made generous use of trees, plants and birds, and literature was pervaded with nature’s many charms—who has not thrilled at Kálidása’s exquisite descriptions of forest ashrams or mountain ranges? Who has not marvelled at the boldness with which the Sangam poets made use of hills, forests and rivers or the ocean to convey their moods as well as powerful symbols? For generations children, too, have been entertained by the Pañchatantra’s irresistible animal fables.
For animals were revered, at least as symbols. Indus seals frequently depict the bull, the tiger, the elephant, the rhinoceros or the buffalo, very likely with some symbolic significances. Later, at some point of time, the cow takes pre-eminence. Aditi, the mother of the gods in the Rig Veda, is often called ‘the divine Cow’. Ushas or the Dawn comes drawn by horses or by cows, or both. Indra, Súrya and other gods are addressed as the ‘Bull’. Even the humble dog finds its exalted representation in Saramá. Animals act as váhanas, vehicles for many of the gods, occasionally lending them an elephant’s head or even their whole bodies, as with Lord Vishnu’s first avatars. Even when they are not deified, animals are objects of affection; we know how lovingly the Rámáyana describes the brave vulture or the monkeys, or how the Bhágavatam evokes the child Krishna’s devotion to his cows, which they more than reciprocate. As we saw in the previous chapter, this concern for the lowest creatures is what so moved French historian Michelet in the nineteenth century, for he could find no equivalent of it in European culture.
But there is always, lurking behind, a symbol: Krishna (the supreme divinity) and the cows (the creation) are nothing but a pictorial representation of the Rig-Veda’s initial identity between earth and heaven.
In ancient India animals were, no doubt, harnessed, but also cared for. Shástras proscribed their unnecessary killing, perhaps taking their cue from Ashoka, who in his edicts prohibited hunting and cruelty to animals. Ashoka went further, declaring many species to be protected and stipulating medical treatment to them when necessary. Kautilya’s Arthashástra (2.26) describes forest sanctuaries where wildlife was protected from slaughter. Ancient kingdoms often adopted animals for their emblems, ranging from the elephant (for the Gangas), the lion (the Kadambas) or the tiger (the Cholas) down to the humble fish (the Pandyas).
Realizing the essential role of water, India lavished attention on water harvesting and water management structures. I briefly referred earlier to those of the Indus civilization: some 4,500 years ago, the fascinating city of Dholavira, in Gujarat’s forbiddingly arid Rann of Kachchh, dedicated a third of its surface or about 17 ha to huge and often interconnected reservoirs, some of them cut in sheer rock. Monumental waterworks continue into the early historical era, as excavations at Sringaverapura (in Uttar Pradesh, about 200 bce) revealed. Later, we find across India a great variety of reservoirs, spectacular stepped wells, dams, water-diverting devices (such as the 1,800-year-old Grand Anicut on the Kaveri in Tamil Nadu), canals, all the way down to the humble village pond—but such ponds often formed part of elaborate networks.
Folk and Tribal Heritage
But why keep to the past? Even to this day many patches of the country’s forest cover exist thanks to the ancient tradition of ‘sacred groves’. Named kovilkádu in Tamil Nadu, kávu in Kerala, nandavana or deivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maharashtra, they can be found in many parts of India, on the outskirts of the villages that protect them from hunting and tree cutting. Some contain hero stones or a small shrine surrounded by large terracotta figures, especially of horses. In the South, terracotta figures are often ritually broken and made anew every year in a symbolic evocation of nature’s yearly death and rebirth. Part of an endangered tradition, sacred groves have been vanishing; the few that remain well protected are host to a remarkable biodiversity.
So too, India’s numerous rural communities and tribes, many living off the forest, knew how to protect it—Bishnois, Bhils, Warlis, Santhals and Todas, or the Chipko movement have provided fine illustrations of this mindset. And it is not ‘secular’: temples generally have at least one sacred tree (sthalavriksha), and the greater its age, the more divinity it is imbued with. Kanchipuram’s Ekambareshwar temple boasts a venerable mango tree of impressive size and contorted appearance, which according to tradition is a few thousand years old; its four massive branches are said to represent the four Vedas (interestingly, the temple’s presiding deity is the prithivílinga: the ‘earth linga’). In fact, in rural and tribal India, trees have long played an important part in rituals and festivals associated with moments of life such as puberty, marriage, praying for a child, praying for rain, and so on; in some parts, boys and girls used to be married to a tree before their actual weddings. In the Vata Sávitrí pújá still in vogue in Maharashtra, which enacts the tale of Sávitrí and Satyavan, women tie a thin thread around a pipal; the longer the thread, the longer the husband’s life will be.
Let us also stress that most rituals make use of one or several specific plants—bilva, sandal, neem or tulasí…. The plant provides a channel for the worshipper to attune to the universe. Since the rituals depended on them, such sacred plants had to be preserved. This is true not only of Hindu rituals, but also of many tribal ones: the Todas of the Nilgiris, for instance, depend on a number of rare species for their complex rituals, which have to be abandoned if any of the plants involved comes to disappear.
From the sacredness of trees and other plants derives the sacredness of food, food-giving and food-sharing, one of the high traditions of India running through all her scriptures as well as historical records. The recipient of Bhíshma’s monumental discourse on dharma and the duties of a king, Yudhishthira asked Krishna to summarize that teaching. Krishna’s answer is unexpected:
The world, both animate and inanimate, is sustained by food. … The giver of food is the giver of life and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who is desirous of well-being in this world and beyond should make special endeavour to give food.
Then and Now
It would be easy to dilate on this ancient love story. But what happened? Does it end in some heartbreak? Why do we see so few traces in ‘modern’ India of this reverence for our mother? Torn landscapes, ugly buildings, dirty surroundings, ravaged forests, denuded hills, filthy or dying rivers meet our weary eyes everywhere. Village ponds fill up with garbage, streams dry up, cows turn into scavengers, cattle is cruelly treated from birth to slaughter. Dams kill rivers and submerge pristine forests, thermal and nuclear plants rival with each other in the extent and persistence of the pollution they inflict on the planet. All this to grant us the refined privilege of ‘modern living’ in cities choked by noxious fumes and crammed with cardboard buildings—paradises of garbage, heavens of squalor. The triumph of technology, the proof of progress.
What went wrong?
Our first answer must be the direction India thoughtlessly adopted after Independence. A freak hybrid of Western utilitarianism and Stalinist industrialization; wasteful five-year plans; huge dams, huge nuclear plants, huge factories, all functioning under a huge bureaucratic structure—an unwieldy, ineffectual, incompetent and corrupt machinery. Forest departments became the first destroyers of the environment, uprooting native forests to make way for commercial crops, looking the other way as mafias log or mine ‘protected’ areas or encroach upon tribal land, failing to provide villagers with alternative fuels, and spending far more funds on their multiplying officers and staff than on protecting shrinking forests. Agriculture became the graveyard of millions of tons of fertilizers and pesticides, without a thought for tomorrow, and is now a field for experiments with genetically modified crops, the long-term effects of which are unknown and unpredictable. Our policy-makers disregarded the enormous potential of alternative energy sources a country like India is so profusely blessed with, and blindly promoted their narrow idea of ‘modern technology’. Industries were bound with a thousand useless rules, but hardly one or two to compel them to effectively limit pollution or process toxic waste.
The so-called ‘natural resources’ were no longer a gift to be wisely used, but the object of our greed, to be grabbed and exploited. Such has been the path of the West, at least since Genesis declared that all this creation is for our enjoyment. For our petty needs and pettier pleasures, we think nothing of endangering a whole planet with all its species. Global warming is only one manifestation of this phenomenon; there are others: expanding dead zones in the oceans, clouds of pollution covering whole continents, massive destruction of tropical forest and grassland, and extinction of animal and plant species on an unprecedented scale: 20,000 of them every year, according to current estimates. ‘Overall the world is using 50 per cent more of the planet’s resources than the world can supply,’ says a recent report of World Wildlife Fund.
It boggles the mind how our puny species could wreak havoc with the planet’s environment in less than three centuries of ‘Industrial Revolution’—the mere blink of an eye if we compare with the earth’s geological scales: four and a half billion years of slow and painful evolution now threatened by the ‘crown of the creation’—you and me. In this sense, our species’ distinctive trait is not intelligence, but self-destroying stupidity; with all our mighty means, we cannot even ensure that our children will inherit a liveable environment!
Sons of the Earth
So where is the solution? In a return to the past, with idyllic and thrifty lifestyles? But we can never go back, for better or worse. The first step is to become aware. Aware that what we call ‘progress’ is not true progress, because it turns us into slaves, not masters. Aware that there are workable alternatives: cleaner energy, cleaner industries, less wasteful living habits. Aware also that the core engine of our present course remains greed—clothed in elegant labels such as ‘development’, ‘free-market economy’, ‘globalization’—and until this greed goes, there is little hope for real change. Aware, finally, that it will certainly not go on its own, entrenched as it is in our unregenerate nature. Should we entertain any vain hopes, let us just take a straight look at the cynical attitude of most nations, including the U.S.A., India and China, on issues of global warming, at Brazil’s unrepentant destruction of the Amazonian forest, at Norway’s and Japan’s insistence on their ‘right’ to slaughter whales to extinction, at French hunters’ insistence on their ‘right’ to shoot down migratory birds, and at a thousand more sinister proofs of our ‘bestiality’—but beasts are not ‘bestial’, we alone are.
It is likely therefore that we will have to be faced with starkly tragic consequences of our folly before we finally consent to alter our chosen course. Desertification, disappearance of glaciers and rivers, famine, poisoning of the air, water and soil, multiplication of diseases, mass extinction of species—none of this is enough, none of this will open our eyes. Our feverish hyperactivity is heating up the whole planet for no purpose, and is triggering uncontrolled climatic changes possibly of an apocalyptic nature. Except that they are not ‘apocalyptic’: they are caused by our blindness, not by some god’s wrath. Then perhaps, the growing voice of those who have long realized the dangers ahead will be heard—if it is not too late.
In the meantime, the best we can do is to add to that growing voice and growing action—to learn to speak up, and to work in the field. The average Indian has been too long divested of his responsibility towards the environment he lives in; let us shake off this lethargy and stop waiting for a corrupt and remiss government to lead the way. In the West, movements for the environment have gained strength and have had some real impact, however insufficient. They have at least helped people realize that technology will always create more problems than it can solve; they have sent millions in search of ‘alternative lifestyles’. In India, drunk with the wine of ‘economic growth’, we lag behind and stubbornly go on brandishing discarded panaceas. If we want awareness to reach the masses, it must be not only on the basis of modern ecology, but also through the ancient worldview that sees this earth as sacred. The modern Indian rarely has any intimate relationship with nature: it is not enough to watch birds or have a walk in a forest; only when one perceives nature as a presence, a being, can one recapture something of the ancient spirit.
But let also every one of us adopt a pocket of forest, a grassland, a river or a hillside, visit it regularly, watch its progress or degradation, try and interest a few local students in its fate. Let us turn down plastic bags, use water and other resources sparingly and cut down on consumption. Let us put this vision into practice instead of merely criticizing the official machinery. This much is in our power.
Let us all become ‘Nature worshippers’, in the old Vedic sense of the term.
I am a son of Earth, the soil is my mother. …
O Earth, may your snowy peaks and your forests be kind to us!…
May we speak your beauty, O Earth, that is in your villages and forests and assemblies and war and battles. …
Upon the immutable, vast earth supported by the law, the universal mother of the plants, peaceful and kind, may we walk for ever!- Atharva Veda, Bhúmi súkta
 See for instance Shakti M. Gupta, Plant Myths and Traditions in India, 3rd edn, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2001; Bansi Lal Malla, Trees in Indian Art, Mythology and Folklore, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2000; Brahma’s Hair: The Mythology of Indian Plants, Maneka Gandhi, Rupa, New Delhi, 1989.
 B.B. Lal, Excavations at Sringaverapura (1977-86), vol. 1, Archaeological Survey of India, 1993.
 See Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, (eds), Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water-Harvesting Systems, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1997; Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty, Gyani Lal Badam and Vijay Paranpye, (eds), Traditional Water Management Systems of India, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, and Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2006; T.M. Mukundan, The Eris Systems of South India: Traditional Water Harvesting, Akash Ganga Trust, Chennai, 2005.
 Quoted by Jitendra Bajaj and Mandayam Doddamane Srinivas, Annam Bahu Kurvíta, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras, 1996, p. 2.
 ‘Tropical species decline by 60 per cent’, The Telegraph, 13 October 2010.
Image credit: ‘Cow and Calf’ India, Uttar Pradesh, late 7th century, Sandstone (collections.lacma.org/node/240386)
(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2016)
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