Indias Ecological Heritage

Michel Danino


The author is a researcher, writer, and a student of Indian civilization. This paper appeared in Science India, June 2002.


India’s love story with Nature is an ancient one. 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 (dyavaprithivi) and honoured together. From the beginning, therefore, our Earth is as divine as the rest of the creation. Further proof of this divinity is that Earth holds in her depths the hidden sun, Martanda, and the divine Fire, Agni: “O Agni, that splendour of yours which is in heaven and in the earth and its growths and its waters (III.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....” (I.70.2). Indeed, Vanaspati, the tree-lord of the forest, is another name of Agni.

In fact, the Rig-Veda sees the whole cosmos as a thousand-branched tree (III.8.11, IX.5.10). The Gita has the striking image of the cosmic ashwattha (the pipal) with its roots above and branches below; elsewhere in the Mahabharata, it is said that he who worships the ashwattha worships the universe. The kalpavriksha or kalpataru, the heavenly tree, grants our every desire. In the Atharva-Veda, the famous Bhumi Sukta (XII.1) movingly sings our planet’s beauties and bounties. 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 prayer; the Yajur-Veda (IV.2.6) even calls plants “goddesses.” A medical science such as Ayurveda, making use of hundreds of plants, is rooted in this attitude, just as some Puranas included large sections on agriculture, treatment of seeds, botany, zoology, etc.

This was of course not confined to the Scriptures. We find numerous 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 and plants and birds, and literature was pervaded with Nature’s many charms — who has not thrilled at Kalidas’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 in their powerful images? Not to speak of the Panchatantra’s irresistible animal fables.

For animals too were revered, or at least respected. Indus seals frequently depict the bull, the tiger, the elephant, the rhinoceros or the buffalo, very likely with some deeper symbolic significances. 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.” Usha or the Dawn comes drawn by horses or by cows, or both. Indra, Surya and other gods are addressed as the “Bull.” Even the humble dog finds its exalted representation in Sarama. Animals act as 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 Ramayana describes the brave vulture or the monkeys, or how the Bhagavatam evokes the child Krishna’s devotion to his cows. This concern for the lowest creatures is what most moved the great French historian Michelet in the nineteenth century, for he could find no equivalent of it in European culture.

Again we find such attitudes put to practice, and animals were, no doubt, used, but also cared for. Shastras 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 prescribing medical treatment to them when necessary. Kautilya’s Arthashastra (2.26) describes forest and animal sanctuaries, where animals were protected from slaughter. Many ancient kingdoms adopted various 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).

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But why keep to the past? Even to this day many patches of the country’s forest cover exist thanks to the old tradition of “sacred groves.” Named kovilkaadu in Tamil Nadu, kavu in Kerala, nandavana or deivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maharashtra, they can be found in many parts of India. Such groves of varying sizes generally neighbour the villages that look after them. Some contain a hero stones or a small shrine — local customs vary, but not the forest’s actual preservation. So too, India’s numerous tribes, many living off the forest, knew how to protect it — the Bishnois, the Bhils, Warlis, Santhals and Todas, or the Chipko movement have provided fine illustrations of this mindset, and there are many others. And as is well known, temples generally have at least one sacred tree (sthalavriksha); often the tree itself is worshipped, and the greater its age, the more divinity it is imbued with. Kanchipuram’s Ekambareswar temple boasts a venerable mango tree of impressive size and contorted appearance, which according to tradition is several thousand years; its four massive branches were said to represent the four Vedas, and worshippers religiously walk around it as they do around murthis (interestingly, the temple’s presiding deity is the prithvilingam). In fact, throughout 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 marriages. In the Vata Savitri puja still in vogue in Maharashtra, which enacts the tale of Savitri and Satyavan, women tie a thin thread around a pipal, and 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 or sandal, neem or tulsi, etc. The plant provides a way for the worshipper to attune to the universe around. Such sacred plants had to be preserved as a consequence, since the rituals depended on them. 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 species involved comes to disappear.

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Countless more examples could be cited to illustrate 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 and now generate nothing but dust, 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?

In a word: 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 machinery. Forest departments became the first destroyers of the environment, uprooting native forests to make way for commercial crops, letting various mafias free to log or mine even protected areas or to encroach upon tribal land, failing to provide villagers with alternative fuels, and spending far more funds on their multiplying officers and staff than on shrinking forests. Agriculture became the graveyard of millions of tons of fertilizers and pesticides, without a thought for tomorrow. Policy-makers disregarded the enormous potential of alternative energy sources a country like India is so profusely blessed with, and blindly promoted what “modern technology” told them to. 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. 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!

So where is the solution? In a return to the past, with idyllic and thrifty lifestyles? Of course not. 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 — with elegant labels such as “development,” “free-market economy,” “globalization” — and until this greed goes, there is little hope for any 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 the United States recently displayed 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, at French hunters’ insistence on their right to shoot down migratory birds, and at a thousand more sinister proofs of our “bestiality” — except that beasts appear far less bestial than we are.

It is likely therefore that we will have to be faced with even more tragic consequences of our folly before we finally consent to alter our chosen course. Desertification, 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 will soon trigger uncontrolled climatic changes possibly of an apocalyptic nature. But they will not be “apocalyptic”: they will be caused by man’s blindness, not by 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.

So, in the meantime, the best we can do is to add to that growing voice and growing action, to learn and speak up, but also to work in the field. The average Indian has been too long divested of his responsibility towards the environment he lives in; let him shake his lethargy and stop waiting for a lame and remiss government to act. In the West, movements for the environment or against globalization have gained strength and begun to have some impact, however slight. 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, as always, 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 rooted in the ancient worldview that sees this earth as sacred. Let every one of us adopt a forest, a grassland, a river or a hillside, and put this vision into practice instead of merely criticizing the official machinery. This is likely to prove the only practicable approach in the future, while our “pragmatists” of today will soon be seen for the raving lunatics they are.


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!


(Bhumi Sukta, Atharva-Veda)

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