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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY

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Foreword

Kapila Vatsyayan

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) has been engaged for nearly a decade in exploring all dimensions of culture understood in its widest and deepest connotations. ‘Culture’ here is an all-encompassing and permeating attribute of human living. It penetrates the innermost recesses of the human psyche, individual and collective, as also permeates the social structure to give shape and form to an identifiable, but not easily definable, mode of behaviour, conduct and action. The vertical and the horizontal movements intersect to contain the inner experience and give rise to outer expressions. When they are held together in balance and harmony, cultures are cohesive and creative but not static; when balances are disturbed, then turmoil takes place often resulting in disruption of the flow of movements causing stultification of some aspects and disintegration of others.

The results of many of the lifestyle studies programme of the IGNCA and the series of conferences, seminars and workshops held under the UNESCO Chair for Cultural Development have amply borne out the primary importance of considering culture as an all-encompassing and permeating phenomenon for any future modelling of societies in a post-modern or even post-post-modern world. Each of the studies, seminars and the consequent monographs viz. Interface of Cultural Identity and Development (Culture and Development Series No. 1) or Integration of Endogenous Cultural Dimension into Development (Culture and Development Series No. 2) or The Cultural Dimension of Education (Culture and Development Series No. 3) have repeatedly underlined the need to view the universe and, of course, our earth and the human species as a closely interrelated organic system. Each constituent is part of a whole; the whole is not a mechanical aggregation of the parts. This is as true of the macro universe and the solar system as it is of microman (and microwoman), be it the elementary biological system of his body or mind or the social and economic systems he generates. Any disturbance in the acceleration or overdue emphasis on a single constituent or an attribute within a constituent results in the phenomenon of dominance and subordination and an unbalanced growth of one aspect at the cost of the other, whether in nature or culture. Eco-balances are the norm in Nature. So are they or should be in culture and of course between the two (if we concede for a moment that the two are differentiated categories always in interaction and dialogue).

The earlier monographs highlight the nature of this interaction between Man and Nature and the integral world-view of endogenous societies which viewed and continue to view Man (woman) as one life form amongst thousands of others in Nature. Man in Nature rather than Man in domination of Nature is the recurring theme of many of these studies and essays in the monographs. Of equal significance has been the realisation that the undue importance and dominating position given to the material progress of man has resulted in creating many disruptions and imbalances in human societies. Man’s dominance over Nature and his unbridled exploitation of Nature to construct his world of material progress has brought the world to a situation where the very survival of the earth as a planet is threatened. Only lately has Man realised that intervention of Man without discipline and austerity has disturbed the ecobalances and the natural rhythm of change and readjustments of these systems.

The present monograph focusses on the eco-systems of the natural world and the contrasting world-views and social organisation systems which facilitated or disturbed these systems. In the prologue to the volume, John V. Kingston unequivocally draws attention to the dangers which humanity faces on account of the momentum which some seemingly irreversible forces have gathered: "After 2000 years of almost universal belief in scientific progress we are now seeing the price of the progress." He tells us, and one can only agree with him, that "we risk planetary destruction" unless technologies developed by man are used for sustaining and not disturbing the global environment. We know that despite the initiatives taken by UNESCO in the First Bio-sphere Conference held in 1968, the subsequent global conferences on environment held in Stockholm and Rio-de-Janeiro and elsewhere, the earth and all other primal elements, water, air and fire (energy) are threatened as never before. The pollution and the over-exploitation has disturbed the eco-systems to a point where all that sustains man at an elemental level is vulnerable and fragile. Can eco-balances be restored and re-instituted and if so what is the fundamental question? It is not a matter of correcting one when it surfaces e.g. ozone layer, global warming, land use, water management and air pollution or energy crisis. These are methods of curing symptoms of the disease but not addressing ourselves to the causes of the disease which has gripped humanity — a disease caused by the avarice of Man himself.

Not without reason while global conferences and specialists of science and technology try to find solutions on the basis of the applications of appropriate technologies and political leaders advocate equitable distribution of natural resources and restraint in the use of energy (fire), there are others who are convinced that the eco-balances can only be restored by the mind of Man. His (her) innermost recesses have to re-ignite the ‘consciousness’ (which the modern industrial world has put to comotose state) that the human species is an infinitesimally small part of a very large and extensive universe of life-forms. The special faculties given to him which have empowered him with astounding scientific knowledge and extraordinary technical knowledge and skills must not lead to the arrogance of assuming a supremely dominant role.

Understandably this group turns to re-learn lessons from those very societies and cultures of the human species where this consciousness was ingrained as a primary article of faith. The consciousness and awareness articulated itself in a body of poetry, oral and written, the evolution of a mythical world which drew attention repeatedly to the eco-system and interrelationships. A series of festivals, customs, and rituals served as a constant reminder. Naturally the notion of sacred space and time was essential for how else could earth, water, vegetation, air, rejuvenate themselves singly or together unless left fallow or undisturbed for a time. Mangroves, rivers, waterbodies, such as lakes and tanks; tracts of land were accorded a sacred status as a most effective strategy and instrumentality of ensuring non-pollution and purity to sustain eco-balances. The agricultural practices and other lifestyle functions were designed to accommodate the cycle of inactivity and activity, the latency and potency, of both the natural and the human world. There is massive literary and archaeological evidence to convince us of Man’s subscription to such a world-view as is clear from Prof. Baidyanath Saraswati’s Introduction. We also know that this world-view was overtaken in some parts of the world by another where Nature was considered "Red in tooth and claw". In that era, all that the Vedic seers evoked as the waters, earth, mountains, rivers, trees, animals, air and fire was considered pagan or at best pantheistic. Defying the forces of nature was to deity the supreme power of Man. Today we are perhaps wiser. Whether in the west or the east, the hymns of these seers in India and analogous verses from other cultures are universally quoted as the highest and most sophisticated articulations of the awareness of the perennial movements of the primal elements in interrelationship and peace; another word for maintaining eco and human balances. The Vedic hymns (both of Yajurveda and Atharvaveda) of Peace on earth are the most ecological sound hymns of invoking the coexistence of the primal elements and Man’s consciousness (Shantipath).

And yet today the small cohesive societies are the only ones who live by the deep and penetrating perceptions and knowledge systems articulated by these seers. The intellectual social world created by Man which is recognised as the civilised world of India or elsewhere is not constructed on this basis. The living evidence is instead only in those groups or small cohesive societies whether in India or elsewhere in South-East Asia, East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Latin America and even North America or Europe who are today the minority marginalised groups whose very survival is threatened. They are the most socio-economically deprived.

The essays in this volume bear testimony to this ironical situation of our times. P.S. Ramakrishna’s essay on Ecology and Traditional Wisdom echoes the experience of many who embarked on a journey of reform but soon learnt:

Land use for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, which forms the basis for the sustainable livelihood of traditional societies, is often based on traditional knowledge and technology, developed in a given ecological, socio-economic and cultural setting. Not only is this knowledge base being threatened now, but very often we have failed to provide an alternative viable technology as a replacement for what is being eroded. The reasons for this are varied and complex. Yet, in the context of the sustainable management of land resources, there is an increasing realisation of the value of this rich heritage, and therefore a renewed interest in traditional knowledge and technology.

He remarks that the distribution of these traditional societies closely corresponds to the hot spots of bio-diversity in the country. Particularly he concludes that:

It is therefore most appropriate to look at a new paradigm for the sustainable development and management of natural resources in the areas where the tribals live — a new paradigm based on traditional wisdom and building upon that wisdom incrementally.

The traditional wisdom articulates itself, as in the past, in a mythological system which emerges out of the environment and the perception of the ecological system. This is convincingly demonstrated by Molly Kaushal’s study of Gaddis. Specific elevations, peaks and the rivers correspond to a mythic world and life on earth is governed by the myths which sanctify the physical spaces. The migrations from one order of space to another is analogous to the movement of the deities. The interplay between the mythical and the actual revalidates both. The world-view is thus not an intellectual construct; it is the raison d’½etre of living. Little wonder that the primal elements within the micro-body and without in the environment are held ‘sacred’: water, earth, plants, animals, air, fire — all. From a progressive evolutionary standpoint the Gaddis represent the pre-sedentary stage and are thus considered less developed, even amongst the developing. From an ecologically valid perspective their world-view, cosmology, mythology and life function are totally integrated as a single whole. Attempts at bringing them and others like them into a single pattern of sedentary non-mythologised cultural style can be ruinous for them and the environment. However, alternate paradigm and acceptance of plural models as policies and strategies of planning are yet a far cry.

B.L. Malla’s essay brings to the fore another related aspect of the acute recognition of the inter-relationship of the natural and human world as crystallised in the water cosmology of many cultures. His case study although restricted to Kashmir has wider ramifications. In many cosmologies the eternal waters, and the first forms of life as the reptiles, represent primary differentiation. The nagas (snakes) and the lakes coalesce to give rise to the many fascinating and ecologically significant myths surrounding the primary sources of rivers (veninagas) and the lakes (Wuler). If Siva in the Gaddis is the mountains as celestial space (vastospati), he is the keeper of animals of the terrestial world as pasupati. In contrast, Visnu rests on the sesa (Naga) in the eternal waters. This relationship of the waters and the mountain is sanctified in thousands of myths across this country and others. As long as man was constantly conscious of the intrinsic relationship of the waters and the mountain as celestial and glacial levels, he sanctified both and was hesitant to aggressively intervene. He knew that austerity and discipline such as that of the Bhagirath in the famous Ganga myth was required. The loss of the sense of the sanctified and sacred lead to greed and avarice. As in myth so in life the consequences were (in myth) and will be in life disastrous.

Another facet of the traditional knowledge systems closely related to the mythical is the affirmation of the principle of bio-diversity and therefore plural methods and techniques of agro-cultivation. Agro-pastoralism is an integrated system which accommodates diversification of crops and produce. It is in essence, as R.S. Negi points out, diversification of resource utilisation which in turn promotes trans-humane and cyclic mobility. This is one of the ways of preventing exhaustion of the fertility potential of cropland and promoting regeneration.

From different spatial situations of the Oraons on the one hand and the Warlis and the Dhangars on the other, we learn that these groups too subscribe to the principle of bio-diversity and plural strategies of sustaining nature and themselves. The close man-nature relationship has resulted in their developing a remarkable sensitivity to identify eco-indicators. The Oraons, the Warlis and the Dhangars and many others in their distinctive cultural lifestyle, tell us that culture and ecological perception, if not one and the same thing, are certainly interpenetrative categories difficult to dissect as autonomous entities. This is further supported by the case study of the Nicobar and Andaman and Nepal.

Other papers deal with recent developments in projects management of water and land, protection and conservation of forests, flora and fauna. Some have had negative and others positive effects. It is clear that the recognition of the extant knowledge systems and cultural lifestyle and their validity can be or has been more successful than total replacement or uprooting.

In sum, each of the essays in this volume and the field studies carried out by the young researchers of the IGNCA (e.g., Ramakar Pant, Nita Mathur, Rakesh Khanduri, K.K. Mishra, and Richa Negi) and others in the lifestyle studies programme, all point at the need to know, learn and apply these knowledge systems to our contemporary world.

The task is challenging. It is one matter to conduct studies and to deduce principles. It is quite another matter to ensure the transformation of the mindset and the deeply entrenched system of governance, policy-making, planning and most of all ground level implementation. It is heartening to note that the work of Ramakrishnan, Sachchidananda, Madhva Gadgil, Subhash Chandra and T.N. Pandit has been recognised. At the conceptual level it has been accepted; however transformation and restoration can only take place if these investigations lead to a re-orientation of the policies, programmes and institutional structures which so far in this country and elsewhere continue to adhere (alas!) to an earlier mechanist view of linear progressive development and replication of single mono models. Uniformity is not endemic to nature and deadening in life. Both, the world-view of Man as dominant and the consequent systems and the structures for organising life as pointed out by Kingston, have brought us to tread a perilous path. Danger lies ahead in the near future if lessons are not learnt. There are numerous anachronisms and disjunctures: all cause further disturbance in eco-balances. Man (woman) if he wills can restore the natural balance if he can heed and hear the voices of these disempowered small cohesive communities who are human repertories of the other knowledge systems so vital for the future of the earth and humanity.

 

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