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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY

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Introduction

Baidyanath Saraswati

The shadowed aspects of modern civilisation are (a) urbanisation and the technocentric lifestyles associated with it; (b) industrialisation and the environmental pollution associated with it; (c) commercialisation and the degenerated consumerism associated with it; and (d) globalisation and the political violence associated with it. The positive aspect is the growing awareness of all things in the universe. Today, there remains no reasonable doubt that humankind is rushing towards an ecological disaster. Concerned people are questioning the planners of the nation: Where will you take us? To mega cities? We shall find no place for our spirit in that land but rather, desolation. We feel our land as if we are within a mother. Our mountains and rivers are sacred. We live in the forest with trees and birds and beasts. We honour them as our brothers. Here man and beast and plant talk together. Our life is peaceful here; we are protected by the divinities. Can the law of a nation supersede the Law of Nature? Should the rights of the people be allowed to be destructively manipulated by the rules of power? Must the wisdom tradition of our ancestors be shelved to accommodate the flagrant hypocrisies of the planning tradition?

As part of the Unesco Chair activities at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, a conference on the ‘Cultural Dimension of Education and Ecology’ was held in New Delhi from 13 to 16 October 1995. The proceedings of this conference are published in two independent volumes. Papers related to education are published in the volume The Cultural Dimension of Education. The essays here collected aim at describing the cultural dimension of ecology in the mountains, forests and islands.

The Mountains

He who thinks of Himachal is greater

than he who performs all worship in Kashi,

and all things that die on Himachal, and

all beings that in dying think of

His snows are freed from sin. . . In hundred

ages of the Gods I could not tell thee of the

glories of Himachal.

Skanda Purana, Kedar Khanda

Geologically, the history of the Himalaya can be traced to the last pre-Cambrian and earliest Cambrian. There are five structural units in the Himalaya: the Siwalika, the main boundary fault, the lesser Himalaya, the Himadri (central Himalaya), the main central thrust; and the Tibetan Himalaya. Culturally, there are five khandas or segments, from west to east: Kashmir, Jalandhar, Kedar, Kurmachal, and Nepal Himalaya. The great Himalaya, the monarch of the mountains is endowed with sanctity by the streams of the Ganga, the snows of Kailash Mansarovar, the home of God Shiva, and the shrines of Amarnath, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Pashupatinath, and several others. In the Bhagavad Gita, God Krishna describes himself as sthavarnam himalaya, among the mountains: ‘I am the Himalaya’. The devatma Himalaya is the abode of gods. Its fluid holiness makes a fertile land where the mother Ganga pours her life-giving waters.

Events such as the construction of the 260.5-metre-high Tehri Dam over the Bhagirathi, the main stream of the Ganga in a seismic zone, have jolted the common man into a realisation that the planners of aggressive development are threatening the very existence of life on the Himalaya. Hence people like Sunderlal Bahuguna are actively involved with the ecological movement, which is a call to bring change in the modern way of living, a call to become friends of Nature, and a call to return to the wisdom tradition. Bahuguna calls upon us to

  • remember the three basic principles of Indian tradition: (i) that there is life in all creation, (ii) that one should have a worshipful attitude towards all forms of life, and (iii) that austerity is the greatest virtue;

  • follow the practical way to culture from Nature, as shown by Buddha and Gandhi;

  • educate children and grown-up people, specially politicians, policy-makers and technocrats, in ecology;

  • use Gandhi’s weapon of non-violence against wrong policies, aiming at a change of heart along with a change of mind; and

  • revive the wisdom tradition of the Visnois who went to the extent of sacrificing their lives to protect trees and wild animals.

R. S. Negi’s in-depth study of the ecosystem of the Garhwal Himalaya brings into light the people’s wisdom tradition:

  • efficient utilisation of resources in conformity with altitudinal variations and the annual cycle of seasonality;

  • mixed mountain agriculture or agro-pastoralism for each ecological zone, with a well-defined and well-established mode of agricultural and pastoral activity;

  • Village as an organic as well as economic unit, integrated and interdependent components having a symbiotic relationship;

  • management of forests and pastures in a way in which coservation and regeneration are built into the system;

  • indigenous ecological knowledge to sustain the growth of population in the mountain ecosystem and to organise women’s movement against exploitation and environmental degradation.

Based on interviews with some 200 farmers, including women, A. S. Mishra’s study of the Garhwal region shows that traditional technology is in tune with modern science such

  • mechanical measures of terrace cultivation;

  • natural resource management based on the ecologically sound system of augumenting productivity;

  • watershed development concept and fixing boundaries at the common point of the drainage system between two villages;

  • using tree trunks as rainwater irrigation channels, which take care of undulating topography and check seepage losses; and

  • water harvesting, management of drinking water, and water-based industry without electric or any other complex machine systems.

Exploring the traditional vision as reflected in the scriptures, Ramakar Pant and Rakesh Khanduri speak about the concept of wholeness as a major influence on social ethics and values, and beliefs and attitudes that help man live in harmony with nature. Coming to what happened to that vision in the Central Himalaya, they describe the partial collapse of the traditional system:

  • deforestation due to commercial exploitation of trees, developing new agricultural fields, overgrazing by animals, coming up of new habitation, replacement of natural forests by commercially profitable trees, and forest fires (both intentional and accidental);

  • dissociation with the traditional concept of the forest as womb, distortion of the traditional attitude of reverence for the earth; and

  • indigenous water management giving way to development programmes such as construction of dams, building of roads and tourism, causing an ecological crisis.

Following the scriptual sources, B. L. Malla refers to the water resources and their traditional management in the Kashmir valley and unfolds what lies behind the people’s knowledge and creative ventures and what causes the destruction of the environment:

  • religious significance of the river established by the scriptures;

  • worship of springs, festivals of the first snowfall, and restrictions on fishing in the sacred springs helping to preserve the water ecology;

  • self-devised inexpensive water-wheels for raising water to the higher plateaus, stone-lined dykes for guarding against inundation, drainage operations, and the traditional system of distributing water;

  • the extraordinary contribution of the ancient Hindu kings to ecology and culture; and

  • the neglect of the valley by the Muslim rulers during the fourteenth century, and the contemporary disturbance causing pollution of air, water and soil, and, in particular, the very presence of the military.

Contrary to the modern assumption that nomads are responsible for soil erosion and denuded forests, Molly Kaushal finds that the expressions of the ecological world-view and the lifestyles of the nomadic Gaddis inhabiting the Western Himalayas, are in complete harmony with Nature:

  • identification of a geographical entity, not a mere reflection or a replica of the original kingdom but the real celestial kingdom, so that there is no place for the profane;

  • acknowledgement of the fact of the bondedness of the biological being with Nature and his actions within the temporal world that sustains man in life and in death;

  • the environment conceived of as being placed on a vertical axis, the horizontal axis seen as an undifferentiated mass of things and beings; and

  • leading a life of austerity and restraint that follows the principle of non-pollution, minimising waste, and conserving life-sustaining elements.

The question of ecology and traditional wisdom has been examined by P. S. Ramakrishnan. Considering the consequences drawn from his comprehensive investigation in the north-east Himalayan mountains, he points out that

  • through a variety of approaches, traditional knowledge, wisdom and technology, based on empirical knowledge accumulated over a long period of human evolution, traditional societies have learnt to conserve and enhance biodiversity;

  • ‘sacred groves’ extensively maintained by traditional societies demonstrate spiritual values attached to biodiversity and;

  • ecological issues in sustainable development are tied up with social, economic, anthropological and cultural dimensions.

In their short article D. S. Rasaily and R. P. Lama portray the nature-centric culture of the Nepalese of the Darjeeling hills:

  • folk songs and folklore popular among the Nepali community represent deeper bond of friendship between mankind and the Earth;

  • offerings to the goddess Nature form a part of every religious ceremony;

  • animals and birds play significant roles in festivals and ceremonies; and

  • occult art has a close link with the forest and with Nature.

In his paper on the Brahmaputra’s changing river ecology due to the earthquake in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, A. K. Das provides interesting information on the indigenous method of facing floods:

  • occurrence of the flood, even its magnitude and duration, are predicted by natural signs such as the movement of ants, the appearance of certain species of plants, the behaviour of an insect and the actions of birds and animals;

  • natural alliance between man and the river, the Brahmaputra considered both sacred and secular; and

  • facing the flood with excitement: an enjoyable method of fishing, and creating a barrier against the flow of water.

The Forests

Those who in penance and faith dwell in the forest,

peaceful and wise, living a mendicant’s life,

free from passion, depart through the door of the sun

to the place of the immortal person, the imperishable Self.

Mundaka Upanishad, I.2, 11

The sages have praised and glorified the forest as an ecological redresser. The scriptures mention five types of forests: (1) aranya, a place of no war; (2) tapovana, a place of penance; (3) mahavana, a dense forest spread over a vast area; (4) srivana, a place of prosperity; and (5) devavana, a god’s forest. Tradition holds that the vana, forest, should not be within the village, but the village should be within the vana. In ancient times most Indian villages were located within the boundaries of srivana. This can be seen even today in the tribal regions. The tradition of devavana, sacred grove, is also preserved among the tribes people.

Ajay Dandekar’s study of the Warlis and the Dhangars, hunter-gatherers and cultivators and pastoralists of Konkan and western Maharashtra, sets out to explain their traditional knowledge systems and resource use. The importance of their culture lies in:

  • complete identification with the forest and the cycle of seasonality occupying an important niche in their world-view;

  • developing an amazing variety of eco-indicators with the help of which the onset of the monsoon can be predicted, such as minute change in the time of sunset and the cry of the pavasya bird;

  • observing food taboos from the first showers of rain to the threshing of the new corn, believing that the tabooed food of the season must not be partaken of unless first offered to God and the corn deity;

  • celebrating festivals after sowing and the arrival of the new crops, offerings made to the rain god, to the forest and to all the living beings to the forest; and

  • initiating the younger generation into the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, methods of preservation of the varieties of paddy, and paying respect to the living beings in the forest and in the settlements.

In his paper on the cultural dimension of ecology, Virginius Xaxa presents a case study of the Oraon, one of the major tribal groups of eastern India, which shows that their culture corresponds to the reality of Nature:

  • environmental features related to food habits, construction of houses, household articles, hunting implements and fishing tools, treatment of diseases, social customs, lifecycle rituals and festivals;

  • harmonious interaction between the community and its environment — the attitude towards Nature is one of rational adaptation, not of mastery over the world; and

  • natural order, social order and moral order integrated and maintained through prohibition or propitiation.

A case study of ecological cultivation in the tribal region of eastern India by Sachchidananda and Rajiv Ranjan Jha reveals contributory changes via non-governmental organisations, such as

  • reviving traditional agriculture with low-input agricultural practices, desisting from the use of chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds;

  • making people realise that ‘to protect the forest is to protect the tradition’, that the diverse resources such as land, vegetation, water, animals and forest form part of the ecosystem;

  • training children in ecological farming, building greater self-confidence in women; and

  • leading ingeniously to integrated development and empowerment of the people at the economic and psycho-social levels.

The Islands

From blazing Ardor Cosmic order came

and Truth; from thence was born the obscure night;

from thence the Ocean with its billowing waves.

From the Ocean with its waves was born the year

which marshals the succession of nights and days,

controlling everything that blinds the eye.

Rigveda, X.190

The Puranas have described the Earth as the Golden Lotus which emerged from the depths of the ocean. In his cosmic form the God Vishnu includes 12 adityas (suns); similarly the ocean has 12 dvipas (islands). There are references to four, seven, twelve, and eighteen islands in the Maharnava or the Indian Ocean.

Ecologically, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are regarded as part of the pauranic Jambudvipa, of which India is a major segment. T. N. Pandit has described the indigenous islanders who are among the world’s most primitive communities belonging to Negrito and Mongoloid racial stock. They have faced a time of great suffering and most of them are on the verge of biological extinction. Now comes a special phenomenon called ‘development planning’ which complicates even further the cultural situation of the five small hunting-gathering tribes:

  • ranging from 29 to 200 or so, the five indigenous groups, comprising 621 humans, are overwhelmed by 189,000 migrants;

  • hunting-gathering tribes cease to be viable cultural communities due to the trauma of demographic destruction caused mainly by new diseases and upheavals resulting from contact with the colonisers;

  • with a relatively large population of 21,172 the herder and horticulturist Nocabarese spread across twelve islands live in settled villages, travel from one island to another in their dugout canoes for barter, trade and social visits, keep their own calendar by reading the movements of the moon, the stars and the sun, and have deep faith in various kinds of benign and evil spirits and the souls of dead ancestors, despite large-scale conversions to Christianity; and

  • ecologically fragile conditions of these islands with the influx of increasing numbers of people from the mainland ignorant of the local fauna and flora and an unwillingness to relate in any significant way to the local environment and to the indigenous tribal populations pose a serious problem to both ecology and culture.

Sri Lanka, which is India’s closest neighbour to the south, presents a different story. The Veddas are possibly the earliest people of this island. With the introduction of Buddhism (247-207 bc) during the reign of Ashoka, close contact between India and Sri Lanka began. The adoption of Buddhism as the national religion was followed by major changes in Sri Lankan social and religious life. As is well known, Buddhism flourished in Sri Lanka but virtually disappeared from the place of its origin. Similarly, Gandhi’s Sarvodaya movement, defined as the awakening of one and all in the society, ceases to be effective in India but has struck roots in Sri Lanka. H.M.D.R. Herath considers the significance of the Sri Lankan Sarvodaya movement which is pioneered by A. T. Ariyaratne and inspired and strengthened by Gandhian thoughts and the teachings of Lord Buddha:

  • the Sarvodaya movement aims at complete human personality development, achievable within a suitable environment, which means the physical, social, emotional and mental environment in which humans live;

  • moral education for environmental protection in children that helps them acquire awareness of self-protection, self-confidence and self-reliance;

  • a socialisation process and implementation of a moral education programme through practical experience focusing on the integration of cultural values with environmental concerns; and

  • Sarvodaya model with the Buddhist central value system.

The Wisdom Tradition

The mighty burden of the mountains’ bulk

rests, Earth upon your shoulders; rich in torrents,

you germinate the seed with quickening power.

Our hymns of praise resounding now invoke you,

O far-flung Earth, the bright one.

Like a neighing steed you drive abroad your storm clouds.

You in your sturdy strength hold fast the forests,

clamping the trees all firmly to the ground,

when rains and lightning issue from your clouds.

Rigveda, V.84

Recently Jim Lovelock has pointed to the idea that the various forms of life on Earth are components of one living organism, the biosphere, or Gaia. This concept has stirred fierce debate among biologists and geologists; although it seems quite campatible with the vision and tradition of ancient cultures. Gaia is named after the ancient Greek Mother Goddess. The celebrated hymns of the Rigveda and the Atharaveda refer to the organic, superorganic and cosmic aspects of the Mother Earth. Traditional societies still hold the view that humankind and Earth have physical and spiritual dimensions that are symbolically or really reflected in each other.

Nevertheless, there are instances of unbridled exploitation of the environment. Of the large varieties of flora and fauna in the Himalayan mountains many are extinct today. Sudden change of climate has caused the disappearance of many varities of wildlife, specially elephant, white bear, flying fox and deer. Many varieties of herbal medicines, which people used to identify in the wilderness, are lost for ever; new ventures in herbal medicine are of a different order. Rivers are polluted by industries and large cities. Forests have receded. Tea gardens consume as much as 80 per cent of the total produce in the Darjeeling hills. Forest people are forced to adopt agriculture. Large parts of forests are taken away by agriculturists. The ecological balance has been shattered. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have caused damage to both man and earth beyond redemption. The questions thus arise: Where has the ageless wisdom gone? Do people know how to get at the source of tradition? Is the world today concerned with traditional knowledge? Is there hope for humanity?

There are three factors which make tradition operative — power, wisdom and intention. Wisdom without power is lame; intention without wisdom is blind, and tradition without all these three is orphaned. As Charles S. Makari has highlighted in his paper, the traditional African way of imparting knowledge from generation to generation persists in the Republic of Zimbabwe. He maintains that ‘the African culture is full of values even richer than the modern world-view which purports to be superior to traditional world-views’. It is the power of the wisdom and the intention of the African people that make the transmission of traditional knowledge possible.

Can man destroy the Earth? Tradition does not say so. The Vedic concept of viraj — the Universal Cow — highlights the infinite capacity of Nature. When the Universal Cow came to men, Earth was made her milking pail, the calf was Manu and the King Prithi was her milker; he milked forth husbandry and grain for sowing. According to the Atharvaveda, men depend for life on tillage; he who knows this becomes the supporter and successful in the culture of his cornland. The pauranic tradition refers to Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling Cow. In the cyclic concept of time, the ‘Age of Truth’ follows the ‘Age of the Machine’. The cycle of rise and fall is built into the cosmic design. The destiny of the Earth is not a private affair of human beings: it is a cosmic affair. What is happening today may have a higher purpose. Who knows that? Perhaps, a healthy reaction to worldwide pollution, deforestation, and dehumanisation is a sign of good hope. The hope for humanity lies with the wisdom tradition.

 

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