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Nature as Culture

Baidyanath Saraswati

The essays here collected are the result of the IGNCA Pilot Studies of Lifestyles carried out in four different locations, namely, the high Himalayas of the Garhwal region, the rich forests of Western Ghats in South India, the enchanting archipelago of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea, and the coastal village of the fisherfolk located above Cape Comorin. The authors of the essays are knowledgeable experts — ecologist, anthropologist and folklorist of repute. In what follows we may briefly highlight the essence of each of these contributions.

The contribution by the ecologist Madhava Gadgil is an excellent overview of the field of ecology and traditional resource management systems. Investigating the several different worldviews in relation to ecologically prudent resource use practices, the author has arrived at the conclusion that scientific prescriptions often resemble or parallel ‘pre-scientific’ prescriptions based on traditional ecological knowledge and simple rules of thumb. An important point which has been stressed here is that with all its power, modern science seems unable to halt and reverse the depletion of resources and the degradation of the environment. The reason for this, he says, may be that scientific resource management, and Western reductionist science in general, developed in the service of the utilitarian, exploitative "dominion over nature" worldview of colonialists and developers.

The anthrolopist R.S. Negi dwells on the symbiotic relationship between man, animal and nature in the Garhwal Himalaya. Rich in ethnographic details, the paper highlights the sociocultural aspects of the Muslim Gujar pastoralists. Their concept of time and space, defined as ecological and structural, has a special significance for pastoral lifestyles which follow horizontal seasonal migration between two ecozones and transhumant mode of subsistence based on buffalo herd. Addressing the strategies of life-support and herd raising, the author finds that the Gujars are ideally adapted to the requirements of the pastoral ecosystem. He also touches on their knowledge of the various diseases that the buffaloes suffer from, and gives a good account of Gujar cosmology and belief system. On the recent changes from pastoral nomadism to sedentarisation and rehabilitation, his analysis indicates that Gujars today use their experiential knowledge for over-exploitation of the forest resources, allowing no opportunity for regeneration. This, he says, eventually goes against their own interest.

The ecologist M.D. Subash Chandran presents a case study of an ancient sacred grove in the Western Ghats. Introducing the concept of sacredness of trees, primarily by examples from different parts of the world, he turns to the Indian scenario where Hindus maintain sacred forests all over. Giving scriptural and historical references of sacred groves and trees, the author shows continuity of the sacred tradition through the ages. In particular, the sacred kans forest rich in biological diversity is identified as the property of the village Gods. This central belief has played an important role in the conservation of biodiversity and helped regeneration and restoration of the degraded forests around. Decline of the kans begins with the decline of faith. Also the State domination over the forest and subsequent exploitation by forest-based industries, followed by negative change in Indian attitude toward nature, have caused disappearance of sacred groves. Finally, what seems evident is the fact that the groves, once an integral part of the village landscape and ecosystem, are no more sacred.

The anthropologist Makhan Jha has taken fishing and coconut as the dual entry point for studying the cultural perception of the Muslim islanders of Lakshadweep. Describing and illustrating their lifestyle, he arrives at the conclusion that the island culture and its ecology are inseparable in their structure and function. He brings sophistication to the study of the islanders’ knowledge of the sea, flora and fauna, space and time, and cosmos by referring to the people’s historical background as well as the existing ecological setup. It has been pointed out that some of their archaic pre-Islamic traditions, folklore, folksong, belief in spirit, myth and mysterious dreams are shaped and determined by ocean ecology. But it is feared that since the natural eco-system today is greatly influenced by man-made structure, the old cultural values and traditions may become extinct soon.

The folklorist John Samuel has studied Christian Mukkuvar, a marine fishing community in Kannyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. The first part is devoted to Mukkuvar’s conversion to Christianity. The impact of Christianity on their life and culture is said to be both positive and negative. The author turns to account their cultural perception of soil, flora and fauna, seasons, ocean currents, winds, cycles of the sea, the atmosphere (sky), the fire, the sun, the moon, and the divine fish, in order to initiate an analysis of the Mukkuvar worldview. This also helps understand their tools and techniques of fishing. A glimpse of their cycle, and associated beliefs and rituals provide the distinctive features that make a Mukkuvar culture what it is. While considering the implication of oral tradition and its modification at each generation, as witnessed today, the author has been prudent enough to draw our attention back to the Mukkuvar’s intrinsic uniqueness.

In conclusion, the contributions to this volume provide us with a new perspective in ecology and culture. We wish to stress the point that the examples presented here are sufficient to give the savour of distinction between traditional sacred science and modern reductionist science. Anthropology, the modern science of man and culture, has given us two incompatible maxims: cultura ex cultura and cultura ex natura. Culturalists grant cultural phenomena as autonomous and efficient agent of themselves. Naturalists, on the other hand, attribute cultural forms to nature, that is, cultural forms are said to have evolved from nature. In other words, culture is a step beyond nature. Both these perceptions have given rise to what might be called the "ladder mentality". The ladder symbolizes a climb through simple to complex, from instinct to intelligence, from non-living to living, from less conscious to more conscious, from inorganic elements to plants, to animals to humans, from savagery to barbarism to civilization. In each case, the ladder refers to a progressive development. In contrast, the present studies have shown that there is an existential connection between nature and culture. Man cannot live without nature, for he cannot live without spirit either. For instance, despite their conversion to non-Hindu religion, the Himalayan pastoral nomads, the Lakshadweep islanders and the Mukkuvar fisherfolk follow the spirit of the natural world, not in imitation of olden times but in continuation of the primal vision. There is enough evidence to say that the initiatic lifestyles of traditional cultures all over the world are built around nature. It is this mystery of inseparability of nature and culture which has to be understood in regard to the lived experience of traditional societies.


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