CULTURAL TRADITIONS OF NATURE CONSERVATION IN INDIA


S.M. Nair
Living in harmony with Nature has been an integral part of Indian culture. This has been abundantly reflected in a variety of traditional practices, religious beliefs, rituals, folklore, arts and crafts, and in the daily lives of the Indian people from time immemorial. The present day global concerns for sustainable development and conservation of natural resources spanning the two decades between the Stockholm Conference of Environment in 1992 and the United Nations Conference on Human Environment and Development (Earth Summit) at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 are of recent origin in comparison to the long tradition and cultural ethos of nature conservation in India.


Virtually all the countries of the world have rich traditions embedded in the ethics of protecting nature. Many ancient cultures tell us how communities lived in harmony with nature, with a tradition of reverence for the elements that constitute ecosytems, drawing their sustenance from natural resources and at the same time protecting the environment that sustains them. Modern man tends to look down upon indigenous people as primitive, backward and superstitious. They may be poor, illiterate, and disadvantaged in many other ways, but they have a tremendous understanding of ecosystems and the factors that sustain them. In the words of Sitakant Mahapatra (1992):


"They still look upon life as a gift to be celebrated; and this ancient Earth as one to be praised, worshipped and also celebrated. They are the one to whom the earth is not something to be used, not a possession or an object for exploitation but a living entity, an object of reverence, and the relationship is one of sacred trust and loving intimacy. For, they believe as much in celebrating one's life in this world as in remembering, adoring and celebrating the world in one's life. The sacred soil of ancestors into which one is born is thus a part of one's fundamental psychic experience of life and is a part of its spiritual dimension. The earth, the land, the village enter into and are secure in racial memory and it is only an ethical imperative to worship the Earth goddess, the Mother Earth."


The worship of Mother Earth is a universal phenomenon in many indigenous cultures. There are innumerable examples of festivals, rituals, songs, and myths that celebrate the gifts of Mother Earth all over the world, revealing the intimate sense of togetherness and harmony that exists between man and nature in tribal societies. An American - Indian community, the Sioux Indians, refused to till the soil because they did not want to wound the body of their mother, the Earth. They would say, 'Must I mutilate her flesh so as to get at her bones? Then I can never again enter into her body and be born again.'


Indigenous people in many countries attribute supernatural powers to plants, animals, rivers, oceans, mountains, the wind, sun and moon. Respect for nature is inherent in many religious faiths. Many Hindu gods and goddesses are shown to use animals as mounts. Sacred groves or sacred forests preserved with reverence have been part of Hindu and Buddhist culture. In Christianity as well as in Islam, conservation of the environment is based on the. principle that nature and its components are created by God, and humans are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting it. Many religions and moral philosophies have professed the unity of all life on earth and the obligation of human beings to care for them.


Today, when people throughout the world are perturbed by the degradation of the environment and the disastrous consequences of this, traditional ethics of nature conservation could be looked upon as a source of inspiration and guidance for the future. Perhaps no other culture can provide such a profound variety of cultural practices and ecologically sound relationship with nature as the Indian. This chapter is an attempt to bring together some of the information available on this aspect of Indian culture from various sources.


THE INDIAN TRADITION
For the people of India, environmental conservation is not a new concept. Historically, the protection of nature and wildlife was an ardent article of faith, reflected in the daily lives of people, enshrined in myths, folklore, religion, arts, and culture. Some of the fundamental principles of ecology-the interrelationship and interdependence of all life-were conceptualized in the Indian ethos and reflected in the ancient scriptural text, the Isopanishad, over 2000 years ago. It says, 'This universe is the creation of the Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all his creation. Each individual life-form must, therefore, learn to enjoy its benefits by forming a part of the system in close relation with other species. Let not anyone species encroach upon the other's rights.'


The oldest visual image of the human fascination, love, and reverence for nature in India can be found in the 10,000 year-old cave paintings at Bhimbetka in Central India depicting birds, animals, and human beings living in harmony. The Indus Valley civilization provides evidence of human interest in wildlife, as seen in seals depicting images of rhino, elephant, bull, etc. Historically, conservation of nature and natural resources was an innate aspect of the Indian psyche and faith, reflected in religious practices, folklore, art and culture permeating every aspect of the daily lives of people. Scriptures and preachings that exhort reverence for nature and relate to conservation can be found in most of the religions that have flourished in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam; and others place great emphasis on the values, beliefs, and attitudes that relate to the cross-cultural universality of respect for nature and the elements that constitute the universe. The concept of sinning against nature existed in various religious systems. Classical Indian myth is replete with similies of man in unison with the environment. Many of the rituals which to modern society may seem meaningless and superstitious were traditional strategies to preserve the intrinsic relationship between man and nature. The worship of trees, animals, forests, rivers, and the sun, and considering the earth itself as Mother Goddess, were part of the Indian tradition.


SACRED GROVES
One of the finest examples of traditional practices in India based on religious faith which has made a profound contribution to nature conservation has been the maintenance of certain patches of land or forests as "sacred groves' dedicated to a deity or a village God, protected, and worshipped. These are found all over India, and abundantly along the Western Ghats, the west coast, and in several parts of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu amd Maharashtra. In Kerala there are hundreds of small jungles dedicated to snakes (Sarpakavu, Sarpa meaning snake, kavu meaning jungle). There are also Ayyappan kavus dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, the most famous of which, visited by millions of devotees every year, being the sacred hill of Sabarimala with an Ayyappan temple.


According to Madhav Gadgil (1985):

"Sacred groves ranged in extent from fifty hectares or more to a few hundred square metres. Where the network. of sacred groves has remained intact till recent times, as in the South Kanara district of the west coast, one can see that they formed island of climax vegetation at densities of 2 to 3 per. sq. km, ranging in size from a small clump to a hectare or more, and originally covering perhaps 5 per cent of the land area. This must have been a very effective way of preserving tropical biological diversity, for we are still discovering new species of plants which have disappeared from everywhere else, in these sacred groves."


In spite of the depletion of forests in many parts of India, some sacred groves still remain intact as oases in deserts, conserving rich biological diversity. The maintenance of sacred groves can thus he considered to be an outstanding example of a traditional practice that has contributed to forest conservation, albeit in a small measure. There are also examples of sacred ponds attached to temples in many parts of India. Some of these have been responsible for the protection of certain endangered species of turtles, crocodiles, and the rare fresh water sponge.


SACRED PLANTS AND ANIMALS
Many plants and animals have from historcial times been considered sacred in India by various communities. The most outstanding examples are the peepal tree (Ficus religiosa). The banyan tree (Ficus 'bengelensiss, and Khejdi tree (Prosopis cineraria), and these have been traditionally revered and therefore never cut. There are a number of other trees and plants considered sacred and grown in temple premises and are protected in other localities. More than a hundred such species of trees/plants in India are considered sacred by various communities and religious faiths. These include the sandalwood tree, beetlenut, palm, neem, coconut palm, juniper, champa, lotus, tulsi, pepper, etc. Such traditional cultural attitudes, though based on religious faith, have made significant contribution in the protection and propagation of various species of trees and plants in India.


Many animals are considered sacred and worshipped by several Hindu and other communities, and have thus received protection for centuries. The peafowl, sacred to lord Karttikeya is never hunted, the blue rock pigeon is considered sacred to Saint Hazrat Shah lalal and is protected in the Bengal region. Even rodents are considered sacred and are allowed to breed in the famous temple of goddess Karnimata in Rajasthan. The tiger and the cobra, though greatly feared, are afforded protection on religious grounds. According to Asutosh Bhattacharya (1956):


"In the pre-Aryan society of India tiger worship was in vogue from the remotest past. The seal engraved with the image of Siva, lord of beasts, that has been discovered at Mohenjodaro has also, among other four principal beasts, the figure of a tiger engraved beside Siva. Siva, the god of the ancient non-Aryan race of India, is clad in a tigerskin and it is a tigerskin which is his seat. Probably the tiger was the most primitive vehicle of Siva. Later, when cow-worship started in society, Siva was made to ride on a bullock, but a tigerskin was preserved for his wearing cloth and seat. The legitimate conclusion form the association of this particular beast with the god Siva is that the tiger-worship of primitive society has subsequently got mixed with the Saiva cult. Another proof of the special vogue of tiger-worship in regions lying outside the pale of Aryan society in Northern India is that there is a community named Baghel Rajputs in Rajputana. Perhaps they are the descendants of some primitive community of tiger-worshippers. They worship tigers and never hunt them."


Snake worship has been an established cult among the Nairs of Kerala. Snake groves or kavus abounding in wild trees and creepers housing a cobra's head carved in granite were found near the homes of many Kerala Hindus. The celebrated Padmanabaswami temple in Thiruvanthapuram has Lord Vishnu reclining on a mighty serpent. Many other animals are also worshipped as they are considered vehicles of gods and goddesses.


Dealing with the status given to 'animals in India, Sadashiv Gorakshkar (1988) states:


"In Buddhist mythology, the Jatakas or the stories of the Buddha's previous life are replete with several incarnations of the Bodhisattvaas an animal. Among the Jains, eighteen of the twenty-four Tirthankaras have an animal as their cognizance. It is interesting to observe that the first, second and the eleventh Tirthankaras have a bull, an elephant and a rhinoceros as their cognizances. Their antiquity could be traced to the Indus valley period (c. 2500 -1750 BC). The famous Pasupati seal, for instance, shows a deity seated with a horned crown and surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhino and a bull/buffalo. On the other hand, those of the first.second, third, and twenty-fourth, viz. the bull,elephant, horse and lion make their appearance on the Ashokan pillar capital at Sarnath in the third century BC."


All these accounts vividly show how the ancient culture and traditions of Indian society contributed to the conservation of natural ecosystems, and the plants and animals that inhabited these.


NATURE IN INDIAN ART AND SCRIPTURES
Indian painting, sculpture, architectural ornamentation, and the decorative arts is replete with themes from nature and wildlife reflecting love and reverence, and therefore the ethics of conservation. A wide range of images of forests, plants, and animals are to be found in Indian miniature paintings and sculpture. The theme of the Hindu god Krishna's life depicted in miniature paintings underlines an appreciation of ecological balance. He is shown persuading people to worship the mountain in order to ensure rainfall. Krishna swallowing the forest fire also signifies a concern for the protection of forests and wildlife.


Innumerable examples of the status given to plants and animals can also be seen in the traditional sculptural art of India. The concept of vana devatas (tree goddesses), vehicles of gods and goddesses, sacred trees, tree and animal worship.' etc. are depicted in stone and metal sculptures independently, or as part of temples, palaces, and historical buildings. In literature and scriptures too there has been considerable depiction of the appreciation and love for nature:


"Mahakavi Kalidasa, a prominent poet of the ancient period (fourth century AD) visualized, a cloud as a messenger in his Meghaduta and went into raptures when describing various seasons in his Ritusamhara. Such an involvement with nature is reflected even in the visual arts which excel in their minute depiction of nature.


Indian literature effectively mirrors the ethos of its deep and sympathetic understanding of animals through innumerable stories. Even amongst these one could pertinently mention are the Hitopadesha, the Panchatantra or the Shuka-saptati which abound in allegorical references to the animal world. The impact of the Panchatantra was so great that as early as the seventh century AD it was translated into Arabic under the title Kalila-wa-Dimna and has been very popular in the Arab and Persian world ever since. Though an interior form of life, animals have been endowed with ennobling qualities which provide lessons in morals relevant even to human beings.


Just as the appearance of animals in dreams or visions is considered to express energy, which has still not been differentiated or rationalized, identification of oneself with animals has been interpreted to represent integration of the unconscious with sources of life itself. Indian approach to the animal world has consistently demonstrated this appreciation throughout its evolving pattern of thought, and it is no wonder that Indian art, while reflecting the changing approach to physical representation of animal form, has retained the core of thought that it has moulded." [Sadashiv Gorakshkar, 1988.]


OTHER SPECIFIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO CONSERVATION
Twenty-two centuries ago Emperor Ashoka decreed that it was a king's duty to protect wildlife and the trees of the forests. He got edicts inscribed on rocks and iron pillars throughout his kingdom, prohibiting the destruction of forests and the killing of various species of animals. This historical evidence, surviving to this day, is the first recorded measure on conservation anywhere in the world. In more recent historical times, Mughal Emperor Babur's memoirs (Baburnama), Guru Nanak's hymns on 'Baramasa' ( the seasons) depicting each month with a dominant bird image, and Emperor Jehangir's memoirs showing his keen interest in and study of wildlife provide fine illustrations of this Indian tradition.


The love for nature has been handed down the ages, becoming an integral part of the Indian psyche. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the martyrdom of the Bishnois in Khejarli village in Rajasthan. In 1730 AD the then ruler of a native state had ordered the khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees to be cut in order to bake lime for the construction of a fort. This sparked off a strong collective protest from the local Bishnoi community. 363 men and women, young and old, one after the other, placed their heads against the trees to prevent them being cut and were axed along with the trees. The ruler of the state was so moved by this sacrifice that he sought pardon from the people and issued an order that no green trees should in future be cut in the Bishnoi village. This happened over two centuries ago when the world had scarcely become conscious of ecological consequences of the reckless felling of trees. This legend is now celebrated by singers on stage and in the streets during the Tree Festival. (Man Mohan Singh,1990).


This long tradition and belief in the conservation of nature is also vividly alive in contemporary times. One of the most successful conservation movements in India today is the Chipko movement spearheaded by the womenfolk of Gopeswar village in Garhwal in the Himalaya. Commercial felling of trees was effectively stopped by them by hugging the trees when lumbermen arrived to cut them. This simple yet effective action eventually saved 12,000 sq.km. of a sensitive water catchment area. There was a similar Apiko movement in the southern state of Karnataka.


ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT
India is no exception to the global phenomenon of environmental degradation brought about by developmental activities. Rapid industrialization, growing urbanization, intensive cultivation, and other developmental activities, coupled with increasing biotic pressure has had a very adverse impact on India's environment. The major areas of environmental concern today include, (i) deforestation, (ii) egradation of land resources, (iii) pollution of air and water, (iv) threat to natural living resources - wildlife, fisheries, etc, and (v) problems associated with urbanization - slums, sanitation, pollution.


Human and animal pressures have led to considerable deforestation. Deforestation leads to soil erosion and sedimentation that shortens the economic life of reservoirs, hydroelectric facilities, and irrigation systems. The problem of water and air pollution is assuming serious proportions in various parts of the country. With eighty per cent of industrial production confined to ten cities, atmospheric pollution is concentrated principally in the major cities and industrial towns. Apart from industries, the density of traffic is also contributing substantially to air pollution.


Habitat destruction has endangered the survival of a number of plants and animals.


Two species of mammals - the Indian cheetah and the Lesser Indian rhinoceros, and two species of birds-the Pink headed duck and the Mountain quail-have become extinct during twentieth century alone. Eighty-one species of mammals, 38 species of birds, and 18 species of amphibians and repitles are now listed as 'rare' and 'threatened'. Among these are the tiger, leopard, Asiatic elephant, and all- the three species of the Indian crocodile. About 1500 species of plants are on the endangered list.


India has often been described as a rich land with poor people. Its average annual precipitation, the second highest in the world, next only to South America, its perpetual sunshine, and its other resources-natural and human-place it among the potentially rich nations. History, however, decreed otherwise and it found itself in 1947, at the time of Independence, among the poorest with "a majority of its people suffering from hunger, ignorance, and disease, and with little infrastructure for irrigation, power, transport, communication or industry. Only 25 per cent of its men and 7 per cent of its women knew how to read and write. The founding fathers of the nation led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru realized that political independence would have no meaning unless it enabled them to quickly release themselves from the morass of poverty. Thus began, in the word's of Indira Gandhi, 'an enterprise unparalleled in human history-the provision of basic needs to one-sixth of mankind within the span of one or two generations'.


It was in the early seventies that, along with the rest of the countries of the world, India became conscious of another disquieting trend. The same efforts that had helped to bring people above the poverty line also put greater pressure on the natural resources of the country. The vast majority of our people are directly dependent on the country's natural resources for their basic needs of food, fuel, shelter, and fodder for their cattle.


While the annual per capita income in India has been rising over the years, about 40 per cent of the people are still below the poverty line. Environmental degradation has adversely affected the poor who depend upon the resources of their immediate surroundings. Thus the challenge of poverty and the challenge of environmental degradation are not two different challenges, but two facets of a single challenge.
In a developing country attempting to achieve rapid economic growth, there are often tensions between the claims of environmental protection and those of development. That environmental conservation cannot be isolated from the general issues of development and must be viewed as an integral part of it, and an essential prerequisite for sustainable development, is being increasingly understood today. Conscious efforts are now being made to integrate environmental concerns into policies and programmes relating to economic development. It is at this juncture that we should look back upon our rich tradition of living in harmony with nature, which over the years have been overshadowed by the Western utilitarian approach to scientific and technological developments.


Madhav Gadgil and Romila Thapar (1990) focus our attention to our traditional relationship with nature when they say:


"India obviously needs a new strategy of resource use and a new common belief system to hold the society together and put this strategy into operation. The present strategy of resource-use intensification, leading to increasing levels of outflows from the countryside to the urban-industrial sector, which is heavily subsidized by the state, and from the country as a whole to the developed world, and the belief system centred on development and national prestige, which has replaced the unifying theme of a national struggle against the British, have proved inadequate. The new strategy has to be grounded in efficient, sustainable use of resources and supported by a belief system based on respect for the natural endowments ofthe country. There are welcome signs that such a strategy and such a belief system are beginning to emerge, although not enough has happened in tenus of concrete action. What does ultimately happen will depend critically on how far society recognizes the real power of those whose well-being is organically linked to the health of the resource base of the country the peasants, the tribal peoples and the nomads".

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr S.M. Nair. former Director of the National Museum of Natural History, New Delhi, is an eminent museologist with an international reputation. He has a Masters degree in Zoology, and a Doctorate in Museology, and has served on the faculty of the departments of Museology at the M.S. University, Baroda, and the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani. He is the recipient of the Rockefeller III Fund Fellowship, the Homi Bhabha Fellowship, and the Smithsonian Institution Fellowship in the field of Museology. His major area of specialization and expertise is in the organization of natural history museums, environmental education, and the spread of conservation awareness. He has been Vice-Chairman of the International Committee of Natural History Museums, International Council of Museums, and edited the journal. "Studies in Museology". Widely travelled both in India and abroad, he is the architect of the first National Museum of Natural History in India and the guiding force behind its exhibit programmes, educational activities, and popular publications.

 
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