Hinduism and Nature by Nanditha Krishna

A much-needed exploration of the holistic and unifying Hindu framework of the universe, and the consequences of its weakening.

Here is a book from Nanditha Krishna, the noted environmentalist, historian and writer from Chennai, that was crying out to be written.

Imagine, if you will, the Vaishali Express drawing into the city of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Before you reach it, however, you pass a small station called Kooda Ghat, literally the place of rubbish; and it well lives up to its name. It is like a scene out of a nightmare — mountains of rubbish, plains, rivers and valleys of rubbish run as far as the eye can see from the train window. I will not be exaggerating if I take this scene to be a representation of much of India. Is this despoliation of the Indian sub-continent a direct consequence of the weakening and gradual disappearance of the link between Hinduism and nature, which was a part of the quotidian life of the people for millennia?

Hinduism provides a living framework linked to the specific Indic idea of man and the cosmos; not a set of arbitrary and superstitious rules, but a set of scientific good practices. A description of this link and the consequences of its loosening make up the subject matter of this book. Through a detailed consideration of the theoretical Hindu understanding of nature and then of different aspects of wild and cultivated nature, the author explains this thesis, which is worth paying close attention to.

It is an engaging and simple book to read. The sourcing from the myriad traditions and stories which make up Hinduism’s devotional cornucopia of riches is there for all to read and appreciate. Krishna follows the method of considering each topic first with reference to mentions and discussions in Hindu literature as well as local oral traditions, and then a geographical and precise description of the forests or animals or rivers she is talking of. This makes the book an invaluable source for anyone wishing to know of or visit sacred spots in each state of India.

She starts with an introduction in which she sets out to explain the holistic, all-encompassing and unifying nature of the Hindu conception of the cosmos. From the Vedas to the Upanishads and the Purananuru of the third Tamil Sangam, she discusses numerous examples to illustrate the unity of the Hindu worldview.

It is the central idea of this book and must be emphasised. To state this in the direct and simple form found in the seventh chapter of the Bhagavat Gita:

म : परतरं ना यि कि ादि त धन ाय।
मिय सव िमदं ोतं सू े मिणगणा इव ।।7.7।।

Explained, the set of shlokas culminating with this one means that all of creation, comprising “apara” and “para” prakriti, springs from the same source and is strung together like a string of pearls in the essence of paramatma.

There are other concepts such as that of karma and rebirth, which reinforce this idea that respect is due to all beings; what is today a lizard or a fly could, through the cycle of rebirth, be a lion or a man tomorrow and is as deserving of respect. The Christian concept of man as the lord of creation does not fit in here.

India has a long tradition of preserving the environment and guarding it against “pradooshan” or pollution by giving many good practices religious sanction, according to the author. Today, however, with the break-up of traditional ways of living and the degradation of “religious” practices as blind superstition, as also the onslaught of capitalism and commercialisation, many of these traditions are dying a slow death.

The treatment of groves and gardens with a focus on forests brings out their seminal role in Hindu civilisation and culture. Much of Hindu intellectual work has been done in the silence and peace of the forests in gurukuls and ashrams. The author mentions the goddess of the forest Aranyani found in the Rig Veda, and discusses the Bhoomi Sukta of the Atharva Veda. Also discussed are the guardian spirits of the trees and the rivers, the yakshas and yakshinis, whose worship goes back millennia. The sacred groves consecrated to them are and continue to remain, to some extent, areas of conservation. It is interesting that archaeology notes the remains of such groves going as far back as 200 BCE in many places such as Sonkh in Mathura. The Saraswati Sindhu civilisation, too, has yielded prolific remains of terracotta goddesses.

Gardens belonging to temples and the positive role played by them in maintaining and nurturing different species of plants has been well-described. The Cholas were leaders in this area, as well-attested to by extant temples and the old records on temple walls.

Before moving on, we must note the extended treatment of the Valmiki Ramayana as a treatise on the flora and fauna of the day. It is an invaluable resource and needs to be read and treated as such.

In the chapter on divine waters, Krishna tells the stories of the rivers Saraswati, Indus, Ganga, Krishna, Narmada, Godavari and many more. The famous Nadi Stuti stotra of the Rig Veda is mentioned. The Saraswati and the Indus both have the privilege of nurturing that most advanced civilisation of the past, called the Indus Valley or Harappan or now the Saraswati Sindhu civilisation, along their banks. As contemporary evidence piles up for its continuity with what we call today as Hinduism, a study of the lost Saraswati and the Indus and its tributaries is most timely, though only too brief.

There are very intriguing and pertinent facts relating to rainwater harvesting and water management functions of temple tanks and festivals. An example; for the construction of clay murtis for festivals, tanks and ponds were desilted and the clay fashioned into the idols. In the Deccan, for instance, they were fashioned into images of Lord Ganesha and worshipped during Ganesh Chaturthi, which coincides with the south west monsoon. They were then immersed in the water body again to become silt and line its bed. Tanks, ponds and wells were efficient drought and flood control mechanisms.

The chapter on flora is correctly called “Plants as Protectors”. It begins with a study of the worship of trees. The metaphor of the ashwath tree as a symbol of the world, of its vistaar and maya, is a common one from the Rig Veda to the Atharva Veda, the Taittiriya Brahmana, the Kathopnishad; the upside down vishwavriksha of the Bhagavat Gita, and the jeevatma and paramatma as two birds in the tree of the Mundak Upanishad. Trees play a part both in the formal philosophy of Hinduism and the most down-to-earth and personal worship as done by women during vat-savitri. Trees appear also on the seals of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Different trees of seminal importance such as the bargad, the mango and metaphorical ones like the kalpavriksha or wish-fulfilling tree are described and their ritual, medicinal and food value detailed.

It is one of the most poorly understood aspects of Hinduism that animals are also worshipped as gods; it is mistakenly touted as the foremost example of the backward, superstitious and primitive nature of the religion. In actual fact, it is a recognition of the interconnected nature of all creation. Through the reverence offered to animals as gods such as Lord Ganesh or as the vahanas (vehicles) of gods and goddesses, Hinduism confirms that the same spirit animates the entire chain of creation and respect is due to all who are linked in this chain. This is an understanding that contemporary ecological and environmental sciences are coming to only belatedly. The chapter “Children of Pashupati” is an exposition on this subject. It has interesting portions on vegetarianism and Hinduism and the place of cows in Hinduism, which will interest the reader, whether she agrees with the hypothesis put forward or not.

The last chapter is on mountains, the “Abode of the Gods”. Mountains provide the prototype for the Hindu temple, which is built on the cosmic plan and pierced by the axis mundi. There are big and small mountains across the country dedicated to different local gods and goddesses. There is an excellent list of the sacred mountains and hills of each state included in this chapter.

The conclusion ties up the strands and exhorts the reader to live this divine connection with all of creation by thinking of how to be of service to nature and the environment. It is an impassioned and convincing plea.

It is a bit of a disappointment, however, to find the slightly disjointed quotes from Sanskrit and Tamil literature used by the author. Deeper understanding is expected from a PhD in ancient Indian culture. The philosophical unity of Hindu cosmogony and the symbolic meanings of plant, animal and human life as the manifestation of matter, life and mind from the common unmanifest source could have been brought out in a much more logical fashion.

Geographically speaking, Hindu temples outside the current borders of India could also have been considered, and the other Indic religions which share cosmogonies.
Having said this, the material is already so huge that books may need to be written on each chapter. The treatment of each topic sometimes seems cursory. In the chapter on water, for instance, one would have liked to see more discussion of temples and water systems such as those of Angkor Vat.

Modern environmental science inputs and understanding have also not been expounded on as much as necessary. It is not enough to detail the Hindu understanding; more needed to be written to bring out how the management of natural resources was done as per scientific principles set out in the form of religious prescriptions, proscriptions and practices. Some pertinent and critical examples have been mentioned, but much more is needed and who better to provide these inputs than an environmentalist who is also a historian?

This book is a must read, not just because it brings to the fore a lost understanding of the Hindu way of life but also because we must not just read, we must practise what we know.

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