Our Nature is Our Culture

by October 9, 2018 0 comments

India is one of those beautiful countries where nature manifests itself into culture. The only way to preserve that nature and culture is by reinforcing people’s confidence that culturally, nature works best for them.

October is a busy month for nature enthusiasts. Many of the national parks and sanctuaries are reopened post-monsoon for tourists. The ‘wild’ becomes accessible once again. It is also the time when the world rejoices in celebrating the environment. The United Nations recently announced the ‘Champions of the Earth Award’ jointly to French President Emmanuel Macron and the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi for their bold environmental leadership on the global stage. This included major initiatives towards building a global solar alliance and the elimination of single-use plastic by 2022.

India also prepares for celebrating the 66th Wildlife Week, and the renewed political focus on nature by top political leadership of the world, is a golden opportunity that must be seized. For a decade, that has been marked with fast-track development, it will be praise worthy to pause and reflect on the ways and means used to ensure green growth.

India stands out from the rest of the world as nature manifests itself in the country’s culture. She, as compared to her tropical cousins in South Asia, has done well to protect its wild species. We may be the second most populated, yet also have the world’s largest population of mammals such as Asiatic lion, tigers, elephants, one horned rhinoceros, gaur and water buffalo. A historical legacy of 200 years of forestry has to some extent contributed to their upkeep, but most wildlifers would agree that the primary reason for their existence has been India’s inherent religious and spiritual values and the culture of ahimsa — to live and let live.

Historian Irfan Habib in his book, Man and Environment: The Ecological History of India, explains that ahimsa (abstaining from causing injury to living things) is referred to as a recommended practice for the pious in the Chandogya Upanishad (III.17.4) of 8th-6th Century BCE. Further, it was in Jainism and Buddhism (which arose around 500 BC) that it received the strongest emphasis.

Ramchandra Guha in his most recent book, Environmentalism: A Global History, remarks that in a “densely populated country like India, environmental issues have both an ecological and human dimension”. The ecological dimension of protecting the environment has been proven to a great extent beyond scientific doubt and has manifested itself in accepted policy such as abandoning large dams, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and setting aside protected areas.

The human dimension is manifested in good cultures, be it the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan for whom the principle of compassion for all living beings is part of daily life, to the Maldharis in Gujarat who have shown tolerance to live amidst lions, and the tree-hugging Chamoli women of Garhwal Himalayas, for whom the health of the forest is a matter of their own survival. Even  with the wild animals, elephant is associated with Lord Ganesha, or the vultures become sacred for excarnation among Zoroastrians and Sarus cranes become symbols of marital fidelity, and hence, letting them survive the rural agricultural landscapes of the country.

But there are cultures that are antiquated, such as feeding and letting macaques and strays scavenge in our urban dwellings, practicing communal hunting (akhandshikar) in the name of subsistence tribal beliefs, or using felonious methods such as, country guns, mosquito nets and pesticides to overshoot and overkill for bushmeat, illegal wildlife trade and fishing respectively.

The western approach may see this over-exploitation of natural resources as a problem that can be tackled through education, legislation and science, yet at the same time there is an opportunity to include the spiritual and religious construct that underpin such a behaviour.

Harvard Indologist Diana L. Eck, in her seminal work, “India: A sacred Geography”, mentions that “Indian sacredness continues to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country. Its unity as a nation has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines.” Regaining people’s confidence that culturally nature works best for them and that it is in their benefit to get it right, is the way forward.

There are examples of local initiatives that need to be upscaled for a systematic IEC (information, education and communication) plan. For example, the church was roped in to preach against the mass hunting of Amur falcons in Nagaland, and over a million of these magnificent trans-continental raptors were saved.

In Gujarat, Morari Bapu, famous for his Ram Kathas, combined his preaching with the strict laws for whale shark protection to convince the fishermen against its hunting. Bonbibi Goddess is worshipped both by Hindus and Muslims in Sundarbans as she protects all its denizens from calamities; the ancient Devrais (sacred groves) of Maharashtra and other parts of Western Ghats continue to serve its purpose for centuries now.

Sikkim once again leads the country on green development as it beautifully integrates culture and spirituality, formally into the affairs of the Government. All projects including building of linear infrastructure must be precluded by religious protocols and ritual traditions (intertwined with the preservation of nature) as performed by one of its oldest and most respected ecclesiastical affairs department.

As we can see, it is the human dimension of environmental preservation which is likely to be more complex and politically more appealing. Hence, it is an option that needs to be vastly explored. For this, one must harness this power of nature in culture and convey the same to fellow Indians.

Every faith have an uncanny ability to reinvent or reinterpret themselves, and hence, convey complex social ideas through simple stories — stories that are remembered forever.

So when President of India, Ram Nath Kovind wrote that “India is nature’s favourite child and fraternity and compassion are written into nature’s DNA” or when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Mann ki Baat remarks that “being sensitive towards nature, protecting nature, should come naturally to us; and that these virtues should be embedded in our sanskar (culture)”, it is indeed a good beginning of a great October.

(The writer is Director, Swachh Bharat Mission. The views expressed here are personal)

Writer: Sonali Ghosh

Source: The Pioneer

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