Environment Consciousness in Ancient India

October 18, 2016 OPINION/NEWS


Kaushik Acharya

The Vedas are the first texts in the literature of the human race. They deal with knowledge, both physical and spiritual.

The Vedic views revolve around the concept of Nature and life. We can easily figure out how nature was related to the life and livelihood of Vedic people through their literature which is referred to as The Vedas. This article attempts to explore the awareness of ancient Indian people about Environment. In various texts of The Vedas we find the oldest and simplest form of Nature worship. This ancient literature reflects on the history of the Vedic period, as literature mirrors society and social lives.

The Vedas are filled with strong statements, various ideas and unusual images, which contain factual truths of the universe. Again, if modern science is observed through the lens of Vedic philosophy, different fraternities of science can be reached at their primary or primitive forms. The Vedic sages gave complete descriptions of all the disciplines which have been developed and taught down the ages.

Modern science defines Environment as follows: Environment includes water, air, and land, and their inter-relationship with human beings, other living creatures, plants, micro-organisms and property (both movable and immovable), ref: The Environment Protection Act, 1986. According to this definition, Environment consists of two components, namely living beings and non-living beings.

According to The Atharvaveda there are three covers of the environment and they are referred to as Chandamsi. They are: Water, Air and Herbs. They have existed in the world since the birth of the planet: “trini ca chandamsi kavayo bi yetire pururupam darsatam visvacaksam/ apo vata ousadhayastanyekasmin bhubana arpitani” (Atharvaveda 18.1.17). It proves the Vedic sages had enough knowledge and understanding of the basic elements of the environment. On the other hand, The Upanisads describe earth, air, ether, water and light as the five basic elements of the universe: “imani pancamahabhutani prthivi vayuh akasah apjyotisi” (Aitareya Upanisad 3.3).

Any disturbance/abnormality in them disturbs the natural balance that influences the living creatures. The relation between human and Environment is believed to be very strong as the human race can’t live without Mother Nature. People in the Vedic period were intimately attached to Nature. “mata bhumih putro aham prthivyah”—The earth is my mother and I’m her son (Atharvaveda 12.1.12). They observed and understood natural hazards like heavy rainfall, lightening, storm, tremendous heat of the sun, draught, flood, etc. The Vedic sages felt the greatness of Nature, but failed to comprehend the exact reasons behind natural calamities.

The Vedas are not a literature of a single era; rather, it had been edited (through inclusions) down the ages. It was around 6000 BC when The Vedas existed in verbal form, as the skill of writing had not been discovered in those days. According to MaxMullar, Vedic literature had been completed (as in its present form) at around 1200 BC. Weber proposed a different view. According to him it was around 4000BC that marked the completion of Vedic literature. Naturally, the ideas and beliefs changed in every era.

The Vedic sages were confused and worshipped Nature out of surprise and fear at the very beginning of the Vedic period, but then at the Upanisadic period they tried to realize them and opened up their vision to know the original facts.

The hymns of The Rigveda relate to natural forces. They describe the gods as remaining under the influence of the most impressive phenomenon of nature and its several aspects. The attributes assigned to the gods fit in their natural forms and activities. For example, Fire is bright, Air is fast-moving, Sun is the destroyer of darkness and so on.

We can’t ignore the importance of water in our daily life. The water plays a pivotal role in balancing our environment since the formation of the earth. Indra is commonly known as Vritrahanta (the one who killed Vritra) in The Vedas. Vritra was a demon who fetched draught. On the other hand, Indra, the god who brought rain, was able to kill that demon by his powerful weapon Vajra, otherwise called thunder. This natural but scientific phenomenon of Nature has been elaborated throughout the verses of Rigvedic hymn 1.32. The Vedic people perhaps worshipped Indra to get rid of draught and to secure sufficient water for their living. The Vedic sages prayed boldly to these natural forces to protect themselves and for their prosperity. Although they were apprehensive of natural disasters and extreme climatic conditions, the Vedic sages turned up as experts in Nature science.

One of the most enchanting verses of The Rigveda says: Heaven is my father, brother atmosphere is my navel, and the great earth is my mother— “dyaurme pita janita nabhiratra bandhurme mata prthivi mahiyam” (Rigveda 1.164.33). The famous hymn called Bhumisuktam of The Atharvaveda indicates environmental consciousness of Vedic seers. Bhumi or Prthivi is our mother. She is called Vasudha for containing all wealth, Hiranyavaksa for bearing gold, Niveshani for being abode of the whole world, Visvambhara for her representation on behalf of the universe. It is also believed that the earth is not meant only for the human beings, but also for other creatures on this planet—“tvam bibharsi dvipadah tvam catuspadah” (Atharvaveda 12.1.15). Animals and birds are also a part of Nature and environment. The Rigveda classifies these creatures into three groups: sky animals (bird, bat, etc), forest animals (tiger, wolf, etc) and animals in human habitations (cow, horse, etc)—“pasuntamscakre vayavyanaranyan gamyasca je” (Rigveda 10.90). They all have importance in various ways, and they have an environment of their own.

There is a general feeling in the Vedic verses that animals should be safe, protected and healthy. Domestic animals like cows, horses as well as wild animals along with human beings should live in peace under the protection of the gods like Pusan. The cow occupies a very important role in ancient Indian civilization. The cows have been treated as Gomata and well respected for their varied utilities in domestic life (Yajurveda 19.20, 3.37 & Atharvaveda 11.2.24).

The Vedic seers had a good knowledge of various herbs. In The Atharvaveda we can see the significance and usage of different herbs. Ayurveda which is a part of The Atharvaveda is all about the medicinal properties of various herbs and the cure of different illness by using those herbs. Throughout this important part of Vedic literature, the herbs are explained as protector of human body and soul.

Aranyanisukta of The Rigveda strongly urges that the forest should always be green with trees and plants. In modern medical science there are different, definite ways to cure a disease, but it was not like that before. The ancient Indian people depended on forests to cure themselves from diseases and in order to keep the body and mind healthy they used to meditate in ashrams which were surrounded by greenery. They were well aware of the fact that plants came earlier than the animals here in this earth—“ya ousadhih purva jata devebhyastriyugam pura” (Rigveda 10.97.1). This surprises us owing to the fact that the ancient people were aware of the scientific trait of evolution without any equipment.

Modern scientists should feel proud of our ancestors for their profound understanding and views on Environment. Ancient Indian sages knew about various aspects of Environment (Prithivi, Vayu, Apah, Teja and Aakasha), and also the importance of coordination between all natural powers. During prayer the sages expressed their beliefs of the interrelationship among these extreme powers. Prayers carry lives within, they strongly believed that the natural powers existed — their thoughts, these powers and the sages praised them too.

Environment consciousness in ancient India has been documented in literature. The Vedas have urged that Environment belongs to all living beings, so it deserves to be protected by all of us. If we take care for our environment, it will give us years to live here in this earth. The ancient people wished to live a life of a hundred-years—“jivema saradah satam” (Atharvaveda 19.67.1), and they were aware of the fact that Environment should essentially be kept pollution-free, clean and peaceful.









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Kaushik Acharya

Kaushik Acharya teaches Sanskrit in Kushiarbari High School (Mathabhanga, Cooch Behar, India) and he is pursuing doctoral research (PhD) in Sanskrit literature in Jadavpur University, Calcutta.

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