Sanjeevani: Reviving Indic Environmentalism

Sanjeevani: Reviving Indic Environmentalism

This article discusses the nexus between Indic faith systems and environmental ethics, in particular the models of pre-historic Indic environmentalism categorised on the basis of adherence to and practice of Indic scriptures. It also sheds light briefly on the marginalisation of Indic environmentalism in contemporary environmental jurisprudence. Towards its conclusion, the article introduces an initiative of the Indic Collective Trust called ‘Sanjeevani’, which aims to reintroduce the Indic approach to nature in mainstream discourse, which includes policy-making. At the outset, it must be clarified that since there is no single word in the English language that captures the complex and layered nature of Dharma, the word religion has been used as a poor approximation for it in this article.

Nature Worship and environmental ethics

The human species has instinctively respected that which it does not fully understand, which forms the basis of nature worship in ancient societies and civilizations. Importantly, while such societies may not have been able to fully articulate the relationship between nature and themselves, there was an intuitive understanding of the said relationship, which translated to a policy of least interference with the course of nature. This is partly attributable to the fact that such societies lived in close proximity to nature and were directly and entirely dependent on it for their survival, which only enhanced their sense of environmental awareness. Gradually, this respect took the shape of religiosity, which explains the origins of nature worship. This sense of religiosity took a much-evolved shape when communities gave up a nomadic lifestyle and adopted an agrarian way of life, which rendered them even more dependent on and susceptible to the vagaries of nature since their livelihood was now directly related to seasonal cycles.

Nowhere is this transition captured better than in the continued forms of nature worship which are alive to this day in the Indic civilization. From the reverance for the Sun to the worship of cattle, rivers, and forest to the celebration of harvest festivals, these practices are a standing testimony to the civilization’s respect for nature and the spirit of interconnectedness that pervades it. Unfortunately, contemporary scholarly discourse on environmental jurisprudence in India has very little time or patience for or interest in undertaking a thorough study of Indic environmentalism notwithstanding the fact that India continues to have a significant forest cover despite being the second most populous country in the world with only the seventh largest landmass.

On the other hand, this subject has found more scholarly attention in the West. There are studies that not just theoretically but even empirically compare behavioural difference between catholic and protestant denominations and other minor communities with respect to environment protection. Therefore, this gap in research needs to be highlighted in India in order to promote a better understanding of Indic sensitivities which could, in turn, inspire better policy making and adjudication at various levels.

Models of Indic Environmentalism

The existing literature indicates the prevalence of two models that capture the Indic approach to environmental ethics, namely the Ascetic model and the Devotional model. The Ascetic model derives its source from the austere practices that saints and ascetics employ and preach towards the environment and its protection. On the other hand, the Devotional model deals with the rituals and values that are performed and adhered to in every household. Ascetic environmental ethics are dealt in the philosophical discussions and Vedic texts and these are not to be found in popular discourse nor are they part of public religious practices.  What, however, is more popular and publicly practiced/practicable are the ethics that texts such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas impart, which were disseminated through creative arts and are embedded in the societal conscience. These Dharmic texts contain various fables through which environmental morals that are simple to follow, are passed on to generations.

Apart from these two recognised frameworks, are the texts classified as Raja-Shastra or Dharma – Shastra i.e. edicts of and for governance. These texts are in the form of laws/traditions of governance to be adopted and enforced by the King. They bind the society as a whole in a web of ethics and responsible behaviour for sustenance and development of all beings. The Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti, Narada Smriti are such texts and this category includes the famous Kautilya’s Artha Shastra as well. Artha Shastra describes and suggests various actions taken or those that should be taken by the king in the events of violation of traditional environmental ethics. These traditions or laws known as Raja-shastras cannot be classified as mere religious texts, and were a mix of normative guidelines and mandatory rules. These three models/frameworks could serve as starting points for greater research on Indic environmentalism and its history. Such research must also analyse the impact of non-Indic values introduced or imposed by non-natives to this region in order to understand the response of the native society and governance to such ideas.

India’s Contemporary Environmentalism

Ecology and its protection along with sustainable development has become a global study now and ‘Climate change’ is a well-accepted threat. Under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), all nations and particularly Third World countries/developing countries, have been working towards to the attainment of sustainable development goals (SDGs), which have been identified in various international instruments. In this modern framework of environmentalism, the member nations are expected to adopt these goals and standards/practices into their domestic regimes, and ensure compliance. Some of these standards are treated as international customs and are binding on non-member states too. India being a member to most of these conventions and treaties, endeavours to remain compliant with this framework.

However, in the process of adopting the said goals, India, including the Judiciary, mimics the West instead of drawing from its own repository of environmental jurisprudence. The doctrines and concepts that form the basis of our environmental jurisprudence and that are taught and practiced, mostly come from the West. The traditional environmental history of India is neither taught nor considered important enough to be referred to by the legal academia. This ignorance of Indic environmental history and ethics impacts the most religious and basic environmental traditions that are native to this land and its people. As discussed above, in the absence of adequate authoritative works on the environmental history of this land, a change in the status quo cannot be expected.

Indic Sanjeevani

Indic environmentalism is an integral part of the Dharmic way of life, which is a duty-based discourse with morality and spirituality woven into it. In fact, it is capable of being legally enforced with greater societal acceptance since it already forms part of society’s consciousness. This needs to be corroborated with extensive research and study so as to gain academic and institutional recognition. Given the absence of any such body of research which is credible and usable, the Indic Collective hopes to fill up this void, through “Project Sanjeevani”, with the intent of effecting policy and legal interventions which mainstream Indic environmental ethics.  Our learnings on this front shall be made available to the public.

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