India’s own sacred ecology – Michel Danino

Peepal Tree

Prof Michel DaninoThe notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos. – Prof Michel Danino

We saw in the previous article (Decoding the idea of India) how the creation of a sacred geography for India was a major instrument of her cultural integration. Not only the countless teerthas, but also the mountains, seas, rivers, forests, trees and other plants, animals big and small, were imbued with divinity. Of course, most pre-Judeo-Christian cultures shared this worldview: from the Nile to Mount Olympus, from Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology, to the phoenix, that universe was crowded with living symbols drawn from nature. The notion of a creator apart from his creation, superior to it, more often cursing than loving it, is a wedge that Judaism and its two daughter religions vertically drove into a hitherto seamless cosmos.

In the Rig Veda, India’s earliest text, earth and heaven are addressed as a single being (dyavaprithivi); they are “father and mother” but also the “twins”; together, they “keep all creatures safe”. India’s Yggdrasil is the ashvattha (the pipal or Boddhi tree) which the Gita turned upside down: the cosmic tree, the origin of India’s tree-worshipping traditions, has its roots above and branches below—a transparent symbol for this creation, which can be represented by a cosmic cow, the source of all food. Indeed symbols endlessly multiply, from celestial rivers to the gods’ vahanas. More importantly, the Upanishadic precept that “all creatures are impelled by consciousness” unites us to the humblest plant or animal.

Dr Meera NandaIs this the origin of the Buddhist and Jain doctrine of ahimsa or the concept of wildlife sanctuary in Ashoka’s edicts as in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, perhaps a “world first”? If so, this tradition is more than just idyllic. Not everyone agrees. Meera Nanda, for instance, a self-styled historian of science whom I had occasion to critique in earlier articles, condemns this “Dharmic ecology”, which she defines as “an unabashedly Hindu supremacist, nationalistic version of the same religious environmentalism that the anti-Enlightenment left has been preaching and practicing.”

Nanda sees this worldview as a dangerous weapon in Hindutva’s arsenal: “Dharmic ecology of Hindutva right is emerging as the hub of a new neo-pagan International. Neopaganism in Europe and America has deep and historic ties with Nazi and Neo-Nazi groups,” and, as we know, there is a “long history of the Nazi and neo-Nazi involvement with occult and paganism.” Thus the syllogism works as follows: Indic traditions of sacred ecology (as I prefer to call it) are pagan; Nazism was involved with paganism; the said Indic traditions are thus obscurantist and dangerous.

The fallacy of it is glaring: the premise is incorrect; Hindu beliefs behind sacred ecology are not just “pagan”, a term of contempt created by medieval Christianity; they are founded on a philosophy and a spiritual experience of the “nature of nature”. And the association with Nazism is a vicious case of reductio ad Hitlerism. (to put it crudely: if you wear boots, you may be accused of a link with Nazism, since Hitler wore boots too). It has indeed become a fashion among certain intellectuals to “reveal” hidden connections between Hinduism and Nazism. Nanda’s more serious criticism is that there is no evidence that India’s sacred ecology “encourages wise use of nature”.

Instead, she advocates “secular environmentalism” as a “source of secularism and a class-based collective action”. It may be true that today’s Indians have by and large poor environmental awareness, wantonly contributing to the destruction of forests, the disappearance of wildlife and the spiralling pollution. But perhaps that is because Indian society has hardly had any transition between tradition and modernity. From the rich ethno-botanical traditions of the Bishnois, Bhils, Warlis, Santhals or Todas to the current urbanite disaster, there has been almost no time to adapt. – The New Indian Express, 5 December 2016

Pilgrim offering a lamp to Ganga Devi at the Kumbha Mela 2013

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2 Responses

  1. Good article. Interesting syllogism : India is pagan, the Nazis were interested in paganism, ergo, India is Nazi !

    Similar to if you wear boots you are a nazi since Hitler wore boots !

    People like Mira Nanda know very little about the philosophy of science and therefore miss the relevance of the Vedic view to the discoveries of contemporary science, especially physics and astrophysics about the nature of consciousness and how this animates the entire universe.

    Dr. David Frawley’s recent book Vedic Yoga(2014) gives a fine account of the link between the manifest universe and consciousness.

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