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ENVIRONMENTAL WISDOM
IN ANCIENT INDIA

Long before ecology became the refrain of the global song at Stockholm and Rio, the ancient Indic heritage had already provided a spacious spiritual home for the environmental ethos. In the West, the term 'ecology' was coined only in the latter half of the 19th century from the Greek word Oikos, meaning 'home'. But India has, throughout trackless centuries, provided an ample expanse of friendly space for an open and ongoing discourse of ideas. The Jain, Vedic and Buddhist traditions established the principles of ecological harmony centuries ago - not because the world was perceived as heading for an imminent environmental disaster or destruction, nor because of any immediate utilitarian exigency, but through its quest for spiritual and physical symbiosis, synthesized in a system of ethical awareness and moral responsibility.

The ancient sacred literature of the Vedas enshrines a holistic and poetic cosmic vision. They represent the oldest, the most carefully nurtured, the most elaborately systematized and the most lovingly preserved oral tradition in the annals of the world. Unique in their perspective of time and space, their evocative poetry is a joyous and spontaneous affirmation of life and nature.

The Vedic Hymn to the Earth, the Prithvi Sukta in Atharva Veda, is unquestionably the oldest and the most evocative environmental invocation. In it, the Vedic seer solemnly declares the enduring filial allegiance of humankind to Mother Earth: 'Mata Bhumih Putroham Prithivyah: Earth is my mother, I am her son.' Mother Earth is celebrated for all her natural bounties and particularly for her gifts of herbs and vegetation. Her blessings are sought for prosperity in all endeavours and fulfilment of all righteous aspirations. A covenant is made that humankind shall secure the Earth against all environmental trespass and shall never let her be oppressed. A soul-stirring prayer is sung in one of the hymns for the preservation and conservation of hills, snow-clad mountains, and all brown, black and red earth, unhurt, unsmitten, unwounded, unbroken and well defended by Indra.

The Hymn says, in prayerful thanksgiving and homage: Earth in which lie the sea, the river and other waters, in which food and cornfields have come to be, in which lives all that breathes and that moves, May she confer on us the finest of her yield. Earth, in which the waters, common to all, moving on all sides, flow unfailingly, day and night, may she pour on us milk in many streams, and endow us with lustre. May those born of thee, O Earth, be for our welfare, free from sickness and waste. Wakeful through a long life, we shall become bearers of tribute to thee. Earth, my mother, set me securely with bliss in full accord with heaven, O wise one, uphold me in grace and splendour.

The Vedic seers regarded the Earth as 'sacred space' for the consecrated endeavours and aspirations of humankind and for the practice of restraint and responsibility. This affirmative view of the inviolable sacred space in human consciousness is integral to the Vedas and the Upanishads. On it rests the Vedic vision of a world filled with the purity of the spiritual environment and the sanctity of environmental spirituality and morality. Such a world can only be sustained by 'Satyam Brhat Rtam Ugram', the severely exacting discipline of truth, harmony and rectitude, based on a conception of cosmic and comprehensive peace as envisioned in the famous Vedic Hymn of Peace:

We invoke and imbibe Aum, the primordial sound of cosmic Harmony and pray for: Peace and Harmony in Heaven; Peace and Harmony in the Sky and on the Earth; Peace and Harmony in the Waters; Peace and Harmony in the Herbs, the Vegetation and the Forests; Peace and Harmony among the Peoples and the Rulers of the World; Peace and Harmony in Spiritual Quest and Realization; Peace and Harmony for one and all; Peace and Harmony Everywhere and in Every Thing; Peace, True and Real Peace, Let that Peace repose in my inner space, Peace of Peace, Everlasting Peace, We pray for Peace.

The ecological philosophy of Jainism, flowing from its spiritual quest, has always been central to its ethics, aesthetics, art, literature, economics and statecraft. It is virtually synonymous with the principle of Ahimsa (Non-violence) which runs through the Jain tradition like a golden thread. Lord Mahavira said: 'There is nothing so small and subtle as the atom, nor any element so vast as space. Similarly, there is no quality of soul more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than reverence for life.'

Compassion and reverence for life are the sheet-anchor of the Jain quest for peace, harmony and rectitude, based on spiritual and physical symbiosis and a sense of responsibility and restraint. The term Ahimsa is stated in the negative (a = non, himsa = violence), but it is rooted in a host of positive aims and actions which have great relevance to contemporary environmental concerns. It is a principle of compassion and responsibility, which should be practised not only towards human beings, but towards all animals and nature. The Jain scriptures tell us: 'The Arhats (Venerable ones) of the past, present and future discourse, counsel, proclaim, propound and prescribe thus in unison: Do not injure, abuse or press, enslave, insult, torment, torture and kill any creature or any living being.'

Compassion and non-violence are the basis of the ancient Jain scriptural aphorism Parasparopagraho Jivanam (all life is bound together by the mutual support of interdependence). Lord Mahavira proclaimed a profound ecological truth: 'One who neglects or disregards the existence of earth, air, fire, water and vegetation disregards his own existence which is entwined with them.'

CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE -->Written by: H. E. Laxmi Mall Singhvi. H. E. Laxmi Mall Singhvi is President of the World Congress on Human Rights, Indian High Commissioner to the Court of St James (London) and President Emeritus of the Authors' Guild of India. He has been awarded the Interfaith Gold Medallion Award by the International Council of Christians and Jews.

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