In the Vedic culture, plants are believed to have consciousness like humans and can feel pain as well as happiness.
The United Nations proclaimed May 22 as the International Day for Biological Diversity (IBD) to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. The central theme of IDB 2022 is “Building a shared future for all life”. To actualize this noble mission of the United Nations, it is of paramount importance that we revisit the past civilizational discourses that we have had to protect nature in its totality.
The legacy of ancient Bharat civilization is well documented in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puran as and several other scriptures. The preaching in these scriptures is the set of norms governing our cultural and social lives. One of the greatest and unique strengths of Sanatan Dharma has been its worship of nature in its entirety to preserve all possible and probable habitats for all life forms to flourish on ‘Mother Earth’. Perhaps no other civilizational discourse has attached so much importance and interdependence to the various facets of nature as Sanatan’s way of life, values and virtues.
In the Vedic culture, natural resources were never seen as commodities to be consumed for pleasure and worldly enjoyment as seen now. On the contrary, people were banned from overexploitation of natural resources. They were framed to worship the divinity that exists in the animate and inanimate world including plants, animals, water, air, soil, fire, stones, hills, mountains and planets , etc., components necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity. Hindus recognized, appreciated and preserved the purity of the various facets of nature in all their activities of life. Essentially, they practiced a nature-centered discourse of civilization and development that guaranteed the longevity of all life forms. The degree of respect and interdependence that Sanatan is had with nature is amply demonstrated by the sloka Yajurveda necessarily recited on the rituals ‘Om dyauh shanti rantariksham shantih, Prithvi shanti rapah shantih Oshadhayah shantih; Vanaspatayah shantih, vishvedeva shanti Brahma shantih; Sarvam shantih, Shantireva shantih, Saamaa shantiredhih; Om shaantih, shaantih, shaantih’ meaning that ‘May peace radiate yonder in all the sky as well as in the vast ethereal space everywhere; May peace reign over all this land, in the water and in all the grasses, trees and vines; May peace flow over the whole universe; Peace be in the Supreme Being Brahman; And may he always exist in all peace and peace alone”. All spheres of human activity are centered on the purity of nature and are based on zero emissions and zero waste.
The Vedic people had a co-existent mindset with the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere. They knew that life came from water and could not be maintained without ensuring its purity. Therefore, they worshiped various forms of bodies of water including clouds, rivers, lakes, and oceans to ensure their purity. The Vedic peoples understood that mountains, hills, grasslands and river regions are repositories of biodiversity and that it was absolutely necessary to preserve and maintain vital ecosystems; therefore, they also worshiped these reliefs. We have worshiped trees, grasses and vines since Vedic times in recognition that all animal forms depend on them for food, fodder, fuel and medicine in addition to their usefulness in maintaining
carbon neutrality and enrichment of biodiversity.
This belief has caused plants and their products to become an integral part of our rituals and ceremonies. Plants like peepal, banyan and neem (Triveni), kadamb, bael, tulsi, aonwla, mango, banana, coconut, lotus, paan, sandalwood, rudraksha, camphor, parijaat, asoka, etc., were worshiped on various occasions. The Vedics were aware of their nutritional, environmental, medicinal and ornamental values. Even several forms of animals and birds were worshiped to show their usefulness to the ecosystem. The Vedas have granted the status of GOD to all forms of natural energy, including Agni and Vayu. The yagnas were performed for air purification. All of these have created an environment for all forms of life to flourish, resulting in great biodiversity all around.
“Less is more” and the ethical use of natural resources were two of the many traits of civilization that governed our lives. The first sloka of Ishopnishad taught us ‘Isavasyam Idam Sarvam, yat kinca jagatyam jagat; tena tyaktena bhunjitha, magadha? kasyasvidhanam’ implying that every animate and inanimate entity in the universe is controlled and possessed by the Almighty. One should therefore only accept the things necessary for oneself, which are set aside as one’s share, and one should not accept others, knowing well whose it belongs.
In previous centuries, especially during foreign rule, the Vedic culture, traditions and value system suffered a marked departure and erosion. Our holistic worldview has fragmented, ‘Less is more’ has become ‘More is less’, ‘Sarve Bhawantu Sukhinah’ has become ‘I Bhawantu Sukhinah’, ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ has become ‘Living in relationship “‘Not Me But You’ became ‘Not You But Me’, ‘Nature Centric’ became ‘Self Centric’ and ‘Environmental-friendly’ became Environmental-enmity. As a result, we don’t stay connected with the outside world. We have adopted an individualistic and consumerist mindset and way of life that results in overexploitation of natural resources.
All facets of nature have now become fragile and vulnerable. Bodies of water silt up and dry up, hills are destroyed, trees are cut down for paper and towels, soils are under pressure to produce more, and homes and objects of daily use are environmentally friendly. environment are replaced by concrete structures and plastic materials, respectively. The health of the soil, water and air has become extremely vulnerable due to pollution and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, the great biodiversity supported by ‘Jammu Dweepe Bharat Khande’ is rapidly diminishing. The plants, invertebrate and vertebrate species that inhabit land, water and soil, so essential to building a shared future for all life forms, are increasingly under threat as their habitats become quickly unfit for the survival and proliferation of biodiversity. Several thousand of these species have already disappeared and several thousand are on the verge of extinction. The emission of greenhouse gases, rising temperatures and climate change have crossed all limits.
Under these circumstances, if we wish to build and secure a shared future for all life forms on planet Earth, including Homo sapiens, we must restore our Vedic culture, our traditions and our ways of interacting with nature in all spheres of the human domain. Everyone’s commitment is essential to save mother earth and nature. Let’s accept the fact that we have become cruel to Mother Earth and are inflicting irreparable damage to her life support system to fulfill our boundless greed.
(The author is Vice-Chancellor of Central Punjab University, Bathinda. Opinions expressed are personal.)