Protection of Environment in the Ancient Indian and Medieval Period

By | August 15, 2020
Protection of Environment in the Ancient Indian and Medieval Period

This article discusses the protection of the environment in the ancient Indian and Medieval period by analysing ancient human history and how sustainable development and environmental protection was reflected through the lives and activities of human beings. The discovery of various documents in the early period builds a nexus between forests, natural resources and living beings.

Indian texts such as the Arthashastra, Sathapatha Bhramanas, Vedas, Manusmriti, Ramayana, Mahabharata etc., enable us to understand the concepts of environment conservation and maintaining forest ecology. The striking city planning and social structure that existed in the Indus Valley civilisation also indicates the presence of environmental awareness during the medieval period.

In the words of Dr Abdul Kalam:

“Ancient India Was A Knowledge Society That Contributed A Great Deal To Civilization. We Need To Recover The Status And Become A Knowledge Power. Spirituality Must Be Integrated With Education. We Should Ignite Our Dormant Inner Energy And Let It Guide Our Lives. The Radiance Of Such Minds Embarked On Constructive Endeavour Will Bring Peace, Prosperity, And Bliss To The Nation.”[1]

Introduction

Environment comprises of an artificial, physical, chemical and biological element which helps in the development and advancements of living organisms. Environment law consists of a set of procedural, institutional and substantive rules of international law, the chief objective of which is to protect the environment.

The United Nations Conference on human-environment held in Stockholm in 1992 was the first time, the conceptualization of the environment was elucidated, at the international level. Recognition was given, not only to the importance of environment but also to the other deteriorating factors which required protection, such as poverty, deforestation, increase in population and not just limiting environment to air, water, soil and wildlife etc. [2]

In India, traces of environment protection, sustainability can be identified through various sources of ancient Indian literature, where different themes such as preservation, safeguarding and management of the environment can be detected. Most of the elements of nature were considered to be holy within the Hindu theology, which is practised even in present times.[3]

Significant care was provided for natural resources, the five primary elements were worshipped and considered symbolic during ancient India- ‘earth’, ‘water’, ‘light’, ‘cosmos’ and ‘air’. The sacred book such as Vedas, Upanishads, and Puranas gives a clearer view regarding the relationships that exist between nature and man along with the liability of mankind towards nature.

Various verses in these Vedic Literatures state the importance of safeguarding environment and prevention of pollution. Folklore, art culture, Myths and religion treasured solar energy, trees and wildlife. [4]

Ancient literature on Environment Protection

Kautilya’s Arthashastra

Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, was a minister of Chandragupta Maurya. The book formulated by him is a thesis on the government and economies of ancient India. The book provided information regarding rainfall regimes, soil types and suitable irrigation techniques in specific micro ecological context.

The Arthashastra has various sutras in different chapters, relating to themes of statecraft and administration, which depicts environmental awareness. [5]

The book put forth significant importance on safeguarding and managing forests, gardens and orchards which were considered as a notable source of revenue, besides being a recreational spots. The Arthashastra dissected the country between the Himalayas and the oceans into various kinds of regions- Village areas (gramya), Mountains (parvata), Forests (Aranya), Drylands (bhauma), Plains (sama) and uneven lands (visawa).

The Arthashastra gives a demonstration of Kautilya’s concern and perception about the living animals, domestic as well as wild animals. Penalties and strict punishments were imposed for injuring these living creatures.

Special positions were occupied by directors of forests, superintendents of cattle, horses, elephants, and pastures, supervisor of animal slaughter. They were delegated the task to protect and safeguard wildlife, prevented the act of poaching of wild animals, ensured proper care of domestic animals and regulated grazing. [6]

Forests were considered as a treasured resource, all products from the forest were asked to be used in a sustainable manner. For cutting any part of a tree, fines were imposed upon causation of any kind of injury.

Considerable amount of significance was given to the trees which bear fruit, flowers or provide shade. Presently, there are various environmental laws like Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974, The Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 and are similar with the forms and contents of Arthashastra. [7]

Manusmriti

The Manusmriti was written in the post-Vedic age, it is the world’s first ethical collection on human jurisprudence, presented by Maharshi Manu, which was derived immediately post Vedic age.

The dicta for abolishing pollution in Manusmriti depicts the refection of ecological awareness during that time:

  • Biodiversity signifies all living forms broadly attributed as Chara (movable living world) and Achara (immovable- plant kingdom)
  • Pollution refers to deterioration of five gross elements by unethical activities.
  • Anything against wholesomeness was considered as contamination. (Ssoucha).
  • Storing organs of plants such as underground stems and tuberous roots, tasteful fruits, timber yielding trees, crops etc were objects of allurement in that time period. Various punishments were described in the Manusmriti for punishment of the offenders.
  • Significance was given for conserving animals, protection of biodiversity, vegetarian food habits. The Manusmriti also states that agriculture causes injury to animals, especially insects and germs in the soil.
  • For conserving biodiversity, it also states that fishes should not be killed for food purposes. Hoofed animals, village pigs and unknown beasts should be protected. Killing of asva (horse), ustra (camel), mriga (deer), Khara (ass), ibha (elephant), Aja (goat), ahi (snake), ahisa (buffalo) was considered as a sin as well. [8]

Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads

The Vedas encompasses knowledge of various concepts regarding nature and life, such as ecological balance, environment conservation and weather cycle. This gives a brief and transparent picture of how people in ancient India were concerned about protection and cleaning of the environment.

The Hindu philosophy in these texts mostly revolves around forests, wildlife and trees. Issues such as deforestation have been addressed in these texts, and was prohibited and termed as a punishable offence.[9]

Vedas are considered as sacred Sanskrit texts of Hinduism. According to a few scholars, the great sage Ved Vyasa, codified and put the Vedas into writing at the beginning of Kali Yuga (3102 BC). These are known as Shruti Vedas, which includes- Rig Veda (Wisdom of the Verses), Sama Veda (Wisdom of the Chants), Yajur Veda (Wisdom of the Sacrificial Formulas), and Atharva Veda (Wisdom of the Atharvan Priests). [10]

All the four Vedas, recognize the significance of preserving seasons’ cycles that has a possibility of getting altered due to climate change as a result of unsuitable human actions. People during the Vedic times considered nature and the environment in an integrated manner and believed in preserving them. [11]

“Do not harm the environment, do not harm the water and the flora, earth is my mother, I am her son, may the waters remain fresh, do not harm the waters.  Tranquillity be to the atmosphere, to the waters, to the crops and vegetation.’’

“mātā bhūmih putruahan pṛthivyā:’’ [12]

The Rigveda talks about nature which is inclusive of lakes, mountains,  heaven and earth, the forests or the waters were worshipped and adored as divinity and given the names Varuna, Indra, Maruts etc.,  and was considered to be directly responsible for securing a requisite balance.

Rig Veda (6:48;17) states

“Do Not Cut Trees, Because They Remove Pollution.”[13]

Plants were equated with mother, friends and deities. The voices of the trees were considered as the sounds of drums, flutes and lutes. [14] Various hymns present, depicts the importance of various elements of the environment – akashor firmament, Vayu or air, Agni, Tejas or fire, Prithvi or earth, apah or water. Sustainability and preservation of Nature was given high importance. [15]

Indian sages, like Manu, propounded punishment for individuals who cut trees. In the Vedic age, ‘yajnas’ were performed for purification of the environment. Perfumed ‘haven’ materials along with ghee were used during these yajnas.

Sages during the Vedic period believed that mountains caused rains, fresh air and provided medicines as well. Water was considered as a symbol of Purity and was to be free from pollution; emphasis was given for the same as it was a common resource used by all. [16] The Sun and fire play the most important role in purifying the environment. Animals and birds were considered as a part of the environment and nature. [17]

The Upanishads were a collection of texts that contained a core belief of the concept of Hinduism, which is common to that of Buddhism And Jainism. Hinduism acknowledged that the human body is composed of five senses, and each sensor is connected to the earth. (Example- Human Eyes are connected to Fire, Skin to Air, Tongue to Water etc.)

This connection was considered as a link between nature and humans. The Environment was considered to be sacred and an inseparable part of human existence. [18] The Chandogya, which is one of the principal of Upanishads, pointed out-

“The rivers, all discharge their waters into the sea. They lead from sea to sea, the clouds raise them to the sky as vapour and release them in the form of rain……”[19]

The Yajur Veda 5:43 states

Do Not Disturb The Sky And Do Not Pollute The Atmosphere”. Apart from the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Sutras , there are other sanctified texts of Hinduism that contains various references that worship nature.

The ideas of the legal protection of ecology and environment are also established in Kautilya’s ‘Arthasastra’ and the writing relating to the system of governance adopted by Ashoka. [20]

Later these Vedas became to demonstrate profound knowledge about biodiversity. The Ayurveda depicted the interrelationship between living species and the environment. Medicinal plants such as Palash, Arjun, Yava, Haridra etc, were widely used for treatment. [21]

Environmental Awareness during Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization also known as the Bronze Age civilization, extended to today’s northeast Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwest India. In addition to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is considered as one of the most widespread and earliest civilization.

It blossomed in the basins of Indus River, which was one of the major rivers of Asia and Ghaggar-Hakra River. Environment awareness during this civilization could be understood by the city planning and social structure of the city. However, the prime reason for the fall of this civilisation would be the environmental changes.

In various Coins and seals of Harappa, wide variety of animals were included such as elephants, rhinoceroses etc. The presence of the remains of wild animals like peacocks, tigers, elephants, bulls in the seals and mud pots contemplate their views towards natural resources.

The continuity of a sacred tree in India called as, Ficus religiosa is depicted in the seals of the Indus civilization, this is also associated with Buddhism and is also represented in the sculptures of various Buddhist place of worships and continues to be idolized in various religious shrines of the Hindus and the Muslims.

The seal of “Pashupati”, who was a man surrounded by animals, proved that the people during this time often went to the forests to spend a part of their life.  The special characteristics of the Indus Cities of Harappa, Mahenjodaro, Chanhudaro and Sutkajender, was that they used floating timber from the Himalayan forests to prepare burnt bricks.

The people in the Indus Valley were highly dependent on irrigation and overseas trade, which would only be possible because of the rain fed soil and easy access to sea. The reduction of forests was because of the immense amount of timber-wood for burning bricks.

There was less occurrence of rainfall, soil erosion that caused deposition of silt in the Indus River, which eventually choked off Mohenjodaro; this could have been the prime factor for the destruction of Mohenjodaro. In addition to this, the inadequate maintenance of dams and irrigation channels accelerated the downfall of the civilisation. [22]

Conclusion

Various literary texts caution us against environmental degradation and for ensuring effective sustainability. The Mahabharata states that although it takes a few, to deteriorate the environment and cause pollution, it warns the society at large that it may cause various diseases.

Chanakya’s reference to vikriti (pollution), warns people regarding the side effects of impurity in air and polluted water. Similarly in the Quran, reference is made regarding the environment which says- “Do not make mischief on the earth”.

Christians baptize a newborn child in the water, which denotes ‘purification from original sins’. In Buddhism, Gautam Buddha was fond of trees and stated that trees provide shade and shelter. He preached in Vanaropa Sutra in Sanyukta Nikaya, that gardening and afforestation were acts which increased the doer’s credit every day.

In Jainism, the core principle revolves around minimum destruction of living and non- living beings. [23]According to Lord Mahavira- “To kill or to hurt any living being amounts to killing or hurting oneself. The compassion of others is compassion to one’s own self.”[24]

All religions as well as ancient literatures in India have an ingrained nature of environmental overtones which was to observe ecological code and conduct towards nature and its creations.


[1]IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Volume 21, Issue 9, Dr Renu Tanwar, “Environment Conservation in Ancient India” (Sep. 2016)

[2]International Journal of Law and Management, Nour Mohammad, “Environment and sustainable development in Bangladesh: A legal study in the context of international trends” (22 March 2011), Available Here

[3]Thakur, Bithin. (2019). History of Environmental Conservation (Ancient and Medieval Periods) International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research Review. 4. 1072-1077.

[4]Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law In India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 358–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43951782. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[5] Bhattacharya S., Chaudhuri P., Mukhopadhyay A., Journal of Ancient Indian History 24 (2008) 97-106.

[6] Rangarajan L. N., Kautilya- The Arthasastra. Penguin Classics, India (1992).

[7] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014) https://www.scipress.com/ILSHS.30.35.pdf

[8] Ibid

[9] IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Volume 21, Issue 9, Dr Renu Tanwar, “Environment Conservation in Ancient India” (Sep. 2016)

[10] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[11] International Journal of Sanskrit Research, Rajib Sarmah, “Environmental awareness in the Vedic literature: An Assessment” (2015)

[12] Ibid

[13] IOSR Journal of Humanities And Social Science, Volume 21, Issue 9, Dr Renu Tanwar, “Environment Conservation In Ancient India” (Sep. 2016)

[14] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[15] Veda Publication, Journal of English language and literature, Vol 5 Issue 3, K. Radha Madhavi1, Dr Harika Done, “A Vista of Environmental Concern in Literature”  (2018)

[16]International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[17] International Journal of Sanskrit Research, Rajib Sarmah, “Environmental awareness in the Vedic literature: An Assessment” (2015)

[18] IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, Volume 21, Issue 9, Dr Renu Tanwar, “Environment Conservation In Ancient India” (Sep. 2016)

[19] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[20] Chakravarty, Bhaskar Kumar. “Environmentalism: Indian Constitution And Judiciary”. Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 48, no. 1, 2006, pp. 99–105. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43952020. Accessed 27 July 2020.

[21] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[22] International Letters of Social and Humanistic Sciences, Vol  30, Sayan Bhattacharya, “Forest and biodiversity conservation in ancient Indian culture: A review based on old texts and archaeological evidences” (2014), Available Here

[23] Ahmad, Furqan. “Origin and Growth of Environmental Law in India”, Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp. 358–387. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43951782. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[24] Dale Jamieson, “Jainism and Buddhism.” In A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p.58.


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