Editorial Articles

volume-12, 22-28 June 2019

Environmental Ethics: Ancient Indian and Gandhian Alternatives

Dr. Gautam Choubey

In January 1910, Paris experienced a calamity so grave that it jostled the metropolis out of its self-content stupor and triggered debates on civilisational ideals, urban planning, modern world's obsession with material comforts and the environmental cost of progress. More than the scale of destruction, it was the manner of its unfolding which had stunned the world. The water level in Siene river rose dramatically and the Parisians were caught unawares as they woke up to what is often described as 'the flood of the century.' For a city which had distinguished itself as an emblem of  'progress' in most senses of the word, this was a wake up call which changed the way people thought about development and urbanisation. Reacting to the events Gandhi observed:

Nature works unceasingly according to her own laws, but man violates them constantly. In different ways and at different times, Nature tells man that there is nothing in the world which is not subject to change. This river in Paris rose in such a heavy flood that huge buildings were washed off...The people of Paris had built the city to last for ever. Nature has given a warning that even whole of Paris may be destroyed. 

Since Paris 1910, both episodes of environmental/ industrial calamities as well as ecological degradation has continued unabated. Moreover, each time we are struck with a disaster our, assessment reports are replete with statistical data on human and commercial cost of calamity, which in turn are quantified as monitory compensations and state interventions aimed at infrastructure reconstruction. Almost each time, we fail to assess, or even factor in environmental cost of such calamities. In modern world's cantankerous swoop towards progress, Gandhi detected a self-destructive impulse. For him, this insatiable pursuit of material prosperity was the bane of modern civilisation. As someone who remained a lifelong votary of rural cottage industry and decentralised administration, Gandhi saw the twin drives towards urbanisation and industrialisation as a worrying civilisational tendency. In his groundbreaking bestseller Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered (1973), German born British economist E.F Schumacher argues that modern economies and developmental paradigms have committed the grave error of treating nature as an expendable income, and not as a fixed capital. For Schumacher, this apathy towards nature and exclusion of environmental cost from development activities have led to an unsustainable economic order. Schumacher writes:

The arising of this error, so egregious and so firmly rooted is closely connected with the philosophical, not to say religious, changes during the last three or four centuries in man's attitude to nature...Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature..."

In the light of Paris 1910, Gandhi and Schumacher, one feels impelled to ask the following question: how many calamities would it take for us to rethink our notions of progress? Would we ever heed those warnings which nature sends our way, time and again? What are those philosophical and/or religious changes which have produced this culture of indifference towards nature? Was there ever such a time in human history when nature was more than a passive resource, fit only for plunder?

Environment in ancient Indian thought

Here, it may be worthwhile to inquire into the environmental ethics in ancient India. Through the  story of king Prithu, after whom the earth assumes her name prithvi, Vishnu Puran postulates the classical Indian view on human ecology. Prithu succeeded king Vena, whose tyrannical regime had forced the earth to scamper away in the form of a cow. Following Vena's death by curse, the sages anointed the yagna-begotten Prithu as his successor and instructed him to end the miseries of his people by capturing the fleeing cow-shaped earth. Prithu had a choice: subdue earth through the use of brute force or placate her into bestowing her bounty. He chose the latter. The wise king promised to be the earth's protector and produced a calf for the restitution of her maternal instincts. Upon seeing the calf, the earth became overwhelmed with affection and in the form of her milk, provided grains, cereals and other sources of nourishment necessary for the sustenance of human society. It is said that before Prithu, there was no agriculture, pasture or commerce. Through his promise of empathetic guardianship, Prithu became the fountain head of civilisation. In other words, human civilisation is predicated upon a tender bond of mutual trust which the sons of Prithu are expected to uphold. As long as men honour Prithu's promise to prithvi, they are sure to enjoy her riches. To the Vedic people, it was this child-mother/nourisher-nourished/protector-protected analogy which provided the defining framework for all engagements with nature. After all, as has been pointed out in Athrvaveda, earth is the mother and we are her sons (mata bumih, putroham prithivya).

In ancient Indian thought, all transactions with environment were circumscribed by the twin imperatives of balance and man's embeddedness in nature. While the Rigveda argues that apart from sun, rivers and forests, man's environment is also constituted by animals; both wild and domestic, the famous verses of Shukla Yajurveda make a passionate plea for harmony and balance among all the elements of this ecosystem. It was expected of man to observe great restraint in every exchange with nature, lest this delicate balance might get disturbed forever. Even in instructive treatises meant for edification of children or those dealing with intricacies of statecraft, protocols of man's engagement with environment were reiterated. Kautilya's Arthshastra and Yagnvalka Samhita provide an exhaustive itinerary of punitive measures which human acts of aggression towards nature must attract. In a similar vein, the readers of Panchatantra are asked the oft-quoted rhetorical question "if one hopes to reach heaven by cutting trees and by slaughtering animals, what is the way to hell?." The same is also true of several Pali Buddhist texts.

Commenting on the environmental ethics in ancient Indian literature, noted Sanskrit scholar and translator Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haskar points out that ancient Indian literature displays a precise knowledge and exhaustive understanding of natural phenomenon, of beasts, birds and vegetation. Furthermore, the writers of these texts exhibit a deep sympathy not only for the animal and the plant kingdom, but for every element of man's environment. People in ancient India were primarily agriculturists, and to some extent, hunters and gatherers too. For these reasons, they were bound to possess penetrative knowledge of the ecosystem. However, what really stands out is the idiom in which their wisdom was exercised and preserved for posterity. The all-embracing philosophy of "vasudhaiv kutumbkam" or the entire earth is a family led to a culture wherein trees, animals and sons could be mentioned in the same breath, and perceived interchangeably. In Vrkshayur-veda it is argued that planting a tree is as fruitful as begetting ten sons. The Buddhist scriptures tell us that harming a tree is as grave a sin as harming a friend. This belief system, in which nature is projected as an intimate member of an extended family, precipitated an ethics of consumption which was not exploitative, but recuperative and regenerative. It is indeed this philosophical and quasi-religious world view whose erosion has led to progressive distancing of man from nature, and is bemoaned by Schum-acher in his aforementioned book.

If this were a problem linked only to the reckless progress of science, technology and urbanisation, one could have easily addressed it by devising new paradigms of development. But this is much more than that. It is a problem of discourse, narrative and perception too. The present environmental crisis is linked to the way people feel, read, hear and talk about nature. How best to talk, describe or debate environment? Do we have a template which might harmonise discursive imperatives of environmental preservation with sustainable development goals, without compromising the 'needs' of the burgeoning global population.

Gandhian Alternatives

The answer to several of the aforementioned questions come to rest with Gandhi ji. It does not surprise us when we see Gandhi's image embossed on the cover of Perennial Library edition of Schumacher's book. In his life and in his writings, one witness a residual ancient Indian environmental ethics; a bond which operates not only at the level of use-value and inter-dependency for existential reasons, but operates at the level of affect too. This may be illustrated by an article in Navjivan where Gandhi describes his experience of visiting Uttarakhand in 1929. According to Gandhi:

But for the Himalayas, there would be no Ganga, Jamuna, Brahmaputra and Indus; if the Himalayas were not there, there would be no rainfall and these rivers would not be there, and without rainfall India would become a desert like Sahara. Our far-sighted ancestors who knew this and who were always grateful to God for the gifts that were bestowed on them turned the Himalayas in a place of pilgrimage. 

Commenting on Gandhi's Uttarakhand visit, P.C Joshi points out that while on the one hand Gandhi was besotted by the serene solitude which the Himalayas accorded, on the other hand, he was uniquely conscious of its great benefits to India. Joshi argues that no other contemporary political leader or even scientists had the perspicacity to link the Himalayan environment with the well-being of India as a whole. However, what Joshi overlooks is Gandhi's tacit valorisation of the sacred ethos which has, since time immortal, characterised India's relationship with the Himalayas. This quasi-religious framework, which not only invokes a moral response towards environment, but supports human ecology as well, seems to return with Gandhi.

            Through integration of manual labour, gardening, agriculture, crafts and nature-centric learning, Gandhi demonstrated a way of life which was self reliant. This has generated much interest in recent decades and serious attempts have been made to understand Gandhi's critique of modern development paradigms. In Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology(1996) T N Khoshoo argues that through experiments such as Tolstoy farm, Phoenix farm and Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi had successfully demonstrated that it was possible for each member of the society to thrive in complete harmony with nature. In Vivek Pinto's Gandhi's Vision and Values: a Moral Quest for Change in Indian Agriculture (1998), the possibility of establishing a poverty-free, self-reliant community on the basis of principles enshrined in Hind Swaraj is contrasted with the perils of planned agricultural development. The centrality of the 'local' instead of an overbearing 'centre' is what makes both Gandhian ecology and economy sustainable. This local, in turn, is propelled by quasi-religious and sacred structures of seeing and experiencing the ecosystem. 


Efforts to reactivate man's scared engagement with nature by promoting local riverine festival has yielded results. The example of Ahirouli, a densely populated village situated on the bank of Ganga in Buxar district of Bihar, may be a case in point. In the village, the whole gamut of commercial activities, from fishing to farming, are centred on the river. Yet, for years, pollution and garbage piles on the riverbank had been on the rise. However, ever since the panchayat decided to celebrate Ganga Dussehra, cleanliness along the bank has improved remarkably. Although drive against open defecation through construction of government-aided toilets has also played a decisive role, but  emotional engagement with the river, heightened through annual festivities, has brought about the real turnaround in the way people 'see' their 'mother' Ganga. It must be emphasised that isn't a proposition against science and technology. This is simply a plea to engage local populace in conservation activities by making them trustees of their ecosystem. And could there be a better way to do so than reviving cottage industry and local festivals.

(The author teaches English literature at ARSD College, University of Delhi, E-mail: gautam.choubey922@gmail. com)

Views expressed are personal.

(Image Courtesy : Google)