Wildlife Conservation Deep-rooted in Indian Culture: Dr Gauri Mahulikar

Wildlife Conservation Deep-rooted in Indian Culture: Dr Gauri Mahulikar

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us many take-home messages. One among the many is to be truly respectful of nature and its offerings. The line that demarcates ‘take what is needed’ and ‘over  exploitation’ has merged and has given rise to a multitude of issues the world is currently facing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into their respective homes, allowing wildlife to take a well-deserved break from entertaining guests. There have been a couple of videos and photographs that have highlighted nature slowly replenishing its resources, animals roaming about freely in the jungle, sea-life emerging in various areas after several years. This obviously tells us to push the brake pedals on the continuous anthropological activities.

From time immemorial, wildlife conservation has been deep rooted in our culture. ‘Ahimsa Paramo Dharma’ has been the ultimate Dharma and animal welfare meant overall efficiency in every sphere of life. Hindus also believe that their ancestors are reborn in the form of animals and hence treat them with the utmost respect. The Vedas say ‘Sarva-Bhuta-Hita’ which means one must see the same in every creature regardless of their outer form. Animals are worshipped in various communities and therefore it is seen unfit when the same animals are exploited for commercial reasons. This association of sacredness that is attached to animals is what helped maintain ecological balance. Manusmriti instructs one on the conservation of wildlife and the punishments associated with it when one  defies these set rules. Vedic seers always prayed for the welfare of their race as well as the animals

शं नो द्विपदे, शं चतुष्पदे : May the Lord bring peace unto all bipeds and quadrupeds

Apart from the Vedas, the epics and various works by famous poets like Kalidasa have mentioned the harmony that existed between humans and the flora and fauna. The Panchatantra has enabled animals with qualities that can and must be imbibed by man. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita compares the world to a banyan tree and says in its unlimited branches, various species of animals, humans and demi-gods wander about. This is a classic example of community ecology. Many Subhashitas or noble sayings, emphasize co-existence and lessons to be learnt from animals. For example: one can learn from the donkey to carry out one’s work, not minding the harsh weather conditions. The rooster teaches one to rise early, to always share with kith and kin and how one must earn his own bread.

Speaking to CSP, Dr Gauri Mahulikar, Dean, Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth cited many instances from the Vedas which mention the importance of co-existing with nature. The Atharva Veda says that all the Vedic deities are deification of natural elements like water, fire, wind, Ratri (night), Ushas (dawn), Aranyani (forest). Indra, Agni and Vayu are compared to a mighty bull that is a sign of virility. The Puranic counterpart of Rudra, who is also known as Pashupati, Shiva rides a bull. Every deity has an animal associated with them- from a ferocious lion and tiger to poisonous snakes and to an insignificant mouse. Lord Mahavishnu incarnated as a fish and tortoise, to save the earth from being flooded. Lord Anjaneya and the Vanaras built the bridge that aided Rama to cross the massive ocean and reunite with Sita. Such was the importance of animals in maintaining harmony.

Conservation is not a new concept in India and this has been depicted in many cave paintings. The paintings of man, animals and birds living in harmony shows the reverence man had for nature. Seals of animals such as rhino, bull from the Indus Valley Civilisation indicates the interest man had for conservation of wildlife.

Many Maharajas have played a key role in the conservation of wildlife. However, most of them also enjoyed hunting as it meant gaining ownership over that animal. When one begins to claim ownership, the animal faces death. Man has claimed ownership over nature and feels appropriate to loot as much as he can from her. This has ultimately led to her collapse.

Kautilya's Arthashastra speaks of how wildlife was given supreme importance during the Mauryan period. Many forests were declared protected and they were known as Abhaya Aranya, which means sanctuary and heavy punishments were prescribed to those who exploited animals. A few royals like Prince MK Ranjisinh from the royal family of Wankaner was an avid wildlife photographer and convinced his uncle to stop shooting. Jayachamraja Wadiyar of Mysore spoke of the lion in one of his speeches. His references of the lion from various scriptures emphasised the connection that Indian culture had with wildlife for over many centuries.

Practices from the earlier days nowadays seem very trivial and un-scientific to many. On the contrary, every practice had its own significance that only led to leading a healthy and harmonious life. For example, when a family loses a member, it is customary to discard the clothes, trim the hair and avoid contact with anyone for 13 days. This 13 day quarantine was probably set because it met the incubation period of infectious diseases.

In Nepal, this practice of self-isolation is age-old. Traders from Nepal travelled for days on foot, across the silk route to the neighbouring areas and when they returned to their hometown, the community did not allow to enter the town until they confirmed to be out of danger. They were made to live outside the town for two-three weeks until they were deemed fit to return to their homes.

The world has suffered from many pandemics in the past century, but lessons have not been learnt. Most of these pandemics have been transmitted to man from animals, when man decided to encroach upon animal territories. The Ishopanishad says that the universe was created by the Supreme Power and its resources were meant for each of His creation. In place of a symbiotic relationship, there exists more of a parasitic relationship with a self-acclaimed right to encroach other being’s rights.

Nature can be compared to the human body. When you provide it with adequate amount of food, water and repose, the body will function like a well-oiled machine. When you toil endlessly and don’t give back to the body, the body contracts diseases. Nature has been exploited similarly with no return and has bounced back with a pandemic.

The current pandemic, just like most pandemics, was caused by a virus that was transmitted to man from either the bat or the pangolin. The virus had pressed pause on human activities for almost 3 months, meanwhile affecting millions of people across the globe. While human activities were paused, in other words when ‘Anthropause’ occurred, wildlife thrived quite happily. Illegal hunting and poaching suffered a hit, fortunately. People decided to go back to their roots to avoid contracting the virus by following simple practices like washing hands and feet when they returned to their homes, consuming ayurvedic medicines to boost their immunity, practising social distancing and adopting the Namaste.

Sacred groves maintained by many indigenous tribes prohibited outsiders from cutting down trees to avoid incurring the wrath of the divine force that live in the sacred grove. This helped preserve the biosphere reserves.

Namaste is mentioned in the Rig Veda and it means ‘to bow or bend’. One always bows their head down while doing the Namaste and this gesture signifies ‘The divinity in me pays obeisance to the divinity in you’. Sanatana Dharma dictates one to always see the other as equal, be it in any form. It only takes a second to take from the nature but it takes years for nature to replenish its resources.

Sacred groves maintained by many indigenous tribes prohibited outsiders from cutting down trees to avoid incurring the wrath of the divine force that live in the sacred grove. This helped preserve the biosphere reserves. Habitat destruction in many areas of the world for commercial purposes is causing animals to be homeless. A short video made a few years ago that showed an orangutan occupying the house of a little girl only because humans have torn down the forests calls attention to take steps to preserve our forests and our animals. The ongoing bushfires in Australia, forest fires in the Amazon and in California are the result of human interventions. Animals, like teenagers, are asking us for their space and we ought to provide them with that space. A clear line that defines animal area and human area is mandatory.

It is common to poke fun at the indigenous tribes and their primitive ways of life, but it is from them we can and must inculcate ways of living in harmony with the nature. This pandemic has given us all enough time to reflect upon our appalling ways of living and if we want our future generation to thrive on this planet, it is time we stop being couch-potatoes and begin to actively work towards the re-building of this beautiful planet.

(Featured Image Courtesy Kalyan Varma)