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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 29 New Delhi July 11, 2015

Ecological Conservation and The Historian’s Craft

Saturday 11 July 2015

by Namrata Singh

Due to changes in the climate in the past decades, interest in ecological changes and conservation has arisen in all academic disciplines.This is true for the discipline of History as well. E.H. Carr has defined history as a dialogue of the present with its past. This means that contemporary issues are sought to be understood in the context of the past. By doing so, certain historians, as pointed out by Beverley Southgate, write history, to provide examples from the past. This is done so that one could learn from the past and take decisions accordingly. Southgate argues for an increasingly important role for a revitalised historical study. He argues that the historians’ importance lies in their adoption of a moral standpoint, from which a story of the past can be told, that facilitate the attainment of the future we desire. A new branch of the discipline of history has thus developed, that is, environmental history. Here one will be discussing certain trends of history writing, which, hopefully, have played, are playing and will continue to play an important role in inculcating environmental consciousness while helping to develop an environmental ethos.

Before looking into the role of environmental history in ecological conservation, it is important to understand the meaning of the concerned terms. The word ‘Environment’ means our surroundings. ‘Ecology’, is derived from two Greek words—oikos, that is, home or habitat, and logos, that is, study. Thus ecology involves a scientific study of the interaction of organisms with their physical environment and with others. This interaction is determined by how these organisms view themselves vis-a-vis the others around them.

Traditionally, historical development under the influence of the concept of historical materialism, as propounded by Marx and Engels, discussed human evolution in terms of the dominant mode of production and social formations. The transition to the next mode of production under this schema was governed by dialectical materialism. Now scholars like Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have analysed the evolution in terms of the mode of resource use. Thus historical changes and phases are seen in the context of interfaces between humans and their natural resources. In this manner an awareness of how increasing human needs and exploitation of resources has led to slow and gradual depletion and changes in the resource base is sought to be highlighted. That this led to tensions and conflicts is also stressed. The emergence of certain beliefs in every phase, which somehow helped to preserve and conserve, is further emphasised.

Historians through their writings have also shown how the misuse of resources can lead to the end of mighty civilisations. This they do by providing examples from the past. This is specially seen in the case of the Harappan civilisation. With the exception of Mortimer Wheeler’s theory of Aryan invasion, the other hypotheses relating to the end of the civilisation in the Indus Valley emphasise on ecological and environmental factors—floods, changing of the course of rivers, aridity and, most importantly, over-use of resources. Thus the dire consequences of rampant ‘misuse’ are brought out. Scholars like Fairservis have sought to explain the decay of the Harappan civilisation in terms of the problems of ecology. Fairservis points out that the delicate balance of these semi-arid areas was disturbed due to depletion of resources by the human and cattle population. Thus the combined needs of the people living in the towns, peasants and pastoralists wore out the landscape. This led to a gradual movement away from the core areas. Thus there was dispersal and diffusion. Scholars, like Chakrabarti, have broadened the meaning of environment beyond the physical space to the human unit as well. In certain areas around Cholistan, the surrounding less advanced hunting-gathering groups ‘swallowed up’ the complex civilisation when it was beset with problems.

A study of the belief systems and their interface with ecology too has drawn the attention of scholars. One of the earliest studies in this regard was made by Lynn White in 1967. White pointed out that in the Western world recession of paganism and the emergence of Judeo-Christian religious traditions played havoc with the environment. It was now emphasised that God has planned all creation explicitly for man’s benefit and rule. The only purpose of physical creation was to serve the purpose of man. He further said that in contrast to the religions of the East, Christianity established a dualism of man and nature. He went on to add that human attitude and thinking about themselves in relation to their surroundings and other life forms, determines their use or misuse of nature.

This anthropocentric attitude did not develop in the belief systems of India. A historical analysis of the evolution of the religions and belief systems of the Indian subcontinent, for example, clearly reveals their close associations with nature. It all began with human awe of the natural forces like rain, flood, storms and lightening, as they were not able to control these forces. There was also the fear of wild animals. The Harappan seals have given rise to the speculation that their belief system was highly zoomorphic that is, the deities had animal forms. During the period of the Rig-Veda, a significant change took place. Superhuman deities, in control of great natural forces, with animal qualities emerge. Thus Indra, the master of rain and lightning, was also associated to a bull. During the Brahmanical/Vedic period, association and fascination with nature and its worship continued, Trees were given a lot of importance. All the four Vedas are full of references to various herbs, trees and flowers and their significance. They were considered as animate being and to harm them was considered a great sacrilege. Besides the peepul tree, various other trees were also worshiped. Plants and trees were associated with gods and goddesses. The trees and plants, which were worshiped, had special qualities and provided some kind of advantage to the human beings. We now know that the peepul tree releases oxygen 24 hours and thus helps to purify the air. Similarly tulsi has great medicinal values.

Wild animals and even domesticated animals were given a place of respect. Many birds and animals are venerated as they are the vahan of different gods on which they are said to travel through the cosmos. Thus, Ganesh travelled on a rat. Ganesh was also associated with the elephant, in fact he had an elephant head. Rama is associated with monkeys. Hanuman, the monkey god, helped Rama in His search for His wife Sita. The sun god, Surya, rides a horse. Durga is linked to the lion. The cow is associated with Krishana, the snake with Shiva, the swan with Saraswati. Vishnu’s incarnations have been represented as taking various animal forms as well; those serially include a fish, a tortoise, a boar and a half-man and half-lion form.

Even more important was the theory of reincarnation of the Vedic period. According to this theory, there are 84,000 yonis through which a life form has to pass before acquiring the human form. Each of the stage is considered of equal importance. This clearly shows that all species were regarded equal. Emphasising on this aspect of a past can really help to develop an environmental ethos. Human beings today should realise that all creatures and life forms have equal rights of existence.

One would, as a student of history, add a rider here. Throughout the Vedic period, animal sacrifices continued and eating of animals also continued. As the movement eastwards took place towards the Gangetic plain, the need for oxen for agricultural activities increased. Thus there emerged two new belief systems—Buddhism and Jainism—with their emphasis on ahimsa or non-violence. This creed of non-violence affected the attitude of state as well and even the Vedic religion. This was mainly due to the contestation which was taking place with forest folks. The forest communities oppose the spread of agricultural communities. These communities mainly survive on animal flesh. Thus the concept of ahimsa was used to project the forest communities as inferior. It was also used to justify the war against them. Then they were classified as outcastes. This was done by the Manusmriti. The belief systems were and are used to maintain the hegemony of the dominant.

During the early days, to protect these life forms there was the concept of sacred groves. These were specially earmarked areas in which it was said a goddess was residing and the cutting of trees etc. was banned. This helped in the long run to preserve various species which elsewhere became extinct.

Usually the caste system of the Indians is represented as a system of professional divisions which, with the passage of time, became related to one’s birth. Guha and Gadgil, on the other hand, project it as a system of resource allocation. As resources were allocated in advance, and it was made clear that no claim on other’s resources would be accepted or allowed, no over-use took place.

Similarly, the preservation of wild life was also achieved due to certain practices. In the Vedic times, the worship of animals in some form or the other, as mentioned earlier, played its important role. During the Mughal period, hunting, especially of the lion and tiger, was restricted for the members of the royal family only. This in the long run helped to preserve these big cats. With the establishment of the British rule, this restriction came to an end. Hunting of big cats was carried out by all Britishers from the highest to the lowest rank. This played havoc with the population of the lion and tiger and they started becoming extinct.

The whole history of India is replete with such examples of re-examination from the environmental perspective. Thus through the discipline of history environmental awareness and ethos can be easily developed.

Though our examples have mainly been from the Vedic religion, we are in no way suggesting that this concern is missing from other religions. In both the Holy Bible and Holy Quran there are numerous injunctions in this regard. Interestingly, the last Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, in a modified list of sins, added ‘polluting the environment’ as a sin.

This is not to say that only the discipline of history is involved in the project. All disciplines, as stated earlier, are doing their bit. This is also seen in films in particular. Avatar which was released in 2009, clearly shows how in Pandora, all life forms are linked and this linkage is our only hope for survival.

Without internalising this ethos, no scientific effort can be successful.


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Dobson, Andrew, 2003, Ecologism. In Contemporary Political Ideologies, (ed.) Roger Eatwell and Anthony Wright, 230-254. Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Publications

Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha, 1992, Ecological History of India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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McNeill, J.R., 2003, ‘Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History’, History and Theory. 42:5-43.

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The author belongs to the History Department, Rajdhani College, University of Delhi.

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