OGASTHANTHRA – The Indian Art of Living in Tune with Nature

published on March 24, 2008

By M. P.
Ajith Kumar





It
is appropriate to begin quoting an excerpt from the Red Indians’ Chief
Seattle’s 1885 speech to a White Governor who had come to occupy the Red
Indians’ land:


 


“What is it that the White Man wants to buy, my people will ask. It
is difficult for us to understand.



 


How can one buy or sell the air, the warmth of the land? That is
difficult for us to imagine. If we don’t own the sweet air and the bubbling
water, how can you buy it from us? Each pine tree shining in the sun, each
sandy beach, the mist hanging in the dark woods, every space, each humming bee
is holy in the thoughts and memory of our people… Every part of this soil is
sacred in the estimation of my people…



 


We are part of the earth, and the earth is part of us. The fragrant
flowers are our sisters, the reindeer, the horse, the great eagle our brothers…



 


We know that the White Man does not understand our way of life. To
him, one piece of land is like the other. He is a stranger coming in the night
taking from the land what he needs. The earth is not his brother but his enemy,
and when he has conquered it, he moves on… He treats his mother the Earth and
his brother the sky like merchandise. His hunger will eat the earth bare and
leave only a desert…



 


Your God is not our God!… Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly
receding tide that will never return. The White Man’s God cannot love our
people, or he would protect them….



 


But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe
follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the
order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but
it will certainly come, for even the White Man… cannot be exempt from the
common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see1.”


 


 

This
western trend to exploit nature was resultant of the fatal divorce brought
about by the new religion of the West between God on the one side and his
creation, nature, on the other. Many western thinkers including Voltaire,
Jefferson and Thomas Paine have recognized this. In fact in the pre-Christian
or ‘Pagan’ religions (as the modern Europeans call them) no such divorce
existed. It would not be off the mark to quote Pierre Thuillier, the
French historian of science who writes:


 


“Christian theology defined a conception of nature perfectly
adapted to technicist ambitions. As a matter of fact, in Paganism, natural
realities were perceived to be living inhabited by “soul”…. A spring (or a
tree) was not reduced to a physical reality, a material reality. It was
something more, an entity with a life of its own. It was therefore perfectly
natural for a spring to be respected and even revered. It was seen as a
marvelous manifestation of Nature, herself regarded as living. The earth, let
us recall, was perceived as one great organism; the Greeks called her as
“Mother Earth”. Even minerals appeared endowed with certain life, and all
individual existences mysteriously associated with one another amidst the
whole, of which humanity itself was but one fragment.



 


With Christianity, a supposedly “superior” religion that attitude
towards nature was totally disqualified. Henceforth, it was forbidden to revere
springs as if they had a dignity of their own. People’s whole adoration had to
be turned to the Christian God and to him alone… It is true that nature,
created by God, retained a certain spiritual value. But a radical
transformation had taken place: earth, air, water and fire, now theologically
striped of all “soul”, were no more than objects which Homo technicus was free
to manipulate as he wished… Through its doctrine, the Judeo-Christian tradition
somehow legitimized officially the most daring technical enterprises”2.


 

The
whole pre-Christian world, it is clear, had worshipped earth as the sacred abode
of the divine being of which every object in the world was deemed a
manifestation. It is also to be noticed what prevailed on the global face prior
organization of the modern western and Middle Eastern religions was a universal
religion with its characteristics more or less the same irrespective of
regional and continental variations. Recent archaeological findings from Honduras , Mexico
and the like places established the similarities of the ancient American
cultures, Mayas, Incas or Aztecs with those of the ancient culture that
flowered on the Saraswati-SindhuValleys . Both, like the
people referred to in the Rk. Veda and Zend-Avesta, were the
worshippers of nature, especially of fire. Of all these cultures India offered a
highly admirable worldview that zeros in more on the importance of nature than
any other aspect. But all these cultures were swept away by the steamroller of
the Judeo-Christian advance, as also of Islam, and with the passage of time it
so happened as already predicted by the lore.


 

Siva
Purana says, the Kali Yuga would witness many signs of
growing chaos among which the noted would be the merchant class’ abandonment of
the “holy rites such as digging wells and tanks, and planting trees and parks”3
.



 

It
is the recent trend that sprang up with the Renaissance, which prompted man to
have a microscopic approach to each and every problem of life. With the
industrial development that resulted from the Renaissance making nature the
target of exploitation, a particular ideology too was evolved as a moral
support to this exploitation. It was all in with the Semitic belief to have a
systematic approach for the brutal enjoyment of nature.


 

According
to Francis Bacon, “The secrets of nature
reveal themselves under the vexation of art [i.e., artisantry, technology] than
when they go their own way”
. The
Baconian method thus suggests to haunt the nature, enslave her, and pressure
her like an inert plastic material into a mechanical mould or any form and to
torture her to reveal all her secrets. Such a process of perception calls for a
change of mentality, a change from its natural state to a mechanical one. This
superiority of man over nature, a reflection of the Old Testament believe that
nature with all its living beings is for the enjoyment of man, is the cardinal
aspect of the Baconian spirit and all the later mechanical approaches to
nature. The next development in this approach appeared in the ‘Discourse on
Method’ of Rene Descartes, who advocates a mechanical way of thought in
experimenting the nature, which according to him has a mathematical structure
or pattern.


 

Mind
is a machine, man is different from entirety, and knowledge results from the
association of the fragments of ideas. Everything according to this view is an
isolated entity which conflicts with the other, and produces a duality of the
mind-matter. This schizoid duality, which can’t accept the idea of unity and
harmony in the universe and the resultant ‘Beauty’ thereof, is the basis of
this worldview. He elaborates this further in his Principles of Philosophy
and looks to the world as a machine of matter and movement. In his thought even
non-material aspects have only material basis, and natural and artificial
things cease to have difference. “I do not recognize any difference between
machines made by craftsman and the various bodies that nature alone composes”.
Animals are machines made of wheels and coils; and human body too is a machine.
The result is a deductive logic and a mechanical worldview.  This again evolved
into the Galilean idea that nature could be controlled only if it is taken as
dead and useless.  To understand this mechanical nature, a mechanical
mind, which can vivisect nature into separate units, is called for. To know
is to control; truth is only that which is useful, and this new method of
perception expelled from within its range the elements of values and
experience.
The Newtonian concept of ‘Dead matter’ also added to this
mechanical worldview. Thus with the Cartesian paradigm seeing nature as an
object of exploitation, the technological and economic systems ruthlessly
torturing and looting the nature began to gain ground4.

Irrespective of any difference in economic ideologies, the thought that
nature is an aimless and lifeless object that awaits exploitation at the hands
of man has become one of the cornerstones of the capitalist and socialist
thoughts.



 

The
approach and attitude to nature depends on the mindset of a people with the
result that it could be looked either as a dry machine or a vibrant life
system. It is here that the Indian outlook to nature differs. Indian tradition
had in it developed an integral and holistic approach to the entire faculty of
knowledge of which ecology of course constituted an important part. According
to ancient literature India
developed a desirable and admirable type of corporate existence, a state of
nature working on the principles of morality or Dharma. It led man
and his thoughts from de-coherence to coherence
.    

    

The
state of nature is not a fiction but a historical reality. Rousseau and
Montesque have theorized about that archaic state of nature with no ruler, nor
the ruled. In it man found himself in perfect harmony with nature, an opinion,
which is again shored up by the like oriental theories too. Mahabharathathus says:

                            
na rajyam nacha rajasid

                            
nadandyo nachadandika

                            
dharmenaiva prajasarva

                            
rakshanthisma parasparam


 

According
to this Ithihasic version, in this state where natural laws were in
vogue there was neither kingdom nor the king, no body was punished, nor was
there wielder of rode. Living in line with the tenets of Dharma
(religion) the people protected each other.


 

The
Indian worldview upholds a holistic approach to man and nature, which are the
inseparable parts of the totality. To the ancient Indians, nature and its other
living systems were venerable objects. Nothing was considered as dead matter.
Indian thought upholds nature as the manifestation of the Brahman or the
divine spirit.
Naturally nature became a revered object. Nature or Prakruthi
in appearance is the body of the Brahman and the Purusha or the
God with the body of Brahmanda is called Viratpurusha; all the
beings of the world – trees, beasts, birds and the like are his organs. Purushasuktha
describes the Brahman or the Purusha as with many heads, thousand
eyes and thousand feet.



 


                             
sahasrasirsha purusha


                             
sahasraksha sahasrapath.5


 

Whatever
was found in the nature or in the cosmic body was taken as the manifestation of
the divine with the result that each and every phenomenon in the nature became
as venerable as the Brahman itself. It was not out of fear, as is
falsely believed, but out of love and affection to an object, which the culture
of the land held dear and near to it that such an approach to nature was
developed. It could see the manifestation of the divine in everything and could
worship it.


 

If
nature and ecosystem were the expressions of the divine, it was the earth,
which sustained them. The mother of all the flora and fauna, she was the most
sacred, and was worshipped as the consort of God Vishnu. The seers
imagined of her as ocean-clad and decked with beautiful mountains, and to
trample upon her with feet was looked as sinful which was often apologized for.

                              
samudravasane devi


                              
parvathasthana mandithe



                             
vishnupriye namosthubhyam


                        
     padaspsarsam kshamaswame


 

(Forgive me for my touching you with my feet. I salute thee
oh goddess! Thou who art ocean-clad and with mountains as thy breasts and thou
who art the beloved of Vishnu, the supreme God.)


 

Charms
were often composed to invoke the blessings of the mother earth and special
rites were performed at the time of any new initiative:


 


                           
yatthe bhume vikhnami


                           
kshipram thadapi rohuthu


                           
mathe marma vimrugiri


                           
mathe hridayamarpipam6 


 

(Let
whatever I dig up from the earth grow in size. Let not my spade oh! mother
earth, wound thy heart or such important parts.)


 

The
lore looks upon the trees as the flying curls of the God or Hari:


 

                           
namasthe vrukshebhya harikesebhya7    


                           
nama saspinjaraya thvishemithe



8


        

 

       
According to the Rudradhyaya of Yajur Veda tree is God itself. It
abounds in hymns to praise and worship the trees and all sources of water as
the incarnations of Lord Rudra:


 

                           
nama katyaya nichyayacha9 


 

       
(I salute the waters of small brook (katya) and cascade (nichya)

                      

                           
nama sudyayacha sarasyayacha10 


 

        
(Salutations oh! the waters of muddy place (sudya) and lake (saras).)

                     

                           
namo nadyayacha vaisanthayacha11


 

        
(Waters of river (nadi) and small lake (vaisantha), I salute.)

                     

                         
Nama kupyayachavatyayacha12


 

        
(I salute the waters of well (kupa) and ditches (avatya).) 


 

There
was prayer for the peace and tranquillity of the atmosphere, earth, vegetation
and the forest.


 

                          
dyo santhi anthariksham santhi apa santhi

                          
oushadhaye santhi vanaspathaye santhi.

                          
sarvam santhi.


 

(Let
tranquility be to the sky, atmosphere, earth, water, and the entire flora and
for everything.)


 

Planting
trees was considered sacred which would help one attain heaven, since they were
reckoned as the expressions of the ultimate knowledge about the divine, the Veda.
It is interesting to note Jambavan’s briefing to Hanuman on the eve of his trip
to fetch mruthasanjivani. He described the medicinal plants as the icons
of the highest knowledge, vedasvarupa.


 

      
Thus says Kamandakiya Nithisara:


 

                  
asvadhmekam pichumandamekam


                  
nyagrodhamekam dasathinthrinischa



                  
kapithhavilvamalakathrayancha



                  
panchamranali narakam nayathi.


 


(One who plants one pipal tree, one neem tree, one banyan tree, ten
tamarind trees, three jackfruit trees, and five coconut trees would never go to
hell.)  


 

The
teachings of the Buddha, like the earlier teachings, laid great significance on
nature and all animals associated with it. In fact it is not wholly a Buddhist
ideal, but something the Buddha himself had drawn from traditions. For, the
literature of the time including Arthasasthra ascribed to Kautallya
refers to the importance of trees and flower gardens as an inseparable part of
the cities and towns. Naturally the Buddhist teachings, as reflections of the
time, signified the importance of nature, and in course of time there developed
stories about the birth (Jathakas) of Buddha wherein nature, its beasts
and birds found their harmonious commingling. We come across how the Buddha
himself was protected by the Naga Muchalinda by spreading its hood over
him while lost in a long trans. We come to see the images of nagas and naginis
in the Buddhist art at Sanchi, Saranath, Barhut or Amaravathi where the stupa
railings along with the serpent Gods hold the relief motifs of so many other
beings of nature like the ‘Bodhi’ tree or even the dryads (Yakshis) who
lay hanging on either side of the gate ways on the four sides. These Buddhist
icons according the far famed philosopher and art critic, Ananda Kentish
Koomarasvami are the guardian deities of the four quarters of the universe,
symbolizing the theory of balance, rhythm and order (ritha)13.
Nature was according to ancient Indian thought a synthesizer and
balancer.      

     

All
these references from the Indian lore clarify that in ancient India nature
was considered the expression of the divine. India developed the ogasthanthra,
which can very nearly be translated into the ‘science of adjusting with
nature’
instead of ‘nature management’ as done in modern writings.
Naturally it was impossible for Indian culture to look to nature as a dead
matter. It was to the Indians a guide disciplining their life that found itself
associated with the entirety of the nature, which imparted ritha or
order to it. Nature was a harmonizing force that made life in ancient India
a mutual entertainment leading to the bliss of corporate existence among men as
well as between god and man, yajnja:


 

                        
Sahayajnja praja srushtva purovacha prajapathi


                       
Anena prasavishyadhvamesha vosthvishtakamadhuk



14


 

(Prajapathi,
progenitor of all the worlds, creating of yore, beings that co-exist with a
sacrifice, said: “By this you multiply, let this yield you covetable objects of
desire.) 

                         
devan bhavayathanena the deva bhavayanthuva

                         
parasparam bhavayantha sreya paramavapsyadha15 

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Responses

  1. tarish kaushik Reply

    April 6, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Ogasthanthra.
    Thank you Shri Ajit for this enlightening write up. 5

  2. Baiju Reply

    April 22, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Good Article
    A well thought out article. Kudos to Mr Ajith Kumar. I felt attuned to it while reading this piece.

    Thank you for the post. 5

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