“Forest, at one level, means the world. It includes the whole creation. You are also part of that forest. It is not that you are outside the forest. You can re-order it, but you cannot by-pass it.”


The traveller in India soon learns to appreciate the ancient trees which often grow by the wayside. Trees such as mango, nim or banyan have always been planted along the roads to give shelter and shade, their leaves acting as natural air-conditioners. Beneath their broad canopies generations of travellers, stopping for a rest or a meal from a roadside stall, have found relief from the heat.

Planting trees and digging wells have traditionally been the two great acts of charity by which anyone could earn merit and universal appreciation. Sadly these big shade trees along the roads are now becoming rare, but wherever they are found, rooted in the soil of India, they carry with them a brooding sense of magic and history. They stand as silent symbols of India’s spiritual roots – last outposts of the vast forests and jungles which once covered the whole continent, and which gave shelter to Lord Rama and his beautiful wife in their years of exile and echoed with the sound of Lord Krishna’s flute as he danced with his friends and herded the cows.

Sages dwelt in these forests, living simple and austere lives in search of spiritual perfection. Living with them beneath the trees were their students, who could learn the Vedic truths in perfect natural surroundings, reminded in a thousand ways of the all-pervading presence of God.

Because they lived in the forest, the early Vedic teachers attached great importance to trees. Beneath a tree was the correct place for a disciple to receive spiritual instruction from a guru. The tree was the symbol of patience and tolerance. They carefully studied and recorded the herbal and medicinal properties of the forest. Some trees gained special significance and poems and prayers were composed about them and the spirits dwelling within them.

“Just see these greatly fortunate trees, whose lives are completely dedicated to the welfare of others. How great they are that they bear the storms, rains, snow and scorching sun and then they protect us!”

This tradition of valuing trees was passed on into Indian culture and led to a subtle ecological relationship between human communities and the forest community of trees, plants and animals. The basis of this relationship was the recognition of the rights of the trees, forest-dwelling animals and plants to a life of their own, free from exploitation by humans. Human society depended on the forest for survival and prosperity and therefore they had to protect it; furthermore the forest was a place of peace and harmony with God where the spiritual goals of life could be pursued by the forest sages.

Banwari, the day-editor of ‘Jansatta’, a Hindi daily newspaper published in Delhi, has made a detailed study of the forest culture of India for a book he is writing. He spoke to me of his findings.

“The Hindu idea is that this whole world is a forest. To keep this world as it is we have to keep the world-forest intact. Hinduism describes everything in terms of divinity and in relation to the Ultimate Reality. The different aspects of this Ultimate Reality are all to be found in the various forms of the physical world.

“Every physical object symbolises some aspect of Reality. Amongst these, the forest symbolises the divine attribute of ‘totality’, combining all life forms together in a single inter-dependent whole.

“In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna compares the world to a single banyan tree with unlimited branches in which all the species of animals, humans and demigods wander. Indian consciousness is full of trees and forests. If you look, for example, in Greek literature you will find only a few descriptions of trees and forests, whereas Indian literature such as Ramayana and Mahabharata is full of such descriptions, as if the people were always under the trees. The bond between Indian people and trees is very strong.

“Hindu tradition describes three basic categories of forest. One is shrivan, the forest which provides you prosperity. Then there is tapovan, where you can contemplate as the sages did and seek after truth. The third is mahavana – the great natural forest where all species of life find shelter. Each of these categories must be preserved.”

Banwari explains how originally the land is covered with trees, but as the human population increases trees are cleared to make way for cultivation. How the land was cleared and the earth cultivated was described long ago in the ancient story of King Prithu, who milked the earth in the form of a cow. He was credited with clearing the forests and establishing the first organised agricultural settlements and townships.

Once some of the original forest was cleared, however, Vedic culture required that another kind of forest be established in its place. To remove the forest was simply not acceptable. It was the source of natural wealth such as fodder, timber, roots and herbs. Moreover the trees guaranteed the fertility of the soil and purified the air and water. Therefore the villages would each preserve sections of forest for their own specific needs. These forests were different from the mahavana, the wild forest or jungle, because they were open for exploitation and harvesting according to strictly ecological practices. This kind of forest was called shrivan, which literally means forest of wealth – they were the basis of the community’s prosperity.

Each village was responsible through its pancayat, or committee of five elders, for maintaining the forests in its own locality. No village would be complete without its corresponding woodlands in and around its houses. As Banwari explains:

“The village has many things – it is not significant only because of its human population. It is significant because of its water, because of its animals and because of its trees. According to tradition, that village will be a full entity only when there are certain categories of forest or trees in and around the village. This is called shrivan, the forest of prosperity.”

The shrivan could be in the form of groves of a particular kind of tree, such as the mango tree. Many such groves would be looked after by temples, having been given to the temple in the distant past and kept up for countless generations. Such sacred groves still survive in places today as a reminder of the old system. They are often the only surviving areas of mature woodland in otherwise denuded surroundings and provide a refuge for wildlife from the encroaching development of housing, roads, modern agriculture and factories.

Today in India many are saying that there should be more trees planted in and around the villages. This is because the tradition of shrivan has been allowed to lapse. According to tradition it was not trees that should be in the village, but the village that should be among the trees. Villages should be planned in such a way, with dense groves and gardens, that the whole area is enshrouded by useful trees.

The third category of forest is tapovan, the home of the sages. This kind of forest is natural and untended, but is specifically set aside as a place for the practice of religion. Why should a forest be required for religion? The answer is found in the meaning of the name tapovan: tapa means penance and vana means forest. The life of a rishi, a holy person, is meant to be one of self-control and penance, through diet, simple living, renunciation of belongings and meditation. The rishi must live in a place which is apart from the bustle and passion of worldly life, a place pervaded with the presence of God – this is tapovan, the forest of penance. If one wished to meet with such advanced souls one had to go to the forest where their ashrams, or hermitages, could be found. There are many stories in the Vedic literatures of encounters between worldly persons and sages in their forest ashrams. From this profoundly natural setting emerged the Vedic teachings of the Upanishads such as the Brihad-Aranyaka, which means ‘The Teaching Which Began in the Forest.’

The presence of these sages also guaranteed the protection of the forest. No animal or tree could be harmed near where they lived. Even kings who violated the sanctity of the area by hunting could be punished. Nowadays it is necessary to establish sanctuaries by force of law and keep them under constant guard against poachers and vandals, but previously the mere presence of holy persons ensured the safety of all around them.

“What is your image of the world?” Banwari asks:

“If your image of the world includes all things which are naturally there, then you will keep this world intact by keeping all those things intact. If your world is narrow, revolving around man and his desires, then your world will exclude things which don’t fall into that scheme. If your image of the world is complete then you will restrict your actions so that they don’t harm the creation. Forest, at one level, means the world. It includes the whole creation. You are also part of that forest. It is not that you are outside the forest. In India, the world is mahavana. You can re-order it, but you cannot be outside it.”

Another way of seeing the world is as a village which includes the forest and its animals, along with humanity. For example, one of the endearing, although sometimes frustrating, features of Indian cities is that cows and bulls wander freely where they please. You often come across an entire herd of cows spread over a half-mile of busy arterial highway in the midst of a city such as Delhi. Sometimes they will sit with their calves on the narrow central reservation dividing the opposite lanes of traffic, or they may stand in the midst of the traffic, with cars and lorries whizzing past them on either side, apparently oblivious of the danger to their own lives and the disruption they are causing. Until now no one has attempted to change this state of affairs, but recently many cities are trying to introduce legislation to ban them. According to the Indian tradition, cows have as much right to be in cities as have human beings: they are part of the world forest, and the world-village must maintain a balance of all aspects of life – trees and animals cannot be excluded. Yet some modern Hindus now see the presence of cattle in their cities as an embarrassing sign of backwardness and a hazard to traffic. Others say that the cows belong where they are; that the traffic, whose volume and speed is increasing across India at an unprecedented rate, is itself the hazard, not only to the cows but to the whole of India’s world.

“In traditional, real India this could not happen,” says Banwari:

“For example, every village must have a cluster of five great trees which represent the forest. They are called panchavati. There is a saying that these five trees symbolise the five primary elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether – the totality of everything. Similarly, cattle represent the animal world. They are part of the world, and therefore part of the city – you cannot exclude them.”

* * *

Up to the last century India was covered with thick forest land. However, everything changed when the British government set up the Indian Forestry Department to exploit the forests. From the beginning of the nineteenth century Britain had systematically felled large areas of virgin Indian forests mainly to meet the ever-expanding needs of her ship-building industry. From 1853 the arrival of the railway in India required further vast amounts of timber for sleepers and for fuelling locomotives. When, later, coal replaced timber as a fuel, the coal-mines themselves needed large quantities of timber for their underground galleries. Exploitation continued, and during the Second World War 6,326 square miles of previously untouched Indian forests were felled for the war effort. To meet the Empire’s needs, during the nineteenth century the forests were gradually nationalised. The present Indian law controlling public access to government forests dates back to the Forest Act introduced by the British 1878. In essence these laws meant that much of India’s forests were taken out of the hands of the local people. Villagers were denied rights of access to what had always been theirs. Because the basic connection between the village and its forests has been broken, the tradition of caring for trees, of respecting and even worshipping them, has fallen into disuse.

Banwari expresses the frustration among India’s environmentalists:

“The Forestry Department claims to be a great admirer of the forests but the fact is that the state’s main interest is in natural resources. To acquire these it will always violate nature and has now become the enemy of the forests.”

The villagers, on the other hand, are the natural friends of the trees. It is common understanding among them that trees must be protected so that the soil will be fertile for agriculture, but because of the crushing economic pressures that are now placed upon them their common sense and their traditional reverence for trees have been overshadowed by their immediate need for short-term economic survival.

Despite his disappointment Banwari is hopeful:

“The traditional religious literatures will have to be re-written and re-published; people must again be made aware of what were the customs, what were the norms, what are the quotations, what is the image of a particular area – which invariably includes a forest, and why that forest was destroyed. Perhaps one thousand books will have to be written explaining all of this. Then you will have to make an effort to re-vitalise the old customs. Then, if the state would give up its control of the forests and return that control to the villages, India will blossom again.”