3. FOREST SLENDOUR
Sri Sewak Saran lives in Vrindavan, one of the twelve forests which were once the home of Sri Krishna and his cows. Sewakji inherited two acres of land on the edge of the pilgrimage town of Vrindavan where he has established a small wildlife sanctuary and tree nursery. In the midst of this patch of undisturbed nature is Sewakji’s own simple house where he lives with his wife, her parents, and two cows. It is an old tumbling one-and-a-half storey structure built from local brick and thatch, half-hidden by the trunk and spreading branches of a large kadamba tree which grows against one wall. It is the sort of building that looks as if it grew straight out of the ground on which it stands. It was here, nine years ago, that Sewakji experienced a deep change in his life.
He had been living a peaceful existence, happy with his devotional practices, doing little else than worshipping Krishna and chanting Krishna’s name. In keeping with Hindu custom, he had retired from working life to devote himself to his religion.
One day his peace was broken by the sound of an axe striking a tree. He went to investigate, and found on the lane at the back of his land three men cutting down a very large tree. The tree was the only big one left in the area and was the home of several peacocks, who will only spend the night in the higher and bigger trees. He was surprised to find that these men were devotees of Krishna who, like him, were living in Vrindavan and supposedly worshipping Krishna’s sacred forests. Thinking that they would agree to his request to leave the tree, he tried in all possible ways to persuade them to stop, but to no avail. The tree was a sesame, and they were cutting it for timber. Normally, a sesame tree could be cut for timber, provided there were plenty of other trees nearby. But when there were so few trees left in the area Sewakji considered the cutting of this single tree, which was home to so many birds and which alone gave shade to passers-by, to be a terrible act.
While the three men continued cutting the tree, Sewakji went to seek the help of a local guru who had some authority over them and who might have been able to stop them. However he declined to get involved. Sewakji then reported the incident to the police. The inspector of police came but he also did nothing. Within two or three days the tree was gone.
“When I saw this state of affairs it actually created a sort of vacuum inside me,” Sewakji recalled:
“For two days I was not in a position to know what to do and what not to do – just blank! It was a very strange state of affairs inside me. Then immediately I came out, just like I was being kicked out of some place – `What are you doing? What is the use of your chanting and what is the use of your worship in the temples and what is the use of your taking bath daily in the Yamuna and what is the use of your daily parikrama round the sacred forest if you can’t protect these trees and animals which are part of your devotion; whom you consider to be your gurus? If you can’t protect them there is no use of any worship. You are just a hypocrite.’ Since then I have been running from one door to another, this door to that door, from this city to that city, this person to that person, begging everyone to look after Vrindavan and Krishna’s trees.”
Over the years Sewakji had studied the Vaishnava texts and developed a deep understanding of Vaishnava theology based around the Vrindavan tradition of devotion to Krishna and his female counterpart, Radharani. Together they are the presiding deities of the twelve forests of Vrindavan. Now he also began a thorough study of ecology and taught himself to be an environmentalist. He now interprets the worship of Radha-Krishna as a profoundly ecological basis for life and has formulated his own unique approach to the environmental problems of Vrindavan, which are similar to the problems faced almost everywhere in India and in much of the world. The rest of this chapter is a retelling of some of the concepts which Sewakji kindly taught me during the two weeks I spent in his company in Vrindavan.
* * *
Vrajbhumi, the region around Vrindavan, always had a very good environmental balance, following the traditional pattern of Hindu India. This balance was achieved through the relationship between human settlements, forests and water resources. Between the villages there would be three types of forest patches: forest sanctuaries, dense woodland and sacred groves. The first type was called raksha, ‘sanctuary’. This would be entirely left to itself – no human would enter it – as a sanctuary for wildlife. If a bird had made a nest on a tree-branch the entry of a single person could disturb its habitat. Therefore this small forest would be completely protected from human disturbance. During the daytime the birds and animals would go into the village or wherever they wished and safely return to their habitat at night. All of them living in that patch would feel quite safe.
“Nowadays the government is spending a huge amount on wildlife sanctuaries,” Sewakji explains,
“but still they are not able to maintain the standards of protection that existed in the old sanctuaries. In those days these small sanctuaries, anywhere between one and ten acres, were everywhere between the villages. This is a better system than having huge government sanctuaries, because it provides more local variety of habitat and involves the local communities directly in caring for their own environment and the animals.”
This type of raksha forest corresponds to both the mahavan and tapovan forests described by Banwari in the previous chapter. The shrivan forest, which encompasses and supports the village, has two features according to Sewak Sharan: dense forest and grove.
Dense forest was called ghana. In this forest the natural arrangement of trees and plants would not be unnecessarily disturbed, but people would go there to collect dry wood, leaves, forest produce and a limited amount of green timber. As care for this woodland was the responsibility of the village communities, and as their livelihood depended on it, they naturally conserved it from generation to generation.
Finally comes the grove, called vanakhandi, usually of one particular species, say mango, specially planted by the villagers: Amara-khandi (mango), Kadamba-khandi, Tamal-khandi and so on.* These groves were usually composed of fruit trees and were maintained by the village as places for religious observance, festivals and recreation. A typical pastime was julan, swinging from a seat suspended from the branches of a tree. Most recreation, such as dancing or singing, had to do with religious festivals like rasalila, the circle dance of Krishna. This commemorates Sri Krishna’s dancing with the cowherd girls during the full-moon night of the autumn season in the sacred groves on the banks of the Yamuna river.
Another essential part of the traditional ecology of the villages is the water tank, or reservoir of rainwater. These tanks vary in size from small ponds to large lakes of up to four acres excavated to a depth of twenty feet or more, with steps built into their sides for access. They are situated in the natural depressions in the ground, where they can best receive the surface rainwater. Most tanks contain one to four bore-holes, depending on the tank’s size, to feed surplus rainwater down to the underlying ground water. In this way every year the abundance of monsoon rain is captured and the ground water replenished to ensure a constant supply of sweet water.
In the past these tanks were constructed or restored by wealthy benefactors, particularly in sacred pilgrimage places such as Vrindavan. They would sometimes be embellished with beautiful stonework and pavilions to give shade and resting places to the many pilgrims who would come to bathe in their waters. Many of these tanks have sacred connotations, commemorating events in the lives of great saints or avatars. Frequently they have histories going back thousands of years.
Nowadays, however, with the availability of pumps and piped water these tanks are falling into neglect. They are silting up and their bore-holes are becoming blocked and useless. The rainwater gullies which were meant to feed the tanks are sometimes used as sewage ditches and the tanks either dry up or become health hazards. Indeed, there are few places in India where the inter-relationship between villages, water-tanks and forest patches has been maintained. This neglect threatens the well-being of India’s villages, whose survival depends utterly on the health and abundance of their surroundings.
Sewak Saran points out that the environment is not only flora and fauna: it includes the human species. The inter-dependence of human beings and their environment is of utmost importance. Sadly, it is only human beings who misuse and harm the environment. In his own words: “When we talk of environment we cannot leave humans out of the picture. If we have to re-create the environment, we will have to consider ourselves. When we start re-creating ourselves we have to look within our hearts and see where we have erred and made mistakes. This means to be religious – to proceed towards God. In this way the environmental approach becomes the religious approach.
“Ultimately we will have to think for ourselves where we are going wrong in creating this imbalance in nature. If we are not kind to the tree, the ant or some other animal or plant, we are not environmentalists. We have to see Krishna in every being. This is one of the requirements for the environmentalist.”
Based on his understanding that an environmental approach to life is part and parcel of spiritual culture and flows from human self-development, Sewakji has defined seven facets of human existence which together make up what he calls Human Ecology. In his analysis, each level of concern grows out of, and is dependent upon, each of the others.
1 Forest Splendour
The splendour of the moon, the stars, the rising sun, the winds, the sky, the vegetation, the animals, birds, rivers, trees and mountains together form the beauty of the natural creation in its entirety. Part of that beauty is called in Sanskrit vanavaibhava. There is no exact equivalent in English for this word, but the nearest term would be “forest splendour”. Human beings are part of this forest splendour and should therefore, in their natural state, love and respect it. We are part of it, it gives us our identity, and without it we are lost. Thus we must carefully nourish and preserve the forest. This is the world forest referred to by Banwari, the primeval forest from which we come and where we find our identity.
To understand our relationship with this forest splendour we must look within ourselves and thus begin the spiritual path: spirituality begins from looking within. True spirituality means not only looking within ourselves, but looking within the whole of nature – to understand the internal reality of nature. In Sewakji’s own words:
“When we feel ourselves as part of the whole, and think to ourselves how this creation is working, how our own being is working within it and who has created it and how; when we try to find the motive force behind all of this – this is spirituality. Without this internal dimension we may have external culture but we will use it for the wrong reasons – selfish ones – and we will not benefit others by our actions.”
This is the next ingredient of human life – spirituality – and we must take care of it. True spirituality cannot survive without reference to the natural environment.
Sewakji goes on to explain that culture is the outward expression of spirituality. As a painting expresses the spirit of the artist, culture expresses the spirit of society. Culture is expressed in the way a society lives, how its people behave, and in its religious expressions. These will alter according to time and place, but they will nevertheless speak unerringly of the underlying consciousness of that society. In particular, the way in which humanity sees itself in relation to its surroundings is a fundamental reflection of human culture.
According to Sewakji:
“Sometimes human culture may not be in unison with the surroundings and it may have a harmful effect on nature. These days human beings have gone very much astray and are destroying nature: whenever nature stands in the way of what they want she is pushed aside. Such behaviour which is not in harmony with nature is not really human culture. In our Indian perception, Mana is a human being who perfectly respects nature and Dana is one who misuses nature. It is not wise to go against nature. History has shown that those cultures which are not respectful to nature do not last long: they bring about their own downfall. Vedic culture, on the other hand, has lasted for many thousand of years and is still visible even now. It is called ‘sanatan dharma’ – the way of life which lasts for ever, self-perpetuating and regenerating.”
Springing from human culture comes heritage – the permanent impressions left in stone, art and literature – those things by which we pass on our values to the next generation. This is an essential part of human life from which we gain nourishment and support, from which we learn who we are and how to live.
We have received so much from previous generations and civilizations, but unfortunately human society acts irresponsibly and neglects its heritage. This means that others in the future will not receive it. Particularly in India, whose culture is so great, the traditional heritage has been largely destroyed by foreign rulers who imposed their own ideas upon it. They assumed that they had surpassed the knowledge of previous societies and had no more use for it.
We have an obligation to pass on what we have received to those who come after us. We must preserve our heritage, learn from it, and give it to our children. This is the fourth facet of Human Ecology.
To know these cultures and heritages one must travel to different sacred places, to find out how all these different patterns are tied together – to find unity in diversity. To go on pilgrimage is to experience the values of a particular place; to feel one with the culture of that place. When the buildings and surroundings speak with us and have a message for us – a message of the spirit – then it is pilgrimage. In the Vedic tradition the most enlightened souls are considered to be the sannyasis, the wandering monks who move around and give enlightenment. They travel from place to place to learn what truth is and to teach it to those they meet.
6 Human Welfare
When we have learned to see the common thread which unites all different expressions of human culture and heritage, then we can have a full sense of human welfare. The next consideration is how humans should behave towards one another. They should be kind and co-operative with one another, otherwise they are not truly human. Being kind to others includes being kind to nature. Nature’s welfare and human welfare cannot be separated from each other. For this reason Vedic culture taught that the earth and the cow are to be loved and cared for as mothers. If we are kind to nature we will naturally be kind to one another.
7 Human Ecology
All these points taken together add up to human ecology. They proceed from human beings situated in their natural environment of ‘forest splendour’. If we do not find this initial point of contact with our natural origins, we fail to find ourselves in relation to the world and to truth.
While explaining to me his understanding of ecology, Sevak Sharan shared with me his deep concern about the deterioration of Krishna’s forests in Vrindavan. We agreed to work together to try and do something to change the situation. (The problems of Vrindavan and the conservation project we have begun there with the support of WWF are described in chapter eleven)
Sewakji is a comparative rarity in India. Not many souls, devout though they may be, have seen the connection between their religious practice and the need to care for the natural world around them. In fact, quite the opposite. Despite their deeply ecological tradition, the majority of Hindus are surprisingly unconcerned about their surroundings to an extent which often shocks the outsider. There are historical and social reasons for this, of course, which I will explore later in this book.