In the wake of Lynn White's (1967) critique of the Judeo-Christian ethic of subjugation of nature by man, a plethora of work have been published to show that non-Western indigenous cultures maintain conservationist ethos. Ecological analyses of indigenous cultural practices revealed that in contrast to the modern Western economy based on exhaustive resource use modes, pre-industrial economies of hunter-gatherer-shifting cultivators tend to protect the wild biota and habitats on which they depend for survival. Several ecological-anthropological studies (e.g. Callicott 1983; Gadgil 1995; Gadgil and Guha 1992; Gadgil, Berkes and Folke 1993; Kellert 1996; Berkes 1999) contend that religious mores, folklores and cosmologies of most indigenous societies maintain a conservationist ethos in order to sustain their natural resource base.
This message seems to have inspired a series of critical investigation into the relationship of religious systems and nature conservation. Among the established religions, Buddhism and Jainism have been shown to have explicit conservation concerns and consequences (Badiner 1990; Batchelor and Brown 1994; Singhvi 1990; Tobias 1994). White’s thesis has also been challenged by some authors who suggested that Judeo-Christian ehics also fostered an attitude of stewardship towards nature (e.g. Van Dyke et al. 1996; Hessell and Ruether 2000). However, a large number of publications amount to an exercise in hermeneutics of religious texts. In a bid to reveal that all religious institutions and practices served to promote nature conservation, such studies allude to obscure texts, take recourse to exegesis of scriptures, and provide biased interpretations of different portions of scriptural text (e.g. Chapple and Tucker 2000; Khalid and O’Brien 1997; Prime 1992; Rose 1992; Singh 1992; Van Dyke et al. 1996). From the claims of such publications, it appears that all the big institutional religions have directives with an explicit or implicit object to conserve nature.
A consequence of concern is that such publications serve to mount a general functionalist argument to justify all religious practices. Many of the eco-religious literature tend to ignore the finding that ecological concerns are not unique to any religion. By arguing that non-Western religious traditions had built-in ecological awareness, which is purportedly missing in the Western (Judeo-Christian) tradition, they also tend to get trapped in what Guha (1997) calls “inverted Orientalism” – a positive valorization of the mythical Other by the West. Thus, these publications purported to show ecological wisdom of indigenous religious practices serve to construct the image of the “ecologically noble savage” (Redford 1991; Buege 1996), as an antidote to Western modernity. More dangerously, a section of such studies seem to appeal for legitimizing any and all religious practices, that should include untouchability, witch cult and the Sati burning, based on functionalist arguments: all religious beliefs and practices must have served some “ecological” function in the past. This, when read in the context of “post-modernist” critique of science and Reason, might breed a cult of Unreason. There are already signs of repudiation of both common sense and scientific reason in what Sokal calls the “confused and misleading” literature of post-modernism. In this era of resurgence of religious fundamentalism, the few studies that have indeed demonstrated that socio-religious institutions of several indigenous societies in India have a number of cultural-religious mechanisms with important conservation consequences (Bilimoria 1998; Deb, Deuti and Malhotra 1997; Deb and Malhotra 2001) have the risk of being submerged in a cacophony of Unreason, or misread as examples of contemporary resurgence of inverted Orentalism.
In what follows I intend to discuss the ecological aspect of selected religious traditions in India. In this discussion, I identify the religions as belief systems governed by the respective scriptural sanctions, merely to delineate the jurisdiction of institutions of these religions. However, my focus remains on the practices of religions – the local myths, rituals and sentiments that locally identify a religious community.
Biophilia and the Tribal Cosmology
Compassion and Practical Theology in Major Indian Religions
The Puranic Scripture
For meditation Hindu, Buddhist and Jain monks and saints sought a natural and peaceful environment, the highest expression of which is the forest. Thus traditionally temples were often built in forests, and by association the surrounding forest became sacred space to be preserved rather than exploited. Traditionally this would tend to promote the conservation of all the species diversity within the surrounding ecosystem.
The biocosmology of Jainism presents a worldview that stresses the interrelatedness of life-forms. Its attendant nonviolent ethic might easily be extended to embrace an “earth ethics” (Chapple 1998). In Jainism, life is arranged hierarchically according to the number of senses a particular life form has. Thus, earth, water, fire, air, microorganisms, and plants each has its own life (jiva), and experiences the world through the sense of touch. Worms add the sense of taste. Crawling bugs can feel, taste, and smell. Flying insects add seeing. Higher orders of animals, including fish and mammals, can feel, taste, smell, see, hear, and think. To hurt any of the sentient beings results in the thickening of one’s karma, obstructing advancement toward liberation. To reduce karma, Jainas avoid activities associated with violence and follow a vegetarian diet.
Due to their perception of the “livingness” of the world, Jainas hold an affinity for the ideals of the environmental movement. The practice of nonviolence in Jainism fosters an attitude of respect for all life-forms, and assumes the most extreme form. Many Jains wear masks to prevent invisible creatures from getting killed while breathing and speaking. The advanced monks and nuns would sweep their path to avoid trampling on insects.
Apart from ahimsa, all the Jain vows are easily apt to be interpreted in ecological terms. For example, aparigraha, the discipline of nonpossession, prevents one from indulging in the acquisition of material goods, one of the root causes of current ecological concerns. Brahmacharya or sexual restraint might help minimize population growth. The monks and nuns, due to the heightened nature of their daily spiritual practice, leave little or no imprint on the broader ecological system. However, the Jain practices are not without contradictions. Tree planting is considered an important activity associated with environmentalism but poses a dilemma for Jainsim: while Jaina laypeople might participate in such activities, their nuns and monks most likely would not plant trees because of the harm caused to the earth and the earth-dwelling creatures in the digging process (Chapple 1998).
Buddhism has long advocated reverence and compassion for all life. In the case of animals this encompasses invertebrates as well as vertebrates (Sponsel 1991). However, Schmithausen (1997:11-12) denies any such associations of early Buddhist doctrine with explicit care for nature: “the ultimate analysis and evaluation of existence in early Buddhism does not seem to confer any value on nature, nor does it motivate efforts for preserving nature, not to mention restoring it, nor efforts for transforming or subjugating it by means of technology. It only motivates the wish and effort to liberate oneself (vimutti) from all constituents of both personal existence and the world.” Thus early Buddhism preached for detaching oneself from any worldly activity, and abstaining from acts that enhance dukkha (woes) of beings.
In contrast, other scholars (e.g. Harris 1995) argue that the original, genuine teaching of Buddhism is a theory of universal interconnectedness, which, by dismantling the separate, continuous ego-self, leads to identification with and responsibility for the whole world of beings. Accordingly, in contrast to a certain tendency among Theravaada Buddhists and especially Western interpreters, original Buddhism (as well as early Mahaayaana) is not escapist but world-affirming, aiming at an awakening which puts one into the world with a more caring sense of social engagement (Macy 1991). It appears that the Buddha, in contrast to the Jainas, said yes to bodily existence and hence to the food chain and to nature as it actually is, and that it is due to this affirmative attitude to bodily existence that ahimsa is considerably less strict in Buddhism than in Jainism.
While environmentalism emphasizes that natural resources are limited, Buddhism is more direct in encouraging individuals to limit their resource consumption to the optimal satisfaction of the four basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. This vantage point renders ecology a very concrete and personal matter. Following the Middle Way, one lives and progresses in accord with the principles of detachment and moderation. In short, the Middle Way avoids the extremes of denial (asceticism) and overindulgence (consumerism) (de Silva 1987). Nirvana or Nibbana (the awakening into a state of bliss) is reached when the boundary separating the finite self from its surroundings and also all mortal craving are extinguished (Smith 1958). Accordingly Kaza (1990:25) recognizes that “An environmental ethic is not something we apply outside ourselves; there is no outside ourselves. We are the environment, and it is us.” From this recognition of the unity of human and nature it follows that the laws of nature apply to humans as well as to other living beings.
Syncretism and Hindu Pantheon
The indigenous societies as we see them are results of centuries of cultural changes wrought by intra- and inter-societal dynamics. Contrary to past beliefs in the isolation and timelessness of pristine cultures, small localized groups of hunter-gatherer-shifting cultivators as well as pastoralists are known to have living contacts with other groups, and maintain a symbiotic relationship with their agricultural neighbours (Headland and Reid 1989; Gadgil and Guha 1992; Velling 1995). In the Indian context, the cultural exchanges between pre-literate (tribal) and literate societies on complex semiotic levels are often reflected in the multitude of shared myths and rituals.
India is a land where a marvelous confluence of a multitude of belief systems, iconographies and mythologies from different fountainheads of cultures has taken place. The spirit of syncretism has in fact permeated in all the religions taking roots in the country, where hardly any of them can claim absolute purity of the original precepts.
The birth of Hinduism as we see it today is obviously of multiple origins. It has a multitude of icons, myths and rituals borrowed and adopted in the past from aboriginal cultures. Sanskrit texts composed after the Rg-Veda represent a composite culture. Originally pre-Vedic deities like Pashupati and Mother Goddess were incorporated into the Aryan fold after the Rg-Vedic phase of the Aryan culture, ca 2000 years ago (Kochhar 2000). Archaeological evidences and linguistic affinities between Sanskritic names for goddesses and Dravidian languages show that numerous non-Aryan myths and icons have been Sankritised into the mainstream Brahminical culture in order to give them a symbolic acceptance and recognition through textualization (Beane 1977; Coburn 1984).
The variegated theologies of Hinduism suggest that the earth can be seen as a manifestation of the goddess (Devi) and that she must be treated with respect; that the five elements hold great power; that simple living might serve as a model for the development of sustainable economies; and that the concept of Dharma can be reinterpreted from an earth-friendly perspective.
Jainism and Buddhism, which arose as a challenge to Brahminical Hinduism, were eventually described as different tenets of ascetic Hinduism. Buddha himself, who posed the greatest threat to Brahminism in his lifetime, was later described as the penultimate avatar (reincarnation) of Vishnu, signifying the epitome of human compassion and understanding. The myths of Jain Tirthankars as well as the Buddhist myths draw on several Sanskritic Hindu deities and cosmology.
Inter-penetration of Religious Beliefs
Buddhism and Hindu sects:
Just as Buddha and Buddhism were sanskritized over time, a number of Hindu traditions were influenced by Buddhism. A new sect of Vajrayana evolved in Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet, in which Buddhist reincarnation myths and Tantric principles of transcendentalism were combined. Such inter-penetration of symbols and myths took a perverse streak in the Kapalik sect in Bengal, which translated the Vajrayana principles of sacrifices into ritual sacrifices of humans – a practice reminiscent of ancient fertility cults.
Principles of Tantra, hathayoga and Vajrayana continued to inform the various subaltern and obscure cults like Sahajiya, which sought to draw popular erotic interpretations of different yogic techniques and rituals. These sects were repudiated by the mainstream Hinduism as vulgar, but scholars read a profound transcendental philosophy of union of the body and the cosmos through carnal practices. Of importance to our discussion is that these sects emphasized the union of souls, oneness with the cosmos, and love for all life forms – tenets of belief that reinforce the value of life, what Fromm (1973) calls biophilia.
Sanskritic Hinduism and Local cults:
The confluence of Hindu and indigenous animistic religions in India is an important phenomenon in the evolution of the general religious ethos in the country (Datta 1944; Doshi 1992). Numerous tribes were drawn within the pale of Hindu society (Hunter 1903; Lal 1974). The cultural and religious fabrics of many hunter-gatherer and shifting cultivator societies were sanskritized and eventually assimilated into the Hindu pantheon.
The aboriginal taboos on extraction and use of the sacred species of plants and animals seem to have translated into Hindu religious restrictions on killing of certain life forms. The hanuman langur (Presbytes entellus), and the banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis), for example, enjoy full religious protection from the entire Hindu society.
A vivid demonstration of how effectively the concept of the sacred could give protection to species and habitats is the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan. Founded by Bhagwan Jammeswar in the 15th century, the Bishnoi observe twenty-nine commandments, many of which are directly related to conservation of nature, such as giving full protection to the khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria) and the blackbuck. Strict ritual protection given to the khejri, a keystone species in the desert ecosystem providing food and fodder, has enabled both the blackbuck and the nomadic Bishnoi people to survive the uncertainty of food availability.
On a smaller scale, the strength of religion in protecting species, is instanced by a sacred complex of the Shiva temple at Panchami village in Birbhum district of West Bengal, where the temple walls were ruined by the growth of a banyan tree. The demolition of the temple by the growing tree over decades was withstood by the worshippers, a new temple was erected close by, and the sacred trees, occupying the previous temple site are still given full protection by the local community (Deb and Malhotra 2001).
Protection of natural habitats (forest patches, stretches of river, ponds and lakes) in indigenous cultures is typically achieved by demarcating it as sacred, by association of ancestral sprits or a local deity. Sacred groves and ponds characterise the tribal villages, but the institution is also considerably strong in local Hindu cultures (see Sections on Sacred Groves and Sacred Ponds). Fishing is prohibited in the Ganga from Gangotri to Hardwar, as this stretch of the river is considered sacred. Similar stretches of other rivers like Mahanadi, Narmada and Godavari are also deemed sacred, where no fishing is permitted. These stretches serve as important refugia for fish in these rivers. Also, religious restrictions on fishing and hunting at certain time of the year are traditionally observed by many communities. For example, the taboo on fishing during the monsoon periods in Ganga waters was observed by traditional fisherfolk, a taboo that ensured growth of populations of anadromous fish like Hilsa ilisha. Hunting taboos on animals at critical life history stages – like pregnant deer - also ensured a sustainable harvest of the prey population. Restrictions on consumption of plant parts at important certain seasons also ensured the propagation of the plants. For example, consumption of the ber (Zizyphus jujuba and Z. oenoplia.) fruits is prohibited in Bengal until the Saraswati festival is over on the full-moon day of Magh (late winter). The restriction is clearly to ensure full ripening of the ber fruits, which would enhance the chances of seed germination after consumption by humans (Deb and Malhotra 2001).
Many local cults arose in the Mediaeval India to challenge Brahminical Hinduism based on caste exploitation and ritualism. Illiterate, low-caste saints like Dadu, Kabir and Ramdas became immensely popular by dint of their elegant folk philosophical appeals, and established their own cults. All these cults taught non-violence and compassion toward all fellow creatures, and were eventually assimilated by the Hindu pantheism. The neo-Vaisnava movement of Medieval Bengal, led by a Brahmin scholar Chaitanya challenged all the divides of traditional Hinduism based on caste, religion or community, and accreted a large number of followers from all communities including non-Hindu communities in the entire eastern and north-eastern States, but eventually came to be identified as another Hindu sect. Of course, these movements never sought to overthrow the traditional Hinduism, but to cleanse the religion of its ritualistic debris and give it a more humanistic base.
Islam and Local Cults
Although Islamic scriptures dictate no taboos on hunting of animals (excepting the pig) or harvesting any plants, Muslim shrines in different places in India exhibit a few locally held taboos. Thus, Malhotra et al. (1993) document a Muslim shrine in Maharashtra where a pomegranate tree is held sacred, and Deb and Malhotra (2001) report several Sufi shrines in Bengal where groves attached to the shrines are maintained and protected by the local Hindu and Muslim devotees.
The Religious Base of Conservation Ethics
A biophilic ethic seems to be inherent in the Indian cultural-religious traditions. These traditions, governed by both scriptural religions and local/subaltern myths and belief systems, tend to foster a pervasive love and respect for nature. Myths and auguries, dissociated from religious rites, are often steeped in a multitude of meanings related to biophilia. Thus, regardless of the original function, different institutions and ritualistic behaviours have important conservation consequences (Deb and Malhotra 2001).
The continuation of the tradition of biophilia, intertwined with religious ethics, seems to pose a unique opportunity of taking pro-active measures of biodiversity conservation. As Vivekananda once put it, people of India tend to go a long way to do something if that is associated with religion. This social trait is indeed apt to be considered a weakness in a democratic, secular, civil society; by exploiting this very trait, politicians have stoked the flames of religious fundamentalism and communal riots. However, this same trait may also be co-opted or enlisted for orchestrating a conservation movement. The strength of religious belief systems in forging environmental movements is instanced by recent social movements in Sri Lanka, Thailand, USA, and Brazil, among other countries, where Buddhists are becoming environmental activists and applying the principles of Buddhist ethics and ecology (Sponsel 1991 ). The “Ecology Monks” of Thailand, for example, are preaching nature conservation as an important principle of Buddhism, and are spearheading a social movement to promote nature conservation and provide sustainable livelihood for local people (Darlington 1997).
In India, similar local movements inspired by religious beliefs have taken place. Two recent examples given below may suffice to indicate that there is an immense potential of enlisting support from religious institutions in local movements for nature conservation in India.
Our first example is a NGO project for eco-restoration of Vrindavan, a holy site for Hindus. After centuries of negligence of the municipal authority, the route of the pilgrims’ parikrama at Vrindavan was denuded of greens, and was strewn with garbage. WWF-India’s Vrindavan Forest Revival Project, initiated in the 1990’s a campaign of cleaning up the garbage and planting of thousands of saplings of traditional trees. These saplings were raised and distributed among the local inhabitants, who also expressed a desire for developing tree groves within the city and on the parikrama route. A strategy of taking recourse to the ancient tradition and myths of Krishna and his green valley of Vrindavan proved successful. For the first time in the town’s history, the municipal authorities and temple priests joined hands to form the an advisory group to help and advise WWF-India’s project staff. People’s enthusiasm towards the project was contagious. This particular project started by WWF-India a decade ago has encouraged many other organizations taking up similar work in the town of Vrindavan.
Our second example is from Chamoli, Uttarakhand, where Navdanya has been working with farmers to conserve traditional crop genetic diversity. Against the tide of the Green Revolution, it has been difficult to maintain a viable in situ stock of traditional seed varieties, because of the on-going chemicalisation and industrialization of agriculture. However, in 2000, Navdanya enlisted support of local priests, along with other influential people, to promote the message of conservation in 2000. The message of the erosion of the region’s cultural heritage took its roots, and the priests launched a unique campaign of their own accord: each priest asked their jajmans (patrons) to save and exchange crop seeds of folk varieties on every religious and social ceremonies they were to perform. Thus, in every household ceremony where relatives and neighbours are invited to attend, people ritually exchange different local varieties of crop seeds, which they also grow in their farms. These seeds are now widespread in the district.
Cause for Caution
Both the above examples seem to herald a dangerous potential of confluence of nationalism and fundamentalist religious fervour with environmental awareness. A trend of wedding Hindu fundamentalism with environmental purity is becoming increasingly visible in today's environmental politics in India, where the environmental critique of industrial growth is being co-opted in a vocabulary of patriotism centered on religious-nationalist revivalism. The environmentalist's arguments for a clean environment are being linked to a call for going back to a glorious past. This past does not refer to the ancient India of indigenous tribes, but is systematically fabricated as an immaculate golden 'Aryan' past prior to the Islamic and European rules of India.
In Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Hindu mythological icons, especially the Ganga, Yamuna and Koshi rivers and Hindu holy sites like Mathura and Vrindavan are highlighted as symbols of Hindu purity and glory. The call for an environmentally clean India implies to be coterminous with a racially pure Hindu India of one nation, one religion and one leader. Love of nature, and allusion to nature's splendor persists in all these campaigns.
The aesthetic argument to preserve the beauty of nature has always been an important element of environmentalist movements in India. However, the secular appeal of this aesthetic sensitivity seems to be replaced by a conservative Hindu sensitivity over the past two decades. WWF-India's posters in Vrindavan depicted Krishna playing with his Gopi consorts in Vrindavan's flowering groves, which the campaign sought to restore. In its flier, the project proclaims that the “abandonment of traditional Hindu values and technology” is the principal cause of degradation of Vrindavan's sacred environment. The project identifies the centuries of Muslim and British rule to have been “detrimental to traditional Hindu culture and practices” that led to the erosion of Hindu values and “forgetting the injunctions such as those found in Manusmriti” (Dasa 1992). Such Hinduized environmental polemics proffer “solutions on entirely new socio-political grounds, going beyond trees, shrub planting and sewage systems” (Sharma 2002: 26). Similar Hinduization of the environmental logic is found in protest movements against disastrous river projects.
In the anti-Tehri dam movement, environmentalists and social-religious leaders provide cultural and imaginative representations of the Ganga and the Himalaya in varying degrees. These representations often get Hinduised and become essential parts of environmental politics and identity. In the later part of the movement especially, anti-Tehri dam politics has persistently and centrally been constructed through a conservative Hindu imagery, often in partnership with Hindutva politics. Ganga becomes holier and holiest. The ecological reasoning is blurred and goes beyond logic, eliciting Hindu support, patriotism and xenophobia. (Sharma 2002: 29)
Drawing on ancient Hindu texts and rituals, many environmental activists in north India are now using a language and imagery to elicit amongst the religious Hindu a strong penchant for restoring a glorious mythical past of Hindu India, while excluding non-Hindus from its geographical as well as semantic jurisdiction. In these campaigns, the non-Hindu citizens have no place in the country’s environment.
Conversion and Conservation
Indigenous ethnic religious traditions often give way to dominant religions; local belief systems are brought into the pale of dominant religions in three ways. Firstly, the economic and social positions of the followers of dominant religions may provide an incentive for abandonment of local belief systems in favour of the dominant religion. The fact that Hindus in India and Nepal occupy high echelons of power, wealth and social prestige has served to persuade most tribal communities to adopt the Hindu religion. Indeed, this drive for climbing the social ladder has been a major cause for the rapid and thorough success of sanskritization of tribal and subaltern cultures. Thus, the Rajbanshi, Koch and the Bhumij consider themselves as segments of the Hindu society, belonging to the Kshatriya varna, and the Santal belief system has incorporated a multitude of scriptural Hindu rituals and deities. Many of the tribal deities and rituals have been sanskritized to such an extent that it is often difficult to discern their original identity. The continuing process of sanskritization has also engulfed typically aboriginal societies like the Toda, Chenchu, Bhil, Pahariya, Oraon and the Cholanaiken.
Secondly, local populations may be converted into followers of dominant religions by conscious missionary preaching. The insightful preachings of the Buddha, Mahavir, Tirthankar, Nanak and their disciples who travelled across States made thousands of people abandon their native belief systems and embrace new ones. The Bhakti cult spread from Bengal into the northeastern States of Assam and Manipur during the mediaeval period through a number of Vaisnava monks, most notably Shankar Deb. In the 7th century, king Cheraman from the Chera dynasty of Kerala gave a patient hearing to the discourses of the Messengers of Islam, and voluntarily converted to Islam. In the 19th and 20th centuries, whole untouchable-caste villages converted to Islam to escape oppression of the Brahmanical hegemony. Some of these proselytized Muslims reconverted back to Hinduism, in response to blandishments of Islamic da'wa and neo-Hindu reform organizations. The spread of Christianity in Nagaland and Mizoram was an offshoot of the expansion of an effort of the tribals at protecting their identity, when they felt besieged by the process of sanskritization of the Meitei in Manipur and the Ahom in Assam (Shahin 2001).
Third, indigenous communities may be coerced to accept the dominant religion. Conversion into Islam and Christianity in the Indian subcontinent was in some cases achieved through coercion, especially during conquests. The process of Christianisation in Goa was violent, induced through coercion relating to the loss of land and payment of taxes during early Portuguese colonial rule. The process of Westernisation of colonies was inherent in the conversion rituals of the Portuguese empire, just as it was part of the process of education in British India, which accounted for the 19th century Christianisation of some of the educated elite in Bengal. While a portion of ambitious non-Muslim elite converted to Islam or married their daughters to Muslim kings, coercive proselytization of non-Muslim subjects was not uncommon during Muslim rule in India. Forced conversion of minorities in Bangladesh has been reported in media to be continuing over recent decades (HRCBM petition 2001; HLB 2001).
A significant consequence of such conversion episodes is that much of the traditional worldview of the proselytized people in relation to natural resource use has altered. The most obvious change resulting from sanskritisation of tribal sacred groves is that the sacredness of the grove is now confined to a shrine of the residing deity, rather than the trees which comprise the grove. Thus, whereas the tribal sacred groves generally are characterized by the absence of any idol or temple structure within the grove, the Hindu sacred grove usually contains a built structure (a shed or an elaborate temple) to shelter an idol of the sanskritized deity. Such structures are as a rule constructed with wood from the felled trees of the grove. Upon sanskritization, the community-held groves are converted into open access resources, and traditional sanctions against destructive use of the sacred groves become lax.
On the theological ground, the Hindu pantheon has allowed, and in some cases sanskritized, many tribal customs of nature worship, whereas monotheistic religions repudiate and forbid traditional animism and idolatry. Thus, many of the ancient institutions like sacred species and sacred groves were abolished in Mizoram and Nagaland soon after the tribes were Christianized. Nevertheless, an awareness of the functional utility of the early sacred groves dawned on the Mizo people when they realized that conversion of sacred groves into open access resources had led to an acute shortage of forest resources. This understanding led to the reinstatement of the institution of sacred groves in Mizoram in the 1980s, without reinvoking the traditional animistic beliefs in forest deities. Modern Mizo equivalent of the sacred groves are named “safety forest”, which the Mizo village councils protect from gratuitous extraction of wood. In contrast, village forest patches that are meant for regular collection of fuelwood and other forest products are named “use forests” (Malhotra 1990). This unique instance of re-establishment of a traditional institution for promoting conservation, without recourse to any ritual or theological prejudice, indicates the possibility of a rational separation of religious beliefs from traditional ecological knowledge, and of a secular use of the latter.
From the above discussion it is apparent that the local expressions of a religion’s belief system may be different from the scripturally defined purview of that religion. Evidence of the interpenetration of cultural-religious myths and rituals of neighbouring communities is legion. Socio-cultural dynamics are too complex to model a general mechanism of borrowing of cultural elements between communities. Nevertheless, it may not violate common sense to discern a pattern in which local religious practices of a religion tend to borrow more of the rituals and myths of the neighbour perceived to be higher up in the social and economic hierarchy than one who is lower on the hierarchy. Although I have glossed over such evidence only in the context of natural resource use and management implications, such “neighboring effect” on the practices of religion has shaped the local religious practices of all major religions in the country – practices that often seem to transgress the scriptural confines of institutional religions.
The difference between the institutional and local practices of a religion cannot be analogized to the Saussurean difference between langue and parole. A more apt analogy may be found in the difference between a language and its multiple dialects, which merge into the boundary of a neighbouring language. Just as one of the dialect comes to be identified as the “standard” language, a particular collection of religious practices come to be identified as the standard form, or template, of a religion. Local variations of that form constitute dialectal variations of the religion. This linguistic similitude may be carried further: one of the dialects far enough from the standard form may herald a distinct, if incipient language by themselves, short of an articulated grammar and script. Similarly, many of the local indigenous cults may merit distinction from the standard institutionalized religion as the template.
I am grateful to Prof. K C Malhotra and Ashish Kothari for encouraging me to articulate my observations about the traditional conservation ethos of India. I am also thankful to Dr. Paolo Roberto Imperiali, Martyn Brown and Nandini Sundar for their comments on an earlier draft.
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