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The 'Sacred' Ecology of Hinduism

The 'Sacred' Ecology of Hinduism

Author: Yogesh Vajpeyi
Publication: Hindu Vision
An Oran is to conservation what an oasis is to water. Orans are islands of vegetation set aside by the Bishnois of Rajasthan for worship under community protection and management near each of their villages. Nobody can axe a tree or kill an animal here. If Orans still survive in the Thar Desert, it is because of the traditional commitment of the Bishnois, 363 of whom died in 1730 AD in order to protect Oran trees in Khejrali village near Jodhpur.

Much like the Bishnois of Rajasthan, local communities all over India practise nature worship by dedicating patches of forests or groves to deities or ancestral spirits and according them protection.

One Lakh Sacred Groves

An inventory of sacred groves in India compiled by the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (IGRMS) of Bhopal puts their number at 4,875, covering an area of 39,063 hectares. However, this doesn't include data about sacred groves in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and several north-eastern States - where they abound - and experts estimate that the number of sacred groves in India should be in the range of 1,00,000 to 1,50,000.

Scholars have emphasised the near-natural state of the vegetation in these precincts and the preservation of vegetation through local taboos and sanction that entail spiritual as well as ecological values.

"At a time when the area under the government protected forests is declining, sacred vegetation continues to account for more than two per cent of forested area in India," points out Ram Prasad, Director, Indian Institute of Forest Management.

Western Science Has Failed

Prasad and foresters the world over are now veering round to the view that Western science has failed to meet the challenge. "The indigenous traditions and practices show how the indigenous people of India responded to the threats to their ecosystem in a contextual rather than textual way."

Ironically, it has taken Indian foresters more than 100 years to understand the multiple significance of the institution whose widespread presence in India was noted by India's first Inspector General of Forests Dietrich Brandis in his book Forestry in India: Origins and Early Development (1897). Brandis described the sacred groves in Rajputana and Kans (woodlands) of Mysore, the Garo and Khasia hills which he visited in 1879, the Devvarakadus of Coorg with which he became acquainted in 1868, and the hill ranges of the Salem district in the Madras Presidency which he examined in 1882, the Swami Shola on the Yelagiris, the sacred grove at Pudur on the Javadis and several sacred forests on the Shevaroys.

Sacred Nature

Says Yogesh Gokhale of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore: "Sacred groves probably constitute the only representation of forest in its near - natural condition in many parts of India." It is evident in several parts of Western Ghats, Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa and South-west Bengal. A recent study in Kerala reveals that the biological spectrum of the groves in Kerala resembles the normal spectrum of tropical forest.

As an ecosystem the environmental significance of the sacred groves lies in the stellar role they play in soil and water conservation. Most of them have sacred water bodies springs, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers -as their adjuncts to recharge aquifers. Their biomass acts like a sponge, soaking water during wet period and releasing it slowly during drought. II FM's D. N. Pandey describes this body of knowledge, which the sacred groves contain in the associated myths, as "conservation ethno-forestry".

Real Knowledge of Primitives

Unfortunately, the realisation has dome at a time when the sacred groves' survival is threatened by a gradual change in belief systems by forces of modernisation, deforestation, encroachments and political interference. In this bleak scenario, an International Network on Ethnoforestry, a peer group of foresters, scientists, international organisations and NGOs, offers a silver lining. "In ethnoforestry lies the future of world forestry," asserts the network's convener D.N. Pandey.

As Edward Goldsmith, Editor of Ecology argues in his profoundly challenging book The Way, a truly ecological world view can ill afford to ignore the world view of primitive societies, "the only people who knew how to satisfy their real needs without annihilating the real world on which we totally depend for our welfare indeed for our survival."

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