Tag Archive: Indian culture


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By Sharon St Joan

 

Inextricably intertwined with the animals of the forest, with the rivers, the mountains, and the rocks, since time immemorial, has been the spiritual life of India, as Dr. Nanditha Krishna writes in her very beautiful book, Hinduism and Nature. The spiritual traditions of the East tend to have a kind, gentle, and reverent approach to the natural world.

 

The gods of the Vedas, the earliest books ever written, were all linked to nature. Indra is the god of rains and storms, thunder and lightning. Shiva lives at Mount Kailas, a great mountain in the land of snow and ice. We are all the children of Mother Earth.

 

God himself comes to earth in the forms of the animals. Lord Vishnu incarnates first as a fish; then as a turtle; then a wild boar; then a half-man, half lion; and only then as a human. Everything in nature is sacred. All animals and all of nature belong to god, all are in fact manifestations of god, and all, ultimately, are a sacred part of god.

 

Human beings are not given dominion over nature, but rather are expected to protect and care for the natural world, living in harmony with it.

 

As we struggle today with the reality of climate change, this is a book with many lessons for the times in which we live. Despite the grave concern that so many of us have about our destructive approach to nature – progress in changing human behavior just limps along, and so far, the destruction of the natural world seems to be not just continuing, but by some accounts is winning and gaining momentum.

 

Unfortunately, we tend to put climate change at the bottom of our collective list of priorities, and when we think of it at all – we think mainly in terms of benefit to humans. How many carbon footprints can we count – how much energy can we get from wind and solar?  Really, this is a far cry from seeing ourselves as a part of nature – we are a long way from worshipping the trees, the mountains and the rivers, as our ancestors once did, even in Europe.

 

Some of us are appalled at the thought of worshipping anything at all (and this also is a western mindset). Heaven forbid that we should honor the sacredness of animals and plants. Instead, we objectify nature. We remain alienated from the earth and the beauty of all the living beings of the earth. Yet, if the earth is to survive, we will need to make an about-face. We need to acknowledge the intrinsic beauty and value of all life.

 

The most ancient books of Hinduism were composed in the forests, where sages and wise people lived.

 

Every village in India once had a sacred forest – maybe two acres, or maybe two hundred. Within the boundaries of this sacred grove, all life was sacred. Within these forests lived the gods that people worshipped. The trees and the animals were not to be harmed for any reason, though, in recent decades, many of these forests have fallen into disrepair. One of Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s foundations, the CPR Environmental Education Centre, has restored 53 of these sacred groves; and their upkeep is now being managed by local villages.

 

Most of one of the two great epics of India, the Ramayana, takes place inside forests, as the hero Rama travels throughout India traversing all the many different kinds of forest; there are spectacular descriptions of flowering trees and plants, and the graceful beauty of the wild animals.

 

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Every river in India is a goddess – except for two who are male gods. Beautiful stories are told about these river goddesses. Because the river Ganges did not want to fall straight down to the earth out of fear that her great power might destroy the plants and animals below, she sought the help of Shiva. When she fell down from heaven to earth, the water power was caught in Shiva’s hair, in order to break the fall, then it fell gently down, from Shiva’s head, to the earth below. It still does today.

 

The land of India, north and south, is filled with sacred lakes, and sacred ponds known as “tanks”, which are artificial bodies of water, some created many centuries ago. These sacred bodies of water hold large amounts of rainfall to protect against droughts. Seeping from these ponds and tanks into the surrounding soil, the stored water is available to the plants and trees during times of water scarcity. Many of these tanks were built in times past by kings whose engineers understood the value of conserving water.

 

Even today, despite the deleterious effects of western influence, which is all too pervasive in India, particularly in the fields of science and education, there is a strong, vibrant love and respect for nature. There remains today, as always in the past, a profound reverence for all life – human, animal, plant, and the features of the landscape – the mighty rivers, mountains, and forests.

 

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There is much that we in the west can learn from this great land, whose wisdom stretches back at least 5,000 years, and probably much, much farther. Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautifully written book, Hinduism and Nature, is a very good place to start on this journey to broaden our understanding of the earth and our place in nature.

 

Photo Credits

 

Top Photo: Ondrej Zvacek / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikipedia. / Northern side of Mount Kailash

 

Second photo: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons / The Ganges falling through Shiva’s hair.

 

Third photo: Rbsrajput / Wikipedia: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / The Narmada River.

 

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By Sharon St Joan

 

Peering around a screen to catch a glimpse behind the stage, the eight-year old boy saw a man smoking. Startled, he burst into tears. The problem was not that a man was smoking – the problem was that it was Rama, the great cultural hero and god-king of India who was smoking. Standing off stage and out-of-sight of the audience, taking a break during an intermission in the performance, there was Rama, with his blue skin and regal bearing, smoking a cigarette. How could Rama be smoking? The young boy Jagam with tears streaming down his face, told the other boys what he had seen, and they started crying too.

 

What would otherwise have been an inspirational performance of the life of Rama had turned into a disappointment. Over time, the shock of the actor smoking faded into the background, and only the heroes of the Ramayana remained in the forefront of the boy’s consciousness.

 

The impact of the story of Rama and his wife Sita on the people of India cannot be overstated.  Their influence extends across all strata of society and every region of the country. In every rural village there may be found among the fields, nestled under a tree, stone icons of Rama and Sita – worshipped and cared for. Rama is the divine figure who lived maybe 5,000 years ago, maybe much earlier, who exemplifies the deeply-rooted Indian concepts of truthfulness, selflessness, and absolute devotion to duty.

 

Rama, unjustly exiled into the forest for fourteen years by his father, at the demand of his step-mother, went willingly and graciously, placing his duty to obey his father above all other considerations.

 

To this day, Indian children are taught to obey and respect their parents and all elders – not only while they are children, but throughout their entire lives – this is the glue that holds Indian society together. The ideals that are intrinsic to their society are not, as in the west, the values of freedom, of seeking one’s rights, and the pursuit of individual happiness, but rather, devotion, respect, and reverence for those who came before them. Uppermost is the concept of placing the welfare of others before one’s own personal wishes and desires.

 

Obviously, in the world as it is today, one finds exceptions; in India there is immense western influence, and age-old traditions have suffered much erosion over the centuries. Yet, despite all this, one still finds, even now, in the heart of nearly every Indian, deep within the psyche, a fundamental attitude of reverence and humility that has never been entirely extinguished – a wish first and foremost to carry out one’s duty in life and to fulfill one’s sacred obligations.

 

Every character in the epic story of Rama and Sita offers either an example to follow, or, instead, a lesson in patterns of behavior to be avoided. All are instructive and are remembered by children for the rest of their lives.

 

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Jagam carried throughout his life a reverence for the Ramayana, and especially one of the great heroes of the story, Hanuman – the divine monkey God, much beloved all over India. Every day of his life he read at least one passage from the Ramayana.

 

Many see Hanuman as the real hero of the Ramayana.  He is worshipped for his unfailing loyalty and devotion to Rama.  It is Hanuman who enables Rama to cross the sea to rescue his wife Sita who has been abducted by the wicked demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana.

 

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The boy who was dismayed by Rama smoking became a man, A.R. Jagannathan. His daughter, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, recalls her parents taking her on a trip when she was a child to the island of Rameshwaram, where floating in a boat over the sea, her father lowered her into the waters (much to the alarm of her mother!) so that she could experience firsthand the waves of the ocean where Hanuman and Rama had so long ago stood on the shore planning how to rescue the beloved Sita, how to build a bridge to Lanka, and with what strategy to conquer the armies of Ravana.

 

Nanditha Krishna also credits her father, as well as her mother’s father and her great-grandfather, with instilling in her a great love and reverence for the world of nature.  He took her when she was a child on countless trips to the forests and wildlife preserves of India, pointing out the graceful beauty of the trees, plants, birds, and animals, imparting a profound love of the wild places and the living beings who find their home there.

 

In his public life, A.R. Jagannathan was Founder Managing-Director and Vice-Chairman, Tata Projects Ltd. A very wise and conscientious man, he was a beloved counselor to this extended family, who sought out his advice for all the important decisions of their lives: marriages, careers, businesses, and any important decisions. Kind and always thoughtful, his counsel was given sincerely and was of great benefit.

 

One of his favorite songs, which he loved to listen to all his life was one of the songs about the God Kartikeya. The song told the story of how the heart of his beloved was filled with love for him. Kartikeya was radiant as the moon.

 

He felt a great love for wildlife and the forests, while his wife, Shakunthala, felt a tremendous appreciation of Indian culture and tradition. They complemented each other beautifully, in a marriage made in heaven.

 

He often told the story of when he was a boy, walking with a group of people, 40 kilometers through the forest, up a hill towards the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. They walked all day, gradually climbing higher along the jungle terrain. As they walked, they saw movement off to the side in the brush. They became aware that in the underbrush there were tigers walking along with them, just out of sight, visible here and there, gliding through the spots of sunlight and shadows of the thick forest. The number of tigers grew over the hours, as more tigers joined them.  They were curious, but never threatening. The tigers were simply walking with them, keeping them company. It was a beautiful experience of harmony with nature and the profound peace of the forest.

 

Top photo: Sumeet Moghe / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / A Bengal Tiger in Jim Corbett National Park

 

Second photo: Raja Ravi Press / Wikipedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / A painting done in the 1920’s / Rama, exiled to the forest, accompanied by his wife Sita and his brother Laksmana.

 

 

Third photo: CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia /”This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.”/ The bridge near Rameshwaram.

 

© 2015, text, Sharon St Joan