REDISCOVERING THE ANCIENT,
ASPIRING FOR THE MODERN
Climate change has come to dominate modern-day politics and political activism in much of the developed West. This has occurred even more so in the last few years, owing to increased efforts to influence policies across governments on issues ranging from sustainability to decarbonization. Climate politics in the West is largely identified with Left-leaning political movements that usually don the label of ‘progressivism’ as compared to Right-leaning ‘conservatism.’
In India, the political templates of the West fall by the wayside, as PM Narendra Modi has defied the political stereotypes used in the West through a policy-level commitment to sustainability. To understand how he has broken through these stereotypes to champion sustainability, one has to take a journey through Mann Ki Baat over the years, in which he connects modern India’s priorities with ancient India’s principles. The PM considers the past to be a living guide that is constantly mentoring, informing, guiding and advising. Mann Ki Baat has, in many ways, brought ancient India’s history alive to have a conversation with modern India on its path to development.
In the April 2018 episode, the PM touched upon a subject that has been dear to him for decades—water conservation. He took the opportunity to inform listeners about how water conservation has been a way of life in India for centuries. Recalling the due priority and importance given to each drop of water, he highlighted the many indigenous methods developed to conserve water. Talking about stone carvings in Tamil Nadu depicting irrigation systems, water conservation methods and drought management, he urged the listeners of Mann Ki Baat to visit historic sites in the state, such as Mannarkovil, Cheranmahadevi, Kovilpatti and Pudukkottai, to see these massive stone inscriptions. Drawing people’s attention to baoris (stepwells), which have emerged as famous tourist spots, such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site of Adalaj and Patan’s Rani ki Vav in Gujarat, PM Modi called them temples of water conservation. Speaking about Chand Baori in Rajasthan, one of the biggest and the most beautiful stepwells of India, the PM drove home the point that water conservation has had an ethical and societal value in India from ancient times.
More than a year later, in November 2019, the programme veered back to this critical subject, during which the PM highlighted the manner in which ancient Indian culture celebrated rivers periodically, through festivals dedicated to 12 rivers across India.
My dear countrymen, Pushkaram, Pushkaraalu, Pushkaraha—have you ever heard these terms? Do you know what these are? Let me tell you. These are the different names by which festivals organized on 12 different rivers across the country are called. One river every year…that means it would recur on that particular river after 12 years… and this festival is held sequentially every year in 12 different rivers spread across the country… and it lasts for 12 long days. Just like the Kumbh festival, this too, encourages the concept of national unity. And echoes the philosophy of ‘Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat’ (One India Best India). […] Pushkaram is a festival in which the greatness of the river, the glory of the river, the importance of the river in our lives… all these are brought forth naturally. Our forefathers put a lot of emphasis on nature, on environment, on water, on land, on forests. They understood the importance of rivers, and tried to inculcate a positive mindset towards rivers in the society. They constantly strove to conflate the river with the cultural stream, the stream of tradition, and with the society. And the interesting thing is that, not only did it bring the society closer to the rivers, it also brought people closer to each other. Last year, the Pushkaram was held on the Thamirabarani river in Tamil Nadu. This year it was held on the Brahmaputra River. Next year it will be held in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka on the Tungabhadra River.
In April 2022, PM Modi once again invoked tradition and cultural values to speak about water conservation, highlighting its importance. He quoted ancient Indian scriptures to renew his appeal to citizens: Paniyam paramam loke, jeevanam jeevanam samritam (Water is most important for survival of life on our planet, all of life is encompassed in it).
Explaining the essence of the quote, he reiterated how water was the basis for all life on the Earth and the greatest resource for humanity. Recounting how water conservation was a persistent theme across great Indian epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, PM Modi emphasized the need to connect water sources across India. Tracing India’s water engineering heritage to the Indus–Sarasvati civilization, he spoke about how Harappan sites had interconnected systems of water sources. Paying special attention to indigenous wisdom in water conservation of several native tribes, the PM underscored how sustainable living was a universal ethic across ancient India’s diverse cultures.
Friends, every effort related to water is related to our tomorrow. It is the responsibility of the whole society. For this, different societies have made various efforts continuously for centuries. For example, Maldhari, a tribe of Rann of Kutch uses a method called Vridas for water conservation. Under this, small wells are built and trees and plants are planted nearby to protect it. Similarly, the Bhil tribe of Madhya Pradesh used their historical tradition Halma for water conservation. Under this tradition, the people of this tribe gather at one place to find a solution to the problems related to water. Due to the suggestions received from the Halma tradition, the water crisis in this area has reduced and the ground water level is also increasing.
PAST INSPIRES THE PRESENT
The ancient Indian lessons on conservation and afforestation on Mann Ki Baat have inspired grassroots champions across India to share their voluntary efforts to combat climate change. An unusual instance of this is the inspirational manner in which Sonal Mhatre’s wedding was hosted by her grandfather Khandu Maruti Mhatre, a farmer from Narayanpur village of Junner Taluka of Pune. Her grandfather came upon the idea of distributing saplings of the Kesar variety of mango, thus making her wedding an everlasting story of love for nature.
Speaking about this innovative effort, PM Modi recounted the ‘Anushasan Parv’, a chapter from the Mahabharata, that speaks of the belief that planting a tree begets an offspring in the form of that tree.
There can be no doubt about this fact. He who donates a tree, that tree in return becomes a ladder to salvation just like children [sic]. Therefore, it is appropriate that parents desiring their well-being should plant tree and rear them like their own children.
Drawing further examples from the Bhagavad Gita, PM Modi also highlighted how concern for the well-being of trees in the middle of the battlefield is a reminder of how our ancestors valued nature and conservation. Citing a quote from Shukracharya’s treatise, he also drew the attention of the listeners to the medicinal value of every tree, plant and herb. Giving his own example from his days as the CM, PM Modi described how, at the Ambaji Temple.
in Gujarat, saplings were gifted as divine offerings to visiting devotees by a non-governmental organization (NGO), a practice that spread to other temples as well and encouraged afforestation and preservation of the green cover.
There are many instances of listeners echoing PM Modi and bringing to his attention the manner in which our ancient heritage can inspire solutions to modern-day problems of conservation. Manish Mahapatra from Puducherry urged PM Modi to inform the nation about how India’s native tribes and their ancient traditions are great examples of coexistence with nature for sustainable development. PM Modi’s reply, shared on Mann Ki Baat, is a retelling of India’s native history from the vantage point of modern-day sustainability.
Manishji, I appreciate you for bringing this subject among the listeners of Mann Ki Baat. This is one subject that inspires us to look into our dignified past and our ancient traditions. Today, the whole world and specially the western countries are discussing about environment protection and are trying to find new ways to adopt a balanced life style. Our country is also facing this problem. But, for its solution we only have to look inwards, to look into our glorious past and our rich traditions and have especially to understand the lifestyle of our tribal communities. To live in consonance and close coordination with the nature has been an integral part of our tribal communities. Our tribal brethren worship trees and plants and flowers like gods and goddesses. The Bhil tribes of Central India and [especially] those in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh worship Peepal and Arjun trees religiously. The Bishnoi community in the desert land of Rajasthan has shown us a way of environment protection. Specially, in the context of serving trees, they prefer laying down their lives but cannot tolerate any harm to a single tree. Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh claim their relationship with tigers. They even treat them like their brothers and sisters. In Nagaland as well, tigers are seen as the forest guardians. People of Warli Community in Maharashtra consider tigers as their guests and for them the presence of tigers is a good omen indicating prosperity. There is a belief among the Kol community in Central India that their fortune is directly connected with the tigers and they firmly believe that if the tigers do not get food, the villagers will have to face hunger. The Gond tribe in Central [India] stops fishing in some parts of Kaithan river during the breeding season. They consider this area as a fish reserve and they get plentiful of healthy fishes because of this belief of theirs. Tribal communities make their dwelling units from natural material, which are strong as well as eco- friendly. In the isolated regions of the Nilgiri plateau in South India, a small wanderer community Toda make their [sic] settlements using locally available material only.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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