`Ancient Indian literature displays exact knowledge of environmental phenomena'

Retired diplomat and well-known translator of ancient Sanskrit texts, Aditya Narayan Dhairyasheel Haksar recently released the reprint of his 2003 translation of the Jatakamala, the stories from the Buddha's previous births. He speaks to Rajat Ghai about the importance of the environment in ancient Sanskrit literature. Edited excerpts

By Rajat Ghai
Last Updated: Wednesday 31 October 2018


Why did you decide to translate the Jatakamala?

There are 540 Jataka tales in the Buddhist canon. While most of the stories are in Pali, some are in Sanskrit. Over the past several centuries, the Pali Jatakas have been translated into different languages and are well-known. But the Sanskrit Jatakas have remained ignored. Nearly half the stories in the Sanskrit Jatakamala are not available in the Pali canon. So I chose to translate this section of the Jatakamala. I thought people should know about it. Besides, the last time the Jatakamala was translated into English was over 100 years ago.

In how many of his births in the Jatakamala is the Buddha a non-human character?

There are 34 stories in the Sanskrit Jatakamala. In 14 of these stories, the Buddha is incarnated as an animal, a bird or a fish.

You have also translated the Panchatantra and Hitopadesa. Do these texts depict anthropomorphism?

You can put it that way. They discuss animals in terms of human qualities and vice versa. These tales have that satirical dimension to them. The Hitopadesa, the Panchatantra and the Jatakas depict animals and human beings in such a manner that they have a lasting attraction. So they have been translated into various languages and are now popular in large parts of the world.

The Jatakamala was translated into Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese more than a 1,000 years ago and those translations are still around. The Hitopadesa and Panchatantrahave been famously translated into Old Persian and through Persian, they have gone to Europe. Now scholars know that many fables that persist in Europe have their origins in the Panchatantra, so there is a connection.

Can these anthologies be classified as environmental folklore?

I would prefer not to call these anthologies environmental folklore. Instead, I would describe them as folklores with a strong environmental sense. They cover different aspects of nature but are not confined to that.

Underlying these tales is the belief that unity encompasses human as well as non-human forms. These stories display a fairly exact knowledge and understanding of environmental phenomena, of seasons, of climatic changes, of birds, beasts and vegetation. While describing animals and plants, the writers of these anthologies show a great sympathy towards them.

On many occasions, they give the impression that underlying all these phenomena is a common force which can manifest itself as human beings. So, a human being can incarnate as an animal or a plant in the next birth and vice versa.

What do these anthologies tell us about Vedic and post-Vedic society and their views on the environment?

Vedic and post-Vedic are terminologies of current discourse, which we have borrowed from the Western knowledge of India, which they call the science of Indology. This knowledge has developed only over the past 200 years or so, while environment is much more fundamental and real.

What relevance does this ancient wisdom hold for modern India where the environment is being consistently degraded for commercial gains?

One important lesson is that the environment has been there from the beginning of the creation and has been noticed and commented upon since then. It is not something which has just appeared on the scene to be discussed and debated.

The second lesson is a reminder that there is a basic continuity and unity between human environment and non-human environment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently stirred up a debate over ancient India's scientific feats. What's your opinion on this?

I have no comments to offer on the political aspect of such claims. But I can tell you what little I have been able to discern through my readings. Certain forms of science do have a history in this country.

What is known as Arabic numerals are called Indian numerals in the Arab world. The present numerical system and decimal system originated in this country.

In surgery, we do have old scientific treatises or “samhitas” and they are named after two thinkers, Charaka and Sushruta. Though we do not have the originals of these texts, they do exist in subsequent commentaries written on them. This is because the traditional academic and scholarly practice in this part of the world was always by writing commentaries on previous texts.

Much of our knowledge system in India is based on commentaries on the original texts. And it so happens that one of the earliest commentaries which was written on these treatises was in Kashmir and it still exists. The first Indian book of medicine, Charaka Samhita exists only in the revised version made by Dhridabala in the 8th century Kashmir.

I remember being contacted by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, who were trying to reconstruct surgical techniques prescribed by Sushruta on human cadavers just to see how correct or incorrect they were. The texts included techniques for restitching severed body parts. They found that the texts were correct in that they were based on human anatomy and the persons who had written those had studied human anatomy.

Such evidence indicates that science had developed in this country a long time ago. But the fact remains that if in our literature there is a reference to a head being replaced, like in the story of Ganesha, or people flying in aeroplanes, like the Pushpaka Vimana, it does not mean that they existed but that human thinking had developed to an extent that they could imagine that such things were possible.

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  • Excellent. An interesting

    An interesting feature of all ancient civilization was that its inhabitants realised the tremendous value of water in human life. Each of these civilizations was located on the banks of a river (s) or within a convenient distance from the sea. This was to ensure a perennial supply of water for day to day activities.

    It is indeed astonishing to realize that at the dawn of civilisation, the humans understood the significance and importance of water. Apart from cooking, personal cleanliness and hygiene, water was vital for cultivation and irrigation of crops. In that early age, water was a major mode of transport; with further progress and development water again became an invaluable source of food as well as trade and commerce.

    According to ancient Hindu beliefs, the universe, the cosmic world comprises five basic elements ÔöÇ kshiti (earth), apah (water), teja(light/heat), marut (air) and vyoma (ether/space).
    According to the RigVeda, all life on this planet is evolved from apah (water). Water is usually acknowledged as the basic need of all living creatures upon the face of this earth. There are copious references in Vedic literature about medicinal properties of water, uses of water, last but not the least the importance of conservation and preservation of water. Pure water is termed as ÔÇÿdivyajalÔÇÖ due to its following properties:Sheetam (cold to touch), Suchihi (clean), Shivam (replete with useful minerals and trace of useful elements), Istham (transparent), Vimalam Lahu Shadgunam (its acid-base balance should not exceed normal limits).
    The Indus Valley Civilization, that flourished along the banks of the river Indus and other parts of western and northern India about 5,000 years ago, had one of the most sophisticated urban water supply and sewage systems in the world. The fact that this civilization was well acquainted with hygiene and sanitation is evident from the covered drains running beneath the streets of the ruins at both Mohenjodaro and Harappa.Yet another excellent example is the well-planned city of Dholavira, in Gujarat.
    Purification of ground water in the dug wells is dealt with at length in Brihat-Samhita written and compiled by Varahamihira. He suggested an infusion be made from a mixture of powdered herbs namely Anjan, Bhadramustha, Khas (vetiver), Amla (emblica officinalis, gooseberry) andNirmali (bhui amla / kataka) in water, which in measured quantities was to be added to water in the wells for purification. Detailed practical guidance for water purification is given in the famous treatise of Indian physician, Sushruta. Sushruta disclosed that muddy water could be purified with herbs and naturally occurring substances; Nirmali seeds, roots of Kamal (lotus/water lily), rhizomes of algae and three stones,Gomed (garnet) Moti (pearl) Sphatik (quartz crystal) were used. He recommended the disinfection of contaminated water by exposing it to the sun or immersing red hot iron or hot sand in it.
    The ancient Indian custom of storing drinking water in brass vessels for good health has now been proved scientifically by researchers. Microbiologists affirm that water stored in brass containers can help combat many water-borne diseases and should be used in developing countries rather than their cheaper counterparts i. e plastic containers.( Environmental Awareness in Ancient India,INDIA Heritage,A living Portrait of India).

    ÔÇ£Modern Indian Scientists should be astonished and also feel proud of our ancestors for their knowledge and views about environment. Ancient seers knew about various aspects of environment, about cosmic order, and also about the importance of co-ordination between all natural powers for universal peace and harmony. When they pray for peace at all levels in the ÔÇÿShanti MantraÔÇÖ they side by side express their believe about the importance of coordination and interrelationship among all natural powers and regions. The prayer says that not only regions, waters, plants trees, natural energies but all creatures should live in harmony and peace. Peace should remain everywhere. The mantra takes about the concord with the universe┬│┼ípeace of sky, peace of mid-region, peace of earth, peace of waters, peace of plants, peace of trees, peace of all-gods, peace of Brahman, peace of universe, peace of peace; May that peace come to me!ÔÇ║72 CONCLUSION From the above detailed discussion, some light is thrown on the awareness of our ancient seers about the environment, and its constituents. It is clear that the Vedic vision to live in harmony with environment was not merely physical but was far wider and much comprehensive. The Vedic people desired to live a life of hundred years 73 and this wish can be fulfilled only when environment will be unpolluted, clean and peaceful. The knowledge of Vedic sciences is meant to save the human beings from falling into an utter darkness of ignorance. The unity in diversity is the message of Vedic physical and metaphysical sciences. Essence of the environmental studies in the Vedas can be put here by quoting a partial Mantra of the Ishavasyopanishad ÔÇÿOne should enjoy with renouncing or giving up others part.74 Vedic message is clear that environment belongs to all living beings, so it needs protection by all, for the welfare of all. Thus the study proves the origin of environmental studies from the Vedas.( Origin of Environmental Science From Vedas, Shashi Tiwari, http://www.sanskrit.nic.in/svimarsha/v2/c17.pdf)
    The culture of ancient India, also known as Vedic Culture, is based on the philosophy of Dharma and Karma. By doing good Karma and following the path of Dharma, we can unite our Atman (oneself) with the Brahman (Universal Self) and that is the ultimate desire of any person following Vedic Culture (Hindu Dharma). The ancient Indian literature has many references which preach that it is our Dharma to protect our environment, conserve our natural resources and to maintain ecological balance. If we had followed this advice (Dharma), we would not have worried now about protecting our environment which has been exploited for personal and business gains. In the past man lived in partnership with nature but today nature is looted and polluted but no one cares.
    ÔÇ£Rig-Veda X.l/ 46 Lady of the Forest! Lady of the Forest! Who seems to vanish from sight in the distance? Why do you never come to the Village? Surely you are not afraid of us. When the grasshopper replies To the lowing of the cattle, As though to the sound of tinkling bells, The lady of the Forest makes merry'. . Sometime you catch a glimpse of her, and think it is cattle grazing Or a house, far away And at the evening you hear the Lady of the Forest " Like the distant sound of moving wagons. Her voice is as the sound of man calling his cattle. Or as the crash of a felled tree, If you stay in the forest in the evening You will hear her like a far voice of crying. But the Lady of the Forest will not slay Unless an enemy draws near She eats the sweet wild fruits And then she rests wherever she will Now I have praised the Lady of the Forest' Who is perfumed with balm and fragrant Who is well-fed although she tills not The mother of all things of the wild. And what greater respect could Man show towards all the elements of Mother Nature than the prayer from Yajurvieda36/7 for peace or recite the Shanti mant4 which desires that 'let there be peace in the heaven, horizons-where the Earth and sky meet, peace in the vegetation" peace on earth, peace in everything' etc., and this prayer is always sung at the end of any holy anusthan or ceremony and this Shanti mantra may be accepted as the ultimate for any environmentalist(Environmental ConcernsÔÇØ (The Vedas)-A Lesson in Ancient Indian History ' R P. SINGII, SPAE, VoL 7, No, 7, January 2071)
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

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