A New Notion of the Sacred

dal lake
Published in
March 2009

The idea of sacred forests or groves – dedicated to certain gods or goddesses, and strictly off-limits to humans – may seem an anachronism in the modern world. In Britain we lost our sacred groves with the coming of the Romans, and Western culture as a whole has long since jettisoned the concept of worshipping the plants and trees on which its survival depends. Nature is viewed as a commodity to be valued and exploited, rather than a mysterious force inherently worthy of respect. Forest spirits and river gods now seem as quaint as hobgoblins, and whatever remnants of sacred sites have somehow survived until now seem mere islands of superstition in a rational, profit-driven world. It only appears a matter of time before they are swallowed up entirely.

But as I discover in India, a new thinking is emerging. Unlike the developed Western world, the subcontinent has managed to retain many thousands of groves, forests, rivers, lakes and mountains that are afforded special protection for religious or spiritual reasons. Despite the enormous cultural disruption caused by British rule, coupled with the wave of industrialisation that followed Independence, these have survived as a living tradition into the modern age.

As the country starts to feel the environmental strain of its economic boom, with a rapidly expanding population hungering for land and resources, ecologists recognise sound scientific reasons for preserving these human-free zones. Ancient as the tradition is, and as imbued with folklore and myth, it dovetails with some very modern concepts of conservation. This is something conservation groups are currently urging the Indian government – whose policies have led, in the past, to the erosion of many sacred grove systems – to acknowledge and understand.

In the leafy, ultra-eco-friendly environs of New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, I meet ecologist Yogesh Gokhale from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a sustainable development not-for-profit directed by Dr. RK Pachauri from the IPCC. A gentle, unassuming man with a neat goatee beard and an air of calm, Yogesh describes himself as an ‘unorthodox Hindu’ who believes traditions are important to understanding the functioning of social institutions. As we sip tea in his glass-walled office, he explains to me how in the future these existing sites might be used to limit environmental degradation.

‘Biologically, sacred groves are the remnants of what was once widespread. A large number of these areas harbour species that are unique, that have been exterminated elsewhere. Authorities are beginning to recognise their importance to the local environment, and to human populations.’

Yogesh’s research has identified a number of ways in which sacred groves provide an ‘ecosystem service’ that benefits the communities around them. This includes watershed conservation, provision of natural firebreaks, and the long-term preservation of wildlife that might otherwise be pushed to the brink by human expansion or unregulated hunting. They also act as ‘emergency stores’ for food and fuel in the event of resource scarcity, thus forming an effective protection against natural disasters.

‘There are various options of conservation. The thing that we are saying is, don’t neglect faith as an option. I’m not romanticising tribal life, but there is certainly a system in place which effectively protects the land.’ With TERI, Yogesh is working to compile studies of sacred groves across the length and breadth of the subcontinent in order to formalise their protection, and to integrate these traditional systems with Indian government policy.

Officially, India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, ratified at the Earth Summit in 1992. This convention identified India as one of 17 ‘megadiverse’ countries, composed of woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, deserts and mountain ecosystems, and recognised, for the first time, the preservation of natural diversity as ‘a common concern of humankind.’ Targets were set for the year 2010 to expand existing protected areas, and achieve a ‘significant reduction’ in the rate of biodiversity loss.

‘If we are to achieve our 2010 targets, we need to recognise these traditional practices,’ says Yogesh. ‘Systems of sacred grove conservation have proved themselves to be a very successful way of preserving the environment.’

‘If you go into the root of faith, then you will understand the link between faith and conservation,’ adds documentary-maker Rishu Nigam, director of Reviving Faith, which tells the story of sacred groves in the southern states of Karnataka and Maharashtra. Together they explain how environmental lore has long been embedded in the cultures of forest-dependent communities.

‘If certain species are regarded as sacred, this has definite advantages for the surrounding ecosystem,’ says Yogesh. ‘In some areas the wood of the oak is not used for fuel or construction. Oak is a very important species for retaining soil moisture, and provides fodder for animals at times when other trees in the area are leafless. Similarly, fig trees are a keystone species that satisfies needs for food and fuel in critical periods. They knew that cutting these trees would have a bad impact on the region, so they forbade this practice, and it became tradition.’

‘By linking certain trees to faith, our ancestors ensured these trees were protected,’ adds Rishu. ‘Some forests we went to for the film, we were not allowed to enter. The people believe this is where the gods live, so they shouldn’t be harmed. The belief in some places is so strong that even the villagers themselves have never been inside.’ Communities obey these conventions out of a sense of self-discipline, but also from fear of arousing the deity’s displeasure, believed to result in environmental disaster and subsequent suffering for humans. There are no punishments, as such, administered to individuals who damage sacred sites, so the system relies on the community’s belief that the wrathful deity will punish offenders. Part of TERI’s plan involves advocacy work to provide legal status to these informal institutions, using the law to strengthen existing taboos.

There are many examples of how this system of spiritual protection works in practice, to ensure the long-term sustainability of natural resources. There are the sacred pools located in the Dharamshala district of Himachal Pradesh, where fishing is strictly prohibited for 100 metres up and down river, providing a ‘refugium’ in which fish stocks can regenerate. Similarly, sacred groves in Maharashtra provide a sanctuary for barking deer, which can be hunted outside the groves and are reportedly more plentiful than in surrounding regions. In the desert state of Rajasthan, sacred groves, known locally as orans, are maintained as safety reserves for crucial fodder and timber. The groves of the northern Himalayan states help prevent soil erosion and landslides, stabilising the mountain landscape.

Outsiders may view the elaborate taboos that surround sacred sites as nonsensical – that’s been the opinion of interlopers from British colonial advisers to the Indian Forest Service, though hopefully this attitude is changing – but beneath the language of spirits and gods lie sound ecological practices, which organisations such as TERI are urging the government today to take very seriously. What was once seen as pure superstition is increasingly being acknowledged by science; these taboos are not mumbo-jumbo but elaborate systems of regulation, thousands of years of environmental wisdom encoded into religion.

I ask Yogesh which came first: the recognition of nature’s importance, or the worship of it. It’s an unknowable chicken-or-egg question, but Yogesh believes the former more likely. The taboos, he points out, are so specifically tailored to the preservation of natural resources, and society has always seen the need to restrict human access to certain ecologically-important areas. As societies have evolved, this practice has passed through different phases: from sacred sites to hunting preserves to modern wildlife sanctuaries. ‘The sacred sites are characteristic of hunter-gatherer and horticultural, largely tribal societies; the hunting preserves are characteristic of agrarian states; and wildlife sanctuaries or national parks are characteristic of industrial nations,’ he notes in his paper Sacred Woods, Grasslands and Waterbodies as Self-Organised Systems of Conservation in India. These havens may be known by different names, and may vary in their dimensions, but the basic function – resource protection – has remained the same.

But although India still retains a great many of its sacred sites, the subcontinent is far from immune from the destructive trends of globalisation, and the powerful market forces which have eroded spiritual beliefs in other parts of the world. British rule was responsible for beginning a process of centralisation, in which local tribes and communities lost their traditional rights of forest management, and this was continued after 1947 by an Indian government bent on industrialisation. Centralised power, inflexible and insensitive to local needs, often proves to be bad for the environment. Many thousands of sacred groves have been felled by logging companies, and as communications have improved, the diverse cultures which protected them have inevitably been diluted.

Religion has also taken its toll. ‘Christianity played a major role in destroying faith in conservation practices,’ confirms Yogesh. Converted tribes, especially in the north-eastern states, have ceased to believe in the old nature spirits, and so abandoned the protection of their forests. ‘Christianity prescribes faith in a supreme god who is everywhere,’ Yogesh writes in Sacred Woods… ‘As a corollary the god does not reside in any particular locale, and cannot be associated with any particular patch of forest, or spring, or tree. In effect, religions like Christianity and Islam desacralize nature and eliminate the rationale for respecting a sacred site.’ But Hinduism, too, is to blame: as India began to think of itself as a nation for the very first time, a more centralised form of religion came to take the place of local beliefs, and the animistic spirits of the forest were duly incorporated into the mainstream pantheon.

‘The more formal Hinduism tends to emphasise the worship of idols and temples over trees and forests. Hindu priests therefore often encourage the liquidation of a sacred forest to be replaced by a temple to the presiding deity. Indeed the priests may do so on behalf of timber contractors, assuring the local people that they would perform appropriate rites to placate the deities.’

And yet, in the face of these threats, TERI has documented numerous examples of tribal and forest-dependent communities successfully resisting outside pressures. Sacred groves are being defended through education and community action, as the long-term benefits of sustainability are recognised over short-term economic gain. In certain parts of India they are even experiencing something of a revival. In areas that have witnessed first-hand the destruction wrought by commercial logging – soil erosion, frequent flooding and depletion of valuable wildlife – there are cases of forests being newly dedicated to an appropriate deity, as locals realise this is a tactic to give them greater protection. Sacred groves are emerging in places where they didn’t exist before.

Yogesh gives an example from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. After becoming frustrated with the local landowners’ powerlessness to protect the woodlands, ‘villagers decided to hand over the forests to local goddess Kokilamata who is supposed to be the goddess of justice. They prepared a set of rules for protecting the forest and offered it to goddess. Then in a ritualistic fashion they also marked the boundaries of [the] forest… People were allowed to cut twigs of trees, collect firewood and deadwood. Nobody was allowed to cut any live plant; any violation would supposedly attract punishment from the goddess. The process was started around 1982 from the village Jakhani in Almora district and has spread to more than 25 villages around… people are getting tangible benefits from this protection in terms of their requirements of forest produce.’

‘Where the dos and don’ts of modern forest management are not working, people are returning to faith. Often it proves to be much more effective as a means of preservation. Taboos are a cultural phenomenon, while rules and regulations are government institutions. But in the end, they amount to the same thing,’ concludes Yogesh.

In tandem with this spiritual revival, the Indian state is at last beginning to recognise the effectiveness of traditional systems in preserving the environment. After decades of disempowerment, tribal and forest-dwelling communities are being returned to their customary roles as guardians of local ecosystems, given back the responsibilities they lost through the centralising process started by the British. The Joint Forest Management Program, which began in 1990, effectively returned a duty of care to local forest communities, giving them power to manage and maintain their forests as they see fit. This was extended in 2002 by the Wildlife Protection Amendment Act, which allowed for the creation of ‘community reserves’ that would be guaranteed protection against outside encroachment.

This legislation represents a powerful shift in government thinking. It’s effectively a devolution of powers, and echoes contemporary trends in the West towards localisation. Communities are being involved in the future of their environment, rather than being alienated from it. It’s a long-overdue recognition of the wisdom inherent in indigenous cultures, a concept that previous governments were incapable of grasping.

It’s clichéd and perhaps naïve to claim that India is a ‘spiritual society,’ possessing an innate respect for the environment. Consumer culture is rampant, after all, urban sprawl is devouring green spaces, and if you travel on any Indian bus you’ll see enough plastic hurled out of the windows to fill a landfill site. But even in mainstream society it’s possible to see enduring customs – the worship of cows, monkeys, trees, rivers and other natural entities – which indicate a reverence for nature embedded in the cultural psyche. Undoubtedly something similar existed in the ancient cultures of the West, before our connection to nature was severed and our sacred groves swept away.

Yogesh’s work with TERI suggests that now more than ever before, society needs a new notion of the sacred. Far from being an antiquated concept – a throwback to a vanished age – the revival of our ancient reverence for nature may prove essential for our future survival. Science must build on spirituality to make our environment sacred once again – not for the benefit of spirits and gods, but to secure a future for ourselves.