Earth Day: Millennia-old Prithvi Sukta more relevant today than ever

[This piece I wrote was first published 25 years ago. I think the Prithvi Sukta will forever be relevant. It is probably the earliest known document on caring for the environment.]
The world of three, perhaps four thousand years ago was different. A cocktail of toxic chemicals were not spewed out into the air every day. Auto exhausts did not cause a wheezing Pranayama. Nuclear and chemical pollution did not produce deformed babies. Deforestation did not cause desertification and men did not render creatures extinct at the rate of a species a day.
Yet in those truly clean, green times, an ancient, learned sage, voiced his concerns for the well-being of the earth, while thanking her profusely for giving mankind and the creatures that she sustains all she has, so generously and unhesitatingly.
A chapter in the ancient Atharvaveda, the last of the four Vedas, the Prithivi Sukta (or Song of the Earth) is a collection of sixty-three verses in praise of the earth and her environment, a fine and touching work of deep gratitude. According to tradition, the verses were composed by the seer Rishi Atharvan, who is also credited with much of the compilation of the Atharvaveda. The verses are full of both poetic and metrical elegance and besides thanking the earth for everything, convey many concerns about man’s relationship with her, in many places, presaging modern times.
Reading through the verses, one sees that the Prithivi Sukta is much more than an ancient poet breaking into inspired song, imbued with respect and gratefulness.
The verses show that the author has observed, deeply reflected on and carefully analysed the interpenetration of the earth’s ecosystem with her myriad life forms. He wonders at the cyclic patterns of her many processes like the tides and the seasons and then underscores the importance of not upsetting her fragile balance: “May none of our activities, as we go about our daily tasks, cause injury or grief to mother earth.”(v.28) Then again, the seer, on behalf of the agrarian Vedic community, says: “May we till your soil in a way that does not harm you nor disturb any vital ingredient in you.” (v.35) He follows up this verse with a prayer to mother earth to bless mankind with her seasons regularly and favourably. (v. 36)
The Prithivi Sukta is among the earliest texts where the earth is referred to as mother and her relationship with man as one between mother and child. “Like a mother, may the earth nourish us and spur our growth.” (v.10) The earth, her creatures and the ecosystem are seen as family: “May the earth hold us close, like a mother protects her sons and may the rain-filled dark clouds, like a father, water us and see to our growth.” (v.12) In some verses, the Rishi Atharvan prays to mother earth to protect mankind from beasts, inclement weather and the other fierce forces of nature as a mother would protect her helpless children. In others, he advises his fellowmen not to do anything that would upset her “internal calm” quite obviously referring to the spectre of geological upheavals and natural calamities.
The importance of commerce and economics in life, too, was not lost on the ancient sage. In the later verses, Rishi Atharvan describes the earth as a goddess and praises her with the choicest of superlatives in keeping with the Vedic tradition of deifying and eulogising natural phenomena. He prays to her to give mankind some of her immense wealth –gold and jewels (v. 44) and asks her to let good fortune flow like a thousand incessant streams of milk from Dhenu, the divine cow (v. 45)
Perhaps the single most important idea in the Prithivi Sukta that is more relevant today than it might have been when it was composed is that of understanding among us humans in preserving nature’s pristine purity. “May whatever is decided in assemblies of men, in villages and towns, be in accordance with your rules, not contrary to them, O Mother,” (v.56) is how the author counsels good sense to prevail in our dealings that could affect the earth and her environment. In another verse he says, “May we have the good sense to perform only those actions that will keep the waters of the earth pure and unpolluted.”
“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the simple idea that foreshadowed today’s catchwords like “global village”, “lonely planet” and “one world” by three millennia, has been referred to in a very contemporary manner by the ancient seer: “May we, the children of Mother Earth, have the wisdom to speak to each other pleasantly and in a manner that is understood well, in spite of our different tongues and cultures. May our interaction among ourselves and Mother Earth be harmonious. (v.16)

Reminiscing Kishoritai

Dev Nadkarni

My earliest memories of Kishoritai are of her visits to our Mumbai home. I must have been nine or ten years old. Sometimes she would visit with her mother, the great Mogubai Kurdikar, and at other times by herself. Her mother, though, visited alone far more often and even stayed with us a couple of times. She was quite close to my father.

Kishoritai with my father the late Mohan Nadkarni.
Kishoritai with my father the late Mohan Nadkarni.

I recall Kishoritai’s animated and sometimes heated discussions with my father but I have no idea what they were arguing about. She addressed father as Mohandada, he being about a decade older than her. The discussions were often interspersed with singing, sargams and other musical demonstrations.

Mogubai Kurdikar relaxes in our Mumbai home. I clicked this with my cousin's borrowed camera.
Mogubai Kurdikar relaxes in our Mumbai home. I clicked this with my cousin’s borrowed camera.

Yesterday, on hearing of her sad passing, we talked about our memories of her. I asked Amma if she remembered what those discussions were all about. She said it was all far too technical for her to follow, much less remember. Besides, more often than not, she would be in the kitchen preparing a meal. But, she said, no matter what they discussed and whether they agreed on a point or not, they would never drag the argument to the dining table.

They liked each other like a brother and sister, Amma says. Once, however, in the midst of an argument in front of Amma, she said, “Mohandada fights with me like he is my boyfriend.” Everyone had a good laugh and I guess the two moved on to the next thing to argue about. After one of those lunches, I remember having dropped mother and daughter home in our trusty Ambassador. During our ride Kishoritai suggested that I should get to know her son Bibhas, who she said was my age. That meeting was never to happen.

Her visits stopped when serious troubles with her voice began and she nearly gave up singing for close to a decade. After that hiatus, she came back with a bang and was soon the undisputed prima donna of Hindustani music. As her profile grew, so did tales about her idiosyncratic conduct. Nevertheless, everything was forgotten the moment she took to the stage. Her voice scintillated, her performance elevating the soul to rarefied realms.

Kishoritai was a thinking musician. Everything she spoke about music came after deep, rational thought. Even her aesthetics was backed by robust, convincing logic rather than unquestioned tradition alone. If you’d hear her speak as much as you’d hear her sing, you would see her genius, though many would be convinced of it only listening to her singing.

As we all know geniuses often have eccentricities. In fact, eccentricities probably define geniuses. Mogubai once invited my parents for lunch at their home. Amma remembers that day well. Though she cooked the entire meal perfectly, Kishoritai confined herself to the kitchen and did not utter a single word the whole afternoon, leaving my parents quite puzzled.

A couple of days later she called and profusely apologised saying she was mentally preoccupied and consumed by planning her repertoire for a concert the next day. She refers to this idiosyncracy in Amol Palekar’s film ‘Bhinna Shadja’ which incidentally has a reference to one of my father’s comments about her style of presentation in the mid 1970s.

RIP Kishoritai. You will never be forgotten; your song will forever echo in our hearts.