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)