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)

‘But there’s onion in the upma’

You’ve got to be pristine in thought, word and deed when Ganapati Bappa’s visiting. And that goes for the food, too. The fridge is purged of all taamasik stuff a few days ahead. The onion and garlic drawer is out of bounds. So when gen Y pulls out some leftover upma from the fridge for breakfast on chaturthi morning gen X says, “But there’s onion in the upma!”

For decades, our annual family Ganesh in Mumbai used to come from the idol-making Khanvilkar family deep in the innards of Girgaum. They would make murtis big and small all year long from Pen’s famous clay, locally called chikaN maati, for sale on this special day.

Khanvilkar Senior would talk to my uncle and father saying how idol making was “God’s work,” as we waited for him to hand over our murti to us. Their work was worship – for worship. Everything was pristine in and around the workshop, he would say.

I understand there isn’t much demand for chikaN maati these days because they don’t make too many idols in Mumbai. They come from cheap, cheap China, I hear. When a Chinese-made bappa visits a home does gen X stop to think if the worker who put him together had had pork dumplings in his lunch break?

Here in New Zealand an exporter has retrofitted a factory to comply with halal requirements before exporting poultry to the Middle East. I wonder if a consumer there worries that a Kiwi factory worker may have wolfed down a ham sandwich for lunch.

Pristineness can’t hold candle to profit. Bappa knows. If he doesn’t mind a post-chow tamaasik burp while a worker gives him the finishing touches in a faraway land, I’m quite sure he won’t mind onion in the upma.

I don’t know about you but I’m off to help myself to some really pristine modaks.

What’s the deeper meaning behind Namaste and Charansparsh?

By Dev Nadkarni

Namaste or Namaskara

The act of joining the palms of the hands in front of oneself is known as Namaskara or Namaste. It is with the Namaskara that people offer prayers to deities and also greet each other throughout India. It conveys reverence, respect, welcome, friendship and hospitality.

The Namaskara is perhaps the most ancient form of formal personal greeting, much older than the handshake. Its antiquity is not easy to gauge, but the Namaskara has been represented even in the earliest of sculptures. The etymology of the words Namaskara and Namaste are relatively easier to deduce. “Namaha” in Sanskrit is “obeisance” and “Te” is “You”. Therefore Namaste is “obeisance to you”.

The palms are among the most expressive parts of the body. They are used to great effect in conveying moods and emotions in Indian classical dance. The various positions of the palms and fingers as they convey emotions and moods are called Hastamudras. Namaskara is among the most commonly used Hastamudras.

The manner of holding the joined palms conveys much. The head bent forward with the tips of the fingers touching the forehead and the eyes shut conveys deep reverence. The palms held slightly lower with the base of the thumbs in line with the solar plexus and the head bent forward ever so slightly conveys both greeting and welcome. Here, the intensity of the accompanying smile adds to the degree of the warmth conveyed.

The joined palms raised way above the head could convey farewell and palms similarly held high with the forearms sticking to each other till the elbows could convey a sigh of relief at the end of an ordeal or a departure of a particularly troublesome guest. The last one, of course, is not performed in front of the other person –it is always behind his or her back! The Uddanda Namaskara is holding the palms farthest from the top of the head while lying flat on the floor face down in front of a deity or god.

In addition to all these variations, each individual adds his or own little personal characteristic to the Namaskara. It may be a wave of the palms, a shake of the head, or a distinct manner of smiling while doing the Namaste.

The most-accepted socio-anthropological explanation for the genesis of the handshake may hold good in the case of the Namaskara too. Baring one’s hands and putting them in front of another individual conveys the fact that the person is unarmed and therefore is a friend and comes in peace.

Charanasparsha

Wisdom, unlike knowledge, comes only with age. This has been recognised since ancient times in Indian culture. It is for this reason that older persons are revered. A younger individual must respect the older one. It does not matter that the older person is poorer in knowledge, economic or social status. The sheer fact that the older person has “seen many more rainy seasons” is enough for a younger person to pay respect to him or her. This is the central sentiment behind the act of Charanasparsha, or touching an elder’s feet.

Those feet have traversed more places, trod through the many landscapes of life. There is no doubt that travel is one of the greatest educators. It takes one through so many environments, situations, and exposes one to so many ideas that it can only add greatly to one’s wisdom. Feet being the basic mode of locomotion, it is rather apt that one pays respects to one’s elders with Charanasparsha.

An elder may touch the feet of a younger person in the event that the younger individual is a spiritually advanced, holy personage. Long after a holy personage has passed away, his or her Paduka or footwear is often worshipped for generations. Almost no other possession is revered as much as the Paduka, which indeed, is the extension of the Charana or feet.

There is a school of thought that sees Charanasparsha as going against the belief that all individuals are equal. The act, therefore, is seen as self-demeaning. But apart from the beautiful spirit behind Charanasparsha and ethics, the very act may be hardwired into our behavioural pattern.

Bending before a higher ranked member of a group is a common mode of paying respect or acknowledging authority in several species of animals, particularly the primates. It is common practice for primates in the lower social order to bend before the acknowledged leader of the group and many times fall on the floor with the haunches raised. The pecking order among hens is a variation on this theme. Going down on one’s knees was also a manner of acknowledging authority for several centuries in the western world. And it is common practice to bend completely before god almighty in the practices of several religions.

Charanasparsha continues to be a practice much in use and is one of the common factors that run through all the religions of India.

 

First appeared in Indian Weekender, November 2011

Prithvi Sukta’s modern message

By Dev Nadkarni

 

When was the last time you heard someone break into song about mother earth? Or for that matter, the last time you cared to listen to birdsong, or the breeze whispering to the trees?

In recent times, we talk of the earth and her environment almost exclusively in the context of her degradation and progressive deterioration. We are more used to the cacophony of discussions, protests, alarmist statements and fear psychosis often leading to mindless violence than we are to birdsong. The twentieth century has been witness to countless traumatic instances the world over involving pollution, deforestation, giant dams, over population and rapid, unsustainable development. But paying tribute to the earth in these difficult times has been reduced to mere tokenism and sloganeering.

The world of three, perhaps four thousand years ago was different. Two thousand-odd 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 such pristine 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, almost 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 gratefulness. In fact, 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)