Ancient Wisdom and the Environment

In the context of the World Environment Day on 5 June, some reflections on man’s relationship with nature, past and present.

Vedas, Yogic Sciences and Nature

‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is a phrase repeated in the ancient Indian texts like the Maha Upanishad. It expresses one of the fundamental underpinnings of Indian culture. Translating this Sanskrit phrase:

Vasudha: Earth
iva or eva: ‘indeed’ or ‘only’
Kutumbakam: family 

Thus the phrase means ‘the Earth is one family’.

Generally, this phrase is referred to in the context of the unity of mankind i.e. to overlook barriers like race, religion and nationality. But if we look closely at the meaning of the phrase, it says the ‘Earth’ is one family, not only mankind. The commonplace limited interpretation of the phrase generally arises from our human-centric, exclusivist view of man as the most important creature on the planet.

Other similar popular Sanskrit phrases include “Lokah samasthat sukhinoh bhavantu” which means, “may the whole world be happy”. Again, the reference is to all life, not only human.

Being rooted in such a deeply inclusive understanding, Indian culture thrived in harmony with nature for millennia. All of Creation was looked upon as the manifestation of the Divine – the many diverse forms, being but a small expression of the Creator’s infinite potential and magnificence. 

Scientifically speaking

From a scientific perspective, the yogic sciences understood the entire creation as a play of the five elements or panchamahabhutas – air, water, fire, earth and space (or ether) – which were profoundly studied. Thus even from a scientific perspective, it was concluded that everything is made of the same stuff. Further, that it also moves by the same force, Shakti.

Based on the rishis’ realisation that the same prana or life energy that moves through humans, also moves in all of nature, Ayurveda was developed as the science of understanding and using the properties of nature at a gross and subtle level. The world today is very interested in natural medicinal cures and skin and hair treatments but traditionally in India, everyone used herbs and organic substances for everything from brushing their teeth to curing infections and diseases.

Nature in the Indian Way of Life


The plant kingdom has traditionally been an integral part of our everyday life. Even today, in Indian temples and rituals, there is a liberal use of flowers, fruits and other organic substances like sandalwood, turmeric, camphor and incense. Certain plants and herbs like neem and ‘tulsi’ (holy basil) are even considered ‘sacred’. This ‘sacred’ status is not to create a spirit of fear for anyone who does harm to the plant, but actually to preserve the knowledge that these plants are very valuable for human life because of their many medicinal benefits. The wonders of neem for example as anti-cancer among other things, are now being realised in Western laboratories.

When people visiting temples search for the bel fruit and leaves to offer to the deity Shiva, the lotus to offer to Lakshmi , tulsi for Krishna or the hibiscus and dhruva grass to offer to Ganesha, they are consciously or unconsciously connecting with nature. It may seem a small gesture but one that leaves a strong imprint on the mind of one who makes such an offering. It is a small but important reminder of living with an inclusive consciousness, in a world where most people can go by days, weeks and even years, not meaningfully being in touch with nature at all. Not to mention, this practice provides economic sustenance to the growing of various flowers and herbs which would otherwise have likely vanished.


Animals have also held an important place in Hindu culture, from the reverence of the cow as a ‘mother’, to the Panchataantra fables, the oldest animal fables on the planet, dating back to before 300 BCE. Many of us recall our grandmothers putting a bit of food out for the birds or ants before taking their own meals – a gesture of compassion for other creatures.

18th century Panchatantra manuscript page, The Birds Try to Beat Down the Ocean
Source: By Artist/maker unknown, India (18th century) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Almost all Hindu deities are associated with an animal that helps to express a quality of the deity – Ganesha and the mouse which represents the restless mind that Ganesha controls and directs; Shiva and the cobra which represents intense alertness; Saraswati and the swan which represents the discriminating intellect (a swan was believed to be able to separate milk from water); Durga and the tiger which represents ferocity. 

Land & rivers

Similarly, the land itself has been considered sacred. In almost every state of India is a sacred mountain or range, the most important (spiritually) being the Himalayas. The main rivers like the Ganga and Narmada are looked upon as ‘mothers’ that have given life to our civilisation. Prayers are offered to these mountains and rivers out of love and gratitude for nourishing our lives. Often these sites contain great spiritual power, reverberating with the energies of great yogis since ancient times.  

Such a traditionally holistic and wholesome way of life is unparalleled across cultures on the planet.

The exposition above restricts the discussion to man’s relationship with planet Earth. The Indian sages and yogis in fact recognised man’s cosmic identity and prayers for the different planets and the universe as a whole are recited even to this day. Indian festivals celebrate many important times for the planet in relation to the movement of the sun and moon as well as planetary constellations (the most famous example being the Kumbh Mela).

Man in Harmony with Nature in Ancient Cultures

Ancient cultures all over the world not only shared a deep respect for the environment but saw their lives intertwined with nature. I recently spent some time in Australia and was fascinated to note the deep bond the indigenous Aboriginal people share with their land, reminiscent of ancient Indian cultures. Their songs and dances express their observations of nature and their lores about the creation of the world are not human-centric but include other creatures, rivers and the land. For instance, just like we have a lore in India about how the Ganga descended on the Earth, the river Maiwah (Brisbane river) also has an interesting creation story describing its descent on Earth.

Similarly native American cultures lived in deep harmony with the land, every part of which was considered to be living and imbued with spirit. The old cultures of South America shared this way of looking at nature (check out this very interesting documentary on YouTube about the Kogi people, one of the last survivors of the Spanish Conquistadors in South America who express their concern at how modern humans are tearing the planet apart). East Asian cultures like the Chinese and Japanese still carry on many of their ancient traditions associated with nature. Pre-Christian Europe too had a culture that honoured the rhythms of nature – what was branded ‘paganism’. 

So where did we go wrong?

How did we Come to Destroy our Environment?

Modern economic and social systems and institutions have mostly evolved out of the ideologies, philosophies and thinking that sprouted around the time of the Renaissance in Europe. Free thinking and rationalism began to gain ground as a reaction against the dogma and orthodoxy of the Church. Questioning the heretofore unquestionable Church relied on encouraging the masses to prize their reasoning and intellect. The human being and his intellect then appeared to become the highest thing in the world.

While this no doubt benefitted mankind in that it gave us the technological and economic development we enjoy today, it is still a limited way of operating as human beings. Because we have a sharp intellect and animals and plants don’t, we think we’re superior and more important than them.

We  miss the fact that there are other dimensions of intelligence aside from the intellect. As a practical example, it may be pointed out how animals and fish manage to survive tsunamis while human beings perish. We may have tremendous confidence in our reasoning and intellect, but we have lost touch with life intelligence which other creatures still have. 

Further, with economics becoming the most important perceived goal of humanity, modern cultures are deeply materialistic and our greed for things seems almost never-ending. Our consciousness is not inclusive because we’ve not taken the time to turn within and explore the basis of our own existence. It is no wonder the planet is taking a toll.

Living Consciously

True respect for nature comes from a deep understanding within ourselves of how all life is connected and intertwined. At one time, when Indian culture was led by the light of enlightened beings, the sacredness of everything from a human to a stone was recognised. Every part of nature was deemed worthy of respect, if not devotion. When such a deep reverence for all life runs in the veins, human beings will naturally not wantonly destroy forests or kill animals, waste water and litter the planet.

We’re now in a situation where one in three leatherback sea turtles on the planet have plastic in their stomachs. Further, it is now predicted that by 2050, we’ll have more plastic in our oceans than fish! Having lost touch with the wisdom of our past, India too has let its environment deteriorate. Its sacred rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna have become filthy and depleted.

What is needed is a more conscious approach towards our environment whatever our present capacity.

Some simple steps we can all take: 

  • being frugal in our daily use of water (prefer showers over bathtub; flush only as necessary; brush and wash with measured water);
  • replacing plastic bags with cloth ones and plastic bottles with glass or steel ones in our daily use;
  • refusing other single-use plastic items like plastic straws and cutlery;
  • turning off lights and air conditioners (especially in offices) when not required;
  • consuming more fruits to give a boost to orchards which are needed to maintain health of the soil (see more in this Rally for Rivers Presentation);
  • using flowers and traditional herbs to support the farmers who grow them;
  • supporting the movement to Beat Plastic Pollutionclick here to support

To restore the well-being of our planet, we need to restore our sense of responsibility towards it, in however small a way we can. Otherwise, as a poignant Native American saying goes:

Further reading: Ecology and the Spiritual Process by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev.

See also: Yoga and the Environment and Sanskrit, Science & Ecology 
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