Environmental awareness: learnings from the Rgveda

( by Dr. Asha Lata Pandey; presented at the Xth World Sanskrit Conference)


There can be no two opinions about the fact that environmental awareness was very much in evidence during the Rgvedic period as the Rgvedic literature is replete with reference to Nature and its conservation.

To quote Coldon D. Conger and Bradly F. Smith “Environment is everything that affects an organism during its life time”1.  Thus environment is a very broad concept2.  The Rgvedic society was very well enlightened about it as they knew that the environment basically comprised of Water, Earth, Air, Sky and Fire3 along with other things.  It will, therefore, not be incorrect to say that the roots of environmental science lie far in the Rgveda and in the early history of civilization.


The Rgvedic hymns express obeisance to all the elements of Nature – plants4, animals5, rivers6 or mountains7; days and nights8 etc. as they provided people with all amenities of life.  These natural resources are structures and processes that can be used by people but cannot be created by them.  The Rgvedic society realized this and, therefore, instead of worshipping an image they worshipped elemental forces of Nature9.  They described them scientifically10 beautifully11 and emotionally12 because they knew here lies the ultimate source to keep the human race alive13.  There are several verses that sing praises of life in the jungle signifying amply that the Rgvedic man was used to living in a jungle as much as living in other habitations14.  He had great love for plants, he prayed for environmental protection and flora-fauna to be nurtured – Mimatu dyauraditirvitaye nah sam danuchitra ushaso yatantam15, i.e. May duloka and prithvi protect our environment.  May Usha endeavour for our welfare. His knowledge about plants – their reproductive system16, behaviour17, energies withinthem18 and many other things19 about them was deep and vast.  In spite of his vast knowledge he still wanted to know more about his surroundings and mysteries  of the world  –

Katara purva kataraparayoh katha jate kavayah ko vi ved, 20

i.e., O Rishis! How were the sky and the earth created? Which one, out of the two was created first?  Who can be able to know this mystery well?  And –

Kwedanim suryah kashchiket Katmam dyam rashmirasalaytatan21.

i.e. where does this Suryedeva reside?  Who knows this mystery that where his rays are? Calling “Vanaspati” a devta22 and addressing plants as human beings23 shows the great importance given to them; prayer to Indra to keep the devastating storm away from the forest24 shows their concern towards them.  In those days so much cutting did not endanger trees as forest-fires25. Hence the rishi asks the “stota” to pray to the Fire-god (Agni) and wind-god (Marut) 26Marut is also requested not to uproot trees27 and not to shake the earth (earth-quakes) 28.  No wonder this environmentally important29 element (Marut) has been probed30, described31 and invoked through prayers32 elaborately in the Rgveda.  The Rgvedic rishis were very observant of their environment and even minute changes were assiduously recorded by them like the day becoming dark through the water-carrier clouds33 brought by the Maruts and the earth becoming wet with the rains brought by them34Marut also produces lightening which produces nitrogen and other gases that nourish our crops35.  This has been described beautifully by giving an example of a cow and her calf36.  There is another beautiful description of how the atmosphere is affected by the constellation and the sun37.

Sun, who creates38, supports39 and brings about changes40, indulges in human-welfare41 and progress42, cures43 and also plays the role of a power-house44.  The change of season has been attributed to an invisible change in the atmosphere – its source being the Sun45.  There are beautiful46 scientific47 descriptions of the sun, its system48 and the path that it follows is without dust49.  Realising the multi-faceted gifts that the sun provides50, they request Suryadevta to be always favourable towards them51.  They ensured optimum use of sunlight by waking up and getting to work at dawn52 (so that they did not have to burn fuel at night) as they knew fully well that all other energies get exhausted.  Energy is a pre-requisite for all life and any type of civilization53, can provide riches54, is everywhere55, exists in many ways56, is there within the body also57 and is a source behind every action58.  They have named it ‘Isha’59 and ‘Ujra60 substance.  Energy, in the form of fire61, lightening and sun is present on earth62, in the atmosphere63 and in the sky64, Agni has requested to enable these elements to be exploited65 as it knows all about the mysterious Universe66.  A direct co-relation exists between the amount of energy used and the complexity of stage of development of civilization and Rgveda clearly says it67Rgvedic hymns show awareness about the intensity of force in elementary natural phenomena and that is why the rishi prays to Maruts not to surpass and destroy time, energy and environment68 and to help in keeping the balance of nature69.  Earth for the rishis was Mother70 as she carried ‘Soma’ (doer of many goods) in her womb the same way as the mother carries her child71 and they have clearly given a call to save the Mother Earth72.  They knew that the Earth is covered by a protective layer, which they called as “her skin”, 73, which our modern scientists discovered much later – the ozone layer.  They also knew that it is surrounded by water vapour and that is why the sky looks blue74.  They longed for a wide expansion of the earth75 and wanted her to always be full of flowering plants76.


The Rgveda depicts ample reverence for land77 and prays to Agni for good quality living78 and land79.  There are beautiful descriptions of land80.  Their knowledge of land81, crops were very advanced.  They knew of manure-use82 and instruments for growing crops83.  For rich crops they prayed to Indra84 and ploughed their fields again and again85.  They used water for irrigation purposes from various sources86 and requested Indra to remove all hindrances that stopped rain87as they knew that water is indispensable88, essential for good quality crops89 (hence has been called a devta90).  It has nectar – like medicinal qualities91, hence has been requested for keeping human bodies away from ailments92. It was known that water is a renewable resources that circulates continually between the atmosphere and the earth’s surface93, when this and seawater gets heated by the sun’s rays, it causes rain94Indra, believed to be the Controller95, Protector96 and Master97 of the Universe has got the water released forcibly from Vritra’s claws98, has given flow to the water and rivers99 and destroys the harmful elements of the society100.  Probably that is why he is believed to have created water101, brought rains102, brought about orderliness in activities103 and protected hill-riverbanks104.  He is the one who, with Maruts releases water105, that is why the ‘Stota’ prays to both of them106.  They pray to Mitra and Varun for life – giving rains107 and protection from all types of insects and viruses108, to Vishvedeva for bringing rains at the right time109, to Somdeva for crop-giving good quality rain110.  At times they say that Indra and Agni together help in bringing about rains111 as energies (Bala and Anna) remain between them112Indra and Somdeva are requested a number of times to give sufficient good quality food113.  There are prayers to a number of deities to give healthy food114, fitness115 and longevity to one and all116.  In fact, they have considered food as a deity and have called upon her for providing nutritious, healthy and balanced food117.


The Rgveda prays for a world where there is perfect harmony between all forces of Nature and which is full of health and happiness118; vigour and vitality – “O Mitradeval! May we all be happy, nourished by healthy food and free from all ailments.  May we live on this vast earth with humility.  May we abide by the cycle of Nature throughout our lives.  May you always remain kind to us”119. There is a wish for the days and nights; earth and even the dust particles to be pleasant and nurturing which means a pollution free world120.

Pollution is the repercussion of technological advancements and increased population density.  The Rgvedic rishis, were fully aware of the importance of non-polluted air for the welfare of mankind121, so they worshipped it as a deity122 and performed ‘Yagyas’ to keep the air123 and minds124 pure, to keep the atmosphere orderly and balanced125 to regenerate energy126; to help in bringing about rains127; to help in providing nutritious food128 and long life129 and last but not the least, to protect the environment130 for the welfare of mankind131.  To encourage people for performing ‘Yagyas’, they exploited their psyche by saying that cows and trees with ripe fruits give “Yagya – Karta” immense pleasure132 riches133 and strength134.  They prayed for good quality habitation135 and animals as property136.

The world is saying now what Rgveda said thousands of years ago, that people have to work wisely to get the best out of the earth and the atmosphere137.  In the Rgveda there is a clear expectation from technological specialists to abide by the cycle of Nature and not disturb the ecological balance138 and from the people to protect the environment139.

Modern society is more complex in many ways but Rgvedic society was more advanced in its mental and philosophical outlook not only towards human folk but also towards the entire environment.  In today’s era of uninformed industrialization we have become aware of the importance and the need to save the earth only after much harm has already been done, after much vulgarization of nature has taken place.  But this was not the case with the Rgvedic Rishis.  When they gave importance to each element that concerned their environment, they did so, not in ignorance, but knowingly; not through compulsion, but by choice; not only for a better present, but for a brighter future and not only for their own generation but for millions of generations to come.  The Rgveda stands before us as the greatest environmental treatise.


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