2011 is the year of the forest. It is also Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary.
Forests were central to Tagore’s works and institution building as they have been for India’s creative expressions through the centuries.
As Tagore wrote in The Religion of the Forests, the ideal of perfection preached by the forest dwellers of ancient India runs through the heart of our classical literature and still dominates our mind. The forests are sources of water as the women of Chipko showed in the 1970s. They are the storehouse of biodiversity.
The biodiversity of the forest teaches us lessons of democracy, of leaving space for others while drawing sustenance from the common web of life. (In his essay Tapovan, Tagore writes: “Indian civilisation has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life, which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilisation.”
It is this “unity in diversity” that is the basis of both ecological sustainability and democracy. Diversity without unity becomes the source of conflict and contest. Uniformity without diversity becomes the ground for external control. This is true of both nature and culture.
In Tagore’s writings, the forest was not just the source of knowledge and freedom it was the source of beauty and joy, of art and aesthetics, of harmony and perfection. It symbolised the universe. In The Religion of the Forest, the poet says our attitude of mind “guides our attempts to establish relations with the universe either by conquest or by union, either through the cultivation of power or through that of sympathy”.
The forest teaches us union and compassion.
For Tagore, our relationship with the forest and nature is a relationship that allows us to experience our humanity. Humans and nature are not separate we are one.
“In our dreams, nature stands in her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions”.
It is this permanence, this peace, this joy of living not by conquest and domination, but by co-existence and cooperation that is at the heart of a forest culture. The forest also teaches us “enoughness” as equity, enjoying the gifts of nature without exploitation and accumulation. In Religion of the Forest, Tagore quotes from the ancient texts, written in the forest:
“Ishavasyam idam sarvam yat kinch jagatyam jagat
Yena tyak tena bhunjitha
Ma gradha kasyasvit dhanam”
(Know all that moves in this moving world as enveloped by god, and find enjoyment through renunciation not through greed of possession)
No species in a forest appropriates the share of other species to nutrients, water, and the sun’s energy. Every species sustains itself in mutual cooperation with others. This is Earth Democracy.
The end of consumerism and accumulation is the beginning of the joy of living. That is why the tribals of contemporary India from Kalinganagar to Niyamgiri and Bastar are resisting leaving their forest homes and abandoning their forest culture. The conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, violence and harmony that Tagore wrote about continues today. And it is the forest which can show us the way beyond this conflict by reconnecting to nature and finding sources for own freedom. For the powerful it means freedom from greed. For the excluded it means freedom from want, from hunger and thirst, from dispossession and disposability.
Diversity is at the heart of the living systems of Gaia, including her forests. Tagore defined monocultures as the “exaggeration of sameness” and he wrote: “Life finds its truth and beauty not in exaggeration of sameness, but in harmony.”
Harmony in diversity is the nature of the forest, whereas monotonous sameness is the nature of industrialism based on a mechanical worldview. This is what Tagore saw as the difference between the West and India.
“The civilisation of the West has in it the spirit of the machine which must move; and to that blind movement human lives are offered as fuel, keeping up the stream power” (The Spirit of Freedom).
Globalisation has spread the civilisation based on power and greed and the spirit of the machine worldwide. And the global spread of the “passion of profit-making and the drunkenness of power” is spreading fear of freedoms.
A civilisation based on power and greed is a civilisation based on fear and violence.
“The people who have sacrificed their souls to the passion of profit making and the drunkenness of power are constantly pursued by phantoms of panic and suspicion, and therefore they are ruthless. They are morally incapable of allowing freedom to others” (The Spirit of Freedom).
Greed and accumulation must lead to slavery.
Today the rule of money and greed dominates our society, economy and politics. The culture of conquest is invading into our tribal lands and forests through mining of iron-ore, bauxite and coal.
Every forest area has become a war zone. Every tribal is defined as a “Maoist” by a militarised corporate state appropriating the land and natural resources of the tribals. And every defender of the rights of the forest and forest dwellers is being treated as a criminal. This is the context of Dr Binayak Sen’s life sentence.
If India is to survive ecologically and politically, if India has to stay democratic, if Indian citizen is to be guaranteed, we need to give up the road of conquest and destruction and take the road of union and conservation, we need to cultivate peace and compassion instead of power and violence.
We need to turn, once again, to the forest as our perennial teachers of peace and freedom, of diversity and democracy.
Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of Navdanya Trust