By Daya Dissanayake/DailyFT-Harmony Page
Going back to the worship of nature could be the best solution to bring about real peace and harmony among all life on earth. We can worship nature, not in the way it was interpreted by our early anthropologists, based on their education and experience of a creative omnipotent god. We should worship nature the way we worship our parents and our gurus. Then we can still adhere to our faith, be it Buddha, Hindu, Jaina Dharma, Christianity, Islam or Judaism.
In the beginning, there would have been only nature worship, with Mother Earth as the Mother Goddess. The Great Mother was the Mother of all life in the multiverse. Human beings would have been totally non-violent, as they would have gathered their fruits and vegetables without hurting any living creature.
The new religions, even though all of them professed peace and co-existence, and the gods were all benevolent, they created conflicts and competition and the ruling classes exploited them to gain more and more power and wealth, by inciting man against nature and his own brother.
It is time to go back to the worship of our environment. When we worship the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars, when we worship rain and the rivers, the trees and the mountains, we do not have to fight with each other because all nature belongs to all of us and we belong to nature. We are all children of Mother Earth. We are still worshipping many trees, rivers and mountains and rocks as sacred. Nature worship is not new or alien to us.
All our worries, our concerns about the ecosystem, eco-destruction and eco-criticism are all because in our anthropocentric arrogance we believe that we, human beings, are omnipotent, omniscient and the entire universe is there to serve us because we believe that we created god in our own image. It is time we realised that we are only predatory parasites on the skin of Mother Earth. Predatory as we prey on each other, and parasitic as we feed on Mother Earth
Please listen to my ramblings here with an open mind. I respect all life on Mother Earth, including the seven billion human beings and all other animal beings. I also respect and accept that all beings have a right to believe in and practice their religions and traditions. Intentionally I will not insult or hurt the feelings of anyone.
We are all children of Mother Earth. Mother Earth gave us life. She nourishes us, provides all our needs while we are alive, and receives our bodies back into her. We come from her and go back into her. It is our life cycle, which may have given rise to a belief in rebirth and samsara.
That is why our ancestors worshipped Mother Earth as Mother Goddess, and held her as most sacred. Our biological Mother is the next most sacred. She is our Mother Earth at home. We all worship Mother Earth and thus all Nature. We call our land of birth as Motherland. You call her Bharath Mata. Worship of Mother Goddess goes back to the Harappan civilisation or even further back. Buddhists call Mother as the Buddha at home. There is Mother worship in almost all other religions, because She is the life-giver. Among the Jains we find Padmavathi, Ambika and even Thrishala Devi. Christians worship, Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus. In Sri Lanka we also worship Kannaki as goddess Pattini.
When we worship Mother Earth, we have to realise and accept that all that is on Earth is part of her, and belongs to her. She is the Mother of all life. Thus all our environment, our entire eco-system is Mother Earth, Gaia, the living earth.
All our worries, our concerns about the ecosystem, eco-destruction and eco-criticism are all because in our anthropocentric arrogance we believe that we, human beings, are omnipotent, omniscient and the entire universe is there to serve us, because we believe that we created god in our own image. It is time we realised that we are only predatory parasites on the skin of Mother Earth. Predatory as we prey on each other, and parasitic as we feed on Mother Earth.
Man has become the most harmful invasive species in the world, from the time our ancestors began walking on their hind legs, using the forelegs for destruction and started migrating all over the world. Man became Bhasmasura. We try to deceive ourselves that Vishnu made him destroy himself. But he keeps coming back and will destroy Brahma and Mother Earth before he finally destroys himself.
Earthquakes are really Mother Earth writhing in pain as we keep on molesting her. Lava flowing from volcanoes is her blood from her injuries. We have to stop molesting her, and go back to worshipping her.
Dr. Shruti Das, tells us in her poem, ‘Of Mountains’:
when you tore my skin
and broke deeper.
The kind wind sucked away my blood
and your angry tools drowned my agony.
Yes, you could not reach up.
So you pulled me down.”
We can worship nature, not in the way it was interpreted by our early ethno-centric anthropologists, but the way we worship our religious leaders, our parents, our teachers and our elders. Then we can still adhere to our faith, whether it be Hindu Dhamma, Buddha Dhamma, Islam or Sufi Dhamma, or Christu Dhamma.
We are all worshipping nature and Mother Earth, unconsciously or unintentionally, when we worship a statue, a building, a mountain or a rock, because they are all a part of nature, all made of what belongs to Mother Earth. All we have to do now, is to worship them intentionally.
In the beginning there would have been only nature worship, with Mother Earth as the Mother Goddess. Human beings would have been totally non-violent, as they would have gathered their fruits and vegetables without hurting any living creature. They would have been like the butterfly who taps the nectar from a flower without hurting the flower in any way. Early man, like all animals would have plucked a fruit or two to feed his hunger, but would not have shaken the tree down to make all the fruits fall, or cut down the tree for easy plucking of a few fruits.
Nature developed a really well-balanced ecosystem, which would always be in equilibrium, except for any geographical, climatic or biological changes, but getting back to a stable state very soon. Nature too follows Patticca samuppada, variously translated as Dependent co-arising, dependent origination or interdependent origination. In nature studies they are called cycles. Rain cycle, oxygen cycle and carbon dioxide cycle. All three cycles depend on trees. Trees depend on water, sunlight and carbon dioxide. Thus the trees depend on animals for the carbon dioxide, and the sun for energy and operating the water cycle. In India the worship of trees go back at least for 5,000 years, based on the evidence of the seals found at the Harappan sites. We still worship the same tree, as Asvattha or the Bodhi tree.
Bodhgaya, had been a sacred grove, long before Buddha attained enlightenment there. And Sujatha would have offered khir to Siddhartha Goutama, beliving him to be a tree deity. Recent archaeological excavations revealed that Lumbini too had been a sacred grove, where deep under the Maya Devi temple they have found probable evidence of pre-Buddhist tree worship.
It could have been a place of worship of a tree goddess or a Mother goddess, a symbol of Motherhood, for fertility and safe childbirth, and the sacred tree could have been a Sal or Asoka. In that case the space would have been appropriated at a later date, as a Buddhist sacred space with Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi as a Mother goddess, or a symbol of Motherhood.
This sacred Asvattha tree is also called the ‘Cosmic Tree’, the axis mundi.
The rishis know of the tree Ashvattha
Rooted in heaven, its trunk growing earthwards,
Its leaves, each one, bringing forth the Vedas,
he who knows this, knows all.
(Bhagavad Gita XV, verse 1)
Krishna said, “Ashvattha sarva-vrksanam..” (of all trees, I am the Ashvattha), (text 26, Chap. 10 Vibhuti-yoga, Bhagavad Gita)
Ashvattha is Vishnu. They are not two but one. The roots growing upwards is Parameshwara, the branches growing down is Maha Brahma, the leaves are the Vedas, and the trunk is the Samsara. Thus it is also called the Samsaravruksha and also Brahmavruksha’.
Mahabharata, “Yea! for its leaves – Are green and waving hymns which whisper Truth! – Who knows the Asvatta, knows Vedas, and all”.
The Bo tree would have been held in high esteem because of its medicinal and life-giving powers, which were known in all countries where the tree was found. In our country, where herbal medicine had been in use for several thousand years, its value would have been known to our ancient physicians, like Ravana. When the bark, the leaves or the roots of a majestic ‘vanaspathi’ heals an illness, or saves a life, people would show their gratitude and respect for it.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide exhaled by animals, and also by man’s destructive acts. Trees release oxygen, which is needed by all living beings. Trees play a major role in the water cycle. We are totally dependent on plant life, even if we consider ourselves carnivores.
Plants Deserve To Be Worshipped
Often the Buddhists today do not practice what they believe in. Even the Theravada Buddhists today believe there had been 27 previous Buddhas, and that they had all attained enlightenment under a particular tree. If the Asvatta is sacred because Gautama Buddha sat under this tree, then the other 21 different trees should also be sacred, and should be respected and worshipped. They should never be cut down or destroyed. That could save half the forest cover in Buddhist countries.
There is a custom among the Hindu community in Sri Lanka, to plant a tree when a person dies. In our villages we had a custom of planting a tree when a child is born. These customs would have developed because a tree is a very prominent and a more permanent symbol of life.
In India we had three types of forests: Shrivan, Tapovan and Mahavan. Today we think that it is man-made plantations that gives us wealth and prosperity. There is no Shrivan around our villages to give us sustenance. We destroyed our ancient Tapovan and built concrete ashrams for meditation. Mahavan has been replaced by megacities and mega industries.
Let me quote a poem by a Sri Lankan Tamil poet, Karunakaran, translated by Somasunderampillai Pathmanathan:
who used to scare parrots
that steal corn
are now toiling
with cement and metal
building a concrete desert
on the one-time paddy land…..”
I have always believed that there is a lot we can learn from King Asoka. Aśoka’s concern about the nature, the environment and natural resources is seen in the Delhi-Topra Pillar Edict. “dāve anathāyq vā vihisāye vā no jhāpetaviye” forests must not be burnt either uselessly or in order to destroy (living beings).
It is only when at some time in history man tasted carrion, probably during a famine, that he got a liking for it and began to kill animals for his food. The killing brought out the violence and sadistic nature in man. Animal breeding caused a greater demand for animal feed, causing greater forest clearing and monoculture plantations.
(To be continued in the 22 February edition of the Harmony page.)
(The above was a plenary paper presented by the writer, at the International Conference on Language, Literature and the Anthropocene, held at the Berhampur University, India, in December 2019.The writer is an award-winning bilingual Sri Lankan novelist, poet and blogger. His work spans a critical study of King Ashoka, nine novels in English, six novels in Sinhala and a collection of poems, and numerous articles in newspapers, journals and magazines. He is the author of the first e-novel in Asia, ‘The Saadhu Testament’ (1998), and the first e-novel in Sinhala, ‘Vessan Novu Wedun’ (2003). He is the only Sri Lankan writer to receive the Sri Lankan State Literary Award for the best English novel thrice and was awarded the SAARC Literary Award in 2013. He considers himself a student of history and is currently working on a series of writings on the worship of trees, mountains and rivers.)