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February 1998
India: The Land of Plenitude

The Satya Interview with Christopher Key Chapple


Christopher Key Chapple teaches courses in Sanskrit, Religions of Asia, and contemporary religious and environmental ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Among his many writings, he is the author of Non-Violence to Animals, Earth and Self in Asian Religions (1993).

Q: Should we blame the West and its religious values for India's environmental problems?

A: Environmentalists have blamed our current ecological crisis on the Bible, particularly the biblical concept of dominion over the earth. Similarly, there are aspects of Hindu tradition that downgrade the material world and declare it to be illusory, which might make it difficult to develop an effective earth ethic. However, for the most part, our environmental problems arise from the rise of technology in the 1700s and the advent of manipulative consumerism since the Second World War, particularly in America. In India, colonialism delayed technological development until this century. Recent changes in economic policy (away from the Gandhian model) have allowed for an increase in consumerism in India in the past decade. The rush toward materialist consumerism in India can be seen as quite alarming. But, there are people who are critical of the rise of pollution in India and are re-examining Hindu tradition in an ecological light and resurrecting the sense of the importance of nature that is so eloquently expressed in Hindu text and ritual.

Q: Do you feel that consumerism in India is specifically justified within the Hindu tradition or is it just a Western imperial value which has taken over?

A: One of the mainstays of the human being is to seek comfort. Another mainstay is to celebrate. And one of the great celebrations of India has been wealth. If you tour through India, the great tourist places are the palaces of the former Maharajahs. There was just a splendor in India: a splendor of sensuality, of tapestry, of food, an incredible bounty, and this bounty and this emphasis on extravagance and wealth is supported by the Hindu texts. In Indian tradition, there are four goals. The first goal is wealth (artha). Goddesses are worshipped in order to accumulate wealth. India has always been rather unabashed about wealth. Indians value wealth. Virtually any human culture will do what it can to increase its comfort and its wealth. However, since the introduction of the Western consumerist economic model, wealth has become accessible to a far greater number of people due to technology.

     On the one hand, people in India are celebrating a level of comfort that has never been experienced--across classes. They are also being quite vociferous in critiquing the notion that Western environmentalists should have any say about their consumption. Ramachandra Guha, who is a leading thinker in this area, has written a wonderful article critiquing the Western environmentalist program, saying that essentially it is yet another form of imperialism. This thinking has led to India's refusal to participate in voluntary emissions programs to stem global warming.

     However, now people are realizing the urgency of the problem. In New Delhi, pollution levels top out routinely at 400 or 500 particulates per million (ppm), while in Los Angeles, when it's 200 ppm, children and the elderly are advised not to go outside. It's not at all uncommon in a city like New Delhi to see people wearing filters or even gas masks just to get through the day. Last year, India passed legislation mandating catalytic converters for cars which are increasing at an alarming rate particularly in cities like New Delhi. You see fewer cars as you go further south, but in New Delhi the traffic is overwhelming and consequently the air pollution is just staggering.

    Part of the problem is that India cannot really afford the latest technology. Many of the cars burn kerosene, a very dirty sort of fuel. The first step of moving into the middle class is to get a motor scooter, and motor scooters are very unclean. India has the world's largest and fastest growing middle class. Their cumulative impact on the environment will be very negative. This is one of the realities that India needs to face.

Q: How can Northern societies broach environmental issues to the South without being neo-imperialists?

A: India has the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi as a home-grown environmental resource. Mahatma Gandhi, of course, advocated a philosophy and lifestyle based on simplicity that many people of the older generation recall and have in fact experienced. Many grassroots movements have been born in India: the Chipko movement in the Himalayan region has helped protect trees; the Narmada Dam activism in the central part of India, spanning the states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujurat, has successfully--at least for now--rolled back a 30-year standing plan to dam an area of India that is 800 miles wide and expands 200 miles from north to south. By erecting just one dam, tens of thousands of people have been displaced, uprooted, and been forced to move into cities, into a totally marginalized experience. These people have found a voice, and they have found ways to lobby, to advocate that their traditional lifestyle not be disrupted, and for now the dams have been stopped. No Western intervention was involved with either instance, and this is an example of environmentalism coming up out of the people who are intimate with the land.

Q: What has been your direct experience of how animals are treated in India?

A: One of the things that strikes a visitor to India is the permeable boundaries between the human and the animal. In Western culture people will keep a dog or keep a cat, and maybe a cockatiel or parakeet. But if a person sees even an ant or a spider inside the house they do all that they can to remove that being. In India, animals are everywhere. Animals are in the streets, animals wander in and out of people's houses. Birds fly through people's windows and take food from their table. There is an intimacy with the animal realm that is almost inconceivable to us.

Q: Then there are the cows, of course.

A: The cow, as everyone knows, is deemed sacred and is integrated into the daily life of Indians in a way that has been criticized by the West. But Western scholars have studied the cow and have discovered that the five gifts of the cow are tremendous for the sustenance and maintenance of India's people.

Q: What are the five gifts?

A: The five gifts of the cow are--and this is traditional from the Hindu texts--the gift of milk (which is the most obvious) and the gift of urine (used as a cleanser due to its high ammonia content). The third gift of the cow, which is very important, is dung, an important source for fuel. Most cooking fires--both in rural and in urban India--for the poorer people are drawn from cow dung, which is gathered by women and shaped into patties and sold. So it's also an economic resource. The last two gifts of the cow are generally associated with low-caste people, but when a cow dies (presumably a natural death) the meat of the cow will be eaten by certain classes or castes of people, and then those castes will take the skin of the cow and process it for leather. Those two items would be only used by the low-castes.

Q: What about wild animals?

A: Seventeen percent of the forests of India still remain. India has vast stretches of land under cultivation and is roughly a third of the size of the United States, but it supports a population more than three times the size of the United States. It is quite remarkable that 17 percent of land is still forested. One of the issues of preservation of habitat for the tiger as well as the elephant is that 70 to 80 percent of the human population (which will reach a billion within a few years) is rural-based, and sustenance-based. This means that women have to travel far distances, depending on which state they're located in, to gather firewood and haul water. They are also having to cultivate greater and greater areas, although the advances in water technology have lessened the pressure on deforestation for the purposes of agriculture. But Ramachandra Guha has pointed out that the model of the forest preserve as a museum--which is essentially the ideology of Yosemite and Yellowstone, where you fence the people out, you let them camp there, but vast tracts of land become off-limits to human beings--is impossible in India. The key to effective conservation in India is the integration of the human into the landscape.

     One wonderful strategy is the Periyar preserve, which is in the hills of Kerala, in the Western Ghats, where the state of Kerala abuts the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This is a mountainous area where the British exactly 100 years ago built a dam that created a lake several miles long. The British established a preserve that is now maintained by the Indian government. It has 700 elephants in the wild. Hundreds of people go through every day on a boat. From the boat you can watch the elephants, otters, wild boar, and birds in a state of near intimacy, far more intimate than, say, in the San Diego Wildlife Park in California. The animals are totally free. This preserve includes a couple dozen tigers as well.

    I'm also thinking also of the Jain tradition. The Jain tradition emphasizes non-violence. Throughout their history, Jains have organized successful campaigns in India to limit and restrict the sacrifice of animals within the Vedic sacrifices of Brahmanic Hinduism. They also criticized the Maharajahs of India for the rampant, wanton destruction they were bringing about through their hunts. Part of what brought the British to India was the lure of the hunt and to share the grandeur and the glory of the Maharajahs who measured their success in the number of skins that they could collect and the number of heads of wild beasts they could mount on the wall.

     The Jains went to the Maharajahs and Sultans who ruled vast areas of India and said, "This isn't okay; these are living beings." And they were successful in convincing the Mughal emperor Akbar to declare hunt-free zones.

Q: What do you think is going to happen in India in 50 years?

A: I think that the sheer resource limitations will force technology to recast itself in a more ecologically friendly manner. But this will only take place after more catastrophes such as Bhopal and diminished air quality. The lure of economic growth and entering the global consumer marketplace is very compelling and it's moving very quickly. But on the other hand, as India chokes, as communities in the developed world reject the idea of expanding and expanding their dump sites, as people begin to reconsider the cancer rate and to reconsider diet, as this information becomes more and more available and percolates throughout people's consciousness, I think there will be increasing changes.

Q: But does the developing world need to make all our mistakes again?

A: When I look at America, I see a need for people to gain an intimacy with their environment that people in the not-developed world take for granted. In India, even in the urban areas, even among the middle class, due to their ritual and their upbringing, they're maintaining an intimacy that I think will bring them into an environmental awareness faster than we've experienced in the West. Also, the birth of the environmental movement in India--which is perhaps the most vital environmental movement in the world today--owes a great debt to the tragedy of Bhopal. Bhopal killed thousands and woke people up to the reality of industrial ravage. Out of that the work of Anil Agarwal and the Center for Science and Environment gained a high profile. You go to India, and the paper virtually every day in any part of India will have multiple stories that have some ecological and environmental message. You cannot say the same in the United States. In the United States, the press is in the service of perpetuating a certain economy, a certain world view. That's not the case in India.



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