The Land of Plenitude
The Satya Interview with Christopher
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
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
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
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.