The Vedas preach 'Atmavat Sarva Bhuteshu' i.e. 'Regard every being like your own self.'

The key feature of the approach of the Vedic sages (rishis) in propounding this noble thought was to implant it in peoples' hearts (emotional core) and minds by linking it with deeper psychology. This, in the Vedic scriptures like the Smritis, Puranas and other ancient text is reflected in integrating the civil and social duties with religious faith.

It is said in "Manusmriti" that - it is sinful to cut green plants for fuel and the offender should be punished suitably (in the hell).

Indhanartham sushkanam drumanamavapatanam, Hinsausadhinam..., uppatakam |
-Manu Smr.11|63 - 66

Reference to water ponds and plantation of trees around their embankments is also found in the scriptures. 

The Arthashastra of Kautilya refers to the ownership and management of the village tanks in the following verses :

  • Waterworks such as reservoirs, embankments and tanks can be privately owned and the owner shall be free to sell or mortgage them (3|9|33).
  • The ownership of the tanks shall lapse, if they had not been in use for a period of five years, excepting in case of distress (3|9|32).
  • Anyone leasing, hiring, sharing or accepting waterworks as a pledge, with the right to use them, shall keep them in good condition (3|9|36).
  • Owners may give water to others in return for a share of the produce grown in the fields, parks or gardens (Arthashastra (3|9|35).
  • In the absence of owners, either charitable individuals or the people in village acting together shall maintain waterworks (3|10|3).
  • No one will sell or mortgage, directly or indirectly, a pond or embankment built and long used as a charitable public undertaking except when it is in ruins or has been abandoned (3|10|1|2).

The earliest scholar to have commented on the relationship of water ponds and trees is Varahamihira who described the detailed technical instructions for the constructions of water reservoirs in his famous work Brahatsamhita (550 AD): Without the shade of the trees on their sides, water reservoirs are not strong and attractive; therefore, one ought to plant the gardens on the banks of the lakes and ponds (55.1). More specifically the medicinally and nutritionally beneficial trees are advised to be planted in these areas for multiple benefits of the inhabitants in the surrounding areas; these include Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Vata (Banyan, Ficus benghalensis), Aam (Mangifera indica), Peepal (Ficus religiosa), Nichul (Nauclea orientalis), Jambu (Syzygium cuminii), Vacha (Sweet Flag; Acorus calamus), Neep (Mitragyna parvifolia), Tal (Borassus flabellifer), Ashok (Saraca asoka), Madhuk (Madhuca indica), and Bakul (Mimusops elengi).

The centrality of trees to survival and economic well-being created the need for their conservation, which was achieved through the concept of sacredness. In the archaeological remains of the Harappan culture, it is clear that even in the third or fourth millennia BC trees were held in high esteem and were worshipped.

The Vedic scriptures make explicit references as to how forests and other natural resources are to be maintained along with best utilization. Ecosystem sustainability in different forms has been an issue of development since ancient times. The great tradition of yagya (fire ritual) was adopted as an integral part of daily chores to purify the environment, help healthy growth of vegetation and preserve natural resources.

The attitude of respect towards earth as mother is widespread among the Indian society because of Vedic teachings. Robust and pragmatic principles were designed in the Vedic scriptures as 'religious norms' or social duties[3] in consonance with the psychological makeup of the Indian masses to ensure wholehearted participation of the masses in healthy sustenance of Nature with its rich biodiversity and majestic beauty. For example, the following illustrate it in the context of conservation of natural resources and adept maintenance of the ecosystem:

Medicinal plants/trees (vanaushadhis) and other vegetation (vanaspatis) are personified as goddesses and deities and collectively invoked as the jungle goddess, 'Aranyani', in the Vedas. This encourages caring, nurturing and protection of these trees and plants as precious entities. Peepal (Poplar leaved Fig Tree), Tulasi (the holy basil), Neem (Margosa tree), Vata (Banyan) etc, have been regarded sacred manifestations of divine powers in the Vedas and Puranas and there is a tradition of worshiping them because of their multiple boons for healthy survival of the animal kingdom. Peepal is known to absorb significantly high quantity of CO2 and thus releases equally high quantity of Oxygen. Tulasi releases large amounts of oxygen for most of the day-night; it is therefore also advocated as a religious custom to plant it in gardens or in pots inside the house. Its leaves, seeds, etc all are medicinal and used in the cure of a large number of illnesses. Neem is most effective natural disinfectant and anti-bacterial agent which also keeps the atmosphere free of germs, insects and toxicity; other herbs that are praised as worthy of worship in the scriptures for their enormous medicinal application and properties of natural purification of atmosphere are Apamarg (Prickly Chaff, Achyranthes aspera), Giloya (Tinospora cordifolia), Jatamansi (Spikenard; Nardostachys jatamansi) and Nagarmotha (Nutgrass; Cyperus rotundus).

The scriptures preach that - "one who plants and looks after at least one of the trees of Peepal, Neem or Vata, and at least five of the edible fruit-plants like Orange, Pomegranate, Mango, etc and plants/creep plants of green vegetables will never face the hell"; "one who cuts a green tree/plants is a sinner"; "planting of trees amounts to being blessed by good children in next birth".

The natural element of water is worshiped as god Varuna and rivers as manifestations of goddesses. The Smritis and Puranas further state - "One who gets a well of water / pond constructed for the use of many others gets an opportunity to live in the heavens"; "dirtying the rivers or ponds or their surroundings is a sin".

It is notable that the ancient Indian texts also lay down guidelines for the construction and management of watersheds and rainwater harvesting specific to the areas prone to droughts and to floods. Several methods of efficient irrigation are also prescribed, which are most economic and beneficial for the Indian villages and agriculture even now. Not only that, the down-to-earth approach of the Vedic seers and saints suggested such simple and easy-to-implement modes that make us wonder at their sagacious farsightedness.

For instance, one discipline stated here as mandatory for one and all is - "One should take out five spheres of soil from it, proportional to the size of one's body, before bathing in a pond/water-pit". This was to maintain the depth of the latter. From a recent geological survey, it is estimated that about 16.4 tonnes per hectare of soil is being lost in India every year; about 21% of this flows into the seas and 10% gets deposited in the bottom of water reservoirs like lakes and ponds because of which the latter are losing their water carrying capacity by 1 to 2% every year. Just imagine if every Indian follows this norm set by the ancestors, there would be multiple benefits of -- maintaining cleanliness (as now, along with mud one would also take out some dirt) and capacity of the ponds; and balancing the soil availability in the ground. This, coupled with tree planting and forest- conservation, will also reduce the amount of soil-wastage.

Animals and birds also play extremely important role in maintaining desired balance of the ecosystem. The Vedic sages had given many of these and tinier creatures an honorable place; they described many of them as manifestations of divine incarnations (e.g. Kurma-avatar, Varah-avatar, Narshimh-avatar of Lord Vishnu); many of the animals/birds and tiny creatures are referred as the Vahans (mode of conveyance) of divine powers - e.g. Ox as vahan of Lord Shiva, mouse of Lord Ganesha, Owl of Goddess Lakshmi, etc.

Likewise the trees and the animals also contribute to the conservation of natural resources and also help the humans in several ways. Cow is the best living example in this regard. Right from her milk being complete food, the dung and urine of cow are also found extremely useful as fuel, fertilizer, disinfectant, anti-radioactive agent, immuno-modulator, and/or therapeutic medicine. Cow is given a sacred place like the holy Ganga in the Vedic scriptures. It is worshiped and regarded as mother. This symbolizes the great culture of gratefulness to the cattle for all the help and benefits they offer to the humans and also teaches amicable co-existence of the entire animal kingdom.

In the known history of earth's existence for over 4500 million years, the existence of man has been only for 10 to 15 hundred thousands years. Plants and trees have existed here much earlier, since 440 million years and have rendered great help in generating the environment for the origin and expansion of other life forms. Enormous varieties of creatures have also contributed and continue to contribute towards maintenance of the cycle of nature and sustenance of life on the earth. Most of us recognize and understand the importance of their well-being for our own. Still, many of our developmental projects, technological innovations and industrial globalization activities have been hazardous to our ecosystem.

It is the proverbial 'folly of the wise' that for our comforts we have exploited the natural resources beyond all limits and thus endangered the survival of our own future generations. We have chosen to destroy our environment and have invited toxicity all around, with risks of dreaded diseases. It is ironical that we spend huge sums for all these hazards! Look for example at the cost of synthetic production of urea as fertilizer which 'poisons' the agricultural soil and the crops as well; and in India alone we burn 5 tonnes of coal to prepare 1 metric ton of urea. In India, there were about 15 million bore-well motor pumps in 1999; the number is increasing at an average rate of 500 thousands pumps per year. This is a vicious cycle of high energy consumption and diminished water stock: it reduces the water levels in the bore-wells (deep inside the earth); every 1 meter fall in water level amounts to extra 0.40 KW electrical power to pump the water. The list of these 'familiar' follies can continue to cover several pages.

The scriptures teach us how to motivate the masses without whose co-operation and collective will, no law or policy could be successful on this front. Most importantly they guide us how to lead an austere, self-reliant and fulfilling life with all round progress. It is high time we stop imitating the prevailing culture of consumerism and pompous showoff, refrain from the colonial attitude of grabbing and exploiting nature and adopt the culture of simpler living. 

Finally - "Since local knowledge systems in India are still being practiced among the masses, they can contribute to address the challenges of forest management, sustainable water management, biodiversity conservation, and mitigation of global climate change. Ecological consequences of climate change require that we access all stocks of knowledge for mitigation strategies."