Ten Treasures of India for a Light Ecological Footprint
The wealth of an individual, a country or a civilization can be material or immaterial. The heritage of a people or civilization becomes a common heritage of humanity when it has recognized its value. Instruments for the protection of natural and cultural common heritage of mankind have been developed and are applied by UNESCO.
Figure – The Taj Mahal in Agra, part of the cultural heritage of humanity.
The wealth of a nation is measured not only by its economy or finances, but also and mainly by its natural, social and cultural resources and heritage, that are needed for a fulfilled life.
The heritage of humanity can also be immaterial, intangible assets consisting of knowledge, cultural and philosophical expressions.
Some societies have valuable treasures that must be revealed and have their value recognized. Such treasures pervade the minds and emotions of people and influence people’s consciousness, attitudes and actions. Such treasures, barely visible to the naked eye, grow when they are shared. They make up the human and cultural capital and are parts of the soft power of culture. They have a greater strength than economic factors or the power of weapons. The fields of culture and education, poetry, literature, the arts and spirituality are particularly suited to sustain and to disseminate them. These influences gently irrigate, oxygenate and permeate the social fabric and people’s minds. Their assimilationis reflected in habits related to security, health, education and lifestyles. They can help lighten the ecological footprint of a country or an individual.
Among the treasures of India for a light ecological footprint, we highlight the following ten:
1. India developed the spiritual intelligence. Currently various types of intelligence are recognized: mathematical, linguistic, musical, visual, physical, intellectual, emotional, social, environmentaland spiritual intelligence. Among the signs of spiritual intelligence are: a high level of self-knowledge, independence and autonomy to follow one’s own ideas, flexibility, reluctance to cause harm to others, the ability to cope with pain and suffering, the ability to be inspired by high ideals; to apply spiritual principles in daily life, to establish connections between different realities. Spiritual intelligence usesnot only the rational capabilities, but also intuitive abilities and emotional sensitivity. India has valuable lessons to the world, because its culture developed a flexibility to learn from grief and a reluctance to harm others. Moreover, India has developed an ecological intelligence, which led to consumption patterns compatible with the available natural resources. In other words, it led to sustainable consumption patterns. India has never invaded or colonized other countriesand has always avoided geographical expansionism. This is a valuable asset for the survival and evolution of the human species in a world where unsustainable consumption patterns require resources from other countries and require more than one planet. The spiritualism of Indian culture is grounded in matter; it is seen as a manifestation or embodiment of the spirit. This spirituality has been tested in millennia of history and gave attention to essential vital acts such as eating, breathing, having a correct body posture. India is a civilization driven by spiritual values and whose cosmology stimulates a friendly behavior towards the environment. The Indian civilization has major contributions to the understanding of the human being, as an individual,as a population and as a species. India values the bodily, the mental and emotional aspects of the being. It is a secular society that accepts all religions. In India life is partly dreamed and lived in mythology, in a universe without limits. And there is a pragmatic stance when practicing experimental spiritualism: seeing is believing. The head and the spirit of people are in the heavens. To turn the eyes to heaven is relevant because the weather phenomena, such as the monsoon rains, determine the results of agriculture, an important economic activity in the Indian subcontinent. But the feet are on the ground and based on the material reality.
Figure 1 – The lotus flower is the symbol of India. It feeds fromthe submerged sludge and is also beautifully open to the light that comes from above. Picture credit Wikipedia
2. Resilience – The story of India is a story of resilience,the capacity to absorb and adapt to shocks, to reorganize itself and to maintain its basic functions building from the influences brought by the impacts. Resilience is the ability of a system to recover his balance after being disrupted by a disturbance. It is the ability to transmute and transform the information received and to integrate it in the social and cultural organism. The fertile valley of the Ganges attracted migrant tribes; spices attracted Europeans; wisdom and spiritual intelligence attract Western visitors. The great travels of Europeans of the fifteenth and sixteenth century aimed to find a sea route to India, rich in spices and production of fabrics, silk andgoods very valuable at the time. Unlike other peoples who have been invaded and colonized,who lost their cultural identities, India absorbed invasions while keeping values and traditions. India found the internal resources of knowledge and wisdom and made use of them in the struggle for independence. In its history, India included the good influences from abroad and rejected without violence what was not suitable. Thus, for example, the English language was added to the many languages spoken in India, and the British left after the nonviolent struggle for independence.India voraciously feeds on external influences and metabolizes them into its organism. Nowadays, with the support of the English language, it assimilates and absorbs the impact of globalization. It indianizes the information received from abroad and incorporates them in language, food habits, attitudes and behavior. A symbolic example of Indian resilience was the renaming of cities with pre – British names: Bombay was renamed to Mumbai, Bangalore became Bengaluru and Madras became Chennai, Calcutta became Kolkata.
The soft power of the culture and values is a strong and valuable resource to absorb and reduce damages coming fromthe impacts of invasions and of colonization. This adaptability for over four thousand years distinguishes India from other civilizations that had a shorter cycle of rise, peak and decline, such as the Egyptian, the Greek, the Mayans and Incas.
Figure 2 – Life cycles of some civilizations. Source:Capra, F. The life cycle of the Indian civilizationis acontinuous and uninterrupted line.
3. India developed tolerance to diversity. It accommodated in its territory, for millennia, immigrants and descendants of Aryans and Dravidians, Muslims and Greeks, Europeans from Portugal, France, the U.K. There is unity of principles within the ethnic diversity in a country with high population density. India has great diversity of languages, cultures, and customs and presents extreme social and economic inequalities. It is the mostdiverse society in the world,in which one can see the extremes of greatness and miseries of the human condition. Virtually everything that has been observed about India is true and the opposite is also true. Individual behaviors that would be considered mad and would be segregated in other societies are tolerated and welcomed in India. In search for the sacred, sadhus circulatenaked in the streets, fakirsradically mortify the body, and sannyasins renounce material comforts. These are some examples of the socially accepted diversity of paths and personal choices. Poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore has expressed the condition of hisextremely diverse country. Hesaid that the mission of India was like the hostess that must provide appropriate accommodations for numerous guests, whose habits and needs are different from each other. He observed that this situation causes endless complexities, whose solution depends on sympathy and a true understanding of the unity of man.
4. Integral world concepts – Manyleaders, scholars and Indian poets professed their belief in the need of the human political evolution beyond nation states. Independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru said that he had no doubt that the world federation should come and will come, because there is no other remedy for the disease in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi said that nationalism is not the highest concept and that the global community is the highest concept. He would not want to live in this world if he did not become a united world. He said that the goal is one world and that we have to work for it and for human brotherhood.
The poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore said that when India finds the solution to its problem, Indians would also help to solve the world’s problem: “What India has been the whole world is now. The world is becoming a single country through scientific facilities. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are mere chapters of larger story.”
In his political and social thought, Sri Aurobindo postulated that nation states are not the last stage of human political development and that an economic and administrative unit of the planet would be required. He studied the past, envisioned scenarios for the future and assessed the various possibilities to achieve world unity. His thought is expressed in the books The human cycle,War and self-determination and The ideal of human unity. The human cyclehighlights the importance of the subjective view of life and explores the subjective inner world of man; it deepens the discussion on reason, its role and limitations, and the evolution that rationality suffered throughout history. In the next evolutionary phase, supra-rational, spiritual transformations would shape a new stage in the life of the species. In The ideal of human unity, he studied the empires and nations, with their development stages; anticipated the unification of Europe, addressed the possibility of a World Empire and the enormous difficulties in the path toward international unity; he also addressed the principles for a loose confederation of nations and the conditions necessary for such a free union to occur. Human unity is at the center of the thought of Sri Aurobindo,and extends to the military, economic and administrative areas. It must be sought on a global scale. It respects and values diversity. The theme of war and self-determination of peoples is addressed in the third book of his political and social thought. Written in the second decade of the twentieth century and revised after the Second World War, these texts remain very relevant for today’s world. They deal with the great cycles of human evolution. Sri Aurobindo participated actively in the early twentieth century, in the struggle for independence of his country. The main concepts of defensive resistance have been written by him in 1907 in eight articles published in the journal BandeMataram. However, long before India achieved independence from the British he perceived that this issue would be soon resolved. He then started to take care of global issues. Sri Aurobindo concludes that the federal proposal is the best alternative for the global political organization among all others, such asone World Empire or a confederation of nations. His political and social thought impresses because of itsclarity, imagination and ability to deal with history. Almost a century later, the power of his ideas of world federalism or free association of nations in a wider federated unit, gradually materializes with the experiments of continental regional blocs, such as the European Union and the associationsof Asian countries.
Figure 3 – The complete works of Sri Aurobindo in thirty volumes were published at the centenary of his birth in 1972. Volume 15 contains his social and political thought.
All these leaders propose a cosmopolitan political vision of human unity, beyond patriotism or nationalism, beyondthe interests of clans and tribes, beyond ethnicinterests. They expressthe human need for a political unity and a proper worldview to understand the period of history in which we live.
5. India coined the principle of non-violence (ahimsa). Gandhi found in the culture of the Vedas the basic principles of ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha(experiences with truth)that have been applied in the political struggle. From this concept he extracted the energy and strength to overcome difficulties and transform the political situation in a non-violent way and almost without bloodshed. This extraordinary message is rooted in the ancient history of India, a history of invasions by many peoples, adaptations and tolerance towards diversity. India used its valuable soft power of culture for the purpose of political liberation. Gandhi said that “civilization, in the true sense of the word, is not to multiply our needs, but to reduce them voluntarily, deliberately”. Unlike nations that needed to colonize other territories, dominate them by the economic power or by force and to appropriate other’s resources to meet their demands, India has never expanded or dominated other nations outside the Indian subcontinent with the use of force. Vegetarianism is one of the material aspects of Indian spiritualism. It is based on the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, which extends also to animals. Adopted for millennia for ethical and ecological reasons, Indian vegetarianism was one of the factors that helped to preserve biodiversity in India. Religious traditions helped to sustain the habit, with the sacralization of animal and plant species. In India, the food culture facilitates the adoption of this ecologically and ethically healthy eating habit. A practical application in everyday life of the principle of non-violence leads to a friendly and less aggressive lifestyle towards nature. This is valuable in the contemporary world due to unsustainable human actions which are ecocidal and have a high destructive potential.
Figure 4 – Typical dish from southern India. The vegetarian food culture is one of the expressions of non-violence against animals and against the environment. It is energy efficient, morethan other food habits and produces lower emissions of greenhouse gases.
6. India accumulated knowledge of how to deal with the sustainability concept that lies at the root of the word dharma. Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root dhr, meaning to support, to sustain: “It is the law, that which sustains, maintains attached or erected ” says Heinrich Zimmer , in his book ” Philosophies of India”. The concept of dharma – which emphasizes the responsibility and fulfillment of what fate has in store for each one – has beneficial applications in daily life and in politics. Remembers Sri Aurobindo:
“It has been said that democracy is based on the rights of man; it has been replied that it should rather take its stand on the duties of man; but both rights and duties are European ideas. Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world, which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognize, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe”. 
For Sri Aurobindo, our task or dharma is to help accelerate human evolution, in this time of crisis of our species. Dharma helps to explain why that ancient civilization has a light ecological footprint and did not collapse, as has happened with other civilizationswith a shorter life cycle of ascent, apogee and decline.
7. India created ways of dealing with self-transformation. Yoga comes from the root word Yuj, which means to combine, to merge, and to join. Yoga is reconnection with the whole. It is the science and art of helping the individual feel part of a whole. It develops awareness of the integral being, including the body, and its interactions with the mind, emotions and spirituality. Its practice activates latent potentialities of the body. The practice of breathing exercises (pranayama) develops ways of inhaling and exhaling the energy that sustains life and is present in all of nature, known as prana. The awareness of the act of breathing associated to the vibration of a sound like OM (UniversalSound) during expiration calms the mind. It is a practice that can be exercised indaily activities such as in commuting times and waiting rooms. Yoga practices use various postures (asanas) to enhance the body’s use. It systematizes knowledge that enhances self-awareness,the attention to the present moment, the perception of belonging to the environment. Such knowledge reduces the possibility of manipulation by external agents (people, drugs, herbs etc. …)
Figure 5 – Yoga class in a school of integral education in Delhi. 2013 .
8. The beneficial effects of meditation on individual health are increasingly recognized. The science and art of meditation preventspain, prevents cardiovascular diseases, and help to resistthe addiction to drugs. It decreases anxiety and stress, increases concentration andcreativity, strengthens intuition and inspiration. The meditative state clears the mind of unnecessary thoughts. The quality of thoughts can be improved when one alters one’s state of consciousness, from the normal waking state to a meditation state. It avoids anticipatingfears and sufferings, silences the mind. Meditation practices lead to a state of emotional balance, of inner harmony and relaxation with a decreased respiratory rate, the amount of oxygen consumed by metabolism and the production of carbon dioxide while breathing. Meditation tones the body, corrects postural deviations,and improves social interaction. A basic attitude of meditation is to focus attention on the breath, to observe the movement of air into and out of the lungs, to direct attention to the present moment. One can reduce the compulsive demands formaterial goods through meditation. Meditation is one way to deal with the ecological crisis and to reduce the environmental impact of shopping therapy -induced by psychological frustrations. Consumerism is a major driver of environmental devastation. Through meditation, one can reduce the use of natural resources, consumer goods, food, clothing, land, energy and reach the pure observation of life and of nature. A minimalist lifestyle preserves nature from the damage of unbridled consumption. A minimalistapproach means a maximum of satisfaction, happiness, joy, wellbeing, with fewer objects. An attitude of detachment develops a relationship with the outside world without feelings of ownership over it.
9. Patience – Once I attended a conference on the future, that compared India and China. Indians admitted the problems and the unmet basic materials needs and deprivation in the country. But they argued that, with a history of more than four thousand years, and with a newfound democracy, Indian people didn’t want to sacrifice cultural values and principles of individual liberty in order to meet these needs quickly. They were confident that they would be able to reduce social inequality without sacrificing those principles. They demonstrate determination to achieve results, but without haste, if haste means the sacrifice of essential principles such as that of individual freedom.
A phrase attributed to Gandhi sums up his relationship with time: “Those who lose patience lose the battle.” Patience is the science of peace. Peace to achieve results in terms of material well-being, without the sacrifice of values. For manyIndians, time is cyclical, develops into great ages and admits several lives.
10. Frugality – Frugality is sobriety, temperance, simplicity of manners. It opposes consumerism and proposes voluntary simplicity, the values of the essential comfortand happy austerity. During millennia, India has adopted a simple and frugal lifestyle, designed and managed an economy with low consumption habits. Society has shown reverence to animals and plants. Frugality reduces the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere,and the throwing of all types of waste in the biosphere. It is a key to having a light ecological footprint.
India has accumulated this wealth of knowledge that is valuable to a world that reaches its physical limits, with climate change and extinction of species; a world in search of sustainability and which needs to lighten its ecological footprint.
These ten qualities can be seen as valuable immaterial treasures that India can offer to itself and to the world.
The author is a Visiting Research Fellow at IIM-B 1977-78; author of Treasures of India for a sustainable civilization.
Contact the author Maurício Andrés Ribeiro