Reconstruction of Pro-Naturalistic Belief-Systems : Anthroprocenic Necessity

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Re-Engaging Myths, Archetypes, Rituals, Folkways and Reconstruction of Pro-Naturalistic Belief-Systems – an Anthropocenic Necessity.

By – Pallavi Mishra, Vol.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Pallavi Mishra teaches English Literature in Government P G College Uttarakhand. She has done her PhD on the topic, “The Writings of Mahasweta Devi- a Socio-Cultural Study.” “Disdain- A Fiction” is her first novel. She regularly writes for research journals in English.



The future of Nature being in human hands in the Anthropocene; revisionist approach in regard to history of human-nature relations, resorting to past-practices and reconsidering them for furthering the possibilities of carving a “gardened Anthropocene” may be explored at this critical juncture, for Nature is in the continuous process of becoming an abstracted, aesthetic landscape in the Anthropocene. Devaluing/demystifying myths is a necessary pre-condition for establishing equal, socialist, democratic human societies as they act segregators perpetuating differences and the Post- Colonial texts rightly, incorporate in them an indirect attack on the dominant traditional myths or their representations. The re-recognition of myths and inherent belief-systems in regard to Nature may sound a weird, ridiculous, nugatory propaganda to the enlightened academia as the base/structure of Myths, Rituals and Beliefs is illogical, unscientific, irrational, lacking in all the adequate, required proofs that a scientific discourse posits. Through this paper, I intend to argue that Myths in all oriental pristine, primitive societies have simultaneously been symbolic of the grandeur of Nature, upholding the values/ethics /acts/beliefs that have been pro-nature. Being ingrained in the collective psyche of the ‘ordinary citizens’; Myths have assisted humans to co-habit Nature simultaneously energizing the social sphere and quite unconsciously and indiscreetly culminating a human response for Natural phenomenon.

Reinforcing mythical symbols, Bestiaries, images and objects with the message of natural conservation can act as ‘emotional drivers’ for safeguarding nature. They may have a susceptible validity yet nobody seems to mind (even in the western world) as they stand as a proof of the human belief in the divine powers. These may be categorized within the non-linear behaviour or “other patterns of behaviour” that are typical of complex systems. Mythic messages and the associated aestheticism can enforce the ethical responsibility among the ‘ordinary citizens’ to carve protective, living landscapes by marking their living-preferences and folkways. Even to this day, in the Indian context, denying the mythic belief-systems by the pro-scientific political set-up often causes anguish amongst the ‘common, ordinary citizens.” The Kedarnath natural- disaster in Uttarakhand showed this anguish against the defilement of belief-systems. Instead of carving imaginary future apocalypses; exploring pristine pasts and histories may shape the anthropocenic social ecology.

Key Words: Original citizens, Public Memory, domesticity, political ideology, aestheticism, belief-systems, social medicine, rituals, community-behaviour, taboos, folk-consciousness, global- consciousness, ethical-responsibility, organic-relationship.


In his essay, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” (2013), the Princeton scholar and former soldier Roy Scranton writes: “this civilization is already dead” and insists that the only way forward is ‘to realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves’ and therefore ‘get down to the hard work without attachment or fear.’ “Make the new, re-carve it from the old” is the message he gives. This ‘re-carving from the old’ may be a spontaneous but with all probability a deliberate articulation to ‘look into the past’ for getting signs and messages that can enhance the sustainability of the human civilizations that are rapidly losing their hold over forces of nature; thus becoming prone and vulnerable in the face of changing natural landscape. The dominant, rigid, crude control of man over nature in the process of getting materially strong and powerful has changed the shape of the landscape and simultaneously, the shape of the Anthropocene has emerged as a political, ethical and aesthetic question. The ethicality of the Anthropocene rests on the questions of preservation, re-creation and the “sense of giving and sacrificing” for a greater cause and a greater space.

Whatever is unmanaged is devalued and vice-versa and this devaluation of nature especially after the on come of Industrial Revolution caused the degradation of landscape increasing the risk-factor of losing life-forms and making the Anthropocenic age an unaccommodative one to other planetary mates. Men’s control over the natural landscape becoming a regular, general phenomenon; the control has to become more sensible, sensitive and benign as in this gardened Anthropocene, nature is at the risk of becoming an abstracted, aesthetic presence around men. The devaluation, exploitation and mis-management of nature had largely been the planned strategic control of a few men, the “global elite” constituting scientists, industrialists, businessmen and politicians who rarely sought the consent of commoners in their decisions concerning the landscape dismantling. In the pristine, primitive cultures (Asian & African) the common mass, mostly dependent on nature’s resources; carved mechanisms for its protection by engaging on myths, rituals, taboos, belief-systems. Myths, though illusionary are social in nature, shared by a great number of people. The ‘gardened Anthropocene’ needs the social and emotional participation of the common mass as protection could be feasible only by mass-involvement. Myths sustained “organic relationship” of man with nature, nature acquiring the role and image of a healer and nurturer in the belief-system. Myths get interactive, speaking to the psyche of the original citizens, energizing the social sphere indistinctly culminating a human response. This organic relationship based upon care sustained both man and nature. Myths can restrict over-hunting, over-use of land and its resources; thus allowing space to the other species. Dismantling western frames of knowledge- stereotypes, strengthening native traditions and retrieving vernacular memories through myths, rituals and folk-ways can show the way to recovery. The exotic, Asiatic forms of idealism, resistance and aestheticism can render Political energy to the ideas centring on the landscape preservation. A culture’s collective mythology helps convey belonging, shared and religious experience, behavioural models, purpose and moral and practical issues.

Giving value to the picturesque, making organic, health-friendly, pollution-less landscapes could be made into a typical Indian stance, a pose…an Indian idea (in Indian context). Sartre’s idea of picturesque that he validates in “From One China to Another” could be made into praxis; for him the picturesque is exotic, looks exotic that which arouses curiosity, is not ignored; but noticed. The framework of ‘people with the landscape’ could be exoticised to gain the recognition. Aesthetics is most often assigned to ‘nature’ as a symbol of the purity and beauty of one’s own people. Aestheticized nature as the homeland occupies a central place in the literature and philosophy of various traditions but especially those of the Romantics. In these representations, not necessarily objectified in art forms but present as mental constructs, idealized nature is both a spatial and a temporal representation of the self. Emiko Ohnuki Tierney in her essay, “Betrayal by Idealism and aesthetics” points out that ‘Nature’ as a symbol of cultural nationalism can move easily into the realm of political nationalism. Mosse details the process in the late 19th century Germany whereby the soil, representing agricultural communities, became the spiritual and economic source of the Volkisch movement and the symbol of their utopia and the Heimat (homeland), and thus eventually an instrument of their race theory. It was Rudolf Darre, the Nazi minister of agriculture, who coined the term ‘Blut and Boden’ (blood and soil) as a Nazi motto. He also promoted Naturschutz (protection of nature) as a state policy. An aesthetics is assigned to the symbols that stand for the most cherished values of the people-their land, their history, idealism and the moral codes of purity and sacrifice. People respond to this aesthetics, interpreting it in terms of their own idealism and aesthetics, while the state can use the same aesthetics and symbols to co-opt them. “Images, when they are materialistic, bring men together; that is to say when they begin at the beginning; with bodies, with needs, with work.”

The population that may appear as a crowd; have the ability to organize themselves. But no one has the right to confuse this swarming with the plague of locusts. Chinese crowds are organized; they fill up the pavements and spill onto the road, but they each immediately make themselves a space while, at the same time, acknowledging that of their neighbour. The China is a microcosm of the whole Asia; “organized crowd” can push up the creation of an organized eco-friendly space. The process of organizing, adjustment, trimming, and carving is important. Masses can take control of history by controlling landscapes, by surveying and supervising it and building organic relationships based on care and concern. This being not done, the masses would be subject to history.

Mythico-ritual basis of landscape protection is not to aggrandize the politics of purity, place, nation and history. Myths from below are primitive, pro-nature, all encompassing. They define living ethics that correspond to the ethics of a place. The presence of religion in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot be ignored; in which the rituals are an active, participative element. According to Malinowski & Durkhiem, Rituals have a functional aspect. Religion as such, is more than mere contemplation of the supernatural; it affects our actions and practices. With increasing complexity and secularization of society there was separation of the sacred and the secular. The Cultural Anthropologist, Edmund Leach defined rituals as culturally oriented behavioural patterns which seek to make a symbolic statement about human beings relationship with a Supreme Being. Making landscapes into a well-defined identifiable ritual space can add an element of sanctity thereby restricting human intervention into it. Defining the ritual space with a well-defined setting renders sacredness to the space thus, restricting human involvement in it. Incorporating landscape preservation in ritual behaviour could make it a spontaneous practice as the ritual behaviour demands a conscious engagement on the part of believers. The voluntaristic component of the ritual ultimately transforms the personal will to the collective will. Ritual behaviour has a power of connecting the mass-consciousness and they involve a raising of consciousness to a greater or higher level. Egdon Becker, a founding father of the new Frankfurt school of ‘Social Ecology’ focuses the analysis of societal relations to nature. Becker characterized the world as a “crisis- ridden, self-organising complex system” of which humanity is an integral part and increasingly powerful driver. This requires a new world view and is the point of departure for conceptualizing the provisioning functions of nature. For framing ‘a new world view’ myths and archetypes may be given specific meanings in ecological contexts. The inherent belief-systems can make the need of conversation “a human programme” acting as ‘emotional drivers.’ The community practices and neighbourhood planning exercises centring on rivers, plants, trees, cleanliness of soil, land, water, air, need to be recognized and given a social and political edge. Individuals and groups participating in rituals display a high degree of emotional solidarity with the larger community. The pristine ritual behaviour involves the worship of plants, rivers, trees, animals and landscapes. Trees and plants like Peepal (Ficus religiosa) Tulsi or Tulasi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) have ritualistic significance that invokes their preservation. Uprooting and cutting branches of the plant is prohibited. As it withers, the dry plant is immersed in a water body with due religious rites, a prayer of forgiveness is offered before the act. The ritual marriage with a banana tree to ward off evil influences arising from malefactory planetary positions is ingrained in the belief-systems. It may occur as a humiliating, meaningless practice but the sanctity associated with it can provide it with a space in the landscape.

Historically, humans have interacted with nature through Myths. Pro-naturalistic belief-systems existed since the Anglo-Saxons. At an early date Christian literature gave symbolic meaning to natural phenomena, and particularly to animals which were especially fabulous. Bestiaries were an interesting mix of fact and fable, weaving new scientific evidence with long-standing legend. Every animal, alive or imaged, found its way into the Bestiaries. Christianity, eager to show that creation proved the existence of God, began adding commentary to the Bestiaries; showing how these “facts” revealed parts of God’s nature. Mythical and legendary animals occupied the literary scene and the social imagination. Religion, no doubt, played a definite role in engendering and validating these belief-systems. Myths acting as cultural tools and cultural narratives supported value-systems for the needed sustainability of domesticity, ecology etc. Myths get interactive, speaking to the psyche of the ordinary citizens, energizing the social sphere indistinctly; culminating a human response. In the Bestiaries, Birds represent human souls; if a bird is perched on a vine then the soul is abiding in Christ. The butterfly symbolizes the resurrection; Bees represent tireless activity, a good work-ethic and being diligent at a task. The mythical white bird Caladrius is mentioned as living in the King’s house. If the bird is placed in front of a sick person and looks at the person, he or she will get well. The Caladruis opens its beak and miraculously takes upon itself the person’s sickness. Nature and its picturesque effect rendered a reality in the pristine human imagination that defined the way of life. This Anglo-Saxon collective mythology/ Archetypes helped convey belongingness, shared religious experience, behavioural models, moral and practical lessons. The aesthetics linked to these bestiaries, concepts and rituals have profound socio-religious dimensions. Rendering these with a political ideological stance; the aesthetics can bring in positive changes in the landscape scene. Re-recognition of the aesthetics associated with myths and archetypes can be strategically deployed by the government. The mythic structures could be revalidated to make humanity responsive to Nature. Myth for mythic people, who live mythically, is never some detached story.

Carving out gardened Anthropocene where it is mandatory to protect the natural habitat of animals since they hold sacred religious value in the human psyche may prove a positive endeavour towards natural preservation. The Public memory plays a vital role in preserving the identity of a figure/concept/ ideal/belief that is significant in human history or is crucial for human civilization and it does so through stories, myths, narratives, folk-lores and sometimes through rituals. This Public memory doesn’t allow the imprints of an identity to get erased so easily if the identity is self-establishing; rather gives a material space to it in the form of “Memorials” or in its songs and stories and the Persona continues to live on with its celebrated abstractions and symbolic significances. The negation of a body from the geographical space doesn’t negate its existence from the social and political sphere rather it lives on in the collective memory of a community, a Tribe or a Nation. At times, history gets its shape from these folklores, myths and stories. In the similar vein, Public memory can preserve the rituals, belief-systems and myths and simultaneously protect and preserve a space or landscape if the political state considers/supports and encourages such a practice purely for the sake of nature. Mythic Icons could be made into the cultural and national memory embodying ideals of natural conversation and the icons could be furthered for representing the political need for conversation as the public memory is always political. Traditionally, embedding in it a scope for a more conducive better future could be paid heed to and celebrated for natural preservation. Myths and rituals can act as a source and vehicle of hegemonic control; thus restricting the mindless pilferage of nature induced by inordinate ambitions of men as they govern the public memory more organically. Myths reveal to the mythic people how and why the Cosmos was created; how and why their tribe, clan, ethnic group, religion, or nation state was created; why they suffer and experience natural disasters, meaninglessness, oppression, injustice, poverty, violence, war, mortality and death; and what they should do, how they should live their lives, so that they can cope with and even overcome and solve their human existential crises in the world. Keeping in view the anthropocenic need, the belittled mythic beliefs that are dismissed by the spirit of scientific rationalism can be revived in the modern period from the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, psychology and literature. Myth provides us with structures for organizing experience and for many postcolonial and post-slavery writers dislocated by history; myth often provides ways of claiming the margins of their gendered and racial positionality with resonant force. In short, myths can assume a sense of urgency passing into ideology.

In Mahasweta Devi’s, The Book of the Hunter, both myth and history are juxtaposed together to provide a space for communication of the urgency of preservation and simultaneously considering the belief-system as an innovative tool for this. In this powerfully subversive tale, Mahasweta Devi portrays the tribal’s burden of memory engaging with his/her contemporary reality, with ironic and tragic effects. The Shabars are considered to be one of the most disadvantaged groups among the tribal of modern India, as they are the most affected by the depletion of forest land. Kalya, trying to recover his racial, cultural identity and pride through the enacting of the myth of the hunt, is defeated by his uncomprehending resistance of his own tradition. It is not the forest alone that has been affected by the encroachments of ‘civilization’, but the forest-dwellers too. Her innovative use of the forms and features of native traditions give her narratives a subversive power that challenges the conventions of both the creation and the reception of narrative fiction.

Certain Pro-naturalistic belief-systems as prohibition of talking loudly, walking in a group etc. in the “Bugyaal” (Bugyaals are grasslands in the Garhwal hills), prohibition of menstruating women to bath in the river, river-obligation (paying obeisance to the river considering it as an important force that has been in space since eternity), death, birth and marriage-rites, taboos associated with the felling of trees like Peepal, Vat, Neem, Tulasi, Banana etc. can be carried forward, rather encouraged by the administration, society for their naturalistic value. The legitimate power that the political systems exercise could be involved for furthering the project of carving the gardened anthropocene rendering it the required aesthetic value and the need to protect the aesthetic associated with it.

As Uttarakhand was tragedy-struck during Kedarnath-disaster, the electronic communications carried over the “ideas” that generated out of the “Common-psyche” based on myths. Communications occurred instantaneously between individuals and thereby communities of the violation of sanctified spaces through extreme human intervention. Through mythic messages the common mass tried to convey and prove this violation as the major reason behind the disaster. Much to the anguish of the residing hilly communities, government/media/science ignored this response resulting out of a primitive belief-system that lacked the required reasoning and scientific logic. Their repeated plea of leaving out the sacred space from constant public intervention did not get any positive response from the greater socio-political set-up and the practice is continuing for the sake of state government’s agenda of propagation of religious tourism.

‘Unless they accept and pay heed to our beliefs, there would be further degradation.’ the communities warn the administrative officials, social-workers, engineers, mountain-climbers and the pilgrims. Though the holy town of Kedarnath was completely destroyed in flash floods, the massive tragedy reinforced people’s faith in the divine. The more compelling legend is of Dhari Devi, guardian deity of Uttarakhand, whose idol was removed from her temple hours before the cloudburst. In the legend, Dhari Devi is a manifestation of Goddess Kali and is revered as the protector of the Char Dhams. Believers per se, Uttarakhand had to face the Goddess’ ire as she was shifted from her original abode to make way for a 330 MW hydel project that now lies in ruins. Local historians record that a similar attempt in 1882 by a local king had resulted in a landslide that had flattened Kedarnath. Built by Alaknanda Hydro Power Company Ltd (AHPCL), a subsidiary of infrastructure major GVK, the Srinagar hydel project had faced opposition from the local populace as they were opposed to the plan to relocate the Dhari Devi temple from its original site on a small island in the middle of the river Alaknanda. The project dam would have submerged the island. The legend says that only the upper half of the idol of goddess Kali is called “Dhari Devi” while her torso is worshipped as a “Shree-Yantra” at Kalinath Temple near GuptKashi. As per local lore, Dhari Devi changes in appearance during the day from a girl to a woman and then to an old lady. Only a visit to both the temples makes the darshan of the Goddess complete.

As per reports, the original plan was to cut the upper half of the island and shift it to a higher location. However, owing to the lack of logistics required to carry out such a mammoth task, the plan was later altered and it was decided that only the visible part of the idol would be shifted. Importantly, the Union Minister of Environment and Forests (MOEF) had also opposed the relocation of the temple. In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, the minister defended the right of the people to worship at the temple, drawing the parallel with the Vedanta case in which the Apex court had upheld the right of the Dongria Kondh tribal people to worship the Niyamgiri hill, earmarked for blasting for bauxite mining. However, despite opposition from MoEP, the Supreme Court gave its nod to relocate the idol to a raised platform. Armed with all gear, the officials arrived at the temple-site at 7:30 pm on Sunday June 16, and cut off the idol from its base. Three priests and two locals then lifted the idol and placed it at the artificial platform constructed by AHPCL as the deity’s new seat. Just when the idol was lifted there was lightning and heavy rains followed by cloud-burst in Kedarnath that left thousands dead. Also, two pillars of the new structure at Dhari Devi temple gave way, forcing the removal of the idol. Dhari Devi’s wrath may or may not be behind the trail of destruction in Uttarakhand, but the folk-consciousness considered it as the main reason behind it and rose up in protest, venting their anger on the AHPCL officials and administration.

By citing the Dhari Devi story, I do not support the myth or mark it as “real”; the point of argument is certain mythic/ legendary existentialities in the common psyche can be “utilized” for protecting the already disrupted ecosystems. While environmentalists described the tragedy as a man-made disaster; geologists felt that the extent of destruction could have lessened if stricter regulations had been put in place; there was another group that was insistent that the human- intervention, commercialization of the pilgrimage site, high frequency of human movement causing pollution and defilement of the sanctified premises of the shrine resulted in the disaster of all three arguments, the common psyche relied heavily on the “defilement” hypothesis and blamed the administration/ government for allowing more of human activities in a sacred space. Early pilgrims respected ecology and traversed much of the Char Dham by foot. Though illusionary, myths are social in nature and are shared by a great number of people. They are not the act of certain individuals only, or even of many, but the act of everyone. If the past histories can be reactivated for restoring agency to the marginalized, for recognizing the common mass as contemporaneous with modernity, the past myths can be rediscovered to prioritize nature in the discourse of human socio-ecological experiences. John Elder insists that bioregionalism constitutes a more responsible pedagogical model than cosmopolitanism. Bioregionalism, in Parini’s words, entails responsiveness to “one’s local part of the earth whose boundaries are determined by a location’s natural characteristics rather than arbitrary administrative boundaries.

The Anthropocene, being an integrated society, efforts can be made to make “Folk-Consciousness” into the “global consciousness” through the required ‘suspension of disbelief”; so that the conservation programmes can be carried out at the psychological level of the ‘ordinary citizens’ for whom mythic deliberations and rituals are a way of life. Arousal of Folk-consciousness to establish a distinctive local identity in their pristine myths and belief-systems can encourage the creation of the gardened Anthropocene and its modelled preservation. With passing time, the local flavour and its distinctiveness can be intensely involved in conceptions and representations of the local self at the individual and collective level. The Folk-Consciousness keeps the communities together instilling in them the consciousness and emotion of togetherness; that their relations are binding and they stand on an equal footing. It can help instilling an awareness of our impact on our immediate environment, help ground our sense of environmental responsibility. Also, the undefined, unexplained belief-systems incorporate in them a knowledge that though secretive is useful having a social-value which Ghosh calls “Counter-Sciences”. Counter science is secretive with unknown technique and procedure and it begins with the premise that it is impossible to know certain truths. Counter Science finds its roots in native traditions wherein a cure for a malady is achieved without a scientific explanation of the working of the therapy. In many native traditions, plants, herbs, animals etc. are considered to have healing, recuperating effect; some are considered pure and sacred. In his Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh tries to indicate that cures can be achieved instinctively even without well-developed laboratory work and procedural formalities. Ghosh’s notion of science celebrates mystery and through it Ghosh questions the basic tenets of experimental science-fact, motive and intention. The scientific practices of the third world, especially the healing techniques do not occupy the space of texts; they occupy the space of silence, as pieces of unexplained truth. By speaking about the power of silence, he asserts the basic way in which counter science operates- under a mask of religion and cultural practice. What he also implies is that in a country like India where religion or spirituality is more accepted than rationalism, even a scientific practice has to take the cover of religion. Nature is already in the protected mode in the traditional practices, so the need is to re-discover this mechanism inherent in the thought-processes and convert it into practical, experimental, field activity. The dichotomy between universalism (nature and human relation are the same everywhere) and particularism (different cultures and contexts ‘produce’ different natures) should be reconceptualised as a continuum. There are indeed local and regional variations, but, at the same time, there are universal features of the socionatural relation, as Darwinism comes to show: evolution is a universal natural device, and so is the human adaptation to the environment.

Anthropogenic hybridization can never give us the biological diversity that evolution has given us and cannot produce genetically viable and biologically diverse species that can thrive in the further ever-changing eco-systems. The natural rate of speciation is seriously affected by human activities, predator and prey relationship is severely disrupted and researches indicate that biodiversity is not only heading toward extinction, but evolution itself is facing the risk of extinction. The mythological lizard in Mahasweta Devi’s The Book of the Hunter and its extinction points towards the forced extinction. Postcolonial writers depict the harsh changes in nature affecting the human genetic make-up causing deformity, sterility etc. Rediscovered myths, belief-systems and archetypes may be given specific meanings in ecological contexts. The community practices and neighbourhood planning exercises centring around rivers, plants, trees, cleanliness of soil, land, water, air need to be recognized, politically idealized and venerated by the governments. The task of the natural preservation of the gardened anthropocene could be penetrated into the mass-consciousness through school-songs and textbooks, as well as through the mass-media in the form of popular songs, films and plays. Dislocating myths and archetypes from their grand, allegorical, mystical pedestal so that they fit into the socio-political-regional space and become a much-pursued reality; emphatically guided towards nature and landscape preservation is an anthropocenic necessity. The burden of carving out living landscapes may be unconsciously shifted to the “ordinary citizens” if stimulation is done through mythic messages. The myth of king Midas; a tragedy of avarice that “the golden touch of progress and machine” that the human has generated is in reality more a curse than a blessing and the myth of Icarus, similarly shows that with all his limitless powers, man is destined to fall to ground before the grandeur of Nature.


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