Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

Perceiving the Forest: Early India 1

Academic journal article Journal of Asian Civilizations

Perceiving the Forest: Early India 1

Article excerpt

This essay explores the theme which Günther-Dietz Sontheimer had drawn attention to in his writings, namely the relationship of the forest to the settlement - the vana to the ksetra. These could be opposing concepts contrasting the habitat of the ascetic and the renouncer on the one hand, and the established settlement reflecting attempts at a regularly ordered social system, on the other. Or, in some cases, they could be seen as a continuum. The grama (which would fall under the category of 'settlement') was not static, and could include a mobile village or migrating cattle keepers, the emphasis in both being on large numbers of people and domestic animals. The dichotomy as well as the complementarity between the forest and the settlement has often been commented upon. Sontheimer was interested in the application of this duality to historical processes, especially to the construction of the religious articulations such as the parallels between tribal fertility cults and Tantricism or the Devi cults, as also in the relationship of this duality to pastoralism (Sontheimer 1987, 1989). His study of pastoral activities led him to suggest a link between the forest and the settlement, and to attempt to understand the influences on the responses of the ksetra or grama to the vana or aranya.

This dichotomy between the vana and grama evolved in early times when the village constituted the settlement. With the emergence of urban centers, and particularly in the early centuries A.D., there was also growing dichotomy between the grama and the nagara - the village and the town respectively. At the same time, vana and aranya had an ecology different from that of the settlement, and would have included the desert and the semi-arid pastoral regions as well. Another dichotomy, discussed in the context of ecology and medical knowledge, was that of the júngala and the únüpa - the forest and the marshland (Zimmerman 1987). This had a stronger ecological connotation than vana and ksetra. There is also the well-known concept of tinai as set out in Sangam literature, listing five ecological zones. The definition of vana and ksetra and the distinction between them gradually absorbed a variety of connotations which enriched the concepts and extended their meaning to well beyond ecology.

I would like to argue that although the duality has existed for many centuries, the perceptions accompanying it were neither static nor uniform. The forest was seen in multiple ways, and historical change altered the focus. Where it was romanticized it became an imagined alternative, a fictive paradise, which expunged the inequities of civilized living. Alternatively, it was seen as the fearful habitat of demons {Rämäyana 2.22.6 8, 2.25. 4 ff, 3.65.3 ff.). Both the romanticism and the demons are found in texts and in folk literature. But the images change, as do their roles. In folk versions, the images are often the reverse of those in texts, and one has to ask why this is so. Where the literary tradition is the only source, the perspective is inevitably of the grúma. This is one of many reasons why the collecting of oral traditions is crucial to obtaining a view from the other side. When the demands of civilization begin to impinge on the forest, the perceptions of the forest and its people also change. The forest, therefore, is not a neutral item, that is 'out there'. The images it evokes are significant to the self-understanding of the settlement and these change with time and with intention.

Ideologies focusing on retreat into the wilderness seem to have germinated in the agro- pastoral society referred to in the Vedic corpus but came to fruition in the discussions which took place in urban centres, which ironically could only be established through clearing the forest. Here, in the kutühalasúlús, parks and recreational places on the fringes of towns, people gathered to hear heterodox thinkers - the Buddha and others - who initiated various new ideologies. …

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