Sustainability in Indian culture. street art, Lodhi district, Delhi

A dive into sustainability in Indian culture

By Sanjoli Arora

The world seems to be floating in a wave of sustainability. India too has soaked itself into it. Sustainable brands, practices and even influencers are craving their space to make modern India jump on this bandwagon.

However, is the concept of sustainability new to us as a country? Or is it just a fancy new name we have given to age-old practices and traditions?

Sit tight as we take a history lesson into the idea of sustainability in Indian culture. We look back on how India has its roots dug deep in sustainability and what this means for the new India.

Sustainability in Indian culture. Ancient Indian painting showing human living in harmony with nature and animals
Ancient India and ecology
Original image source: Crystal Links

Ancient India and the environment

It is interesting to see ancient Vedas with several references regarding ecological balance and environmental protection. All the four major Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva) recognise the importance of maintaining season cycles. They also highlight how this can be altered due to climate change owing to inappropriate human actions.

India is a diverse country with a variety of ethnicities and religions. For most Indians, faith is essential. All Indian religions are great supporters and promoters of environmentalism.

In an article on Earth Charter and Hinduism, author Kamla Chowdhry emphasised that “Hindus regard everything about them as pervaded by divine presence. The rivers, mountains, lakes, animals, flora and fauna, are all manifestations of God. Thus there is a deep respect and gratitude felt towards nature.”

This respect to nature and ecology can be noticed in a vast network of sacred ecology and even holy cities across India.

Other religions also encourage preaching and practising environment-friendly activities. Buddhism is sometimes termed as an ecological religion. It has been described as containing values similar to those necessary for a sustainable society.

Jainism is a religion of kindness. It aims at the welfare of all living beings. Jain environmentalism is largely based on spirituality, non-violence and equality. Christianity and Islam too profess sustainability. There are approximately hundreds of verses both in the Bible and Qur’an that talk about protection of the environment.

Harappan civilisation
Harappan Civilisation
Original image source: India Today

Civilisations and conservation

Ancient Indian civilisations like the Indus Valley were known for their urban planning. The people were conscious of the need to protect nature and to harness it within prescribed limits. Harappan sites, for example, demonstrate techniques employed for water harvesting and storing.

Using natural resources adequately was not the only popular practice. Wildlife conservation, for instance, dates back to the time of Chandragupta Maurya.

Chandragupta Maurya was a great patron of conservation. His minister Kautilya or popularly known as Chanakya, believed that it is the duty of a king to conserve natural resources. He thus authored detailed procedures of wildlife conservation. He also prescribed severe penalty provisions for those found guilty of cruelty to animals.

Chandragupta’s successor Ashoka not only introduced forest protection laws but also ordered animals from being slaughtered. 

Sustainability in Indian culture. Bishnoi community members hugging tress in protection. Maharaja of Jodhpur ordering their slaughter and tree felling
Bishnoi community hugging trees
Original image source: Ecologise

Indian communities and ecological protection

In school, we briefly read about many communities that had sustainable practices at their core.

The Bishnoi community of Rajasthan is particularly note-worthy. They advocated the banning of tree felling. They believed that trees are the basis of a harmonious and prosperous environment. In 1730, Amrita Devi and 363 members of the community sacrificed their lives to protect the Khejarli forest.

Another example is that of medicinal expertise of Yanadi tribals in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. The alienation of the Yanadi from forest resources and the resultant loss of Yanadi traditional knowledge is a serious issue today.

Local communities have time and again proved to protect and co-exist with the nature around them. Maybe it is time we all learn to co-exist with the environment around us irrespective of where we live.

An image of a family photographed during Indian indpendence
Life in newly independent India
Original image source:

Independent India and frugal living

When India finally got independence from the British Raj, it was able to make its own decisions. This meant letting go of unfair labour laws and practices that were harming the environment.

Every British Indian law had an element that viewed every resource as a commodity that deserved to be exploited. This was contrary to the ancient Indian practice of protecting, using and managing the natural resources by the communities.

The partition, however, proved to be a traumatic experience. Rising poverty overshadowed the joy of independence.

While an independent country meant better jobs, the income was slow. In such situations, one has to make the most of what they had. “There were days when we struggled to afford even three meals during the day. New clothes and utensils were luxuries we could not afford. In such times, finding any job and living off what we had was the only option.”, shares Mr Gopal. He is now 80 years old and crossed the border to settle down near the capital Delhi after partition.

I made full use of what I had and managed to save a bit as well.

Mrs. Sheela Sethi

Low incomes, however, did not mean low quality of life as Mrs Sheela shares, “We may have a very low family income, but I ensured the best products for the family even if it meant walking kilometres to procure atta (wheat) directly from the chakki (mill)”. Mrs Sheela is now 78 years old, mother of six and grandmother to nine. She says, “I made full use of what I had and managed to save a bit as well. Back then, life was simpler with bare minimum desires.”

Clearly, life in independent India emphasised on using what we have to the most and enjoying what was readily and easily available to us. (Think #VocalforLocal )

Indian FM Manmohan Singh bringing 1991 economic reforms into effect
The economic reforms of 1991 coming into effect
Original image source: Livemint

Capitalism, economic development and environmental degradation

Indian economy had its fair shares of turmoil. While the initial five-year development plan models proved to be successful, the 1960s saw a severe food shortage.

The 70s did not bring any relief and was considered a ‘lost decade‘ due to high inflation and low growth. By the 1980s the policy elite in India had come to the consensus that the economy was ripe for market-led reforms.

Then in 1991, a new economic policy was introduced. These policies liberalised the market and introduced India to a globalised world. There is no doubt that the 1991 reforms lifted many millions out of poverty thanks to the rapid growth. However, economic profits meant environmental degradation.

Studies suggest that the reforms were purely driven by economic considerations, ignoring environmental criteria. Moreover, at the time of India’s liberalisation, no significant ecological policy changes took place that could explain or combat the changes in the pollution intensity of production and exports.

This begs to ask the questions. Can economic profits and environment care not go hand in hand? India may not be alone, though. Many developing countries have had weak environmental policies and previous trade barriers that favoured capital intensive production.

Sustainability in Indian culture. Student protest outside Indian MOEFCC, Delhi, 2019
Student protest in Delhi, 2019
Original image photographer: John Paul Jose

Sustainability and modern India

India in the 21st century is still grappling with the ghosts of the past and swaying between economic development vs taking decisive environmental protection actions. This debate over the environment and growth will always be ongoing.

What seems to be different is the conversation. Netas (politicians) are no longer in charge of environmental policymaking. The public is as keen to know and direct the country in the right direction. This was evident during the recent EIA protests, where lakhs of emails and civilian actions created a momentum.

Similarly, there is momentum at an individual level for a change by adopting practices like recycling, composting or complete lifestyle changes. As per Google trends, plastic-free living searches has gained momentum during 2020 compared to the last five years.

In an age of social media and influencer culture, many eco-influencers have emerged to steer aam janta (common public) in the conscious direction. Mrudula Joshi is one of them.

Ullisu or ‘to save’ in Kanada, is the name of her Instagram page that now has almost 5,000 followers. She started the page back in 2018 to document her journey into sustainable living. “It was a way to stick to my resolution to go plastic-free.”

Living sustainably can be done imperfectly. No one should be judged or penalised for that.

Mrudula Joshi (@ullisu.official)

Eventually, she started sharing resources on her page that attracted attention. “A lot of my friends and followers discovered many Indian sustainable brands through me. Up until then, people didn’t have access to these resources. Lifestyle changes can only occur if consumers are aware of the products in the market.”, shares Mrudula who now also runs a website by the same name.

Over the years she has managed to grow her tribe. She makes sure to share her journey with all its ups and downs. She says, “I make sure to highlight my fails as well. It makes people realise that sustainable living can be done imperfectly. One should not be judged or penalised for that.”

What is evident is the desire for this conversation to stay trending. After all, it is our future that is at stakes.

Feature image photographed by Naman Saraiya

Sanjoli is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Fashion Journalism. She has contributed to publications like MensXP, Mindless Mag and Sustain: The Mag in the past. She enjoys writing and reading about fashion. She is currently trying to live more sustainably.

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