Our country, Bharata, is known as the land devoted to knowledge. The word Bharata is composed of the words ‘Bha’ भा meaning light (of knowledge) and ‘ratha’ रत meaning attached or devoted. We belong to a land, where the highest human aspiration was to know and live the truth – that all life is one. There is just life, without division. Our rishis designed every aspect of our life and culture in a way that reflects the interconnectedness of all beings. The entire universe is seen as the leela (play) of Mother Divine, Ma Shakti. The people of Bharata revered and worshipped the rivers, mountains, plants, animals and Bhumidevi as expressions of Mother Divine. They consciously aligned their lifestyles in a way as to cause little or no harm to beings around them. Maintaining the balance of life was always the core of our culture, and this balance is true sustainability.
The social and ecological crisis that we face today is fundamentally due to a disconnect that has been created : we feel disconnected from all of life; we feel as though we are separate from the beings around us and from Mother Nature. The fact is that we are an inseparable part of Mother Nature, and the only way we can regain the balance of life on our planet is to realize our deep connection and act with energy and vigour that is based on this realization.
We, as the living descendants of the great people of Bharata, have an awesome opportunity to change our planet and bring in beauty, balance and true knowledge – knowledge that empowers all of us to be self-reliant and progress as a civilization. The world and its innumerable problems only appear complicated; it appears so because our vision is fragmented. We believe that the different dimensions of our worldly life – economic, political, religious, social, and ecological – are all separate and independent of each other. This is not true. These are all highly interlinked and if we aspire for true sustainability, our actions must bring about balance along all these dimensions.
Once we see how everything is interlinked, we realize that we are not separate from the world. We are the world. We can make a powerful and significant change by beginning with ourselves. We need to change ourselves and our lifestyle, absorbing what we desire from the ancient knowledge tradition of Bharata.
We can make a great contribution to sustainability just by living a simple life – simple, yet a prosperous life. Let us see how our ancestors lived their daily lives, and think about what we can imbibe into our own lives today.
The most basic necessity of life is food and water. These form the basis of good health. True health can only be when we live in harmony with other species and our environment. This is the most fundamental principle of organic agriculture, which sustains and enhances the health of soil, plants, animals, humans and our planet as one and indivisible. This principle points out that the health of individuals and communities cannot be separated from the health of ecosystems — healthy soils produce healthy crops that foster the health of animals and people. In other words, health is the wholeness and integrity of living systems. It is only today that we speak of terms such as “organic” and “ecology”. In India, all human endeavours were undertaken keeping in mind the impact on the natural ecosystems. All farming was organic.
The practice of farming was inseparable from cows; their dung and urine was used to prepare fertiliser for the crops. Pests were controlled (not eliminated) using natural substances like neem oil. Farmers produced toxin-free, nutritious food for the people of their community. They sold their produce directly to the people for a good price in markets called santhe. This was convenient, since food was grown locally and sold locally. Thus, communities were self-reliant in producing healthy food.
Some families had their own land and grew their own food. Houses were constructed using locally sourced soil and natural building materials, without steel and cement. Every house had a backyard where people grew fruit trees and vegetables that were native to the region. Native varieties of vegetables, keerai and grains were consumed, and they were grown locally. The Indian science of health, Ayurveda, recommends foods grown within a radius of 100 miles as one of the best ways to stay healthy. Foods that grow in the same environmental and climatic conditions as our body are better adapted to our body.
Millets were cultivated. Millets are hardy, rainfed crops that require no irrigation and can grow on the poorest of soils. They are superior to rice in all aspects of nutrition, since they are rich in fibre, iron, calcium and micronutrients. Millets such as Raagi, Kambu, Samai, Thinai and Sirucholam provide for a truly balanced diet, and can solve the problem of diabetes and malnutrition.
Cows were an integral part of every household. Cow milk is considered a wholesome food, a complete diet in itself. In our land, cows are sacred and worshipped as mothers, because what should have gone to their own offspring, they allow us to have. All the products from cows were indispensable for the household. In those days, people used ghee (clarified butter) in their daily cooking, more than they did oil. The consumption of ghee is actually good for health, and does not cause health issues as do canola oil and vanaspati. When consumed before a meal, ghee kindles digestion. Cow dung was also used as cooking fuel. Cow dung was flattened into cakes and dried in the sun. The dried cow dung was placed on dried leaves and lit and it provided the energy for cooking. The ashes were then used for washing vessels, which were earthen pots. Coconut husk was used as a scrub.
It is only today that we speak of waste management and recycling. In India, there was no concept of waste. Everything followed a closed loop and was recycled back into nature. People composted their kitchen wastes and used the compost to fertilise their garden. Cow dung and cow urine were added to the compost, as cow dung is rich in micro-organisms that are needed to break down organic matter. Food was served on banana leaves (Banana plants are commonly seen in most households even today). They are thick and waxy and can carry several dishes easily. After the meal, they were composted. Or, they were fed to the cows and it turned into dung, which was then used as fertiliser. There was simply no issue of waste accumulation and pollution due to disposable plastic products that we face today.
Skin and hair was taken care of using natural products. Soapnuts, or Poonthi kottai was used for multiple purposes such as washing clothes, utensils, cleaning jewellery, and washing hair and skin. Seevakai and arappu was used by Indian women to wash their hair and maintain it healthy and strong. Ashes were used for tooth cleaning — our grandfathers had teeth so strong they could break a sugarcane stem into two! Neem twigs were used as tooth brushes to clean. The antibacterial properties of neem prevent plaque formation.
It is only today we speak of “waste management” and “recycling”. In India, there was no concept of waste! Everything followed a closed loop. People composted their kitchen wastes and used the compost to fertilise their garden. Cow dung and cow urine were also added to the compost, as cow dung is rich in micro-organisms needed to break down organic matter. Food was always served on banana leaves. They are thick and waxy and can carry several dishes easily. After the meal, they were put into the compost pit and turned into compost. Or, they were fed to cattle and turned into dung, which was then used as fertiliser. Cloth bags and baskets made from bamboo were used to carry items after purchasing from the market. Women managed their menstrual cycle using cloth, and the cloth was washed, sun-dried and reused. There was no issue of pollution due to disposable products such as plastic plates, plastic carry bags and plastic containing napkins.
There was no disease in the scale we face today (most of which are due to the consumption of processed foods), because our approach to health was always simple and intuitive : food is the greatest medicine, and health began in the kitchen. A woman, in the role of the mother, had a very significant and crucial role to play in ensuring that nutritious food was made available to all members of her family. Cooking was as much a science as it was an art, for Indian cooking was done according to the principles of Ayurveda. Common ailments were treated using herbs and spices and altering ingredients in the food.
Our tradition is the most ancient and living tradition. We can see that sustainability has been seamlessly woven into our daily activities. Everything that is needed for harmonious and prosperous living is already provided to us by Mother Nature. We simply need to integrate them into our lifestyle. As the people of this great nation, we have the most significant role to play in the world’s transition towards sustainable development and progress of humanity, a role that cannot be undermined given the simplicity of our approach, for in simplicity lies true brilliance.