Forests and Freedom
Forests were central to Tagore’s works, just as they have been for India’s creative expression through centuries, writes Vandana Shiva.
Tagore started Santiniketan as a Tapovan – a forest school – both to take inspiration from Nature and to create an Indian Renaissance.
He wrote, in An Eastern University: “The unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of those disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.”
Tagore encouraged his secretary, Leonard Elmhirst, to start a Santiniketan-like school in England. This is how The Dartington Hall Trust was established, from which grew Schumacher College, the first green college in the West. And back in India, Navdanya’s Bija Vidyapeeth was started by Satish Kumar and me as a sister institution of Schumacher College. All these institutions are thus connected, through the inspiration of Tagore, to the ancient culture of the forest.
These learning centres are teaching freedom and Earth Democracy in times of multiple crises intensified by globalisation. Today, just as in Tagore’s time, we need to turn to the forest for lessons in freedom.
As Tagore wrote in The Religion of the Forest, the ideal of perfection preached by the forest dwellers of ancient India runs through the heart of our classical literature and still influences our minds. The forests are sources of water and the storehouse of a biodiversity that can teach us the lessons of democracy; of leaving space for others whilst drawing sustenance from the common web of life.
In his essay Tapovan (‘Forest of Purity’), Tagore writes: “Indian civilisation has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life, which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilisation.”
It is this ‘unity in diversity’ that is the basis of both ecological sustainability and democracy. Diversity without unity becomes the source of conflict and contest. Uniformity without diversity becomes the ground for external control. This is true of both Nature and culture. The forest is a unity in its diversity, and we are united with Nature through our relationship with the forest.
In Tagore’s writings, the forest was not just the source of knowledge and freedom: it was the source of beauty and joy, of art and aesthetics, of harmony and perfection. It symbolised the universe. In The Religion of the Forest, the poet says that our attitude of mind “guides our attempts to establish relations with the universe either by conquest or by union, either through the cultivation of power or through that of sympathy”.
The forest teaches us union and compassion.
For Tagore, our relationship with the forest and Nature is a relationship that allows us to experience our humanity. He writes: “In all our dramas…Nature stands on her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions.” It is this permanence, this peace, this joy of living, not by conquest and domination, but by coexistence and cooperation, that is at the heart of a forest culture.
The forest also teaches us ‘enoughness’: as the principle of equity, enjoying the gifts of Nature without exploitation and accumulation. In The Religion of the Forest Tagore quotes from the ancient texts written in the forest: “Know all that moves in this moving world as enveloped by God; and find enjoyment through renunciation, not through greed of possession.”
No species in a forest appropriates the share of another species. Every species sustains itself in cooperation with others. This is Earth Democracy.
The end of consumerism and accumulation is the beginning of the joy of living. That is why the Indigenous people of contemporary India are resisting leaving their forest homes and abandoning their forest culture. The conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, violence and harmony that Tagore wrote about continues today. And it is the forest that can show us the way beyond this conflict by reconnecting to Nature and finding sources for our freedom.
Harmony in diversity is the nature of the forest, whereas monotonous sameness is the nature of industrialism based on a mechanical worldview. This is what Tagore saw as the difference between the West and India: “The civilisation of the West has in it the spirit of the machine which must move; and to that blind movement human lives are offered as fuel.”
Globalisation has created a civilisation that is based on power and greed and the spirit of the machine worldwide. A civilisation based on power and greed is a civilisation based on violence. In The Spirit of Freedom, Tagore warned: “The people who have sacrificed their souls to the passion of profit-making and the drunkenness of power are constantly pursued by phantoms of panic and suspicion, and therefore they are ruthless…They become morally incapable of allowing freedom to others.”
Greed and accumulation must lead to slavery. He went on to observe: “My experience in the West, where I have realised the immense power of money and of organised propaganda – working everywhere behind screens of camouflage, creating an atmosphere of distrust, timidity and antipathy – has impressed me deeply with the truth that real freedom is of the mind and spirit; it can never come to us from outside. He only has freedom who ideally loves freedom himself and is glad to extend
it to others…he who distrusts freedom in others loses his moral right to it.”
Today the rule of money and greed dominates our society, economy and politics. The culture of conquest is invading our tribal lands and forests through the mining of iron ore, bauxite and coal. Every forest area has become a war zone. Every tribe in India is defined as a ‘Maoist’ by a militarised corporate state appropriating the land and natural resources of the tribals. And every defender of the rights of the forest and forest dwellers is being treated as a criminal.
If India is to survive ecologically and politically, if India is to stay democratic, if each Indian citizen is to be guaranteed a livelihood, we need to give up the road of conquest and destruction and take the road of union and conservation; we need to cultivate peace and compassion instead of power and violence. We need to turn, once again, to the forest as our perennial teacher of peace and freedom, of diversity and democracy. This will be the greatest tribute to Tagore. India needs to do more than pay lip service to this great visionary. We need to follow his ideals.