This article by Mukul Sharma was posted in the September 4, 2010 edition of Economic and Political Weekly and is available here. Footnotes have not been included in this cross posting. One will have to follow the link to the original to find them.
The Vrindavan Forest Revival Project and the Vrindavan Conservation Project by the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature reveals processes of religious revivalism in environmental politics, through which particular religious symbols and places become embedded with the idea and practice of environment in particular cultural settings, which in turn become allied with a sectarian Hindu politics. In particular, by focusing on the understandings of a place and of Krishna by environmental activists in Vrindavan in the 1990s, I look at how, through environmentalism, Hindu politics finds fertile ground in a region.
Environmentalism among a select Hindu community is not simply an expression of established religious paradigms. It is also a product of an encounter between popular understandings of place, environmental narratives, religious cults, ideas of masculinity and understandings of the past. Although referred to through religion and culture, the place and the figure are not static, but are historically conditioned and open to continuous manipulations.1
Vrindavan, Mathura, Krishna: Background
Vrindavan, situated on the banks of the Yamuna river in present day Uttar Pradesh (UP), is a special, mystical place for Hindus in India. The Brajbhoomi is considered sacred, as a number of locations are associated with Krishna. It is said, “The associations are in fact so strong and specific, that they create a sense of immediacy which blurs the distinctions between myth, legend and history”. 1
The Mathura Gazetteer, published in 1911, suggests that Vrindavan was constituted as a municipality in 1866 with around 1,000 temples and 32 ghats (a wide stairway leading down to a river).2 The famous district memoir of Mathura, written by Growse, found “Brinda-ban… a rich and prosperous municipality, and for several centuries past one of the most holy places of the Hindus”.3
While Mathura has historically been the political seat of the district that bears its name, most inhabitants of the region consider Vrindavan to be its cultural centre.4 According to the 2001 Census, Vrindavan is spread over 2.25 square kilometres with a population of 56,692. The religion-wise break-up of the population is 93.32% Hindus, 6.37% Muslims, 0.03% Sikhs, 0.07% Christians, 0.04% Jains and 0.02% Buddhists. Among the Hindus, the population of scheduled castes (SCs) is 8.76%.5
Most of the inhabitants earn their livelihood either directly or indirectly from the pilgrimage trade. Mathura is recognized as one of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities in India. It is believed that Krishna was born in this city and passed his early life here. It is called the centre of Vraj, the region of the pivotal epic hero Krishna whose worldly-lively lilas (play) both enthrall and evoke devotion.6 Pilgrims come here throughout the year, and many come for the annual Braj chaurasi kos parikrama (a 160-mile circumambulation around the land of Braj).7
The old part of the city is constructed on a hilly area on the banks of the Yamuna and is made up of a complicated labyrinth of very narrow alleys, which lead to the ghats. This area of the city was traditionally divided into 110 mohallas (neighborhoods).8 Today, the neighborhoods still remain an important focus of many cultural and religious activities. Certain neighborhoods have largely Muslim residents and an estimated 20% of Mathura city’s population belongs to the Muslim community. The regions of Mathura and Vrindavan have proved to be deeply symbolic devices to imprint a culturally constructed identity in the making of post-colonial polity in UP. In the course of debates on the reorganization of UP in the 1950s, it was argued that elements of unity in the state were far more overpowering than the differences. The holy cities of Ayodhya, Mathura, Vrindavan, Kashi, Haridwar and Prayag were said to be the repositories of spiritual influences, providing homogeneity on a higher plane.9
The overwhelming Hindu religious character of the city makes Mathura an important site for Hindu nationalist leaders, who particularly deploy images of Krishna to garner support.10 Krishna is one of the most celebrated deities in Hindu mythology. It is usual to speak of many Krishnas. There is Krishna the god incarnate, the instructor of Arjuna and through him of all mankind. Then there is the Krishna of Gokula, the god brought up among cowherds, the mischievous child, the endearing lover, the eternal paradox of flesh and spirit.11
It is the image of Krishna as the moral, military and masculine advisor of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that welcomes pilgrims into the Krishna Janmabhoomi complex. This complex was constructed in the late 1950s. It stands opposite the Shahi mosque, which was allegedly constructed in the 17th century on the ruins of a Krishna nativity temple, the Kesava Deo temple. Hindu nationalist narratives tell the story of how a series of Muslim invaders demolished the Kesava Deo temple and built a mosque in its place. Hindu nationalists believe that Krishna was born 3,500 years ago in a prison cell where his parents were held captive by the tyrannical king Kansa. This cell is supposed to be located under the present mosque.12
In 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) decided to “liberate” three temple sites in north India: Mathura, Varanasi and Ayodhya. Although the Sangh parivar chose to focus its initial efforts on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya, in the last 20 years it has often spoken of liberating Krishna’s birthplace.13 From the 1950s onwards, communal riots have been a recurrent theme in Mathura city. In recent times, it has been under curfew in December 1992, August 2000 and March 2002. Hindu nationalist anti-Muslim rhetoric is present in the everyday life of Mathura residents and there is a permanent police command stationed at the temple and mosque.14
Vrindavan’s Environment and Forest Revival Project
Present-day Vrindavan is besieged with a number of environmental problems. Its population growth has not only been fast; the distribution too has remained uneven. A large number of pilgrims -two to three millions by different estimates – come here every year. Construction, transportation, real estate and market activities are widespread. “Welcome to this holy land of Lord Krishna. Holy forest plots for sale. Freehold residential complex in very peaceful and tranquil atmosphere,” reads a hoarding of a real estate developer in Vrindavan.
According to the State of the Environment- Vrindavan, sponsored by WWF India, spiralling population densities, poor sanitation and civic facilities, and real estate speculation remain the root causes for several environmental problems in the city.15 The temple trusts, ashrams and land dealers together own 70% of the urban land. The Yamuna River is highly polluted and there is an acute lack of drinking water in Vrindavan. Pathetic sanitary conditions and inadequate solid waste disposal are leaching out the untreated pathogens to the substrata, where they contaminate the local aquifer. Choked sewers, overflowing drains and dumps of garbage are a regular sight in the city. In addition, outlets of individual toilets and septic tanks illegally linked to overflowing sewer lines or directly joined to open drains are commonplace. Raw sewage flows over the parikrama (pilgrimage path), and discharges directly into the Yamuna in many places.16
These problems prompted many organizations and individuals to initiate environmental programs in Vrindavan, though most failed to make an impact. These included attempts to bring the Yamuna river back to the Vrindavan ghats, setting up of the Sri Vrindavan Swaroputthan Paribhavna (movement for restoration of Vrindavan’s identity), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)’s efforts to cleanse the Yamuna in 1984, and setting up of the Vraja Bhumi Conservation and Development Committee by the UP government. In 1987, a national seminar was organized by noted historian K. P. Bajpai on “Sri Krishna in Epochal Vraja and Indian Culture” and its report published.17
The Vrindavan Forest Revival Project started as a small environmental effort by those who cared about Krishna and his land. It is said that Ranchor Prime, an English member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), conceived a plan along with Sewak Sharan, a long-time resident of the area, to plant trees along the 11-kilometre parikrama marg (circumambulation path) that encircles the town.
Prime also prepared a report for the WWF. Established in 1961, WWF’s work focuses around the magnificent diversity of life on this planet, and efforts to reduce humanity’s impact on this life and these places.18 WWF was keen to highlight the ecological values of cultures and religious traditions while funding certain projects. It provided initial funding for three years to the Vrindavan project, to run from mid-1991 through mid-1994, some $40,000 per year. ISKCON donated one and a half acres of land besides the pilgrimage path for a nursery, to raise some 10,000 trees of local origin to be planted in succeeding months.19
Prime was a major influence from the outset in the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project. He has been an advisor to WWF on religion and conservation, and also a disciple of Bhaktivedanta Swami, taking the name Ranchor Das. He joined the London Radha Krishna temple during the 1970s, and pioneered a Hare Krishna centre in Manchester.
The Vrindavan project was formally initiated on 21 November 1991, the festival day of Vrinda Devi, the goddess regarded as representing the local flora. A pledge was taken at that time: “The forest of Vrindavan is the sacred playground of Radha and Krishna. However, we, the people of this region, have cut its trees, polluted its Yamuna River, and spoilt its sacred dust with our rubbish and sewage. I pledge that from now on I will do all within my power to protect Vrindavan from further destruction and to restore it to its original beauty.”20
Other official accounts elaborate the rationale of this project. WWF-India sees Vrindavan and its program as “A Symbol of Regeneration” and “an effort to involve Hindus in conserving their environment”. It further explains:
Although Krishna is the symbol of environmental purity and beauty, his holy land, like many of India’s sacred places, has become a symbol of neglect and decline… WWF India wants pilgrims to see Vrindavan’s environment restored and cared for, and the original Hindu traditions of cleanliness and respect for nature being practised in this great holy place of India… WWF India has chosen Vrindavan’s parikrama path as a symbol around which to focus its conservation efforts… The performance of parikrama, or walking around a holy place, is one of the most powerful ways of honoring it… However, the twentieth century has taken its toll on the parikrama path.21
Stage one of the project was to encourage community involvement, so that the trees planted would be protected. Stage two included further planting along the entire pathway, and continued outreach efforts to involve the populace. Assorted eyesores and environmental problems like the sewerage system were also attempted to be dealt with along the way.22
In 1994, the project was renamed Vrindavan Conservation Project. It was not simply a change of name, its scope became more ambitious. Says its project in-charge in Delhi: The Project was now envisaged to include other religious places of Braj, like Barsana, Nandgaon, Sunrakh, Mathura and its temples, in its area of operation. It was also thought to involve increasingly religious people and their organizations, ashrams and trusts in the work. We realised that the time had come to broadly mobilize peoples’ specific faith, leaning and spiritual belief for the protection of the holy place and its environment.23
In the dominant environmental narratives of the project, Vrindavan is perceived as a unique place associated with a mythical figure and having a rich ecosystem. The place and its richness are in the heart of north India, awaiting environmental discovery, which would provide the antidote for the poisons of pollution and other degradations. The place and its mythology become a typical hybrid, mixing Braj/Vrindavan/Hindu. In the rest of this paper we will see a process of layering of this project and how it repeatedly attempts to “discover” and reformulate a specific Hindu past for the cause of environmental regeneration.
Hindu Environmental Utopias and Dystopias
The most tangible expression of religious ecology is through a veneration of nature.24 The concept of sacred groves in India is said to have its root in antiquity, which was extended by the Vedic migrants, and based on a holistic ecological philosophy.25 The religious or cultural sense of a place allows people to articulate seemingly diverse concerns.26 In the case of Vrindavan, the imagery of environment flows from a single historical narrative of the city, which is broadly cast in a Hindu mould. These descriptions are constructed in different fields of activities, leading to a subtle interplay between sectarian Hindu politics and environment.
Most environmental narratives on Vrindavan create a utopia. In this narration, flowers are always blooming in Vrindavan, and there are various kinds of “decorated” deer. Birds are chirping, peacocks are crowing and dancing, and bees are humming. The lakes are surrounded by green grass and various kinds of lotus flowers bloom here. There are many waterfalls and the forest looks very green and beautiful.27
Environmental narratives also reflect a faith in totality. All the trees, birds and beasts are pious living entities born in the transcendental abode of Vrindavan, to give pleasure to the Lord and his eternal associates, the cowherds.28 Such examples of complete environmental and spiritual salvation abound.
However, it is not just a question of creating a place environmentally. Rather, it simultaneously involves a defence of customs and traditions of that place. References to Vrindavan and Brajmandala begin to cover areas beyond environmental regeneration. It is reasoned by the environmentalists that in order to understand the significance of forests in our society, we will have to understand the traditions of Braj region. There is a need to interpret the norms prevalent in the ancient times; otherwise we will not be able to understand the principles of our own society at present.29
The narration adds that the Braj region was attacked by Muslim invaders who plundered Mathura and ravaged its important places. As a result, many pilgrim places disappeared and many of the norms and traditions went into oblivion.30 In the same breath it is concluded that the whole of Vrindavan is sacred, and everybody embodies this sacredness: Vrindavan is a unified symbolic entity with no demarcation between sacred and secular components as found in most other pilgrimage towns. It is a singular sacred space, perceived by pilgrims as the place of Krishna’s activities or lilas.31
Power to Place Imagination
From time to time, environmental practice is animated less by a concern with an all-encompassing whole than by a desire to defend particular valued places.32 It has been argued that the symbol of place politics is the color green.33 A certain attachment to special places is an important strategy in the struggle against environmental destruction. However, the invocation of a place can well contribute to the creation of a particular identity. Schama has persuasively argued that inherited landscape myths and memories share two common characteristics: their surprising endurance through time, and their power to shape contemporary meanings and institutions.34
Place politics can become powerful particularly in environmental narratives as they have the propensity to combine geographical belonging with complex narratives, extraordinary characters and religious-cultural symbols. The imagination of a holy, sacred place can be clouded and ambiguous.35 It can refer to a supreme, ultimate subject – primeval nature. Its ambivalence gives this place imagination its strength, and allows it to become the cause celebre of environmental groups. It is this ambivalence, and not just actual programs of afforestation and cleanliness, which have become the core form and function of the Vrindavan Forest Revival and Vrindavan Conservation Project.
For a larger picture of the project, and its application of, continuation in, and interrelationship with sectarian Hindu politics, one needs to look at its wider and shifting meanings of the “place”. How have these connotations been articulated in deeper layers of power and politics also needs scrutiny, since it is in these layers that the outlines of the project become sharper. When the conservation project bases itself in Vrindavan, it also starts looking at the mythical and religious universe and, importantly, its relationship with Krishna and his birthplace. In this chapter, “Restoring the Forests of Krishna”, Prime explains:
Vrindavan lies at the focus of Vraj, the region where Lord Krishna lived. The whole region has been worshipped for thousands of years. It falls just inside the ‘golden triangle’, stretching from Delhi south to Agra and west to Jaipur in Rajasthan, which was the setting for many of the events recorded in the Mahabharata, the epic history of ancient India. Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace, seven miles south-west of Vrindavan, is one of India’s oldest cities.36
Swami Sewak Sharan of the Movement for Ecological Restoration of Vrindavan, who has also been a leading participant in the WWF India project, thinks:
Sri Vrindavan area is not a small place and a city. It is an ancient place of worship – a temple of worship. For the integrity of Indian spirituality and culture, it is necessary to protect its original nature and environment- the Krishna, the Mathura, the birthplace – in its entirety.37
A “new” Vrindavan emerges in the project period, ranging at will through a vast storehouse, its shelves loaded with dominant cultures of the place. Remarks Sewak Sharan:
Since childhood, Vrindavan gives a different kind of religious samskar. It is the samskar of being different and unique, being conscious of cleanliness and purity and living harmoniously with nature. We know God and nature are the same. God is behind the nature’s wisdom and natural wisdom is superior to human wisdom. The basic principle of environment conservation is not to break the cycle of nature.38
A place can also be turned into a central command, a vital nerve system for its believers. Contested histories can be homogenized to become a major reference point for future revival. Friends of Vrindavan is a registered charity with British and Indian trustees and offices in London and Vrindavan. It works in partnership with the WWF India and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation. Michael Duffy of this organization says in Vrindavan:
Vrindavan is one of the world’s richest, living and pristine culture. It is like Rome and Jerusalem and is, in fact, better than them. It is the homeland of Krishna, the cradle of India’s past and the key to her future. It is a focus for understanding sacred values and sacred cultural traditions. It is a place for unconditional love, service and sacrifice.39
Place imagery also becomes powerful because of the inherent possibilities of combining geographical belonging with narratives of human exploits. Says Anoop Sharma:
Vrindavan symbolizes the close proximity of Hindu religion with environment. Here, Hindu religion, their organizations and environment can always go together. That is why, the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project was inaugurated on devotthan ekadasi in 1991.40
These environmental moves to extend the boundaries of Krishna and Vrindavan re-stake the territory of environmental action and politics. This also finds a resonance in Hindu conservative politics: Vrindavan conservation is not only about Vrindavan, but also about the way we see Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna and the whole region. For us, the conservation is an effort to restore the ancient temples, forests, rivers, and fruits to our Hindu devotees.41
Krishna as Environmentalist
The figure of Krishna is one of the greatest in Hindu mythology, but it has been subjected to many vicissitudes.42 As such, his life story has also assumed a new dimension under the influence of political and religious upheavals occurring in the country.43 These various dilations have been due to a range of factors like sectarian rivalries, impact of the bhakti doctrines, working of symbolism, mythological assimilation, political environment and fusion of an anti-brahmanic element.44
In a concrete colonial context, Sudipto Kaviraj argues that Bankimchandra’s Krishna became a focus of “national-popular” mobilization by a series of myths. Here Krishna was transformed from a lovable popular figure of eroticism and playfulness to a classic calm, rational and perfect figure. From a god of playful villagers who helped them sort out everyday problems, he was transformed into a god of a dependent nation, who had to help nullify and transcend the historic indignity of subjection.45 An invented classic figure of Krishna can be constructed quite suddenly by the requirement of historical circumstances. What matters is not its existence and continuity in real history, but its appearance of doing so.46
Of the many descriptions that flow into the Krishna story as it swells over to the environmentalists, we see an environmentalist Krishna, sought to be created by romanticized, poetic narrations. These usually follow an uncomplicated formula of imposing environmental motives on his life and deeds. It is stated that Vrindavan and its surroundings resound with the tales of Sri Krishna. Most of these tales are descriptions of various lilas of Sri Krishna amidst nature and carry environmental undercurrents.47 This becomes the collective argument of the environmentalists.
Sometimes, at the heart of it stand Krishna and Radha. In their love we find a powerful symbol of divine beauty and power, and into their dance, we are drawn not only by the cowherd maidens but also by the cows, birds, rivers and plants.48 At times, he appears as the “Destroyer of the Evil and Protector of the Weak.” The killing of Kansa is here the principal event, in which other events like Kalia Mardana, Pootana Moksha and the slaying of the Horse Demon Keshi are built. Each of these events has a specific geographic association within Brajbhoomi. This image is compounded by the personality of the sarathi (charioteer), who guides people through events of worldly crises.49
The ideal of an environmental god and his absoluteness is emphasized. He is seen as “the symbol of environmental purity and beauty”.50 Krishna is the ultimate environmentalist who held up Govardhan for everyone.51 At the heart of this adoration for an environmentalist Krishna is positioned a connection between contemporary ecological preservation and a particular political future. It is argued that Krishna emphasized water harvesting and the way people could adapt to their landscape.52 He is an environmental icon of the past and the present.
Shrivatsa Goswami of Sri Chaitanya Prema Samsthana states:
Vrindavan is sending us a message today, a message it has been sending out down the corridors of time for thousands of years. It is that, to keep the flame of environmental conservation alive in human consciousness, we need an icon. Krishna loved tamal tree, He considered the kadamba unique. Mango groves were His favorite places. These became a part of the environmental iconography, a part of the message that had gone forth from the groves here for ages and were nurtured by our sages. Vrindavan evolved as a centre of celebration of divine presence and consciousness amidst Nature’s splendour.5
What follows in Vrindavan’s ecological conservation is a systematic manoeuvring of Krishna’s figure. There is a constant shifting of his centre of activity from a lover, an erotic environmentalist, to a killer purifier. He emerges as a timely candidate for the task of social and environmental revival in the present times. Sewak Sharan articulates:
In the ancient times, Krishna came to undo some evils of Brajbhoomi. Kansa and his terror were the greatest evil, as he was the enemy of Braj. Krishna destroyed the evil by environmental methods: by blocking the supply of vegetables, fruits and milk, and by killing all the messengers of Kansa who came to terrorize the people. We have to again arouse Krishna to eliminate the present-day evil; we have to kill the enemies. To fight out the perpetuators of pollution in Vrindavan, we also need to be physically strong and mentally clean.54
Another leading light of the project Prime reaffirms:
Krishna overcomes the demon Kaliya, who was poisoning the Yamuna, with the result that trees and animals were dying. Krishna wrestled with the demon and subdued it, saving the region from the effects of poisoned water. This is the image of Krishna as an environmentalist.55
Statements of wars fought by Krishna and weapons used by him to slay the asuras (demons) appear as regular reference points in environmentalist discourse. The evil asuras represent the wicked people, symbolising the external and internal enemies of today.
The divinity of Krishna is seen as a potent weapon to eliminate them.56 Here the local Hindu leaders too present themselves as committed to the cause of environmentalism. They have a political language centered on the masculine, warrior Krishna, and based on community, war and enemy.
Environmentalism thus enters sectarian Hindu politics by an inter meshing of environmental and Hindu causes both by environmentalists and Hindutva leaders. For Ram Swarup Sharma, the local Bharatiya Janata Party MLA, the environmental Krishna calls us to restore the ancient glory and landscape of his birthplace. He also states that Krishna’s relationship with ecology provides a powerful ground to achieve victory over one’s enemies.57
The vindication of Krishna by certain local Hindus also aims against the “other.” Manoj Mohan Shastri, a well-known Bhagavata-Bhushan in Vrindavan and active in Hindu religious activities, emphasizes environmentalist Krishna as a symbol of liberation from all kinds of pollution. For a pollution-free society, Krishna had swallowed Kali. Whether it is a material or an environmental crisis or a crisis of foreigners and kafirs, the usage of Krishna will protect all of us.58
From here, people like Jagdish Sharma, acting president VHP, Vrindavan, can take on easily:
In Vrindavan, everybody sees Krishna as a great social and political reformer. He was the one who lifted Govardhan hill, who built a dam with just the flick of a finger. Only an extremely strong person like him could decide to destroy a genealogy. He was an icon whose one call was the last word for the people. Nobody is a greater prudent than Him, nobody is as great a warrior as Him. There is no contradiction between Krishna as a lover, a warrior and an environmentalist. We need icons like Krishna to solve all the problems of Hindu society in this region. His image of immense power and force is needed today to inflict a fear among the opponents.59
The qualities of Krishna are a continuous, conscious construction, which embody certain beliefs. The dominant imagery works primarily through the transformation of meanings, semantic extensions and analogical (ab)uses. Narratives are constructed, encompassing varied fields of activities, and targeted to influence events beyond the environmental arena.
Religious and Social Mappings through Environmental Ills
Given the varying cosmologies and changing symbolisms associated with Vrindavan and Krishna, we can also look at the use of environmental conservation as a context through which constructions of “good” and “bad” in terms of gender, family and social systems are created and recreated. The conservation project in Vrindavan brings together two sets of overlapping concepts: environmental “goods” and “bads” and their social mappings and performances. Events and actions serve as contexts through which particular ways of social relationships are to be instantiated.
A serious problem in Vrindavan is the sewage system. Prior to 1970 the traditional latrine method was employed in which waste was recycled into fields as fertilizer. At the same time the scheduled castes (SCs) continued to be employed to carry night soil and to perform other related cleaning jobs. The modern sewage system was designed after 1970 and was meant to dump the treated waste into the Yamuna. However, the main line which would have connected the toilets all over the town was never completed. The sewage is everywhere in the city, overflowing into the streets as well as into the river.
Prime argues that the traditional method should be revived. In making his case, he goes to the Manu Smrti: “One should not cause urine, stool, or mucus to enter water. Anything mixed with these unholy substances, or with blood or poison, should never be thrown into water.”60
Prime accuses Indians of becoming enamored of the new western technology, in the process forgetting their own ancient and time-tested technology, and ignoring the venerable injunctions such as those found in Manu Smrti. He further points to the underlying causes for the widespread abandonment of traditional Hindu values and technology, citing centuries of Muslim and British rule as detrimental to traditional Hindu practices.61
Meat-eating is also identified as a serious ecological problem. Again Manu Smrti is cited as prohibiting the eating of meat, saying that the butcher, vendor, cook and consumer all are murderers and will reap bad karmic con sequences.62
A background paper prepared by the WWF for a workshop on the Vrindavan conservation said that Radha-Krishna fought against the urban culture and established human-nature harmony in the form of a village system. Since their childhood, they launched a campaign for the establishment of spiritual and natural values in society.63 These values have been listed in the background paper, and include the following:
…pure married life is the basis of a strong and organised human society, separate lust from lovemaking restriction on electricity total ban on non-vegetarian food, liquor, tea, smoking removal of hospitals, factories, modern educational institutions, from the Vrindavan forest area and system to guarantee cleanliness and purity.64
What is primarily involved in the defence of Vrindavan is an effort to popularize a particular social system. There thus appears a significant common ground connecting, intentionally and unintentionally, green and saffron. We hear Jagdish Sharma, citing-resident VHP, Vrindavan, saying:
Krishna has an ancient Vedic tradition. That tradition is to serve people selflessly, which should be continued at any cost. That tradition includes untouchability, which has to be maintained; otherwise everybody will start getting closer to Krishna. In the same manner, Krishna’s tradition and teaching is that women should be properly clothed and they should never take bath in public.65
Thus, a social map is frequently being realised on the ground. Culture and conservation make statements about social relationships. Social and political concerns seem part of the way in which the WWF and its associates understand environment, resonant with purity, and with aspects of mythical history and social organization. WWF India and the Vrindavan Conservation Project frequently organize satsang and religious addresses by people like Baba Vishweshar Das (Engineer Baba) to create a pollution-free nation.66
Environmental (In)Justice: Dalits and Muslims
Places and people are inseparable.67 It has also been said that the use of the word “place” highlights concerns about interaction between peoples and environments that create particular places.68 There are two points here which complement each other. First, places are created. Second, they are created through an interaction between people and environments. They are also created through experience.
Vrindavan has a sizeable presence of SCs and Muslims, even in the area covered by the WWF project. Amongst the SCs, there are mainly Chamar, Balmiki, Kori, Khatik and Dhobi castes. And they are inseparable from the place and the project. If we accept that they also have a sense of place, with a capacity for memory, experience, and a sense of identification with certain cultural values, we get a different picture of the Vrindavan project.
It has been claimed that although varna categories are recognized in Vrindavan, they are not the primary concern in the city. It is the opinion of a majority of Vrindavan residents, including most brahmans, that a person’s status in the town can be determined only by the quality of his devotion to Krishna. In effect, the structure of hierarchy in Vrindavan is not based upon a brahman/ non-brahman opposition, but rather a devotee/non-devotee one.69
However, at the heart of Vrindavan lies Kishorepura Valmiki basti, where Chowdhary Bhagwan Das Valmiki’s family has been living since the last three generations. He claims that the famous Banke Bihari Mandir was built by the labour of his ancestors. He reflects:
Since my childhood, I never ever felt anything special about Krishna and his land. It is being said that His supposed birth in Vrindavan itself has a special significance. However, what is its meaningfulness if we continue to be called bhangi, chura or valmiki? We have no role in the creation of Krishna and any related activities. We are only involved in cleaning up the dirt here and that is giving us our bread. We are not considered a part of Hindu society, we cannot enter the temples, we cannot put up our kiosks to sell foodstuffs, we are not allowed to open juice shops, we cannot even rent out a place.70
Chowdhary Bhagwan Das Valmiki was a part of the cleanliness and conservation drive of Friends of Vrindavan, a partner organization of WWF. He narrates his experience:
The cleanliness drive was launched at six temple points. The 100 metre diameter of Banke Bihari Mandir was the starting place. However, the priests and the Krishna bhaktas there bitterly objected to the presence of us bhangis even after the 100 metres, as according to them we were polluting the people and the mandir. The drive was stopped after their objections.71 In this environment, we do not want to live with Krishna, what to tell of the conservation in his name. Our condition is pathetic here.72
Charandas Jatav claims to be an asli Brajwasi (authentic resident of Braj) as his family has been living there for seven generations. He narrates:
We do not belong to Krishna. Thus, we do not believe in him. We have this painful experience that however much we live with feelings of love and cooperation, we can never be incorporated into the Krishna fold. Brajbhoomi is for Brahmans. Neither forest destruction nor pollution, but the three Bs – Brahmans, Babajees and Banders – are the real culprits for the problems of Vrindavan.73
Hari Mohan Valmiki narrates a different experience:
After taking bath, when I pray to the sun, I often remember Krishna, along with Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. I am also human. After work, I would also like to go to a Krishna temple and listen to Krishna bhajans, but I cannot do this. Even when I take a bath properly, wash my clothes and dress up cleanly, I am not allowed in the temple and the parikrama area. I am completely defeated here.74
It thus appears that far from being a binding factor in Vrindavan conservation, Krishna seems an entity that is claimed by few to the exclusion of many more. Not only the Dalits, but the Muslims of Vrindavan too have a similar feeling. Noor Mohammad, an ex-corporator, narrates:
We have been living in this Krishna area since the last five generations. Krishna has been always a living factor here, but never a factor to rally around a certain section of the community for a specific purpose. The use of Krishna for the forest revival has no appeal to us and neither was it intended to do so. We are completely excluded.75
Another Muslim resident of Vrindavan, Saiyed Ahmed, says:
Krishna has come here in many forms in the aftermath of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The sense of belonging to Krishna suddenly gets exposed to its connections to a particular politics. In this situation, how can one believe in the new, coming imageries?76
Even some of the people associated with the project assume that these same communities are a threat to the environment, and hence lack what might be called “ecological legitimacy”.77 Thus, it is said: Muslims are also one of the main sources of pollution and environmental degradation of Vrindavan. They kill cows. They produce so much of waste in their living. They cross their boundaries.78
On a different plane, Dalits are seen as “performing objects” in a romanticized way, located in a place to do certain duties. Says an environmentalist:
Sewa and sewak, these two things are understood by everybody in Brajbhoomi. Unconditional love and sacrifice are a hallmark here. The only people who are the true sewaks are Valmikis and in our environmental drive, we are trying to demonstrate this.79
One gets an echo of this in Rakesh Das, a Valmiki, and many other Valmikis who work with Michael Duffy in Friends of Vrindavan. Rakesh says:
We are sewaks. Service – cleaning up the dirt – is our sacred duty, so that Krishnabhakts do not feel the dirt. We try hard to be faithful to our service. Wherever the bhakts put down their feet, we wish to clean that area.80
Ecological legitimacy may be drawn from different sources and crafted in various ways. One source is to see one’s community and religion as inherently more sensitive to nature than others, whether or not this is in fact true. Karan Singh in his inaugural address at the 25 public hearing on environment and development in Vrindavan on 16 September 1995 said, “The Hindu tradition of reverence for nature and all forms of life represents a powerful force that needs to be revived in our contemporary context”.81
Sri Chaitanya Prema Samsthana, WWF India and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, UK organised a national program “to elevate and maintain the contributions of faiths on issues concerning land and conservation.”82 Such discourses not only regard the characteristics of Hindus as unitary, fixed and eternal, but also use them to characterize the “other.” Thus, Devendra Sharma, Project Officer (Education), WWF India, claims in Vrindavan:
When we tried to integrate religion and environment in Vrindavan, we found that Hindus had a big heart. They were willing to accommodate any and everything, whereas this was not observed in the other community. A Muslim in Vrindavan will never go to the Banke Bihari Mandir, but a Hindu will go to a mosque.83
In the Hindu mythical and cultural universe, Krishna, Vrindavan, Mathura and the surrounding areas have a unique place. These contribute to the conservation project in Vrindavan, where environmentalists have a ready treasure of resources to facilitate their actions. Simultaneously, they interpret the place and their symbols particularly through a Hindu lens, by emphasizing Hindu religious cults, Hindu pasts, Muslim invaders and British rule. These have an elective affinity with dominant understandings of Vrindavan’s culture and community identity. The various faces of Krishna and characterizations of the place, with elastic ritual spaces, have helped the environmentalists in defining their works and words through preferred and convenient choices. They have transformed diversified understandings, myths and religious histories into a fixed story, which help in promoting a homogeneous and exclusive Hindu community. By closely linking Krishna and Mathura to wider political contexts, environmental rhetoric here shows an affinity to contemporary Hindu political interests, often creating a common language. Simultaneously, Hindu conservative politics has affected ways in which religious and ecological cults are represented.
The process of religious revivalism through environmentalism and vice versa seamlessly emphasizes Hindu traditions of cleanliness and purity, Vedic culture, sacredness, faith and samskar, the Manu Smrti, the varna system, a strong and organized family and a pure married life. Its language simultaneously stresses the idioms of mandir, war, enemies and Muslim invaders. Inadvertently, in the Vrindavan environmental project, green and saffron seem to have found a common language, symbolic meanings and place affinities.
Mukul Sharma has been a journalist, a writer, a trade unionist and a developmental professional, specializing in human rights, peace, environment, media, labour, social movements and civil society in India, South Asia and South East Asia. He has worked at senior national and international positions in Amnesty International, ActionAid International, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Centre for Education and Communication and The Times of India Newspaper Group. He is Executive Director of LEAD (Leadership in Environment and Development – India).
He has published extensively. His most recent book published in 2008 by Routledge is titled Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia.
He has received twelve national/international awards for his writings, the most recent being the Award for Excellence in Asian Print Media Writing by Singapore Press Holdings and Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Singapore. He is also associated with several regional and international civil society initiatives like the World Social Forum and the World Dignity Forum. His writings appear regularly in English and Hindi in many prominent newspapers, magazines, journals and websites of South Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]
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