Environment under ancient Indian Dharmasutras

The above mentioned topic would be dealt with in the following manner and structure.
INTRODUCTION: This section would dwell upon the current scenario wherein
environmental degradation is a significant issue and the most apt solution to all these
problems is contained in our Ancient Indian Texts.
CHAPTER I: ‘Dharmasutras vis a vis contemporary concept of Law’ deals with basic
concept and sources of these ancient texts and consonance with the contemporary
understanding of law.
CHAPTER II: ‘Environmental Awareness in Ancient Texts’ deals with the various ancient
Sanskrit texts that lay down the understanding of environment and its resources in the most
comprehensive manner and at the same time prescribing the safeguards for its protection.
CHAPTER III: ‘Sustainable Development: A new path or an ancestral endowment’
analyses how the recently developed principle of Sustainable Development draws its roots
back to the Vedic Literature.
CHAPTER IV: ‘Environmental Legislations and Dharma’ deals with the Indian
environmental legislations that have not been an absolute success due to the difference in
ideologies of contemporary law enforcement and Dharma.
CHAPTER V: ‘Seeing from a Dharmic Lens- Judicial pronouncements incorporating
Dharmic Principles’ deals with the use of Dharmic Philosophy and principles in the making
of contemporary laws or judicial pronouncements.
CONCLUSION: The article tries to reach at a juncture establishing that our ancestors had a
greater and better understanding of the environmental ethics and knew the modes of
sustaining it. These texts should now be referred to solve the current environmental issues
rather than merely being subjects of blind recitation.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The said article is restricted to the analysis of the Ancient Indian Texts and their
understanding of the Environment, its issues and the solution for a harmonious living. It also
looks into how judiciary at times goes back and applies these verses and teachings while
pronouncing various decisions. The researcher has restricted the study to the Indian scenario
The article is based on the literature available online in the form of articles, books, academic
researches, media reports, case laws and other reports. The translated versions of the Ancient
Indian Sanskrit Texts have been referred.
Following are the major sources on the basis of which the researcher aims to establish the
1. In the Laws of Manu, the oldest written text of Indian jurisprudence, Manu views the
individual, not as the most important entity, but merely as part of a larger world. The
individual must live and abide by the Dharma. The individual’s duty is to play out his
own rights in the context of this Dharma without upsetting its delicate balance.1
Dharma has therefore also been compared with modern public law, as the duty of the
State is to ensure the welfare and happiness of all people.34 Thus the dharma of the
king-observing ‘Rajdharma’-was to oversee the welfare and happiness of his subjects.2
RELEVANCY: To introduce the basic understanding of Dharmasutras, its sources and
relation to contemporary understanding of law.
2. The oldest and simplest form of Nature-worship finds expression in Vedic texts.
According to one indigenous theory established in the Upanishads, the universe
consists of five basic elements viz. Earth or land, water, light or lustre, air, and ether.
The nature has maintained a status of balance between and among these constituents
1 Satvinder Juss, Global Environmental Change: Health and the Challenge for Human Rights, 5 Ind J. Global
Legal Stud. 121, 170 (1997).
2 Charu Sharma, Remedies for Environmenta Harm: Dharmic Duty and Tort Liability in India – Is there a
Common Ground, 8 Macquarie J. Int’l & Comp. Envtl. L. 48, 53 (2012).
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
or elements and living creatures. A disturbance in percentage of any constituent of the
environment beyond certain limits disturbs the natural balance and any change in the
natural balance causes lots of problems to the living creatures in the universe. 3
RELEVANCY: To analyse the ancient understanding of environment as given in our
3. The ancient texts acted as cementing factors between the rights to exploit the
environment included a fine (akin to polluter pays principle), etc. The earth or soil
also equally had the same importance and ancient literature provided the means to
purify the polluted soil and a duty to conserve it – which is now internationally
recognized as the concept of ‘sustainable development’4
Hindu philosophy puts great importance on environment sustainability since they
realised that for a balanced growth of humanity, protection of our environment is
important and said that people polluting the environment were cursed.5
RELEVANCY: To establish that the concept of Sustainable Development finds its roots in
the Ancient Vedic Texts.
4. The Vedic vision to live in harmony with environment was not merely physical but
war far wider and much comprehensive. The Vedic sages realized that the pure water,
air etc. are the roots of to good health and happiness and hence they considered all
these as gods. The Vedic people desired to live a life of hundred years.6
RELEVANCY: To establish that the ancient sages had a far better understanding of the
sanctity of the relationship between man and the environment and the proper way to
safeguard the natural resources.
3 Shashi Tiwari, Origin of Environmental Science from Vedas, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28 PM), www.astrologytantra.
4 Anonymous, Sustainable Development in Indian Legal Framework, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:37 PM),
5 Shamik Baranwal, Concern for Environment in Ancient India, Rexjournal, ISSN 2321- 1067. 1, 7 ()
6 Rajib Sarmah, Environmental Awareness in the Vedic Literature: An Assessment, IJSR 5, 6 (2015).
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
5. Despite the criticisms levelled at the judiciary in some instances, the judges are
involved in significant economic, social and political questions and have evolved a
new legal order by resurrecting the dharmic culture in certain instances.7
The Rig Veda and the Manusmriti can be seen in the obiter by Justice Pasayat in K M
Chinnappa v. Union of India & Ors.8
RELEVANCY: To show the use of Dharmic principles in contemporary judicial decisions.
7 Charu Sharma, Remedies for Environmenta Harm: Dharmic Duty and Tort Liability in India – Is there a
Common Ground, 8 Macquarie J. Int’l & Comp. Envtl. L. 48, 53 (2012).
8 (2003) 2 SC 724.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
“mātā bhūmih putruahan pṛthivyā:’’
‘’Do not harm the environment, do not harm the water and the flora,
Earth is my mother, I am her son, may the waters remain fresh,
Do not harm the waters—-.
Tranquillity be to the atmosphere, to the waters, to the crops and vegetation.’’9
The culture or Sanskriti of every country is dependent on its environment, the climatic
conditions and the human behaviour. It would not be wrong to add here that the culture or the
texts identifying one’s culture hold the solutions for a healthy and clean environment as well.
Life on our Mother Earth today has become a misery. It being the only planet inhabited as of
now, the human species has failed to treat it with the respect that it deserves. In the name of
technological advancement and development, we have brought this planet to a stage where
the holy rivers have been reduced to sewer lines, agricultural produce laden with harmful
chemicals and pesticide, rendering them uneatable and the air we breathe carries anti life
In the initial time, before the civilizations grew and man started to conquer nature, there were
men and women who spread the message of living in harmony with the nature that surrounds
us and thereby treat all living beings, plants and animals equally with respect. We today are
crying for a better environment while our ancient texts have from the first point in time
prescriptions for a healthy and clean environment. Our ancient Indians had discovered the
true value of our environment and therefore believed in taking great care of it.
In the present times, hardly anyone would realize the extent of knowledge and understanding
that our ancestral society possessed. The texts that are so revered for mere ritual chanting
have survived to narrate the environmental concerns of our Ancient Indians. They are
evidence of the fact that our ancestors had foreseen the catastrophe that their future
generations would invite for their own destruction. Hence, these texts warn us about the grave
consequences and prescribe measures to prevent it for an all- round development of man
9 Ramamoorthy Thiyangarajan, Vedas and environment Protection, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28 PM),
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
along with the environment. It is a common understanding that we never heed to something
unless the calamity takes over leaving behind regret. Contemporary lifestyle has rendered it
impossible to go through the ancient scriptures to find answers to the numerous problems that
plague us at the moment.
The World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledged, “to reconcile
human affairs with natural laws … our cultural and spiritual heritages can reinforce our
economic interests and survival imperatives”. It further adds, “It is a terrible irony that as
formal development reaches more deeply into rain forests, deserts, and other isolated
environments, it tends to destroy the only cultures that have proved able to thrive in these
But, the saying that our ancient scriptures hold answer to every problem faced in our lives
stands true and verified. They are the repositories that have solutions of every environmental
problem that the world faces today. Today, the major discussions on environmentalism begin
with the Stockholm Conference (1972). All the aims, objectives, action plans, guidelines that
the international conventions, conferences put down for combatting the environmental
degradation are already present in these scriptures. All that is needed is attention, patience
and the humility to accept the fact that our ancestors were much ahead of us in all respects, be
it development or environmental protection. We need to go back to these ancient texts and
turn the pages to unlock the key to a healthier environment and a healthier life for the present
as well as the future generations.
10 World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), Our Common Future, New York: Oxford
University Press)
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The Dharmasutras may be described as a code of standard conduct, prescribing the rights and
duties of an individual that needs to be discharged during the different stages of their life.11 It
also includes the treatment of various aspects of the Indian society like social, economic,
political and religious. This conduct is given a sacred connotation by use of the word
‘Dharma’, meaning ‘fixed principles or rules of conduct’.12
The word Dharmasutra is meant to denote the Sutras i.e. Sources dealing with Dharma.13
According to Manu, the ten specific attributes of Dharma are: contentment, non- attachment
to worldly concerns, purity, non- avarice, forbearance, subjugation of the senses, knowledge
of the immutable principles, erudition, non- irascibility and truthfulness.14
The most primary literature of the world draws its roots back to the Vedas which thereby
form the basis of later literary work. It is also regarded as the most authoritative work on the
subject of Dharma. Manu lays down five different sources of Dharma viz, the Vedas, the
Smritis, practise of those who know the Vedas and Smritis, traditions of such learned persons
and actions of one which is pleasing to one’s own self.15 Other sources like the Puranas, the
Nyayasastras, Dharmasastras and Mimamsa are also regarded as other sources of Dharma.16
It is laid down in the Laws of Manu, the oldest written text available for Indian jurisprudence,
that an individual is a part of the larger world and whatever he does is in respect to the whole
world that surrounds him.17
11 Anonymous, History of the Dharmasutras, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28 PM),
12 1 P.V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, Part 1, 1(1941).
13 Supra note 11.
14 Id.
15 Satvinder Juss, Global Environmental Change: Health and the Challenge for Human Rights, 5 Ind J. Global
Legal Stud. 121, 170 (1997).
16 Id.
17 Id.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
Karma i.e. a person’s actions must be in consonance with his Dharma, i.e. the duty to
maintain the universal order. And therefore, whenever a person acts in an Adharmic manner,
he creates an imbalance in the cosmic order.18 It follows from this then, that a person who
ignites a reckless forest fire, who goes on needless killing for no want of food, who pollutes
the water resources by washing, bathing, or defecating, or who goes on cutting trees, would
be either punished or banished from the community or be bound to pay suitable
compensation.19 His Karma will have its own chain of reaction, to which he would have to
pay back later in some point in life. For instance, he might be reincarnated as a lesser being.
However, these wrong actions were not laid down by the state or the king neither was he a
lawmaker. As per the indigenous traditional concept of law, the king was merely a caretaker
of his subject’s Dharma.20

From the above understanding it is clear that ‘rightful and balanced’ actions must be
practiced. It mandates that a sustainable lifestyle should be adopted which is in harmony with
one’s environment. Hence, one should not pollute the natural resources or harm the
environment to one’s own detriment. Dharma, in this sense denotes duty rather than a right
but this duty is not a co- relative of the right as per the Hofeldian’s sense.21 The protection of
environment in this sense denotes a lifestyle that is far different from the concept of rights
and duties as understood in contemporary times. Hence, it implies that having a healthy
environment is not one’s right but keeping the environment healthy is each one’s duty, i.e.
Dharma arises from a pre-existing culture, the traditional cultural precepts which have been
followed from time immemorial. It is therefore not a result of a law. The focus was more on
promotion of values rather than state centric law.22
18Charu Sharma, Remedies for Environmental Harm: Dharmic Duty and Tort Liability in India – Is there a
Common Ground, 8 Macquarie J. Int’l & Comp. Envtl. L. 48, 54 (2012).
19 Id.
20 KV Rangaswami Aiyangar, Rajadharma (Wellhausen Press, 2007).
21 Sharma, supra note 18, at 55.
22 Id.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
This part of the paper deals with the core subject that the author wishes to establish through
this paper. Following is a collection of the studies of the various ancient texts and their
understanding about environment and its protection.
The Vedic sages had long ago realized the might of the natural forces. They studied each and
every minute activity of the nature and realized that these forces are far beyond
comprehension. Hence, they appreciated, adored, worshipped and prayed them out of
surprise, fear and fascination. They acknowledged the fact that any action, creation,
destruction, movement or change in nature is the result of forces beyond men’s control. Thus
they attributed divinity to the nature.23
The concept of environment differs from age to age depending on the various conditions
prevalent at a particular time or period. As per ‘The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986’,
environment is defined as follows:
‘Environment includes water, air and land and the inter relationship which exists among and
between water, air and land and human beings, other living creatures, plants, microorganisms
and property.’24
In the modern Sanskrit usage, environment is referred as ‘Paryavaran’, meaning which
encircles us or which is all around in our surroundings.25 The Atharvaveda defines
environment in one of its verses-
“trini ca chandamsi kavayo bi yetire pururupam darsatam visvacaksam/ apo vata
ousadhayastanyekasmin bhubana arpitani” (Atharvaveda 18.1.17).
23 Om Krishna, Environmental Discourse in Vedic Period, 4 Int’l J. Soc Sc. & Humanities Res. 683, 684 (2016).
24 The Environment (Protection) Act, No. 29, Acts of Parliament, 1986.
25 Shashi Tiwari, Origin of Environmental Science from Vedas, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28 PM), www.astrologytantra.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
Translated as ‘Wise utilize three elements variously which are varied, visible and full of
qualities. These are water, air, and plants or herbs. They exist in the world from the very
beginning, known as Chandansi i.e. coverings available everywhere.’26
“imani pancamahabhutani prthivi vayuh akasah apjyotisi” (Aitareya Upanisad 3.3).
The Upanishads establish a theory that this universe consists of five basic elements- viz.,
Prithvi (Earth), Apah (Water), Vayu (Air), Teja/ Agni (light) and Akash (Ether).27 Following
is the study of what the Vedic texts speak about these environmental essentials. Yajurveda
talks about these five elements in the following hymn as-
‘Make the best use of fire. Take medicines. Derive joy from drinking water. Enjoy well the
warmth and light of the Sun. have knowledge of the Air and vital breaths. Perform Yajna in
Prithvi, in our Rigveda is considered as mother and is mostly addressed along with heaven.
Dyau is considered as father, hence both forming a pair together. A verse in the Rigveda
“dyaurme pita janita nabhiratra bandhurme mata prthivi mahiyam” (Rigveda 1.164.33),
translated as ‘Heaven is my father, brother atmosphere is my navel, and the great earth is my
mother.’28 Heaven and Earth are parents who sustain all the creatures. The Rigveda describes
the Earth as a goddess.
One of the hymns in Atharvaveda, namely Bhumisukta or Prithvisukta, having 63 verses
describes the earth. She is regarded as ‘Vasudha’ (containing all wealth), ‘Hiranyavaksha’
(having gold bossom), ‘Jagato Niveshani’ (being abode of the whole world) and
‘Visambhara’ (representative of the whole universe).29 It is this Earth that nourishes us, takes
care of all living beings, humans, plants and animals alike.
26 Tiwari, supra note 25.
27 Thiyangarajan, supra note 9.
28 Tiwari, supra note 25 at 6.
29 Tiwari, supra note 25 at 7.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
For the sustenance of all life forms, water forms an essential requirement. It balances the
environment. The Chandogya Upanishad talks about the qualities of water. The verse
translated says, ‘The water is the source of joy and for living a healthy life. It is the immediate
cause of all organic beings such as vegetations, insects, worms, birds, animals, men etc.’
(Chandogya Upanishad 7.10.1)
The fight between Indra (the god who brought rain) and Vritra (the demon who fetched
draught) explains the water cycle. The water is regarded as a purifying agent.30 The same is
the reason for developing pilgrimage sites on river banks. The Padma Purana stresses on
keeping the water clean and condemns any sort of pollution by punishing the polluter. Thus
translated, ‘The person who pollutes waters of pond, wells or lakes goes to hell.’
Vayu signifies Air. One of the verses in the Rigveda says, ‘O Air! You are our father, the
protector’. Another one talks about the medicinal value contained in the Air, ‘Let the wind
blow in the form of medicine and bring me welfare and happiness.’31 The ancient Indians
realized the value of the air and emphasized the fact that non- polluted, pure air is the source
of health, happiness and prosperity for a longer life. They prayed to the Vayu God to blow
with its medicinal qualities.
The Rigveda talks about the special feature of Fire. It creates the most valuable materials. It
softens the iron ore. It creates all types of gems like gold, silver, iron and diamonds. It
beautifies, emits light, attracts attention, and helps in preparation of food.32
The Yajurveda advises the mankind by saying the following- ‘Do not destroy anything of the
sky and do not pollute the sky.’ The sun shines in the sky and we receive light from the sky.33
30 Dr. Nimisha Sarma, Environmental Awareness at the Time of Vedas, 26 Veda Vidya 221, 223 (2015).
31 Tiwari, supra note 25 at 9.
32 R.P. Singh, Environmental Concerns (The Vedas)- A Lesson in Ancient Indian History, 1 SPIJE 1, 4 (2011).
33 Id at 9.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
These sunrays strengthen our inner self and so deserve care and protection. Contemporary
environmentalists make huge hue and cry regarding the sound or noise pollution. Such
pollution relates to sky since the sound waves travel in sky at various frequencies.
The animals and birds form as much an integral part of the ecological system as the humans
and having as much right of safe and healthy existence. The Rigveda classifies them in three
categories viz: sky animals i.e. birds, forest animals, and animals in human habitation.34
“pasuntamscakre vayavyanaranyan gamyasca je” (Rigveda 10.90.8)
All the three categories have their own environment distant and distinct from the other.
Equal respect and protection is attributed to the domestic as well as the wild animals. They
are regarded as being under the control of deities like Rudra, Pushan.35 The cow symbolized
wealth and property, hence occupying a very prominent place in the lives of the Vedic
people. She was treated as Gomata and respected for the various utilities that she rendered in
the domestic life.36
There are 18 main Puranas and 18 sub Puranas, all of which carry the message of
environmental conservation. The Narsimhapurana lay down as- ‘O! wicked men, if you kill a
bird then, your bathing in river, pilgrimage, worship and yajnas are all useless.’37 The
ancient people had the humility to respect the animals and express their gratitude for what
they provided the mankind with rather than exploiting them.
The Vedic literature provides detailed accounts of the significance of plants and herbs. The
Oshadhi Sukta of Rigveda addresses the plants and vegetation as-
“śatan bu ambā dhāmoni sahashramutta tu ruhaḥ’’ (Rigveda, 10/97/2).
‘O Mother! Hundreds are your birth places and thousands are your shoots.38’ The
Atharvaveda establishes the significance of the various herbs and gives rise to the branch of
34 Singh, supra note 32 at 10.
35 Tiwari, supra note 25 at 10.
36 Kaushik Acharya, Environment Consciousness in Ancient India, TUCK MAGAZINE, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28
PM), magazine http://tuckmagazine.com/2016/10/18/environment-consciousness-ancient-india/
37 Thiyangarajan, supra note 9 at 5.
38 Rajib Sarmah, Environmental Awareness in the Vedic Literature: An Assessment, IJSR 5, 6 (2015).
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
Ayurveda that deals with the medicinal properties of various herbs.39 These texts glorify the
herbs as being the protectors of the human body and soul. Aranyisukta, addressed to the deity
of the forest, urges that all forests should always remain green with trees and plants.40 The
ancient people did not have today’s technology and medicines and equipment to cure the
various ailments. They depended on these herbs and plant and trees for a healthy and long
life. They respected them as the life givers, much more than the status given today to a
A quotation of the Vrksayurveda says-
“dasakūpa sama vāpi dasa vāpi sama hradaḥ dasahrada samah putro dasaputra sama
drumaḥ” (Vrksayurvedah-5).
‘One tree is equal to ten sons.41’ As per the Padma Purana, the cutting down of green trees is
an offence punished with hell.42
“A person, who is engaged in killing creatures, polluting wells, and ponds and tanks, and
destroying gardens, certainly goes to hell.” (Padmapurana, Bhoomikhanda 96.7-8).
The Atharvaveda lays down a prayer for the continuous growth of herbs- ‘O Earth! What on
you, I dig out, let that quickly grow over.43 ’ The Charak Samhita lays down that destroying
forests is equivalent to destroying the state and alternatively afforestation rebuilds the state
and advances welfare.44
Yajna is the act of offering some material to the deity with adoration. It is described as the
nucleus of the whole world by the Yajurveda and the Rigveda.45 It is a major principle of the
ancient environmental science. It is selflessly sacrificing for attaining the noble purposes.46
The whole process of the nature can be regarded as a Yajna. Since all elements of the
environment are interrelated to each other, they affect each other greatly in their functioning.
The Sun draws water from the Ocean through rays. The Earth gets rain from sky and as a
39 Sarma, supra note 30 at 3.
40 Tiwari, supra note 25 at 10.
41 Sarmah, supra note 38.
42 C.S. Priyanka Maheshwari, Environmental Jurisprudence- A Journey from Vedic Culture to Supreme Court, 3
IJARIT 717, 720 (2017).
43 Id.
44Anonymous, Environmental Legisltaions in India, (Jan 11, 2018, 05:28 PM),
45 Id.
46 Sarma, supra note 30 at 3.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
result of it, the plants grow. These plants then provide food for the living beings.47 As per
Yajurveda, Yajna helps to minimize the air pollution, purifies the environment, protects the
plants from diseases, increases the crop yields, and offers peace and happiness to the whole
Valmiki Ramayana is the first poem, i.e. Adi Kavya in the Sanskrit literature. It gives insight
into the interaction between man and nature. The basis of the poem is the incidence wherein
Valmiki curses a hunter who shot a heroin bird when it was in unison with its male
counterpart.49 The following verse burst out of the mouth of Valmiki as the first verse ever
composed by man-
‘Maa Nishaada pratishtaam tvam agamah saashvatee samaah, |
Yat Krauncha-mithunaad ekam avaadheeh kaama-mohitam ||’
Translated as- “O hunter! You will not live for long since you shot down the male one out of a
pair of heron birds as it was making love.”50 It clearly shows the importance attributed to the
environment and preservation of forests. No one has the right to take away the life of any
living creature.
The ancient texts conceptualised the alteration of the environment, the degradation and the
deterioration of the environment, basically known today as ‘pollution’, as ‘poisoning’ of the
environment.51 The Atharvaveda lays down the pollution controlling abilities of the
environment. ‘Plants and herbs destroy poisons’ (A.V.8.7.10) and ‘Purity of atmosphere
checks poisoning.’ (A.V.8.2.25).52
47 Singh, supra note 32 at 5.
48 Sarmah, supra note 38.
49 Maheshwari, supra note 42.
50 Id.
51 Dr. Renu Tanwar, Environment Conservation in Ancient India, 21 IOSR- JHSS 1, 1(2016).
52 Thiyangarajan, supra note 9 at 4.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The ancient civilization had long ago realized for the first time that for a balanced and
harmonious growth of the humanity, environment sustainability needs to be maintained. It
was this realization that led to the formation of a code of conduct that prescribed the
relationship between the humans and the environment, i.e. the Dharma.
The ancient people desired to live a life of hundred years– “jivema saradah satam”
(Atharvaveda 19.67.1).53 Hence, they realized that for the achievement of the said purpose,
the environment should essentially be kept free from pollution and clean and in harmony with
all its constituents. The Rigveda lays down that, ‘Thousands and hundreds of years if you
want to enjoy the fruits and happiness of life, then take up systematic planting of trees’54
The Isha Upanishad lay down very distinctively that the idea of sustainable development has
been the brainchild of the ancients. It lay down as, ‘Everything in the universe belongs to the
Supreme God. Therefore take only what you need, that is set aside for you. Do not take
anything else, for you know to whom it belongs’55
Kautilya in his book, ‘Arthashastra’ has very well established the importance that the ancient
Indians held for our environment. India faces an important environmental threat from the
miserable sanitation awareness among the masses. It is often cited that it is the backward
people, the uncivilized who are the major defaulters. But our texts show otherwise. Their
sanitation awareness was higher than any civilized society could ever imagine. He wrote,
‘The punishment of one-eighth of apana should be awarded to those who throw dirt on the
road. For muddy water one-fourth pana, if both are thrown, the punishment should be
double. If latrine is thrown or caused near temple, well or pond, sacred place, or government
building, then the punishment should increase gradually one pana in each case. For urine the
punishment should be only half’56
53 Sarmah, supra note 38.
54 Tanwar, supra note 51.
55 Thiyangarajan, supra note 9 at 5.
56 Supra note 44.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The most revered of all the texts, the Bhagwad Gita, also talks about the importance of
sustaining the environment. It regards the greedy users of the nature’s resources without
having regarded to return it back to the nature, as thieves. It says that, ‘For, so sustained by
sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Whoso enjoys their gift, yet gives
nothing, is a thief, no more, no less.’
They did not believe in the exploitation of the nature’s resources for their needs but even in
situation that required them to do so; they prayed forgiveness from the gods for their acts.
‘Whatever I dig from thee, O Earth, may that have quick recovery again. O purifier, may we
not injure thy vitals or thy heart’, (Hymn No- 12, slok No. 34, Atharva Veda, Prithvi
It is purely evident that the concept of sustainable development is not a new path discovered,
but one which had been treaded upon by our ancestors. Hence, we need to follow their path
and adopt the policy of ‘live and let live.’
57 Sarma, supra note 30 at 2.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
Air in the Dharmic texts is referred as Vayu in the Sanskrit language. It can be experienced
through touch. Accordingly, traditional Hinduism believes that spiritual liberation can be
attained through experiencing the touch of wind. The Air (Prevention and Control of
Pollution) Act, 1981 was adopted on March 29, 1981. A Central board was accorded with the
responsibility of overseeing the air quality. The board would function to “improve the quality
of air and prevent, control or abate air pollution in the country”.58 It has designated specific
air pollution control areas that would be under the supervision of the Indian states and not the
central government. The states themselves may set the automobile emission standards and
stationary source emissions.
For the better implementation of the AA Act, the Union Cabinet adopted a National
Environmental Policy in 2006. The policy aimed at improving, converting, transmitting,
distributing and research and development in, and dissemination of renewable energy
resources. Such environmental legislations can succeed if the dharmic beliefs of the citizens
pertaining to environment protection can be invoked.
The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
Purity of water is one of the most important tenets of dharmic ideology. It is believed that
Hindu Gods and goddesses might become upset by the water pollution and may respond by
destroying humanity through act of Tsunami. As per the sacred texts, the water of the holy
river Ganga must be kept pollution free. One of the hymns goes as following-
“Ganga punyajalan prapya caturdasa vivarjayet
Saucamacamanam kesam nirmalya madyamarsanam.
Gatrasamvahanam kridam pratigrahamatho ratim.
Anyatirtharatim caive anyatirthaprasansanam,
vastratyagamapaghatam santaram ca visesatah.”
58 The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, No. 14 of 1981 (India),
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
Transalated as, ‘one should not pollute the water of river Ganga and the following acts must
never be performed near its holy waters- removal of excrement, brushing and gargling,
removing cerumen from the body, dumping hair or dry garlands, playing, taking donations,
performing sex, attachment with other sacred places, praising other holy places, washing
clothes, throwing dirty clothes, swimming. 59’
The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 was enacted for the prevention
and control of water pollution, and for the maintenance and restoration of the wholesomeness
of water. Under this Act, state and central pollution control boards have been set up to look
into the abatement of water pollution sources, power to take water samples, their analysis,
overlook the discharge of sewage and effluents, enforcing penalties, publishing the names of
the offenders etc.60
The Dharmic ideology rests upon the idea of internal monitoring of the actions rather than
use of external force. This notion of internal obedience is not considered by the industrial
units and other corporates who only look into the cost factors of power supply and cheap
labour while choosing locations for their industrial setups. In order to make the citizens abide
by the laws legislated by the Parliament for the protection of the environment, the moral
ethics of the people needs to be invoked, laws need to be drafted in a manner that reflect the
dharma of the individual towards protection of the environment.
59 O.P. Dwivedi, World Religions and the Environment 360 (1989).
60 Rules and Regulations on Water Pollution, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (January 23,
2018, 4:15 p.m.), envfor.nic.in/division/water-pollution.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
The fact that the Indian culture is based on the concept of Dharma, it is very much inclusive
and receptive and accommodative of other foreign laws. It is adaptive of the other
international ideas and global concepts. Hence, the indigenous nature of our culture enables it
to imbibe new ideas and make modifications without changing the basic substance and living
up to its uniqueness.61 It is evident that whether consciously or subconsciously, the Indian
judiciary has retained and imbibed the pre British elements of the environmental
understanding. Many academicians and researchers alike hold the view that contemporary
environmental philosophy has dawned from the traditional understanding of our Vedic seers.
Many judicial interpretations of the contemporary laws have been based on the context of the
dharmic ideology. For this involvement of theirs they have often been criticized for relying
upon the ancient ideology. Going a step ahead despite of all these criticisms, the judiciary has
evolved a new legal order by resurrecting the dharmic principles. It can be thus very well
concluded that in the event of interpretation or construction of the law, the judges have been,
by choice living up to their duty, i.e. their professional dharma of bringing a balance or
maintaining the equilibrium in the Universal order that might have gone haywire.62
The need to reflect back upon our ancient tradition is clearly evident from the speech
delivered by Justice Krishna Iyer wherein he states that,
‘In order for law to serve life- life of the million masses- the crucifixion of the Indo- Anglo
system and resurrection of the Indian system is an imperative of independence’63
Similarly, in the judgment delivered by Justice Pasayat in Chinnappa v. Union of India &
Ors64, environmental lessons from the Rigveda and the Manusmriti have been taken into
consideration in the following manner:
61 JDM Derrett, Religion, law and the state in India, 25 26 (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999).
62 Sharma, supra note 18 at 11.
63 VR Krishna lyer, Indian Justice, Perspectives and Problems: Sir Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Lectures, 6-7
(Vedpal Law House, Indore, MP, 1984).
64 (2003) 2 SC 724.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
“Since time immemorial, natural objects like rivers enjoyed a high position in the life of the
society. They were considered as Goddesses having not only the purifying capacity but also
self-purifying ability. Fouling of the water of a river was considered a sin and it attracted
punishments of different grades which included, penance, out casting, fine, etc…
Environmental pollution was controlled rigidly in the ancient time. It was not an affair
limited to an individual or individuals but the society as a whole accepted its duty to protect
the environment. The ‘dharma’ of environment was to sustain and ensure progress and
welfare of all. The inner urge of the individuals to follow the set norms of the society,
motivated them to allow the natural objects to remain in the natural state. Apart from this
motivation, there was the fear of punishment. There were efforts not just to punish the culprit
but to balance the eco-systems… The noteworthy development in this period was that each
individual knew his duty to protect the environment and he tried to act accordingly”65
Again, the Supreme Court took into consideration the verses from the Atharvaveda, while
dealing with the case of stopping mining in the forest area in Doon valley.66 The court cited
the following verses translated as, ‘Man’s paradise is on Earth; this living world is beyond
place of all; It has the blessings of Nature’s bounties; Live in a lovely spirit.’67
The Chipko Movement in the Himalayan region of the state of Uttar Pradesh also draws its
genesis from the ancient tradition of loving, respecting and adoring the environment and
thereby protecting it. It was based on the re-establishment of the harmonious relationship
between the man and the environment.68
Therefore, from the above instances it can be discerned that the judiciary has all along taken a
mixed approach of balancing the ancient tradition and the contemporary laws while dealing
with the environmental issues.
65 (2003) 2 SC 724
66 Shyam Divan and Armin Rosencranz, Environmental Law And Policy In India: Cases,Materials and Statutes
(Oxford University Press, 2002).
67 Id.
68 ‘We the Peoples: 50 Communities’, International Institute for Sustainable Development on Chipko Movement
in India <http://www.iisd.org/50comm/default.htm>.
Environment under Ancient Indian Dharmasutras
– An Analysis
Our much revered Mother Earth is facing serious environmental issues today. The whole
world is deliberating on devising mechanisms to safeguard our nature. International
conferences are held periodically, conventions are attended, and treaties are ratified. But the
Earth continues to degrade in the same manner in this race of materialistic development. We
failed to understand that the solution was there all along with us from the past thousands of
years. It was there, lying in some corner of our store houses, catching dust or decorated in the
temples, attracting thousands from the world over. But never was it understood as a solution.
Never was it taken to mean more than the chants and hymns to be recited at some auspicious
occasions. Never was it understood in its true spirit and meaning that it was crying out to tell
the world.

The Ancient Indians were far ahead of their time. They knew the secrets of the nature, its
value and respected it for all that it bestowed upon them. They kept it at the supreme pedestal
and worshipped it. This does not mean that they did not develop. In fact they were the most
developed society till date. Whatever man has been able to devise today draws its origin to
some idea or concept that our ancestors already knew. Then what is it that makes the man feel
so supreme about him. What is it that prevents him to hold some humility and respect to the
ultimate creator of every inch of this planet?

Yajurveda talks about the omnipresence of God, in the following verse-

“Homage to him in woods and to him in bushes,
Homage to him as sound, and to him as echo.” (Yajurveda 16.34)
If at all Man wishes to attain Moksha, for which he is willing to travel the whole world, the
simplest thing to do is to evaluate his own actions, his Karma and see if it is in consonance of
his Dharma. It is time that we realize the value of our ancient texts and turn back their pages.
It is time that we realize that each and everything in this Universe is a part of ‘Him’ and we
have no right to harm any of ‘His’ creations.

There are still communities that protect the environment out of love, affection and respect
towards it. It is time we realize that protecting our environment is not merely
environmentalism but our Dharma.