The purpose of education is to broaden the minds and expand the horizon of one’s imagination, but modern education seems to have done the opposite by making one more of a reductionist. It has taught us to simplify a complex issue in order to understand it better but in the process we have forgotten that we tend to simplify beyond a point and often distort the issue. The approach has helped in biology and other streams of science but not in the field of environment. By focusing on one or two aspects we gradually detach ourselves from the larger picture of the issue. We’ve become simple consumers of the information without any idea of its value in nature. The whole society grows to become a consumer of environmental information without any meaning in real sense.
Let’s take an example. Talk to any educated water manager in Kathmandu valley, you will hear three things: Nepal is second richest in the world in water resources; Nepal has a capacity of producing 83000 megawatts of hydroelectricity, and the demand for water in the Kathmandu valley is 32 million liters a day, but the supply is around 11 million liters. The fact is that none of this information is meaningful, because these are produced by reductionists using information generated by best estimates. Hence, we don’t know if Nepal is rich or not in water resources, not to mention occupying a second position. What we know is that there is so much water in the monsoon period that we don’t know how to manage it, and an acute shortage of it in winter and summer that makes life difficult both in cities and villages. Agriculture, which is a key economic sector in Nepal is largely monsoon dependent and any fluctuation in the monsoon adversely affects Nepal’s growth rate. In so far as producing hydroelectricity is concerned, Nepal has been able to install capacity of nearly 700 megawatt in last 100 years. The scenario of supply and demand of water in Kathmandu Valley is even more confusing. If the official figures were to be true, two third of the population of the valley would be marching on the streets demanding water, which has not happened, though long queues are seen around water taps. Water somehow reaches households, and thanks to the successful water market which has tapped all possible sources within the valley to meet the demand. So, the figures don’t mean much, and yet just about everyone takes it as water knowledge.
Gaining knowledge about water begins quite early. As a child we all have enjoyed splashing water with tiny little hands when we were learning to crawl. It is perhaps the first encounter with nature that we experienced while learning about things around us, and what else could be more fascinating to start learning than this unique and precious gift of nature, which is safe, soft, cool, and freely available. The learning about water begins at that age and continues as one grows (and perhaps never ends), and yet we seem to know so little about it, let alone our relationship with it. Water is not just a commodity, it is our very existence. But, our learning has been quite shallow and so has our ability to understand our relationship with water. As a result, water for our new generation remains to be a product that one can buy in a bottle or a jar and comes through taps in the washrooms. Deteriorating relations with water has made managing water further more difficult.
Let me try to explain what I mean by relationship. All parents; rich or poor, urban dweller or from rural area, educated or illiterate; sacrifice everything in their command to give their child the best. Despite the fact that they know when the child start earning they will be too old to enjoy the material comfort which money can buy or they may be even not be there anymore. They are also aware that the child may leave them to settle elsewhere, and yet the sacrifice for the child never ends. We call it love for the child, but it is the relationship between a child and its parents which is essential to sustain evolution, so that the new generation grows to be smarter and capable than its predecessor. This is the essence of nature. It has to maintain its services (may not be the right word, but burrowing it from ecosystem services) through its components such as water, land and so on to support life on earth for hundreds and thousands of generations to come. Hence our concerns should be beyond these numbers and try to see the relationship with nature.
We should be aware of and concerned with all other areas through which mother nature makes water available to support lives of millions and millions of other organisms including grass, trees and all vegetation. FAO says that a tablespoon of soil has more micro-organisms than the whole population on earth. http://bit.ly/1sS7pBQ . They all need water too. But we have never bothered to ask who provides them water. What happens to nature if water is not available to this organism? To understand the vastness of water and how it relates to larger picture of life and nature, the religious texts are quite helpful, but it could be termed as a wrong start because in this age of science and technology why would one depend on what the religious text says about water. But, let me take help of an article that appeared in The Hindu in the aftermath of Uttarakhanda disaster in 2013.
The Uttarakhanda disaster in 2013 caused an unprecedented loss of lives and properties. Following this, Chitra Padmanavan, a Delhi Based Journalists who contributes to The Hindu published an extremely powerful article ‘When the Ganga descends’ (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/when-the-ganga-descends/article), in which she drew a fascinating picture of how these religious texts and mythology can help us relearn to look beyond and explore the aspects which have been integral part of people’s life in mountains and who lived in full awareness of the towering presence of nature. The story Chitra connects with the disaster is that of the origin of the river Ganga which was brought from the heaven to the earth by the persistent effort of Bhagirath. Her narration of the story is as follows.
The seventh descendent of King Sagara, Bhagiratha, was deeply disturbed by the fate of 60,000 sons of Sagara, who were reduced to ash by the wrath of sage Kapila for having disrupted his meditation. He undergoes severe penances (tapasya) in the Himalayas to please Brahma, and when he was pleased Bhagirath asks Brahma for his blessings to bring Ganga to earth. Upon receiving the blessing Bhagirath asks Ganga to flow to earth, but she threatened to destroy all life on earth by the pressure of her flow. Only Shiva’s powerful hair could control the force of Ganga. Bhagiratha requested Shiva to help him by spreading his hair. As soon as Ganga flowed down, Shiva collected her water in his hair in the form of many small streams. Ganga then followed Bhagiratha across mountains, forests and plains to the end of the world (the land) where his ancestors’ impure remains lie. Having provided mokshya to the ancestors Ganga vanished into the ocean (the Sagara).
According to Chitra the myth of Ganga’s descent resonates at different levels in the lives of the people in the mountains. The story of Shiva’s hair dissipating Ganga’s force seems exactly how streams and rivers behave while flowing from rapid current over ground to changing course, or getting blocked to acquire subterranean existence (the groundwater). A very interesting point was made by one of the commentators to the article, who said ‘‘If Shiva can be equated to the mountains and wiping of 60,000 sons-as subjects of Sagars- lost to forest fire then it adds even more credibility to what could have happened. 60,000 sons could also be different species, plants fauna, who knows. But the ability to visualize what could have happened and its logical flow cannot be questioned but how to and what to equate is what is required’.
These religious texts were in fact the means of educating people. Imagine, at a time when these texts did not exist, how would one have thought of educating people about what and with what material. These texts (taken as religious today) were perhaps developed precisely for that purpose to explain about the nature around us and to make us aware about our role to protect them for the future generation, which could only be done by bringing people close to the nature. But, we tend to interpret these text from within a narrow frame of rituals. A good example can be that of the famous story of Swasthani, a religious text worshiped and read in the month of Magh (Dec/Jan) every winter. It is suitable because as soon as month of reading Swasthani begins, every newspaper carries one or two articles about how bad is the story of Swasthani with regard to how it treats women. They argue that the Swasthani is completely biased against women, because there is a heart breaking story about the plight of a woman named Goma who was married to a 70 year old man when she was only 7. The husband dies leaving Goma helpless and with responsibility of raising a son.
But, we never asked ourselves why this story is read out loud every winter. What does the story tell us? First few chapters of Swasthani talk about formation of universe and some chapters deal with the evolution of organisms and animals, which is amazingly parallel to Darwin’s theory of evolution in which smaller organisms appear first followed by larger ones. Then there is a story about war between gods (savior of nature) and demons (destroyer of nature). One could see it as the story of the egalitarians such as the Green Peace and industries producing hazardous wastes of modern day society. There is a chapter that talks about a chariot that has the sun and the moon as two wheels and travels with an annual speed of ayan (a period of six months). This is exactly the time the sun takes to travel from tropic of cancer to the tropic of Capricorn. Meanwhile the season changes and so does the abundance of food and energy in nature in an ayan. The wheels are kept in place by two latches: the east (where the sun and the moon rise) and the west (where the sun and the moon set). These are some of the fascinating accounts of bigger picture of nature. But we never bothered to see what are these religious texts trying to tell. The purpose of these stories is to bring people close to nature (bathing in the river, visiting a lake, make offerings to the poor and so on) and not creating a barrier between them like the bottled water.
As far as the story of Goma is concerned, it is only there to give the story a human face and make it interesting so that people take interest in listening to the story in a similar manner as one would identify with the good guys while watching a commercial cinema.