Accepted paper:

Archaeologies of religion, nature and environmental ethics in ancient India


Julia Shaw (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on early Indian concepts of human wellbeing and suffering in relation to environmental ethics and human ecology, questioning how Buddhism and later, orthodox Brahmanical traditions responded to new environmental challenges in the mid first millennium BC to early centuries AD.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines the ecological basis of early Indian Buddhism from several angles: a) the role of 'nature' and ancient Indian nature and agrarian cults in the development of a Buddhist ritual geography; b) the monastery's role in the management of natural and agrarian resources as a means of alleviating suffering, as well as an instrument of lay patronage which was central to an emerging Buddhist economic system; c) the impact that scholarship on the 'ecological' focus of early Indian religious traditions and devolved religious and community based sustainable agriculture has on understandings of contemporary environmental challenges, e.g., the impact on human health and wellbeing of industrial and agricultural pollutants, climate-change and large-scale irrigation programmes. Here I steer a middle path between two polarised views, one having promoted Buddhism and certain Brahmanical traditions as epitomes of 'eco' oriented religions, the main justification here being the development of the doctrine of non violence (ahimsa); the second having presented the involvement of Buddhist monasteries, and later, Brahmanical temples, in agriculture and water-management as grounds for challenging this picture. My argument is that a concern with sustainable agriculture and water-management does not negate the ecological motif of early Indian religions, and that a critical reappraisal of Indological models of 'nature' v. 'culture', 'purity' v. pollution, and food and the human body, is required in order to appreciate the deep history of environmental ethics in the region. Archaeological evidence discussed will include the results of the author's archaeological survey work in central India.

panel P46
Past weather, past climate - archaeology as Environmental Humanity