Original Sin

Modern Mythmaking 12 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, 17 April 2010

For the past few weeks, newspapers are full of articles talking of how greedy mining companies are destroying the environment, displacing tribal people, disseminating communities, ruining health, flouting all norms of appropriate social conduct. It is, we are told, a nexus of politicians and bureaucrats and corporate houses. With their backs against the walls, the poor are fighting back – sometimes turning into Maoists and Naxalities. Unfortunately, the audience that cheered the Na’vi in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar will not cheer for them. We frown upon the mining companies. We also frown upon the Naxalites. All we can do is denounce them, and watch with helpless certainty as the world around us crumbles.

But the fact is, it is the existence of human society that results in the destruction of nature. And as long as human society exists and expands, the destruction of nature will continue. This point is repeatedly stated in the ancient scriptures. In the Mahabharata, in order to establish the city of Indra-prastha, the Pandavas set aflame the forest of Khandava-prastha, killing its many residents, including the serpents or Nagas. Unless the forest is burnt, the city cannot be built. Unless the trees are cut down, the fields cannot be established and the orchards cannot be set up. Unless the mountain is broken, the granite cannot be quarried. Unless the earth is broken, metal cannot be acquired. Culture is created by domesticating nature. Domestication of nature is violent – the bull has to be castrated so that as a bullock it can be turned into a beast of burden and the river’s course needs to be manipulated so that canals can carry water to the crops.

This idea of nature being destroyed is most powerfully represented by the image of Durga killing the buffalo-demon, Mahisha. Grand images of the warrior-goddess riding a lion and impaling the demon are decorated and worshipped in autumn months across India, especially in Bengal and Orissa. Why is this image part of harvest festivals? Why are children shown this extremely violent image and told to worship it? The traditional response is: the goddess is killing the villain. That is a simplistic, reductive and convenient answer that basically celebrates violence provided we are not the victims. It is easy to equate rich mining companies and/or Maoists (depending on our political leanings) with Mahisha and to assume the goddess is on our side or at least we are on hers.

But maybe, Mahisha represents the nature who has to be destroyed so that the mother can feed her children. This is a sacrifice. Blood is split so that crops can grow. Or maybe, this is the goddess killing the man, the fountainhead of culture. This is nature threatening to get back at culture. For one day, if the mining does not stop, and the tribal people continue to be disseminated, nature will get back – either as the Tsunami or as the Suicide Bomber Terrorist. The rage of nature will manifest, one way or the other.

Is the destruction of nature to create culture the Original Sin mentioned in the Bible? Did the Devil tempt us to improve on nature and in doing so compel us to destroy nature? Is that the primal guilt of humanity? The demand for the iron ore being mined across Orissa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand is coming from countries that are being goaded to ‘grow’. Growth comes at a price that we are suddenly afraid to pay. Perhaps it is time to question growth. Why do we want to grow? Can we shift the focus from material growth to emotional growth – a growth that will make us more charitable and generous, and less insecure? Time to revisit the basics that we teach our children.

  • sriram

    dear devdutt,

    while i concur with the point that the expansion of society will be at the cost of nature, i fear that you may have just provided a justification for modern day ‘growth-mongers’ – “what we are doing is no different from what has been happening for ages!”

    i think there is also sufficient mythology to show the respect and status of nature in the life of man.
    the very concept of the pancha maha bhootas shows the reverence that man has for nature.
    this reverence is still visible/practiced in tribal india.

    how do you personally balance this ’emotional’ growth idea with being with a corporate philosophy that hinges of ‘material’ growth?


  • Ganesh.V

    Dear Devdutt g.,
    The “idea of nature being destroyed is most powerful represented”
    from your previous articles i had learnt about the four stages or parts in human life in the third part after a when a person gets grandson he retires slowly he move away from cities make an ashram and lives there with the available fruits & roots as his food, so that only 2 generation food is produced which is not followed now-a-days.
    so we are not following the rules which we had created to ourselves.

  • Shrikant

    Coming here after a huge gap! the format has changed much, so was confused about how to locate what I was looking for.
    the BLOG link is gone!!!

    Your question – Why do we want to grow – has resonated with similar lines of thought I have been having ever since I saw decades olf trees been cut down back in Indore, and then in Nasik – for the purpose of road widening.
    I was pained and in deep thought wondering who those people are who have such thoughts as to come up with quick fix solutions for ‘growth’

    Seriously, we are in a lost world. We at the pretext of growth – esp. the so called 3rd world countries, have been hijacked/brainwashed into believing that growth is right for us… and those who have triggered this are probably enjoying the fruits of this – at least for some time – till the whole process will turn back on them.. just like how the ‘terrorists’ are now turning back on their very own creators.

    Unfortunately, as you mentioned, this is a cycle that has happened all along, and there is data to corroborate this… but this is the flaw in the human experiment – man has never learnt from the past, no matter how many RCAs one does, and fills in reams of paper identifying the Root Cause for any problem, the solution is always visible, but never practiced.

    Pratik Kanjilal wrote an interesting article in the HT last week.
    Not sure if this link will open here

    Resonates again with what you have mentioned… we have no where to go now but live with this monster we have created till all such like minds came together with like action… to become Na’vi-like and fight back humankind’s greed to mindlessley and senselessly ‘grow’

  • Shrikant
  • gaurav jhalani

    i remember reading the lines that nature nurtures humans.nature to humans is as mother to child. protecting the inheritance of her blood is her duty and to feed is her love. as has been said culture civilizations society has been made to make life more predictable because we fear from what can not be predicted. people in so called supreme world to us the third world countries are’nt they intersted in naustredamus sayings.
    they had wore a blanket of technology and put the rag of mythology over us. they are still searchinh the truth of universe existence and god knows what all. but why? is’nt it an act of knowing the unpredicted. we should be able to decipher the code of nature. we should not try to change it.
    coming to miners people politicians are going awry. they just trying to be reactive and want to compete with the other developed. i still remember in my distant memory the images of jaipur to agra highway single road. i had been on this road for quite a time but never found any need for expansion for it.
    all lined trees were cut down mercileesly. why were they left as it could have served as an natural divider of road and stil the road can be built. govt. is now spending huge to plant trees. all we need is to have a solid planning system only that is missing in our actions.

  • Excellent article!
    More than the Biblical Original Sin, Prometheus’ theft of fire from the gods marks the beginning of human civilization. Fire consumes fuel like wood which come from trees, hence, development has always been at the cost of destruction of nature. No wonder, Prometheus was punished by the nature loving gods and goddesses by being chained to a rock while an eagle ate his liver everyday but the organ would be back the next morning

  • Arun

    I think growth is a need of the hour because we all feel there would be no-one left for us if we have not. Everything is equated in terms of utility. If we have not(money, power, resources), if we render ourselves useless, then no-one would take care of us and why should any-one?

    • Arun

      If there was a society where there was no FEAR of “How will I live tomorrow?”…….”How will I survive if I get some disease, or grow old or am disabled?” AND “Will the other bully me……….plunder my allotted share of resources?” then there was no need for growth!

      But this is contrary to the “Survival of the Fittest” theory and when, in our Human World, money-equated growth is termed as ‘Fit’, this is the rule we all abide with.

      People and their resources will be exploited & extorted as always. And man has to find the fastest, cheapest way to attain money within his working years to gain the power to protect and take care of “his” ASSETs.

  • Gauri

    “Original Sin” as said, is all about demon named “GREED” living with everyone, in the human society.
    This demon seems to have an ever-growing hunger and he has never been taught to share and care.

  • The article started with Simple explanation, told profound truths midway, and at the end asked difficult questions:

    1.Definition of growth?
    2.Definition of development?

    Answers to these questions are very difficult. Economic, social, political, religious propagandist, bureaucratic, scientists are always in search of correct answers. Because the answers keep changing contextually.[Geographic, temporal, political-(compulsive and non compulsive),greed driven etc]

    Most often the ideas that wet the thirsts of ‘you know who’ get implemented. That means – ‘Rich Ideas’ not ‘Enriched Ideas’

    Results are accidental (May be good or bad) and felt much later, may be down a generation or two.
    And there by hangs a tale……..

  • Rashmi Nair

    The circle of life…be it on this planet or others is so so similar!! Saw a documentary on BBC Entertainement on Io – one of the moons of Jupiter which is full of volcanic activity unlike other moons and planets of our systems. Some of the lines of this article reminded me of the scenes of that program -“Domestication of nature is violent “

  • Harsha Muddu

    The mining companies are doing it more for their benefit rather than that of the nation. Destroying the houses of the poor cannot be rationalized in any way. Nor can naxalites be supported. Though their general intention is good, they too cross the limit and affect lives of innocents, behaving more as extremists.