Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
In surreal realms
Professor of history at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi.
Descriptions of gardens, flora and fauna constitute one of the major context in which the relationship between man and God is discussed in theological literature. Whereas gardens in paradise and lush vegetation and harvests on earth are described in detail in the Koran, the Hindu epic tradition concentrates on forests, but refers to vatikas (gardens) as well. These are the locales where protagonists of epic tales relate to nature and through it to God. However, given the different geographical and historical context in which these religious traditions evolved the descriptions of gardens and more generally nature varies. As do the myriad ways in which the sacred and the profane mediate through nature.
In both the Islamic and Biblical traditions the material world is described in relation to the world that one will enter in the life hereafter. God occupies the most exalted position in this "other" world. The flora and fauna and gardens he has created are seen as the important mediating link between him and the material world. This being the general format gardens and the plant kingdom constitute one of the key reference points in defining the relationship between man and God. Indeed the theory about the origin of the earth and its inhabitants hinges on the Garden of Eden. In both the Biblical and Islamic traditions this beautiful garden is described as paradise where God placed his first creation Adam and Eve. The garden with its attractive fruit trees was irresistible. Despite His command not to eat the fruit of these trees the couple could not resist the temptation. They thus forfeited paradise for themselves and their posterity by their fall: non-fullfilment of God's wishes. So as per Biblical tradition "by one man sin entered the world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men in whom we have sinned." Christians believe that despite this "original sin" God promised man a redeemer. He came over four thousand years after the creation.
Gardens continue to provide the reference points around which early definitions of the relationship between God and man was articulated. In the Christian and to some extent Islamic belief man is portrayed as the sinner with an inherently impaired soul and body. In contrast, God is the "benevolent, gracious and merciful" figure. The imagery of gardens, and vegetation in general is invoked to earmark the social relationship between the two. Thus the religious texts of both Christians and Muslims emphasise the superior position of God vis-a-vis man by highlighting the paramount significance of God's will in determining the healthy existence of flora and fauna, the rhythms of astronomy, meteorology, agricultural cycles, procreation etc. The presence of palm trees, vineyard, grain fields, gushing streams, winds, different varieties of plants are referred in different suras of the Koran to describe lush gardens that survive due to the "grace of God".
The Koran says, "We sent down from the sky blessed water whereby we caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm trees with their spathes, piled one above the other sustenance for (our) servants. Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land." Alongside, emphasising the varieties of plants and trees the Koran also suggests knowledge of reproduction in the plant kingdom. The idea that God brought about "pairs" of plants is repeated at different points in the text.
Courtesy Gayatri Sinha
If we locate the Koranic text in its historical context (around the 7th century A.D.) we can speculate on the reasons for its repeated reference to the elements of nature as proof of God's existence and benevolence. The Koran was being revealed in a predominantly tribal desert society of Arabia which was slowly moving towards a sedentary agricultural existence. It would eventually crystalise into a monarchical political order. The social and political transition of tribal society was not smooth. Social tensions generated as power began to be redefined and new landed property rights, surplus sharing modes, rights and responsibilities began to be formulated. This was necessary to cater to an increasingly centralised political order which was fast putting together a bureaucracy and a standing army.
The Koranic injunctions that viewed the fertility of land, cultivation and produce as "bounties" from Allah (God) served an important political role. By underlining the paramount position of Allah as the "creator" of the plant kingdom, the injunctions attempted to create a reference point of authority that transcended the conflicting nature of rights and claims. This was achieved by the continuous reference to God as the highest reference point of legitimacy. This concept of God as the supreme arbiter and transcendental figure continued to be of increasing relevance as Islamic society expanded into diverse cultures.
It came particularly handy in maintaining a degree of social balance between diverse cultural and ethnic groups that came within the Islamic ambit. For instance, in the fashioning of the new sedentary Islamic society the political and cultural influences of the Greco-Helenic world with which the Islamic lands had had earlier contacts was unmistakable. If monarchy was a gift to Islamic social fabric from pre-Islamic Persia, theories and philosophies of governance in Islamic polities had a distinct Greek imprint. By the end of the 8th Century Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Plato figured in Persian literature as local sages. Such was the level of appropriation.
At least in the Islamic tradition gardens and flora continued to be an important imagery in descriptions of the world that is promised in the life hereafter. Thus for the good and righteous who have followed the tenets of God reward is promised in a life in beautiful gardens of paradise. The Koran is replete with vivid accounts of the gardens of paradise. "In it are rivers of water installing; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine a joy of those who drink; and rivers of honey, pure and clear; in it there are for them all kinds of fruits and forgiveness from the lord." (Surat 47, Ayat 15).
Of course the idea of the sanitised lush gardens of paradise, overflowing with all the items scarce in desert society of Islamic lands was a deliberate choice. The gardens of paradise were meant to be an attractive incentive for men quite clearly deprived of such pleasures in their desert lands. Thus gardens in heaven are depicted in the Islamic texts as the desert man's ideal idyllic resort: lush, green and romantic, with rivers of honey and milk and gushing water springs. A place for leisure and relaxation away from the tensions of the material world.
At one level the gardens in paradise are contrasted to those on earth. The former painted as idyllic and ethereal; the latter described as more practical and productive arenas catering to the daily needs of food and water of mankind. The ones on earth are far from being surreal and sensuous pleasure spots. Instead, they are places which produce good fruit and harvest. Here, the relationship between man and the flora around him is one of the active and laborious interaction. The suggestion is that if man keeps away from distractions and labours then he will be rewarded by good harvests and healthy fruit and vegetable crops in his orchards and gardens. In contrast the relationship between man and environment in the gardens of heaven is not a proactive one. The emphasis is not on labour but on enjoyment and relaxation. Both of which are seen as rewards for leading a "good" life on earth. Thus the gardens offer the surreal environment intact with some of the major distractions forbidden for men on earth: wine and beautiful women. These are the rewards for restrain on earth. Indeed the "distractions" in the gardens of heaven come in their "purest" forms-different from what is available on earth. Thus the wine available there is "not like any wine on earth, for it leaves no headaches behind and causes no intoxication; honey which is pure and clear." These drinks, it is said, will "cool the spirit, feed the heart, warm the affections and sweeten life."
The gardens of heaven, different as they are from those on earth, are described in the Koran in exceptional terms. Often referred to as the "gardens of eternity", it is believed that "their doors will ever be open to the righteous." They are also referred to as the "gardens below which rivers flow, where they (the righteous) will be "adorned with bracelets of gold and pearls and their garments will be of silk". Or else, gardens are described as "hospitable homes", where the residents will "not bear any vain discourse, but only salutation of peace and they will have therein their sustenance morning and evening".
If in the Islamic tradition the emphasis is on sanitised gardens both in this world and in the world hereafter, the Hindu mythical tradition is abound with tales that largely structure around the forest. To a large extent this has to do with the geographical context in which both these religions emerged. The former in the desert lands where any form of vegetation is seen as God's bounty; and the latter in a naturally forested region where water and vegetation are not scarce and thus not always seen in terms of divine "rewards". Stories in the Mahabharata, written approximately between 4th Century B.C. - 4th Century A.D., reflect the social organisation of a forest society that was pastoral but was gradually moving towards incipient kingdoms. The depiction of the flora and fauna are tailored to suit this social transition.
For instance, the epic version of the love-lorn Shakuntala gives vivid descriptions of idyllic locations in the forest where she lives. Sakuntala's abode, a hermitage, set deep in the forest is projected as almost another world - "a world of translucent green, lush growth on both banks of the river Malini". Despite its surreal imagery, it has much of the natural world. The trees provide cool shade, the earth is soft and covered with clusters of flowering trees and creepers, the birds and bees are undisturbed and even the predatory animals are gentle. Yet, despite its "naturalness" the contrast with the settled society is never entirely given up. The prince who lands in the hermitage while on a hunt and falls in love with Sakuntala is a protagonist of the "settled court society". The interaction between him and Sakuntala brings out the difference between the forest and court society even more vividly. A variety of contrasting settings dot the epic versions of the story: the ferocity of the hunt, the gentle calm of the hermitage, each present a difference face of nature and of the forest.
Thus, as historian Romila Thapar has argued, the hunt in the Sakuntala story at one level is an onslaught on nature. The text has a graphic account of the hunt: a large entourage of heavily armed soldiers. At one level this suggests a surrogate battle, or raid, in which territorial claims are being established. But the description of the flora and their settings also reflect two kinds of social orders coming in close contact with each other. Most epic stories are replete with such descriptions.
In the Ramayana, forests form the context in which not only do the protoganists relate to nature, but they also negotiate the spiritual world as well.
The Ramayana has vivid descriptions of Rama's vanavas (exile in forest). The forest is described as being beautiful and idyllic, full of trees of fruit and nuts, birds and beasts. Ramas relationship to his environment is exemplified in his numerous hunting forays and his search for fruits and herbs for survival. But more importantly, the forest is also the abode of sages and rishis a prime locale of the spiritual. It abounds in hermitages which are described as islands of peace and tranquillity where the spiritual carry on their havans to rid the earth of "evil spirits". Rama interacts with the holy men displaying a keen interest in their knowledge of the spiritual and material. The forest is thus projected as the meeting point of the sacred and the profane.
Interestingly, forests are not the only environmental spots where man and nature come in close interaction. The epic stories also have the concept of gardens - the vatikas. Thus the Asoka vatika is the garden where the King of Lanka, Ravana - houses Sita, the wife of Rama, after her abduction. The description of the Asoka vatika is one of peace and calm where beautiful plants and fruits trees are ecologically balanced with birds, animals and man. Thus Hindu epics carry both the imagery of the forest as well as that of the gardens. The latter is suggestively more sanitised than the former. The epics were written in a period when society was moving from being a forest pastoral social order to a more sedentary agricultural one. Perhaps the imagery of the forest and the gardens also reflect the two varied ecological contexts in which man continues to relate with nature even as his society moves from one social order to another.
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