The afternoon session of the second day at the World Book Fair in Pragati Maidan was bubbling with life as more and more people poured in to spend a rather bookish weekend. The green walled hall number 7(E) was of particular interest to all visitors as it enthusiastically put on display the theme of this year — environmental sustainability and climate change. A quote from the Yajurveda that speaks about the correlation between nature and peace, loudly displayed at the entrance, is the first thing that welcomed book lovers to the hall. Once inside, the chant of Vedic mantras rent the air. Staged at the author’s corner were four young boys clad in saffron with sandalwood paste across their foreheads. Chanting in unison, the four pupils of Sanskrit delivered a recitation of Vedic mantras that focused on the four elements that make up nature — water, air, earth, light and sky.
Apart from the cultural events that promote a sustainable way of life, as represented in the ancient Indian tradition, the interiors of the hall touted more quotations from texts such as the Upanishads, the Manusmriti, the Rigveda and the Yajurveda. While seminars, films and talks on environmental science are part of the week long fair, the focus on ancient Indian culture, particularly, as sketched out in Sanskrit and Vedic literature is hard to miss.
“Our roots are in Sanskrit. All languages can somehow be traced back to Sanskrit, the literature of which has a lot to say on environmental protection,” says Neera Jain, chief editor and joint director of the organising body, National Book Trust (NBT). “These mantras and havans are all a way of purifying nature. Over time we have distanced ourselves from these aspects. But here we are trying to establish these traditions again,” she adds.
Concentrating on the love for the environment as represented in Sanskrit literature, renowned scholar of Sanskrit, Dr. Baldev Anand Sagar delivered a 15-minute lecture on how Sanskrit literary scholars wrote about the preservation of nature thousands of years ago. “I gave references to celebrated Sanskrit literary works like Kalidas’ Abhijananashakuntala and how the writer portrayed the love of nature in it. Then I gave examples from the Upanishads and Vedas about where all river, mountains, and forests have been spoken about, and how we should be attached to the environment,” says Sagar.
“This narrative about environmental protection is very modern. Our rishis (sages) have said these things 5,000-10,000 years back. How we should live in harmony with nature, why we should plant a Tulsi in our homes, what is the importance of fasting, why we worship the Peepal tree, these things have been explained very well. There is a scientific reasoning behind these things,” says Sagar.
The focus on ancient Vedic culture seems to have impressed visitors at the book fair. “It is very important that we get to know about our own culture. At this moment we know more about other cultures. It is high time, we are given the opportunity to understand environment through our roots,” says Neha Rohilla, a student of Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology who was at the fair with her classmates.
A retired school principal, Anita Bhalla was at the fair with her grandson. “I feel history is coming alive here. Our ancient past is being made available to the new generation who are very engrossed in worldly affairs. It is a good way for them to understand the rich past,” says Bhalla.
Asked whether a focus on Vedic traditions is representative of the multicultural social environment in India, the organisers and the visitors remain fairly optimistic. “This is a good orientation for those who are not acquainted with Sanskrit culture,” says Neera Jain, a visitor.
“When I was giving my talk, I kept translating in Hindi and English. Sanskrit literature is not for a single religion, caste, creed or geographical boundary. It is for the whole humanity,” says Dr. Sagar.
However, there were many among the visitor who complained about the focus on Sankskrit texts and quotes in the hall. Sayida Safee who was at the fair with her friend Shabnam Khan is clearly disappointed. “These quotations should not just focus on Sanskrit literature. We cannot understand. If we cannot understand, how will we pass on these concepts to our children? Sanskrit is known by a limited number of people. It is hardly inclusive,” she said.
Daleep Singh (78) is also critical of the overall projection of the theme of environment in the fair. “Yeh sab dhong hain. Jis cheez se prakriti ki raksha kar sakte hain woh toh kar nahi rage. Bas dikhava kar rahe hain aur dikhave se sirf nuksaan hota hain. (All of this is just for show. They are not doing what they should be doing for the protection of the environment and just pretending to protect nature. Pretentions will only lead to loss),” said Singh.
Speaking on the focus on Sanskrit literary traditions, Singh said, “all history is about the victors. The victors wrote down their own history in their own language. Sanskrit was always a tool for exploitation. It was never the tongue of the common man. Today people are using the same tool for political gains.”