Forests are one of most biologically diverse ecosystems. They are a home to more than 80% of terrestrial animals and plants.
Around 2000 indigenous cultures, including 1.6 billion people are dependant on forests for their livelihood.
A human consumes about 550 litres of pure oxygen per day. The average cost of a 2.75 litre portable oxygen cylinder is Rs 6,500. At this rate, a human consumes oxygen worth about Rs 13 lakh per day. That is the value of air, which each individual person gets for free, from plants. If you multiply this with population of the world, both humans and animals, then you can imagine the financial value of oxygen, would run into “Millions of Billions of Trillions”.
They also protect watersheds that supply 75% of fresh water in the world.
Forest – Outside
The word “forest” is derived from the Latin word “foris”, meaning outside. Forest is a place that is outside, away from the usual place of dwelling, city or village. The word “foreign”, meaning belonging to another country, has the same etymological origin. The word “foliage” has the same roots.
In Samskrt, forest is called Vana. It is also known as Aranya.
The land of India has thick forests, Vana from ancient times. There are sacred groves spread across the country.
The ancient texts, the Purana, the Ramayana and Mahabharata also mention about forests in ancient India.
Some of the famous Aranya, Vana mentioned in Purana being,
The total forest area today stands at 23% of the whole land. Almost 1/4th of the country is thus covered by forests.
Indian Forest Cover
Planting and nurturing of trees was one of the important practices in ancient India. The science of plant life is called Vruksha Ayurveda, which deals with various types of plants, trees and their growth.
Tapovana, Mahavana and Sreevana
Forests in Indian tradition are of three types.
Tapovan are “forests for penance”, used by Rishi, saints. Mahavana are “Grand Natural Forests”. Srivana as the name suggests are “forests of prosperity”.
Srivana are forests that are allowed to be used by people for their fruits, leaves, dry wood and for other productive purposes. However, there were strict rules to ensure that the ecosystem was not destroyed.
Tapovana and Mahavana are protected regions as ordinary people are not allowed to enter these forests.
Forest – “For Rest”
Forest also means “For Rest”, a place of rest. In Indian tradition, forest is regarded as a place for quietude and tranquillity. It is place for undertaking a journey into spirit, away from noise of the “concrete jungles”.
In ancient times, we see that Rishi chose Tapovana for setting up their Ashram. Shram means effort, and Ashram means effortless. Forest is a place where one gives up efforts.
Place of Knowledge
It is in the depths of forest that the Rishi were able to dwell deep into spirit and discover the Mysteries of Creation.
The conversations between Rishi that were compiled into Mahabharatha and Purana, happened in a forest – Aranya called Naimisharanya.
Rishi Ashrama in Naimisharanya
The Veda have various parts such as
- Samhita – Sacred Hymns
- Brahmana – Rites and Rituals
- Aranyaka – Philosophy behind rituals
- Upanishad – Spirituality
Aranyaka forms the third part of the Veda. Arayanka means that which is born of forest. The Aranyaka were discussions of Rishi in the forest. In Aranyaka, philosophical understanding and meditative thinking are conspicuous. The emphasis is more on inner significance of rites and rituals, than the rituals themselves.
The four parts of Veda
As seen earlier, forest is also called Aranya. Rana means battlefield and Arana means, a place of no battle. Forests are places of no battle. The kings who wanted a break from daily activities and battles, always retired to the deep jungles, Mahavana.
The 4 Ashrama, stages of life, in Indian tradition are
- Brahmacharya – Student
- Grihastha – Householder
- Vanaprastha – Retired
- Sanyasa – Renunciation
In the Brahmacharya stage, the Gurukula is located in fringe of the forest, where one gets education.
Grihastha Ashrama is the only stage where one lives in towns or cities.
Vanaprashtha is the stage when one gives up everything, and retires to Tapovan, to practice Dhyana, Meditation.
Sanyasa is the final stage, where one is completely detached from worldly life, totally focused on Moksha, while living in a forest. This last phase of one’s life, is spent in a forest.
Thus we see that the first, third and last stages of life are in a forest.
The dweller of forest who are the true custodians of this ecosystem are known as Vana Vasi.
Vana meaning forest, and Vasi, dweller.
For the Vana Vasi, all four stages of life, Ashrama were in the forest.
These tribals were not poor, but instead they were rich, for all the forest of the land were theirs by right. They were the guardians of the forest. The forest looked after their well being.
Today, they have been classified as Adi Vasi, Adi meaning first and Vasi, dweller, and restricted to living in pockets within their forests.
Jarawa Vana Vasi of Andaman Islands
Adi Vasi is a new term and also has a sense of derogatory to it. The Adi Vasi brings in an incorrect concept that tribals are the first dwellers of the land and the town and village dwellers are later migrants. This is ethnographically erroneous.
Whereas the words, Vana Vasi is their rightful name used with respect.
Nagar Vasi, Grama Vasi and Vana Vasi, all three belong ethnically to this land from time immemorial. And each have their respective place in the civilization, in the land and in the society.
Lack of Awareness
Unfortunately, post independence, there has been a lack of wholesome awareness on what the Vana Vasi stood for.
The awareness on forests has also come down.
The forest cover of India has been fast diminishing. Jungles are giving way to concrete jungles, in the name of development.
Deforestation has been a worry all over the world. Around 13 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year. 20 % of climate change has happened due to the depleting forest cover.
Only 28 trees per person in India
International Day of Forests
International Day of Forests is observed every year on 21st March. This day was instituted by the United Nations to raise awareness of all types of forests. A special event relating to forests is organized every year at UN headquarters in New York. Many other events are held across the world to highlight the importance of forests.
The survival of forests is vital for the survival of life on this planet.