Firefighters try to extinguish forest fires at Sebangau National Park Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, September 2019. Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan.
A recent article in the European Heart Journal cites lessons from the Bhagavad Gita for healthcare workers in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors use the examples of Arjuna as the healthcare worker, and the Kurukshetra battlefield as the hospital. Arjuna is confused over his role in the fight – the metaphorical battlefield is already fraught with chaos and misinformation. The principle of dharma, the inherent order of reality nurtured by right thought and action, is invoked by Krishna, the embodiment of dharma. For the healthcare worker, this involves developing a sense of purpose to do what is right and not become paralysed by the outcome. Many Indians have identified with the philosophy and moral principles of the Bhagavad Gita as a guide to daily living.
The Mahabharata’s expositions on the relationship between human and nature eerily mirror the fraught relationship that has led to the COVID-19 pandemic. One view of the Mahabharata war is that it was, in essence, a property dispute between royal families that resulted in many deaths and possible destruction of the environment and ecology, as many wars are wont to do. Even before the war, the Pandava clan burnt the forest of Khandava-prastha along with many forest creatures to build their city of Indraprastha.
The residents of the forest, the Naga, did not forgive them and their descendants for the destruction of their habitat. There is a description of a snake sacrifice in the Adi Parva. Emperor Janamejaya, a descendent of the Pandavas, bore a grudge against serpents because his father Parikshit had died of snakebite. He decided to wipe out snakes by performing a sacrifice. The origin of the snake sacrifice is tied to the destruction of the Khandava forest by the Pandava, the ancestors of Janamejaya. Another episode in the Adi Parva narrates how King Sambarana neglected his administrative duties, causing displeasure to the rain god Indra who then caused a drought in his kingdom.
The COVID-19 pandemic may also be seen as a property dispute, between human beings and their environment. The human race has destroyed the environment by appropriating ecological areas for their own profit. Such appropriation has resulted in a disturbance of the ecological equilibrium and resulted in the exposure of humans to viruses such as Ebola and the novel coronavirus, which were previously sequestered in animals. The disequilibrium caused by these exposures has resulted in huge losses to lives and economy.
Jane Goodall notes that the health of people, animals and the environment are intimately connected. She note that wildlife trafficking, the production of animal-based medicines, factory farming, and the destruction of critical habitats all can create enabling conditions for viruses to spill over from their animal hosts into humans.
Vast, and accelerating, extraction of fossil fuels and natural resources to power the world’s wants is destroying natural habitats and driving wildlife to extinction. The use and disposal of these resources has polluted our air, water and soil with toxic elements, particulate matter and carbon. The latter is driving the climate crisis. Pollution, in turn, is posing escalating threats to humans and wildlife. In short, damage due to profligate resource extraction is being exacerbated by the consequences of their use and disposal.
Climate change has amplified extreme climatic events: heat waves directly increase morbidity and mortality among both humans and wildlife – and indirectly affect crops, increase the intensity of droughts and make wildfires ever more frequent and intense. Destabilised rainfall is manifesting in a greater fraction of short intense rainfall events separated by lengthening dry spells, both of which are decreasing fresh water availability. While this is bad news for each individual event, the effects are worse when compounded. The effects of longer, more intense summer heat waves followed more often by an erratic monsoon are far graver than each alone.
These are merely two of the manifestations of anthropogenic climate change. In addition, sea level rise threatens to increase groundwater salinity in coastal regions, ocean acidification killing corals and marine life, expanding ocean dead zones because of changes in ocean circulation, and much more. Environmental changes have far outpaced the rate of evolutionary change. While humans may be adaptable, wildlife is much less so. And eventually, their loss becomes our loss.
The conflict between human beings and their environment is exemplified by climate change, the long-term impacts of which lead to devastating effects on human beings. One of these is the concern that conditions have become conducive for the spread of infectious diseases. For example, floods create conducive environments for numerous health consequences resulting from disease transmission. Floodwaters contaminated with human or animal waste can increase the rate of faecal-oral disease transmission, allowing diarrhoeal disease and other bacterial and viral illnesses to flourish.
Faecal-oral transmission of diseases is of particular concern in regions such as South Asia because of limited access to clean water and sanitation. Melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost because of accelerated rates of warming in high latitudes may release long-latent viruses and bacteria that modern civilisation has no experience with, and consequently, no natural resistance to.
It is tempting to think Mother Nature is sending us a warning to clean up our act in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nature, however, has evolved as a random series of events with no specific agency, which has resulted in the formation and sustenance of life. But human beings do try to see order and organisation in life and the real dharma in this age and environment is to recognise that we have disrupted nature and put the environment and ecology at risk.
As an example from the Mahabharata, Krishna argues for the creation of an efficient administration to look after forests, and setting up of wildlife reserves and sanctuaries. It is in our best interests to take inspiration from examples such as these by finding alternative ways of living that do not involve the exploitation of nature and animals. And who should be the leaders of such a ‘dharmayuddha’? Naturally, it would be the young people of Greta Thunberg’s generation. They have the most to lose.
Dr Ramana Dhara is a professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad, and a member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal.