Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Are there plants in India?

Could plants have been conceived by the Indian traditions in exactly the same way as in the (basically Western) contemporary world-view? The category of “plant may end up appearing less uncontroversial then initially assumed. On the one hand, “plants” do not constitute a coherent whole in Indian views; on the other hand, what we consider to be “plants” are not always sharply distinguished from what we would rather call “animals” or “matter”. By the way, one may note that similar problems arise even within the Western common understanding of plants, as soon as it is pushed towards less-common cases, such as see animals like corals (often considered to be plants, since they do not move), or phytoplancton (often considered to be made of animals –possibly because it moves through the oceans), not to speak about bacteria and micro-organisms. On a similar vein, we can detect extensions and inner partitions within what we would call “plants” in Indian traditions. First, in many texts (especially Vedic and early Jain ones) “plants” are seen as sentient, but only insofar as they are part of a cosmos which is in all its aspects not conceived as inert. In this case, plants are part of the same organic continuum embracing all elements of the universe and the universe itself as a whole. Second, in other texts plants (especially trees) are connected to Plant-Deities. The exact link between a plant and the Deity inhabiting it is not easy to ascertain, especially because one has to understand it out of narrative or religious texts which only incidentally deal with the issue. The Deity seems often to be conceived as inseparable from the tree, although in other (later?) cases it is said to be able to leave the plant and move into another one. In any case, it cannot live out of a plant, but for such short shifts. In some (again, later?) cases, Deities are said to have limbs, children and so on, and seem, hence, to be conceived in an anthropomorphic way. One wonders whether –at a stage which can only be inferred out of the texts preserved– the plants inhabited by a Deity were themselves thought of as Deities, or as Deities' bodies and not just Deities' abodes. Third, “plants” are not equal: almost all texts (until contemporary ones) take for granted the higher status of trees (often called vanaspati) among “plants”. Both phytotherapy and contemporary actions in favour of plants focus on the preservation of trees. From a different point of view, the more generative parts of plants (seeds, sprouts, blossoms, etc.) are deemed to deserve a greater respect, this time in Jain and Early Buddhist texts. Lastly, in many philosophical texts one witnesses a sort of “rationalistic” attitude against the evidence in favour of the sentience of plants found in Dharmaśāstra and/or narrative texts. While reading such philosophical texts one sometimes gets the impression that they are reacting against a popular belief. Thus, from their point of view they are proposing a neutral, rationale view against a folkloristic one. A Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā primer (Rāmānujācārya's Tantrarahasya), for instance, counts plants as living beings, but excludes them –overtly dissenting from some Manusmṛti quotations– from the possibility of fruition (bhoga) and, hence, from the reign of karman-bound creatures. Later Buddhist texts even state that plants do not live and classify them on the same level of earth, rocks, etc.

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