Depiction of Nature in the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka
There are 6400 species of fish in Jambudīpa, 4500 species of birds and 2400 species of animals. There are 10000 species of trees, 8000 species of grass, 740 types of medicinal herbs and 43 types of aromatic plants.
Dvādaśaviharaṇa Sūtra 
The Buddha was born in and spent his whole life in what was then called the Middle Land, (majjhima-desa), the broad fertile plains surrounding the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. After his passing his teachings were committed to memory and later compiled into what is now known as the Pali Tipiṭaka, the sacred scriptures of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The age of the Tipiṭaka is problematic but the core material in the Sutta Piṭaka probably dates from between the 5th and 3d centuries BCE. The exception to this are some of the books in the Khuddaka Nikāya, particularly the Jātaka. Most of the verses (gāthā) of the Jātaka book, the only part considered canonical, are probably about the same age as the Vinaya Piṭaka (4th to 3rd centuries BCE). The prose stories (atīta-vatthu) are somewhat later and the ‘introduction’ (nidāna-kathā), the ‘story of the present’ (paccuppanna-vatthu) and the ‘connection’ (samodhāna) are later still, although exactly how late is difficult to say. All these parts of the Jātaka will be used in this study. The Jātaka also reflect a knowledge of a wider geographical area than do the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas and include what is now lower Gharawal and Kumaon and the desert regions of Rajasthan.
While the bulk of the Tipiṭaka is concerned with the Buddha’s teachings, it nonetheless contains a great deal of incidental information about the social, economic, cultural and political life of the Buddha’s time. It also tells us much about the natural environment of ancient northern India and how people were influenced by and related to it. Giving a broad overview of this environment the Buddha said that ‘few in number are pleasant parks, forests, stretches of land and lakes, while more numerous are the steep rugged places, uncrossable rivers, dense thickets of scrub and thorns and inaccessible mountains’ (A I 35).
The flora and fauna found in any area are determined to a large extent by the seasons, the climate and the soil and the Tipiṭaka contains information about all three. Following the system found in the Ṛg Veda the first Buddhists divided time into years made up of 12 months of 30 days each, divided into two fortnights totaling 360 days altogether (A IV 252). These time divisions were based on the observation of the sun, moon and stars (D III 86). The year was divided into three main seasons of four months each summer (gimhāna), the rainy season (vassāna) and winter (hemanta; A IV 138–39). During the summer (mid-March to mid-July), temperatures in north India can get as high as 43 °C. The trees flower and loose their leaves while hot winds blow dirt and dust into the air (S V 321). Even animals would be affected by the heat. The Buddha said that by the end of summer ‘the grass and the water’ would disappear and the deer became emaciated and listlessness (M I 152). During the rainy season or monsoon (mid-July to mid-November) the temperature drops to about 20 °C and as much as 20 cm of rain can fall in a day. Every day, usually in the afternoon, one is sure to see ‘a great rain cloud, thundering and pouring down refreshing rain everywhere, drenching the highlands and lowlands…’ (It 66). Sometimes it would pour down for seven days straight (Ja II 269; 445; III 73). As still happens today, rivers would break their banks, insects proliferate and the landscape would become green. During this time Buddhist monks and other ascetics would stay in one place because of the difficulty in travelling.
The importance of the monsoon for farmers and also plant and animal life was emphasized by the Buddha when he said: ‘Rain sustains the life of all creatures on earth’ (S I 37), and: ‘Abundant rain brings to perfection all crops for the good, the welfare and happiness of the many’ (A IV 244). If the monsoon failed, as it sometimes did, it would spell disaster for all life. The resulting drought would cause ‘destitute people to wander here and there with their children in tow’ and compel others to resort to banditry (Ja II 367; VI 487). Crows would abandon the cities for the forest because people no longer fed them scraps, and fish and tortoises would bury themselves in the mud of their rapidly evaporating ponds in a desperate struggle to survive (Ja I 331; II 149). Too much rain could also cause havoc. ‘In hope farmers till their fields, their sons and wives coming to help. But rain destroys all their labour or lightning blights it’ (Mvu II 59). With the coming of winter (mid-November to mid-January) the temperature drops considerably, as low as 5 °C and in the morning the grass and trees are covered with dew. The ancient Indians did not understand the process of evaporation and thought dew disappeared into the ground as the sun rose (A IV 137; Ja IV 120). Occasionally winter nights get cold enough for frost to form (M I 79, A I 136).
Two minor seasons are occasionally mentioned as well; autumn (sārada), the month-long transition between the rainy season and the winter, and spring (vasanta), the transition between winter and summer. During the autumn ‘the air is clear, the sky cloudless and the sun breaking through the morning mist is hard to look at’ (D II 183; Sn 687). This is also the time when the crops start to grow more robustly (M I 116). During the last month of the rainy season the soil would still be moist and easy to turn so farmers would plough their fields in preparation for the winter planting (D II 183; S III 155). In the Nidānakathā, Udāyī Thera described the beauty of the countryside at the beginning of spring like this: ‘The winter is ended, the spring has begun, people have gathered in the harvest and are taking it along the roads. The ground is covered with fresh green grass, the forest trees are in bloom and the roads are suitable for travelling’ (Ja I 86). A character in the Therīgāthā says: ‘The sweet smell and the pollen of the flowers are spread in all directions by the towering trees. Indeed, early spring is a happy time’ (Thī 371).
Although there is no direct reference to the solstices in the Tipiṭaka the mention of the regular and irregular courses (pathagamana and uppathagamana, D I 10) of the sun and moon suggest an awareness of them. The mention of ‘the eights’ (antaraṭṭhakāsu), the four nights on either side of the full moon of summer and winter months also point to the solstices. The Buddha said that before his enlightenment as an austerity he would spend the days of the summer ‘eights’ and the nights of the winter ‘eights’ in the open, alternately scorched and chilled (M I 79). The Vinaya describes how he tried to calculate the number of robes monks would need to keep warm during the winter ‘eights’ (Vin I 288).
The Tipiṭaka includes some observations about various meteorological phenomena related to the seasons and the weather. The Buddha identified different types of clouds which correspond in some ways to the modern cloud formation classification. The five types he mentioned are cool clouds (sita), warm clouds (uṇha), storm or thunder clouds (abbha or thaneti), wind-blown clouds (vāta) and rain clouds (vassa, S III 254). He also mentioned mahikā which might refer to the thick mist or fog that often occurs in early morning during the winter months (Vin II 295). Alternatively it may refer to nimbostratus clouds, those low, dark cloud formations which often produce hail or snow. Likewise, the ‘hundred-peaked cloud, thundering, garlanded in lightning and which pours down rain’ would be a good description of cumulonimbus clouds, sometimes also called thunderheads, the dense, towering, vertical cloud formations associated with the monsoon (A III 34).
The Buddha observed that rain falls in at least two different ways: in large drops (thulla phusitaka) as during a monsoon downpour, and in small scattered drops (ekaṃ ekaṃ), as when it is drizzling (A I 243; S I 104). He also commented that the failure of the rains for agriculture could be due to such things as heat, wind or the rain falling in the sea. Changes in the temperature, specifically the heat (teja), or the wind in the upper atmosphere (upari ākāsa), would disperse the clouds (A III 243). Simple people believed that gods like Sakka and Vassavalāhakadevarāja, the Rain Cloud King, could also make it rain (Ja I 330). It was commonly held that widespread immorality or an unjust ruler would disrupt rainfall, a belief the Buddha subscribed to. ‘It rains at the wrong time and fails to rain at the right time because of the bad king’ (A II 74–5; Ja II 124). Some ascetics preyed on people’s anxieties about the rains by claiming to be able to predict good or bad rainfall (D I 11).
A meteorological phenomenon common during the monsoon is lightning (vijju or akkhana). Some of the early Upaniṣads such as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka attributed to lightning various mystical meanings and associations whereas the Buddha treated it matter of fact as something that occurred together with storm clouds, thunder and rain (D I 262). He had personal experience of how dangerous it could be. Once when he was staying in a particular village ‘the lightning flashed and the thunder crashed and two farmers, brothers, and four oxen were killed’ (D II 131). The mention of lightning destroying all a farmer’s labors probably refers to it striking a field and setting fire to the crop (Mvu II 59).
Another meteorological phenomenon the Buddha discussed was the winds that ‘blow back and forth across the sky’ (S IV 218). He differentiated them according to the direction they blow from, their temperature, strength, and whether or not they carry dust. Thus they blow from either the north, south, east or west, they can be hot or cool, squalls (adhimatta vāta) or breezes (paritta vāta) and they can carry dust (saraja vāta) or not (araja). The only aspect of wind included in modern analysis that the Buddha did not mention is velocity. Another type of wind mentioned in the text is the air currents or thermals (veramba) that can rise to great altitudes. The Jātaka specifically says that vultures use these thermals to glide and soar (Ja III 255; 484). There is also a brief mention of whirlwinds (maṇḍala vāta, Ja I 72).
There is some evidence that the early Buddhists attempted to give naturalistic explanations for certain atmospheric phenomena related to seasonal changes. The Milindapañha asks why it is that the sun appears to shine with more glare in the winter when it is cool than in the summer when it is hot. The answer given is because in the summer the wind blows dust into the atmosphere and the resulting airborne dust particles deflect the sun’s rays (Mil 274).
The soils found in the Ganges plain are mainly entisols, alfisols and ultisols with some vertisols. The Vṛkṣāyurveda, an ancient work on trees, mentions three soil types—arid, marshy and ordinary—and further sub-divides these according to colour and fertility. The Tipiṭaka mentions a variety of soils—clay (mattikā), fine clay or kaolinite (saṇhamattikā), yellowish clay (paṇḍumattikā), sandy (vālikā), black alluvium (kālijallikā), deep, compact alluvium (kalalagahara), pebbly and gravelly (pāsāṇasakkharā), compact soil (bhūmighana), and sweet soil and sour soil (madhuraṃ paṃsu, amadhuraṃ paṃsu). Salty soil (ūsara), known as usar in Hindi, refers to those patches of ground found in parts of Bihar which contain high concentrations of carbonate of soda, sulfate of soda, lime and magnesium (A IV 237; Ja III 580; M III 94). The Tipiṭaka also comments that the soil in deforested areas might be poor (dubbhūmi, D II 353), and that the top soil in Avanti is dark and hard (kaṇhuttarā bhūmi kharā, Vin I 197).
A wide variety of habitats are mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, most of them recognizable even today. Some of these are mixed thicket (omissaka-gahana), dense jungle (vana-saṇḍa), sal forests (sāla-vana), grassland (gaccha), plains (thala), thickets (pagumba), mixed woodland (kaṇṭaka-gumba or jaṅgala), expanses of low scrub (khuddaka-gacchavana), thorny scrub (kubbanaka), undergrowth (vanatha), grass thickets (tiṇa-gahana or tiṇa-dāya), bamboo jungle (veḷugahana), uninhabited forest (nimmanussaka brahārañña), waste land (vivana), rugged hills (pabbata-visama), tablelands or plateaus (pabbatatala) and denuded hills (muṇḍa-pabbataka). Included also are the various wetland habitats such as river banks (kūla or nadītīra), lakes (daha or sara), ponds and seasonal pools (talāka), flooded meadows (kaccha), swamps (anūpa) and marshes (palipa or udaka-daha) with their reed banks (naḷa-vana), water plants and floating vegetation (sevāla-paṇaka). The Jātaka mentions semi-arid tracts (kantāra) and deserts (maru-kantāra or nirudaka-kantāra), which may be an early reference to Rajasthan’s Thar Desert just beyond the western edge of the Middle Land.
Also mentioned are lowlands (ninna) which could have included floodplains: the Jātaka describes a lake around which ‘some high ground, in hardened mud, grew lush green grass on which fed hares, deer and other light animals’ (Ja II 26).  The large silt and sand islands (pulina) formed by the annual flooding of the major rivers and which provides a home for animals like the swamp deer, are also mentioned. One Jātaka describes a body of water near a river which would join the river during floods (Ja II 79). This is a good description of what are called jeels or chaurs in Hindi, old river-beds now cut off from the present river and which form long marshes or lakes. Other habitats included man-made ones such as the muddy, stagnant village ponds (jambāla) and the irrigation reservoirs and tanks (pokkharaṇī and vāpi) that dotted the countryside. These are filled with reeds, lotuses and other aquatic plants and became a home for crabs, mussels, fish and frogs as well as the birds that fed off them. Paddy fields (sālikhetta) too, were an excellent habitat for various animals.
The most important topographical feature of the Middle Land and one that had a profound impact on the environment was its rivers, the main ones mentioned in the Tipiṭaka being the Ganges, the Yamunā, the Aciravatī, the Sarabhū, and the Mahī (A V 22). The first two of these retain their names, the third is now called the Rapti, the fourth Sarayu while the identities of the last river is uncertain. Historically, natural watercourses have been categorized according to their size, from large to small, as rivers, streams and brooks, although these hydrologic distinctions are imprecise. Nothing like this categorization exists in the Tipiṭaka. Words such as gaṅgā and nadī were prefixed with mahā to indicate major rivers while other words like āpagā, kunadi, sara and savantī were combined with adjectives to indicate other types of watercourses, e.g. mountain brook (girinadī, Th 310), fast-flowing creek (sīghasara, Sn 3), shallow stream (kunnadiṃ uttānatalaṃ, Ja III 221) or uncrossable rivers (nadīvidugga, A I 35). The Milindapañha mentions intermittent rivers, i.e. those that dry up in the summer, saying that they cannot be rightly be called rivers for this reason (Mil 114). An intermittent river is described as having ‘large undulating sandbanks along its twisting and meandering course’ (Mil 297). The Nerañjarā which flows passed Bodh Gaya and several other rivers in the Middle Land could well fit this description. The meandering of natural watercourses was noted and a Jātaka observes that: ‘All rivers wind as they go’ (Ja I 289).
Some of the rivers that flow through the Ganges plain are two, three or even more kilometres wide. When the Buddha and the monks and nuns who were accompanying him on his sojourns arrived at a river, they would often have to look for a boat or other craft or try to make a raft out of reeds and branches in order to get across (D II 89; M I 135–36). So for the Buddha, who spent much of his life traversing the country, rivers were, more than anything else, a challenging obstacle. It is not surprising, therefore, that he often used rivers and things associated with them as metaphors for the spiritual quest and its goal. He called the ordinary worldly state ‘this bank’ (ora) and Nirvana ‘the further bank’ (pāra). He named the first stage of enlightenment ‘entering the stream’, which would be a preliminary to swimming across a river. Attitudinal and emotional negativities like greed, hatred and desire were ‘torrents’ or ‘floods’ (ogha) that could sweep one away. He said of a monk who studied the Dhamma diligently that he is ‘one who knows a ford’ (titthaṃ jānāti, M I 221). The cowherd Nanda assured the Buddha of his determination and ability to be a good monk by saying: ‘Lord, I will not get stuck on this bank nor will I get stranded on the far bank. I shall not sink in midstream and I shall not run aground on a sandbar. May the Lord accept me as a monk’ (S IV 181). In one of his most famous similes the Buddha likened his teachings to an improvised raft, which, after it had been used to cross a river, could be abandoned; the idea being that even something as precious as the freedom-giving Dhamma should not be clung to (M I 136). Every time wayfaring monks or nuns found their progress blocked by a great river sliding silently along, or a simple cowherd like Nanda took his animals down to a river to drink, they would have been reminded of some aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.
The Buddha described rain storms in the mountains filling pools and lakes from where the water fed brooks and creeks (A II 140). He also described a mountain river (nadī pabbata) as ‘winding this way and that, cascading, carrying everything along with it, not stopping for a minute, a second, an instant, rushing and swirling forward’ (A IV 137). Such rivers might have grasses, reeds and trees overhanging both banks (S III 137). Streams and rivers shape the landscape particularly when they are in flood. The Acivaratī (i.e. Rapti) was, and still is, notoriously prone to flash floods. When it rained in the river’s upper reaches in the Himalayan foothills, it would break its banks and sometimes wash away crops (Ja IV 167). Flooding rivers allow for the migration of aquatic animals, the dispersal of seeds, the rejuvenation of wetlands (Ja II 79–80) and the enrichment of the soil by depositing silt (kalalagahaṇa) and mud (kaddama) over the surrounding countryside. Mountain streams such as those in the lower Himalayas carry away sand, gravel and even rocks when in flood (Mil 197).
Not actually in the Middle Land but forming its northern border are the Himalayas, sometimes called the Lord of Mountains (Pabbatarāja, S II 137).
These mountains are only occasionally mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, as when it comments that the Buddha once stayed in a hut in a part of the Himalayas administered by Kosala (S I 116). This must refer to the subtropical broadleaf forests or perhaps even the higher subtropical pine forest zone of Nepal or Uttarakhand. Rugged (dugga) and undulating (visama) areas, tableland (bhūmibhāga), inhabited and uninhabited places and areas of great natural beauty in the Himalayas are also mentioned (S V 148). The Milindapañha says that 500 rivers have their source in the Himalayas (Mil 114). Most of the other references to these mountains are either stereotyped or idealized. The southern perimeter of the Middle Land is defined by the Mizrapur Hills, the Rajmahal Hills and the Vindhyachal Range. These may have been the Dakkhiṇagiri the Buddha sometimes mentiond and occasionally visited (Vin I 207).
Pāṇini classified all life broadly into two types—moving and still. Animate creatures were divided into humans and animals, and animals were sub-divided as either domestic or wild. The Buddha also sometimes classified life forms as moving (tasa) and still (thāvara, Sn 146; 394), and further classified animate life according to either the number of their legs or their mode of birth. Thus living beings are either legless, two-legged, four-legged or multi-legged (A V 21), or alternatively, womb-born, egg-born, moisture-born or spontaneously-born, as in the case of divine beings (S III 240). On one occasion only the Buddha differentiated animals according to their habitat as those living in burrows, in water, in the forest or in the air (A II 33). This may be an earlier version of the habitational classifications proposed by the ancient Ayurvedic physicians Caraka and Suśruta.
Some later Buddhists attempted to classify life forms according to the fineness of the food they ate. In this schema crocodiles were the lowest because they were known to sometimes eat pebbles, higher still were peafowl which feed on snakes and scorpions, then came hyenas which can digest horn and bone, then elephants, deer, cows, hares, etc. in ascending order. Higher than these were humans, first villagers, then urbanites, followed by kings and their courtiers, and at the top were the gods who lived on ambrosia (As 331).
According to the ancient Indian reckoning, all plants were of seven types: medicinal herbs (oṣadhī), forest trees (vanaspati), fruit and flower-bearing trees (vṛkṣa),  shrubs (gulma), grasses (tṛṇa), plants with tendrils (pratāna) and vines (vallī). The Buddha classified them as either medicinal herbs, grasses or forest trees (osadhī, tiṇa, vanappatayo, A IV 100). He considered plants to be a one-facultied life form (ekindriya), although he did not mention which faculty they possessed. He distinguished plants according to whether they were propagated by roots (mūla), stems (khandha), joints (phalu), cuttings (agga) or seeds (bīja, D I 5).
The various theories of kamma that were emerging in both orthodox and unorthodox circles during the 6th to 3rd centuries BCE may have been based in part on speculation on the analogy of generation in the plant world. Certainly, the concept of kamma was often explained in such terms. ‘Whatever type of seed is sown, that is the type of fruit one reaps. The doer of good reaps good, the doer of evil reaps evil’ (S I 227). The Buddha called intentional good or bad deeds ‘seeds’ (bīja) and their kammic results ‘fruits’ (phala). He spoke of his order of monks and nuns as being ‘an unsurpassed field of merit’ (anuttaraṃ puññakkhettaṃ) where seeds of merit could be sown. To make some of his ideas more understandable he sometimes equated them with various agricultural tasks: ‘Just as when a seed is sown in a field and grows depending on two factors, the nutrition in the soil and a good supply of water, so too, the aggregates, elements and the six bases of sense contact have come to be dependent on a cause and when the cause breaks up they will cease’ (S I 134). In another discourse he compared the various steps in the spiritual life to the process of ploughing: ‘Faith is the seed, austerity the rain, and wisdom is my yoke and plough. Modesty is the plough-pole, mind the strap and mindfulness is my ploughshare and goad’ (Sn 77).
Like any sensitive person, the Buddha was fascinated by the diversity of the natural world he saw around him. He commented: ‘I know of no other type of living beings as diverse as those of the animal kingdom’ (S III 152). This awareness of and sensitivity to animals meant that he took them into account in his Dhamma, particularly in his cosmology and his ethics. According to his understanding, the animal kingdom (tiracchānayoni) is one of the six realms of existence beings can be reborn into, the others being purgatory, the realm of hungry spirits, of jealous spirits, heaven and the human realm. The Buddha believed that more human beings were reborn as animals than as humans (A I 35) and that it was a distinct disadvantage to be an animal. It would be difficult, he said, to describe the suffering animals have to endure given that their whole world is dominated by ‘eating each other and preying off the weak’ (M III 169). The Buddhacarita, a Sanskrit biography of the Buddha from about 2nd century CE, put it like this: ‘As soon as they meet one another, those creatures who live in the sky are attacked by those who live in the sky; those who live in water, by those who live in water; those who live on the ground, by those who live on the ground.’
Likewise animals lack the ability to comprehend the Dhamma and have only the most rudimentary moral sense. As evidence of this he pointed out that animals will even mate with their offspring (A I 51). Animals’ moral and cognitive inferiority to humans did not mean that the early Buddhists considered them unworthy of consideration. As far as sensitivity to pain and the desire to avoid it are concerned, all beings are the same. The Jātakamāla, a retelling in Sanskrit of a selection of Jātaka stories, says: ‘Because animals are dull by nature we should have sympathy for them. When it comes to being happy and avoiding suffering, all beings are the same. Therefore if you find something unpleasant you should not inflict it on others.’ (Jm XXII.25–6).
It should also be pointed out that on several occasions the Buddha acknowledged that in some ways animals can be better than humans (M I 341). Once he commented that an old jackal that was howling before sunrise had more gratitude than a particular monk he knew (S II 272). On another occasion he rebuked some monks who were arguing and then added: ‘If animals can be courteous, deferential and polite towards each other, so should you be’ (Vin II 162). The Jātaka makes this comparison between animals and humans: ‘Easy to understand is the yelp of jackals and the song of birds. But to interpret what humans really mean when they speak is difficult indeed’ (Ja IV 217). It is interesting to note that some two centuries after the Buddha, one of the points discussed during the Third Buddhist Council was whether or not animals could be reborn in heaven. Those who believed that this was possible pointed out that Erāvaṇa, the mount of the god Indra, was an elephant. The Theravādins countered this by saying that if this was taken literally it would require that there also be stables, fodder, animal trainers, grooms, etc. in heaven, something that was considered to be clearly ridiculous (Kv XX.4).
While marvelling at the diversity of animal life, the Buddha was a careful enough observer to notice that humans are a single species, despite the widely accepted Brahminical claim that each caste represented a sig-nificantly different type. The Buddha’s response to this claim was to say that the different biological and zoological species are separated by barriers to reproduction, with hybrids usually being sterile (M II 153). Different human groups, by contrast, are clearly interfertile and thus must be a single species. He said:
‘Consider the grass and the trees. Although they do not speak of it, their characteristics are due to their species and truly there are many different species. Consider grasshoppers and ants… quadrupeds great and small… snakes with their long backs and which go on their bellies… water-living fish in their watery home… and birds, those wing-goers, those sky-travellers… In these species there are many different characteristics but amongst humans the differences are few. Not in hair or head, ears, eyes, mouth or nose, lips or eyebrows; not in neck or shoulders, belly, back or buttocks, chest, vagina or testicles; not in hands or feet, fingers or nails, calves or thighs, colour or voice is there any different characteristics due to species as in other creatures. The bodies of humans are not significantly different from each other as in animals.’ (Sn 601–10)
For the Buddha, if a distinction were to be made between human beings, it should be based on their individual behaviour or their level of comprehension, not on what caste they were born into. ‘Whether it be a castor oil bush, a pucimanda or a pālibhaddaka, if a man looking for honey finds it there, then for him that is the best tree. Likewise, the best person is he from whom one learns the Dhamma, whether he be of the warrior, Brahmin or merchant caste, low caste or outcaste’ (Ja IV 205).
That special regard for animals which later became such a feature of Indian civilization and which in part was due to the influence of Buddhism, was still in its infancy during the Buddha’s time. Animals were still being slaughtered at Vedic sacrifices although this was being looked upon with increasing unease. Indeed, the Buddha was one of the most vocal critics of these bloody rituals (A IV 41; 50). He condemned animal sacrifices as being both cruel and wasteful. He said his monks might attend a sacrifice but only on condition that no bulls, goats, sheep, poultry or pigs were slaughtered, no trees were felled to make sacrificial posts and no grass was cut for use in the sacrificial ritual (D I 141). For the Buddha, gentleness and kindness to all was a fundamental moral principle and also an essential step in an individual’s spiritual development. The first requirement in his code of moral discipline is to ‘abstain from killing, to lay aside the stick and the sword and to live with care, kindness and compassion for all living creatures’ (D I 4). Anyone who wanted to be his disciple was expected ‘not to kill, encourage others to kill or approve of killing’ (A V 306).
For the Buddha, love and compassion were incomplete if they were not extended to all sentient beings. He said that if a monk found an animal in a trap and out of compassion set it free, he would not be guilty of theft, even if conventional opinion considered the animal to be the property of the hunter who had set the trap (Vin III 62). Even the most insignificant life forms should, the Buddha said, be included in the ambit of a person’s kindly regard. One of the eight things that he allowed his monks and nuns to have as their personal property was a strainer to filter tiny creatures from water (Vin II 118). Monastics were expected to check water before using it to make sure there were no creatures in it (Vin IV 48–9). It was these tiny creatures that the Buddha was alluding to when he said that he had ‘compassion even for a drop of water’ (M I 78). Monks and nuns were also asked to avoid unnecessarily damaging plants and their seeds (M I 345).
These and similar ideas amongst the Jains had a profound effect on the Indian attitude to animals and later on all the peoples amongst whom Buddhism spread. In India, it became a custom during the summer to draw water from wells and put it in troughs for wild animals to drink (Ja II 70) and to put baskets in trees or under the eaves of houses for birds to nest in (Ja II 361). People would observe what were called non-killing days (māghāta) when no animals would be slaughtered and no meat would be available in the markets (Vin I 217). Such days would be announced by the beating of a drum (Ja IV 428). At a later period such non-killing days were given legal sanction by various Buddhist, Jain and Hindu monarchs. Vegetarianism eventually became common in India although Buddhism, at least early Buddhism, did not have a direct role to play in this development. Vegetarianism was practised by some of the unorthodox sects of the time. One of the ascetic practices the Buddha adhered to before his enlightenment was abstaining from meat and fish (M I 77). The Ājīvakas and Jains were vegetarian (M I 238), although others were not. The ascetic Kaḷāramuṭṭhaka, for example, had taken a vow to consume only meat and alcohol although this did not prevent him being highly esteemed by the people of Vesāli (D III 9). The Buddha did not require either his monastic or lay disciples to abstain from meat. As far as monks and nuns were concerned, it was acceptable to eat meat on the condition that they did not see, hear or suspect that the person offering the meal had killed the animal specifically for them (M I 368–71).
There are several places in the Tipiṭaka that mention in passing the Buddha or certain monks or nuns eating meat. The Aṅguttara Nikāya comments that a man sent his servant to the market to buy meat so it could be prepared and offered to the Buddha (A IV 187). Another text describes how a group of people ‘boiled porridge and rice, made soup and minced meat’ (maṃsāni koṭṭenti) while preparing a feast for the Buddha and his monks (Vin I 239). On another occasion some men slaughtered a cow, cooked it and then one of them gave ‘the choice cuts of the cooked meat’ (maṃse pakke varamaṃsāni) to a nun who subsequently dressed it and offered it to the Buddha (Vin III 208). A monk who was possessed by a malevolent spirit is said to have gone to ‘the place where pigs are slaughtered’ and eaten raw flesh and drunk blood, apparently the accepted cure for this affliction. According to the Vinaya the Buddha permitted this rather drastic remedy (Vin I 201–02).
There are sufficient references in the Tipiṭaka to show that meat-eating was the norm during the Buddha’s time. Slaughter houses are occasionally referred to (Ja VI 62; M I 130; Vin I 202) and people are often mentioned consuming the meat of domestic and wild animals. Meat would be roasted or minced and it would be preserved by drying or salting (Ja I 243; II 245). It was usual to eat meat or fish while drinking spirits (Ja II 211; III 287; V 12; 466) and all three were considered acceptable as offerings to the various nature gods people propitiated (Ja I 425; 489). The fact that hunters were grouped with bamboo workers, flower scavengers and carriage makers as those practising a despised occupation (A I 107) is not evidence that killing animals was widely disapproved of. These occupations may have been looked down upon, not because they were considered immoral or impure, but rather because the groups that did them, caṇḍāla, pukkusa and sudda, were considered so.
That the early Buddhists were familiar with the complex food taboos of Brahminism is evidenced by the comment in the Jātaka that ‘those of the warrior caste may knowingly eat the meat of the five five-clawed creatures’ (Ja V 489). According to Brahminical legal texts it was forbidden to eat the meat of animals that had five claws and two rows of incisor teeth. The exceptions to this rule, the so-called five five-clawed creatures (pañca pañcanakha) were, according to the Jātaka commentary, the hare (sasaka), porcupine (sallaka), monitor lizard (godhā), monkey (kapi), and tortoise (kumma). Brahminical texts list somewhat different animals.
The Buddhists argued against or more usually simply ignored many of the superstitions of the time, including Brahminical food taboos. Monks and nuns were not allowed to eat the flesh of certain animals, although the reasons given for such prohibitions were rational ones. Eating elephant and horse flesh for example, might bring unwelcome attention from kings who regarded such animals as symbols of royalty. Dogs and snakes were widely considered loathsome and eating them would attract social disapproval. Lions, hyenas and other large predators were believed to be able to smell the meat of their kind on someone who had eaten it and would attack them. The evidence given for this last reason was that some hunters had offered lion meat to a forest-dwelling monk who ate it and was subsequently mauled by a lion. A similar thing happened to monks who ate tiger, leopard and bear flesh (Vin I 219–20).
In the Tipiṭaka it is the Jains who are depicted as the strongest advocates of vegetarianism and on this issue they were also noisy critics of the Buddha. In one Sutta they are depicted as follows: ‘Many Jains went through the town, through the main roads and side streets, the alleys and the lanes, waving their arms and shouting; “The general Sīha has this very day slaughtered a large creature to feed to the monk Gotama and he is going to eat it knowing that it was slaughtered specifically for him”.’ (A IV 187; Vin I 237). This accusation was actually false.
Unlike the four Nikāyas, the somewhat later Jātakas have divergent voices on the issue of vegetarianism. Adhering to the earlier position that monastics can eat meat if they have not seen, heard or suspected that an animal was killed specifically for them (M I 369), the Telovāda Jātaka goes as far as to say that even eating the flesh of one’s parent would be acceptable if such conditions were met (Ja II 263). This is clearly hyperbolic but it does suggest that the non-vegetarian side of the debate was feeling pressure from the advocates of vegetarianism. At least three Jātakas (No. 75, 434 and 451) hint at a shift towards vegetarianism.
Whether or not the Jātaka stories can really be attributed to the Buddha as tradition maintains, they do give a good idea of the early Buddhist attitude towards animals. The animals in these stories are often depicted in a most sympathetic manner and sometimes in contrast to the greed, thoughtlessness and cruelty of humans. Even plants were sometimes attributed with having the noblest human-like qualities. According to one Jātaka story, wayside trees lowered their branches so that hungry and weary travellers could reach their fruits (Ja VI 513).
Despite the humanizing influence of the Buddha’s teachings, cruelty to animals was common enough both during his time and later. Butchers, hunters and fishermen are occasionally mentioned and the Jātaka comments that ‘elephants are killed for their tusks and leopards for their skins’ (Ja VI 61). There are also incidences in the Tipiṭaka of children tormenting animals and the Buddha admonishing them for doing so (Ud 11). Despite claiming privileges because of their priestly role, some Brahmins built huts in the forest and set traps to catch hares, cats, monitor lizards, fish and tortoises, something the Buddhists criticized them for (Ja IV 364). Villagers supplemented their diets by hunting wild animals in nearby forests and gathering honey and eggs from them.
Early Buddhist texts warn that those who kill animals; fishermen, hunters of wild pigs and butchers who slaughter bulls and goats; will all be reborn in purgatory (Ja V 270; VI 111). Later Buddhist texts such as the Mahāvastu describe some of these infernal realms and the actions that could lead to rebirth in them. In doing so, it also gives an idea of the cruelty that was sometimes inflicted on animals:
‘Those who in the world cause worms to be squashed, the earth to be dug up… who beat creatures with clubs with the leaves still on them, or who crush nits, lice and sāṃkuśas, are reborn there as a maturing of their karma … Those who in the world enslave beings who are without protection or refuge, who set houses or forests on fire, who light a fire at the openings of the dens, burrows, lairs and nests of sāhikas, monkeys, rats, cats, and the holes of snakes, watching their exits, who destroy bees with betel leaf or fire, have rebirth there as a maturing of their karma … Those who have crushed the heads of living creatures such as snakes, centipedes and scorpions, have their heads crushed as the maturing of such karma … Those who in the world have caused living beings to be fed to lions, tigers, leopards, bears and hyenas, are themselves devoured as the maturing of such karma … Those who in the world scatter grain as bait for deer, buffaloes, pigs and wild cocks, saying; “We shall kill them and eat their fat flesh” are blown on by icy wind as a maturing of such karma.’ (Mvu I 21–5)
In later centuries some Buddhists came to consider even unintentionally and indirectly causing animals to die to be morally wrong. The Chinese pilgrim Yijing who travelled through India during the 7th century mentioned that some monastic communities rented out the land they owned and took a percentage of the crop, which was in accordance with the Vinaya (Vin I 250). Less scrupulous monks did the same but also supervised and even participated in the farming. Yijing criticized this, saying: ‘By ordering about the hired men who work the fields, they inevitably arouse their resentment, and by digging the soil to plant seeds as well as ploughing land are libel to injure ants and other insects…’ Then he added: ‘Nothing is more harmful to insects and more obstructive to good deeds than the cultivation of land.’ No doubt Yijing was reporting the general attitude of the more strict Indian Buddhist monks of his time.
The Paramatthajotikā defines a forest (vana) as ‘a collection of trees growing in close proximity to each other’ (Pj 191). By the 5th century BCE large areas of forest in the Ganges plain had already been cleared to make way for agriculture. The Buddha described how a fire would ‘burn through the undergrowth, ignite the woods and keep burning until it came to a clearing, a cliff, rocks, water, beautiful greenery or a patch of bare ground where it would burn itself out for want of fuel’ (A IV 73–4). This could well be a description of the fires that were set to push back the forests. The Vinaya mentions a fire spreading to some dwellings from the adjacent forest and of burning a firebreak (paṭaggiṃ dātuṃ) to prevent such a thing reoccurring (Vin II 138). The Buddha also mentioned ‘a farmer taking a plough and seed, going to a forest clearing with poor soil covered with stumps and planting the seeds’ (D II 353). The Jātaka tells of a Brahmin felling trees on the bank of the Aciravatī River in order to cultivate the land (Ja IV 167). There was a class of people known as forest burners (dava-ḍāhaka, Vin II 138). Whether they were farmers engaged in slash-and-burn cultivation or men employed to clear forested areas we do not know. Whatever the case, these and other references to clearing the forest by axe or fire suggest that at the time the Pali Tipiṭaka was composed there were still extensive forests and that fires in them were common occurrences. King Asoka’s 5th Pillar Edict issued 243 BCE in which he forbade setting fire to forests is further evidence of this. Of course, not all such fires were man-made. The Jātaka describes a forest fire (davaggi) being started by the friction of two tree branches rubbing together (Ja I 216).
That some forest tracts were spared human encroachment may have sometimes been due to the fauna they sheltered. The Vyaggha Jātaka tells of two tree gods who shared their forest with a lion and a tiger. Because of the stench of carrion left by the two predators, one of the tree gods decided to frighten his neighbours away, against the good advice of the second tree god. As soon as the nearby villagers noticed the absence of lion and tiger tracks ‘within days they cut down the forest, made fields and brought them under the plough’ (Ja II 356–57). There is evidence that some forests were able to re-established themselves when, whether due to natural or man-made causes, human habitation went into decline. The Buddha mentions a man stumbling across the ruins of an ancient city deep in the forest (S II 105–06).
Some stretches of forest wilderness were extensive enough that running out of supplies while travelling through them or losing one’s way in them could spell disaster. A lone traveller might be reduced to drinking water from a puddle in a cow’s footprint because nothing else was available (A III 188). Villagers living near forests sometimes acted as guides for those wanting to travel through them. (Ja II 335). There are records of this still being done some 500 years later. When the Chinese monk Faxian was in India in the early 5th century, the road from the Middle Land to the Deccan passed through such wild and thickly forested country that travellers had to pay local rulers to provide them with guides for the journey. Such guides would accompany the traveller for a certain distance before passing them on to another guide, and so on, until they emerged from the wilderness. Sometimes it was not distances or remoteness but humans that made forests potentially frightening. Lonely forest roads were the perfect place for robbers to operate from (Ja I 332). These outlaws were well-known to strike from and then disappear back into ‘impenetrable grass or trees, a gully or a great forest’ (A I 153–54; M III 158). Some of these robbers would capture a party of travellers and release one of them to go and try to get a ransom for the others (Ja IV 115). One of the most famous and dramatic incidences in the Buddha’s life was his encounter with the murderous robber Aṅgulimāla who operated in the forested area in Kosala (M II 97–8).
The state regarded some forests tracts as important sources of products and revenue. The Rakkhitavanasaṇḍa, the Protected Forest Grove, near Kosambi, was probably so named because it was off limits to villagers who might otherwise harvest its resources (Ud 41). The Buddha encountered an elephant in this forest suggesting that it was a reserve for this animal, so important in warfare. Unauthorized removal of timber from state forests could result in being flogged, imprisoned or banished, even for a monk (Vin III 44). Where allowed, people gathered fruit, nuts, grasses, leaves, honey and leaf manure in nearby jungles and forest tracts. Forests provided them with the flowers they used in their religious ceremonies and with which they adorned themselves. When the Buddha was living in the forest before his enlightenment he would sometimes encounter cowherds grazing their cattle, grass-cutters, people gathering twigs and wood-cutters (Ja V 417; M I 79). He observed that there were whole forests of reeds and tall grasses (D III 75), both of which were used to make thatch and various household objects such as mats, ropes and brooms. Both leaves and grass were used as thatch (chadana) on dwellings (Vin II 154). Waste land at the edge of villages or between fields and forest were a source of fodder, mainly grass. Those who harvested this important resource were known as fodder collectors (ghāsahāraka, Th 910), or grass collectors (tiṇahāraka, Ja I 121). These workers also supplied fodder for cattle, horses and donkeys kept in towns and cities.
People cleaned their teeth by chewing the twigs of particular trees. The Buddha spoke of the advantages of using such tooth-sticks (dantakaṭṭha). It is good for the eyes, the breath does not have a bad smell, the taste buds are cleaned, bile and phlegm do not mix with the food, and food becomes more palatable (A III 250). Another type of tooth cleaner (dantapoṇa, Ja IV 363), perhaps a toothpick, was also used (Ja IV 363). Twigs from the Toothbrush Tree (Streblus asper), Neem (Azadirachta indica) and Babul (Acacia nilotica) may have been used too, as they are by village folk in Bihar even today.
Poisons were another product derived from forests, or at least from the wild. The Arthaśāstra, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, states that one of the jobs of forest officers was to collect floral and faunal poisons.
Toxicology (visavijja, D I 8) was a recognized science by the Buddha’s time although he designated trade in poisons an unethical means of livelihood (A III 208). Poisons were used in warfare, in hunting, in baits laid to destroy vermin and probably sometimes in food to kill enemies and rivals, although no incidents of these kind are mentioned in the Tipiṭaka. The Ṛg Veda, the Suśrutasaṃhitā and other later literature mention the use of poisoned arrows in combat. On several occasions the Buddha described a man being shot with a poisoned arrow and a physician’s attempts to extract it, draw off the poison and heal the wound (M I 429; II 216; see also Ja I 273; V 49). Snake venom, putrid snake flesh and plants provided poisons. The poison used on arrows was probably derived from plants of the Aconitum genus, in particular Aconitum ferox, the tuber of which is highly toxic. Tribal people in India were still using this poison on their arrows in the early 20th century.
Uses were even found for India’s numerous thorny trees and bushes otherwise considered a curse. They would be planted to make formidable hedges and their branches were cut and made into kraals where cattle were penned at night to protect them from predators (Vin II 154). They were planted along the moats around cities and towns (Ja I 240). Villagers clustered thorny branches around the base of their fruit trees to discourage people climbing up and stealing the fruit (Ja VI 348). The more extreme ascetics sometimes lay on beds of thorns as a form of self-mortification (D I 167; Ja III 235). Given how baneful thorny trees could be it is hardly surprising that the Buddha often used them and their thorns and prickles as similes. Noise is a thorn to meditation, living with unrestrained senses is like walking along a path strewn with thorns, and greed is full of thorns (A V 134; S IV 195; Thī 352). Someone who is constantly asking for money is ‘a thorny branch’ (Ja V 450). He described a man finding himself in the middle of a thorny forest not knowing how to proceed because there was ‘thorns in front and behind him, thorns to his left and to his right, thorns above and below him’. In such a situation, however he proceeded, he would do so very mindfully. One should live, the Buddha said, with a similar care and attention (S IV 189; 198. Being pierced by a thorn was but one of many ways a person could die (Ja III 345).
Modern botany recognises three types of spinose structures; thorns, which are modified branches; spines, which are modified leaves; and prickles, which are extensions of the plant’s skin or bark. The ancient Indians did not make such distinctions
But of course the most important resource derived from the forests was timber. Buildings, agricultural implements, boats, buckets, household articles, musical instruments, carts and wagons all required wood (Ja I 250; Vin II 170) as did cooking fires. The fundamental importance of wood for maintaining daily life can be understood by the comment that depriving a besieged city of food and water but also of firewood would bring it about its rapid capitulation (Ja I 409). Without wood no food could be cooked. The Alīnacitta Jātaka suggests that even forests remote from human habitation were being exploited for timber on a large scale and in a systematic manner. According to this story, all the carpenters from a particular carpenter’s village would embark on regular trips up a river to where it ran through a thick forest. They would chop down suitably large trees, shape beams and planks for house building, and put together the framework of one-story and two-story houses, numbering all the pieces from the central post outwards. When they had enough they loaded all the timber onto boats and rowed downstream to their village. There they would build houses to order as and when they were required (Ja II 18).
As timber was the major building material the carpenter’s trade was important although there is no mention of it being considered a high or a low one. On several occasions the Buddha conversed with a carpenter named, or more likely nicknamed, Five Tools, suggesting that there were five standard tools used by these tradesmen (M I 396). We are not informed what these tools were but in other places carpenters are mentioned using a kuṭhāri or axe, a vāsi, perhaps an adze or chisel, a muggara or hammer, a kālasutta, a measuring line, a nikhādana, perhaps an iron rod for splitting logs and a kakaca or saw (Ja IV 30; 344). There is a reference to a double-handled saw, the type two men would use to saw large logs into planks (M I 129).
The fortifications of some cities and towns were wooden. There is mention of a royal lumber yard in Rājagaha which provided wood for repairs in the city, probably including the city’s walls (Vin III 42). Kusinārā, where the Buddha passed away, was described as a kuḍḍa-nagaraka, ujjaṅgala-nagaraka, sākha–nagaraka (D II 146) which probably means that its fortifications consisted of a long mound of rammed earth or mud with a palisade running along its top, or perhaps with sharpened stakes projecting from it.
Potash and lye, probably derived from burned wood, were used as cleaning agents (A I 209; S II 131). Wood must have been used to bake bricks, although interestingly, there is only one reference to baked bricks or baked brick structures in the Sutta Piṭaka, the Brick Hall at Nādikā (D II 200). The Buddha described a potter’s kiln belching smoke on first being ignited, indicating that wood rather than charcoal was used in the pottery industry (A IV 101). However, large amounts of charcoal must have been required for the newly emerging iron industry. A choice estate granted to a Brahmin by a king was described as having ‘abundant grass, wood, water and grain’ (D I 87).
Others who depended on the forest only more so were the tribal people, sometimes called aṭavī or milakkha. The Jātakas mention these people hunting birds and worshipping water (Ja IV 291; VI 207). The Buddha considered it a distinct disadvantage to be reborn in the border areas (paccantimesu janapadesu) where the uncivilized tribal people (aviññātāresu milakkhesu) lived (A IV 226; S V 466), probably a reference to those places where farmland met forest and where settled Aryans came into contact with hunter-gatherers. He also mentioned that one of the fears a mother could have for her son was that she might not be able to reach him during a raid by forest dwellers (aṭavi saṅkopa, A I 178). In his 13th Major Rock Edict King Asoka pleaded with the tribal people to stop causing trouble and warned them that he had the power to chastise them if they did not. Reading between the lines we can assume that troublesome tribes were doing no more than resisting encroachment of their forest homes by farmers, foresters and hunters.
Scholars have pointed out that the ancient Indians saw the forest as the setting for either the hunt, the hermitage or exile. Only the second of these has any significance in early Pali literature. Hunting is occasionally mentioned, usually in a condemnatory manner, and there is only one mention in the four Nikāyas of people being exiled to the forest. According to the Buddha, his clan, the Sakyans, traced their origins back to the four sons of King Okkāka who he had exiled to ‘the slopes of the Himalayas beside a lotus pond in a great grove of teak trees’ (D I 92). Being somewhat later than the four Nikāyas and dealing with a broader range of subjects, the Jātaka includes several stories in which forest exile features. In some stories, royal personages flee to the forest to escape political intrigue (No. 461 and 478) and in one a courtier goes to live in the forest so as not to be a party to a murder (No. 530). The kings in two stories are banished to the forest because their behaviour is deemed unacceptable (No. 337 and 347) and in another story a king renounces his throne and retires to the forest because he is afflicted with an incurable disease (No. 519).
Others who are occasionally mentioned as resorting to the forests were those wanting to escape from oppressive rulers. One Jātaka story tells of a king so bad that many villagers simply abandoned their homes and went to live in the forest. Such villagers fled to the surrounding forest during the day, only returning in the evening so as to escape harassment by the king’s men (Ja V 98–9). It was possible for such groups to establish small settlements in the forest and sustain themselves by hunting and gathering (Ja IV 289). It would seem therefore, that there were still forests extensive enough or wild enough to be beyond the king’s writ.
Domestic plants and their by-products were equally important in the lives of the people. The mention of a royal safflower nursery (kusumbhavatthu) suggests that royal courts may have maintained gardens to provide them with vegetables and various plant products (Ja I 499–500). Farmers cultivated numerous types of grains in their fields, vegetables in their gardens and fruit trees in their orchards. These crops could be damaged by ‘afflictions’ such as strong winds, mice, grubs, parakeets and stem borers (Ja V 401).
They could also be damaged by hail (karakavassa, Ja IV 167; Mil 308). If the damage was extensive enough people would die of starvation and whole villages and towns would be depopulated (A I 160). Fields bordering forested areas might also be raided by deer (Ja I 152) and to prevent this farmers would ‘dig pits with sharpened stakes and set snares, gins and traps’ (Ja I 143).
The Tipiṭaka also mentions animals and plants or their by-products that were not native to or produced in northern India but were nevertheless known, either through hearsay or because they were imported from elsewhere. Sindh horses, sandalwood, marine turtles, yak tails, coral, pearls and whales are all examples of this. The Himalayas were already known to be a source of potent medicinal herbs and some of these were imported into northern India also.
Plants and animals had an important part to play in the cultural life of the Buddha’s India. Some were admired enough for children to be named after them. Thus the Tipiṭaka mentions names such as Lion (Sīha), Banyan (Nigrodha), Lizard (Godha), Jackal (Sigāla) and Blue Water Lily Hue (Uppalavaṇṇa). On the other hand, being called a camel, a ram, an ox or an ass was considered an insult (Vin III 12). The Buddha’s clan name was Gotama meaning ‘best cow’ and his father’s name, Suddhodana, means ‘pure rice’. Some topographical features were given faunal or floral names either because they resembled or they were in some way association with certain plants or animals. Examples of these toponyms are Snake River (Sappinī-nadi), Black Worm River (Kimikāḷā-nadi), Cuckoo Lake (Kuṇāla-daha), the Buffalo Ground (Mahisa-vatthu), Crocodile Hill (Susumāra-giri), Snakes’ Hood Cave (Sappasoṇḍika-pabbhāra), Pigeon’s Cave (Kapota-kandara), Boar’s Cave (Sūkarakhata-lena) and Vultures’ Peak (Gijjha-kūṭa). A small selection of the many man-made features similarly named include Horse Town (Assapura), Mango Village (Ambagāma), Black Plum Village (Jambugāma), Squirrel Village (Kalandakagāma), the Red Lotus Hall (Kokanada Pāsāda) and the Seven Mango Shrine (Sattambaka Cetiya).
Feminine beauty was likened to objects from nature. A young woman could be as slender as a kālā bush (Ja VI 269), have hands as soft as cotton (Ja V 204), be doe-eyed (Ja V 215), have teeth like pearls (Ja V 203), lips as red as bimba fruit (Ja V 452) or nipples swollen and firm like ripe dates (Ja V 302). Less flatteringly, she might also have a mind like a monkey (Ja V 445). A maiden could be as fair as ‘a kaṇikāra tree blossoming in a sheltered glade’ (Ja VI 269) while a comely youth could be ‘young, handsome and tender as a bean sprout’ (Ja III 394).
The Buddha and his enlightened or more advanced disciples were often compared to or equated with various animals, the most frequent being the bull-elephant (nāga), the lion (sīha), the bovine bull (āsabha) and the thoroughbred horse (ājāñiya, Dhp 322; S I 28–9; Sn 684). These very animals are depicted on the abacus of the capital of the pillar King Asoka erected at Isipatana where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. The first three are also the crowning animals of all surviving Asokan capitals while the last is mentioned in one literary source as crowning the pillar in Lumbini. Different opinions have been given as to why Asoka chooses to feature these four animals on his pillars. It has been suggested that they represented the four directions, that they were symbols of royalty, of fertility, or because of their supposed cosmological or astrological significance. It is much more likely that Asoka’s choice was simply a continuation of what the earliest texts had done; identifying the Buddha with animals that were revered for their perceived stateliness, nobility and admirable habits.
The Buddha and the bull-elephant both favoured living in the forest away from others (A IV 435–37; Ud 41–2). His bold and confident claim to be enlightened was reminiscent of the lion’s fearless roar (A II 33; V 33; S V 227). Like sincere monks thoroughbred horses respond quickly to training and move with deliberation and mindfulness (A I 244–46; II 114; III 248; M I 446). And just as the bull is recognized as the natural and rightful leader of the cows and calves, the Buddha’s spiritual attainments made him pre-eminent amongst humankind (M I 226). Even in later texts such as the Mahāvastu, the Buddha was still being called a bull-elephant man, a lion man, etc. (Mvu I 229; II 133).
The ancient Indians were sophisticated connoisseurs of aromatics and odorants. As part of their efforts to explain and understand the world they analyzed the senses, their objects and sense experience, including olfactory experience. The Buddha listed pleasant odours as coming from either roots, heartwoods or flowers (S III 157). He sometimes expanded this list to include aromas from softwoods, bark, fruit, leaves, shoots and resins or saps (S III 250). Later the Dhammasaṅgaṇī expanded these lists further to cover odours in general and their aesthetic properties. ‘Odours which are derived from the four great elements, are invisible and have an effect are root odours, heartwood odours, bark odours, leaf odours, flower odours, fruit odours, raw flesh odours, putrid odours, pleasant odours and unpleasant odours’ (Dhs 625). It will be noticed that all the odours in the first two lists are derived from plants as are the majority in the Dhammasaṅgaṇī list. When the Buddha’s contemporaries thought of perfumes and scents they thought of plant substances. What was called ‘the four types of perfume’ (catujātigandha) is occasionally referred to but what the four were is not given (Ja I 265; V 79).
People washed themselves with fragrant bath powders (nahānacuṇṇa), applied perfumes and unguents (gandhālepa) after their baths and sprinkled perfumed water on the floors of their homes as a sort of ancient air-freshener (Ja I 399). Valuable brocades would be stored in scented chests (A I 248) and when clothes were returned from the laundry they might be put in a scented chest to remove the smell of the cleaning agents (S III 131). However, because perfumes and scents were associated with luxury and sensual indulgence, the Buddha asked his lay disciples to forgo their use, at least during Uposatha, the monthly full moon and half moon days (A I 212). Perfume, probably in the form of incense powder or sticks, was as essential a part of a funeral as were sweet-smelling garlands (D II 159; Ja III 163) and the rich might have sandalwood burned in their funeral pyres (Ja V 136). Perfume played a part in religious practices. Incense was offered during pūjas, scented oil was burned in lamps (Ja II 104) and perfumed water was sprinkled around sacred trees (Ja II 104–06; III 23). The Buddha approved of offering garlands, perfume and coloured paste (vaṇṇaka) at the shrines of enlightened saints (D II 142).
Then as now the perfume par excellence was sandalwood. This wood was used as a powder (cuṇṇa) or an unguent and fragrant oil was extracted from it also (D II 137; Ja IV 440; Mil 321). That Vārāṇasi was already a centre for perfume manufacturing and trade is implied by the Buddha’s comment that when he was a layman he used no sandalwood unless it came from that city (A I 145, Ja V 302). Perfumes were probably also included in the various cosmetics and salves people used, the ‘eye ointments, garlands, scents, face powders and face creams’ (añjanaṃ mālā vilepanaṃ mukhacuṇṇakaṃ mukhālepanaṃ, D I 7). Although several flowers used in perfumery are mentioned in the texts the only perfume actually named other than sandalwood is sabbasaṃhāraka. As its name suggests this must have been made from a mixture of the most expensive and fragrant aroma compounds.
A character in the Umaṅgajātaka Jātaka says she could never afford sabbasaṃhāraka and that she perfumed things with piyaṅgu1 flowers (Ja VI 336). The Tipiṭaka makes no mention of saffron or perfumes made from animal products such as musk or ambergris.
Mineral but also animal and vegetable substances were used as cleaning agents. The Buddha once asked rhetorically how the body is usually washed and then answered: ‘By means of a scraper, kakka, clay, water and having a good scrub’ (A I 207). On another occasion he described how a bath attendant would take bath powder and knead it into a ball of lather while sprinkling it with water and oil (D I 74). Soap is made by combining fatty acids with a strong alkaline solution. Cow urine and the residue of mustard or sesame oil production (sāsapakakka or tilakakka) typically provided the first, while ūsara soil, clay or ash was used for the second (Ja VI 232). The clay mentioned was probably fuller’s earth which is mined in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh even today. The bath powder (nahānacuṇṇa) is likely to have been made from some of these ingredients with a perfume added. The Vinaya recommends these same substances together with cow dung and urine be applied to the skin of a snake bite victim, probably not as a medicine but to thoroughly clean the wound or perhaps in the belief that it would draw out the venom (Vin I 206).
Naturally, fabrics would require different treatment and different cleaning agents. These would include boiling, scouring with salt earth (ūsa),  lye (khāra) and dry cow dung (gomaya), then rinsing (A I 209; S III 131)
Massage (parimaddana or ucchadana) and limb rubbing (sambahana) were already well-known during the Buddha’s time. Attentive children would massage their aged parents limbs (A I 62) and sensual massage that stopped just short of being sexual was also known (A IV 54). There is an account of nuns having their forearms, backs, hands, calves, feet, thighs and faces massaged with a cow’s leg bone. Probably the rounded ends of the epiphyses of long bones were used for such procedures. The Buddha forbade monks to have massages for pleasure (D I 7) although he seems to have approved of therapeutic massage. On one occasion he is recorded as having been ‘oiled’ (sinehati) over several days when he was suffering from a particular illness (Vin I 279). The meaning of this term is uncertain. It may refer to the Ayurvedic practice of administering medicine in oil applied to the skin, in the nose or to an oil massage. There is also a reference to Ānanda massaging the Buddha’s limbs when he was old (S V 217). What types of oil were used in massages is not given in the Tipiṭaka but other early sources mention fat (vasā), ghee and mustard oil.
Plants and animals provided the ancient Indians with opportunities for recreation and entertainment. The earliest mention of horticulture from India is to be found in the Tipiṭaka, although admittedly the details are scant. There are many references to parks, gardens and pleasure gardens (ārāma, upavana and uyyāna).
The Buddha commented that Rājagaha, the capital of Magadha, was adorned with numerous such places; Jīvakārāma, Latthivana, Paribbājak-ārāma, Sītavana, Taporāma, Udumbarika Paribbājakārāma and Veḷuvana (D II 116). Some of these places may have been small surviving patches of wild forest on the outskirts of towns and cities, others were orchards and a few were undoubtedly carefully designed and cultivated gardens. The purpose of these last places was to provide the enjoyment that can be derived from natural beauty; greenery, cool shade, and the colour and fragrance of flowers. It is perhaps significant that the common word ārāma means both garden and delight.
Some gardens may have been part of royal palaces or the mansions of the rich but most of these seem to have been beyond city walls. Archaeological investigation has shown that at least two of them, the Jetavana, Jīvakambavana and the Veḷuvana, both offered to the Buddhist order by royals, were within walking distance of a major city, Sāvatthi and Rājagaha respectively. The first of these was described by the Buddha as being ‘not too near (the city), not too far, convenient for coming and going, quiet, secluded from people, good for sitting without being disturbed and conducive to spiritual practice’ (Vin I 39). Such attributes would have been an obvious attraction for meditating monks but they may of also have been valued by the Veḷuvana’s original owner, Bimbisāra the king of Magadha. Lay people too may have retreated to gardens to temporarily ‘get away from it all’ and to reflect in the peace and quiet they offered.
The fact that Buddhist monks and other ascetics are often mentioned as congregating in parks and gardens and that their lay devotees would sometimes visit them there, indicated that some at least were open to the public. Other were reserved for their owners’ use only. These private gardens might be surrounded by a wall with a gate, laid out and maintained by gardeners (ārāmaropa, S I 33) and protected from intrusion by park wardens (ārāmapāla, ārāmarakkhaṇaka, Ja I 251, Vin II 109). A royal pleasure garden might have a stone bench, a swing and inevitably a pond or lake with lotuses and water lilies of different colour, steps leading down to the water at certain places and inlets to enhance its interest (Ja II 189). Later references to pleasure gardens in India mention other enhancements such as artificial mountains, bowers, bridges, pavilions and water machines, i.e. fountains (jalayantra). A king would retire to his pleasure garden to be entertained by female musicians and dancers (Ja III 40) and during festivals and holidays he and his court would participate in what the commentary calls ‘garden games’ (uyyāna-kīḷana). Unfortunately we have no information about what these games consisted of. In one Jātaka story a man says to a prostitute he is living with: ‘My dear, we are always cooped up in the house like a chicken in a cage. Let us amuse ourselves one day in the garden.’ She agrees and the two take a carriage to the garden (Ja III 60). Another activity people enjoyed in gardens was feeding animals. The Veḷuvana in Rājagaha had a place for feeling squirrels and another for feeding peafowl (e.g. M I 145: II 1).
A few very brief references suggest that beautiful or interesting trees and shrubs would be laid out in particular patterns to enhance the attractiveness of gardens. One source mentions a line of palm trees and borders or walkways of sand (Ja I 201). The careful design, layout and cultivation of these gardens is further hinted at by the comment that it could take from two to four years for one with good soil (sārabhūmi) and proper management to be up to standard (Ja II 188). So much did the ancient Indians enjoy their gardens that they assumed there must be some in heaven. The description of a celestial garden may add something to our knowledge of their earthly equivalents. Near the heavenly palace there were ponds with different coloured lotuses, stocked with fish and bordered on two sides by well-trimmed fruit and flower-bearing trees (Vv-a 190). The gods were believed to delight in watching the flowers as they budded, bloomed and faded, discussing each blossom’s colour, perfume and shape, just as humans must have done (A IV 117).
A pastime less edifying than enjoying oneself in a garden was staging and watching animal fights. Large animals such as elephants, buffaloes, bulls, goats and rams were set to fight each other. Cock and quail fighting were also popular. The Buddha disapproved of monks watching such fights, probably because of the cruelty involved and perhaps because gambling took place during them (D I 6). Another pastime involving animals was the chase. Apart from hunting as a livelihood, to supplement the diet and to provide commodities such as ivory and hides, people hunted for entertainment. Most of the hunting methods used today are mentioned in the Tipiṭaka; trapping, stalking, netting, pursuit with dogs, the use of decoy animals, building hides and tree stands, and attracting prey with lures or by imitating their calls (Dhp 252; Ja I 157; 173; 208). Big game hunting had already reached the form that was to maintain well into the 20th century. Local villagers were recruited or compelled by kings to provide labour for such hunts. They would form a long line, and then beating the undergrowth and blowing horns, drive the animals before them. Eventually they would form a circle and gradually decrease its size so that the animals trapped within could be dispatched by the king and his guests (Ja I 150). We read of a king who threatened to fine any of his beaters who let a deer slip past them (Ja III 325; IV 267).
Some forests were maintained specifically as hunting reserves. The Nigrodhamiga Jātaka briefly describes the setting up of one of these. Within a selected forested area fodder was sown, water was provided and a number of deer were driven in and confined there, although exactly how they were confined is not explained (Ja I 150; IV 431). The Arthaśāstra described royal hunting reserves in very similar terms, adding that they were surrounded by a steep ditch so that access was only possible through a single entrance and that they were stocked with game animals and predators that had their claws and teeth removed. When the chase was on ‘deer would dash around, trembling for their lives, but after one or two wounds they would faint and be slain’ (Ja I 150). The Vidhurapaṇḍita Jātaka includes a long, detailed and realistic list of do’s and don’ts for one wanting to survive and prosper in the potentially dangerous world of the royal court. One thing it warns against is hunting deer in the king’s forest (Ja VI 294). Buddhist authors pointed out that hunters did not always make a ‘clean kill’; a good number of their quarry ‘escaped wounded into the bushes and thickets of the forest, into clumps of grass, reeds and brambles, and died, and were devoured by ravens and vultures’ (Mvu I 359). One aspect of hunting which Buddhists particularly deplored was using one animal to hunt others or using an animal as a decoy to catch others. Doing such things was a sure road to an unpleasant rebirth (Ja V 270; 375).
The most popular game animal was the deer of which several species are mentioned in the Tipiṭaka as being hunted. Venison was considered a tasty, literally a sweet, meat (Ja I 155). We have a description of a deer hunter returning to the city with a cart full of venison with the intention of selling it (Ja III 49). There are numerous references to hunting deer by villagers wanting to supplement their diets or protect their crops, by professional deer stalkers (migaluddaka) and by kings for sport and for the royal table (Ja I .137; II 153; III 49; IV 431; VI 170). Villages dug pits and set traps to catch deer and hunters built tree stands. Kings and nobles preferred bows and spears and sometimes trained thoroughbred dogs (Ja I 173; IV 437). Because of their timidity and alertness and because they were as ‘swift as the wind’ or as ‘fast as wind-scattered clouds’ (Ja III 325; IV 268), it was no easy thing to bag a deer.
Of the austerities practised by the various ascetic sects during the Buddha’s time some consisted, in part at least, of imitating animal behaviour. The Buddhacarita says of some ascetics that they ‘eat gleanings like birds, others graze grass like deer, yet others spend their time with snakes and some stand like anthills blown by forest winds … others plunge into the water and live with the fish, their bodies nibbled by turtles’ (Bc VII.15–17). Some ascetics walked on all fours (cātukuṇḍika), a practice the Buddha did for some time before his enlightenment (M I 79). Some went naked and acted like cows, others imitated dogs, eating only what was thrown on the ground and curling up in a canine manner to sleep (M I 387). The rational behind such practices is not given in the texts. The Buddha disparaged all austerities, particularly ones that involved imitating animal behaviour. He said that to act like an animal would cause one to be reborn as an animal (M I 387–88). Some ascetics acted like birds by eating only seeds they picked from wild grasses or gleaned from fields after the harvest. The Buddha allowed his monks to glean (uñcha), not as an austerity but as a way getting sustenance when food was scarce (A III 66; 104; Thī 329).
As in other religious traditions, the first Buddhists had stories about humans and animals interacting to the degree of being able to understand and respond to each others’ wishes, or even to talk to each other. It is not difficult to imagine how such stories could have began. Animals would soon get used to any monks or nuns who shared their forest and no longer flee from them and perhaps even become tame, especially if they were fed. An outsider visiting a hermitage and seeing normally timid animals in the vicinity might well conclude that the hermit and the animals had some sort of relationship. The Jātakas contain numerous stories in which humans interact in a variety of ways with animals.
A good example of such stories would be the Amba Jātaka (Ja I 450). Once, the Bodhisatta was born as a Brahmin in the North who, after he grew up, renounced the world and became leader of 500 ascetics living at the foot of the mountains. It happened that a terrible drought occurred in the Himalayan country so that all the water dried up and the animals suffered terribly. Seeing this and moved by compassion, one ascetic cut down a tree, hollowed it into a trough and filled it with any water he could find. The animals came in droves to drink and the ascetic had to spend all his time finding water to keep the trough filled. Heedless of his own needs he toiled for the benefit of the forest creatures to the degree that he had no time to gather his own food. Seeing this the animals agreed amongst themselves provide food for the ascetic. When they came to drink they brought mangos, jambus, breadfruit and other fruit until it equalled 250 wagon loads, enough for all the ascetics with some left over.
The four Nikāyas and the Vinaya also included several such stories. Once Venerable Moggallāna offered to get Venerable Sāriputta the medicine he needed for a fever he was suffering from—lotus stalks. He went to a great lotus lake, an elephant saw him there and asked how he could help him. Moggallāna told the elephant what he needed and the creature instructed another elephant to get it for him. This second elephant uprooted a trunk-full of lotus stalks, washed the mud off them, tied them into a bundle and then gave them to Moggallāna (Vin I 214–15). Another story of animal helping humans is told in the Udāna. The Buddha left Kosambi in disgust at the quarrelsome monks there and went to a nearby forest at Pārileyya where he spent a few days staying at the foot of a sal tree. The elephant who lived in the forest cropped the grass around the Buddha and brought him water in its trunk (Ud 42; Vin I 352–53). The Dhammapada Commentary adds that a monkey also provided him honey comb to eat (Dhp-a I 59). This story ends by saying that great sages like the Buddha and noble animals such as bull-elephants both seek silence and solitude.
Once a certain monk told the Buddha that he was staying in a grove near a large area of low-lying swampy ground (ninnaṃ pallalaṃ) where flocks of birds foraged. In the evening the birds would roost in the monk’s grove and disturb him, probably with their noise and their droppings. The Buddha advised the monk to go to the birds three or four times a night and ask them for a feather. They would, he said, soon get sick of these continual requests and go somewhere else. The monk did this and the birds eventually went away, just as the Buddha had predicted. The Buddha used this incident to warn his monks to be circumspect about asking lay people for things (Vin III 147–48).
Stories based on the belief that animals can respond to human kindness and love are very common in the Buddhist tradition. The earliest of such stories concerns the Buddha and the tamed but unruly and dangerous elephant Nālāgiri. Once, in an attempt to kill the Buddha, his evil cousin Devadatta arranged for Nālāgiri to be released onto the road the Buddha was walking down. Trumpeting and with tail erect, the elephant charged the Buddha who, on seeing the furious creature coming, suffused it with loving-kindness. The elephant was suddenly transformed from fury into docility. It approached the Buddha, took dust from his feet and sprinkled it on his own head, while the Buddha spoke to it gently and stroked it (Vin II 195). In popular imagination saintly monks and nuns might even be able to influence the behaviour natural prey and predators have towards each other. One Jātaka story relates how a kindly ascetic taught a snake and a mongoose to overcome their instinctive fear of each other (Ja II 53). This story might have been the basis for a similar one the Chinese pilgrim Faxian heard when he was in Sri Lanka. A particular revered monk had developed loving-kindness to such a level that the snake and rat who shared his cave lived in complete harmony with each other.
The theme of animal devotion to their human owners or to those they had become fond of, and then dying of a broken heart (hadayena phalitena) when parted from them, occurs several times in the ancient commentaries. According to the Nidānakathā, when Prince Siddhattha renounced his princely life to become a wandering ascetic his horse Kanthaka pined away and died (Ja I 65). The elephant who had looked after the Buddha when he was on retreat in the Pārileyya forest was likewise said to have died when the Buddha left to return to the city (Dhp-a I 63). Another story tells of a dog who pined away when the saint it has become fond of decided to reside somewhere else (Dhp-a I 173).
The forests of the Ganges and Yamuna plain were the environmental mainstay of the numerous religious sects that were proliferating between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE. The Buddha, and not only he, believed that the solitude and simple living which forest wilderness offered, were essential for meditation. Non-Buddhists ascetics are typically described as living in the forest, either alone or in small communities. Some of the more extreme of these rejected almost all the conveniences of civilization and subsisted entirely on what the wilderness provided. One such ascetic is described thus:
‘Becoming a forest-dweller he never stayed in a village. He did not make a leaf hut for himself but lodged at the foot of a vārunika tree, in the open air, usually sitting, sometimes lying down. Eating only once a day and at one sitting, his teeth having become little pestles, he ate uncooked food with the husk still on it … He did not go in search for wild fruit. Rather, when there were flowers on his tree he ate them, when there were leaves he ate them, and when there were no leaves he ate the shoots. In the morning he would pick up the fallen fruit, but never out of greed did he get up to eat the fruit of other trees. As he sat there he would gather the fruit that was within arms’ reach, making no distinction between the pleasant and unpleasant’ (Ja IV 8).
Practices such as these were called ‘the howling austerities’ (ghoratapa) or ‘extreme austerities’ (paramatapassin).
Time and again the Buddha encouraged his monks and nuns to spend as much time as they could away from human habitation and in the jungle: ‘Here are the roots of the trees, here are empty houses. Meditate, monks! Do not be slothful so that you reproach yourself later. This is my instruction to you’ (A III 87). He mentioned that some of his disciples would spend the whole year except the three months of the monsoon ‘at the roots of trees and in the open air’ (M II 8). More commonly they would ‘go to remote forest lodgings and having plunged into the forest, and only join the monastic community every half month to recite the rules’ (M II 87). However, Buddhist monks and nuns could never go too far into the wilderness. Ascetics of other sects were allowed to pluck wild fruit and dig up edible roots, while Buddhist monks were not allowed by their rule to do either. As a result, they always had to be near habitation in order to get their food.
But even living in the forest within walking distance of a settlement or village could be a challenge. One had to conquer the fear of predatory animals and the constant irritation of insects. The monk Ghavaratīriya counselled a heroic stoicism towards this second problem: ‘Annoyed by flies and mosquitoes in the forest, in the great jungle, be like an elephant in the thick of the battle and endure mindfully’ (Th 31). For some monks at least, the long periods of solitude were even more difficult to put up with. Concerning this, the Buddha commented: ‘Remote jungle lodgings in the forest are hard to endure. It is difficult to live in solitude, it is not easy to enjoy solitude. One might think that the forest must disturb a monk’s mind, if he has no concentration’ (M I 17).
There were others who positively exalted in living in nature and away from their fellow humans. The monk Bhaddiya used to reside in the forest and every now and then let out the cry ‘Oh joy! Oh joy!’ The other monks found his behaviour rather peculiar and told the Buddha of it. The Buddha called Bhaddiya to him and asked why he was letting out this cry. Bhaddiya answered: ‘Formerly, when I enjoyed the happiness of royalty, guards were set inside the palace and outside in the area beyond. Yet, although I was well-guarded, I lived in fear. I was anxious, trembling and afraid. But now that I live in the forest, all alone, I am assured, confident and fearless. That is why I utter the cry “Oh joy! Oh joy”!’ (Ud 19).
Contemplating the future of the Saṅgha and suspecting that the desire for the forest life would be likely to fade, Venerable Phussa said that coming generations of monks would probably find ‘the jungle wilds uncomfortable and go and live in the villages’ (Th 962). During the Buddha’s last years he too predicted that the Saṅgha would probably degenerate. One sure sign of this, he thought, would be that monks would no longer spend time in the forest (A IV 21–2). The beginning of this trend is already present in the Vinaya. With the Saṅgha becoming more legalistic, a precise definition of ‘the forest’ was necessary. Technically, a monk’s abode could be designated ‘a jungle lodging’ if it was 500 bows (dhanu) from the border of a village (Vin IV.183). By the time of the Visuddhimagga (5th century CE) a monk qualified to be ‘a forest dweller’ if he lived the distance a stone thrown by man of average height standing at the precincts of a village landed (Vism 71–2).
The Tipiṭaka indicates that the attraction Buddhists monks and nuns had towards the natural environment sometimes went beyond the needs of their spiritual practice. Some of them were moved by the sheer beauty of the groves and hills, the flowers and the jungle pools, the rustle of the leaves and the songs of the birds. When someone told the Buddha that he found the forests frightening, he replied: ‘At the midday hour when the birds are quiet, I find the rustle of the great forest delightful’ (S I 7). He specifically mentioned that he decided to settle down to do his meditation at Uruvelā, in part because of the bucolic surroundings: ‘Then, being a seeker for the good, searching for the incomparable, matchless path of peace, while walking on tour through Magadha, I arrived at Uruvelā, the army township. There I saw a beautiful stretch of ground, a lovely woodland grove, a clear flowing river with a delightful bank and a village nearby for support. And I thought “Indeed, this is a good place for a young man set on striving”. So I sat down there, thinking “Indeed, this is a good place for striving”.’ (M I 166–67). The monk Bhūta claimed that the sylvan surroundings he meditated in filled him with the highest joy. ‘When the storm clouds rumble and pour down their torrents and the birds take to the sky, the monk who has gone to his grotto to meditate finds no greater delight than this. When happily meditating on the flowery river bank surrounded by the many and varied plants, he finds no greater delight than this. When night comes to the lonely grove with a shower of rain and the roar of the fanged beasts, the monk who has gone to his grotto to meditate finds no greater delight than this’ (Th 522–24). It was even suggested that the beauty of the landscape could be enhanced by the enlightened ascetics who chose to make it their abode: ‘Whether in village or forest, on hills or plain, wherever saints live, that is a delightful place’ (Dhp 98).
One of the most charming descriptions of the natural environment and its inhabitants in all of Indian literature is to be found in the eighth chapter of Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s Harṣacarita, a 7th century biography of King Harṣa. Fanciful and romanticized though it be, it invites the reader to imagine humans and animals living in complete harmony with each other through the benign influence of the Buddha’s Dhamma. Bāṇabhaṭṭa describes a beautiful woodland scene and then the sight that unfolded before King Harṣa as he approached the hermitage of the monk Divākaramitra nestled in the Vindhyan Hills. Ascetics of different sects, usually so quarrelsome, sat on rocks, in bowers of flowering creepers, amongst the bushes and at the foot of trees, quietly discussing points of philosophy:
Here some monkeys who had taken the Three Refuges were gravely bowing to the shrine, there some parakeets skilled in the Buddhist texts were explaining the Abhidharmakośa, and elsewhere a group of mynas whose practice of the Vinaya had imparted to them great composure, were giving a sermon on the Dharma. Some owls having gained wisdom by attentive study recited various Jātaka stories. Several tigers who had given up meat-eating under the calming influence of the Buddha’s teachings quietly waited in attendance. Two lion cubs sat undisturbed near Divākaramitra, forming as it were, a natural ‘lion throne’ for him and emphasizing his spiritual greatness. Several deer seemed to imbibe his calmness as they licked his feet and he radiated loving-kindness while a dove sat in his left hand pecking grains of wild rice and looking like lotus buds that had dropped there from his ear. With his other hand Divākaramitra flicked refreshing water on a peacock, its neck like an emerald vase, and sprinkled panic seed or rice for the ants to eat, as the rays of light emanating from his body dazzled those assembled before him.
The beauty of the natural world was a recurring and popular theme in the literary arts. The ‘Long Description of the Forest’ from the Vessantara Jātaka names about a hundred plants and nearly as many animals (Ja VI 534–39). When recited by a bard, this long passage must have created a vivid picture of the beauties of the forest and its inhabitants in the minds of the audience. Several other shorter eulogies to nature are found in the Jātaka and the Theragāthā (e.g. Ja VI 529–30; Th 1062–70; 1135–37). The Buddha too would sometimes conjure up a charming if idealized vision of the natural environment: ‘Imagine that a man tormented and overcome with heat, wearied, craving and thirsty, were to come across a pool of clear, sweet water, a lovely resting place shaded by all kinds of trees. He would plunge into that pool, bathe and drink and coming out would sit and then recline in the shade of the trees’ (A III 190).
Poets used imagery from nature in their compositions, sometimes to the most pleasing effect. Trees were described as ‘swaying in the breeze like young men full of their first drink’ (Ja VI 534) or as being ‘studded with flowers of many hues like the night sky studded with stars’ (Ja VI 529). In a eulogy to detachment and solitude, the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta says:
Be like the lion not frightened by noise.
Be like the wind not caught in the web.
Be like the lotus not stained by the mud.
Be alone like the rhinoceros’ horn. (Sn 71)
Pañcasikhā’s unusual but lovely poem about ‘the Buddha, the Dhamma, saints and love’ uses imagery from nature:
The elephant, oppressed by summer heat,
Seeks out a lotus pool upon which float
Petals and pollen of that flower,
So do I plunge into your sweet breast.
As an elephant urged on by the goad,
Ignores the sting of lance and spear,
So I, unheeding, know not what I do,
Intoxicated by your beauteous form.
By you my heart is tightly bound,
My thoughts disrupted, my mind and I
Can no longer find my former course:
Like a fish caught on baited hook. (D II 266)
The Jātaka includes these verses, amongst the most beautiful in Pali literature.
I revere the lions and tigers,
Those princely jungle creatures,
And the healing herbs and vines
That grow in forest glades.
I revere the night sky,
As blue as the lotus
And garlanded with stars,
And the River Ganges
Whose waters spread and flow.
I revere too those rocky
And regal mountains
The mighty Himalayas. (Ja V 92–3)
Erotic dalliance in the sylvan flower-filled forest was a common and favourite literally trope in Indian literature. An early example of this is found in the Tipiṭaka. When the Buddha was travelling from Benares to Uruvelā he turned off the road to rest in a certain forest grove. After some time he was approached by a group of 30 young men wandering about in search of something. They had come to spend the day in the forest with their wives and because one of them was unmarried the others had paid a prostitute to accompany him. While they ‘were enjoying’ themselves the prostitute had run off with their valuables (Vin I 23).
Plants and even more so animals were the subject of numerous superstitions and folk beliefs. Some people were believed to be able to make trees bear fruit out of season and to understand the cries of animals with the help of magic charms (Ja II 105; IV 200). It was thought to be good luck first thing in the morning to see a white bull, a pregnant woman, a rohita fish, a pot full to the brim or newly-made ghee, or to touch grass, fresh cow dung, a clean robe or a rohita fish (Ja IV 72–3). Likewise people believed that it was possible to foretell the future by examining the holes gnawed in cloth by rats or mice (D I 9).
The existence of various fantastic creatures was also taken for granted. The kinnara was believed to be a creature with a bird’s body and a human head and the garuḷa was a giant eagle-like raptor. More menacing beings that were believed to lurk in dark and lonely places were yakkhas, nāgas, dakarakkhasas, rakkhasas, and pisācas.
The Buddha envisaged a time in the future when all India would be ruled by a king whose justice and wisdom would usher in an ideal society. This king would, he believed, not only act for the welfare of his human subjects but for domestic and the wild animals as well (A III 149; D III 61). It seems very likely that King Asoka, the third emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, saw himself as just such a ‘universal monarch’. Apart from his many other innovations and reforms, Asoka ‘made provision for two types of medical treatment; medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available I have had them imported and grown. Wherever medical roots or fruits are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals’. In 257 BCE Asoka publicly announced that the royal household was going to gradually become vegetarian. ‘Formerly, in the kitchen … hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now, with the writing of this Dhamma edict, only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer, are killed and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.’ Nine years later he had published a list of animals that were to be protected from then on and designated certain days as non-killing days. ‘On the three Caturmasis, the three days of Tisa and during the fourteenth and fifteenth of the Uposatha, fish are protected and not to be sold. During these days animals are not to be killed in the elephant reserves or the fish reserves either. On the eighth of every fortnight, on the fourteenth and fifteenth, on Tisa, Punarvasu, the three Caturmasis and other auspicious days, bulls are not to be castrated, billy goats, rams, boars and other animals that are usually castrated are not to be. On Tisa, Punarasu, Caturmasis and the fortnight of Caturmasis, horses and bullocks are not to be branded.’
Much has changed in northern India since the time of the Buddha. Except for remnants on the northern fringes of the Ganges and Yamuna plain the great stretches of forest have gone forever and with them numerous species of plants and animals. Many others are critically endangered and the pressure on them increases year by year. Whatever happens in the future, the Pali Tipiṭaka will remain an important record of India’s natural heritage and a valuable resource for environmental historians and others interested in India’s past.
- Shieryou jing, 十二遊經 or 佛說十二遊經., “Sūtra of the Life of Śākyamuni to His Twelfth Year”, Taisho edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, T4n195, p, 147b14–16. The Sanskrit title is a reconstruction from the Chinese. [back]
- According to Ayurvedic theory, the flesh of animals described as light (lahu) supposedly have a drying effect when eaten and produce little mucus. [back]
- The Vṛkṣāyurveda, an ancient treatise on trees, says that vanaspati are trees that bear fruit without flowers and duma, probably the equivalent to vrkṣa are those that have both. [back]
- Probably one or another of the chemicals extracted from ūsara. See page 5. [back]