April 22 of each year is celebrated as Earth Day, a tradition started in the year 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin. The idea had such enormous appeal that it became globally accepted by the year 1990. However, a celebration disassociated from cerebration or thought becomes meaninglessly repetitive, serving only as a pompous event on a crowded calendar.
Let us, therefore, look at Earth Day with perception and purpose.
Earth As Perceived By The West
The word Earth is derived from the English word “ertha,” its German equivalent being “erde” or ground. The origin of the word dates back to approximately 1000 years. The initial years passed in a dispute on whether the earth was round or flat.
The planet Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago. Romans introduced the term “terra mater” to indicate that the earth was made of soil, dirt, and land. They also introduced the term “Teilus Mater” (Mother Earth) to recognize her as a goddess of the Earth. The West accommodated the term Mother Earth because it sustains life. The interrelated aspects of Nature and Earth were astutely observed and zealously championed by John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many other Natural scientists.
Earth As Perceived By The East
Since Vedic times, about the second millennium BCE, rishis (sages) have recognized the Earth as a sphere, and only one of the countless planets in the galaxy of space is called antariksha. Instead of singling out one day as Earth Day, they recognize the power of the Earth by bowing down to her first thing each morning.
“Sorry to touch you with my feet,” goes the early morning sloka, which apologizes to Mother Earth.
Earth And India
The Sanskrit word for Earth is not a single one but many: bhumi, dhara, dharitri, prithvi, vasudha, urvi, etc., each having a distinct connotation. The name vasudha or vasundhara is noteworthy because it denotes the abundance of wealth in the womb of Mother Earth.
A mining engineer could tell that there are about four to five thousand minerals beneath the surface of the earth. These resources are likely to turn human eyes ravenous in their treasure hunt. Let us, therefore, remember that earth is often called Mother Earth, prohibiting us from lusting after her wealth.
Like the famous story of King Solomon from Israel or Birbal from India, two women both claimed to be the mother of a child. When the king suggested dividing the child’s body into two halves for equal distribution, the real mother chose to relinquish the child rather than divide it into two lifeless halves.
It follows that we have to keep the integrity of our mother earth rather than mutilating her. No mother would want to see her children disputing over her treasure or vivisecting her. This is one point signifying Earth Day.
Fundamental Traits of Mother Earth — Patient and Forgiving
In Sanskrit, we say, Kshamaya dharitri: “[to be] forgiving, like Earth.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” If she did not have this quality, the earth, as well we, would have been extinguished a long time ago. Earth Day is the time to learn from her, to forgive and endure like a mother.
The composition of the earth is analogous to that of the universe—earth, water, fire, wind, and ethereal space. They are called panchmahabhuta (five essential elements) in Sanskrit. The equilibrium of all these five elements is absolutely essential for the sustenance of the universe, and consequently, Earth. Together they form our survival kit.
When disturbed or deranged, they may generate havoc like torrential floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, and uncontrolled fires. We have suffered through all of these, and we should be cognizant of their root cause. Disharmony of any kind in these five elements causes what we now call climate change (altered milieu). Blessings in a Sanskrit sloka wish for all of us an unaltered milieu, a stable state of affairs.
Earth’s Preservation Of Order
Not only does the earth abound in biodiversity, but it is brought about in an orderly, tranquil, and methodical way. Like the familiar Sanskrit adage “Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, all different families unite to form a single-family.
“Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature,” said C.S. Lewis. Harmony, Law, and Order are the basic principles that the earth follows, a lesson of our lifetime propounded by both Eastern and Western thinkers.
Indian Mythology Relating to Earth’s Place in Space
Without any instruments whatsoever, sages from India perceived intuitively, thousands of years ago, that the earth was only one small planet in the inestimable space called antariksha. This space had no dimension, end, or shape because it was continuously expanding. It was perceived that there were nebulous collisions among the planets, which made the navagraha pooja for interplanetary peace a unique component of Indian spiritual rituals. Mars, or mangala, is thought to be the son of the Earth, the father being God Vishnu. The same thought has been incorporated in the nomenclature of Vishnu and Brahma as specific peaks in the astounding Grand Canyon of Arizona!
Earth has been personified in Sanskrit as a lady with mountains as her bosom and oceans as her attire. These oceans on the surface of the Earth make her a unique planet, emphasizing the inescapable need of water to serve her functions. The receding water line on her surface and parchment-like drying of certain areas have currently generated deep anxiety for the younger generation and old ecologists across the world.
The scarcity of water on this planet is becoming alarmingly obvious. Regrettably, it is caused by our thoughtless undertakings like wastage of water, deforestation, ruthless technology, etc. The trend seems to be progressively worsening. Farmers are quitting their jobs, committing suicides, and milk is wasted like sewage.
An Earth Day necessitates a moment of thought and an urgent change of our attitude. The Earth is a tightly knit package deal, where all her parts have to be judiciously preserved to maintain her integrity while preserving an unswerving thermostat. All her parts are precious because they constitute the whole, and yet, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” a gestalt envisioned by Aristotle.
Finally, beware: the earth is our mother. Her yield is endlessly enormous only if we treat her with discipline, love and reverence.
Let me conclude with horticulturist Luther Burbank‘s words: Nature’s laws affirm instead of prohibit. If you violate her laws, you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury, and hangman.
Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a priest, poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada, and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.