Trees in Trouble, Humans in Need: Competing Environmental Priorities in the Bhāgavata Purān.a

Ravi M. Gupta

Ravi M. Gupta
Utah State University


Religion and ecology are indelibly linked in India. Sacred texts, devotional narratives, and religious convictions often motivate environmental action and provide cultural resources for ecological initiatives. Examples abound: M. C. Mehta, the successful environmental attorney who fought Ganges pollution; the Chipko antideforestation movement; and the Rajasthani Bishnoi community’s ecologically aware practices. All these actors are deeply motivated by values grounded in sacred texts and devotional traditions.1 As a number of scholars have shown, it is implausible to claim that Hinduism, or any religious tradition, is inherently environmentally friendly, for a religion’s ecological impact is not a result of some absolute theological measure but of the individual interpreters wielding its manifold doctrines, practices, and histories.2 For this reason, it is paramount to mine a tradition for theological resources that can support sustainable ecological relationships. This is, indeed, what happens on the ground: Religious concepts and stories are reinterpreted by practitioners, who employ an endless process of meaning-making in the service of new environmental challenges.

When it comes to Vaiṣṇava Hinduism, particularly the various traditions devoted to Kṛṣṇa, there can be few theological resources as influential as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa,3 which has remained the consummate Kṛṣṇaite scripture for at least seven centuries and has thus been employed in several recent ecological initiatives. Take, for example, the movement to protect the Yamuna River in Vrindavan, the major pilgrimage center in North India regarded as Kṛṣṇa’s childhood home. The movement’s leaders draw upon the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s story of Kāliya, a multi-hooded, venomous cobra that took up residence in the Yamuna River, poisoning the plants, animals, and people of Vrindavan. Kṛṣṇa fearlessly jumped into the river to fight the serpent and eventually dispatched it to the sea and thus protected his home. Today’s activists argue that Kāliya is back, its hoods replaced by the many pipes of raw sewage flowing into the Yamuna and turning the river into poison for all who depend on her holy waters (Haberman 2006: 150). The term yamunā-sevā (service to the Yamuna), which is typically used to describe the ritual worship of the river goddess, has been reinterpreted to mean the loving act of protecting the river from pollution (Haberman 2006: 179–80). Another example comes from the Chipko movement: activists, often women, have resisted logging operations by tying rākhīs (amulets) on trees and embracing trees, while listening to Bhāgavata storytellings (kathās), particularly accounts of Kṛṣṇa’s protection of Vrindavan’s forests (James, 2000: 513).4

Besides the story of Kāliya, there are other narratives we might examine to ascertain the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s attitudes toward the environment. There is Kṛṣṇa’s worshiping and then lifting Mount Govardhana to protect the people of Vrindavan from torrential rain (10.24), or his extinguishing a forest fire (10.19), or his dispatching a demon who was preventing villagers from accessing a forest (10.15).5 Outside Kṛṣṇa’s narratives, we may consider the story of the demon-king Hiraṇyākṣa casting the earth into the cosmic waters, causing Viṣṇu to appear as a boar, who lovingly lifts the earth from the depths (3.17–19). There is also King Pṛthu’s threatening to kill the earth-goddess because she refused to supply food to the world’s people and animals (4.14–23). And near the Purāṇa’s end, we hear from the earth herself, singing in bemused and sarcastic tones about all the kings who have tried to rule her — ever intent on expanding their domains —only to  be killed by the inexorable power of time (12.3).

Many of these accounts share a common theme, namely, the relationship between a king’s dharmic rule and the earth’s fertility. This relationship is attested throughout Indic literature, including the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. The king is the embodiment of Viṣṇu and husband of the earth (bhūpati); so, with his righteous rule, the earth will serve as a nourishing mother for her offspring. As David Kinsley explains, “Indeed, it was held that without the king’s beneficial influence, without the manly vigor of the king, the earth’s fecundity would remain untapped; the earth would remain unproductive. The king entered into a relationship with the earth in which he could stimulate her, a relationship that was understood as not unlike marriage” (1997: 70). Thus, in the absence of a king, or in the absence of a virtuous king, the earth could withhold her bounty.

We find this pattern at play in the Bhagavata Purāṇa. When the world is ruled by the cruel and lawless King Vena, for example, the people suffer for lack of food and natural resources. In desperation, the brāhmaṇas kill Vena and replace him with the virtuous Pṛthu, whom the Bhāgavata regards as an avatāra of Viṣṇu. Pṛthu is surprised and angered by the earth’s refusal to nourish her children and threatens to kill her. The earth assumes the shape of a cow and flees Pṛthu’s arrows, only to eventually give up and seek his protection. She then reasons with the king, saying, in essence: “I was being exploited and misused by the terrible Vena, and so I withheld my bounty, even as a cow’s milk dries up when she has no caretaker and no child. Now that you, the righteous Pṛthu, are ruling, you can milk me and receive what you need” (4.18.2–11). At this point, all types of beings in the world — humans, animals, trees, gods, and demons—transform their respective leaders into calves, and milk the earth for what they need, be it grain, soma juice, or liquor. The point is clear: Dharmic leadership brings about the earth’s flourishing. The earth flourishes not despite human cultivation, but because of it, even as a cow flourishes when she is domesticated. The connections between the earth, cows, and female gender roles are strong and abiding in the Bhāgavata.

When cultivation turns into exploitation, however, Viṣṇu is compelled to intervene, whether it be because of Hiraṇyākṣa’s aggression toward the earth, which led to the boar avatāra, or Vena’s misuse of nature’s bounty, which prompted Viṣṇu’s appearance as Pṛthu. One finds two patterns at work in these narratives: the first is of the dharmic king and the earth working as a cooperative couple to abundantly provide for human beings and animals; the second involves the non-dharmic king selfishly exploiting the earth, so that the earth can no longer provide for her offspring. None of the narratives we discussed thus far allow for a third possibility, namely, the dharmic king who wants to provide for his subjects but finds that the earth cannot provide enough to satisfy their needs. The Bhāgavata seems to be making a theological statement: A shortage of natural resources always indicates the lack of dharmic leadership and the resultant uncontrolled exploitation of the earth, since by definition the earth has enough for her children.

While we might make do with this binary, a third possibility does emerge in a short and little-known narrative in the fourth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, namely, the story of the ten Pracetās.6 These ten brothers were sons of King Prācīnabarhi, and on their father’s request, they set out to perform ascetic practice and thus prepare themselves to rule the kingdom. They found a beautiful reservoir and decided to meditate underwater, holding their breath. They meditated on Viṣṇu, using a mantra given to them by Śiva, and after their ten thousand years of meditation, Viṣṇu appeared before them and blessed them with prosperity, future progeny, wisdom, and devotion. When the Pracetās emerged from the water, however, they saw that the earth was covered with trees, and this incited their anger (4.30.44). Commentators explain that while the Pracetās meditated, their father had retired, and without the king’s oversight, trees had covered the earth, which left no space for agriculture or human habitation.7 The Pracetās’ anger knew no bounds, and using their yogic power, they released fire and air from their mouths to burn down the trees, determined to make the earth treeless. Seeing this impending extinction of the trees, the fourfaced creator, Brahmā, hurried to the spot and calmed the Pracetās’ anger by appealing to their reason. In case reason was not enough, though, Brahmā advised the trees to offer their beautiful daughter, Mārīṣā, in marriage to the Pracetās (4.30.47). The brothers accepted her, making this one of a few instances of polyandry in Sanskrit Ravi M. Gupta literature, and then took up the rule of the kingdom and eventually raised a worthy son.

Philip Lutgendorf points out that clearing forests for human use is a common task for kings in the Mahābhārata, and they do so unapologetically. “The forest is for them primarily a zone for exploitation and consumption, and there is no sense in the epics [Mahābharata and Rāmāyaṇa] of the modern notion of the ‘fragility’ or endangerment of the forest ecosystem” (2000: 279). This bleak assessment of the epics is difficult to sustain in relation to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, given its several narratives of praise for and protection of forests.8 The story of the Pracetās is especially noteworthy because of its acknowledgement, by both the text and its commentators, of the “fragility” (or at least the limited availability) of the forest environment. The narrative seems to acknowledge that scarcity of natural resources is possible even without demonic leadership, owing to a more simple cause, namely, the ever-growing needs of human actors.9 The situation here is substantively different from others we have discussed —the Pracetās’ action was not motivated by overt selfishness, as in Hiranyākṣa’s conquering of the earth, nor was the food shortage caused by the earth’s defensive withdrawal of resources, as in the case of the tyrant Vena. Rather, the earth was simply flourishing in a way that made human habitation difficult, and the Pracetās got carried away by doing what kings are meant to do, namely, provide space and facility for their subjects to flourish. The problem is one of balancing the genuine (if somewhat overblown), competing needs of humans and other living beings.

Indeed, the story of the Pracetās is significant not just for the way it frames the environmental problem, but for the type of solution it offers. Here, the earth is not treated simply as an object of veneration, nor depicted merely as a passive target of exploitation. Rather, the earth, and particularly its trees, are given agency and voice in the narrative, as persons who display intelligence, negotiate their needs, and struggle for their survival. As David Haberman showed in his book, People Trees, the acknowledgment of personal agency, autonomy, and intelligence in trees is a widespread facet of Hindu traditions from Purāṇic times to the present.10 The Bhāgavata’s assertion of personhood for trees aligns well with its Sāṁkhya theology, wherein material nature, prakṛti, is regarded as active, dynamic, and adaptive matter that is animated by numerous, individual puruṣas. Indeed, in its discussion of the creative process in Book Three, the Bhāgavata lists trees as the first creation by Brahmā and immediately accords to them both consciousness and feeling: Although trees are “mostly in darkness (tamaḥprāyāḥ),” they “seek life upward (utsrotasaḥ)” and “have feeling within (antaḥsparśāḥ).” (3.10.20)

Haberman argues that the “common-sense” divide between humans and nonhumans, characteristic of post-Enlightenment Western cultures, makes little sense in the context of widespread Hindu tree-worship, where the question “Who is a tree?” is far more appropriate than “What is a tree?” 11 I quote:


[S]uch concepts as animism and anthropomorphism are implicated in a modern Western cultural construction of nature that sets a firm boundary between the human and nonhuman. The cultural construction of nature in Indian society has resulted in much greater continuity between the human and nonhuman, which are both regarded as parts of the same whole. (2013: 190)


While the Pracetās’ story does not involve veneration of trees of the type documented by Haberman, something equally significant happens—marriage with trees. The Bhāgavata here bridges the boundary between human beings and the natural world through one of the most effective means of boundary-blurring in Indic traditions: intermarriage. To be sure, this is not a case of treemarriage of the kind that Vijaya Nagarajan discussed in her article on the embedded ecologies of Tamil village life (2000). In the contemporary Indian context, tree-marriages are mostly done in order to redirect human suffering onto a tree. The bride or groom marries a tree to, say, prevent malefic astrological influences from affecting a future human partner, or to have the tree absorb the unfortunate karmic forces preventing the bride or groom from finding a suitable match. 

It is believed that trees have an enormous capacity to absorb suffering, since they have an abundance of auspiciousness, goodwill, and generosity. As part of the greater natural world, their sacredness is inherently more encompassing than that of humans. Therefore, if the marriage to a tree is arranged first, the tree will bear the burden of human suffering and, in a sense, transform the suffering and inauspiciousness into auspiciousness. . . . Including the tree in a form of kinship —a familiar category with expectations of particular responses —is another manifestation of embedded ecologies.” (Nagarajan 2000: 459)

In the case of the Pracetās, their wife is the trees’ adopted daughter—a young woman born from the union of the sage Kanḍu and the heavenly nymph Pramlocā, but then abandoned by them and raised by trees. Nevertheless, the text makes it clear that the trees regard her as their daughter (duhitaram), and this point is not lost on commentators. The Mādhva commentator Vijayadhvaja Tīrtha asks how kanyādāna, the sacred and emotional act of giving one’s daughter in marriage, could take place when the grooms and the trees were adversaries (4.30.47). In other words, why would either side trust the other? Vijayadhvaja concludes that their willing ness was a result of their trust in Brahmā, who recommended the match and must have reassured them of its success.12

Interestingly, none of the commentators finds a need to justify the agency ascribed to trees in this story —particularly their ability to perform kanyādāna, the ultimate act of giving —thus reinforcing the notion that the personhood of trees is common sense and commonplace in Hinduism, resulting in the cultivation of personal relationships with particular trees. As Nagarajan puts it, “In general, the ritual of arranged marriages in India is used to cement the bonds between separate families. Establishing relationships with the natural world is as important for the family’s survival as the marriage between humans” (2000: 459). Here, the situation is the inverse of contemporary Indian tree-marriage: by marrying into the family of trees, the Pracetās essentially create a bond with them that guarantees the trees’ future survival. While logic and good argument may or may not have provided sufficient protection from the Pracetās’ fury, entering into bonds of kinship gave the trees a greater degree of reassurance.

And therein lies the most valuable theological resource of this short narrative. The Pracetās emerged from their meditation to see the earth’s surface covered by trees, and their depersonalized view of the trees allowed them to scapegoat the trees for their own absence as kings. The trees take the fall for the Pracetās’ anger, which knows no bounds until Brahmā forces the Pracetās to recognize the trees’ agency, autonomy, and sentience. This recognition is secured and deepened through personal relationship — in this case, marriage —thus making the trees sajātīya, part of the same kinship networks as human beings. The Pracetās’ story provides Vaiṣṇavas with a starkly honest perspective on human beings’ potential for ecological destruction while also offering hope and direction for transformed relationships with the natural world. For all its readers, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa offers an opportunity to re-examine our “common-sense” assumptions about the divide between human beings and the natural world. It encourages us to broaden our notion of personhood to include all beings who share in the struggle for survival.13



Alley, Kelly D. 2000. “Separate Domains: Hinduism, Politics, and Environmental Pollution.” In Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 355–387. Cambridge: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.

Bhāgavata Purāṇa. 1965. Śrīmad Bhāgavata Mahāpurāṇam, ed. Kṛṣṇaśaṅkara Śāstrī. Contains the Sanskrit commentaries of Śrīdhara Svāmin’s “Bhāvārthadīpikā,” Śrī Vaṃśīdhara’s “Bhāvārthadīpikāprakāśa,” Śrī Rādhāramaṇadāsa Gosāmin’s “Dīpinī,” Śrīmad Vīrarāghava’s “Bhāgavatacandrikā,” Śrīmad Vijayadhvajatīrtha’s “Padaratnāvalī,” Śrīmad Jīva Gosvāmin’s “Kramasaṃdarbha,” Śrīmad Viśvanātha Cakravartin’s “Sārārthadarśinī,” Śrīmad Śukadeva’s “Siddhāntapradīpa,” Śrīmad Vallabhācarya’s “Subodhinī,” Śrī Puru ṣottamacaraṇa Gosvāmin’s “Subodhinīprakāśaḥ,” Śrī Giridhara-lāla’s “Bālaprabodhinī.” Ahmedabad: Śrībhāgavatavidyāpīṭh.

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Swami Prabhupāda. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

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Gupta, Ravi M. and Kenneth R. Valpey. 2016. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa: Selected Readings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Haberman, David L. 2006. River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2013. People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India. New York: Oxford UP.

Jain, Pankaj. 2011. Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities: Sustenance and Sustainability. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

James, George A. 2000. “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Chipko Resistance.” In Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 499–530. Cambridge: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.

Kinsley, David R. 1997. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lutgendorf, Philip. 2000. “City, Forest, and Cosmos: Ecological Perspectives from the Sanskrit Epics.” In Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 269–89. Cambridge: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.

Nagarajan, Vijaya. 2000. “Rituals of Embedded Ecologies: Drawing Kolams,  Marrying Trees, and Generating Auspiciousness.” In Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, 453–468. Cambridge: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School.

Nagarajan, Vijaya Rettakudi. 1998. “The Earth as Goddess Bhū Devī: Toward a Theory of ‘Embedded Ecologies’ in Folk Hinduism.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, edited by Lance E. Nelson, 269–295. Albany: SUNY Press.

Nelson, Lance E. 1998. “The Dualism of Nondualism: Advaita Vedanta and the Irrelevance of Nature.” In Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, edited by Lance E. Nelson, 61–88. Albany: SUNY Press.



1 For a discussion of Mehta’s motivations, see Haberman, River of Love […], p. 146. For the religious underpinnings of the Chipko movement, see George A. James’ “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Chipko Resistance” (2000). Pankaj Jain did an extensive study of the ecological and devotional facets of the Bishnoi community in his Dharma and Ecology of Hindu Communities (2011).

2 Vijaya Rettakudi Nagarajan writes, “I want to point out here the false leap or slurring that we sometimes allow within environmental discourse between identifying a belief or a way of life as ecological because a natural object is imbued with sacrality and the belief that it is thus necessarily conservation-oriented. . . . More broadly, one could say that, although non-Western religions may have a reverence towards landscapes and therefore may contain innumerable embedded ecologies, these beliefs do not necessarily lead to ecological practices that resemble conservationism in the sense that the West has come to know it. While it is true, to a certain extent, that the infusion of the natural world with notions of sacrality does affect the behavior of people towards the natural world, I have misgivings about the implications that Indian culture, because of its notions of sacredness, has intrinsic checks and balances to restrain the rapaciousness of human greed” (1998: 283–84). Kelly D. Alley (2000: 357) and David L. Haberman (2006: 132–33) noted how faith in the allauspicious and purifying power of river goddesses can engender a complacency toward, or even denial of, environmental pollution, while Lance E. Nelson (1998) argued that Advaita Vedanta’s view of the natural world as illusive can justify indifference toward its ecological condition.

3 The Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s nearly eighteen thousand Sanskrit verses resist easy categorization into any genre of Sanskrit literature. Its linguistic expression is on par with the finest Sanskrit poetry. Nevertheless, the Bhāgavata is more than a collection of books; most Hindus encounter the text through its manifold retellings in vernacular literature and its performative traditions in liturgy, storytelling, dance, drama, architecture, sculpture, painting, and film. For an introduction to the contents, structure, and reception history of the Bhāgavata, see Gupta and Valpey, Bhāgavata Purāṇa: Sacred Text and Living Tradition (2013) and Bhāgavata Purāṇa: Selected Readings (2016).

4 In addition to the examples given above, another instance of Bhāgavata-related ecological activism is the Govardhan Ecovillage near Mumbai, formed in 2003, which aims to embody a sustainable village-based lifestyle grounded in the values of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. (

5 All references to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa in this essay are given by book (canto), chapter, and verse number(s) (e.g., 4.18.7). When an entire chapter is referenced, I provide only the book and chapter numbers (e.g., 4.18). I have used Kṛṣṇaśaṅkara Śāstri’s edition for the text and commentaries, except for Prabhupāda’s commentary, which comes from the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust edition.

6 The Pracetās’ story is spread across eight chapters in the Bhāgavata (4.24–31), because of an intervening narrative about their father, King Prācīnabarhi. The section of the story that is relevant for our purposes is found in chapter 30, and the narrative largely follows the Viṣṇu Purāṇa’s version.

7 In a commentary to 4.30.44, the celebrated fourteenth-century commentator Śrīdhara Svāmī explains that Prācīnabarhiṣa’s absence allowed the trees to overrun the earth: “tadā hi prācīnabarhiṣaḥ pravrajitatvād arājake karṣaṇādy abhāvāt drumair bhūmiś channābhūt.” Meanwhile, the eighteenth-century Caitanya Vaiṣṇava commentator Viśvanātha Cakravartī explains the underlying reason for the Pracetās’ anger: They had been asked by Viṣṇu to rule the earth, but how would they fulfill the Lord’s order if trees covered the earth? Where would human beings live? Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda (1896–1977) follows Śrīdhara and Viśvanātha, but then identifies the problem specifically as the lack of agriculture: “The sons, the Pracetās, were ordered by the Supreme Personality of Godhead to come out of the water and go to the kingdom of their father in order to take care of that kingdom. However, when they came out, they saw that everything had been neglected due to the King’s absence. They first observed that food grains were not being produced and that there were no agricultural activities. Indeed, the surface of the world was practically covered by very tall trees. . . . They desired that the land be cleared for crops.” (4.30.44)

8 These include Kṛṣṇa’s extinguishing a forest fire (Bhāgavata 10.19), his praise for the beauty of the forest (10.15), his removal of the Dhenuka demon who claimed exclusive rights to a palmyra forest (10.15), his frolicking and dancing in the forested landscape (10.20 and 10.29), and, of course, the story of the Pracetās presently under discussion.

9 An acknowledgment of resource scarcity, albeit due to demonic leadership, is also found in commentaries on the Pṛthu episode. In verse 4.18.7, the earth explains that she withheld seeds and herbs for the purpose of yajña, sacrifice, which was not being performed during Vena’s rule. The Śrīvaiṣṇava commentator Vīrarāghava, following Śrīdhara’s lead, argues that all plants would have been destroyed to their roots by evildoers intent on unrighteous consumption, and so the earth had to protect them for future performances of yajña and other virtuous acts.

10 See, for example, Haberman’s survey of textual views of the pīpal (aśvattha) (2013: 71–4). He concludes in his final chapter: “Current acts of tree worship, however, are perhaps the strongest ethnographic confirmation that beliefs about the sentience of trees that go back thousands of years are still very much alive and functional in India.” (2013: 186)

11 Haberman describes his experience as an ethnographer of Indian tree-worship: “I asked many people on numerous occasions this question (most simply in Hindi: ‘Ye vriksh kaun hai?’ [‘Who is this tree?’]) and received a variety of answers without any hesitation or indication that it was an odd question. Whereas the human- nonhuman divide has characterized much modern Western thought, which insists that personhood applies only to human beings, here we encounter an application of the concept of personhood that includes more than human beings, extending even to trees. Many tree worshipers informed me, ‘Trees are persons just like you and me.’” (2013: 190–1)

12 Vijayadhvaja writes in his commentary on Bhāgavata 4.30.47: “pratipakṣabhūtair vṛkṣair dīyamānaṁ kanyādānaṁ niḥśaṅkaṁ kathaṁ saṅgacchata iti tatrāha … āptatve brahmaṇo vacanaṁ kāraṇaṁ ity arthaḥ.”

13 The worries about (and charges of) anthropomorphism, animism, idolatry, mythology, and superstition that often dissuade Western cultures from taking a personal view of nonhuman beings have deep historical roots that are discussed insightfully and critically in the introduction and conclusion of Haberman’s People Trees.


RAVI M. GUPTA is the Charles Redd Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Religious Studies Program at Utah State University. He is the author or editor of four books, including an abridged translation of the Bhagavata Purana (with Kenneth Valpey), published in 2016 by Columbia University Press. Ravi completed his doctorate in Hindu Studies at Oxford University and subsequently taught at the University of Florida, Centre College, and the College of William and Mary. He has received four teaching awards, a National Endowment for the Humanities summer fellowship, two visiting fellowships at Oxford, and a book award. He is a past president of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies and a Permanent Research Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.