Indian Culture protects Plants and Forests

  • Know about what Indian scriptures say on protection of Plants and Trees And importance of Forests in Indian tradition, they being the river source and supportive of wildlife. Conservation of trees and forests is badly needed today.

I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree,” said the American poet, Joyce Kilmer. Before him, the 17th century saint poet, of Maharashtra, Sant Tukaram echoed this sentiment with these words, “Trees and creepers are our friends in the forest.”

Even the most insensitive and materialistic person will derive feelings of joy whilst looking at a lush tree, whether decked with bright flowers, laden with juicy fruit or adorned with delicate new spring foliage or sprinkling brown autumn leaves.

Trees are the most conspicuous manifestation of Mother Nature that showers us with innumerable tangible and intangible blessings or to put it in scientific terms – provides ecosystem services! Apart from providing clean air, water, food and medicines, forests are a great source of aesthetic beauty, give peace of mind and spiritual bliss.

In an era where unsustainable economic policies have resulted in climate change, shrinking forests, vanishing biodiversity, depleting groundwater, chemical loaded food, lifestyle diseases and pandemics, trees are often looked at as a benchmark of a green way of life.

In this scenario, what if people start protecting trees and nature out of love, gratitude and respect? Let us explore Indian traditions from this aspect.

Modern science + Ancient wisdom = Nature conservation

Technology and science have enabled a comfortable life; but also been misused. Now science is helping humans understand the importance of sustainable living. From the study of ecological importance of mangroves and seasonal vegetation on coastal plateaus in western India by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to the study of orchids and rhododendrons in north-eastern states by Botanical Survey of India (BSI), empirical evidence is increasingly highlighting the need for conservation of natural habitats.

It is interesting to note that our ancestors were sensitive towards nature and knew the merits of living in harmony with it. In India, the nature worshipping Vedic culture has always advocated a holistic way of life. Described as Dharmic living, it encompasses the entire spectrum of sustainability including lifestyles that are in tune with the eternal cosmic principles, natural phenomena and the laws of the land, plus being in harmony with all living and non-living entities. The word Dharma is derived from the Sanskrit root verb Dhru, which means ‘that which sustains’ (धारयति इति धर्म)!

This eternal wisdom has, over the millennia, manifested in Indian traditions in myriad ways. It has made us revere the sun and rain/plants and animals, preserve sacred groves and pay obeisance to mountains. The philosophy has percolated into the country’s thoughts and literature.

In the context of plants, the world’s earliest known spiritual tome, Rig Veda - Mandal 10, Sukt 97 says, “Plants, by this name I speak to you, Mothers, to you the Goddesses.” Later, Varah Puraan says, “As long as there are mountains, forests and lakes on Earth, humans will live happily for generations.” In mediaeval times Sant Dnyaneshwar said, “May all livings beings live in harmony with each other.” Sant Kabir said, “God is the tree in the forest.”

In fact, not just forests, but all manifestations of nature are revered in Vedic culture based on the understanding that the same eternal energy (Atma) dwells in all aspects of creation, thus connecting everything to the supreme divine source (Paramatma).

While laws do help in protecting nature, they have limitations. Instead, imagine people conserving forests voluntarily. This is where the tradition of reverence towards nature comes in. When something is considered sacred, most people refrain from destroying it even though all may not know deeper significance. A science student may question the existence of divinity in nature; but will like to explore the underlying principle behind traditions, esp. when it stems out of reason.

Let us rediscover some of India’s practices to know how they can ensure judicious resource utilization and habitat conservation.

Holy plants and their protection

Most plants, with tremendous ecological and medicinal value, have been symbolically depicted in Indian culture to drive home their utility. Linking science and tradition resulted in conservation of such plants, their habitats and animals dependent on them. Plants have thus been venerated in this spirit of coexistence.

For instance, in the southern Konkan region of Maharashtra and Karnataka, Sacred Fig and Cluster Fig are worshipped as Mahapurush (patron deity) and so are mangrove swamps. No wonder these gentle giants are the refuge of numerous species of bats, owls, owlets, barbets, civets, squirrels and monkeys, to name a few. Similarly, in northern Konkan and Gujarat, forest trees are worshipped as Vruksh Devta by the forest dwelling people.

Mangroves that grow in the marshy tidal areas are the natural buffers between land and sea that prevent coastal erosion from the action of waves. In rural areas of Konkan, mangroves still exist in large swathes as a result of the traditional practices and eco-friendly lifestyles. On the contrary, mangroves in regions around Mumbai, which is also located in Konkan, have greatly suffered due to unplanned development and urbanization.

Let us now read about the Sacred Trees in India.


Banyan:  This magnificent tree is a hallmark of the Indian countryside. It provides shelter and food to birds and animals, and a resting place for travelers. The English name Banyan is derived from the Indian word Bania because traders assembled beneath it for transacting business. Its sprawling canopy of broad leaves resting is effective in pollution control and carbon sequestration. A hoary specimen often looks like a mini forest in itself. No wonder, this long-lived tree is respected at the time of Vat Pournima celebrated in northern and western India and otherwise conserved for its social, medicinal and spiritual significance.

Sacred Fig or Peepal:  The extensive canopy of ubiquitous long-lived native tree plays a vital role in pollution control and is the habitat for birds and animals in tropical climatic zones.

It has several uses in Ayurvedic medicine. It can uptake carbon dioxide even at night through CAM Photosynthesis as mentioned in a paper published in Research Journal of Pharmacy & Technology. Naturally, this chosen tree of Krishna often has a small shrine under it.


Cluster Fig or Udumbar:  The figs of this tree are the favourite food of many species of birds and mammals, including Spotted Deer, Jackal and Sloth Bear. Udumbar is known for its myriad uses in Ayurvedic medicine.

Surapal’s Vrikshayurveda (Ayurveda for trees) explains the relation between the location of Cluster Fig and presence of groundwater in the vicinity. Thus, it is considered sacred and mentioned in Atharva Veda as provider of prosperity.

Indian Lilac or Neem:  The common tree of India’s drier areas is best known for its significant role in Ayurvedic medicine and as an eco-friendly pesticide.

A paper published in Legume Research indicates the benefits of foliar application of Neem leaf extracts for better crop yield. It is a favourite tree in afforestation campaigns. Realizing its immense utility it is traditionally used in certain chutney preparations and tied in festive ribbons put up on doors.


Mango: This evergreen tree is a great source of food and shelter for many species of birds and mammals. It also provides nutrition to humans. The ecological importance of Mango mentioned in Bhavishya Puraan has been documented in a research paper (2015) in Asian Agri-History Journal. No ceremony in India is complete without Mango leaves used in ribbons put up on doors and on the Kalash full of water.

Holy Basil or Tulsi:  No home in India is complete without a potted Tulsi plant. It is documented in Ayurveda for its multiple uses as a medicine and germicide. A yellow oil secreted by Holy Basil is known to have such properties as documented in a research paper (2007) published in Indian Journal of Experimental Biology.


Many Indian traditions revere various plants that play a key role in ecology and medicine. The 21 plants worshipped during Ganeshostav, including Brahmi, Durva, Shami, Rui, Arjun, Kevda, Jaai, etc. are a case in point.

Important forests revered and conserved

India, the land of tropical forests since millennia, was able to retain most of them until the advent of British. The inherently holistic way of life and symbolic divine depiction of natural habitats in popular culture had resulted in their conservation and of the wildlife sheltered therein.

Here is a quick tour of culturally protected areas, from a science perspective.

Evergreen forests of Mahableshwar, Maharashtra. Pic by author. 

Catchment area forests: Across India one comes across mountain forests, which are the source of rivers, protected as sacred sites. Many of these locations in the Himalaya, Sahyadri and other ranges have been venerated as the abode of the divine. For instance, tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests adorn many sacred places in Sahyadri in Maharashtra, which are also the origins of rivers like Bhimashankar (Bhima River), Mahabaleshwar (Krishna, Koyna, Venna, Savitri and Gayatri rivers) and Amboli (Hiranyakeshi River).

The presence of significant mammal species such as Tiger, Leopard, Gaur, Sloth Bear, Wild Dog, Sambar and Giant Squirrel in the forests surrounding the latter two locations is a proof of their ecological importance, which was well understood by our forefathers. In fact, many areas to the south and north of Amboli, now also have resident Elephant herds.


Aranyani Sukt in the 10th Mandal of Rig Veda emphasizes the conservation of such habitats. If not for these mountain forests, large swathes of land downstream run the risk of flooding and siltation due to soil erosion. The heavy rains in these forest clad mountains also support the rich agriculture in western Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka.

Sacred Kavu groves of Kerala. 

Sacred groves:  Throughout the country, many tracts of ancient forests have been protected by the locals out of faith in the existence of patron deities (energies) that guard the surrounding region.

Called by different names such as Devrai or Matavan, these forests invariably have a small shrine dedicated to the guardian deity. In the past, people have refrained even from plucking a leaf or a blade of grass from such forests. Sacred groves protect diverse ecosystems including mountain forests, lowland forests and wetlands. There are many instances where entire mountain sides have been denuded due to the greed of modern man.


Interestingly, many wildlife sanctuaries also have sacred groves within or on the periphery such as at Ahupe near Bhimashankar Sanctuary and Supegaon near Phansad Sanctuary in Maharashtra. It is time to once again educate people that the same logic, which advocates protection of sacred groves, had always encouraged protection of the remaining forests, a fact that was well understood by the previous generations. Field research (2008) published in International Journal of Ecology & Environmental Sciences highlights the crucial role played by the concept of sacred groves in safeguarding that ecosystem.

The moral of the story is that conservation of trees and forests is the need of the hour. It is high time that 21st century humans realize its urgency, whether by studying modern ecological journals or understanding ancient practices. Without that all talk about environment would be lip service.

Author Atul has 18 years’ experience in the sectors of journalism, PR and environment education, and currently works as a freelance writer, communicator and educator. Environment conservation, sustainable development and application of Indic traditions in the contemporary context are his areas of interest.

Also read

1. Sacred Kavu groves of Kerala

2. Banyan Tree is the National Tree of India

3. Neem Tree is a remedy for many ailments

4. The Peepal Tree 

5. Tulsi Vivaha

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