Women, Ecology and Survival in India Vandana Shiva

Gender ideology vs. the recovery of the feminine principle


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Gender ideology vs. the recovery of the feminine principle

We see the categories of 'masculine' and 'feminine' as socially and culturally constructed. A gender based ideology projects these categories as biologically determined. The western concept of masculinity that has dominated development and gender relations has excluded all that has been defined by culture as feminine and has legitimised control over all that counts as such. The category of masculinity as a socially constructed product of gender ideology is associated with the creation of the concept of woman as the 'other'. In this asymmetrical relationship, femininity is ideologically con­structed as everything that is not masculine and must be subjected to domination. There are two gender based responses to the process of domination and asymmetry. The first, represented by Simone de Beauvoir, is based on the acceptance of feminine and masculine as biologically established, and the status of women as the second sex as similarly determined. Women's liberation is prescribed as the masculinisation of the female. The emancipation of the 'second sex' lies in its modelling itself on the first; women's freedom con­sists in freedom from biology, from 'bondage to life's mysterious processes'.9 It consists of women 'battling against the elements', and becoming masculine. The liberation that de Beauvoir con­ceives of is a world in which the masculine is accepted as superior and women are free to assume masculine values. The process of liberation is thus a masculinisation of the world defined within the categories created by gender based ideology.

De Beauvoir accepts the patriarchal categorisation of women as passive, weak and unproductive. 'In no domain whatever did she create'; she simply 'submitted passively to her biologic fate', while men fought. The 'worst that was laid upon woman was that she should be excluded from these warlike forays. For it is not in giving life, but in risking life, that man is raised above the animal. That is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth life but to that which kills.'10 De Beauvoir subscribes to the myth of man the hunter as a superior being. She believes that instead of being the providers in hunting gathering societies, women were a liability to the group because 'closely spaced births must have absorbed most of their strength and time so that they were incapable of providing for the children they brought into the world'.11

That traditional and tribal women, without access to modem contraception, could not regulate the number of their children and the number of births is turning out to be a commonly accepted patriarchal myth. Similarly, the myth of female passivity and mascu­line creativity has been critically analysed by recent feminist scholarship, which shows that the survival of mankind has been due much more to 'woman the gatherer' than to 'man the hunter'. Lee and de Vote have shown empirically how even among existing hunters and gatherers, women provide up to 80 per cent of the daily food, whereas men contribute only a small portion by hunt­ing. Elizabeth Fisher's studies indicate that gathering of vegetable food was more important for our early ancestors than hunting.12 Inspite of this, the myth persists that man the hunter as the inven­tor of tools was the provider of basic needs and the protector of society. Evelyn Reed shows how sexism has been the underlying ideology of much work that passes as neutral, unbiased science, and has been the cause for much of the violence and destruction in history.13 Finally, Maria Mies has argued that the relationship of man the hunter with nature was necessarily violent, destructive and predatory, in sharp contrast to the relationship that woman­ the gatherer or cultivator had. Humanity, quite clearly, could not have survived if man the hunter's productivity had been the basis for the daily subsistence of early societies. Their survival was based on the fact that this activity was only a small part of sustenance. Yet patriarchal ideology has made man the hunter the model of human evolution, and has thus adopted violence and domination as its structural component. Hunting, per se, need not be violent; most tribal societies apologise to the animals they have to kill, and their hunting is constrained by nature's cycles of production and reproduction. It is the elevation of the hunting to the level of ideology, that has laid the foundation of a violent relationship with nature. As Mies points out, the patriarchal myth of man the hunter implies the following levels of violence in man's relationship with nature:

  1. The hunters' main tools are not instruments with which to produce life but to destroy it. Their tools are not basically means of production but of destruction, and can also be used as means of coercion against fellow human beings.

  2. This gives hunters a power over living beings, both animal and human, which does not arise out of their own productive work. They can appropriate not only fruits and plants (like the gatherers) and animals, but also other (female) producers by virtue of arms.

  3. The objective relationship mediated through arms, therefore, is basically a predatory or exploitative one: hunters appropriate life, but they cannot produce life. it is an antagonistic and non reciprocal relationship. All later exploitative relations between production and appropriation are, in the last analysis, upheld by arms as means of coercion.

  4. The objective relationship to nature mediated through arms constitutes a relationship of dominance and not of co operation between hunter and nature. This relation­ship of dominance has become an integral element of all further production relations established by men. It has become, in fact, the main paradigm of their produc­tivity. Without dominance and control over nature, men cannot conceive of themselves as being productive.

  5. 'Appropriation of natural substances' (Marx) now also becomes a process of one sided appropriation, of estab­lishing property relations, not in the sense of humanisa­tion, but of exploitation of nature.14

Mies concludes that while the patriarchal paradigm has made man-­the hunter an exemplar of human productivity, he is 'basically a parasite   not a producer'. With the reversal of categories, made possible by focussing on the production of life, the masculinisa­tion of the feminine is no longer a viable option for liberation.

Herbert Marcuse sees liberation as a feminisation of the world: 'Inasmuch as the male principle has been the ruling mental and physical force, a free society would be the "definite negation" of this principle   it would be a female society.’15 While Marcuse opposes de Beauvoir's model, both share the assumptions of femi­nine and masculine as natural, biologically defined traits which have an independent existence, and both respond to patriarchy's gender ideology with categories that have been created by that ideology. Marcuse states: 'Beneath the social factors which determine male aggressiveness and female receptivity, a natural con­trast exists; it is the woman who "embodies" in a literal sense, the promise of peace, of joy, of the end of violence. Tenderness, recep­tivity, sensuousness have become features (or mutilated features) of her body   features of her (repressed) humanity.’16

Gender ideology has created the dualism and disjunction between male and female. Simultaneously it has created a conjunc­tion of activity and creativity with violence and the masculine, and a conjunction of passivity with non violence and the feminine. Gender based responses to this dualism have retained these con­junctions and disjunctions, and within these dichotomised cate­gories, have prescribed either the masculinisation or ferminisation of the world.

There is, however, a third concept and process of liberation that is trans gender. It is based on the recognition that masculine and feminine as gendered concepts based on exclusiveness are ideo­logically defined categories, as is the association of violence and activity with the former, and non violence and passivity with the latter. Rajni Kothari has observed, 'The feminist input serves not just women but also men. There is no limiting relationship between feminist values and being a woman.'17 In this non gender based philosophy the feminine principle is not exclusively embodied in women, but is the principle of activity and creativity in nature, women and men. One cannot really distinguish the masculine from the feminine, person from nature, Purusha from Prakriti. Though distinct, they remain inseparable in dialectical unity, as two aspects of one being. The recovery of the feminine principle is thus associated with the non patriarchal, non gendered category of creative non violence, or 'creative power in peaceful form', as Tagore stated in his prayer to the tree.

It is this conceptual framework within which this book, and the experiences and struggles discussed in it are located. This perspec­tive can recover humanity not in its distorted form of the victim and oppressor, but by creating a new wholeness in both that transcends gender because gender identity is, in any case, an ideological, social and political construct.

The recovery of the feminine principle is a response to multiple dominations and deprivations not just of women, but also of nature and non western cultures. It stands for ecological recovery and nature's liberation, for women's liberation and for the liberation of men who, in dominating nature and women, have sacrificed their own human ness. Ashis Nandy says, one must choose the slave's standpoint not only because the slave is oppressed but also because he represents a higher order cognition which perforce includes the master as a human, whereas the master's cognition has to exclude the slave except as a 'thing'.18 Liberation must there­fore begin from the colonised and end with the coloniser. As Gandhi was to so clearly formulate through his own life, freedom is indivisible, not only in the popular sense that the oppressed of the world are one, but also in the unpopular sense that the oppressor, too, is caught in the culture of oppression.

The recovery of the feminine principle is based on inclusive­ness. It is a recovery in nature, woman and man of creative forms of being and perceiving. In nature it implies seeing nature as a live organism. In woman it implies seeing women as productive and active. Finally, in men the recovery of the feminine principle implies a relocation of action and activity to create life enhancing, not life reducing and life threatening societies.

The death of the feminine principle in women and nature takes place through the association of the category of passivity with the feminine. The death of the feminine principle in men takes place by a shift in the concept of activity from creation to destruction, and the concept of power from empowerment to domination. Self­generated, non violent, creative activity as the feminine principle dies simultaneously in women, men and nature when violence and aggression become the masculine model of activity, and women and nature are turned into passive objects of violence. The prob­lem with a gender based response to a gender based ideology is that it treats ideologically constructed gender categorisation as given by nature. It treats passive non violence as biological givens in women, and violence as a biological given in men, when both non violence and violence are socially constructed and need have no gender association. Gandhi, the modern world's leading practi­tioner and preacher of non violence was, after all, a man. The historical creation of a gender divide by a gender ideology cannot be the basis of gender liberation. And a gender based ideology remains totally inadequate in either responding to the ecological crisis created by patriarchal and violent modes of relating to nature, or in understanding how Third World women are leading ecological struggles based on values of conservation which are immediately generalised as the concern for entire communities and regions, and even humanity as a whole.


1 'Prakriti' is a popular category, and one through which ordinary women in rural India relate to nature. It is also a highly evolved philosophical category in Indian cosmology. Even those philosophical streams of Indian thought which were pat­riarchal and did not give the supreme place to divinity as a woman, a mother, were permeated by the prehistoric cults and the living 'little' traditions of nature as the primordial mother goddess.

2 For an elaboration of the concept of the feminine principle in Indian thought see Alain Danielon, The Gods of India, New York: Inner Traditions International Ltd., 1985; SirJohn Woodroffe, The Serpent Power, Madras: Ganesh and Co., 1931; and Sir John Woodroffe, Shakti and Shakta, London: Luzaz and Co., 1929.

3 Woodroffe, op. cir, (1931), p 27.

4 W.C. Beane, Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study of the Indian Motber Goddess, Leiden: Ej. Brill, 1977.

5 Lalitba Sabasranama, (Reprint), Delhi: Giani Publishing House, 1986.

6 Kalika Purana, 22 10 13, Bombay: Venkateshwara Press, 1927.

7 Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, New York: Pantheon Books, 1955.

8 Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, London: Zed Books, 1986, pp. 16 17, 55.

9 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex London: Penguin Books, 1972.

10 de Beauvoir, op. cit., pp. 95 96.

11 Ibid, p. 87.

12 Quoted in Elizabeth Fisher, Woman's Creation, New York: Anchor Press, 1979, p. 48.

13 E. Reed, Sexism and Science, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978.

14 Maria Mies, op. cit, p. 62.

15 Herbert Marcuse, Counter revolution and Revolt, New York: Allen Lane, 1974, pp. 74 75.

16 Marcuse, op. cit., p. 77.

17 Rajni Kothari, Lokayan's Efforts to Overcome the New Rift', 1FDA Dossier, Vol. 52, March April 1986, p. 9.

18 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986, p.xv

4. Women in the Forest

Aranyani: the forest as the feminine principle

Forests have always been central to Indian civilization. They have been worshipped as Aranyani, the Goddess of the Forest, the prim­ary source of life and fertility, and the forest as a community has been viewed as a model for societal and civilizational evolution. The diversity, harmony and self sustaining nature of the forest formed the organisational principles guiding Indian civilization; the aranya samskriti (roughly translatable as 'the culture of the forest' or 'forest culture') was not a condition of primitiveness, but one of conscious choice. According to Rabindranath Tagore the distinctiveness of Indian culture consists of its having defined life in the forest as the highest form of cultural evolution in Tapovan, he writes:

Contemporary western civilization is built of brick and wood. It is rooted in the city. But Indian civilization has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, mate­rial and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India's best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of demo­cratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilization.

Not being caged in brick, wood and iron, Indian thinkers were surrounded by and linked to the life of the forest. The living forest was for them their shelter, their source of food. The intimate relationship between human life and living nature became the source of knowledge. Nature was not dead and inert in this knowledge system. The experience of life in the forest made it adequately clear that living nature was the source of light and air, of food and water.1

As a source of life nature was venerated as sacred and human evolution was measured in terms of man's capacity to merge with her rhythms and patterns intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The forest thus nurtured an ecological civilization in the most fundamental sense of harmony with nature. Such knowledge that came from participation in the life of the forest was the substance not just of the Aranyakas or forest texts, but also of the everyday beliefs of tribal and peasant society. The forest as the highest expression of the earth's fertility and productivity is symbolised in yet another form as the Earth Mother,2 as Vana Durga or the Tree Goddess in Bengal she is associated with the sheora tree ( Tropbis aspera), and with the sal (Shorea robusta) and asvathha (Ficus religiosa). In Comilla she is Bamani, in Assam she is Rupeswari. In folk and tribal cultures especially, trees and forests are also wor­shipped as Vana Devatas or forest deities.

The sacred tree serves as an image of the cosmos, a symbol of the inexhaustible source of cosmic fertility. The Earth Mother as the primordial Mother says:

0 ye gods, I shall support (i.e. nourish) the whole world with life sustaining vegetables which shall grow out of my body, during a period of heavy rain. I shall gain fame on earth then as Shakhambari (goddess who feeds the herbs), and in that very period, I shall slay the great asura named Durgama (a personification of drought).

Devimahatmya 90:43 44.3

Sacred forests and sacred groves were created and maintained throughout India as a cultural response for their protection. As Pant reports for the Himalaya:

A natural system of conservancy was in vogue; almost every hill top is dedicated to some local deity and the trees on or about the spot are regarded with great respect so that nobody dare touch them. There is also a general impression among the people that everyone cutting a tree should plant another in its place.4

All religions and cultures of the South Asian region have been rooted in the forests, not through fear and ignorance but through ecological insight. Myers says: 'In contrast to the folklore of tem­perate zones, which often regards forests as dark places of danger, traditional perceptions of forests in the humid tropics convey a sense of intimate harmony, with people and forests equal occu­pants of a communal habitat, a primary source of congruity between man and nature.’5

For the tribes of Central India, the forest is the context and condition of survival. The mohwa (Bassia latifolia) is special for the tribals of Chattisgarh, of the Santhal Parganas, of Bastar and of the Satpuras. A large deciduous tree, usually with a short bole, spreading branches and a large rounded crown, it is one of the most important forest trees of India. Women collect the fleshy corollas of its flowers which are eaten raw or cooked, or dried, ground and mixed with flour for making cakes, or distilled into spirit. A thick white oil extracted from the seed is used by tribals for cooking and burning, and is sold for the manufacture of margarine, soap and glycerine. The tree is never felled owing to the value of its flowers and fruits. Even when forest land is cleared for cultivation, the mohwa trees are carefully preserved and are found scattered over cultivated lands long after clearing has taken place. Trees bear crops of flowers and fruit when about ten years old and yield about 40 kgs. of flowers per year. In 1897 and 1900, serious famine years in Central India, the profuse blossoming of mohwa flowers was a famine insurance for the tribals. It is not surprising then, that to the forest dwellers of Central India, the mohwa is the tree of life.

India's people have traditionally recognised the dependence of human survival on the existence of forests. A systematic knowledge about plants and forest ecosystems was thus generated and infor­mal principles of forest management formulated. it has often been stated that 'scientific' forestry and the scientific management of forest resources in India began with the British. The historical justification for such a statement becomes possible only if one accepts that modern western patriarchal science is the only valid science. in ancient Indian traditions, scientific knowledge of the plant kingdom is evident from such terms as vriksayurveda, which means the science of the treatment of plant diseases, and vanaspati vidya or plant sciences, while many ancient texts were called Ara­nyakas or forest texts. Being derived from the living forest, indi­genous forestry science did not perceive trees as just wood; they were looked at from a multi  functional point of view, with a focus on diversity of form and function. For example, the rioted lexicon, Namalinganusasana, popularly known as Amarakosa, lists a number of words to denote a tree, each describing it from a differ­ent point of view6(see Table 1). This is in distinct contrast to the western tradition of forest management, which views trees primar­ily in terms of their woody biomass.



Sanskrit name Functional description


Vraksha that which is cut

Mahiruba that which grows on the earth

Sakhi that which has branches

Padapa that which sucks water through the roots

Taru that by which people get coolness

Agama that which cannot move

Palasi that which has leaves


Vegetation itself was divided into various categories. Caraka,7 for example, divided trees and plants into four classes.

(i) Vanaspati: those which are fruit bearing only

(ii) Vanaspatya: those that fruit and flower

( iii) Osadbi. those that die after the ripening of fruits

(iv) Virudhi: shrubs

A distinction has also been made between natural and cultivated forests, suggesting that afforestation and regeneration through the planting of trees has always been significant in the renewal of the forest wealth of the region. This tradition of seeing trees and plants as live has been continued into modern times by eminent Indian scientists like J.C. Bose, who did detailed experiments to show

that the pretension of man and animals for undisputed superiority over their hitherto 'vegetative brethren' does not bear the test of close inspection. These experiments bring the plant much nearer than we ever thought. We find that it is not a mere mass of vegetative growth, but that its every fibre is instinct with sensibility. We are able to record the throbbings of its pulsating life, and find these wax and wane according to the life conditions of the plant, and cease in the death of the organism in these and many other ways the life reactions in plant and man are alike.8

Ethnobotanical work among India's many diverse tribes is also uncovering the deep, systematic knowledge of forests among them. The diversity of forest foods used in India emerges from this knowledge. In south India, a study conducted among the Soliga in the Belirangan hills of Karnataka shows that they use 27 different varieties of leafy vegetables at different times of the year, and a variety of tubers, leaves, fruits and roots are used for their medici­nal properties by the tribals. A young illiterate Irula boy from a settlement near Kotagiri identified 37 different varieties of plants, gave their Irula names and their different uses.

In Madhya Pradesh, although rice (Oryza sativa) and lesser millets (Panicum miliaceum, Eleusine coracana and Paspalum scrobiculatum) form the staple diet of the tribals, almost all of them supplement it with seeds, grains, roots, rhizomes, leaves and fruits of numerous wild plants which abound in the forests. Grig­son noted that famine has never been a problem in Bastar as the tribes have always been able to draw half of their food from the innumberable edible forest products.9 Tiwari prepared a detailed list of wild plant species eaten by the tribals in Madhya Pradesh.10 He has listed 165 trees, shrubs and climbers. Of these, the first category contains a list of 31 plants whose seeds are roasted and eaten. There are 19 plants whose roots and tubers are eaten after baking, boiling or processing; there are 17 whose juice is taken fresh or after fermenting; 25, whose leaves are eaten as vegetables, and 10 whose petals are cooked as vegetables. There are 63 plants whose fruits are eaten raw, ripe, or roasted or pickled; there are five species of Ficus which provide figs for the forest dwellers. The fruits of the thorny shrub, Pitbcellobium dulce (Inga dulds), also called jungle jalebi, are favourites with the tribals. The sepals of mohwa are greedily eaten and also fermented for liquor. Morus alba, the mulberry, provides fruit for both man and birds. Besides, the ber (Zizypbus mauritiana and Z. Oenoplia) provides delicious fruit, and has been eaten by jungle dwellers from the Mesolithic period onwards.

In non tribal areas, too, forests provide food and livelihood through critical inputs to agriculture, through soil and water con­servation, and through inputs of fodder and organic fertilizer. Indi­genous sylvicultural practises are based on sustainable and renew­able maximisation of all the diverse forms and functions of forests and trees. This common sylvicultural knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, through participation in the processes of forest renewal and of drawing sustenance from the forest ecosys­tem. in both forest and agriculture based economies, it is primarily women who use and manage the produce of forests and trees. In the Himalaya, where tree fodder is predominant in the agricultural economy even today, older women train the younger ones in the art of lopping (pollarding) and of collecting forest produce. In other regions also, lopping cycles and practices had evolved to maximise fodder production. Since food gathering and fodder col­lection has been women's work, primarily, women as foragers were critical in managing and renewing the diversity of the forest. Their work was complementary to that of men. The public and common domain of the forest was not closed to women   it was central to supporting life in the 'private' domain, the home and community.

Indigenous forest management, as largely a women's domain for producing sustenance, was thus in an evolved state when the Brit­ish arrived. Since the British interest in forests was exclusively for commercial timber, indigenous expertise became redundant for their interest and was replaced by a one dimensional, masculinist science of forestry.

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