Metaphorically the term “Mother Earth” should evoke our spirituality and a desire to respect nature. We may not expect a miracle to happen but we can definitely bring a change by closely examining the environment around us and understanding what our role in it is
By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang
The idea of looking at the Earth as a parental figure that sustains us, that acts as a life giving force and that serves as a source of comfort has been the root of many traditions and belief systems all over the world. It is believed that the first Greek God was actually the Goddess “Gaia” or Mother Earth who created herself out of primordial chaos, bringing out her feminine elements of fertility, wholeness, balance and continuity of life.
From her fertile womb, all life sprang and unto the bosom of mother earth all creatures on earth live in harmony until their span of life ends. Thus, being metaphorically explained as “Mother Earth”, Greek mythology offers us a platform for understanding the beginning of such a belief which is deeply rooted in many cultures of the world.
Women have long been associated with nature. Judith Plant in her book ‘The Green Reader’ supports this statement by citing examples of the use of certain metaphors in our everyday language, for example, the phrase “a virgin forest” is often used to mean a forest that is devoid of exploitation and yet untouched by man.
The earth has many fertile elements that can multiply such as lands, rivers, streams, animals which can be a source of life. The role of women as ‘nurturers’ or ‘protectors’ of nature has historically been a long established fact.
Among the Papua of New Guinea, women are depicted as ‘the preservers of culture and social life as opposed to the destructive force of men’. M Strathorn who made a study of this region writes that while men are associated with the ‘wild’ and ‘destructive’ forces of nature, women are blended into the creative and emotional aspects of nature. Women are portrayed in their legends as inventors and sustainers of culture.
In a study conducted among the Kaulong and Sengseng peoples of Southwest New Britain, it was found that every woman in the village was expected to marry and have a large family producing and caring successfully because many children brought recognition for both men and women as did having a big garden and raising many pigs.’
The linkages between women, motherhood, fertility, family and natural morality thus helps us understand the emphasis on the relationship between women and nature.
L.P Vidyarthi, a renowned Indian Anthropologist explained the concept of ‘nature-man-spirit’ complex among the Maler, a hill tribe residing in Bihar. The Maler culture was deeply rooted in nature ,the entire Maler life revolved around the forest on which their economy, family life and lifecycle depended upon. Women played an important role in the spiritual life of the entire family connecting forest into their social world.
The Khasi, a matrilineal tribe of Meghalaya have a deep rooted affinity with nature. The Khasi live in profound communion with nature which is the pivot around which their economic, cultural and religious life revolves.
The earth is symbolized as ‘Mei-Ramew’ or “Ka Mei Ri Lung Ri San”the terms Mei meaning mother and Ramew meaning earth. Thus mother earth is an all embracing entity comprising of the land, forest, streams, rivers, hills and everything contained in it. They uphold her with great honour and respect and invoke her blessings to a good crop and thank her for a good harvest even praying and seeking her permission before cutting a sacred tree for religious purposes.
There is a legend about the creation of Ka Ramew(mother earth) and her husband called Basa. The couple lived in perfect peace and love but had no happiness in their life as they had no offspring. Threfore they prayed and pleaded to God to give them children. Finally, God was pleased and gave them five children-they were Ka Sngi(the sun),U Bnai(the moon), Ka Um (water), Ka Lyer(Air) and Ka Ding(fire). So with the combined effort of The Sun, Moon, Water, and the Air, there sprang vegetation on the bosom of mother earth and she became fertile. This legend signifies the fact that Mother Earth is after all, a life giving force.
The past few decades has witnessed an enormous interest in understanding women’s movements from an environmentalist perspective. One such movement that highlighted the role of women in deep ecology is the Chipko movement which took place in 1973 in Chamoli district in the Garhwal Himalayas. The word ‘Chipko’ which literally means ‘to embrace’ became one of the most successful environmental activism struggles in the world, which brought to light how the women in the village through their quick and bold self-sacrificing strategies of hugging the trees called for world attention against commercial logging of forests.
Such historical connections between women and nature gave birth to a series of movements in the 70’s that began as environmental movements. The feminists who then took interest in such movements tried to explore how oppressions were linked through gender, race and ecology-.This ultimately led to a new wave of ‘eco-feminism’, a term originally conceived by Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 which was a philosophy that emphasized the ways in which both nature and women are treated by a patriarchal or male-centred society, thereby advocating ways in which women must work to end the domination on nature if they were to work towards their own liberation.
As eco-feminism continued to grow, it branched out into two essential directions, while one advocated radical view of ecofeminism, the other cultural ecofeminists perspective began emphasizing on a more intimate connection between women and nature because of their gender roles such as family nurture and providing food, thereby working towards environmental justice on women’s issues.
When one tries to ponder upon such worldviews and metaphors associated with nature and gender, one is challenged by the fact that nature is after all plundered. In the contemporary world that we live today, humankind is prompted to exploit the earth while assuming that she, as our mother ,would forever continue to nurture and sustain us.
As a metaphor, ‘Mother Earth’ remains an expression in our language that personifies earth as a mother which can only be figurative : a poetic understanding that she ,the mother is a life giving force, the source of all sustenance ,the nurturer, the provider of all our basic needs and so it is our duty to revere and respect Mother Earth. On the other hand while delving deeply on the spiritual content of the word ‘Mother Earth’ we understand that spirituality is an essential part of human life and experience. We may not lead spiritual lives but a shared and collective view of human nature is that if we respect nature than we cannot avoid being spiritual in mind and spirit. Spirituality may mean many things to different people. It is our connection with God our Creator, or with our souls or with some supernatural powers. But regardless of all emphasis, all these strands of spirituality recognize the sacredness of life, ourselves and our relationship with the world around us.
It is about time we reflect on the all so popular metaphor “Mother Earth”. Metaphorically speaking the term should evoke our human minds to the spirituality within ourselves to respect and revere nature. We may not expect a miracle to happen through some ‘divine spiritual interventions’ but we can definitely bring a change by closely examining the environment around us and understand what is our role in it?
As teachers, students, activists, educationists, political leaders or concerned citizens of the nation our primary tool would be to reaffirm the sacredness of Mother Earth and bring ecological unity, interdependence of all species and the right to be free from ecological destruction.
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Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, NEHU, Shillong. Her specialization includes Sociology of Environment, Gender, Family and Kinship. She has 3 books to her credit and has a number of articles published in National and International journals. Some notable contributions are her work on Matriliny, Forest and Khasi, Gender and livelihood interventions etc.