In the Jataka tales, there is an anecdote about King Shibi.

Once upon a time, lived King Shibi who was known for his sense of righteousness and tremendous generosity. With his deep understanding of justice, he ruled and resolved the needs of all his kingdom. One day, while he was at court, a frightened pigeon came and took refuge in his lap. Following the pigeon, was the eagle hunting for his prey.

As King Shibi, held the dove protectively, the eagle demanded for his rightful prey , reminding the king that he was preventing him from reaching his food. 'I cannot let you have the dove', said Shibi, 'she has taken refuge in me today.' In that case, provide me with food, Oh great king,' said the eagle.

After being offered all kinds of alternatives, the eagle refused them all saying that he needed fresh meat and demanded for a share of Shibis flesh, equal to the weight of the pigeon. To the shock of the entire court, the King readily agreed and asked for a weighing scale to be brought to court. On one side of the scale he lay the trembling dove, and on the other he started to put down portions of flesh that he cut from his thigh. To everyones amazement, the dove seemed to get heavier and heavier. The king had to keep cutting out his flesh but it would not balance the scales. Finally, he placed his entire body on the weighing scale, willing to give up his life to protect that of the dove.

At that moment, both the dove and the eagle vanished and were replaced by Lord Agni the dietie of fire and Lord Indra, who ruled the heavens, . 'We have tested you enough dear Shibi,' they said. 'Your sincerity and commitment to justice is unparalleled!'
Should we intervene?
This story ended beautifully, and it might seem that King Shibi had played his role as a steward well. But recently I had a similar experience that shook me to my heart.

In a government office, I found a little puppy curled up under the benches, obviously seperated from his mother. He could not have been more than a few weeks old. He was cold and hungry, and each time anyone in the room tried to shake him out of his slumber, he looked for the next pair of warm feet he could curl up against. My heart melted and I decided that a government office was no place for a little puppy. Determined that his mother must be somewhere in the vicinity, I headed outdoors to go and look for her. I circled the building complex and found that, while there were no adult dogs in the campus, across the boundary wall was an entire family with a litter of pups. 'There they are', I thought to myself and promptly returned to the office and brought the little pup out. With the help of an employee I lowered the frightened pup over the boundary wall and watched as the other pups came up to greet him. Mighty pleased with what I had done, I noticed then that the pups started to growl at my little friend and within minutes the adults of the pack came in to inquire about the newcomer.

A half an hour later when I came back to check on my deed, I found that the entire pack had killed the little pup and were feasting on him.

What had I done?

Stunned by my error of understanding, I glanced across at the little shrine near the boundary wall and found that it was dedicated to Lord Dattatreya, a diety often depicted with dogs around him.
Right Action
I could not sleep for days, horrified with the choice I had made, even with the right intention.

I realised that the discomfort I felt on seeing the pup alone in the government office, was an inner unease, that I tried to allieviate in the easiest possible manner. I assumed that he would be fine with his own kind, not realising that Nature can be as brutal as she is beautiful. It seemed to be the right action to take at the time.

As I reflected on the outcome of my decision, I wondered why I mourned the loss of life for 'my' puppy while ignoring the fact that I had provided a meal for the other pups in the litter. What makes one form of life more 'valuable' than another?

What is Right Action in this context? Should humanity intervene in Nature's ways or should we be respectful witnesses to her cycles? After centuries of intervening , is it now too late to wash our hands off the imbalance we have created? If humanity is part of the natural ecosystem, then, are our actions also integral to Natures cycles?
Stewardship vs Ownership
The idea of Environmental Stewardship, was introduced by Aldo Leopold.

Environmental stewardship refers to responsible use and protection of the natural environment through conservation and sustainable practices. Aldo Leopold (1887–1949) championed environmental stewardship based on a land ethic "dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it." (Wikipedia)

This system of ethics, does not consider humanity to be the owner of all of Nature, and the creatures in it. Rather it believes that human beings are one among many species, and bestows a responsibility on humanity to care for all living beings and for the Planet. This idea of stewardship also comes from a theological perspective and is reflected in many schools of philosophy and religions that believe that Nature cannot be owned, or in some religions, that the 'Creator' is the owner of the Universe.

Whether one believes in the idea of a Creator or one would rather subscribe to an evolutionist theory, the dominance of one species - the human, on every other living entity is questionable.
A Conscious and Intelligent Universe
Science is now finally coming to accept that there are signs of intelligence in other forms of life besides the human species. The science of ethology, studies animal emotions and the work of scientists such as Dr Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal highlights the capacity of empathy and morality within other non human communities.

Do we live in a conscious and intelligent Universe? And have we lost the ability to communicate with these other intelligent beings? If we were to regain this connection, would it be easier to understand how to act in alignment with the rest of Nature?

While 'environmental stewardship' may be based on concepts of morality and ethics it still may presume that humanity is superior to all other forms of life. In an interdependent ecosystem, our survival depends on symbiosis. We are as fragile and vulnerable to imbalances, as any other species, even if they are self created.

In his book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote

'A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.'
The Ecological Conscience
The Land Ethic, outlined by Leopold, asks us - Who do we really love? From what base of understanding should our actions towards Nature emerge?

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species.

A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources,' but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

From the role of a guardian, to that of a team member, assuming our responsibility of stewardship is simply an acknowledgement of our deep dependence on every other species in Nature. It is an act of gratitude.

The judgement of right and wrong action, is a complex phenomenon, yet King Shibi's choice of self sacrifice reflects a moral ground that does not place human life at the apex and affirms the right of both the other species to exist.
The Croak is a weekly environmental newsletter put out by the eCoexist team. It is the voice of the environment on its last legs, the final croak that can either be a plea for attention or a call of triumph as the frogs jump out of the well of ignorance and denial. Satirical, urgent and wise the newsletter brings to your attention, topics of global environmental relevance as well as emerging encouraging alternatives. Put together by a team of passionate Nature lovers, The Croak hopes to look at the environmental crisis in its face. It is a tool to reconnect readers to Nature, through questioning and self reflection. To understand the outer environment as a reflection of our own inner state, individually and as a species. And to take responsibility for enabling change.
If you would like to contribute articles on ecology consciousness and sustainability please get in touch with us.
Use the PayTM QR code on the right to send us a donation today. The eCoexist Foundation is a not for profit Section 25 company registered in Pune.
Please send us an email with your details at [email protected] once you have made the payment so we can send you a receipt. Currently we take donations from India only. We thank you sincerely!