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What makes a Good City: A Hindu Perspective

What makes a Good City:  A Hindu Perspective



The word for city in Sanskrit is nagara. A nagarika was a city person – a person of refined taste and culture and one who enjoyed the good things of life.

While the term nagara was used for the town, mahanagara was used for a considerably larger well- established wealthy, politically significant city, and grama for village, the smallest settlement. A market town situated along a coast was referred to as pattana or pattinam. The evolution and growth of towns did not follow a uniform pattern. Their development was influenced by a variety of factors. Some towns began as commercial, educational, administrative, or pilgrim centres. In some cases, the name of the town indicated the main occupation of its inhabitants. Each city had distinctive features and differed from the characteristics of another city.

Nagara and grama are not to be seen as mutually exclusive locations – the relation between the two has been rather fluid. It was mainly during the colonial period that the distinction between nagara and village became marked, and with the rapid industrialization that occurred soon after Indian Independence, the polarity between the two was all the more visible.

City and its Functions
cityCities in pre-colonial India were not only centres of trade and commerce but also of learning, religion, art and culture. The city/village is seen as the locale for the encounter between gods and humans. In other words, a traditional nagara or city is one where the sacred and the secular mingle. Temples have been an essential part of city/village life, and the link between the cosmic and the human is made visible through art, worship, poetry, music, dance and so forth. Temples were not simply places of worship, but also centres of cultural, educational and social life. The Hindu god Shiva, the Lord of the Dance, is the patron of arts, and even to this day classical dancers invoke his blessings. In this connection mention needs to be made of Bharata’s Natya Shastra (about second century BCE), a comprehensive and foundational work on dance, music, drama, poetry and other subjects. Debates and discourses among scholars, music and dance performances, as well as the meeting of the local assembly to discuss civic matters including elections to local bodies took place, within the temple premises. The temple also played a significant part in the economy of the village. Generous donations to the temple made it possible for temples to advance money to needy farmers and others as well as give employment not only to ritual specialists but also to teachers, musicians, dancers, tailors, accountants, florists and many others.

With the emergence of various religious movements in the seventh and eighth centuries, educational activity pervaded the urban ethos and culture. The Buddhist university at Nalanda which attracted scholars from China and other places was in existence even before the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were founded (Sen 2005: 354). Schools or pathashalas were attached to temples where pupils were taught subjects such as literature, philosophy and ethics. Jain centres for advanced religious education, Hindu Sanskrit colleges of brahmanical learning (ghatikas) and Hindu monastic institutions (mathas) were in vogue. The mathas functioned not simply as monastic centres of education but also as feeding centres and rest houses for pilgrims. Chatrams, traditional centres of hospitality in pre-colonial India, which were established by kings, were open to common people – pilgrims, the sick and the needy were taken care of – but with the advent of colonial rule these institutions of hospitality were deprived of their traditional role. What was seen as an act of religious duty (dharma) came to be seen as a waste of resources by colonial administrators and kings were discouraged from using the revenue to maintain hospitality centres.

Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra (composed between first and fourth centuries BCE) saw urban living as the epitome of civilization and civilized life. The Kamasutra, which deals with the art of love making, courtship, marriage and family life, offers some valuable insights into the daily life of a well-do-to and refined city person (nagarika). In Vatsyayana’s city, as Thapar puts it ‘comfortable if not luxurious surroundings were provided to harmonize with moods conducive to poetry, painting and recitals of music, in all of which the young city dilettante was expected to excel. The young man had also to be trained in the art of love. The courtesan was a normal feature of urban life, neither romanticized nor treated with contempt. Judging by the training given to a courtesan, it was among the more demanding professions, for, unlike the prostitute, she was a cultured and sociable companion similar to the geisha of Japan or the hetaera of Greece’. Courtesans attached to royal courts were highly accomplished in art, music, poetry, dance and literature. In fact, courtesans enjoyed certain privileges which were not within the reach of ordinary women. Some eminent courtesans were patrons of the arts and were actively engaged in literary pursuits and were held in high esteem.



City in literary and epic narratives
The city finds a prominent place in various sacred and literary texts – in Sanskrit epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and Tamil epic poems such as Silappadigaram and Manimegalai, as well as in Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, the last two the most well-known in Europe. For example, in the Tamil epic Silappadikaram, Kaveripattinam (also known as Pukar or Puhar) figures as a city of technical order – vibrant, wealthy and a heterogeneous city which is hospitable to strangers and immigrants in search of fortune.

In Kautliya’s Arthashastra, a treatise on statecraft and polity, one finds the image of a well-planned city where people of diverse occupations interact, although within the given framework. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata show an advanced stage of city-life, although we find some poetic or mythical descriptions of the city. Valmiki’s Ramayana abounds in descriptions of the physical features of the city of Ayodhya and Sri Lanka, such as the existence of city-gates, moats, streets of different sizes, street-lights, recreational places (parks and forest groves), and the modes of transport within the cities (by elephant, horse and the chariot). One also finds shops, markets and storehouses, and even eating-houses. Being active centres of trade and commerce, the cities were prosperous. One gets the impression that the cities were repositories of wealth. Besides a couple of descriptions of the city as a desolate place, the image is one of prosperity. The author of the epic paints an idealized picture of the city. The city of Ayodhya (now the scene of conflict) is seen as a symbol of the ideal moral or cosmic order and the king as the ideal monarch whose rule is just and fair. A perfect kingdom is where all live in peace and prosperity. It is worth recalling Gandhi’s constant reference to the ideal kingdom of Rama (rama rajya) in his efforts to establish a society where there would be equality, justice and peace.

City as a site of liberation and alienation
The city plays a significant role in providing the locale for the pursuit and fulfilment of the four aims of life (purusharthas) enumerated in Hindu texts: dharma (duty, righteousness, morality)  kama (pleasure),  artha (wealth) and moksha (liberation).

The last goal, moksha, or release from the cycle of rebirth, is often associated with the forest where one seeks to devote one’s life to spiritual contemplation. Even within an urban context, the final goal (moksha) is relevant, but the emphasis in on fulfilling duties – the means to the goal rather than the goal itself. The pursuits of material gain and pleasure are considered legitimate as long as they are regulated by the principle of dharma. Of the four goals, dharma is the foremost governing principle that needs to be applied in all situations and it is seen as a preparation for the ultimate end. The focus is on affirming life in all its aspects – intellectual, artistic, sensual, economic and spiritual – regulated by the principle of dharma.

A sacred city such as Banares (also known as Kashi or Varanasi) is seen as a place where all the four aims of life can be harmonized – pleasure, wealth, duty and liberation. Benares or Kashi is spoken of as the City of Gods – ‘the Luminous, the City of Light’ – where one can attain liberation. Although there are other sacred cities, Benares is seen as encompassing all other sacred cities. For most Hindus, sacred cities such as Benares serve as a locale for life here and now as well as offering a safe passage for life after death.

In some brahmanical texts, the city is also seen as a place to be avoided (Apastamba) Dharmasutra (I, 32,21). Some see the quest for liberation as impossible in a city. The Bauddhayana declares that: “It is impossible for one to obtain salvation, who lives in a town covered with dust” (II, 3, 6, 33). Although there are negative images of the city as a dreadful place, the contrast between the city and forest/country is not as stark in early Sanskrit or Tamil literature as it is in later epic and courtly narratives. In Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala, a person from the country is referred to as gramya, a person who is not acquainted with the courtly language (Sanskrit), norms and way of life of a city person. While the epics celebrate city life, one can see the contrast between the city and forest in the Forest sections of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the fourth stage in the life of a householder (the other three being student, forest dweller and renunciate). The contrast between the city and forest do not necessarily imply discontinuity between the two.




The idea of a sacred city or temple as the centre is not simply confined to one geographical location, although some sacred locations such as Benares are seen as exemplifying in a more powerful manner the connection between the human and the cosmic order. Since most Hindus believe that this universe is a manifestation of an eternal order, Truth or Divine, they perceive a link between the human and the cosmic order. Although the infinite is seen as formless, beyond all forms, it is seen as manifesting itself through forms, thus providing a link between the formless and form, the divine and the human. Sacred cosmologies have been recreated in various places outside India. One of most significant forms of expression of the inter-connectedness is exemplified in the construction of traditional/classic style Hindu temples in Sydney, Pittsburgh, and in Birmingham where stands the newly constructed Balaji Venkateswara temple.

City and Environment
There are rich textual resources that one can draw upon to create an environmentally friendly city. Ideas about cities in pre-colonial India were closely linked with the concept of kingship and polity. Classical Sanskrit texts on polity and kingly duties (dharma) not only speak of a king’s moral duty to protect his kingdom and his people but also require him to care for the environment.

This is clearly articulated in the coronation oaths in texts such as the Yajurveda Samhita (9.22) and the Mahabharata (Santi Parva 59. 106.107) which stipulate that the king should act as a trustee of natural resources and protect his subjects: ‘To you [state is given.] for agriculture, for well-being for prosperity, for development’ (Yajurveda Samhita). A king who does not protect his subjects gets severe treatment (Mahahbarata (Santi Parva 61.32.5) and in Manusmriti (8.307). Even if a king was driven by economic motives, it was his dharma to protect his people and the environment. There are numerous other texts, which call for veneration of all aspects of creation. There are hymns to the Earth in the Atharava Veda– hymns asking the Earth to give us wealth(12:44) but at the same time respect for and protection of the Earth is expressed. That we should not cause injury to the Earth is made clear: Whatever I dig up of you, O Earth, may you of that have quick replenishment! O purifying one, may my thrust never reach into your vital points, your heart! (12:35).

Despite its Machiavellian traits, the Arthashastra offers sound ideas on environmental management which was necessary to protect natural resources and promote the well being people, especially when empires were involved in warfare. The concerns included maintaining a proper irrigation system, construction of dams and bridges, as well as planting trees and plants, and taking care of infirm animals. Kautliya’s text also provides valuable information about farming and crop rotation and also about botanical matters ranging from seed collection to plant/tree classification, from diagnosis and treatment to landscaping. Superintendents appointed to oversee different departments of the state were required to have not only management skills but also expert knowledge in these matters. The Arthashastra takes a cautionary step not only with regard to the protection of natural resources from excessive use but also with protecting humans from natural calamities such as floods, fires disease, famine and by making the necessary provisions at such times. As a text that is concerned with the economic and political order of the society, the Arthashastra has a contemporary ring. It offers a blueprint for how the state and private ventures could conserve, cultivate and safeguard the earth and its natural resources. Although the text is concerned with political and economic gain, it gives serious attention to the welfare of the less fortunate or disadvantaged who are part of society.

Trees and gardens were an important aspect of town planning in pre-colonial India. Archeologically speaking, the genesis of Indian gardening and landscape tradition can be traced back to the Indus valley civilization where there is some evidence that some specific trees held in reverence were protected. References to and descriptions of gardens are found in various Hindu texts. The Mahabharata gives a graphic account of pleasure gardens. In a Hindu text on astronomy, Brihatsamhita, gardens are seen as the dwelling places of gods. We have a vivid description of the private garden of wealthy people in the Kamasutra. A good wife is expected to take delight in gardening. She should surround the house with not only vegetable, fruit and herbal garden but also with beautiful flower garden as well as make it recreational by having a tank or pond and seats (Kamasutra 5. 1). Recreational gardens and parks were an integral part of city life. There were trained experts who maintained the garden, and in Kautilya’s period an efficient system of managing public parks and gardens was in place. Some remarkable gardens were maintained by Indian princes in the late nineteenth century, one of them being Sajjan Niwas Bagh, created under the royal patronage of a the Hindu prince of Udaipur in Rajasthan and later maintained by his successors. They were keen that the garden should have economic, educational, recreational and botanical value to the state.


sanchiThe Purnanas and other texts speak about the value and significance of tree planting. The tree planting ceremony (Vanamahotsa) has a long history in the Hindu tradition. It is being revived now by certain temple organizations such as the Sri Venkateswara temple in Tirupathi in southern India, which offer tree saplings as prasada (blessed food) and invite donations to conserve the environment by the planting of trees. Such steps are being taken by the temples in diaspora such as the Balaji Venkateswara temple in Birmingham. The Hindu reverence’ for trees and plants has been based partly on utility, but mostly on religious duty and mythology. Hindu ancestors considered it their duty to save trees; and in order to do that they attached to every tree a religious sanctity’ (Dwivedi 1990:206). Textual sources are clear that one should not exploit natural resources without any consideration for the environment. If one does, one is going against the ethical injunctions prescribed in the texts. Ahimsa (non-injury) is seen as the highest and the noblest form of dharma. It is one’s duty to abstain from violence, and, where inevitable, violence should be minimal. The Puranas draw attention to the dire consequences (going to hell) for those who fail to plant trees. The Arthashastra, although motivated by economic rather than religious interests does not undermine the value of sacred trees, and in fact imposes fines on those who cause injury to plant and trees: ‘For cutting off the tender sprouts of fruit trees, flower plants or shady trees in the parks near a city, a fine of 6 panas shall be imposed; for cutting off the minor branches of the same trees, 12 panas, and for the cutting of the big branches of the same tree, 24 panas shall be levied…’

The emperors of old such as Ashoka (who embraced Buddhism), known for their love of nature and concern for the environment, planted banyan trees along the roads to give shade to people and animals as well as provided rest houses and watering facilities. The king’s dharma came to be undermined during the colonial period. With the loss of political authority under the colonial rule, and with the introduction of new land reforms and the emergence of a market-oriented economy, the traditional role of the king/state as the protector of resources and his people had little value. However, we have some contemporary examples of model environmentalists such as Vansh Pradip Singh, a twentieth century ruler of Sawar in North India who is known for his kingly duty (rajadharma) of caring for the environment.

There are also clear injunctions against polluting land, air and water, but whether they are put into practice is another matter. However, texts clearly warn against disposal of waste into sacred rivers such as the Ganges: ‘One should not perform these 14 acts near the holy waters of the river Ganga: i.e., remove excrement, brushing and gargling, removing cerumen from body, throwing hairs, dry garlands,… washing clothes, throwing dirty clothes, thumping water and swimming (Parvacitta Tatva 1.535). The point is that one is not supposed to wash oneself in sacred rivers but to have a holy dip. It is ironic that those who profess faith in the cleansing power of the sacred rivers tend to pollute it.

To sum up, the Hindu tradition has a rich treasure of textual sources which are relevant to contemporary concerns and could be used in constructive ways. A good city is one that embodies the concept of the welfare of all humans as well as the created order (sarva-bhuta-hita). A good city is one that is dharmic – where (truth, righteousness, morality, duty) prevails; where all activities benefit both the individual and the community; where there is concern for the environment; where there is room for trust and hope; and where people from diverse backgrounds and cultural traditions can live in peace and harmony.

~ Dr. Sharada Sugirtharaja

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