What is the first idea that human beings ever had? The earliest fossils that have been proposed as members of the hominin lineage are the Sahelanthropus, which inhabited the earth about seven million years ago. In the introduction to his fascinating book Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson says that one of the prime candidates for the "first idea" is that of standing upright. So what is the advantage of becoming two-footed from being four-footed? A possible reason is that humans could appear bigger and more threatening in contests with other animals. Early humans were possibly scavengers since they didn't have the means to kill animals themselves. By standing up and appearing more menacing to smaller animals, they had easy access to food.
Then, about 2.8 million years ago, Homo habilis began making the earliest stone tools. Homo erectus learnt the art of controlling fire about 4,00,000 years ago. The anatomically modern Homo sapiens arose in Africa about 2,00,000 years ago and then slowly moved to Eurasia and other parts of the world. (Yes, we have a common ancestor. When people say "The world is one family," it is not merely metaphorical but a biological fact.)
In what is called the Upper Palaeolithic period - around 50,000 years ago - we seem to have developed the basics of language and music. The various cave paintings - in Spain, Indonesia, France, India, etc. - are about 35,000 years old. Sedentary agriculture seemed to have started about 12,000 years ago. The oldest known treatise is the Rigveda Samhita, which is around 6,000 years old. From the period of about 2000 BCE, we seem to have a fair bit of knowledge of how the human species has evolved and pretty much taken over the earth. In the early 1800s, we were about a billion people on this planet; in a few years, we will be about seven billion.
For better or for worse, human beings have become rulers of the earth. Just like the dinosaurs were. For about 160 million years, they ruled the planet until they miraculously died out about 65 million years ago. In comparison to them, we are just infants. When a species so powerful, so widespread could get snuffed out like a candle in the wind, what of us? Of course, it remains to be seen.
What has made us survive as a species? Is it physical strength? Not by a far shot. Even the humble ant is more powerful than us, considering its size. Is it freedom from disease? Not really. Humans are vulnerable to several maladies and it seems that the number and variety of diseases are on the rise. Then, is it intelligence? Possibly, but it takes a long time for a child to develop sufficient intelligence to fend for itself. There is no simple answer to this question, but it would not be wholly untrue to say that the adaptability of humans as a species is one of the big reasons for us having come so far. It is also true that the survival of a species lies in its balance with the environment. If the balance gets disrupted, nothing really happens to the environment but the species gets extinct. The way to ensure this balance is to adhere to the fundamental idea of sustainability.
In the Indian tradition, we have the concept of "dharma," which can easily be called the first avatar of sustainability. Dharma refers to sustainability at all levels - personal, familial, organisational, societal, global, and universal. The semantic etymology of dharma tells us that it is something that supports and sustains (dhr-dhaarane). It is the very foundation of everything. Without dharma, none can stand. With dharma, none can fall.
Just to give an illustration, we can liken dharma to the submission guidelines that we often see in writing contests. Even the best writer will not be eligible to participate in the competition if she does not follow the submission guidelines while an average writer who sticks to the guidelines gets a fair shot at winning the competition. It doesn't matter who is strong or who is weak, the one who abides by all the rules is the one who is eligible to win the prize. This is why the Upanishads say, "There is nothing higher than dharma. One who is weak and powerless can defeat a strong person only by means of dharma." (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14) In a world without rules, the strong and mighty always win irrespective of who is right, but in a world governed by dharma, there is a chance for even the weak and the powerless to come out victorious if they are right. However, we should remember that dharma does not stop at merely following the rules. In fact, the starting point of dharma is the adherence to the basic principles. From there on, we go to the deeper, more intricate layers of dharma. First we have to be good; then we can hope to be good for something.
The great sage and law-giver Manu gives the ten parameters of dharma (Manusmṛti 7.92) -
1. Cultivating courage
2. Developing forbearance
3. Controlling oneself
4. Staying away from theft
5. Being clean
6. Not feeding the sense organs
7. Discerning good and bad
8. Attaining wisdom
9. Speaking the truth
10. Not getting angry
These ten are the traits of dharma
This gives us a holistic understanding of sustainability. Traits such as courage, forbearance, and wisdom help us evolve internally as individuals. Traits like abstinence from stealing, honesty, and freedom from anger help us integrate with society. Traits like self-control, cleanliness, and moderation in feeding the senses help us maintain balance with the environment. Ultimately, developing the prudence to know good from bad helps us sustain this internal evolution, societal integration, and environmental balance.
1. Ganesh, Shatavadhani R. Your Dharma and Mine. Tr. Ravikumar, Hari. Chennai: Rare Publications, 2015
2. Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. New York: HarperCollins, 2005