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Reviewed by:
  • Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions
  • Elisa Freschi
Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions. By Ellison Banks Findly. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2008. Pp. xxxii + 617. Hardcover Rs. 1095.

Reading Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions by Ellison Banks Findly may at first seem an irritating experience for a Sanskrit scholar, since it appears to look in a seemingly uncritical way at many instances, taken from all sorts of texts (medical, kāvya, religious, mythologic, folkloric, etc.) in which the view is held that plants are living beings and, hence, are deserving of respect. After reflection, however, this may be seen as a positive aspect of the book, since it introduces Sanskritists to environmental ethics and makes environmental activists aware of Sanskrit sources that they might use while advocating (in India or elsewhere) on behalf of that portion of the environment occupied by plants. Hence, if one shares the fundamental goal of environmental conservation, this book is not just an interesting study; it represents a positive step toward achieving this goal.

Let me begin by outlining the purpose of the book. Most of the criticism that it may raise is indeed linked to what we would like it to be about. The author, instead, states clearly:

In this study, I hope to show that many of the things that are on our minds today about plants were also on the minds of traditional thinkers in early and medieval India, in ways that had clarity and precision then and that can be appreciated as such now. Moreover, the doctrines about plants developed in traditional religious and philosophical circles in India continue to provide formative and grounding material for activist work there undertaken by individuals and groups today.

(pp. xxix–xxx; emphasis added)

I hope not to force too much of my own interpretation on the author's intent if I try to bridge the first and the second statements and sum up the book as showing only those "doctrines about plants developed in traditional religious and philosophical circles in India" that can "provide formative and grounding material for activist work there undertaken by individuals and groups today." This means that the author is interested not in a general discussion about plants in Indian culture, but instead in a very selective study of how plants are perceived by different groups within the larger Indian tradition:

Being a "borderline case" suggests … that in each of the traditions … there are a variety of views about plants and that, while we have focused on those texts and passages that we might call "plant-positive," many texts, thinkers, and movements pay no attention to plants at all—or may hold dismissive views. Borderline, then, here suggests that the case on behalf of plants is highly selective and may not represent a whole tradition's view.…

(p. 410; emphasis added). [End Page 380]

Accordingly, Findly basically dedicates the whole first part (pp. 1–266) and half of the second (pp. 267–336) to this process of selection from so-called "Hindu," Buddhist, and Jaina views, of all which can be regarded as "positive" toward plants and can be applied in contemporary environmentalist movements.

The third part (pp. 407–574) is dedicated to (1) the actualization of these themes in the work of selected Indian spiritual teachers of the present time, and (2) the way Indian and Indian-inspired activists have used these ideas in their environmentalist work. However, "environmentalism" itself is not a neutral "frame." (In a different context, Findly quotes John Cort saying that environmentalism is, together with scientific methods, Copernican astronomy, nationalism, industrial capitalism, globalization, feminism, social justice, human rights, etc., "one of the several new epistemes to which the world's religious traditions have had to respond in recent centuries" [ John Cort, Green Jainism? p. 66; quoted on p. 479].)

Findly's adoption of the environmentalist point of view is overt. The second chapter of part 2 (pp. 337–406) is called "Plant Rights and Human Duties" and starts with the following words: "We now move from traditional understandings of what is to what should be" (p. 337; emphasis original). "What should be" is exemplified by the views of environmental...


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