A living hill: Reflections on animistic worldviews, stories, resistance and hope

What if the rivers had the right to perform their ecological functions without any human-made hindrance, just like you and I have to life and speech?

Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.
Teaser Image Caption
Artwork by Abhishek Chauhan.

This reflection piece attempts to illuminate different ways of being and relating in the world while reflecting on the essay by Andreas Weber titled “Sharing Life. Animism as Ecopolitical Practice.” It attempts to compliment Weber’s essay by illustrating a few examples from India and rest of the world that evoke animistic cosmologies or reverence to the rest of nature and how that has informed their struggles against destructive development. From Adivasi communities in Central and Eastern India to the Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and many others, this piece weaves together visions of ‘wellbeing’ that are guided by the rhythms and moods of the natural world.

Towards the end, the piece makes a few suggestions of how some recent events on rights of nature across the world could open up the opportunity of reversing our current destructive relationship with nature to that of harmony and respect. Stressing on the need of acknowledging and respecting different ways of knowing and being in this world, this piece supports the articulation of such alternative worldviews where they exist as crucial in defining, living, supporting and propagating the paradigms of well-being that are just, equitable and ecologically wise.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has shown the deep fractures of the neo-liberal societies and the baseless promises of well-being that the capitalist model made to the whole world. But importantly, it has shown to us, especially the ones who pretend to be blind and deaf, that the earth is alive. Not only alive, but she can in no time wipe out the empires and static edifices that the humans so much pride upon. The insurgence of life that we see in innumerable actions of solidarity, cooperation, love, and care in these times are rooted in the aeons old articulations of indigenous and other nature dependent communities.

Weber’s paper ‘Sharing Life.  The Ecopolitics of Reciprocity’ locates itself in these very interesting times and critiques the 'western cognitive empire’, which is based on positivist science of viewing relationships as social contracts and colonises the peoples and lands that challenge its hegemony. Weber delves into the concept of Animism from a decolonised approach and puts worth a comprehensive understanding of Animism and what it can mean for reviving our collapsing world. 

This piece, while complimenting Weber’s paper, recounts some of the expressions (among many) of recognising the natural world as persons, spirits, and deities with an agency of their own. And how these visions can help us in transcending the excesses of the Anthropocene and offer us pathways for the future. The attempt is to illustrate some grounded struggles of emergence that are guided by the rhythms and moods of the natural world by respecting the ecological limits and commanding cooperation with the natural world. These struggles actively resist the modern, rational, mechanistic, extractive and utilitarian western cognitive empire.

More than human world – articulations of indigenous struggles

It was February 2018. I was in Korchi[i] territory in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra attending an annual pilgrimage by the Adivasis (a collective term for India’s indigenous peoples) of 33 territorial villages of total 133 villages. Rao Pat Ganga Ram Ghat pilgrimage is an annual gathering of seven clans of Gond Adivasis in these 33 territorial villages in Korchi to celebrate the deities, seek penance of their past actions and guidance for the future. It is in the state of trance that the beings of this world interact with the beings that are invisible to the naked eyes. Rao Pat Gangaram Ghat is just one of the many deities residing in these sacred forests of Kanni Mathh Pahad[ii]. There are many others such as 'Kankal Karo', 'Sakhri Pat' and the spots where we have buried the young ones are sacred too. The forest spirits are not visible to our eyes, and so is the air, but does that mean that the air does not exist,” said a Gond Adivasi elder when we asked about the deities in the forests. Gonds are India's indigenous peoples with a population of about 2 million inhabiting all of Central and South-central India. The Adivasis in Korchi as in many other parts of India are dependent on their forests for sustenance, livelihoods, social-cultural and spiritual practices. This dependence guides their daily practices of living, science, traditions, identity, culture and now their resistance to destructive development. A Gond Adivasi elder narrated to us their cosmological duty: “In our creation, we are given the responsibility to protect, guard, and preserve one plant, animal or bird. If your Totem is mango, then you will not eat mangoes or cut a mango tree for your life, what may come. His is a goat (he was pointing at his friend), he will never eat a goat, because if we all start eating goats then who will protect them?

Pilgrimages have been a spiritual duty among Gonds for thousands of years, but with changing times these are also becoming spaces to reclaim the rapidly threatened indigenous cultures and ecology. These yatras are signifiers of deep relationships that sustain the ability of the Adivasis to live with the rest of nature in harmony. As another Adivasi elder told us, Nature is our God. Adivasis do not make cement idols or statues. The leaves, tree, animals, and the spirits in the forest are our gods. The traditional forests of Korchi have been legally recorded to be the customary forest of the villages. However, a significant section of this area has been earmarked for iron-ore mining despite people’s strong objections. The model of development and progress has been completely blind to acknowledge peoples’ spiritual, philosophical, and physical interdependence with the rest of nature. The communities are strongly resisting the mining in their forests since 2007 and articulating that reciprocity is at the nucleus of a thriving life. One of the Adivasi elder told us: Why we oppose this project, you ask. Let us assume that we Adivasis will have to leave the forest if the government and the mining company displace us. But our forest deities have no other place to go. I might shift to a city with my deity, but our collective deity of 33 villages resides in these hills, within these forests, where will the deity go?

A similar struggle in the Niyamgiri hills ranges in eastern state of Odisha in India unfolded more than a decade ago. The Dongria Kondhs, a pre-modern Adivasi community resisted against the Vedanta Corporation, which planned to extract the estimated $2 billion worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the Niyamgiri hills. The Dongria Kondhs believe that the Niyam Raja (literally Lord of the Law)[iii] is the protector, the keeper and the provider of the forests. Dongrias being the protectors of the many streams of Niyamgiri as Niyam Raja’s kith and kin, simply abide by the sacred laws set by the Niyam Raja. These laws disallow the destruction of the forests and its species for any unsustainable use. Just like the Gonds in the Korchi, the Dongria Kondhs believe that the stones, leaves, hills and streams have spirits and this command a reciprocal and cooperative relationship[iv]. The Supreme Court of India recognised their right to worship Niyam Raja under the Article 25 and Article 26 of the Indian Constitution[v]. The struggle of the Dongria Kondhs is historic in many ways. Among many, the one that is very relevant here is their articulation of worldviews rooted in interdependence, respecting human limits, relationships with more-than humans, cooperation, and supporting the life to flourish. Another recent example of indigenous peoples’ rising is the Standing Rock movement of 2016 in the United States against the pipeline threat to Sioux Tribe’s primary water supply, the Missouri river. The articulation that the river is a living being was at the core of the movement.

When we cross the river, we pray to the river. We have a connection to the river. The river is a living being and water is the first medicine of the world, says Ladonna Brave Bull, one of the earliest to protest the proposed Dakota pipeline. This cosmological connection with the nature resonated with hundreds of indigenous people across the world and many other nature dependent communities. A million gathered at the protesting sites with the Sioux people. Everywhere you walked there were people praying, singing, and dancing. People from around the world brought water from their rivers, their ponds, their oceans to put it in our river. Every day, there were prayer ceremonies as the waters from the world were put into our river. I think that was the key to touching the world, adds Ladonna Brave Bull.

The Standing Rock movement not only connected many movements together but also healed the people who protested by evoking sacredness and the aliveness of the natural world into protests.

Wellbeing - multiple ways of being and knowing

Many South American and indigenous scholars stress that the concept of wellbeing, as conceptualised by the West, fundamentally lacks the radical questioning of the core concepts of modernity (Chuji et.al. 2019)[vi]. However, there have been many ways that the communities across the world have articulated their visions of ‘good life’ deeply rooted in their connections to the rest of life. Buen Vivir, or living well, an ensemble of South American perspective of a good life, express a deeper change in knowledge, affectivity and spirituality, and gives an ontological opening to other forms of understanding human and non-human relationships (Chuji et.al. 2019)[vii]. The Ashaninkas of the Peruvian Amazon use the term, Kametsa Asaike, which meansliving well together in a placewherein individual wellbeing is subject to collective wellbeing, which includes humans and more than humans like forests, waters, mountains, animals, birds and everything that the mother earth nourishes (Caruso and Barletti 2019[viii]). Similar yet different in many ways, the native people of Amazonia believe that the Kawsak Sacha, the rain forest, is a living being with a spirit that gives them energy, breadth of life, wisdom, vision, responsibility, solidarity, and commitment (Gualinga 2019)[ix]. It guides and organises the life of humans in harmony with the earth called the Allapamama. In Japan, Kyosei meaning symbiosis is a social ideal that describes the integral convivial relation between humans and non-humans to challenge the ecological and social evils (Fuse 2019)[x]. A similar concept from South Africa, called Ubuntu, meaning We are, therefore I am, resting on the idea that one can realise one’s true self only by relating to the ‘Other’ (Grange 2019)[xi].  It reflects the solidarity that binds all humans and non-humans together. These worldviews reveal that there is no single definition of wellbeing or a good life. These expressions thread a tapestry of many varied possibilities of defining ways of social life and wellbeing. While actively resisting the idea of development that thrives on endless growth, commodification of human and natural lives.

Signaling a shift

There have been series of events[xii] by courts or the government across the worlds that have made the beginning of a radical shift from an extractive mindset to one where nature is being understood as a living being. On March 16, 2017, the New Zealand Parliament passed into law the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Bill, which gives the Whanganui river and ecosystem legal personality and standing in its own right, guaranteeing its ‘health and wellbeing’. By evoking the Iwi cosmology We are the River and the River is Us, the Crown recognised and apologised for all the wrongs done to the river and to the Iwi people in the past. Given the long history of struggle by the Iwi people to safeguard the interests of the Whanganui river, the granting of legal personhood status of the river is only the first step towards reversing the marred relationship. It also opens up the opportunity for us to alter the anthropocentric and colonised law and move towards a pluriversal legal framework.

Close on its heels, the Uttarakhand high court in India ruled[xiii] (in two separate orders on March 22 and March 30, 2017) that the north Indian rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, their tributaries, and the glaciers and catchment feeding these rivers in Uttarakhand, have rights as a ‘juristic/ legal person/ living entity’[xiv]. The court judgments in India could be the beginning of transforming its legislative approach to nature and help in changing the discourse of prioritising human wants over the rest of nature. These judgments could open up the possibilities of articulating indigenous worldviews of viewing nature as a living being in the formal systems and eventually be used to stop destruction; for example, if the Dibang river in the Northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, currently at the centre of controversy because of the 3,097 megawatt (mw) Etalin hydroelectric project proposed to be built across it, had the fundamental right to live.  What if the rivers had the right to perform their ecological functions without any human-made hindrance, just like you and I have to life and speech? What if the proposed diversion of 1,150.08 hectares of forest land and felling of over 270,000 trees in what official documents call “subtropical evergreen broad-leaved and subtropical rainforest” was equivalent to murder or genocide? 

Beyond rights

Though for the rights of rivers (and more generally of nature) to be safeguarded, we need major transformations in the consciousness, values, and actions of people living along or using them. Eventually, these rights (beyond the law) have to extend to other non-human objects, helping to move towards a society whose concern or moral consideration expands not just to human community but the entire earth. For this, first, we need to begin questioning the fundamental forms of injustices, including capitalism, statism, anthropocentrism and patriarchy. Second, we need to include customary laws and practices into the western-rationalistic law, state and bureaucracy. Third, we need more imaginative lawyers, activists, judges, policy makers to help move towards a pluriversal institutional and legal framework. Fourth, there is a dire need to pay attention and listen to the nature-dependent communities who offer us alternative imaginations of being and relating in the world. Ultimately, we will be able to achieve harmony with the rest of the living world not so much because we have given it legal rights, but rather because it is simply the only way life thrives and sustains.


[i] The author along with colleagues has been engaged in Korchi for 3 years. A brief overview of the process can be read here: https://in.boell.org/en/2019/12/19/mining-conflict-and-transformative-alternatives-korchi

[ii] Kanni Mathh pahadi is the name of the sacred hill for Gond adivasis of one traditional territory called the Padiyal Job (comprising of 33 villages) in Korchi, Gadchiroli.

[iii] Naik, A. 2019. Law’s Nature. Seminar 721, 46-52.

[iv] Meenal Tatpati, Ashish Kothari and Rashi Mishra, The Niyamgiri Story: Challenging the Idea of Growth Without Limits, in Neera Singh et.al (eds.), Ecologies of Hope and Transformation: Post-Development Alternatives From India. Kalpavriksh and SOPPECOM, Pune, 2018, at p. 91 and 92.

[v] Article 25 provides that all persons ‘are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion’ whereas Article 26 provides that every religious denomination shall have the right ‘to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.’

[vi] Chuji M., Rengifo G, and Gudynas E., 2019. Buen Vivir’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[vii] Chuji M., Rengifo G, and Gudynas E., 2019. ‘Buen Vivir’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[viii] Caruso, E.and Barletti J. 2019. ‘Kametsa Asaike’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[ix] Gualinga P., 2019. ‘Kawsak Sacha’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[x] Fuse M., 2019. ‘Kyosei’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[xi] Grange L. 2019. ‘Ubuntu’. In Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary: edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta. Tulika and Authors Upfront, Delhi.

[xii] This report can referred to see the timeline of the events (annexure): http://vikalpsangam.org/article/dialogue-on-rights-of-rivers-report-and-annexures/#.XxU5vp4zbIU

[xiv] In July 2017, the UHC order was stayed by the Supreme Court of India, after the state of Uttarakhand filed a petition against it, arguing that the order is legally unsustainable and simply not ‘practical’.


This contribution is part of Alternative Worldviews.