Passing Traditional Knowledge to Youth - A New Mythology

In globalizing India, the traditional knowledge-practice-belief complex passed through generations is challenged by the younger generation. CEC member Andrea Deri and Rushikesh Chavan ask, "Can Western scientific knowledge provide a new belief system and motivate decisions?"

Milk is offered to Shivling (Lord Shiva). It is a challenge to make rituals and festivals rich in traditional ecological knowledge relevant to urban youth.

By Andrea Deri and Rushikesh Chavan

The case study below looks at intergenerational learning through rituals in India and an informal learning method used for generations to share essential ecological knowledge. It describes the change in the perception of this method by the youth and suggests a need for a new belief system that appeals to the younger generation living in cities.

This case study is a fair representation of one of the major parts of West Asia and provides opportunities for experimenting with communication, social networking technologies, and methods seeking to engage and service the sustainability community and its goals.


India is country of 1.2 billion people, of which about 40 percent are youth and also a country ranked among the top ten bio-diverse countries in the world. India plays a very critical role for a dream of sustainable and resilient future. India is blessed with its traditional knowledge of nature and how it affects humans.

For generations in India, religious practices played an important role in passing on traditional ecological knowledge. ‘Shravan’, the Hindu holy month, celebrated at the fag-end of the monsoon season, is of particular interest for its ‘tabus’ that are in effect natural resource use restrictions in disguise. The word ‘Shravan’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Shravanam’ which literally means ‘listening’. Listening to nature’s voice? Listening to the distinctive rules enforced by the holy month? There are set rules in ‘Shravan’, most importantly the prescription of a strict vegetarian diet: no meat, no fish, or even no egg can be consumed. This ‘tabu’ seems serve the purpose of sustainable resource management as in India the end-of-monsoon period coincides with the breeding season of most animals, and the restriction on hunting and fishing gives species a chance to re-store their populations.

Within ‘Shravan’ there are several festivals that are dedicated to specific species such as ‘Nagpanchami’ for worshiping the Cobra (Naja naja) throughout India, or ‘Narali Pournima’ for celebrating the coconut, observed by coastal fishing communities in Maharasthra, or ‘Pola’ devoted to cattle. In fact, every day of ‘Shravan’ is a special day and offerings of leaves from the monsoon flora are made to deities. Even the vegetables consumed in this holy month are picked from special seasonal monsoon flora such as the sickle senna (Casia tora; Taakla in Marathi), the spider plant (Chlorophytum sp.; Fodshi in Marathi), or the plumed cockscomb (Celosia argentia; Kurdu in Marathi). According to traditional knowledge these herbs are good for regulating blood pressure, curing diabetes, cleansing the digestive system, and supplying a wide range of minerals. This kind of knowledge was passed on through many generations embedded in Hindu mythology, and as such every Hindu followed these rituals often without questioning them. It is not difficult to see how sustainable livelihood was supported by this holy month in a pronounced way.

The ground realities, however, have changed by now especially in large Indian cities, including the celebration of ‘Shravan’. Personal interaction with young people of 15-28 years belonging to well-educated, middle- and upper-middle class families in a metropolis in India over the past seven years have revealed some startling changes. More than 90% don’t follow the holy month any longer as they believe its practices are part of the folklore and have no logic. Their families do celebrate some of the small festivals but not in the traditional way. They even eat fish and meat. Of this 90%, most of them can not see any connections between the festival and the environment. Very few are not sure about the link, and even fewer admit that they don’t know. Practically no one knows the importance of eating the seasonal vegetables and herbs, and they are not aware of the breeding season. The remaining 10% follow the rituals but do not know their environmental significance.

When they see constant food supply all year round in their supermarkets, no wonder seasonality means very little to urban youth. Also, the interaction between their generation and the older ones does not include discussing festivals and their relevance to their contemporary life in most families.

In the past the rituals were rigorously followed through the belief in Hindu mythology. Today urban youth demand a scientific, particularly medical rationale for these rules before considering compliance.

These changes significantly contributed to the decrease of and respect for traditional ecological knowledge in urban areas. If a sustainability paradigm shift has to happen, revisiting the rationale for and understanding traditional knowledge systems, their knowledge-practice-belief complex, will be critical as they can catalyse a critical analysis and the necessary changes of current rules, policies that support the increasingly resource-intensive, unsustainable contemporary urban lifestyle.

Are critical thinking, knowledge, analysis and rational attitude, however, powerful enough for the necessary transformative changes? Can western scientific knowledge represented in the natural and social sciences provide a new belief system and motivate decisions by their values? What constitutes a new mythology for sustainable living in the 21st century’s metropolises? Is inter-generational learning considered in this paradigm shift?

For more information, contact:

Rushikesh Chavan:  or

Andrea Deri:  



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