Bengal Environment And Culture

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Bengal Environment And Culture

By Iftekhar Iqbal —  is a historian at the University of Dhaka and is Currently based at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei.

How he who has not known the mystery of the rivers of Bangladesh would really know Bangladesh?…at the tender shore of the Bay of Bengal meet the sea and the river. The river is women, the sea is man. They mate on the tip of the storm-caught waves; the soft, alluvial Banga is their child.

Nature’s place in contemporary discourse of culture can be examined from two broad perspectives: one is wider civilizational complexes of mankind and the other is everyday cultural life in a given society. Attempts to connect a nation’s cultural attainment to a particular environment have been made for a long time. An Arab scholar in the middle ages, for instance, noted that the people of northern Europe had been so affected by the extreme distance from the sun (i.e., cold climate) that they possessed no sense of humour, developed pale skin colour and ‘mental blindness’. During the period of European dominance worldwide, environment became an important part of the emerging discourse of knowledge and power. In the eighteenth-century Europe, an urge for connecting racial category with environmental factors led to the emergence of the theory of ‘climatic determinism’.

This theory was popularized by the writings of a French intellectual, Montesquieu, who asserted that people in hot climate would feel both physical and mental matters more passionately than the inhabitants in the cold regions. He argued that the people in the former regions were restless and uncontrollable hence a strong despotic rule was more appropriate for them, whereas the people in the cold regions were temperamentally suited to a more democratic order. Climatic determinism was soon superseded by ‘biological determinism’ whose proponents, generally known as Social Darwinists, argued that Europeans of the nineteenth century had a dominant role over the non-European world because they were biologically superior, indicating a resonance of the belief in ‘survival of the fittest’ in the natural world. In the twentieth century, particularly in the post-WWII period, the intellectual practice of associating race with environment lost ground and a more dynamic interpretation of nature surfaced as exemplified in the theory of longue duree which traced the development of civilization and culture in long-term environmental trajectories.

In the case of intimate interaction between people’s everyday cultural life and their natural environment, Ibn Khaldun was one of the earliest scholars who, through examining the cultural life of the Arab Bedouins, sought to find linkages between a particular lifestyle and the physical environment in which it flourished. In modern period, a subsidiary of Social Darwinism promoted the idea that human beings were members of the animal world and that human behaviour must be governed by biological drives and instincts. Thus warfare and violence were equated to ‘aggressive instinct’, mass behaviour to the ‘herding instinct’ or homemaking to the ‘nesting instinct’ and so on. In the early twentieth century, however, the biological discourse of culture was gradually replaced by psychological explanations. Behaviouralists denounced heredity or ‘instinct’ as sources of socio-cultural practices of human being, and argued that what people became was dictated by the events in their physical environment.

While nature’s influence on both the broader civilizational and archaic cultural patterns has been appreciated, the vulnerability of nature itself has not been adequatlly examined in the discourse of relationship between nature and culture; nature merely symbolized permanence that was supposed to be permeable through time and space. It is only very recently that the cultural-environmental discourse has been informed more by a sense of vulnerability of nature than by its perceived omnipotence. Current issues have emanated from a concern for a fast-degrading natural world whose existence is equated with that of human race itself. Thus, an overwhelming sense of vulnerability of mankind in the wake of environmental degradation has contributed to the emergence of varied, pluralist and microscopic study of relationship between nature and culture.

In spite of the fact that the study of environment and culture has developed to a great extent over the past few decades, no significant research has been done in or about Bangladesh in this context. In the bulk of literature on the culture of Bangladesh major focus is on debates around the way Aryan and non-Aryan cultures, or Hindu, Muslim, and European cultures clashed or co-existed, ignoring or not adequately appreciating the physical atmosphere in which different cultures of the region emerged and were nourished. On the other hand, environmental studies have focused on the contemporary context of degradation with no substantial focus on broader historical or cultural context of environmental patterns and changes and on wider cultural connotation of the environment. A study of mutual relationship between the environment and culture of Bangladesh is important not because this theme has not been adequately explored in serious academic forums, but also because Bangladesh itself offers an intriguing context for examination of the subject. This chapter is an attempt to explore the varied patterns of relationship between the environment and culture in Bangladesh in particular and the Bengal Delta in general.

 

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