To understand Hindu mythology, it is critical to understand the metaphor of forests. Forests represent the default wild world, where might is right, where strong prey on the weak; while culture represents the world, where the forest has been domesticated, where might is no longer right, and the strong take care of the weak. In fact, the transformation of human settlements into civilisations is seen as the journey from the desire to dominate and be territorial, like an animal, to a space where the mighty help the meek and even the helpless can thrive.
Thus, we find the Samaveda melodies classified into two types: those that should be sung in a settlement and those that are sung in the forest. This division is crucial to understand the transformation of humans from animals to superhuman beings. From a world where they are consumed by hunger and fear, to a world where they outgrow hunger and fear, and can empathise with the hunger and fear of others.
In the Rig Veda, the forest is associated with a goddess called Aranyani, who is described as wearing anklets and is a dancer. She is never seen, only heard. One wonders how she lives so far from human settlement and can feed all manners of living creatures without ever having to till the soil. This is the first understanding of the forests that we find in Hinduism.
A forest is, in a way, a space where there are no rules or regulations, no bondage, and where everything is fair—as long as you survive.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.