NEW DELHI — For the past week, farmers in the tourist haven of Goa have been getting WhatsApp videos promoting a new technique to improve crop yields — by chanting ancient Hindu mantras.
According to the Indian Express, Goa’s agriculture minister, Vijai Sardesai, has been promoting “cosmic farming” — a technique that involves channeling “Shakti,” spiritual power, into the soil.
Goa’s crop mantras are part of a nationwide effort to find alternatives to chemical fertilizers and return to traditional farming amid rising alarm in India about the effect of fertilizer on human health. But the emphasis on traditional methods sometimes lacks scientific basis — leading to fears that they could cause food shortages and throw India’s largely agricultural economy into chaos.
The mantras demonstrated in the WhatsApp videos are said to reinvigorate microorganisms in the soil so that fertilizers can slowly be phased out.
“I was skeptical at first, too, but it’s not magic,” Sardesai said to the Express. “There are studies backing this method.”
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014, there has been an increasing effort to bring more elements of the religion into daily life. Hindu nationalists have also been emboldened, and there have been a rise in attacks on Muslims and other minorities.
Sardesai’s Goa Forward Party is in coalition with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Goa, which has a large Catholic minority.
Part of these efforts has been major promotion of traditional Indian knowledge. In 2014, Modi even set up a new ministry called AYUSH — an acronym meaning “long life” — to promote traditional knowledge such as yoga and Hindu medical traditions known as ayurveda.
Part of the ministry’s mission is to develop nonchemical fertilizers for agriculture. Modi has also spoken several times about reinvigorating traditional farming methods such as using cow dung as a natural fertilizer.
Chemical pesticides became widely used in India after the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Western farming techniques were imported here as a solution to frequent famines, relatively low crop yields and a rapidly increasing population.
But an increased reliance on chemical fertilizers had downsides. Over the years, there have been reports of health impacts on farmers who are exposed to chemicals when spraying them, and there are concerns that pesticides have entered India’s food and water supply, causing huge public health concerns.
In the state of Sikkim, lawmakers went as far as to criminalize chemical pesticides in 2014, and the state recently became 100 percent organic. In other parts of the country, huge government-led programs backing organic farming are underway.
In Goa, farmers were given a curriculum at a government workshop and told to chant the words of a healing mantra used by devotees of the Hindu god Shiva for 20 minutes every day during the planting phase.
Sardesai was inspired to promote cosmic farming by his wife, Usha, a devotee of the Shiv Yog sect, who had tested the chanting method on the orchids on her front porch.
The sect is led by Avdhoot Baba Shivanand, who appears in the WhatsApp videos encouraging farmers to use chants to drown out “negative destructive sounds around the field” and push “the universe’s positive vibrations towards healthier seed germination.”
According to the Express, officials at the Agriculture Ministry said they were identifying plots of land where alternative farming techniques could be carried out. They also said that they had little other involvement in the organic push and that farmers were not being forced to adopt the mantras.
But the videos seem to have made an impact on Sardesai. “All I know is there are some celestial sounds one can capture and channel through mediation and help increase the yield and decrease the input of fertilizers,” he said.