By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
This paper was delivered at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture during March 2013. Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun in the Santa Barbara Convent. Her paper will be posted in two parts.
As we move past Vedic times in India, the relationship between the earth and her inhabitants retained its sacred character. The ancient Indian law giver Manu said that trees and plants were full of consciousness and they experienced pleasure and pain. The Laws of Manu and other ancient Hindu scriptures were astonishingly prophetic in their approach to the environment. A person could be punished by loss of caste if she or he injured living plants, or cut down green trees for firewood, or if the person mined or did mechanical engineering which damaged the environment.
It was only with the European Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, that humankind’s relationship with the earth began to go seriously off its sacred course. To the Protestant mind, the idea of God’s presence pervading the natural world was a hideous form of paganism: transferring God’s glory to his creation was idolatry. In the Reformation’s attempt to purify Christianity, they removed the sacred element from nature by separating creation from its spiritual source.
The Protestant Reformation perfectly dovetailed with the seventeenth-century scientific revolution that introduced a mechanistic view of the universe. Galileo, Newton, Bacon, Descartes and others saw the universe as a perfect machine, humming along as orderly and efficiently as a Swiss clock. The Creator of this perfect clock was a coolly detached, rational Deity who looked down at his productive machine from his distant heaven. He didn’t get his hands dirty by involving himself in the earth’s processes.
Since the universe was a perfect machine, the natural world began to be seen as only a lifeless component of that great, whirring machine. Both animals and plants were seen as inanimate objects. Some of Descartes’ followers went so far as to assert that animals felt no pain. These men said that just as a pipe-organ felt no pain when its keys were played, so the cry of a beaten dog did not indicate suffering. It was an automatic, mechanical response to stimuli.
Ironically, this view of God and his perfectly precisioned universe soon made God dispensable. The mechanical universe moved along fine without God. By the eighteenth century, God was disappearing from the scientifically accepted worldview. With the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in the nineteenth century, the schism between science and religion became complete. Science was alienated from religion, and humankind was alienated from God and nature. Earth was seen as a mass of lifeless matter, revolving in space without a purpose. Nature’s only value was that it was the fuel for the industrial revolution.
During the nineteenth century, industrialization and industrial pollution became part of civilization. This way of life was soon exported by the industrializing nations to the third-world nations they colonized; even after the conquering nations retreated, they left behind the legacy of “progress” at the expense of human and environmental wellbeing. Western education persuaded many in colonized nations that humanity’s advancement could be achieved only by treating nature as an endless storehouse of disposable materials or as a sink in which to dump toxic effluence.
Manu said that trees and plants were full of consciousness, but as William Blake once shrewdly observed, “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” Yet the loss of forest cover isn’t just a question of aesthetics—it’s planetary survival. Trees and plants give us oxygen: to destroy a forest is to affect the entire global environment. If we get rid of a forest in one part of the globe, the entire planet suffers.
The destruction of the rainforest is one of the worst calamities that our planet faces. The rainforest is the richest ecosystem on the earth. According to the World Resources Institute, between 1960 and 1990, 1.1 billion acres of tropical forest were cleared.Brazil lost 91.4 million acres of tropical forest between 1980-1990; Asia lost almost a third of its tropical forest cover between 1960-1980, which is the highest rate of forest conversion in the world.Almost 90% of West Africa’s rainforest has already been destroyed.
While rainforests occupy a scant 2% of the planet’s surface, they nevertheless provide over one half the earth’s animal and plant species. Of course, most of these species aren’t cute and cuddly. When we think of the rainforest, we think of creepy, crawly things; most of us think that if the world is missing a few bats, snakes, lizards, and toadstools, we’ll still have a fine planet to live on.
But as the rsis saw thousands of years ago, everything in this universe is deeply interconnected and interrelated. The great English poet and mystic John Donne wrote in the seventeenth century, “No man is an island”; today he might expand his poem by adding that humanity itself is not an island. We are all part of one large whole; we are all one, nested in unity with the rest of the universe. We are all manifestations of the one Brahman, and through that divine Reality we are all connected to one another.
Sri Ramakrishna often said that it is God alone who has become all living beings. Once he ran to a meadow to see how living beings were sustained. He was thrilled to see ants crawling in the meadow. If you or I looked at the same scene, we’d probably just see a bunch of bugs. But not Sri Ramakrishna. For him it was a divine sight. When he later talked about his experience he said, “It appeared to me that every place was filled with Consciousness.” Every aspect of our planet is the presence of the divine, just as the rsis saw it, thousands of years ago. Nothing is exempt, nothing is expendable.
Even on a pragmatic level, before we think that the earth can do just as well without so many snakes, bats and toadstools located in those faraway rain forests, we should bear in mind that we may be staring into the jaws of our own destruction. Fully one quarter of all our medicines have their origin in the rainforest. Approximately 70 % of the plants designated by the National Cancer Institute as being useful in cancer therapy are found only in rainforests. Who knows if the rainforest has a cure for AIDS or some other deadly disease that we don’t even know about yet? So let’s not think in terms of lizards, bats and toadstools: we are all a part of the rainforest. As Swami Vivekananda said: “It is our own attitude which makes the world what it is for us. Our thoughts make things beautiful, our thoughts make things ugly. . . . believe in this world—that there is meaning behind everything. Everything in the world is good, is holy and beautiful.”
This is the situation we face today: the earth has become an increasingly small planet where everyone’s actions affect everyone else. Since the early twentieth century, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by approximately 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980. Scientists today assert that global warming is primarily caused by an accumulation of greenhouse gasses, produced by deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Global warming, in practical terms, means more extreme weather patterns. Anyone who has lived on the planet the past few years can attest to this trend worldwide: there has been an increasing number of deadly cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, floods. Global warming also means a rise in sea levels and changes in precipitation patterns, which will probably result in an increase in subtropical desertification.
Global warming has reached a critical level and, tragically, those who suffer its worst effects are those living in third-world countries. The brutal truth is that those who have contributed the least to global warming are the very ones who must suffer its worst effects. According to a 2012 report in US News and World Report: “A report commissioned by the governments of more than 20 countries found that more than 100 million people will die as a result of climate change by 2030 if the world stays on its current path.” Shockingly, the report concluded: “Third-world countries are likely to remain the worst hit, as they will be forced to use already limited resources to fight disease and drought. More than 90 percent of deaths caused by climate change are expected to be in third-world countries.”
That sickening forecast notwithstanding, we nevertheless find a threat to global unity in our response to the worldwide ecological crisis. Many people in first-world nations refuse to accept the reality of global warming. Like ostriches who bury their heads in the sand at the approach of danger—if we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist—many in first-world nations stubbornly deny the reality of global warming because they have no desire to change their comfortable way of life. They don’t want to get a smaller car with better mileage; they don’t want to take public transportation, they don’t want to bother to recycle their garbage; they don’t want to turn down their thermostat or avoid buying wood harvested from tropical rain forests. They don’t want to give up eating their McDonald’s hamburgers, even though South American rainforests are being razed to feed the more affluent nations’ insatiable appetite for beef, largely in the form of the omnipresent hamburger. The cattle from Brazil appear on American, Canadian, Japanese, and European tables.
The other threat to global unity in responding to the global ecological crisis comes from third-world countries, whose rapid industrialization has been achieved without regard to the ravaging of the soil, water or air. While first-world countries need to restrain their rapaciousness, can anyone suggest that third-world countries restrain their advancement? No one can. Every person in every land deserves adequate food, shelter and personal safety. Every person in every land should enjoy the same high standards of health, hygiene, and education that those in first-world countries enjoy. That said, third-world countries, in order to ensure their own survival, will have to make stringent efforts to insure that environmental degradation and burning of fossil fuels be drastically curtailed. The citizens of these countries will have to do everything in their power to hold those in power accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, many in power have lined their own pockets by kowtowing to major industrial polluters. While they have accrued wealth, their own countrymen suffer the brunt of their corruption and, unfortunately, will suffer even more in the future.
In order to retrieve our earlier relationship with the earth, one that reflects the oneness of existence taught by Vedanta, we will need to regain the holistic vision of the ancient rsis. This is where Swami Vivekananda’s role is potentially immense, for Swami Vivekananda was born to take the message of the Vedas—whose holistic wisdom had for millenniums been locked up and reserved for the elite—and broadcast it over the world, making it available for all humanity. “It is only the pure Upanishadic religion,” Vivekananda declared, “that I have gone about preaching in the world.” Again, to Sister Nivedita he said: “I preach only the Upanishads. If you look, you will find that I have never quoted anything but the Upanishads. Emphasizing the need to spread the truth of the unity of existence to the entire world, Vivekananda said upon his return to India from the West: “Work out the salvation of this land and of the whole world … Carry the light and the life of the Vedanta to every door, and rouse up the divinity that is hidden within every soul.”
It is no accident that Vivekananda’s lectures on the Isa Upanishad were entitled “Practical Vedanta.” And how does this Upanishad begin? “Isa vasyam idam sarvam yatkinca jagatyam jagat”: “Know that whatever exists in this changing universe is covered with God.” The practical application of this highest flight of Vedanta is that, as Vivekananda explains: “We have to cover everything with the Lord Himself … by really seeing God in everything. . . . The whole world is full of the Lord.”
This is the highest truth of the Upanishads and this message has the potential to shake humanity from its selfish slumber. Because, when all is said and done, selfishness is the root cause of our current environmental crisis. The “practical Vedanta” of the Isa Upanishad addresses this very topic in its first verse: “tena tyaktena bhunjitha, ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam”: “Therefore protect yourself through detachment. Do not covet anyone’s wealth.” Protecting ourselves through renunciation is to learn, as Vivekananda said, “that the whole of life is giving; that nature will force you to give. So, give willingly. Sooner or later you will have to give up. You come into life to accumulate. With clenched fist you want to take. But nature puts a hand on your throat and makes your hands open.” Coveting the wealth of others in the global context means taking more than one’s fair share of the earth’s resources. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
The ecological crisis humanity faces today is the result of a spiritual crisis.
The real environmental degradation we face is not to be found in toxic chemicals or even in evil multinational corporations or corrupt politicians. The root of our ecological disaster is the greed and selfishness lying in the human heart. Unless some way is found to address this fundamental problem, we will have little success in dealing with its consequences. The only way to remove greed and selfishness is take to heart Swami Vivekananda’s message of unity. He said:
When I say I am separate from you it is a lie, a terrible lie. I am one with the universe. . . . I am one with the air that surrounds me, one with heat, one with light, eternally one with the whole Universal Being, who is called this universe, who is mistaken for this universe, for it is He and nothing else. . . . I am one with That.