Global Ecology and Vedanta: Part 1

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.

One of the most sacred and ancient chants from the Rg-Veda envisions the created universe as saturated with honey and bliss:

Madhu vātā ritāyate
Madhu ksharanti sindavah
Madhvīr nah santvoshadhīh
Madhu naktam utoshasi
Madhumat pārthivam rajah
Madhu dyaur astu nah pitā
Madhumānno vanaspatih
Madhumām astu sūryah
Mādhvīr gāvo bhavantu nah
Om Madhu, Madhu, Madhu

An approximate English translation for this magnificent chant is:

May the winds blow sweetly,
May the rivers flow sweetly,
May plants and herbs be sweet to us,
May night and morning be sweet to us,
May the dust of the earth be sweet to us,
May the heavens be sweet to us,
May the trees be sweet to us,
May the sun shine on us sweetly,
May the cows yield us sweet milk.

How far our vision has fallen from that of the ancient rsis, whose ecstatic words came from the depths of their spiritual realization! Today we find our winds fouled by industrial pollution. The rivers are contaminated by sewage and the toxic effluence of myriad industries. The plants and herbs that have sustained us for thousands of years have been decimated and wasted by pesticides, while our trees have been clear-cut for grassland or fuel. The heavens that once protected us now have an expanding hole in the ozone layer. The sun that once kindly looked down upon us now glowers, as the effects of global warming become increasingly pronounced with each passing year. The cows’ milk, once so sweet and fresh, is tainted by toxic contaminants.

How could we have come to this? The Vedic rsis’s rapturous vision of the environment as the dwelling place of the divine, has, in recent decades, become a heartbreaking nightmare. So dire is the situation that environmental degradation now poses a serious threat to life on the planet. It is no accident that one of the UN Millennium Development Goals (Target 7B) is to “integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources,” while another one is to reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss (Target 7B).

These twin target goals will be difficult to achieve, and will be achievable only if the outpouring from people across the planet becomes loud and insistent, demanding that these goals be met. Further, elected officials will have to be held accountable for these goals’ achievement. The outlook today, while not entirely without hope, is nonetheless bleak. Biodiversity loss has already reached tragic proportions. Before human beings walked the earth, a species became extinct approximately every thousand years. Now it is approximately every twenty minutes.

According to a 1998 survey of 400 biologists conducted by New York’s American Museum of Natural history, nearly 70% believed that we are currently in the early stages of a human-caused extinction, known as the Holocene extinction. Similarly, 70% of these biologists agreed that up to 20% of all living populations could become extinct within thirty years (i.e., by 2028).  Edward O. Wilson, the world’s leading authority on biodiversity and Emeritus Professor of Biology at Harvard University, said:

Biocide is occurring at an alarming rate. Experts say that at least half of the world’s current species will be completely gone by the end of the century. Wild plant-life is also disappearing. Most biologists say that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction. Numerous scientific studies confirm that this phenomenon is real and happening right now. Should anyone really care? Will it impact individuals on a personal level? Scientists say, “Yes!”

A resounding, uncompromising and universal “yes!” from people in every land is the only thing that will bring the reality of environmental destruction home; only this can drive the Global Ecology movement to success on a global scale. And unless this movement reaches global proportions and crosses economic, social and religious divides, there can be no success.

The Global Ecology movement had its inception with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, detailing the environmental devastation surrounding the widespread use of pesticides. Issuing a clarion call for a then-unknown crisis, Silent Spring and the public’s response to it was responsible for the United States’ ban on DDT in 1972. Other nations have since followed suit. Since that time, the ecological movement has accelerated and burgeoned across the world. Over a half-century after the book’s publication, environmental devastation has greatly increased as well as the public’s awareness of it. Indeed, it is only because of the public’s increased awareness of and increased protestation against environmental destruction, that initial safeguards have been instituted and the beginnings of progress on some environmental fronts have been made. But unless these efforts are strengthened and rapidly expanded on a global scale, the consequences for our beautiful and sacred planet are dire indeed.

For us to see what has gone so drastically awry, we need to bring to mind humanity’s earlier relationship with the environment. Every religious tradition on the face of the planet has a long history of honoring the earth, and this history is as ancient as humanity’s own existence. From the Inuit tribes in the furthest reaches of the north to the African Bushmen of the south; from Vedic sages of India, to the Taoist masters of China; from Christian mystics of medieval Europe to the Native American tribes—every spiritual tradition has as part of its legacy a profound reverence for the earth. Reverence for the earth cuts across national, cultural, racial and religious boundaries: it is as basic to humankind as loving one’s mother.

It is significant that Hinduism, more than any other religion on the planet, emphasizes the unity of all existence. To see unity in diversity is, in the Hindu tradition, true vision. It is equally significant that Hinduism has traditionally regarded nature as a manifestation of Brahman, the divine all-pervading existence, which is both immanent and transcendent. As the ground of the universe, Brahman pervades the universe; Brahman is in everything, and everything is in Brahman. Brahman is the source of the universe; the universe rests in Brahman, and the universe eventually devolves into Brahman again. Everything that we see, feel and experience is therefore charged with the presence of the divine. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita says, “My energy enters the earth, sustaining all that lives: I become the moon, giver of water and sap, to feed the plants and the trees.”

The ancient rsis repeatedly said that the universe is nothing but Brahman; divinity lies at the very core of its being. The Taittiriya Upanishad says:

Creating all things, Brahman entered into everything. Entering into all things, he became that which has shape and that which is shapeless; he became that which can be defined and that which cannot be defined…

Continuing in this vein, in one of the most glorious declarations in the Upanishads, the Taittirya declares: “It is He who is spread through and through in creation as unbroken joy.”

Hinduism has always held a deeply rooted conviction in the sanctity of nature and the interconnectedness of life. In an extraordinarily beautiful passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, the earth is seen as a living, responsive being:

This earth is like honey for all beings, and all beings are like honey for this earth. The intelligent, immortal being, the soul of this earth, and the intelligent immortal being, the soul in the individual being—each is honey to the other. Brahman is the soul in each; he is indeed the Self in all. He is all.

Thus the earth and all her creatures have a loving, reciprocal relationship that is based on unity. At this point in human history, humanity didn’t see itself as divorced from its surroundings. On the contrary, we understood that the earth was our mother and like all loving and nurturing mothers, she was to be treated with love, gratitude and respect. The earth took care of us and we, too, took care of her.

While the Vedic sages vividly experienced the sacred reality of the environment in which they lived, even those who didn’t have this divine vision as their daily reality nevertheless had the deep understanding that the earth and nature’s processes were sacred, not to be taken for granted, and certainly not to be trifled with. The universe and all its myriad processes were nestled into the sacred framework of rta, the eternal and all-encompassing law of harmony and balance. Rta is the universal, unchanging moral order envisioned as the essential pattern for all existence, macrocosm as well as microcosm. Through the divine harmony inherent in rta, all individual parts of the infinite universe are bound into a harmonious whole. Everything relates to everything else, everything is bound to everything else; everything is necessary for everything else.

Rta is the foundation, support and essence of all that exists; rta is the highest reality as well as truth absolute. Rta is not an abstract concept, as renowned Vedic scholar Patrick Olivelle astutely observed, but “an active realization of the truth. This active and creative aspect of truth underlies and brings about the cosmic order and harmony.” The dawn appears because of rta; the sun takes its course because of rta. The motion of the planets, the seasons, the ebb and flow of the ocean, the process of birth, growth, decay and death in all living being—is all encompassed in rta. In human society rta manifests as dharma, the moral order, the law of righteous living, which governs and supports human life and society. This is also a part of rta, and rta—this great overarching cosmic order—is all a manifestation of Brahman.

Read Part 2.


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March 11, 2013
Global Ecology and Vedanta: Part 2
June 1, 2013
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Global Ecology and Vedanta: Part 1