Secretary General of Ramakrishna Mission of New Delhi, India
HUMAN ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Respected religious leaders of various faiths and friends,
There is a beautiful peace chant in Hinduism which runs as follows.
May peace radiate there in the whole sky as well as in the vast ethereal space everywhere. May peace reign all over this earth, in water and in all herbs, trees and creepers. May peace flow over the whole universe. May peace be in the Supreme Being Brahman. And may there always exist in all peace and peace alone. Om peace, peace and peace to us and all beings!
Today the whole world, the entire humanity, is deeply worried about the phenomenon of global warming. Everybody is deeply anxious about the damage done to the human ecology and environment. All our economic growth, wealth, etc. will be of no avail if we cannot maintain an atmosphere which is conducive to peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Unending conflicts and struggle for power and domination seem to be the order of the day in several parts of the globe. Often wars fought in the name of peace have a hidden agenda of blatant aggression and greed for wealth, the most recent example being the war in Iraq. We need to ponder why Man in spite of all the progress, advancement in science and technology, etc. is so restless, dissatisfied, unhappy and deeply stressed. The malady is deep-rooted and has far-reaching consequences. Unless we realize the magnitude of the imminent danger and take corrective measures, humanity is in for a great disaster and calamity.
Hinduism has a very simple but wonderful solution to the problem. The goal of life according to Hinduism is realization or the awareness that Man is essentially spirit and not matter. While it does not prevent a healthy life of peace and prosperity, it severely condemns overindulgence in sense related activity. There are several definitions according to Hinduism about the nature of Man, but the one given by Swami Vivekananda is very lucid. He said that each soul (Man) is potentially divine and the goal of life is to realize this truth. He added that this should be achieved by controlling nature internal and external. He advocated four distinct paths namely Karma (Work), Bhakti (Worship), Jnana (Knowledge) and psychic control (Yoga) to reach the goal of life. Each path relates to or represents a particular aspect of human personality. He also said that it is possible to reach the goal through a combination of the four paths. Much of the problems that we are facing in the world today basically stem from the lack of awareness of the ultimate destiny or goal of life. Apart from this there are also other intermediary steps or factors leading to the crisis in the world.
Driven by an insatiable greed for wealth and power, man has been consistently destroying the nature, disturbing the ecological balance and thereby polluting the environment. The Bhopal Gas tragedy of India, which struck more than a quarter century ago, leaving in its wake several thousand dead, is a case in point. The effect on the people, not only on those who were living at that time, but also on those who were born in the subsequent decades, is disastrous. Several hundreds of children were born with deformed or nonfunctional limbs. But, such tragedies would not occur if we listen to the advice given by the scriptures of all the religions of the world. Some of the most ancient texts of the Hinduism clearly demonstrate the ecological awareness and a great respect for nature. They clearly outlined the methodology for protecting the environment. Some of the examples are : -
* “Do not cut trees, because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda, 6:48:17)
* “Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere.” (Yajur Veda,5:43)
* Destruction of forests is taken as destruction of the state, and reforestation an act of rebuilding the state and advancing its welfare. Protection of animals is considered a sacred duty. (Charak Sanhita)
What is the philosophy behind Hinduism’s approach to human ecology and environment? It is based on the principle of sacrifice which is one of the fundamental ingredients of life according to Hinduism. This in turn is linked to the idea of unselfishness. Swami Vivekananda said, “All ethics, all human action and all human thought, hang upon this one idea of unselfishness. The whole idea of human life can be put into that one word, unselfishness. Why should we be unselfish? Where is the necessity, the force, the power, of my being unselfish? You call yourself a rational man, a utilitarian; but if you do not show me a reason for utility, I say you are irrational. Show me the reason why I should not be selfish. To ask one to be unselfish may be good as poetry, but poetry is not reason. Show me a reason. Why shall I be unselfish, and why be good? Because Mr. and Mrs. So - and - so say so does not weigh with me. Where is the utility of my being unselfish? My utility is to be selfish if utility means the greatest amount of happiness. What is the answer? The utilitarian can never give it. The answer is that this world is only one drop in an infinite ocean, one link in an infinite chain.”
When he said that the goal of life can be achieved through the science of action (Karma Yoga), he was suggesting the integral view of life combining the Upanishadic and Vedic views. The Upanishadic and Vedic seers propounded the concept of Yajna, which essentially implies sacrifice, as the guiding principle of life. This is the name which they gave to the pious sacrifice which is the central ritual of the Vedas. This is based on the idea that man can have a happy and prosperous life only if he lived in harmony with his environment, which consists of Nature and the Divine agencies, the Devas, who control the forces of Nature. Man gets his progeny and his sustenance as the gifts of Nature and he has therefore got to be thankful to those Divine agencies whose expression these forces of Nature are. Man is required to make as offering of thanks-giving to the Devas a share of the good things of Nature which he gets by their goodwill. This offering is made through fire which is the link between man and the Devas. So this thanks-giving takes the form of ritualistic fire sacrifices with offerings of commodities and utterance of Vedic hymns. Proper performance of these Yajnas by individuals and communities secures the goodwill of the Devas, and through that, worthy progeny and plentiful rain, on which man’s survival and sustenance in this world depend. To partake of this gift of the Devas without being thankful to them and without making the offerings due to them is a form of theft, as the Gita describes this, and a heinous sin. The relevancy of this in the Gita context here is that such an essential duty imposed by the Veda on man in society as sacrifice will not be possible for one who abandons works and he will therefore be condemning himself to an unethical life the life of a thief or exploiter.
The Vedic Philosophy of yajna is the Law of Sacrifice. It is essentially the law of duration. Experience is constantly changing; everything received from universal Life must be refunded to it. It is the inexorable Law of Sacrifice that determines the duration of everything. Every living being depends upon the universal Life for its sustenance and can maintain its individuality only by constantly renewing this contact. Renewal means exchange. To be filled up we must empty ourselves first.
Life is a closed-circuit, a homeostatic equilibrium of forces. Every action has its reaction; what we give to universal Life comes back to us as karma-phala, the fruit of action. The first, the individual action, is governed by the Law of Sacrifice; the second, the cosmic reaction, is governed by the Law of Karma. We receive many things from universal Life. A part of these is used for the maintenance of our individual life; the rest is returned to universal Life. We do not merely refund things as they are, but change them, modify them and create new things. This process of modifying things and refunding them to universal life is called work. Work is form of creativity; indeed, it is the human expression of God’s creativity. God’s creativity, work is selfless, a yajna, and He does it for the sheer joy of Self-giving. If we too do our work as a creative act without egoism, our work will become yajna and we will partake of pure divine bliss. Everything must be surrendered to universal Life, and so everyone must work constantly. But when work is done as yajna, it will produce neither sorrow nor bondage. Hence the Gita says: ‘Work causes bondage to the world only when it is not done as yajna. Therefore you should do well all work as yajna without attachment.’
What we give to universal Life through work comes back to us according to the Law of Karma. But this return is only a gift of universal Life, grace of God, we cannot claim it as a matter of right, nor do we get back in the way we choose or when we choose. That is why the Gita says: ‘You have only the right to work, never (the right) to receive its result.’ Therefore it is the Law of Sacrifice that is more important and should be the true basis of morality, as indeed it was during the Vedic period.
The principle of a healthy social life is also based on the idea of mutual consideration i.e. not by fighting with each other, but by helping each other, serving each other; that will help all people to rise to the highest level. If you take from nature and not given back to nature, you will suffer. Take and give back, that is the nature of a healthy human environmental relation. And today we are realizing it by experiencing the evils of consumerism, over dependence on technology, increasing industrialization, and all the various steps human beings are taking that cause poisoning of our environment, including the weakening of the far-away ozone layer that protects the earth from the harmful high frequency radiation coming from the sun. So this subject is of vital importance to the human being; and the whole subject comes under one word, yajna, originally meaning ‘ritual sacrifice’. But in the Gita, it means this ethical sense, this spirit of service, this capacity to give and not merely to take. If nature is exploited too much, it will destroy humanity itself, and that lesson is being driven home to us in the modern experience.
In the path of Karma Yoga the main discipline is Yajna and the meaning of this term has already been explained. The next question is how to convert ones whole life into a Yajna? The Karma Yogi does this by converting his whole life into an unceasing oblation into universal life. At the physical level his yajna takes the form of giving food, clothes, etc. and rendering physical service like nursing to those who are in need of them. At the mental level yajna takes the form of sharing knowledge and love with others. At the spiritual level yajna takes the form of a perpetual oblation of the individual spirit into the universal Spirit.
The Vedas stipulate the following great sacrifices as the daily obligatory duty of every man. Devayajna: worship of gods and goddesses. Rsiyajna: acquiring and spreading spiritual knowledge. Pitr-yajna: service of one’s parents and maintaining the family traditions and lineage. Nr-yajna: providing food, clothes and shelter to needy people. Bhuta-yajna: looking after animals and plants and protecting the eco-system. There is a great need to revive this ancient scheme, if not as an obligatory duty, at least as a social institution.
It should, however, be remembered that the Vedic practice of yajna was not a mere social institution but a spiritual discipline. What we have to do now is to combine all the three elements of yajna – self-sacrifice, spiritual discipline and social institution. The age of individual spirituality is coming to an end. Collective awareness is growing rapidly at the social, national and international levels. Through collective spiritual effort the psycho-social evolution of the human race could be considerably accelerated and the life of the entire humanity could be raised to a higher spiritual level. This is the ideal of spirituality that the modern world needs, and it can be realized only by establishing yajna as a universal spiritual discipline.
So far we have only been looking at the external nature and how to protect the environment. But, perhaps much more important is the need to purify and cleanse our internal nature so that we desist from wars, conflicts, etc. This seems to be much more disastrous that the damage done to external nature. All these conflicts arise out of a lack of spirit of sacrifice. If nations have to coexist in harmony and peace, the only solution seems to lie in developing a true spirit of understanding, of sharing and caring and in essence a true spirit of sacrifice. Swami Vivekananda said, “Let us be at peace, perfect peace, with ourselves, and give up our whole body and mind and everything as an eternal sacrifice unto the Lord… ‘In search of wealth in this world Thou art the only wealth I have found; I sacrifice myself unto Thee.’ Let us repeat this day and night, and say, ‘Nothing for me; no matter whether the thing is good, bad, or indifferent; I do not care for it; I sacrifice all unto Thee.’ Day and night let us renounce our seeming self until it becomes a habit with us to do so, until it gets into the blood, the nerves and the brain, and the whole body is every moment obedient to this idea of self-renunciation.”