Prof. Lynn Townsend White in his lecture titled: The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis (1967) said that “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny–that is, by religion”. White’s talk was pointing at how western religions had turned very anthropocentric and dualistic. Though White’s talk had drawn much criticism, his ideas on the dynamic link between man, society and nature motivated by culture are very significant.
Integral Ecology Conference, Norway, May 2016
Ancient cultures view themselves as a part of a wider ecosystem of beings that include flora, fauna and natural resources. Ancient cultural practices, that have stood the test of time, are based on a long period of experimentation and observation and hence based on diachronic data. This makes their knowledge and practices very invaluable. Leanne Simpson, in her article titled Anishinaabe ways of knowing (2000) outlined seven principles of Indigenous worldviews. First, knowledge is holistic, cyclic, and dependent upon relationships and connections to living and non-living beings and entities. Second, there are many truths, and these truths are dependent upon individual experiences. Third, everything is alive. Fourth, all things are equal. Fifth, the land is sacred. Sixth, the relationship between people and the spiritual world is important. Seventh, human beings are least important in the world.
Such an interconnected and inclusive worldview has been preserved by Sanatana Dharma for many generations. Various customs and rituals can be seen as expressions of these inclusive principles. The expressions have been localized and contextualized over a period of time but are based on the fundamental core principle that everything is Brahman (consciousness). One concrete expression of this unified understanding of life is Shakthi Worship. Shakthi refers to the fundamental energy that governs all of manifest reality. In a way, it represents a dynamic balance that sustains the universal flow. On a more practical level, “Shak” in Sanskrit means “to do” or “to act”. Hence Shakthi can be seen as actions that are in tune with the Universal flow and doings that are joyous and vibrant.
The Problems with a Disconnected Worldview
Our worldview is influenced by our inherent qualities, family, society and culture. With our worldview we have a conceptual map of the world and understand things based on that map. Our actions too reflect our conceptual understanding of the world. Worldviews are not solid but dynamic frameworks that change with time based on the knowledge and experiences that we acquire, individually and collectively. Hence cultivating the right worldviews is vital to right and sustainable actions. An all-inclusive worldview comes from deeper realizations from within.
Rupert Sheldrake in his book The Science Delusion points out dogmas in science that need to be questioned. According to Sheldrake, current science dogmatizes that nature is mechanical, all matter is unconscious, all of nature is purposeless and the laws of nature are fixed and this thought process percolates into the educational system and scientific research. These dogmas show how, over a period of time, developments in science have systematically cut us off from a holistic view of life and this had led to several problems. We mention a few here:
Distancing: Princen and Maniates (2002), in their book Confronting Consumption discuss the issue of distancing. Distancing is caused when man is totally cut-off from his environment. As an example, many people in developed nations and consumerist societies are distanced from the source of their food. They find it difficult to relate to the complexities of growing food and hence food is looked at more of commodity than an ecosystem that nourishes human beings. Massive food production is propelling the ecological crisis that we are facing today but this is invisible to the common man
Ecological Crisis: Prof. Johan Rockström (2009) and his colleagues have identified 9 planetary boundaries namely: Climate change, biodiversity, biogeochemical, ocean acidification, land use, freshwater, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosols, chemical pollution. According to them, we have already raced past 4 of these boundaries without being conscious of it and crossing the planetary boundaries can be catastrophic. Crossing these planetary boundaries have not happened because of a single action but by a complex network of ideas, policies and actions over a period of time.
Economic Value Focus: In today’s market economy, where man is disconnected from his environment, there is a huge focus on the economic value of things than the real value and need. Leonard in her book Story of Stuff points out how to make a ton of copier paper it takes about 2 to 3 tonnes of trees and this is not factored in into the real value of paper. We look at paper as an inexpensive and use-an-throw commodity.
Dharmic Practices leading to Interconnected Worldview
Several aspects of Sanatana Dharma instill this inclusive and expansive worldview and also help us put these principles into action in a very practical manner. Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyothisha, Agriculture etc acknowledge the bond that man has to his environment.
The Mahavakyas that are the quintessence of Indian Philosophy remind us of the fundamental interconnections and how the microcosm is not different from the macrocosm
Prajnanam brahma: brahman is consciousness
Ayam atma brahma: the self is brahman (which is the all pervading consciousness)
Tat tvam asi: you are that (consciousness)
Sarvam khalvidam brahma: all of this is brahman (consciousness)
Yoga is a science and way of life that leads to expansive state of consciousness through systematic effort on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimension of the individual. The word Yoga is derived from the sanskrit word yuj which means to unite. Yoga involves systematic practices that help to achieve a balance between the mind and body. On a larger perspective, Yoga helps us to turn inward, realize ourselves and thereby connect with everything around us. Swara Yoga which is part of the Indian Yogic systems aims at developing an internal balance through the intelligent regulation of breath in tune with the cycles in nature like the lunar, solar and other cosmic cycles. The changes in flow of breath during changes in the time of the day, moon phases etc helps us to align with events in the cosmos. Just as we choose the right season to sow seeds so that the plant can grow to its fullest potential, we regulate the breath to support actions aligned with nature’s cycles that can lead to success. Swara Yoga has a clear mapping of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. The primary practice in Swara Yoga is tattwa sadhana that involves analyzing the connection between the breath and five elements in nature. The elaborate yogic practice of Surya Namaskar helps us to align with the solar cycle and derive benefit from the environment that is created by the sun around us.
Ayurveda is a deep and intuitive Indian system of medicine that helps individuals to attain perfect health by the proper balance of the three biological energies: Vata (energy that regulates movement), Pita (energy that regulates transformation) and Kapha (energy that regulates sustenance) which inturn are balanced by the fundamental elements namely air, water, fire, earth and space. One way of achieving this balance is through consuming foods that naturally grow in a particular season thereby being in attunement with our surrounding. Ayurveda makes use of resources in nature for health and well-being. Ayurveda connects the five elements, seasons, cosmic forces and plant life to our personal health. The principles of Ayurveda are so intuitive that they have been integrated into the day to day cooking of food in Indian kitchens.
Pancha Maha Yajnas
In order to be able to integrate this all-inclusive vision into our daily lifestyle the Pancha Maha Yajnas were recommended in Sanatana Dharma. Pancha means five, Maha means great, Yajna means action performed with the attitude of benefitting everybody or towards a higher purpose. The Pancha Maha Yajnas are Deva Yajna, Pitru Yajna, Rishi Yajna, Nara Yajna and Bhuta Yajna.
Deva Yajna refers to the action of recognising the presence of higher intelligence governing reality and our gratitude towards it. We express our gratitude to the higher intelligence also referred to as Devas through actions such as Homa — fire sacrifice and puja — rituals for worship with devotion. One important part of this is meditation. Meditation opens us up to the inner and subtler realities. Through meditation subtler processes of functioning become visible and we become more sensitive and open to everything around us and within us.
Pitru Yajna refers to the action of recognising the role of our parents and forefathers in whose lineage we have taken birth and our gratitude towards them. Pitru refers to our ancestors. Many of our physical features and character traits are inherited from the lineage that we are born into. Specifically actions expressing gratitude include taking care of our parents and elders during their old age and tarpana which is a ritual where water is offered with certain mantras (sacred chants) in gratitude to the ancestors who have departed from this world.
Rishi Yajna refers to the action of recognising the role of teachers and Rishis for having given knowledge. Rishis are recognised as the seers of knowledge of reality and who having seen it help others see the knowledge of reality themselves. Studying of the texts of knowledge expounded by the Rishis and sharing the knowledge thus learnt with others is showing gratitude towards the Rishis and the teachers as part of Rishi Yajna.
Nara Yajna refers to the action of recognising the role of other human beings in our lives and offering grateful service to them. This also includes feeding the poor and needy, offering service for the welfare of the community and society, showing love and respect to all.
Bhuta Yajna refers to the action of recognising that we are part of nature and treating all the plants, animals and other creatures with love and affection. This helps restore ecological balance as we do not look at everything as serving our wants and view everything with a utilitarian intent. This yajna includes feeding all creatures that live around us like cows, goats, crows and sparrows, ants and taking care of plants. When we view the rivers as sacred mothers then we will find it difficult to just view them as serving our limited utilitarian requirements and hence wanton pollution will not be possible as we become sensitive to our natural surroundings. We start viewing ourselves in the context of the natural surroundings that we live in. We consciously adopt lifestyles that flow in tune with the larger flow of nature and hence our footprint on the world around us is minimal if anything at all. This does not mean that we cannot progress on economic or other fronts. This just means that we become more sensitive to everything around us and view ourselves as non-separate from all that is. There is a saying that when the left hand gets hurt the right hand automatically nurtures it. Likewise we feel ourselves to be a part of everything around us and hence we would nurture and not harm it purposefully.
These dharmic practices refine our lifestyle in such a way that the unified, all-inclusive vision that has been developed finds a means of appropriate practical expression in all aspects of our life. This refines the processes involved in all areas of life and imbues it with the qualities of inclusiveness and oneness that lead to harmonious co-existence with all of nature where human processes of economics, business, technology do not disrupt natural processes but rather flow along with it to create peace and harmonious growth free of conflict.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the paper titled “ Shakthi Worldview: An Inclusive and Expansive Worldview for a Sustainable Future” presented by Adinarayanan and Smrithi Rekha at the Integral Ecology, Earth Spirituality, and Economics held at Bodo, Norway in May 2016.