Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century

Book Review: Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century  by Ranchor Prime (Mandala Publishing 2002)

This is a beautiful book with beautiful content. It was originally published in 1992 as -  Hinduism and Ecology - and this is an updated and expanded edition with thick pages and beautiful black and white textured-style illustrations.

The author compares our present position in relation to the environment with that of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita where he is about to begin a large battle with his own relatives as opponents. Arjuna’s dilemma is whether to fight this battle where he is justifiably defending. The current environmental dilemma of humans is whether to continue full force with consumerism and non-sustainable practices.

The basis of this book is the promotion of a simple life less intertwined with industrialism. In the developed countries this is only possible in a limited sense as we are so permeated with industrial society – but in places like the rural parts of India this is still possible. Indeed this is what Gandhi advocated as he warned against full industrialization for India.

The idea of an “ecosystem’ is inherent in the Hindu idea that the whole world is a forest. The author interviews and conveys the ideas of Banwari, a modern advocate of returning the forests and maintaining them in the tradition manner. Banwari mentions the three types of forests: shirivan – the forest that provides resources and prosperity; tapovan – the forest where sages contemplate; and mahavan – the great forest that shelters all species and is left to them. Since the value of trees to the ecosystem is unquestionable the notion of leaving sections of forest uncleared is a very good model. At the village level the ‘forest of prosperity’ was managed by a council of five elders. The health of the village relied on sustainable forest resource development. Temples also became stewards of ancient sacred trees – many that produce fruit such as mangoes. The ‘forest of sages’ was a place where spiritual endeavors could be pursued without the distraction in the villages. The early teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism come from the Upanishads and the Aranyakas – teachings of forest-dwelling sages and ascetics. Apparently, large swathes of forests were cut down in India to feed the industrial revolution of the British Empire – even up through WWII. Banwari and others hope to rekindle the traditional veneration of trees, particularly at the village level where each small village was once said to maintain five trees representing the five elements.

 The author next tells the story of Sevak Sharan, a retired electrical engineer, who in keeping with Hindu custom decides to devote the latter part of his life to spiritual practices on his small plot at the edge of the pilgrimage trail of Vrindavan. He had studied the Vaishnava texts and noted that Krishna and his consort Radharani are the presiding deities over the twelve forests of Vrindavan. Sevak notes that traditionally there was a balance struck between human settlements, forests, and water resources. Traditionally in this area of Vrindavan, ponds, or tanks were constructed to catch rainwater, particularly from the monsoon season. Many of these were decorated and maintained by temples and pilgrims as some factored into the lives of great saints. With the advent of piped water they have been neglected. Typically they were surrounded by trees to keep them from being evaporated too quickly. The rainwater gullies designed to fill the tanks have instead been reverted to sewage removal. Sevak advocates dismantling this and re-establishing the old rainwater collection systems and re-planting the trees around them. The author elucidates Sevak’s – Seven Steps of Human Ecology – as a progression of phases of our awareness of our relationship to nature:

1) Forest Splendor – knowing the value of nature and so venerating it – seeing the whole world as a forest; 2) Spirituality – knowing that we are a part of nature and nurturing ourselves as nature; 3) Culture – as an expression of spirituality – endeavoring for culture to be in harmony with nature; 4) Heritage – how we pass on the values of culture; 5) Pilgrimage – learning about culture and heritage by meeting it face to face; 6) Human Welfare – knowing that natural welfare and human welfare are inseparable; 7) Human Ecology – developing the full conception of our relationship to nature as a part of it.

The author has worked with Sevak to help implement many positive changes in the sacred area of Vrindavan which are outlined in the last chapter.

The next few chapters are traditional Vaishnava teachings beginning with the creation of universes as Vishnu’s Dream. Vaishnavas regard Vishnu as the Supreme Being, as the Cosmic Person, the Purusha. He spans the cosmos and is part of all. He is said to be present in three ways: 1) as the originator of all creation; 2) as an agent in all of nature as the secondary creators, the devas; 3) as the Supersoul (Paratman) in man alongside the individual soul (jivatman). He is also venerated as Krishna, as his personality aspect. A Vedic hymn called the Purusha Sukta describes the universal form of Vishnu as the Cosmic Person. This hymn is recited or sung during the worship of the shalagram, small smooth round black stones with circular markings gathered from a remote lake in the Himalayas. These are said to be the seed of Vishnu and so are venerated as an embodiment of Vishnu. Indeed the veneration of natural things (and making of statues and icons from them) as deity is as well a method of worshipping nature. The Tulsi Basil plant is also venerated as Vishnu. The author suggests that Vishnu and Vishnu as Krishna can be considered the god of nature. Also god of nature, as in most other cultures is the notion of Mother Earth, called in India, the goddess Prithvi. The author gives the “Hymn to the Earth” from the Atharva Veda – the last section of which notes that all beings are residents of the same house, the Earth.

Vishnu is said to incarnate when the spirituality of humans is out of balance in order to re-balance things. In the lore there are the stories of the Ten Avatars of Vishnu. These are as the Fish – to protect the world in a great flood (much like the Noah’s Ark story), as the Turtle - to be the foundation for the churning of the Nectar of Immortality, as the Boar – to save the earth from a greedy demon who mined so deep for gold that the earth fell out of balance, as the Man-Lion hybrid (Narasingha) – to protect the Vishnu-devoted son of a demon who tried to kill him, as the Dwarf (Vamana) – who protected the universe from the demon-king Bali, as the Warrior – who came to slay the warriors of the world so that war would wane, as the Ideal King (Rama) – who killed the demon Ravana and rescued Sita with the help of Hanuman (as recounted in the Ramayana), as the Cowherd (Balaram) – the brother of Krishna – who carried a plow so representing farmers and the management of the Yamuna River, as the World Teacher (Buddha) – who is said to have taught ahimsa, or non-violence, abstaining from meat, and control of the mind, and finally as the Slayer (Kalki)- who is said to have not yet appeared but will come to slay the wicked leaders at the end of the wicked age, called Kali Yuga.

It is said that in Hinduism there are three venerations: the cow, the tree, and the spiritual teacher (Brahmin). Krishna is known as the Cowherd of the Forest. In stories of his earthly incarnation he is not a creator god but an enjoyer of the simplicity of life. Krishna made honor to the earth, the sun, and to trees. He cared for cows, deer, peacocks, and other forest animals and trees.

Next we come to Gandhi and his great urging to return the focus of life in India back to the village level. Here simple and sustainable ways of life could go on without the disruption caused by industrialization. He failed in that regard overall yet there is always room to cultivate these notions alongside modernity. Gandhi urged everyone to spend an hour a day spinning cotton so as to make one’s own clothing. Indeed there is power in doing things such as this – even in something like growing a small garden. Gandhi is known for his advocating of non-violence. This is a principle that can benefit our relationship to all of nature as well. He also advocated for self-rule as self-restraint. If each person could rule himself to refrain from greed then the system would follow. Another of Gandhi-ji’s contributions is the veneration of the dignity of work. In the Bhagavad Gita work is karma yoga. He believed in the equality of humans and also in the economic equality of humans. He promoted reduction of waste. Gandhi was worried about the dangers of the industrial economy. He advocated that Indians withdraw from it. Though this is hardly possible for us now we can do things like boycott the most destructive products and buy those that are healthy. We can use consumer awareness to buy organic, fair-traded, and cruelty-free products. Gandhi saw the real value of the local economy. He thought that the Hindu ideal of cow protection was a great feat of human evolution and a supreme and harmonious ritual of gratitude.

Among Gandhi’s successors are Vinoba Bhave, who founded the Society for Service to the People which teaches caring for land and life at the village level. Also influenced by Gandhi’s vision is Satish Kumar, a Jain monk who was educated and now lives in England. He says his vision is inspired by Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism). He notes the Isa Upanishad as pointing out the sacredness of all of nature. He notes three noble principles of Hindu tradition: Yajna (sacrifice), Dana (giving), and Tapas (penance through self-control). Sacrifice is called the replenishment of the earth.  In many traditions this involves keeping a reciprocal relationship with nature so one practices giving back what one takes. Dana, or giving, he calls the replenishment of society so it could be defined as keeping a reciprocal relationship with society – returning back to society the benefits one has derived from it. Self-control replenishes the soul, says Satish Kumar. Fasting, praying, meditating, maintaining silence, sexual self-restraint, and pilgrimage could all be forms of Tapas. There is a notion in Hindu society that at age 50 one renounces sexuality and focuses in pilgrimage and spirituality. So sacrifice balances the ecology of nature, giving balances the ecology of society, and self-control balances the ecology of the inner life. He notes this notion in the Hindu chant for Peace: “Om shanti, shanti, shanti” (“peace, peace, peace”) where the first shanti is ecological peace, then social peace, and then the spiritual peace within. So it is peace without, among, and within – the three fields of endeavor. He notes the behavioral influence of the inferiority complex among Indians fostered by British rule that keeps them thinking that their traditional behaviors are backward and outdated. This is true of many cultures that were radically transformed by both colonialism and industrialization.

Next is the story of Balbir Mathur, a modern Indian who achieved wealth in America but was still affected by the above mentioned inferiority complex. He had a change of attitude about his life course after attending the Kumbha Mela in 1976 (largest and longest running religious festival on the planet held every twelve years in India). He decided to spend the rest of his life fighting world hunger and planting fruit trees. He began by buying small lemon trees to plant for free for people but found that he was not well-received for the small trees required much care in the hot dry climate. He consulted a local holy man wanting him to bless the trees and his project. The holy man, reluctant at first, said he would on one condition: that the tree planting project would be “an act without consequences,” which means he should do the work without desire for success, for himself or others. This would make the act free of karma. The guru said that if he did things that way he would succeed. Suddenly everyone wanted these blessed trees. He had to be more practical in his selection of the type of trees so as to fit the needs of fitting in small spaces, bearing quick fruit, and adaptable to the soils and climate. He also found that the women of the villages were better at tending the trees so he dealt with them mostly. Now, whenever possible he had the trees blessed and they were presented as prasadam, or spiritual blessing.

Sunderlal Bahugana became the spokesman and messenger for the Chipko movement which began in 1973 as an original “tree hugging” movement to conserve the Himalayan forests that had been diminishing steadily through commercial logging since the early 1800’s. Often the large hardwood oaks and the deodar cedars were replaced by faster growing pine trees that were less desirable environmentally. The forests on the mountain slopes and foothills help to capture the monsoon rains and release them gradually in order to supply year-round water in the plains. Flashfloods, landslides, loss of topsoil, and drying springs were results apparently becoming noticeable in the 1950’s. The movement was populated with poor villagers, many of them women. Gradually there came public support for the movement. Sunderlal fasted in the tradition of Gandhi and eventually the government curtailed logging in some of theses areas. Also, in Gandhi’s tradition, he walked thousands of miles through the countryside taking his message to remote areas and peoples. He also opposed the building of the Tehri Dam across the Bhagarathi- Ganges River. Sunderlal gives his motivation as morality and selflessness as taught in the Bhagavad Gita. According to Sunderlal:

“Your actions should be dictated by your heart, not by your head. The combination of these three – head, hands, and heart – make a balanced personality. These three represent the basic elements of the Gita – Knowledge, Action, and Devotion. The difficulty today is that we have big heads – too much knowledge – so we try to solve all our problems with just knowledge. Unfortunately, our destinies today are being decided by intellectual prophets and technocrats. Modern man has a big head, very feeble hands, and no heart. We are unbalanced. The whole of life is unbalanced. That is the cause of the problems we are facing on every front.”

Sunderlal and the chipkos have employed folk songs and spiritual story-telling festivals in order to keep the movement inspired. He sees the three great enemies as war, pollution, and hunger. He says they are all linked together. Through wanting “more,” countries fight over land and resources to feed progress which pollutes and this progress, in terms of industrial farming, eclipses traditional farming which can increase hunger. His recommendations are: a heart of compassion; a head, or creative mind that can find solutions and; hands which are ready to serve.

Vandana Shiva was a renowned Indian physicist who became an environmental activist, philosopher, and folk hero. She tells her story in this chapter. She started with the Chipko movement and then became interested in traditional agriculture and collection of seeds for seed banks. One of her big interests now is in combating the negative affects of genetically modified seeds. She has advocated using the sacred Neem Tree as an organic  pesticide and has fought against pesticide companies patenting it. She notes the traditional story of the Ganges coming down from the heavens to cure a drought caused by an irresponsible dynasty. Shiva was asked to cushion the fall with his hair:

“It is very clear in the stories that Shiva’s hair refers to the forest of the Himalayas and that the force of the Ganges is the monsoon rains, which can tear apart the mountains.”

She notes the tradition of religious tolerance in India and warns of the dangers of intolerance such as Hindu nationalism. She gives three principles to live by:

1) Wishing for happiness for all – exemplified by the words, “May all beings be happy,”
2) Take only what you need  (here she gives this as a quote from Isa Upanishad)
3) Be a teacher, be a leader, be an example to others

The next chapter acknowledges the spiritual journey of Bhaktivedanta Swami, later to be known by the honorific title “Prabhupad.” He was the well-known spiritual teacher of the Vaishnavas that later became known as the Hare Krishnas and began ISKON. He came to America in old age with no money with only a plan to promote spiritual practices and found a big following. He promoted the spiritual community model of the Ashram, cow protection, a vegetarian diet, organic farming, and self-sufficiency. Although several aspects of this movement later did not keep the morality that he promoted it was mostly the fault of individuals. Detractors and the clash of societies were a problem as well.

The last chapter details the author’s efforts with Sevak Sharan in restoring Krishna’s forests. With the help of WWF and inspiring local people they have made headway in cleaning up the pilgrimage trails around Vrindavan, planting trees, cleaning up sewage problems, and restoring traditional rainwater collection systems. He describes the practices of pilgrimage and parikram, or circumambulation of temples and sacred sites. People have had to start before dawn because there are now so few trees to keep them cool enough in the heat of the day. Most of the trees have been removed for farming and some further away to build retirement homes for people from the cities. The author notes the story of Krishna having to subdue a demon within the Yamuna River that had poisoned it. Nowadays the Yamuna is a very toxic river filled with sewage and industrial runoff. The author sees this as the need of the future – to restore the river, the surrounding forests, and the surrounding villages. Even the new sewage treatment systems are apparently woefully inadequate. Symbolically, restoring these sacred areas could be a great triumph and as well as a great inspiration to others.

I bought this book several years ago when I last visted the Krishna Temple complex in at New Vrindanban in West Virginia.

Beautiful book!

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