Can Vedic spirituality offer a solution to the current global eco-crisis?
Certainly. Practical measures to protect the environment like avoiding plastics and choosing eco-friendly products are valid and valuable, but Vedic wisdom helps us go deeper to find the root cause of our current eco-crisis. With the well-known seminal work of Lynn White, Jr., published in the journal Science in 1967, as a take-off point, we can trace historically the origin of our eco-crisis:
- Nature is a mere backdrop for human redemption: Prior to the common era, in both the East and the West nature was seen as sacred and conscious, imbued with varieties of spirits and guardian beings, and so was treated with caution and even reverence. The victory of the Semitic religions over paganism sowed the seeds of ecological destruction. Whatever their original scriptural view of nature, the Semitic religions in almost all of their popular and influential versions have de-sacralized nature. That is, the Semitic worldview didn’t see nature as sacred; nature was just the backdrop for the central cosmic drama of human redemption.
- Nature is a hostile force that humanity must conquer through science: Due to the natural calamities that periodically devastate human history, nature was also seen as hostile and fearful. Consequently, when science and technology seemed to develop the power to bend nature to human will, the Semitic vision of nature only facilitated human exploitation of nature, through mining, deforestation, or industrialization. Of course, the scientific worldview held the laws of nature to be supreme, and it soon reduced the Semitic God to an unnecessary add-on – till the German philosopher Neitsche infamously announced that He was dead. The seeds grew into good-looking flowers as the potential for technological development seemed endless.
- Nature is all there is to spirituality: The good-looking flowers soon turned into poisonous fruits as pollution, climate change, and loss of bio-diversity started threatening human existence itself. This led to the deep-ecology movement, with environmental sensitivity as its religion and nature its Deity. But this godless, soulless version of “spirituality” makes human life barren of ultimate meaning and the human heart devoid of lasting love.
Indeed, deep ecology strikingly resembles the paganism that the Semitic religions overthrew. Are we going around in a fruitless circle? Is there a worldview that combines the virtues of these three past worldviews: eternal life through divine grace as promised by the Semitic religions, the power of human intelligence and endeavor as revealed by the Age of Science, and the environmental sensitivity engendered by the deep-ecology movement? Yes, there is.
The Vedic worldview as explained by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu incorporates care of nature as an essential part of the spiritual discipline (sadhana) by which we humans beseech God’s grace and thus achieve ultimate salvation. Rather than deifying nature (as done in paganism and deep ecology) or minimizing nature (as done in the Semitic worldview) or exploiting nature (as done in the scientific worldview), this Vedic worldview recognizes that, because both we and nature ultimately belong to God, real harmony comes not merely by the harmony of the human and the natural, but by the harmony of the human and the divine orchestrated through harmonious use of the natural.
Isn’t spiritual life with its longing for another world an attempt to escape from reality?
Yes, spiritual life is an attempt to escape – not from reality, but to reality.
Let’s objectively examine what people call real life. It is the life of perpetual struggle from the womb to the tomb: struggle for education amid the backbreaking pressure of others’ expectations, struggle for employment amid cutthroat competition, struggle for family harmony amid hot and cold domestic wars, struggle for health amid the aging of the body – and ultimately the futile struggle against the death sentence inherent in our mortal bodies. Amid all these struggles, we busy ourselves in complicated versions of the animalistic pursuits of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The uncertainty of success in these pursuits causes us constant stress, and we tout the occasional success as our happiness. Throughout this “real” life, we wake up each morning to witness our bodies emit a foul-smelling substance. We hastily flush away the foul reminder that our bodies are not how we make them look by dressing and making-up. But we can’t flush away the coloring and discoloring of our bodies as they age, sicken, and succumb. Even before such distresses overwhelm us, our life gets so boring that more patients visit psychiatrists due to boredom than due to distress.
How have we declared a life so inane, so pointless, so disappointing, so deadening as real life? How have we been deceived into accepting as real such a pathetically low estimation of our human potentials?
Our real life is far more dignified than the indignities our bodies subject us to. Our real life is far more graceful than the disgraces that the world buffets us with. Our real life is the life of spirit, the life of freedom, the life of joy, the life of eternity. The Bhagavad-gita – and indeed the sacred texts of the world’s greatest wisdom-traditions – proclaims that our real life is beyond the life of this miserable material world. In our real life, our innate longing for everlasting life is fulfilled by recognizing and realizing our spiritual immortality. Therein, our intrinsic longing for love is eternally and completely fulfilled by reposing it in the all-attractive, all-loving eternal Supreme Person, Krishna. That life of love is our real life, not our present ugly and unfortunate caricature of life that we mistakenly label as real life.
So, by fixing our ambitions and aspirations on the world beyond while doing our necessary duties in this world, let us rise from pseudo-reality to reality.