In 1965, teacher and scholar A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami transplanted the culture of Bhakti, or the yoga of devotion, from its roots in the ancient culture of India to the Western world.
Bhaktivedanta Swami was “ahead of his time” in the realm of living ecology. A few years before the modern ecological movement found its ground, Bhaktivedanta Swami was teaching his young students the ideal of “simple living and high thinking.” He encouraged them to break out of their industrialized and technological conditioning of mass consumption to return to a less complicated way of being, in order to free the mind for spiritual enlightenment. His students imbibed his audacity, starting farm communities in the model of the Vedic village culture in numerous places across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and back to India.
They understood that what they were trying to do was, in a sense, both revolutionary yet eternal. The spiritual ecology and culture of the Bhakti tradition and of the Vedas is nothing new, yet to understand its precepts could bring profound auspicious change to our human condition, and to our increasingly fragile relationship with our Mother Earth.
We stand on the cusp of an abyss. We can see, with the correct lens of vision, that our collective reliance on machine and industry, on hardware and software, on an exploitative relationship with Mother Earth, has created the prospect of a total collapse of the comforts and easy access to resources that we take for granted.
Over the last forty years — beginning from the crystallized aesthetic beauty of the famous “Blue Marble” picture of our Mother Earth taken by the astronauts of Apollo 17 — we have come to understand that we all share the same planet, the same air, the same soil. We carry within us the strong, yet mostly unconscious inkling, that the Earth is our collective mother and our collective psyche.
The degree of our forgetfulness of this is the degree of pain we now all share at the breaking of our symbiosis with the planet which shelters us, nurtures us, and gives us everything she has. What would we do if the fragile relationship we have left with Mother Earth shattered?
What would we do if the chain of easy flow and access to the consumer goods and resources we take for granted broke down?
In an article by Mike Adams at Natural News, (How Fragile We Are: Why The Complexity of Modern Civilization Threatens Us All) the author bluntly states:
“ There is almost no slack in the systems that deliver your food, fuel, electricity, water or consumer products. That means if something goes wrong, even for a little while, you’ll need to depend on yourself to provide these things. Yet how many people have the ability to provide all these essentials for themselves — disconnected from the grid — for even as little as one weekend? Few, it turns out.
They have unknowingly bet their lives on the reliability of just-in-time delivery systems and complex infrastructure interdependencies. When the water stops flowing, or the electricity goes off, or the gasoline runs out, they literally will have no idea what to do.”
We must also understand that this problem cannot be inherently solved by the same mechanisms that created it. Technology and science cannot be assumed to be the cure for the same problems they caused. Contemporary philosopher John Gray has written:
“Science is a tool for problem-solving…but it has this peculiarity, that when it is most successful it creates new problems, some of which are insoluble. This is an unpopular conclusion, and it is not only those who believe technology can overcome mortality that resist it. So do Greens who support renewable technologies and sustainable development. If humans have caused climate change, Greens insist, humans can also stop it.”
This is not to say that we should abandon the innovation and enthusiasm to create scientific and technical tools which can help to reverse the tide, but Gray suggests that we not exclusively worship at the same altar to the same gods who gave us what we asked for.
We must go to the ground of our being, to the level of our consciousness, our thought patterns, our actions, our aspirations, our desires, to the engine of our inner psyche, towards our soul and towards God, to understand why we do what we do, and to understand why we have chosen exploitation instead of integration, dissonance instead of harmony, affluenza instead of illumination, in our sacred relationship with Mother Earth.
This platform of consciousness, where we can understand our relationship with the Divine, with God, is where we can properly begin to understand the reality of true eco-ethics. Eco-ethics is the proper protocol of thought, action, obligation, and responsibility between organisms and their collective shared environment or ecology.
Any purely materialistic angle of vision of approach to eco-ethics will reach its limitations unless we include the perspective of universal, divine wisdom. This wisdom, or dharma, is from the transcendent realm, well beyond even this material world, yet intrinsically pervading our individual and collective consciousness. Dharma is the codices and well-worn common-sense which allows us to understand our intrinsic spiritual nature, and our link to God through understanding our function and duty as beings in relation to universal law.
The key aspect of dharma in Vedic theology revolves around actualizing the full nature of our personality and our relationships. The core concept of dharma is known as sanatana-dharma, which describes the constitutional nature of our soul in the mood of loving service or devotion (Bhakti) to God, creating an all-inclusive matrix that takes in and fulfills the obligations of our relationship to family, society, humanity, and our ecology.
Those who understand the Earth as our Mother, and who really value that relationship in their heart and in their actions, approach our crisis and its potential solutions from the heart of this universal dharma, which extends across all spiritual cultures. This relationship is not to be understood in any kind of purely mythological or vapid manner. Instead, the theology of Vedic culture explains the link between our actions, and what the Earth is divinely inspired to give us.
This science of action revolves around the culture of selfless action in the mood of sacrifice. Sacrifice, in its purest form, means to give up something in order to please someone else, which is the essence and heart of all real relationships, and the heart of the Bhakti tradition, in which one tries to offer all of the fruits of one’s efforts to please God.
It is the great blessing of our Mother Earth in that she wants to give her gifts to us in order that we may offer them in return to God who has supplied her with her natural bounty.
When this cycle of receptivity, abundance, and sacrifice is fully adhered to, harmony in our ecology is fixed. The temple of our personal and collective mind, body, and soul stands strong. She is happy to provide for everyone, if everyone is utilizing her gifts properly. This traditional model of agriculture meant that, on the natural level, everything that came from the Earth went back into the Earth. This is the true synchronicity of God’s arrangement.
Any organic farmer can experience this, using manure as organic fertilizer for example. What is the contrast? What goes back into the Earth through factory farm agriculture? Blood meal, bone meal, and chemical fertilizers, all boons of the so-called “Green Revolution.” We also have synthetic nitrogen, which comes from petroleum, saturating much of our valuable soil, killing the needed microrganisms in the earth, which then creates the need for more and more chemicals to get more and more yield from the dying soil.
The classic Vedic text Mahabharata tells us that agriculture is the most noble of occupations. That we have lost sense of this, speaking from the perspective of my own experience and my own generation, is a painful knot in the heart.
I do not want to generalize here, but a personal anecdote may suffice. I spent the better part of two years at a Bhakti community in the hills of West Virginia, living as a monk, and one of my services was to assist with our organic gardening projects. I began with great enthusiasm, until the degree of effort and hard work required hit me like a ton of bricks. I relayed my difficulty to resident sage Varsana Swami, who had spent decades at this project creating the natural infrastructure, and he said that my experience was not uncommon.
He had seen many people come to work and serve there with a sense of romanticism towards the tilling of the land, and he came to see that this romanticism was not a sustainable fuel for the sacrifice that was really needed to gain access to the integrity and determination needed to give life to the land. I took this to heart in my own experience and it was a harsh lesson for me to learn, but it is one I strive to deeply imbibe and carry within me to purify my heart, so that I may be able to understand and participate in the true nobility of the community of real agriculture, on the material and spiritual level.
This sublime culture has two pillars at its core: the culture of brahminical knowledge and the protection of one of the most dynamic living beings we share this planet with, the cow. At its core, brahminical culture means knowing the difference between matter and spirit, between our eternal nature as souls and our temporary situation in these material bodies, and living our lives in an according way to actualize that knowledge.
The cow, also one of our dear mothers, helps to give all the essential gifts of proper sacrifice and offering to the Divine. Ayurvedic science tells us that milk, particularly in its natural, raw, unpasteurized state, is a tremendous boon for physical health. It also helps to develop the finer tissues of the brain, which are conducive to the development of deeper spiritual understanding. The cow’s masculine counterpart, the bull/ox, was primarily responsible for tilling the land in traditional Vedic culture.
It was this abandonment (and eventual exploitation) of the cow, bull, and ox, and the conversion to tractor power which played a large part in ruining traditional local farm economies in India, America, and across the globe. Eventually from this, multinational corporations could co-opt the chain of command as to how we ate and what we grew.
Most of the foodstuffs we mainly have access to in our local shops come from California and other far-flung places. Having the food supply in the hands of big agribusiness creates, by and large, a situation of exploitation. The sacred relationship and the nobility of agriculture becomes long lost.
Because the sacred art of agriculture always returns us to the essence of relationships, to the knowledge that we are inter-dependent on others, from our fellow earthlings, from the mercy of God, for our sustenance, we get a sense of its magnanimous heart. Agriculture encourages cooperation, whereas technology and industry tend to encourage competition. The nature of competition, and the envy it produces, is destructive to the relationship between the individual and the whole. It encourages the perversion of selfishness, that the whole should be serving the parts.
Real health is when the parts are serving the whole-serving the root of everything material and spiritual, giving one’s love to God and being imparted from Him the art and actions of love and compassion.
Understanding our predicament from a spiritual perspective begins at the level of desire. We confuse our legitimate needs with our illegitimate desires. We are conditioned to believe that material prosperity is the only route to happiness in this world. Real prosperity, guided by the light of transcendent eco-ethics, means access to wisdom, health, and real progress towards the goal of life, the re-establishment of our loving relationship with God through self-realization.
God has created a perfect synergy for us to have access to. He is deeply pleased when we cooperate and sacrifice together. Our efforts combine to create a conduit for His mercy, to create an abundance that truly sustains us. We want to feel that we are part of something greater than ourselves. If we can develop our relationship to this Divine arrangement, to the Earth as our mother, goddess, and supreme teacher, through gratitude, humility, and prayer, she will help us to understand and open our heart to our relationship with the Divine, to become channels of real change in this world, unfolding the solution in every step we take.
(prepared by Jill Barth)
About Chris Fici:
Chris is a writer and teacher, currently giving classes at New York University on the living philosophy of Bhagavad Gita, and the culture and art of vegetarian cooking. After receiving a degree in film/video studies at the University of Michigan, Chris began his exploration and study of bhakti yoga. He is a monk of the bhakti tradition and lives in the monastery of the Bhaktivedanta Ashram in New York City.
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