Our Planet, Ourselves
By Pandit Rajamani Tigunait
Long before we learned how to alter the natural world with dams, freeways, and skyscrapers, the sages knew that nothing in creation exists apart from anything else, that one life-force animates all that is. Content with nature’s bounty and their simple dwellings, the ancient masters were careful observers of the natural world. They knew that mountains and rivers, wind and clouds, water and fire are all living entities; all posses consciousness. They comprehended the relationship between the song of the birds and the growth of their crops; they understood the message that nature is sending when jackals howl in midday and ants abandon their colonies and cart their eggs to higher ground. The sages observed the delicate balance of the ecosystem and the long-lasting effect on all aspects of life when that equilibrium is disturbed. And they saw what we have forgotten how to see: that true happiness and fulfillment rests on understanding and honoring the interconnection among all that exists here in this creation.
Today most research is conducted in high-tech laboratories and libraries, but the ancients conducted theirs in the laboratory of nature. They learned to commune with her and to cooperate with her plan. Those who opened a channel of communication with nature had mastered her language—the language of intuition. They came to be known as rishis (seers) because the realm beyond the material world was open to their gaze.
The first revelation these seers received was that nothing in nature is inert: they saw the intelligence inherent in all that exists, and they realized that there is ultimately only one being. They called that being Purusha (consciousness), and they knew that all the seeming beings of the universe—both sentient and apparently insentient—are an intrinsic part of this divine force. They understood that Purusha experiences its infinite glory and vastness through its myriad manifestations: all the stars, planets, mountains, rivers, plants, animals, and minerals; each microbe and every molecule.
Narayana, the sage who first received and articulated this revelation, came to be known as Adi Rishi (“The First Seer”). The knowledge that he shares in the 16 mantras known as Purusha Sukta can be read as the primordial text on cosmic ecology. These mantras reveal the universe as a seamless being with an infinity of heads, eyes, ears, and limbs covering and pervading all that exists, yet remaining above and beyond it. But because the first seer’s way of describing the web of life and the place of humans in it is so matter-of-fact and concise, most scholars dismiss the ideas in these mantras as mere mysticism.
Yet other ancient sources, elaborating on the concepts presented so succinctly in the Purusha Sukta, also view nature in all its diversity as the visible, tangible body of God. For example, in chapter 10 of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna proclaims, “Among lights, I am the sun; among the vasus, I am fire; among the peaks, I am Meru; among the flowing waters, I am the ocean; among mountains, I am the Himalayas; among trees, I am the pipal; among horses, I am uchchaih-sharava; among snakes, I am vasuki; among glowing and purifying objects, I am the wind; among the rivers, I am the Ganga; among the seasons, I am spring. Nothing in the world—moving or unmoving, animate or inanimate—can be without me.”
Tantra-oriented scriptures go into even greater detail. In praying to the Divine in the Lalitopakhyana of the Brahmanda Purana the sages say, “The celestial realm is your head; the sky is your clothes; the clouds are your locks; the Sun and Moon are your eyes; the Earth is your bosom; the plants are the hair on your body; the wind, your breath.” Tantrics assert that the planet Earth and all it contains is one conscious entity, even though it may seem that the planet is separate from us. Apparently we are born and we die, while the planet goes on living—but the truth is that what we experience as birth and death is simply the consciousness of Earth assuming particular forms of matter and energy, and then abandoning them to inhabit other forms.
Using the model formulated by the sages in the Vedas and Upanishads, the tantrics studied the unifying nature of intelligence in the various forms of creation, and in doing so they came to understand how life in one aspect of nature is affected by other aspects; how health or malady in one form of life affects other forms; how trees and undergrowth protect and nourish each other; how a river gives life to fish—and becomes lifeless without them. They saw that nothing exists for itself: every form of life gives life to other forms.
Like the sages before them, the tantric masters saw that nothing remains static: one form of matter, one form of energy, one state of consciousness is constantly resolving into other forms. The tantric adepts understood that this process of transformation is governed by natural laws—and that living a spiritual life entails working in conformity with these laws, which weave and nurture the web of life.
Humans are the only beings that can choose either to comply with natural law or to violate it. All other life-forms are dominated by instinct and thus remain in direct contact with nature. Humans are gifted with intelligence, and this intelligence is characterized by free will, which dominates instinct. We are an integral part of the web of life—yet our free will gives us a choice of acknowledging our connection with nature, or attempting to stand apart. When we use this gift to consciously acknowledge this connection we make ourselves instruments of harmony; when we ignore this gift we become unwitting agents of destruction.
All In Everything
As the dominant species, we humans are the custodians of this planet. Whatever we do to our environment, to ourselves, and to the forces of nature has far-reaching consequences for the web of life. Unless we learn to see through the illusion that the forces of the natural world—the mountains and rivers, for example—are separate from ourselves, unless we come to realize that we actually exist in the form of these mountains and rivers, we will regard them as commodities—and reap the fruits of our blindness, as we have been doing. As long as we are under the impression that the forces of nature are separate from ourselves we will continue to destroy them, never understanding that we are destroying ourselves.
But how can we shatter this illusion? It is relatively easy to understand philosophically that we are part of the organic body of the planet, yet it is difficult to experience this in our daily life, and almost impossible to bring this knowledge into practice. But unless we do, the destruction of our ecosystems will continue. We must come to know what the sages knew: that the key lies in developing an affinity with nature. We must come to see ourselves in creation, and creation in ourselves.
By studying both themselves and the natural world, the great yogis discovered a detailed equation between the human body and the external world, and then went on to delineate the exact correspondence between the energies of certain parts of the body and the energies of certain aspects of nature. This equation found expression in various branches of yoga science, the most accessible of which is the cosmological scheme of kundalini yoga, in which there are seven centers of consciousness in the human body, known as chakras. The lowest center is located at the base of the spine and corresponds to the earth element—solidity, stability, firmness, reliability, and trustworthiness are its hallmarks. The second center of consciousness, located in the pelvic area, corresponds to the water element and is characterized by flexibility, fluidity, adaptability, softness, and cohesiveness.
When the subtle forces of earth and water, solidity and liquidity, are out of balance we experience this imbalance at the level of both body and emotion because these two centers are the wellspring of fear, insecurity, desire, attachment, and sensual urges. And when the energy here becomes weak or unbalanced these tendencies become unmanageable. We can see the consequences of this in the world around us. Many of today’s physical and mental problems are associated with these first two centers of consciousness: at the emotional level we are haunted by fear, insecurity, and insatiable sense cravings; at the physical level, we are experiencing increasing incidence of illnesses associated with the area around and below the navel center—the ovaries, testes, prostate, uterus, kidneys, bladder, and colon.
This is not surprising. According to Vedic and tantric sources, if the Earth is being drugged with chemicals, the soil depleted, and the water polluted, problems associated with the organs that correspond to the lowest two chakras are inevitable. The reason is simple: Yatha bhramande tatha pindande—“What happens in the world outside us happens also inside us.” We are continually disrupting the rhythms of nature. For example, by lacing chicken feed with hormones and antibiotics, and by using artificial light to create four complete cycles of day and night every 24 hours, we have succeeded in getting four eggs a day from one hen. But lacking the knowledge of our oneness with nature, we fail to see the consequences. To increase the productivity of our fields and dairies we have so disturbed nature that children as young as eight now enter puberty, and some even become sexually active. Complications related to reproduction are increasing dramatically. For example, sperm production in the average American male has declined by 30 percent in the past 30 years, a decline so steep that, as Carl Sagan observed in Billions and Billions, “if it continues men in the West could in consequence start becoming sterile by the middle of the twenty-first century.”
Our ego claims that we are separate entities, superior entities, and we believe this. But from the perspective of space, it is obvious that Earth is a single living being. Just as billions of cells, germs, and bacteria live within our bodies, we humans and all other forms of life live within the body of Earth. When we inject drugs into our veins, the effect is seen throughout our body and mind; when we eat, both nutrients and toxins in the food are distributed throughout the body. Similarly, when in one part of the globe the Earth is being drugged (when chemicals are injected into the bosom of the Earth in the form of nuclear wastes, for example, or poured into the atmosphere in the form of sulfuric acid) Earth and the myriad forms of life she contains are bound to suffer.
The cause of a condition does not necessarily reside in the place where it manifests. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other manmade compounds produced in the industrialized countries have punched a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica that is twice the size of Europe and getting bigger every year. The subsequent increase in ultraviolet radiation has reduced the yields of some crops and has been linked to a higher incidence of skin cancers and cataracts, even in places free of heavy industry. The air pollution generated in urban areas such as Mexico City, Delhi, Beijing, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong is not confined to those cities but spreads throughout the atmosphere, affecting the air in places as remote as the Andes and the Himalayas.
This is true in our bodies as well as in the ecosystem. When cancer invades the breast or the colon, for example, the cause pervades the body and mind; the disease simply manifests in the most susceptible organ. And like conventional medicine, which ordinarily treats a condition in one part of the body in isolation from the rest of the organism, ecologists and naturalists often adopt an agenda that focuses only on one or two aspects of nature. But blue whales, timber wolves, tigers, and the spotted owl are just a few strands of the fabric of life. Efforts to preserve them will meet with transitory success at best if we do not address the planet’s ills before they become incurable.
That Earth is ill, there can be no doubt. Her vitality is declining, her nervous system and organs are a mess, and her immune system is suppressed. The evidence is everywhere. By now we are all familiar with the most obvious symptoms: global warming, acid rain, the vast numbers of species vanishing into extinction with each passing decade. But there are also more subtle yet telling signs. For example, powerful herbs, such as ashwagandha and ginseng, which a few decades ago could replenish a person’s vitality in three days, are gradually becoming ineffective. And frogs, which survived the global catastrophe that extinguished the dinosaurs, are hatching with gross deformities.
People in ancient cultures knew what we are only now discovering: that frogs are a “sentinel species,” serving as an early warning of a serious ecological imbalance as yet too subtle to be detected by other means. Unlike other amphibians and water-dwelling creatures, the metabolic functions of frogs—especially of the liver, where a variety of substances are processed out of the body—are remarkably similar to those in humans. If their well-being declines, so will ours.
Knowing this intuitively, the ancient sages dedicated a group of mantras to frogs and their role in bringing about rainfall, abundant crops, and a balanced ecosystem, and thus ultimately engendering the health and happiness of humankind. These mantras, set down in that most ancient of texts, the Rig Veda, are called Manduka Sukta (“The Mantras Pertaining to Frogs”). They speak of frogs as divine beings. It is easy—and wrong—to reject this as a primitive form of animism. To understand these mantras we must comprehend what the ancient masters understood divinity to be. Yoga tells us that if we truly understand and embrace their definition of divinity we can cure our ailing planet and prevent ourselves from becoming just another extinct species.
Everything Is Sacred
The word for “divine” in Sanskrit is deva, which means “shining, or bright, being.” A shining being is one that emits light, illuminating itself and others. Its glow comes from serving others selflessly. Once it stops giving, it no longer shines, and thus by definition it is no longer divine. The defining virtue of divinity is giving. Nothing in nature exists for itself. Every life-form—from mineral, to plant, to animal—serves other forms of life. Minerals provide nutrients to plants, plants to animals, and animals to plants and to each other. That is why the sages, whose vision was subtle enough to perceive and experience this giving for what it is, called the various forms and forces of nature “Deva.”
Take water, for example. How can water quench our thirst and sustain life—unless it is inherently charged with divine energy? Put aside anatomy and biochemistry for a moment and think like a philosopher. Water is more than the compound H2O. In it lies the power of sustenance. Water is Deva—a divine being who offers its body to be used as the basis of life, and who from the beginning of creation has never stopped sharing itself.
The ancients, who lived close to nature and perceived the world more from the heart than from the head, could see the Divine in rivers, mountains, trees, herbs, and animals. To them the stream that flows outside Sri Nagar in the Himalayas was not just a cascade of water but a goddess, a fluid divinity, whom they named Dhari Devi (“The Goddess of the Current”). They saw the Divine in the Yamuna, Narmada, and Kaberi Rivers, as well as in the Ganga. To this day peaks in the Himalaya and Vindhya Ranges are treated as various manifestations of the Divine. For instance Mount Kailas, according to the Tibetans, Indians, and Chinese, is the visible body of God; another peak, named after the goddess Nanda Devi, is the visible form of cosmic delight.
In tantric literature plants of recognized medicinal value (such as neem, pipal, madar, shami, durva, aparajita, and tulsi) are viewed as goddesses. In remote villages in India, Nepal, and Tibet, where modern civilization has not yet cast its spell, people recognize the presence of the Divine in cows, ants, frogs, snakes, elephants, and monkeys. In Indian mythology the lion is described as the vehicle, or carrier, of the goddess Durga; the bull as the vehicle of Shiva; the rat, of Ganesha; the dog, of Bhairava; the swan, of Sarasvati; the eagle, of Vishnu; and the water buffalo, of the Lord of Death. True, these associations are laden with cultural baggage, but they also show that the torchbearers of the Vedic culture understood that these seemingly insignificant creatures are so integral a part of the Divine that it cannot move without them. In other words, the ancient masters saw that energy imbued with consciousness undergirds all of nature’s physical manifestations. Seeing this, they opened their hearts to these forces. And by recognizing the sacred in the apparently mundane they developed the sensitivity and mental power to communicate with all of nature’s forces. It is this sensitivity that enabled them to discover the spiritual dimension of medicine, alchemy, horticulture, gemology, astrology, architecture, and different branches of the arts and sciences.
These great spiritual naturalists were also realists. They knew that not all humans would understand their oneness with nature and that without this understanding, humans would exploit her. They foresaw that ignorance, desire, and possessiveness would cause us to see natural resources only as objects for our consumption and that, because appetite grows with what it feeds on, we would want to consume beyond limit, without considering the consequences.
Thus it was that Manu, who survived the great flood to become the lawgiver to the human race, decreed that all humans must repay three innate debts: pitri rina (ancestral debts), rishi rina (the debt we owe to those who have contributed to our knowledge), and deva rina (our debts to the Divine). In other words, according to the rules laid down by Manu and the sages that came after him it is our duty to take care of our parents and demonstrate our gratitude to those who were instrumental in the continuation of the lineage in which we were born. It is also our obligation to love, respect, and show our gratitude to those learned ones whose knowledge and inventions we are benefiting from today. The third debt is the most important: we must repay, through worship, the divine forces that nurture and sustain our life—the wind, water, fire, clouds, mountains, rivers, plants, animals, and soil. This is compulsory for all humankind.
Do not be misled by the religious connotations of the word “worship.” Here it does not refer to anything liturgical, or to any sort of outward display. It means acknowledging the fact that the forces of nature are givers, and we are receivers. The most basic form of worship is to refrain from polluting or otherwise harming these fundamental forces of nurturance. A higher form of worship is to work toward healing the injured part of nature, regardless of whether that injury was caused by us or by others. And to this end the sages have provided us with a comprehensive means for healing nature by working to detoxify and revitalize its various aspects—space, air, clouds, soil, and everything that exists within, upon, and around the Earth.
This can be done by yajña, which means “sacrifice.” There are a variety of such sacrifices, but the underlying idea is to give something away, even at the cost of our own comfort. In other words, sacrificing our personal interests for the higher welfare is the essence of yajña. Conducting ourselves in conformity with nature’s law and nurturing her is the best way to serve creation. The Bhagavad Gita explains why: The life of living beings depends on the food they eat. The quality of food is dependent on the quality of water. The quality of water is dependent on the substances that we put into the atmosphere. What we put into the atmosphere is dependent on our actions. The actions by which we put the nourishing substance back into the atmosphere are called yajña. These are the means for nurturing the air, clouds, water, and, in turn, the soil (and thereafter the entire food chain), as well as for personal and collective upliftment.
There are a variety of ways to nourish the atmosphere, but the best and most effective is japa (meditation on a mantra), because it purifies the mind and makes it one-pointed. The energy emitted from a purified, one-pointed mind has a profound effect on the atmosphere and all the forces intertwined with it. In other words, by using the power of mantra one can intensify the subtle forces residing in the realm of mind and consciousness to evoke the forces in the outside world. In this process purification and nourishment begin from the inside—nature’s forces first awaken internally, and in response to that awakening the forces in the external world awaken. This engenders healing in both the microcosm and the macrocosm.
But gaining access to the inner realm and influencing the subtle field of consciousness is not easy. In addition to a one-pointed mind, this form of yajña requires the knowledge of exactly how the energies of the different limbs and organs of the body correspond to the various forces of nature. Because most people do not have this knowledge, the masters have also outlined external, ritualistic ways of detoxifying and revitalizing nature. Fire is central to this external yajña, as is the knowledge of alchemy and mantra. This approach requires an understanding of the properties of herbs, grains, minerals, and other natural substances, as well as the precise method of combining them and offering them into the fire along with the appropriate mantras. When the yajña is done correctly these substances release their cleansing and nourishing properties into the atmosphere as they are consumed by the fire. Specific mantras when combined with specific ingredients will yield a specific result. For example, agnistoma is a ritual that aims at cleansing and energizing the fire itself so that this essential element of life becomes healthy and inspires other forces to work in harmony.
These Vedic rituals are not religious in nature. Unlike the rituals that constitute a significant part of religious practices, these yajñas do not promise practitioners a safe and enjoyable place in heaven; instead they create a safe and enjoyable heaven here in this very world. As those familiar with the principles of physics, metaphysics, alchemy, and spirituality know, this form of ritual transcends all religious boundaries and brings the sacred into our day-to-day existence. And this allows us to see and worship the Divine in our surroundings and provides us with a new definition of service and worship.
Through yajña (both the internal, meditative approach and the external, ritualistic approach) we come to bask in the grace of the Divine and rejoice in the experience of our oneness with the greater and more subtle counterparts of this creation. This experience of our oneness with creation allows us to appreciate nature’s simplicity and generosity and to honor the interconnection among all that exists. The realization that all creation is one glorious manifestation of Divinity is inseparable from the understanding that to harm any aspect of nature is to harm ourselves. This is the ground from which will spring a deep and lasting healing of our planet and ourselves.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD, is spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute and a regular columnist for Yoga International.