THE COMPASSIONATE AND THRIFTY UNIVERSE
PCDForum Article #3, Release Date September 1, 1993
by Eknath Easwaran
For me it is a central paradox of the twentieth century that despite our powerful intellectual skills and our ingenious engineering and medical achievements, we still lack the ability to live wisely. My perspective on this paradox draws from my experience growing up as a child in a village in the Indian state of Kerela.
My early perceptions of the world were shaped by the wisdom of my grandmother who saw in every leaf, flower, animal and star the expression of a compassionate universe, whose laws were not competition and survival of the fittest, but cooperation, artistry, and thrift. None of us in our village lived up to the example my grandmother set, but we all trusted and looked up to her. In our way of life, our farming, our business and barter, our friendships, we were guided by her ideal of an individual life rooted in continuous harmony with life as a whole.
In every aspect, life in our village was close. Our lives had been woven together through centuries of depending on each other. If my mother wanted a new pot, she would send for the village potter, whose family had been making pots for my family for centuries, and he would turn out just what she wanted. If my cousins needed new jewelry, they would call on the village goldsmith, who would come and fashion earrings for them right on the veranda of our house, just his father and grandfather had done. We traveled little, since everything we needed was right there in the village.
Agriculturally as well, we were self-sufficient. Our crop yields were not astonishing, but they were substantial, and for centuries our traditional method of farming, based on the rhythms of nature, natural pest control and natural fertilizers, had enriched the soil. Following Granny's example, we tried to treat every part of nature with love and respect. The earth was our home, she would have said, but no less was it home to the oxen that pulled our plows or the elephants that roamed in the forest and worked for us. They had lived with us as partners whose well-being was inseparable from our own.
Because of the enduring bonds of village life, we had no need for some of the impersonal institutions that have become essential in industrial society, like life insurance and social security. Instead we had families and friends who were ready to help in any circumstance. Within such an atmosphere, there was little or no crime; in fact, I never even saw a policeman until I went away to college.
Of course we did not live in an ideal world. In a prosperous village like ours there was little poverty, but diseases like cholera and smallpox were not uncommon. It is not that no one was ever hurt, or that people never quarreled or manipulated each other; but when such things happened, we knew quite clearly that they were discordant, that they did not fit in with the way life should be. It was not an ideal world, but it was a world with an ideal.
When I left high school I felt the pull of a different way of life, a world of high ambitions and extraordinary technical achievements. My university education in Western literature brought me into contact with great voices who spoke of an emptiness at the center of life. Similarly the discoveries of modern physics and biology were generally interpreted as proving that the universe is a meaningless play of energy and matter onto which we project our desire for something of lasting value. "Brief and powerless is man's life" wrote the influential mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell; "on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless course." To the Western eye, my grandmother's compassionate universe did not exist; it was a figment of our village imagination. Each of us is a separate, competing speck in a meaningless universe.
True, the industrial era had brought us some great material advantages, and many of its medical and engineering advances had helped relieve suffering, but I was beginning to sense that there was nothing in the industrial world's endless whirl of new products and pleasures that would compensate for the things receding ever farther into the distance: our hope for a peaceful world; the knowledge that our children will inherit a healthy earth; the feeling of having a high purpose; the experience of being a blessing instead of a curse on the rest of life.
Now it is clear to me that the assumption of an uncaring universe, which has been presented with authority as the truth, the fruit of centuries of scientific investigation, is only a hypothesis. The alternative hypothesis was enunciated twenty-five hundred years ago in the Bhagavad Gita, and can be found at the core of every one of the worlds' great religious traditions: beneath the surface level of conditioned thinking in every one of us there is a single living spirit. The still small voice whispering to me in the depths of my consciousness is saying exactly the same thing as the voice whispering to you in your consciousness. "I want an earth that is healthy, a world at peace, and a heart filled with love."
The problems of Western industrialism flow from focusing our attention on too limited a segment of the human experience. Somehow, we have become so attuned to the sound and sight of competition and greed that we can spot it anywhere, but we find it hard to recognize things like cooperation or compassion even when they are awakening in our own hearts. We attribute the limits of a particular cultural conditioning with the state of the universe and proclaim it cold and unfeeling.
Village life has much to teach those of us who have been exposed to the cultural conditioning of industrial society, as do the tropical rainforests, like the one near the village where I grew up. The world's rainforests are host to roughly half of the earth's plant, insect, and animal species. Through sixty-five million years of uninterrupted evolution, untouched by the climatic changes of the ice ages, rain forests have developed a complex system of interrelationships in which each species depends on the existence and activities of many others. In these relationships between animals and environment, animals and plants, animals and other animals, biologists have found abundant evidence of nature's compassion.
Everywhere, she exhibits the timing and delicate understanding of an artist, using endless creativity to provide a home and food for every creature, no matter how big or small. In the rain forest, as everywhere in nature, researchers have found that competition "the law of the jungle" is not nearly so important as the countless processes by which nature avoids competition.
The innate thriftiness of nature, so dramatically revealed in the tropical rainforest, affirms another lesson from my childhood about the natural relationship between thrift and real wealth. In terms of the richness and diversity of life, the rainforest is among the most productive of ecosystems. Yet the source of this abundance is not found in the quality of rainforest's topsoil, which is usually quite poor, but rather in the extraordinary interaction of millions of different species, as they recycle water, nutrients, and minerals, and ensure that every resource is preserved and reused endlessly
Our village, as I have said, was prosperous. We lacked nothing, yet we had little of what most economists today call wealth. Much like the rainforest, the secret of our prosperity was found in the practice of thrift and cooperative relationships. A rich topsoil, nourished by centuries of village agriculture; one hundred inches of rain a year; a dense forest and plentiful coconut groves; a fresh, pure supply of water, which we drank straight from our wells these were free and they formed the material resources for our prosperity. As in the rainforest, we took only what we needed and our wastes were recycled.
The real foundation of our prosperity, though was the deep and enduring sense of community that enabled us to mark the best use of these resources. On this foundation, a tradition of excellent craftsmanship had grown up. We had all the things we needed well-crafted, beautiful things that lasted a long time but we did not do much "consuming." The economist would not be impressed by our statistics. In terms of gross national product, we were a nonentity.
Yet as affirmed by both the experience of the rainforest and of the village in which I grew up, the real wealth of a country is not its rate of consumption, as measured by its gross national product, but rather by the number of secure, wise, and generous people it has and by the health of its environment.
To create truly wealthy modern human societies, we need people in every field who can serve as a bridge between humanity and its highest aspirations. We need mothers who dream of their children growing up in a compassionate society and ask: why not? We need scientists, business people, politicians, and journalists who have the courage to dream of a world where people, animals, and the environment are more important than profits or national rivalries and ask: why not? We need ordinary people of every nation and color who dare to look beneath the mask of cultural conditioning, see something they never believed they could be, and ask themselves: why not?
Those who tell us that such compassion is contrary to human nature take too narrow a view. As Gandhi taught us, we do not have to become something we are not. We need only to learn who and what we really are.
In me, in you in every human being burns a spark of pure compassion: not physical or even mental, but deeply spiritual. We have the capacity to rebel deeply and broadly against our conditioning and to build a new personality, a new world. It is our choice whether to exercise that capacity, but we do have that choice.
Eknath Easwaran, founder and director of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, is the author of Meditation and Your Life is Your Message. This article was excerpted by the PCDForum from The Compassionate Universe: The Power of the Individual to Health the Environment Nilgiri Press, Box 256, Tomales, California 94971, U.S.A. phone (707) 878-2369 or (800) 475-2369. US$12.00.