Yoga and Ecology

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

The subject of ecology does not exist in isolation. It is linked with the economy and with industry, and for this reason it is very difficult for people in the world today to become environmentally aware. At the social level, the environment is related to industry and commerce. At the individual level, it is linked with how the individual perceives the environment in which he or she lives. Each individual either connects with or isolates himself/herself from nature because of other compulsions and needs.

Lifestyle is the key

Our relationship with nature is linked with our attitude towards life in general, whether we are happy and contented or dissatisfied and unhappy with our lifestyle. This will reflect the way we see the world around us and whether we respect or mistreat it.

The yamas and niyamas in yoga are indicative of this interaction within the individual, the laws of nature, and the Divine. Shaucha, for example, which is defined as cleanliness, is not only personal, it is environmental as well. It is not only hygiene, it is being responsible for the expression and experience of beauty in one's life and also in the environment. Beauty gives birth to joy and happiness; that is the outcome of beauty.

If the garden is beautiful, it also creates a change in the atmosphere and environment. When you walk into the garden, your spirits are uplifted. The beauty of the garden is physical, but at the same time it also has an impact on the environment and on your mental state. If the awareness dawns that you are responsible for making your home, your environment and your world a beautiful place, then that is the first step towards a proper integration with nature. It is an understanding of the individual's interaction with nature, on the one hand, and with the Divine, on the other, that can make one ecologically whole.

There are many dimensions to ecology – material and spiritual. No individual can make a difference to material ecology, especially where industry and commerce are concerned. To do this we would have to change the entire legal and political structure of every society. So, there will always be exploitation. Change can only come from our personal lifestyle. A change in our individual attitude and interaction with life is the only approach to changing the way we understand the world and its ecosystems.

The science of ecology is linked closely with human society and its needs, the needs of industry and commerce. The human component, our understanding of human participation and involvement in nature is relatively small. Still we see ourselves outside of ecology and the ecosystems we depend upon. There may be hundreds of 'greenie' rallies every day involving thousands of people, but they won't make a dent in the policies pursued by industry, commerce and governments. This can be seen globally.

Interdependence of all species

Ecology is a study of how different species and aspects of nature can work together and support each other. According to ancient calculations, there are 8,400,000 species in nature. Since the time scientists began to record different species, it has been found that approximately 1,500 species become extinct every year, species from the plant, animal, insect and bacteria worlds. To date only 200,000 varieties of species have been recorded by scientists.

In the Vedic tradition it is clearly stated that the life of each species is meant for the well-being of all other species. All of the 8,400,000 species on the planet live for each other, except for one. One species lives for itself and that is the human species. If the human species could also live according to the laws of nature and in harmony with other species, the planet would become a very different place in which to live. This is where the yogic perspective of ecology slowly begins to develop.

There was a time when humans also supported nature and the planet. The Vedic tradition believes that dead bodies should be burnt, not buried. It is not a religious or a cultural belief. The Vedic tradition is against burial because bodies are subject to different kinds of diseases. When you die of disease, the viruses and bacteria remain alive in the body. When the body is burnt, the diseases are also destroyed, but if the body is buried, those viruses and bacteria spread underground and affect the water, the trees and plants, making the environment polluted and diseased, eventually contaminating the food we eat.

In the Vedic tradition only yogis and small children were given the right of burial. Small children's bodies are believed to be pure. Yogis can make their bodies pure through sadhana. Therefore, there is no harm in their being buried, but everyone else must be burnt. This is an ecologically conscious practice and belief.

In Christianity and in Islam this belief does not exist for different reasons. These two religions developed in arid, desolate desert places in the Middle East. There were no trees and, therefore, no wood, so bodies were buried under the sand. The quality of sand and the intensity of the sun in the desert is such that when the sand gets hot, it is like a furnace, One grain of sand can hold a great degree of heat. If a body is buried in the sand, the body with its viruses and bacteria will be destroyed by the extreme heat. Soil, however, retains far less heat. If a body is buried in soil, the bacteria will spread.

In our ignorance we have incorporated such traditions into the religious system and situations arise where a body may not be burnt for 'religious' reasons. It is the apex of human idiocy.

Benefits of a natural lifestyle

There are many other rules followed in the Vedic tradition that are part of lifestyle and show concern for the environment. When a culture follows a rule created with an understanding of the laws of nature, then that culture can survive any onslaught from nature, no matter how great the destruction.

A few years ago there was a study comparing the agricultural potential of the United States of America, with a population of 200 million, and India, with a population of 900 million. With its present system of agricultural production and use of chemicals, the USA has the potential to feed the entire population of the world for 50 years, on the strength of its soil. In India, which supports 900 million people and in land dimensions is smaller than the USA, the agricultural land has the potential to feed the entire world for 300 years. Why is this so? America is a young country, about 400 years old. We don't know the age of India, but logically speaking the equatorial belt would have been populated from the time humans first walked on this planet.

The difference is the lifestyle. If you can adopt a natural lifestyle, living according to the laws of nature and not trying to alter the natural conditions, then you are more ecology conscious. When it is cold, you put on a sweater. When it is warm, you remove your clothes. But if you try to heat a room or building by artificial means, then the chemicals will affect the atmosphere, as is already happening with the breakdown of the ozone layer due to the use of aerosols and CFC gas in air-conditioners and refrigerators. So, more luxury and comfort go against nature.

Why not do without momentary comforts? These comforts are artificial needs, not actual needs. Artificial needs support industry and commerce. You can cook your meals simply, as in our ashram kitchen, with coal and wood, or you can buy a microwave to make quick meals. What will happen then? You will become aware that you don't have enough time and will need to do things as fast as possible.

People have many hang-ups about time, especially in modern, industrialized countries. They work very hard to fulfil the demands of artificial needs. You can live without a microwave. In fact, the food is tastier without it. Taste, health and many other benefits are sacrificed for the sake of an instant meal.

Cooking is a joy. Sit down, peel and cut up the vegetables. Imagine how you are going to prepare the meal. The flow of information from the vegetable to you and the flow of your interaction with an organic material is a very beautiful relationship. If you can't devote one hour a day to cooking, you have lost the joy of living. If you can't take a cold water bath in the middle of winter, without thinking, “Oh, I wish I had hot water!” you can't enjoy the feel of that cold water, which gives better health, stamina and immunity to the body.

GOD: Generation, Organization and Destruction

With all the environmental movements and theories, one thing is certain. The cosmic consciousness is much more aware of the growth and destruction than the entire human population. If there is an imbalance somewhere, the consciousness of nature will take care of it. The only way it can do this is by creating destruction. That is the concept of the trinity: GOD – Generation, Organization and Destruction; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Generation and creation seem to be complete at a gross, physical level, but generation is continuing at a subtle level. Organization, maintenance and continuation are happening. In fact, human beings are very much part of Vishnu consciousness – preserving, maintaining and nourishing. We don't have Brahma consciousness, the aspect of God, in us. We are in Vishnu consciousness, the O of God. An encounter with Shiva is like an accident. Earthquakes, tragedy and death are encounters with D, which is Shiva. Whenever we have such encounters with D (destruction), it comes as a big shock to our system.

So, from the cosmic viewpoint, we are in Vishnu consciousness and at the level of tamas. We don't want change. We are shocked and get upset when we see the rajasic nature of Shiva, which is come and clean everything, come and destroy everything so that a new birth can take place. This is the way nature will heal and renew herself from the impact of the human race.

Ganga Darshan, January 9, 1999