Radha Burnier

Contributed to Freedom, Progress and Society,
a collection of essays in honour of Professor K. Satchidananda Murty

IN every time of transition and during the periods when notable external changes take place, the minds of people are put to the test. They either derive a new impetus from the challenge posed by rapidly altering circumstances and spearhead the further cultural, intellectual and spiritual growth of the civilization in which they live, or they get overwhelmed because they are too crystallized and conventional to respond adequately to change, and then everything begins to decay and crumble around them.

We are now living in an epoch of great external change. Technology has altered the environment of even simple, tribal people who live in remote areas. Present day enterprises, made possible by technology, modify the weather, produce acid rain, bring imbalances in forests and so forth, thus affecting the lives of people over a wide area. In urbanized areas, of course, the impact of technology on the environment is very much greater. The electronic revolution, too, is bringing about a major change, rendering obsolescent various mind processes, and the occupations in which memory and memory-based calculations were important. Some of the significant discoveries in the field of science during the last few decades call for the revision of various traditional world views. Against the perspective of the annihilative techniques now accessible to the people of the world, old theories of political relationship, the practice of the sãma, dãna, bheda and danda of previous ages, have become irrelevant, because it amounts to dangerous madness to play this game at a time when any local conflict can spark disaster on the global scale. Humanity can no more afford to think in old terms about relationship among nations, communities and peoples.

The development of technology has given rise to the illusion that progress lies in the improvement of tools and skills. Man has been described as homo faber, the tool maker. He has also been thought of since Aristotle’s time as a rational animal. It is his rationality which has enabled him to obtain the knowledge which results in technological marvels. But there is hardly any rationality in the pursuit of a competitive, aggressive way of life while possessing tools of unprecedented destructive power. It is being increasingly realized that the crisis which besets human society on all fronts is not due to the technology or tools which man has created. The problem is in himself, the moral inadequacy and inability to understand essential values. The present day civilization will not win or lose by its capacity for production or for war, by the importance of its cities or its commerce. It is only when the entirely new conditions of the modern world are realized as a challenge to reconsider the prevailing values of our consumeristic and conflict ridden society that there is hope for real progress.

The idea of conquest has been ingrained in the human mind making war one of the most consistent features of human history. The notion of conquest includes of course, the acquisition of resources and the adoption of whatever techniques and means are expedient in terms of this given objective. Social values have, therefore, most often been based on utilitarianism and regionalism. Slavery, the oppression of women and those who are weak, torture, poverty and the numerous other forms of cruelty and suffering which have existed in human society, in every age and country are the direct consequence of failure to examine the validity of values formulated to suit a particular region, religion, class or other group or society. Conventional thought has always been predominant. However much testimony there is in a society of failure—and the existence of suffering is failure—the established values are not relinquished.

In a considerable area of the world, dogmatic and authoritarian tenets of religion form the basis for social values. Humanitarian principles are violated in the way barbaric punishments are imposed even for minor infringements, the justification for the same being found in supposedly infallible injunctions of religious authority. Religious authority also dictates what shall be the status of women in society, and deprives them of basic freedoms. This is only one instance to show how basic values such as equality and liberty can be totally set aside in favour of a small coterie of persons who have arrogated to themselves power in the name of religion.

Vested interests are also at work in conditioning people into adopting selfish and aggressive nationalistic attitudes. They cannot but divide the world and create tragic imbalances. Part of the world thrives and grows in affluence, while the rest are exploited and live in abject poverty. The emphasis on nationalism converts even games and sport such as the Olympics into arenas of intense rivalry which give the appearance more of war than of games. The propaganda machine is used for conditioning the peoples of almost every nation into the belief that their own rulers are virtuous peace-makers while others are the opposite. So nationalism is an excuse and a tool for instilling suspicion and animosity. It has the veneer of virtue, but breeds ill will.

Man has not only alienated himself from his fellow-men of other ‘categories’—the categories being his own constructions—but he has also been regarding himself as outside nature. All things in nature and every form of life appear to him to be made for his own use. His own pleasure and knowledge are so predominantly important that he can only look askew with his utilitarian eyes. The appalling horrors associated with the vivisection of billions of defenceless animals in the laboratories of the world, most often merely to obtain results which are already known or to get knowledge which serves no foreseeable purpose, the brutality of ‘factory farms’, etc., rise out of the Pandora’s box of utilitarianism. It is due to immediate utilitarian urges that nature is being destroyed at a vast rate and the desertification of the earth takes place. A number of technologists have pointed out that the problems created by the misuse of technology cannot be solved by technologists. As long as the intensive consumeristic drive continues and utilitarian ethics rule the world, such problems as pollution and desertification will continue.

The world in general has rejected such values as ahimsã ( non-injury), simplicity, etc., stressed by the few enlightened persons of the world, because they seem to be personal, utopian, and not connected with the basic progress of society. However, events in recent history have proved that a difference cannot be made between personal values and social values. The cultivation of a callous attitude in the individual is detrimental to the whole of society. Systematic cruelty inflicted upon animals rebounds on mankind. Minds which are accustomed to the practice of callousness and brutality towards animals can treat other human beings with the heartlessness shown in concentration camps. The victims have merely to be dubbed as ‘vermin’ or ‘logs of wood’, and then all is possible. The mind which becomes indifferent to suffering in one area cannot be contained and prevented from being a destructive agency in another direction. Hatred, fear and suspicion, instilled into the minds of a population in order to achieve nationalistic aims, saturates the whole of human behaviour. The promotion of acquisitiveness deprives the world of its resources. The social well-being of man depends on personal qualities such as kindness, simplicity, honesty, etc. More than in previous times, they are now essential for the health of human society and the survival of mankind.

Science is discovering day by day the interrelatedness of the world, thereby providing the evidential basis for man to work towards realization of the oneness of life. In spite of the mass of evidence already on hand to show that all living bodies survive only through a complex system of mutual aid, adjustment and balance, designed perhaps by cosmic thought, man continues to act as if he is the final authority to decide what forms of life are good or bad, who and what should survive or die, and what shall be the manner in which other creatures shall spend their lives.

Times without number man has committed follies as a result of self-conceit and assurance which veil from his sight the superior intelligence of nature. He has destroyed millions of sparrows in an attempt to save grain which they ate, only to be faced with a worse disaster caused by worms and insects which multiplied without number in the absence of sparrows. The sparrows he regarded as his enemies were in fact his helpers. Such instances of man’s distorted vision are numerous.

Within nature’s mutual aid network, all around, everywhere, are helpers. Creatures, great, small and minute, are working away to fulfill a unitary purpose.

           Worms munch their way through the ground, opening up the dirt and

           fertilizing it with their castings; bats skitter through the night air, picking

           off recently engorged mosquitoes. Behind a munch here and a crunch

           there is a mutual roar, like distant surf; the cumulative sound of billions

           of invisible creatures changing rock into soil, taking nitrogen out of the

           air, turning the debris of life into nutrients on which plants, animals and

           we ourselves live. (The Smithsonian. July 1981)

John P. Wiley, whose words are quoted above, remarks that we cannot live without microbes and that they do most of the world’s work free. ‘And as things become increasingly tight, they may end up doing a lot more of ours, too.’ Micro-organisms produce antibiotic, amino acids, alcohol and a hundred other things: they may some day make crude oil or eat crude oil when spilled, and also manufacture insulin, inteferon and other things valuable to human beings. If man works with nature, nature will work for him.

Though micro-organisms, which are generally thought of in connection only with diseases, are invisible helpers of man and the life-process, they are not the only ones. All the multitudinous forms of life have their role. Oriental tradition, in fact, envisaged the existence of many creatures not at present known to man, invisibly forming part of one eco-system, in which none can afford to ignore or reject the others. In ancient works of art such as the sculpture of Buddhist Sanchi the world is shown as peopled by a variety of denizens, some visible to man. others not. All of them are an intrinsic part of a single manifested existence; and all of them, perhaps, have a role in the working out of a plan beyond our minds.

The next progressive step for mankind will not be so much a feat performed in outer space or the manufacture of an extraordinary new drug, but the discovery that each man is constantly and continually indebted to all the other forms of life which are helping to maintain nature’s system and without whom he cannot survive.

The knowledge of interrelatedness and interdependence which science is gradually providing has profound relevance to the relationships between human beings also, and the values which are sought to be built into human society. This knowledge of a scientific and ecological nature is an echo at a certain level of the spiritual vision resumed in the celebrated statement, sarvam khalvidam brahma the whole world is, indeed, Brahman—which has been amplified, in many other declarations of the sages such as in Mundaka Upanishad, II, 2, 12:

           This undying Reality [Brahman] is indeed everywhere, in front, behind,

           to the right and to the left, below and above. All of this vast universe is


Society and civilization imply living together and learning how to co-operate and make such mutual adjustments as will bring about a sense of order, harmony, peace and beauty, while at the same time preserving the liberty necessary for each individual to grow into the fullness of his own dignity, revealing all his hidden potentialities. Learning the art of relationship is an aspect of wisdom. In traditional and simple societies, there was often a natural understanding of the interrelatedness of life. It expressed itself in unwillingness to kill unnecessarily, even when they went hunting. There was a certain wisdom in the mind of the cannibal who was shocked to learn that millions of people were killed in the world war: he could not understand the savagery of those who killed when they had no need to eat! The American Indian knew that he belonged to the earth and not the earth to him. So said Chief Seattle in 1854: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know: all things are connected like the blood that unites one family. Man did not weave the web of life; whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

In the complicated way of life which is the modern way, it is much more difficult to be aware of the fact that life is one and that man is only an infinitesimally small part of a wonderful universe. Still, it is imperative to realize that any values which man adopts contrary to the fundamental truth of interrelatedness and unity bring about confusion and suffering. A bold departure is necessary to realize that many of the attitudes which have always been considered ‘natural’ are not natural, because they go counter to the facts of nature. It requires courage to adopt and act by such values as non-violence because it looks as if it is not possible to survive without doing what everyone else does. But previously because almost everyone adopts violence and war, consumerism and greed, utilitarianism and selfishness as inevitable, the earth has become so stressful and dangerous a place to live in.

A spiritual outlook means acting according to principles and values which are absolutely valid and not those which are relative, suited to the time and circumstances. The absolute values are connected with the actualities of nature and not with convenience, selfishness and specialized points of view. Enlightened ones such as the Buddha, who have realized the truth, see the total meaning and purpose of life and the absolute values manifest in whatever exists. Because they live in accordance with that realization, they personify love and compassion. Their lives exemplify action which is not necessarily ‘wise from the worldly point of view, but is absolutely right because it expresses their state of universal love and compassion, totally free from personal motivations and interests.

None of the great spiritual teachers has emphasized anything other than the inner awakening to truth, for without such an awakening all that people do ends in futility and suffering. Every attempt to social reconstruction ends in degenerate customs and the exploitation of some persons by others, because the changing of outer forms without inner awakening to the truth which is love ends in the forms becoming corrupt. There have been revolutions of many kinds during the course of history, but they failed to achieve what they claimed. Liberty, equality and fraternity were hardly more than a slogan for upsetting a regime. It did not bring about any fundamental change. Neither did the claim of those who spoke of how the state would wither away after the revolution was achieved. That very state has become a monstrous controller of people.

One cannot negate all effort to improve and construct at the outer level. But along with it, there has to be sufficiently clear awareness of the extreme importance of learning about the mysteries and truths of life. Else there will be continual failure. The heights to which a civilization reaches depends on how far the search for truth through philosophical enquiry, religious endeavour and scientific investigation is woven into the culture of the people and how far the social values are related to the spiritual insights obtained. Philosophy, religion and science can and should have a practical influence and impact on questions of human relationship and the quality of human life and society. Each of them is a path to truth, and truth has a transforming quality. In the words of St. John: ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (8.33). In that word ‘truth’ is contained the totality of values which are absolute and beneficial.

The Theosophist July 1987

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