The Tree of Knowledge
Be Eco-centric, Not Ego-centric
The ‘Earth Pilgrim’ Satish Kumar was ordained as a Jain monk at nine, but at 18, was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to re-enter worldly life and work in Vinoba Bhave’s land reform movement. In 1962, he walked from India to the US and presented ‘peace tea’ to leaders of nuclear armed nations. In 1973, renowned economist EF Schumacher persuaded Satish Kumar to live in England arguing, “there are many Gandhians in India, we need one in England.” Satish took over as editor of Resurgence magazine, started by Schumacher to promote his alternative vision of economics enshrined in ‘Small is Beautiful’. Over the years, Kumar has inspired the international green movement towards a spiritual orientation, termed as deep or reverential ecology. In 1991, he founded an international centre for learning — Schumacher College in Devon. His books include You are Therefore I am, The Buddha and The Terrorist, and most recently, Earth Pilgrim, also a BBC film on his life watched by over 3.6 million viewers.
* You are working on an ecological interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita…
The Bhagavad Gita has many dimensions – of personal development and liberation, and of how we relate to the world. For example, it says people depend on food, food depends on rain, and rain depends on people following the law of the universe, which is the wheel of time. The wheel means that nature moves in a cyclical, not linear, manner. In a cyclical system everything returns, and renews and nourishes itself. You plant a seed and it becomes a plant, then a tree, which produces a flower which becomes a seed again. At the moment, the world is following a linear pattern, not the Gita’s law of nature. We take from nature; use, and throw away. This is why there is global warming and climate change.
* What does it mean — to be an ‘earth pilgrim’?
For the pilgrim, the destination, the result, is not so important. This is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita. The fruit of your action is inconsequential; the spirit with which you do something is important. When your consciousness is a pilgrim’s consciousness, your whole life becomes a pilgrimage. A touristic mind is ego-centric, whereas a pilgrim’s mind is eco-centric. Ego is about ‘me’, separate from you. ‘Eco’ is relational — it comes from’ the Greek term oikos — ‘home’. Home is a place of relationship. We are all related. My footprint on the earth is light because I see the earth as sacred. The pilgrim does not harm, or minimizes the harm and has a light footprint, whereas the tourist is not interested in not harming. If we live on the earth as pilgrims, then we do no harm, and we will not be harmed
* How can we awaken ourselves to the ecological implications of the way we live and consume?
The pilgrim’s approach is one of restraint and knowing the abundant gifts of nature. Nature is generous, intelligent and conscious. As the Upanishads say the whole universe is divine. Our share in nature’s abundance is only to meet our vital needs, so that there is enough for everybody. Nature is resilient because it depends on what is available, on the resources of the place. If we humans live by the sun, rain, air, wind and soil which are around us, we too, will be resilient, sustainable and spiritual. If we consume in that spirit — buy what is made locally, through the energy of rain, wind and sun — then life can sustain. If we don’t live on what the universe provides us on our doorstep, for instance sunshine, and go deep underground for oil, we are not in harmony with natural order.
* You bring together soil and soul, whereas spirituality is usually focused on self-realisation and not on realising our inter-connectedness with everything else…
Reality is both inner and outer. Soul is the Inner quality, and soil is the outer quality. Conventional spirituality has become limited to the soul, to personal salvation, Spirituality has become the idea of the inner without the outer. Inner and outer being two sides of the same coin, our personal happiness is not separate from the well-being of the earth. Soil represents outer reality. If we take care of the soil or environment our soul will also be strong and nourished. A new spirituality is needed – eco-spirituality, where “eco” denotes relationship with the outer world without which our inner world will be poor.
* Ecology also needs to become spiritually sensitive…
We see the natural world only as a source of our consumerist way of life and want to protect it for selfish reasons. From a spiritual approach, nature has rights just as human beings have rights. Belief in the intrinsic sacredness of the earth is spiritual ecology. It is fine to go to temples or do yoga, but then, do you pollute the environment? This split between inner and outer is what I’m trying to heal.
* There has been a twin movement in your life — the broad-basing of spirituality and the deepening of ecology…
Yes. My monastic order was oriented towards personal salvation. The world is bondage; keep your back towards it and your face towards moksha. That way, spirituality becomes world-denying. My focus has been on living lightly; and spiritually. If you do everything with a spiritual consciousness, you transform ordinary activity into spiritual practice. This in turn transforms your inner world, where doing no harm on the outside becomes a way of being liberated from fear, anxiety, ego. A journey like this is cyclical — it is not outer or inner, but a cycle of outer-inner, outer-inner. That is the wheel of dharma.
* Could there be a uniquely Indian response to the economic crisis?
An important figure in Indian spirituality is the dancing Shiva. Instead of growth we should have a “dancing economy”. In growth economy you have to keep growing linearly because if you stop, there is a recession and unemployment. In a finite world, you cannot grow infinitely. We can change this with the metaphor of the dancing Shiva, and create a dancing economy. Dance is joyful and cyclical. You can have activities — arts, crafts, making things, farming — but in a dancing, cyclical way. A dancing economy is a spiritual economy while a growth economy is a materialistic economy.
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