New Environmental Ethics and Ancient Philosophies

By Rudi Jansma

Much has happened in the last hundred years; still, we have not reached the point where mankind's spiritual heritage is integrated into a multifaceted, dogma-less religion-science-philosophy. We still find islands of approach to truth, whose inhabitants refuse to see that all belong to the same ecosystem of thought. Ecology teaches the interrelatedness of all organisms and their environment, so should not ecology be the first science to realize that all thought systems are interdependent, and that all philosophic, religious, and scientific approaches together form the global ecosystem of thought, knowledge, and intuition? Humans form the most influential part of the global ecosystem, through our physical impact on the environment. But isn't our behavior based on our ways of thinking, our knowledge, our measure of intuitive perception of what is good, true, and beautiful?

Let us investigate some of the fundamental propositions of Western ecology, then bring these into relation with some of the fundamental tenets of theosophical and also of non-Western thought as found in the Vishnu Purana and try to formulate a theory more universal and satisfying to the critical scientific mind. Finally, we will discuss some of the ethical consequences of this knowledge.

Ecology is a science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environment, and with human influence on the environment. As a science in the strict sense, it studies only facts which can be perceived by the human senses, and instruments that extend these senses. But for explanatory theories the human factor comes in: the activity of mind. However, mind is limited by our cultural, religious, philosophical, psychological, and emotional background. Still, mind works on the same lines as nature -- it must. How could we explain workings of nature outside the power of the mind to comprehend? Thus any explanation is by definition anthropomorphic, dependent on how the human mind works. Our mind is an inherent aspect of nature, one instrument through which nature can understand itself.

Theosophically, mind as a principle is an aspect of the infinite and pervades the cosmos. Its higher aspect knows no division or separateness, but its lower aspect creates the illusion of finiteness, of separateness, of you and me as separate beings. Mind is the first aspect that awakens after the period of cosmic sleep, when the first cosmic desire to awakening arises again. So mind existed before any thing or creature took form. The human mind is of the same nature. If we clarify our mind by clearing away illusions and resulting actions, we will see nature as it really is in its infinitude, without obstruction, without limitation.

In ecology we study how plants, animals, human beings, and their environment depend on one another -- for food, energy, materials, available space, and so on. But we wish to know, not only how but why ecosystems are as they are; we wish to explain their distribution on the globe and their complexity. An ecologist will explain these in terms of successful adaptation to prevailing circumstances, such as climatic conditions, predation, and changing environments. That success of one implies the defeat of others is correct as far as it goes. It is apparently the way in which nature trains and stimulates the mental forces on the levels of consciousness that manifest in the plant, animal, and part of the human kingdom. But scientists and philosophers, who see competition as the only explanation of nature, brand themselves as children of their materialistic era, not as universalists. This is anthropomorphism, reflecting only the lower aspects of the human mind, full of greed, selfishness, and competition, led by unclear perceptions of the real nature of things.

But why not also see the higher human faculties reflected in nature? The human being is a reflection of the faculties of infinite nature, so why not awaken our higher faculties to understand nature? We do not consist only of greed and selfishness. We also have real, impersonal love in our being, real compassion, a willingness to sacrifice ourselves, the desire to understand the essence of the farthest star in the firmament; we have the silent voice of inner wisdom, and a willpower far beyond our self-interest. If we look closely, we will recognize these and many more aspects in nature; and, once we see, she can be our teacher.

Theosophy teaches that human beings are composite: not only physical, but astral, vital, with desire, lower and higher mind, and faculties beyond mind, such as wisdom, spiritual intuition, and compassion. Finally, we are atman, our spiritual essence. Each human being is a hierarchy ranging from the most material to the most spiritual, all aspects built of living elemental beings, such as atoms -- material, astral, and vital -- desires, thoughts, and higher elements. Nature too is a hierarchy, composed of its elements, which are represented by the various kingdoms of nature. We can recognize these elements in nature as well as in ourselves.

Our explanations of nature remain anthropomorphic when reflecting our higher side. Western science and philosophy are not yet refined enough to explore the endless classes of beings that form inner nature -- this will be the work of ecologists of the future. We can intuit their existence by their visible influence. These influences collectively are "the divine." What, for example, of beauty? Nature is almost endless in its expressions of form. The "motive" of a plant to produce its flowers, or of a nightingale to sing, is related to its inborn desire for procreation. Maybe the normal consciousness of plant or nightingale is unaware of the beauty it produces -- but maybe not. If we are silent inside, the myriad-faced beauty of nature may fill us with an almost breathless respect, an unspoken feeling that there must be more than just struggle for personal safety.

Looking closely at any expression of beauty in mineral, vegetable, or animal, we see that each has a story to tell. Every expression in the plant kingdom seems to represent a feeling we can recognize in ourselves. Even though the plant is much lower evolutionally, each plant is a symbol and may function as a gateway to some deeper knowledge about who we are, make us aware of some of the more refined feelings within ourselves, and reveal to us the divine laws that govern nature.

In the animal kingdom we recognize our personal desires, what in us would be greed, passions, even cruelty and meanness. In this sense the animal kingdom may be said to reflect the realm of nature furthest from the divine, plunged deepest into ignorance, that aspect of ourselves which we as humans have to conquer, because it is our past, not our future. If we indulge our animal nature, we oppose our own evolution. At the same time the animal kingdom presents a tremendous richness in beautiful forms, colors, sounds, movements, and ingenuity. The divine is present in all its facets, but the individual development of the animals takes place in the realm of desire, based on unself-conscious mind with its illusion of separateness.

Another divine, universal aspect of nature is joy. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states that every being has a portion of the divine joy, and that on every step upward of the hierarchical ladder of beings this joy increases a hundredfold. What motivating force is there in nature other than joy? Would a cow eat her grass if she did not enjoy it? Our senses both of beauty and joy are faint reflections of different ways in which we recognize something universal, something real, something without an opposite.

Will is a force of divine magnitude that pervades every being. Every individual will is a small part of the omnipresent divine will. The form, attributes, and colors of an animal or plant depend on the individual's particular will to manifest its special character, of which desire for food and procreation are the leading forces. Its whole chemical and technical complexity, then, including its particular expression of beauty, is subservient to that desire, even if this desire is evil or cruel in human terms, as is the case with many animals.

No doubt a more than human intelligence and feeling for beauty is needed to design a plant, animal, or human being through evolution. We cannot expect a god to design an animal to fulfill a cruel purpose, because this would be contrary to the universal law of compassion. Apparently this is not the way in which the divine mind works. Animals, plants, humans, or minerals are not designed in the way we design a machine. In nature, there is an interplay of many intelligent forces, of which some are of the order of the highest abstract intelligence, some of the order of almost automatic service. And this whole hierarchy of living forces provides the possibilities for a particular monad to express what it has to express at its stage of development.

The most fundamental force, however, pervading every atom, is compassion. How harmonize this with the natural cruelty, mainly among animals, and in humans who choose to abide in their animal nature? These sufferings are unavoidable reactions to thoughts and actions that oppose the higher laws of the universe. In fact, suffering exists as the result of our struggle to train and develop our mind and higher faculties -- our inner drive to self-conscious godhood. But compassion is visible everywhere. The whole green plant-world is busy producing an atmosphere around the earth in which we can live healthily and pleasantly. The very fact that the feelings of "pleasure" and "happiness" exist in our psychology is proof of nature's compassion. A man-made machine doesn't have such feelings. The entire plant-world works to produce food from sunlight and an abundance of sweet fruits. For every disease there is a remedy in the plant or mineral world, because everything that exists in us exists by analogy everywhere, everything being built of the same elements under the same divine influences.

Compassion is one of the ruling forces in the human heart, if we allow it to be expressed. But compassion finds even higher expressions in nature. Everything is helping everything, whether by teaching or by stimulating forces which bring out the best in others. As soon as we really aspire to develop our higher faculties, we will find a helping hand. The Buddhas, Christs, Zoroasters, and Quetzalcoatls, are the great guides of mankind. As soon as we take their teachings as our guide and harmonize our mind and action with them, wisdom and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, from the silence of our heart. We have only to listen to the voice of the silence and follow it. An outer guru may cross our path, and one day we may become one ourself, but let us not seek him or her out of personal desire. Our own heart is our first guru, and our inner nature is wise enough to bring us in contact with an outer guru if necessary and if the time is right.

But if we wish to extend our scientific understanding of ecology beyond narrow twentieth-century materialistic views, we must turn to the more subtle thinkers of the East, who recognize kingdoms of intelligent and divine beings as an inherent part of nature intimately connected with all creation and evolution. Thus we may lay the basis for a more universal ecology of the future in which humanity will show nature more respect and in turn be worthy of respect. It also makes clear what is really meant when some people state that the earth herself is a living being, a goddess even -- Gaia in Greek -- with an intelligence and wisdom of her own.

Theosophic teachings on the structure of the cosmos are very elaborate and intricate, and development of intuition precedes full understanding. This system, as reflected in the Vishnu Purana, recognizes many classes of beings besides the minerals, plants, animals, and humans, some lower evolutionarily than minerals, others much higher than humans. Everything is alive, an expression of consciousness, including atoms and minerals, forces and energies. Nonliving nature is a nonexistent concept, as is separateness. Everything can exist only in relation to all other things. Hinduism calls such classes of invisible beings rakshasas, gandharvas, vairajas, etc. It recognizes invisible worlds as real as our visible world, known as lokas and talas: the spiritual and material poles respectively of any world. On the lowest loka-tala is our visible earth-globe with its various kingdoms. The other lokas and talas are invisible, composed of living beings too ethereal for our eyes to see. To quote from the Vishnu Purana (Bk. III, ch. vii, Wilson):

This universe, composed of seven zones, with its seven subterrestrial regions, and seven spheres . . . is everywhere swarming with living creatures, large or small, with smaller and smallest, and larger and largest; so that there is not the eighth part of an inch in which they do not abound.

All these worlds are reflected in the human constitution, because we are built of the same stuff as the universe. To understand lokas and talas is to understand the structure of nature, our own inner being, our prospects of inner evolution, our relatedness with universal nature, and our responsibilities within the universal ecosystem.

Because the lokas and talas are not only our environment, but correspond analogically with our inner condition, human aspects correspond with a particular loka and tala. This correspondence is the key to the interrelatedness and reciprocal influences of the beings of all worlds and to the possibility of communication. Our world's loka aspect may be said to be the abode of thoughtful and good, normal human beings who, though on the lowest loka, are on the upward, spiritual cycle of evolution. The nether pole or tala aspect is the dwelling place of our gross animal body and our personal self, characterized by instinctive self-interest, self-preservation, and gratification of the senses. So, of two people on the same street one may be, psychologically speaking, in a loka, the other in a tala. We may "shift" from the one to the other. To be in harmony with the universal evolving ecological environment we have to choose the loka-side of the loka-tala duality, because mankind is in its upward half of the evolutionary cycle.

The second and third lokas are said to be inhabited by semidivine beings of great purity and holiness, and by gods of an inferior class. The fourth loka, inhabited by the highest class of gods who have a form, is the sphere of compassion. Of special interest are the gandharvas, the celestial singers or musicians, powers that preside over artistic activities and are skilled in medicine. They are our instructors in the secret sciences and disclose the mysteries of creation, the secrets of heaven and divine truth. Their chief, Narada, leads men to become gods. So these high divine beings, unknown to Western science, are the most essential occult teachers and helpers, guided by compassion.

The fifth loka is the world of the kumaras (virgin youths), born from cosmic mind, who fashioned our higher aspects. Long ago, they incarnated in the unself-conscious human vehicles to awaken mind. From that moment man became a self-conscious thinker who can distinguish between good and evil and choose his own path. This is yet another compassionate link between the higher and the lower. The higher sacrifices itself to help those destined to become thinking beings, awakening mind and therewith the possibility of eventually becoming self-conscious gods. The kumaras are the deep essence of ourselves. The sixth and seventh lokas are the realms of still higher celestial beings.

A developmental phase of human consciousness corresponds to each loka, and a downwards psychological state to each tala. The lokas in sequence represent human beings who become more and more unselfish, lose taste for worldly things, overcome all illusions, and unite with the higher within. The tala side is that of increasing slavery to sensual desire and attachment to matter. In general, the tala-side represents mental development separate from spirituality. Such minds may be highly developed, as in value-free science, where scientists want only material knowledge and show no consideration for the possible outcome of their research.

Many more realms of nature can be recognized than science presently acknowledges: a number of elemental kingdoms below the mineral kingdom, then plants, animals, humans, gandharvas, kumaras, and many more and, at the summit, what are called primordial divine beings. Quite a field of study lies ahead of us, if we wish to understand the whole environment in which we live.

But how does such a complicated story about Hindu lokas and talas save our tropical forests or prevent pollution, wars, and economic disasters? What are the ethical implications? Certainly we should do what we can to prevent and relieve the effects of disasters here and now, but the real cause lies within each of us. It is within us that change has to take place; then the rest comes naturally. This cannot be done overnight but we must think of the long term, the next millennium. To work out a complete ethical system or definite rules of behavior based on the theosophy of the Puranas would simply create new dogmas. But hopefully people of the immediate future will seriously and intuitively study the ancient scriptures, whose teachings originate from denizens of higher lokas, and meditate on their subtle meanings and inherent ethics. Then our growing wisdom will be reflected in our words and actions. Such studies unify philosophy, religion, and science, and within science biology, psychology, theology, and even economics, because economics should be based on an understanding of real nature and not on human greed and selfishness.

Because of the correspondences and attractions of our inner constitution with the multiple realms of nature, everything influences everything else; nothing exists without dependence on all others. This is the real meaning of brotherhood. Even our silent thoughts and feelings influence others and the environment. What we do to ourselves, we do to the whole. If we think and feel materialistically, we will exploit nature for our own selfish ends; if we think and feel spiritually, we will treat every living being with compassion, forgetting our selfish aims, because these are founded on the illusion of separateness. Because we wish happiness for all, as we wish it for ourselves, we will approach all beings with a caring, positive attitude, even those who are in lower evolutionary stages. From this stem the Jain ideas of ahimsa (nonviolence), and anekantavada (respect for opinions that differ from ours -- because no human viewpoint, including our own, can be perfect). If only these two Jain concepts were understood with mind and heart, cruelty, environmental destruction, and wars would cease.

Knowing that humans are but average beings in the universal ecosystem, which includes many superior life forms, engenders humility and respect. Knowing that the divine is present in every creature makes us aware that harming even the most insignificant sentient being means harming the divine and harming our own well-being. It makes a real difference in our approach to life whether we see ourselves as a chance product of animal evolution, or as a helped and guided being, destined to travel an ever upward and inward path which will bring us into communication with the gods and later make us gods ourselves.

Studying and pondering the esoteric meaning of each of these entities, realms of existence, and evolutionary processes will refine our minds and our ethics, and it is my sincere wish that humankind of the next millennium will do so.

(from Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press. Condensed from a paper read at the Parliament of the World's Religions, Chicago, September 1, 1993.)

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