Dharma as a spiritual practice that can maybe save the planet
I. Separation and underlying unity
The world, the universe, reality, can be said to exist both in diversity and in unity. In diversity it exists as a conglomeration of separate semi-autonomous parts. These semi-autonomous parts are governed by laws of self-preservation. But ultimately they depend upon and are absorbed back into the underlying unity from which they have arisen. The universe of things is intimately connected – no thing exists independently. It is joined not only by what we think of as physical “laws” that govern the way in which the parts interact with each other (gravity, magnetism, etc.) but also at a deeper level, in that all of these “things” are manifestations of the same underlying field of existence/consciousness. Each “thing” is not a partial but, in its essence, a full expression of the underlying field.1 This underlying field is what gives rise to the universe of things in the first place; the universe depends upon it for its existence.
As members of this universe of parts we cannot directly comprehend the underlying unity while simultaneously seeing ourselves and the world as autonomous independent beings. We either see the forest or the trees. However, seeing the one without seeing the other makes our vision of the world incomplete and therefore mistaken, and this has consequences for the way that we relate to our fellow beings, for our behaviour in and towards the world.
Our wrong vision of the world is based on:
a. The basic semi-autonomy of every member of the universe, and the inherent instinct of every individual for self-preservation. In humans, as in other creatures, this manifests as basic drives to satisfy hunger, protect oneself from danger, reproduce, etc.2
b. Extensions based on this semi-autonomy. Thinking of ourselves as existing independently, as separate entities, we adhere to responsibilities towards children, parents, our community, etc. and find a necessity to compete against others for our survival. For our survival and well being, we try to gather around us persons and things, which we must then defend.
Our wrong vision of the world leads to:
a. The inability to see the underlying unity (because we are duped by our conception of the world in terms of division and separation).
b. Seeing the world through a filter and prioritizing action. For the sake of convenience we draw a separation between ourselves and the universe, and distinguish the universe into separate parts. Conceptually we draw distinctions between what is important and less important, what is real and what is false, etc. Out of the myriad objects, the myriad interactions between them, and the events and causalities in space and time, we identify what is important to us in terms of our limited world view and the need to defend ourselves and compete. Our wrong vision is therefore self-supporting and self-confirming; our egoistic vision builds upon itself and further conditions us. Our conditioning further blinds us to underlying harmony, unifying love and laws of cooperation upon which the holistic systems of our biosphere depend.
c. Rivalry, conflict, warfare. Whereas the universe actually depends upon an underlying unity and the symbiosis and mutual cooperation of everything that manifests within this unity, an inability to see this unity leads us into competition, rivalry and conflict.
d. Increasing levels of destruction of our biosphere. Whereas the universe depends on the underlying unity and coexistence of everything in it, a world-view that insists on self-autonomy and perceived separation, eventually brings about the destruction of the elements that it needs for its own existence. Whereas a vision of underlying unity enables a self-sustaining harmony, a vision of separation leads to ultimate destruction. Although in an earlier age it was possible to continue without seeing this, in our Anthropocene age, in which the world is becoming unlivable for the creatures that live within it, in which a tenth of all species in currently facing imminent extinction, it is now possible to see the final consequences of our wrong vision and resultant wrong action. We can now understand that without a radical revision of our actions, based on correct vision, we will be unable to continue.
Overcoming wrong vision
Because we see the world as a subject – object reality, in which we, as subject, exist in a world of other beings or things, we are unable to see the unitary whole upon which the perceived world depends. However, not being able to see the unitary whole does not imply that this does not exist. It also does not mean that we are unable to sense its existence, based on all that we see. In the same way, astronomers can predict the existence of an unseen celestial body by measuring its effects upon other bodies that can be seen. Some scientists, based on their observations, have come to the conclusion that the universe is conscious, or constructed of consciousness. Ordinary perception of the world can lead to the understanding that it is controlled by laws that spring from an underlying unity. The more that we learn about nature and our biosphere, the more we understand that it expresses an inherent harmony and equilibrium. Without this, the world would not be able to exist or continue. The biosphere is threatened when these laws are not respected.
The role of mysticism
In an earlier age, it was more difficult to identify the cause of our misery as a consequence of wrong vision. It was less easy to grasp this rationally because the end result, which we can now see clearly, was not so obvious. Such a conclusion was however reached through the intuition of mystics and sages, through meditation and samadhi. Intuited understanding is difficult to conceptualize intellectually or express verbally and, when it is expressed, often leads to contradictory expressions in various theories and schools of thought. This has resulted in the various darshanas of Indian philosophy, various schools of Buddhism, and similarly contradictory expressions among Islamic, Christian and other mystics, etc. There is no consensus on whether reality consists solely of pure consciousness, the void, is in a relationship of subservience to divine will, etc. However, there is an underlying agreement that our everyday perception of the world is in error and that selfish, unprincipled, egoistic behaviour is destructive. There is further consensus that action should be non-selfish, as expressed in the injunction to “love thy neighbour/companion as our self”.
The mystic vision of sages and the founders of the our religions has been expressed variously through scriptures that carry the injunction towards virtuous and altruistic action. If our actions were truly based on these agreements, we would exist in a state of harmony between each other and our world. However, this is not the case.
The mystics who gave expression to these scriptures had an intuited, integral vision. An integral vision, i.e, one that is not simply rational or intellectual, transforms one’s world in such a way as to produce a harmony at all levels of one’s being. It governs our behaviour and informs one’s actions in a way that a merely rational or intellectual understanding fails to do. There is no question of being at odds with one’s vision because any will to act in a way that contradicts it disappears.
From integral vision to religion
When we comprehend a thing rationally or intellectually, or try to obey religious injunctions out of belief, we introduce the possibility of inner conflict. Our conscience may tell us one thing, but our desires and cravings have a life of their own. So either our actions will be imperfect, or we will fail totally. Our actions may result in partial compliance, non-compliance, hypocrisy, lip-service or repressive behaviour that results in mental aberrations or maladies.
Religions, ethical codes, human laws, have largely failed in their mission to keep egoistic behaviour at bay, create peaceful societies, prevent wars, or create a sustainable future for humankind and our fellow creatures.
Self realisation as a way to effect change
Because of the failure of religions to effect real change, some thinkers have come to the conclusion that there will be no real transformation unless individuals can attain to the same integral and intuitive realization as that of the saints and sages and founders of the religions.
There are several problems with this aspiration.
a. It is impractical to hope that, in the conceivable future, a large mass of people will attain an integral vision that comprehends the underlying unity. The obstacles are great, as is proved by the small number of people who have been able to attain this throughout history. Even with good intentions and diligence, it seems that such a true realization is exceedingly uncommon.
b. There appear to be issues with the attainment of the unitary vision itself. Some who have been able to comprehend the underlying unity have afterwards been unable to function in the real world. Traditional brahmanic scriptures themselves have proclaimed that those who attain to the state of nirvikalpa samadhi die quickly.3 Those who do go on living may embrace a monist vision that upholds the underlying unity, while declaring the “world of things” to be unreal and invalid. Whereas previously they were unable to see the forest for the trees, they are now unable to see the trees for the forest. A real transformation of the human condition requires the ability to see the world in its diversity as well as in its underlying unity.4
c. The unitary vision is not a communicable experience at all. This is reflected in the contradictions in the way that the various sages have described or extrapolated from their experience. It is also reflected in the refusal by many sages to discuss their experience. It is therefore not practical to expect that any individual realisation will lead to real change at the level that is required to transform our plight.
d. There is real urgency to our problem. We are creating untenable conditions for our continued existence on the planet. We are destroying our biosphere. We are setting the ground for multiple disasters as competition over basic resources like water, land, food and air will grow acute to the point of open warfare. We are not even aware of the multiple ways in which pollution, destruction of habitat, climate change, depletion of resources, overpopulation, etc. will interact. Although we know that disaster is looming, we are unable to reverse or even mitigate the practices that lead to it. Our failure to act is a result of our wrong vision.
The failure of human laws to create a peaceful world and sustainable future
The laws that govern the universe of things are themselves the manifestation of the unitary existence-consciousness that underlies reality. These laws govern the way the manifest universe interacts with itself. They are based both on the need and tendency of the individual for self-preservation and upon the underlying cooperation and bonding between individual and individual within the universal whole. In eastern philosophies there is the view that the universe functions according to an overarching law of dharma, and within it each individual operates according to his own prescribed dharma within this macrocosmic reality.
Our understanding of the laws that govern the universe is imperfect and this imperfect understanding, often first expressed in religious scriptures, lies at the basis of our human laws. In codifying the laws that govern us, we have tried to mimic cosmic laws, both in the attempt to safeguard the rights of the individual and in the attempt to create harmony between individuals, in society and in the world.
Though the law books are the outward expression of our original attempt to mimic laws that govern the universe, we are also guided by a personal moral compass. This is based on learned behaviour with regard to societal norms, codes of morality received through education and an inner voice which we call conscience. Our behaviour is therefore affected by the fear of punishment through our legal systems, by the wish not to transgress societal norms learned through education, and by our inner voice. Yet none of these have been enough to create peace with our neighbours and fellow beings nor a sustainable future for humankind.
Dharma as a training and a sadhana
We cannot, with the best intentions, create a sustainable future while viewing the world through the lens of our egoism. If we obey laws because we fear punishment, or obey unwritten rules based on the fear of being ostracized from our society, or act according to a wish not to feel ashamed of ourselves, we are still acting within the field of our egoism. We cannot transform our relationship with the world unless we are able to transform our wrong vision. Transformation won’t come about through the fear of punishment but only through a positive sense of participation, cooperation, empathy and love. As seen in Buddhism, and sometimes in other paths like yoga, the practice of dharma is a training or a teaching, towards an intuitive and integral understanding of oneness, rather than a cultivation of obedience to ethical prescriptions and injunctions. Practiced in this way, dharma, such as the five precepts (pañcasila) noble eightfold path of the Buddha, or the yamas and niyamas at the basis of Patanjali’s system of raja yoga, becomes a form of sadhana (spiritual discipline).
Dharma as a tool for transformation
The practice of dharmic sadhana gives us the opportunity to change our relationship with our fellow beings and the world from a state of competition to a state of cooperation and equal participation. This depends not only upon good intentions but the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Interaction with our fellow beings is not simply a matter of following what is lawful, socially acceptable or even unconscionable, but a matter of acquiring skills such as nonviolent communication, the ability to listen and interpret the subtle signs expressed by others, as well as empathy. Environmentally sustainable practices requires a knowledge of how to choose the least damaging or most beneficial course of action, based on science, economics, mechanics, and whatever else is relevant to the case. Living as a good citizen of the 21st century requires awareness and knowledge.
The value of following a practice of dharma as a sadhana is that it provides the only response that can be helpful in the critical stage that we have reached. The situation in the world requires immediate action that is based on the acknowledgment of the underlying unity of all things, because our wrong vision of division has created the problem we now face. Dharma means, among other things, the performance of effective action that is based on correct vision. This is exactly what we need, and basically the only thing that can save us.
This article reasons that our view of the universe as divided into separate objects is flawed in that it fails to acknowledge a fundamental unity. It states that it is this wrong vision that has led to the current crisis we are facing. It casts doubt on claims that the situation can be be changed through solely personal transformation and suggests the practice of dharma as a more practical method of tackling our problems and transforming the world. It claims that the practice of dharma is also a sadhana, i.e. a means to gaining an integral understanding that the “world of things” depends upon underlying unity.
- purnam adah, purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate; purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate (Brihadaranyaka Upanisad 5.1.1) ↩︎
- It is sometimes stated that our basic instincts themselves correspond to our threefold inner nature (described in philosophies that derive from the Upanisads as existence (sat), knowledge (chit), bliss (ananda): That our desire for self-preservation and long life is an expression of sat. That our unquenchable thirst for knowledge is an expression of chit, and that our unsatisfiable lust for enjoyment is an expression of ananda. ↩︎
- Sri Ramakrishna said the one who attains to this state leaves his body after 21 days. (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna). ↩︎
- See “The Eternal and the Individual”, Chapter 3, The Life Divine, by Sri Aurobindo and elsewhere. ↩︎