It is often supposed that humans can get what they want from this world provided they are prepared to work hard enough for it—that with our superior intelligence we can win wealth by exploiting the earth’s resources, while animals can only follow their instincts in the struggle for survival. The ability of humans to exploit their environment is presumed somehow to give us rights over animals and nature. This misconception lies at the root of the expansion of human domination of the planet over the past 500 years.
A different concept is taught by the Vedas. This planet and all she produces does not belong to humanity, any more than she belongs to the other species living here. The earth is satisfied when she sees her produce symbolically returned to God, its original source. This principle is taught in the classic Vedic text Isha Upanishad:
His friends were shocked to find that despite the beauty of the cage the poor bird was dying.
Modern society is missing the point of life, like the man who bought a bird in an ornate cage. He wanted a beautiful cage to decorate his home, but he did not care much for the bird. He restored and polished the cage, then proudly displayed it to his friends. But he forgot to feed the bird inside. His friends were shocked to find that despite the beauty of the cage the poor bird was dying.
Despite its extraordinary complexity, today’s way of life is becoming a cage. Although it is a very elaborate, enticing, and fascinating cage, it nonetheless imprisons the human spirit. The bird in the cage is starving.
The civilization of ancient India, called the Vedic civilization, was built on a philosophy that recognized the spirit as the central fact of life. The Vedic philosophy was woven into its literature, and epics such as the Mahabharata, the “great story of old India,” contained within them the essential teachings of the spirit, which gave shape to the daily way of life.
Many of the Vedic teachings have been passed over by Western civilization. One is the theory of reincarnation, which regards the self as an indestructible being that journeys through many bodies and many species, one after another. This view of life does not support a human-centered culture that exploits animals and dominates nature, or that accumulates as much of the world’s resources as it can with only one lifetime in which to do it all. Instead, it values all life-forms as expressions of the spirit and stresses qualities such as patience and compassion. It looks beyond the transience of material pleasures to lasting happiness and fulfillment arising from inner peace and tranquillity.
In the Vedic vision of the world, consciousness pervades the universe and all within it. A human being, an elephant, a cow, birds, ants, trees, mountains, rivers, and the planet earth itself—all are conscious. The sun, moon, and stars shine their consciousness upon us, and conscious beings fill the space between us with their invisible presence.
The splendor of the moon, the stars, the rising sun, the winds, the sky, the vegetation, the animals, birds, rivers, trees, oceans, and mountains together form the beauty of the natural creation. Part of that beauty is called vana vaibhava in Sanskrit. There is no exact equivalent in English for this word, but the nearest term would be “forest splendor.” Human beings are part of this forest splendor and should therefore love and respect it. We are part of it; it gives us our identity and without it we are lost.
The traveler in India soon learns to appreciate the ancient trees that often grow by the wayside. Planting trees and digging wells have traditionally been the two great acts of charity by which anyone could earn merit and universal appreciation. And therefore trees such as mango, neem, or banyan were planted along the roads to give shelter and shade, their leaves acting as natural air conditioners. Beneath their broad canopies generations of wayfarers, stopping for a rest or a meal, have found relief from the heat.
Sadly these big shade trees along the roads are now becoming rare, but wherever they are found they carry with them a brooding sense of magic and history. They stand as silent symbols of India’s spiritual roots, outposts of the vast forests and jungles that once covered the continent, gave shelter to Rama in his years of exile, and echoed with the sound of Krishna’s flute as he herded the cows.
Sages dwelt in these forests, living simple and austere lives in search of spiritual perfection. Living with them beneath the trees were their students, who could learn the Vedic truths in perfect natural surroundings, reminded in a thousand ways of the all-pervading presence of God.
Because they lived in the forest, the early Vedic teachers attached great importance to trees. Beneath a tree was the right place for a disciple to receive spiritual instruction from a guru. The tree was the symbol of patience and tolerance. The sages carefully studied and recorded the herbal and medicinal properties of the forest. Some trees gained special significance, and poems and prayers were composed about them and the spirits dwelling within them.
This tradition of valuing trees led to a subtle ecological relationship between human communities and the forest community of trees, plants, and animals. The basis of this relationship was the recognition of the right of trees, forest-dwelling animals, and plants to live alongside humans, free from exploitation. Human society depended on the forest for survival and prosperity and therefore had to protect it. Furthermore, the forest provided a place of peace and harmony with God where the spiritual goals of life could be pursued by the forest sages.
Originally the land was covered with trees, but as the human population increased, trees were cleared to make way for cultivation. How the land was cleared and the earth cultivated was described long ago in the ancient story of King Prithu, who milked the earth in the form of a cow. He was credited with clearing the forests and establishing the first organized agricultural settlements and townships.
Once some of the original forest was cleared, however, Vedic culture required that another kind of forest be established in its place. To completely remove the forest was simply not acceptable. It was the source of natural wealth such as fodder, timber, roots, and herbs. Moreover, the trees guaranteed the fertility of the soil and purified the air and water.
Therefore the villages each preserved sections of forest for their own specific needs. These forests were different from the mahavan, the wild forest or jungle, because they were open for exploitation and harvesting according to strictly ecological practices. This kind of forest was called shrivan, which literally means “forest of wealth”—they were the basis of the community’s prosperity. Each village was responsible through its panchayat, or committee of five elders, for maintaining the forests in its own locality. No village would be complete without its corresponding woodlands in and around its houses.
The shrivan could be in the form of groves of a particular kind of tree, such as the mango. Many such groves were given to the temples in the distant past and kept up for countless generations. They served many uses, providing fruits, flowers, timber products, and shelter for grazing cows. Such sacred groves still survive in some places today as a reminder of the old system. They are often the only surviving areas of mature woodland in otherwise denuded surroundings and provide both humans and wildlife with a refuge from the encroaching development of housing, roads, modern agriculture, and factories.
The third category of forest is tapovan, the home of the sages. This kind of forest is natural and untended, but is specifically set aside as a place for spiritual practice. Why should a forest be required for spiritual practice? The answer is found in the meaning of the name tapovan: tapa means “penance” and vana means “forest.” The life of a rishi, a holy person, is meant to be one of self-control and penance through diet, simple living, renunciation of belongings, and meditation. The rishi requires a place apart from the bustle and passion of worldly life, a place pervaded with the presence of God—this is the tapovan, the forest of penance. If one wants to meet with such advanced souls, one has to go to a forest where there are ashrams or hermitages. Many stories in the Vedic literature tell of encounters between worldly persons and sages in their forest ashrams. From this profoundly natural setting emerged the Vedic teachings of the Upanishads, such as the Brihadaranyaka, whose title literally means “the teaching that began in the forest.”
The presence of sages also guarantees the protection of the forest. No animal or tree can be harmed near where such persons live. In Vedic times, even kings who violated the sanctity of the area by hunting could be punished. Even now, the mere presence of a holy person can sometimes ensure the safety of all around, but today it is mostly necessary to establish such sanctuaries by force of law and keep them under constant guard against poachers and vandals.
Between the villages there would also be forest sanctuaries, called raksha. These would be left entirely to themselves—no human would enter them—as a sanctuary for wildlife. If a bird had made a nest on a tree branch, the entry of a single person could disturb its habitat. Therefore this small forest would be completely protected from human disturbances. During the daytime the birds and animals would go into the village or wherever they wished, but could return safely to their habitat at night. All of them living in that patch would feel quite safe.
Another essential part of the traditional village ecology is the water tank, or reservoir of rainwater. These tanks vary in size from small ponds to large lakes of up to four acres, excavated to a depth of twenty feet or more, with steps built into their sides for access. They are situated in natural depressions in the ground, where they can best receive the surface rainwater. Most tanks contain one to four boreholes, depending on the tank’s size, to feed surplus rainwater down to the underlying groundwater. In this way every year the abundance of monsoon rain is captured and the groundwater replenished to ensure a constant supply of sweet water.
In the past these tanks were constructed or restored by wealthy benefactors, particularly in sacred pilgrimage places such as Vrindavan. They would sometimes be embellished with beautiful stonework and pavilions to give shade and resting places to pilgrims who would come to bathe in their waters. Many of these tanks have sacred associations with events in the lives of great saints or avatars. Frequently they have histories going back thousands of years.
To protect the water tank, a surrounding grove of trees would be maintained. The trees would capture rainfall, allowing it to drain into the reservoir or percolate into the ground without evaporating in the summer heat. The trees would also provide shelter for animals and humans, and separate the all-important water source from surrounding activity, ensuring its cleanliness and security. These groves, with the water they enclosed, would often be regarded as sanctuaries and places of religious significance.
Instead of following the laws of nature, however, we have developed a civilization based on the pursuit of material pleasure. Nature’s way is that pleasure is hard to come by, while suffering is plentiful: we are born to experience birth, disease, old age, and death. Yet the modern hope is that the further we can roll back these obstacles, the closer we will come to the peace and happiness we yearn for. We are doing our best to overcome nature, which means to consume more and pay less. But this increasing consumption cannot go on forever, for when the balance of nature is upset, nobody knows where the consequences may lead. It is a dangerous and insecure enterprise, and it is eating up the planet.
When we take more than we need of nature’s gifts, unfairly exploit others, and offer nothing in return, we become thieves.
On the other hand, if we treat the planet with care and take only our fair share of her produce, while leaving others their share, and recognize that all ultimately belongs to God, the planet will provide for our needs. When we take more than we need of nature’s gifts, unfairly exploit others, and offer nothing in return, we become thieves.
A simple cobbler once taught a profound lesson to the sage Narada, the personal messenger of Vishnu. The cobbler worked hard to support his wife and children and was devoted to Vishnu, the Lord of Creation. He lived beneath the shelter of an ancient banyan tree. Its massive central trunk was surrounded by smaller trunks that hung down from the branches to put out fresh roots. The tree was like a small forest.
One day, as the cobbler worked in the shade of the tree, Narada came to visit him. The cobbler was happy to receive such an honorable guest. After humbly welcoming him to his home, he asked Narada if he had recently spoken with Lord Vishnu.
“Yes,” replied Narada, “I have just been with him, and he has sent me to see you.”
“Why did Vishnu want you to see me?” asked the cobbler in amazement.
“He said you would have a question.”
In confusion the cobbler asked the first question that came into his head.
“What was Vishnu doing when you saw him?”
Now Vishnu knew the mind of the cobbler, for he dwells in the hearts of all beings and knows them better than they know themselves. He knew this was what the cobbler would ask. Wanting to teach Narada a lesson, he had told him how to answer.
“Lord Vishnu was threading an elephant through the eye of a needle,” came Narada’s answer, just as Vishnu had instructed him.
The cobbler thought for a moment. “Well, only Vishnu could do that.”
“Do you really believe me?” Narada smiled at the cobbler’s simplicity. “Don’t you think that would be impossible?”
“For Vishnu, nothing is impossible,” replied the cobbler. “Look at this world: it is full of Vishnu’s miracles. He makes the sun rise each day and the moon shine at night. He makes the winds blow, clouds float in the sky, and rivers run to the sea.”
He bent to the ground and picked up a seed from beneath the banyan tree.
“Inside this seed is a banyan tree as big as the one it came from. It’s just waiting to come out. If Vishnu can put a whole banyan tree into a tiny seed, he can certainly thread an elephant through the eye of a needle.”
Narada heard the cobbler’s words and realized he was indeed wise, because he could see in everything the presence of God. Although he was a simple man, he knew that just as the banyan tree is contained within the seed, so Vishnu is contained within all of his creation.
The cobbler had the sense of wonder at his environment that we in this age of technology have lost. He could still be surprised at what he saw. Most of us no longer wonder at the common everyday things of this world like the banyan tree seed. We don’t see that they are miracles. Although we might be able to explain in scientific terms how a seed produces a tree, we would still not understand what the cobbler understood, namely the divine presence within the tree and its seed. No matter how believable an explanation science can give for the workings of nature, it will always be incomplete because it cannot explain the truth behind it. It may tell us the mechanics of how, but it cannot tell us the significance of why.
All of life, from the universe as a whole down to the individual trees and seeds, every living creature and the very earth beneath our feet, expresses the inspiration of the souls that dwell within it and ultimately of the Great Composer whose creation it is.
Nature is a symphony played on many instruments, following complex patterns of harmony. We can learn about the instruments and their arrangements of harmonies, but that is not the same as simply appreciating the beauty of the music, or feeling the inspiration being expressed by its composer. All of life, from the universe as a whole down to the individual trees and seeds, every living creature and the very earth beneath our feet, expresses the inspiration of the souls that dwell within it and ultimately of the Great Composer whose creation it is.
If we can understand the divine purpose that animates the world, we will know how we are to live in it and how best to use it. Scientific knowledge has advanced in many fields in the last 200 years, making it possible for us to manipulate nature and produce material benefits our predecessors could not have dreamed of. However, the Vedic scriptures advise that knowledge of matter, namely science, must be cultivated alongside knowledge of spirit if it is to benefit humanity.
The cobbler lived beneath a tree. Now that we have left the trees far behind, perhaps we are ready to learn again what he—and we—once knew. Only this time, in the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
The golden rule of economics has always been: what you take must be returned and whatever you return shall again come back to you. But once the process of production and its technology are removed from the immediate community, it becomes very difficult to sustain this balance, or even to recognize where it might lie. For example, if I cut a tree for fuel, I can plant another one, or better still five more, and in due course I will reap the benefit of my foresight. But how can I know the environmental cost of the energy I consume when it is generated in a huge and distant power station, and how am I to keep my side of the environmental balance, restoring whatever has been taken? I have lost control, and more importantly, I have lost the sense of responsibility—it seems no longer my concern to maintain that balance.
The golden rule of economics has always been: what you take must be returned and whatever you return shall again come back to you.
So it is not surprising that humanity has now arrived at a point where we are taking more than we are returning. Or worse still, we are taking goodness from the earth and returning poison; and, as a consequence, we are receiving that very same poison back from the earth.
If we are to resolve the environmental problems that now beset us, we must examine the connection between our environment and our way of life. A way of life does not exist in a vacuum. It is based on a way of thinking, a philosophy of life.
Excerpted from Vedic Ecology: Practical Wisdom for Surviving the 21st Century (Mandala Publishing, 2002). To order or receive a free catalog, visit or call 800-688-2218.