There are still thousands of villages in India that are as yet untouched by the complexities and comforts of modern civilization. Here people live simply, farming, raising cattle, and practicing the same trades their ancestors practiced—working as carpenters, blacksmiths, washermen, barbers, cobblers, tailors, ropemakers, potters, and fishermen. I was born in one such village and raised on the plains of northern India. I grew up in a world that was lighted only by sunlight, moonlight, and firelight, a world governed by the rhythms of nature—the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the slow turning of the seasons. But it was not until my life in the village had become a childhood memory that I realized it had been shaped by the vision of the sages.
Our village had the only primary school in a ten-mile radius, so it drew hundreds of children. The small building housed an office and one classroom, which was reserved for fifth-graders. The rest of us had our lessons under the surrounding trees. After fifth grade we went to a middle school in a village three miles away, but we considered ourselves lucky—some of the students had to travel fifteen miles to get there.
School was where we learned to read and write and work with numbers and where we heard about such exotic inventions as electricity, telegraphs, and telephones. But we learned how to behave and formed our concepts of virtue and sin—and of gods and demons—in the course of village life.
None of what we knew about the causes of disease had anything to do with the principles of modern science. We learned that killing frogs would cause an earache, for example, and we were certain that anyone who eavesdropped would be reborn as a bat. We called ladybugs Rama ki Ghodi, “the mares of Rama,” because it was from the back of these tiny creatures that Lord Rama inspected and nourished our crops, and we knew that harming them was self-destructive and offensive to God. We were convinced that a ghost lived in the eye of the small, powerful dust devils that swirled across the countryside in the dry season, and we knew that tucking an onion in our pockets would protect us from being possessed by these ghosts. But if the dust devil was exceptionally strong, the ghost might prove more powerful than the onion. The symptoms of possession—thirst and feeling hot—were unmistakable. I was possessed more than once, but I knew how to exorcise the demon: wash my hands and feet and recite a prayer to the mighty god Hanuman before taking a drink or eating anything.
These were facts of life—as real to me as the ground beneath my feet. Even when I was quite young I never sat with my feet pointed toward the fire, because I knew it was a sin. Spitting, urinating, or throwing garbage in fire or water was a spiritual offense, and so was selling either fire or water. It was a sin to turn away a stranger stopping at your door in the evening, and no one ever ate before an invited guest began eating.
In our village, as in all of rural India, the economy operated on the jajamani system, in which every family in the village is a “client” of all other families. We all worked for each other, and remuneration for all labor was in the form of an exchange of goods and services. (Money was scarce, and scarcely needed.) The washermen collected and laundered the clothes of the entire village, and in return collected pots from the potters, rope from the ropemakers, hay and grain from the farmers; they got their hair cut by the barbers and their clothes stitched by the tailors. Our family owned some land, and by observing how my parents treated the barbers, washermen, cobblers, and others who performed services for us, I understood that giving these people less than their fair share of hay and grain was a sin.
In the interval between harvest and planting, anyone’s livestock could graze in our grain fields and those of the other landowners. The same was true of vegetable patches—the owner took only what he needed and when he declared himself finished with his harvest, anyone could come and take what remained. When all the vegetables were harvested, cattle and goats ate the plants. Thus nothing was wasted, and at certain times of the year all the land around the village was open pasture.
The same attitude applied to fruit trees. We all understood that the person who owned the land where the tree grew was the only one entitled to pluck fruit from its branches, but anyone—even a passing stranger—was entitled to fruit that had fallen. (Shaking the tree to make fruit fall was theft.) Once I heard someone tell my father that a landowner had prevented other villagers from picking up fruit that had fallen from the trees on his land. “How low of him,” my father remarked. “This is one more proof that the kali yuga [the dark age] is in full swing.”
In the realm of personal behavior, separating yourself from your aging parents and failing to take care of them in their old age was an unthinkable disgrace. Sleeping after sunrise and failing to light the lamps at dusk were spiritual offenses. A teacher who did not pass on his knowledge to the next generation would remain unembodied after death. Using wind and light as a locus for his consciousness, such a teacher would become a brahma rakshasa and suffer regret, hunger, and thirst until the bad karma incurred by his negligence was exhausted.
There were many actions we all regarded as especially virtuous. Chief among them was planting trees, tending them, and renouncing all claim to them when they began to bear fruit. Thus the roads were lined with trees that gave fruit and shade to us all. We understood that the fruit from these trees could be plucked only when it was ripe—taking unripe fruit was stealing. Cutting down one of these trees—or indeed any tree growing on public land—was a sin so grave that it carried the taint of murder.
The villagers associated lack of progeny with bad karma and believed that performing virtuous deeds, such as digging a pond for the use of the entire village, would wipe that karma away. A woman could enhance her chances of conceiving by planting banana trees, watering them daily, and watching them blossom. Building bridges across streams and rivers would strengthen the bond between wife and husband. Future troubles could be averted by building a doorless shelter on the roadside for travelers. Digging a well and offering the water to anyone who came ensured that you would never suffer from thirst.
In village life, almost every useful plant is believed to have some sort of association with the divine realm. My mother worshipped the neem tree because, like her neighbors, she saw it as the abode of the Divine Mother. We all revered the ashoka tree because Mother Sita had lived under just such a tree for ten months. We knew the pipal tree as the home of Shiva and revered the bilva tree because Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, lived there. We knew that the tulsi plant is always accompanied by Lord Vishnu; keeping one in the courtyard guaranteed Lord Vishnu’s presence in your home. Durva grass is favored by Ganesha. Sugarcane is the direct manifestation of Sri, the goddess of beauty and bliss, whose favorite flower is the aparajita. Palasha is the tree of Agni, the fire god, and the banyan is the tree of Krishna himself. Destroying or threatening any of them would offend the gods, and no religious ceremony was complete unless the leaves, the flowers, or the fruits of one or more of these plants were incorporated into the ritual.
In village life, almost every useful plant is believed to have some sort of association with the divine realm.
Each of life’s transitions—sacred or mundane—was marked by ritual ceremonies. Conception, childbirth, naming a child, the child’s first haircut, the first bite of solid food, the first day of school, marriage, death, the funeral, and post-funeral rites all had their own ritual. Each day of the full moon and of the new moon was dedicated to worshipping the god of protection and nourishment. In addition, those people wishing to lead a virtuous life performed specific rituals on certain days of the week. For example, they worshipped the sun god on Sunday, Shiva on Monday, Hanuman on Tuesday, the spiritual teacher on Thursday, and the Divine Mother on Friday. Then there were special days—such as Diwali (the festival of lights), Holi (the festival of colors), Navaratri (nine days dedicated to the Divine Mother)—which the villagers celebrated with grand rituals. There were also special days dedicated to honoring the plant and animal kingdom, such as Naga Panchani, honoring snakes (the fifth day of the waning moon in August), and Vata Savitri, honoring the banyan tree (the day of the new moon in early summer).
All of these rituals centered around the fire offering. We could compensate for failure to perform the obligatory practices or any shortcomings (known or unknown) in our performance of the rituals simply by performing the fire offering portion of the ritual. Many of the villagers did not know the meaning and purpose of the fire offering; they made it because it was their custom—their fathers and their forefathers had done it before them. But they all believed that fire is the mouth of God and whatever is offered into the fire reaches God. Every family tried to make at least three oblations to the fire each day. Chapatis (unleavened bread) were a staple of life, and the first one was always offered to the flames over which it was cooked. Those villagers who were especially devout also offered raw sugar and clarified butter into the fire each day.
The Web of Life
While I was growing up it never occurred to me that these were religious practices—they were simply part of everyday life. When I was twelve I joined a traditional Sanskrit school and began to study the scriptures. There I learned that certain customs and rituals are more important than others. I began to believe that if I observed those customs and performed those rituals I would become a better person and that worldly and spiritual prosperity would be mine. I also came to believe that if I did not perform them, I would be abandoned by the benevolent forces. I admired my Sanskrit teachers, who were deeply devoted to rituals, and their company fueled my conviction that I too should perform these rituals. But later, when I went to the University of Allahabad and began taking courses in social science, ethics, anthropology, and the history of philosophy, my attitude toward these customs and ritualistic practices changed. I began to regard them as silly and to believe that the villagers observed them only because they were backward, illiterate, and superstitious.
Then I met Swami Sadananda, a saint who in a mysterious way restored my respect for the web of rituals that governed village life. Though he lived simply, he was intelligent and highly educated, an expert in ayurveda, astrology, and all systems of Indian philosophy. He was also an unmatched scholar of Sanskrit and well-versed in the scriptures. And he was known for his miraculous healing powers.
One morning I arrived at his ashram to find him in the company of a man who suffered from epileptic fits so frequent and severe that someone always had to accompany him. After a short conversation Swami Sadananda gave this man a powder that looked like ash and told him to take it as a medicine. Then he instructed him to feed cracked wheat and other grains to wild birds before eating the first meal of the day.
When the man and his companion left I said, “I understand the value of taking medicine, but why does he have to feed the birds?” “You should watch,” Swami Sadananda replied. “When he is cured I will explain.”
For three days the man went hungry because the birds would not eat the grain he scattered for them. Finally on the fourth day they ate the grain, and the man too could eat. It became his routine to feed the birds before starting his day, and within a month his fits came less frequently; within six months they vanished. When I asked Swami Sadananda to explain he said, “Birds are part of nature. Their relationship with humans is not contaminated by selfishness and expectation. Serving them is serving nature, the repository of all our karmas.”
I did not understand how curing epilepsy had anything to do with feeding birds, and told him so. “You are unable to grasp this because you don’t understand the spiritual aspect of the planet’s ecology,” Swami Sadananda replied. “The earth is one living organism. Here everything in the web of life is interconnected. Our health and happiness are not separate from the health and happiness of others. Similarly, the world within us and the world outside us are interconnected. What happens in the outer world affects our inner life; our inner life affects the outer world. Everything within and without is part of the collective consciousness that pervades both the manifest and unmanifest aspects of creation. And if the collective consciousness is undernourished, then our individual consciousness becomes sick. If we are to be healthy and lead harmonious lives, nature’s forces must be healthy and harmonious, for we are an integral part of nature. To cure this man of epilepsy, I used feeding the birds as a means of propitiating the collective consciousness that supplies healing energy to all individuals.”
Then, after pausing for a moment, he said, “You are not yet satisfied with my explanation. You are a Sanskrit student. Study the Vedic and tantric scriptures properly and you will develop a better understanding of yourself and the world in which you live.”
I had already read many of the scriptures Swami Sadananda was recommending and had found them to be a collection of prayers and mantras for ritual worship. But after this encounter I began to read them with a different intention and a new attitude. To broaden my understanding of the scriptures, I studied Hindi texts on Vedic and tantric mythology. I was particularly intrigued by the Hindi translation of the book Vedic Mythology by A. A. McDonald. An eminent twentieth-century Indologist, McDonald described the place of each particular god in the Vedic pantheon. According to him the people of ancient India were polytheists and worshipped a host of gods, each of which presides over a different aspect of nature. For example, Indra presides over rain, Varuna rules the ocean, and Vishnu presides over the three worlds—earth, heaven, and the space in between.
But when I discussed these ideas with Swami Sadananda, he said bluntly, “This is a Western interpretation. The god Indra does not preside over the rain—rain itself is the god. The word for ‘god’ in the Vedas is deva, which means ‘shining or bright being, one who is loving and compassionate, one who is constantly giving, serving, protecting, and nourishing all creation.’ Life on earth depends on rain, therefore rain is deva. Further, rain is central to life, therefore rain is the central deva. All other forms of nourishment are secondary to rain, which is why Indra is the king of the gods. The actual, physical form of rain is the body of god, and the dynamic forces that act together to bring the rain form the spirit of that god. The entire universe is the body of the Absolute Divine Being, known in the scriptures as Virat, the cosmic being. Different aspects of nature are the limbs and organs of that cosmic being. Everything in this world—big or small—is an extension of one cosmic being.”
This explanation helped me understand why the ancient sages called earth, water, fire, air, sky, sun, moon, stars, day, night, lightning, clouds, mountains, ocean, rivers, and forests “deva.” These sages had a very simple definition of god: one who illuminates our path and enables us to complete the journey of life. We cannot survive without food, they realized, therefore food is deva. We cannot complete the journey of life without water or air, therefore these forces of nature are deva. There would be no light on earth without the light of the sun, therefore the sun is deva. There is a perfect symbiotic relationship between plants, insects, birds, animals, and humans because all are an integral part of the web of life.
These sages had a very simple definition of god: one who illuminates our path and enables us to complete the journey of life.
One day I happened across a group of mantras in the Vedas known as Manduka Sukta (“The Mantras Dedicated to the Frog Gods”). Here my academic mind balked—I refused to accept frogs as gods. I told Swami Sadananda, “It’s too much. If frogs can be gods, then tell me who or what is not a god?”
“Why? Is your ego being hurt?” he asked with a smile. “If you don’t see the divine in frogs as well as in yourself, is it the frog’s problem, or your problem?
“You can easily understand how frogs are closely connected to the water in the pond, but you may not be able to discern how they are connected to the rain cycle. When drought threatens, villagers perform a ceremonial frog dance to awaken the hibernating frogs. You may have seen this in your own village. It works like this: groups of boys roll, hop, and croak like frogs while the adults throw water on them. Drenching the boys makes the ground muddy. While this is going on, the women sing songs asking the frogs to awaken and invite the rainclouds. The moisture in the soil brings a few frogs out of hibernation and they begin to croak, thus inviting the clouds.”
Then Swami Sadananda went on to speak of other animals and their role in maintaining the balance of nature. For example, he explained the role of jackals in the removal of epidemic diseases. Jackals normally howl at night, and these nocturnal outpourings cleanse and nourish the atmosphere. (I remembered being told as a child that if jackals emit a frantic cry and these cries are heard in the daytime, an epidemic is on its way.) According to Swami Sadananda, the mere presence of jackals emits healing energy, which is why in Sanskrit female jackals are called “Shivaa” (the Divine Mother in the feminine form of Shiva).
Listening to this wise saint, I understood why the Vedic and tantric scriptures describe hundreds of animals and plants as gods living on earth. I realized that the sages were not polytheistic and they were not animists, as many academics believe. Their vision of reality was all-inclusive. They saw only one reality manifesting in all forms. For them, no walls separated matter from energy, sentient from insentient. In their vision nothing was inorganic—everything was saturated with life. They saw creation operating on one principle: giving, serving, sacrificing. They saw every aspect of nature offering itself in the service of other aspects. Their word for this was yajña. They based their codes of conduct, social values, cultural activities, religious practices, and spiritual disciplines on this vision of yajña, this truth of giving, serving, sacrificing. The best forms of yajña are those that serve creation on the largest scale and whose effects are long-lasting. Helping nature maintain its harmonious balance is the best way to serve creation.
The philosophy of advaita, non-dualism—which proclaims that everything has evolved from the Divine Being, exists in the Divine Being, and is pervaded and nourished by the Divine Being—grew out of the vision of the sages. Everything that exists is a means for gaining experience of the Divine. Damaging any aspect of creation is hurting God. Polluting the building blocks of creation—earth, air, water, fire, and space—is the most serious of all spiritual offenses; contributing to cleansing and nourishing these elements is the highest form of worship.
Life in the world depends on food, and the food chain depends on the rain, which in turn depends on the vitality of the clouds. The vitality of the clouds depends on the health of the entire atmosphere, which is compromised by pollution rising from the earth [see sidebar]. The fire offering is a powerful means of cleansing and nourishing the atmosphere, and thereby nourishing every link in the food chain. That is why the sages called fire “agni deva.” Agni means “the one who leads, guides, illuminates” and deva means “shining being.”
In the fire ritual, the ingredients offered to the fire are detoxifying and nourishing. Fire transforms them into subtle energy. The power of mantra carries that energy to its intended destination. The action of the fire, the healing and nourishing properties of the offerings, the intelligent energy of the mantra, and the intention of the person performing the fire ritual—all these together bring fresh life to nature’s forces. Nature is intelligent and knows how to reward those who so lovingly and sincerely are trying to contribute to a higher cause. That is how, by serving nature, we rejoice in nature’s bounty.
The respect for life in all its forms, the seeing of divinity in trees and plants, the custom of sharing the land and its fruits, the unspoken assumption that the entire village is one organism—all are forms of yajña.
The sages also knew that sloth, inertia, and carelessness are part of human nature, and that humans use their free will to exploit nature—hurting themselves in the process. Therefore they simplified the sublime and intricate system of yajña, and gently incorporated it into daily life. Villagers may or may not be aware of the source of their customs, social values, cultural activities, religious practices, and spiritual disciplines, but in observing these time-honored traditions they are continually performing yajña. The respect for life in all its forms, the seeing of divinity in trees and plants, the custom of sharing the land and its fruits, the unspoken assumption that the entire village is one organism—all are forms of yajña. In retrospect I see that the natural rhythm of life in the village of my childhood was a continuation of the Vedic legacy.
Thus the vision of the Vedic sages is reflected in village life. In many of the less remote areas, however, where modern ideas are taking hold, this vision is being replaced by the view that the welfare of an individual or family can be separated from the welfare of the village as a whole. There is no doubt that science and technology bring comfort and convenience to the lives of villagers, but I hope that the race toward modernization sweeping across India does not obliterate the traditional way of living—one that is a natural extension of the sage’s vision of all creation as an intricate and elegant web. This is the foundation of traditional village life, a vision that engenders an experience of unity in diversity, silence amid chaos, and peace in a troubled world.