9. LIFE OF SACRIFICE
Everything within this world is possessed by God. He pervades both the animate and the inanimate. Therefore one should only take one’s fair share, and leave the rest to the Supreme.
Isa Upanishad 1
Although Gandhi’s ideas were never put into practice by the rulers of India after independence, they are still very much alive in countless organisations across India. A whole generation of social activists are the heirs to his tradition. Among them are the thousands of ‘sevaks’ or servants of the people who went into the villages to teach his methods. In particular Vinoba carried forward Gandhi’s vision for the villages with his Sarvodaya Samaj, the Society for Service to the People, founded shortly after Gandhi’s death in 1948. He travelled from village to village throughout India organising voluntary re-distribution of land and teaching the villagers how to properly care for it. He is acknowledged by many as the successor to Gandhi.
Among the many other activists and thinkers who were deeply influenced by Gandhi is Satish Kumar. Born in Rajasthan in 1936, he became a Jain monk at the age of nine. When he was eighteen he decided to leave India for the West. However, to travel by air or across the sea was not in keeping with his principles. Vinoba had also taken a vow to only travel on foot, because he did not wish to use any machine that he could not make with his own hands. So, like Vinoba, Satish Kumar decided to walk. He walked the 8,000 miles from Delhi to London. He is now settled in a small village in Devon with his wife and two children. For the last twenty years he has edited the magazine Resurgence, which has become one of the most influential forums for discussion of the root causes of industrial society’s problems and the solutions to them. He has founded the Small School, which serves as both primary and secondary school in his village and pioneers a new approach to education on a small scale. More recently he has co-founded and directed Schumacher College, in Dartington, Devon, the first international college exclusively devoted to teaching a spiritual approach to the environment. The college offers courses, taught by world-renowned authorities, on ecology, spiritual values and the practical skills needed for an environmentally conscious society.
By his outstanding work and his deep understanding of the environmental crisis and the keys to overcoming it, Satish Kumar has become a source of inspiration to many in Britain and internationally. He explained to me at length his ideas, which are firmly rooted in the Hindu religion, or as he prefers to call it, Sanatan Dharma (a term which he explains below). What follows is my own summary of what he told me.
The Isa Upanishad tells us that everything, from a blade of grass to the whole cosmos, is the home of God. God lives in every corner of existence. Therefore the whole creation is sacred. The Ganges is the symbol of that holy spirit which permeates through every river and holy mountain. Kailash is the holy mountain, but all mountains are holy because God lives there. The cow is holy because ultimately all the animal kingdom is holy. This sense of the sacred in the whole creation is fundamental to our relationship with nature.
Western civilization considers human life to be sacred, but Hindus have gone much further and said that not only human life but all life is sacred. Therefore all life forms, not just human beings, must be revered and respected. This is the reason for being vegetarian, which is ecological in the deepest sense. Animal life should not be taken for our own purposes, nor should it be artificially created, as it is in the West where millions of cattle, pigs and chicken are reared for slaughter in factory farms. There should be a natural pattern of birth and death in the forest, on the land, in the air and sea. Rearing animals for our own use is not natural.
The Hindu tradition gives us three principles: yajna, dhana and tapas – sacrifice, giving and penance. These are the three ecological principles for replenishment of the earth. Through yajna you replenish the earth. For example, for your clothes you must take cotton, therefore you ought to spin cotton for others. This is what Gandhi practised with his spinning wheel. If you take a tree to build your house, you must plant five trees for the future. The best thing is to take as little as possible. Always work to reduce your needs. If you can do with five items for your food, don’t take six. Whenever you take, eat, or consume you must consider whether you have left something for others – for God, for nature, for the poor and for future generations. This is sacrifice, or yajna.
The symbol of this principle is the sacred fire ceremony. It is a very beautiful ritual performed at weddings or festivals, or to celebrate a birth or a time of renewal. Some pious Hindus perform a fire sacrifice every morning. You make a fire and take the most precious substance, ghee, and offer it into the fire. Ghee is the purified form of butter, which is the condensed form of milk, which is the product of the cow and the land. Therefore ghee is the essence of the essence and is the most precious substance. The ghee is not burned to nothing. It has given life to the fire, and that fire of purification will burn all our greed and anger, and with them all our illusions. It is the symbol of purification through sacrifice. The ghee sacrificed in the fire symbolises that every activity – whatever is most precious to you – should be sacrificed for others or for God.
Next comes dhana, giving. This is replenishment of society. Just as we take from nature and therefore must make sacrifice, so we take from society. In every field – architecture, poetry, painting, music, ideas, books, religion – we have received so much. But we mustn’t be just consumers. We must make our own sacrifice to replenish society. Write a poem – not for money or fame – but as a gift to the world. Paint a painting, build a house, design something new, spread the religious word. You receive so much wonderful knowledge, tradition, culture, religion and wisdom from the great teachers of the past. Do you just consume it? No – you must do something to give it back. Dhana is not only the little gift you give when a monk comes to your door. Give your money, your labour, your intelligence, your time – whatever you have. This maintains the ecology of society. If society is based on dhana there will never be poverty, or exploitation or deprivation. In western thinking environment means the outside natural world; but Hindu philosophy does not relate environment only to nature. The social and human world is also part of the environment.
Finally comes tapas, self-control, which replenishes the soul – your own internal spiritual environment. You must not only make sacrifice for nature and give back to society but you must replenish your own inner environment. If you fast or take a vow of silence that is tapas. Gandhi was silent every Friday. No matter how busy he was or however many important political matters he had to attend to, he had enough time to have a whole day of silence. On the eleventh day of the waxing and waning moon Hindus practice tapas by fasting or praying. At other times they go on pilgrimage to holy places like Vrindavan. That is also tapas. Meditation is tapas. Because of all the things you do in this world there is a tremendous amount of wear and tear of the soul and it has to be replenished. That replenishment can only happen when you are engaged in tapas.
Tapas includes brahmacharya, sexual self-restraint. When you are young you have a family, but there is a stage at which you sacrifice your sexual life. After you are fifty you go on pilgrimage and take vanaprastha. That means you renounce your sexual life. That way, population was always kept under control in an environmentally sound and healthy way. Hindu philosophy always advocated limits, even limits to sexual activity. A certain period of life, between twenty-five and fifty is meant for sexual activity, that’s all. There are four stages of life: up to the age of twenty-five is brahmacharya – no sex; then comes family life when everything is permitted in a limited way; then after fifty comes vanaprastha and finally sannyasa, complete renunciation of the world.
With these three principles of sacrifice, giving and self-control you keep replenishing the total environment. This Hindu view of ecology has social, political and economic implications.
In the typical Indian village everything is deliberately kept simple. In my own village in Rajasthan people would be very busy in the spring and autumn with sowing and harvest, but in the winter and summer they would not be so active. They would spend a lot of time just sitting and talking. This is not because they were lazy. It was because they valued rest and what we call leisure. They didn’t call it leisure. In Hindu philosophy it would be called inaction or meditation, or just silence, and it plays a very important part in Hindu life – the opportunity to understand. So they sat and gazed at the world – at the sun, the stars, the moon, or the trees and flowers – or they talked to each other. They thought, “If I have a piece of bread and clean water and a loin cloth round my waist, what more do I need? Why should I work, work, work, and produce, produce, produce, when I have no time to ponder and talk and go inside myself?”
So they deliberately kept their lives very simple – they lived in simple houses, huts mostly, and spent their time outdoors because the weather permitted that. Their demands were very small. This is how they lived in my village when I was a child.
In the past forty or fifty years the influence of economic growth, government, and western media have fostered a new philosophy. It says that if you don’t have enough you are backward. You need development, and development means having more goods. Indians used to think that, once you have the basic necessities of food and simple clothing and simple housing, your other needs would be social and spiritual – that was your wealth. Wealth was well-being of the family, the community and the temple. But nowadays we are interested in materialism which means that you are judged by what you have rather than what you are. In the Indian vision the poorer you were and the less possessions you had, the higher your status. Brahmana is the highest caste, but they were the poorest. They had no trade, no land, no business or industry – they lived on gifts. The sadhus were the poorest, but people worshipped them. Gandhi lived the poorest way – a loin cloth and simple food – but he is still called the Father of the Nation.
In traditional Hindu thinking material possessions were a sign of regress but in the modern world they are a sign of progress. When people are deprived of care, friendship and culture they try to find happiness through having more and more material possessions. When other people have something, you want it too, and this is encouraged by western advertising and consumerism which creates the illusion of need where none actually exists.
To have a truly harmonious relationship with nature we must understand that it is better to have less. Then nature has plenty. Gandhi said that there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed. We have to always examine, always question, what is our actual need.
The very nature of Indian society, fostering the idea of less consumption and reduced needs, encourages giving. In a traditional Indian village no traveller needs to stay in a hotel or bed and breakfast or anything like that. In my own home there was a room built for travellers and in the evening my mother would always send me to see if any traveller was in the room. I would ask his name and where he was going and if they would like a meal. Then my mother would give me a dish of rice, dhal, vegetables, chapattis, papadams and chutney and a glass of water and I would take this to the passing traveller whoever he may be. In many homes this happens. This is in addition to the dharmshala, the village guest house, where twenty or forty people can stay. That is built by donation. If a businessman is successful then he has to make a gift to the village: he can build a dharmshala. Every village has at least one, so that any traveller can stay free of charge and receive one day’s free meal.
These guest houses were mainly for pilgrims. Pilgrimage is the environmental alternative to tourism. Tourists go to the mountains, but not for a sacred purpose. They go for recreation. With pilgrimage you go for a more spiritual purpose, and recreation happens anyway. The idea of pilgrimage, and of villages providing space for travellers, means you don’t put too much pressure on the environment. To say there should be no travelling would be wrong, because people want to experience the world, but travel should be as pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage, fire sacrifice, and other aspects of Hindu life, have many dimensions. These rituals were designed symbolically to create a healthy relationship with the three environments: the natural environment, the social environment, and your own inner environment. Hindus say ‘Om shanti, shanti, shanti’ – ‘Peace, peace, peace’ – before every prayer. The first ‘shanti’ means peace with nature, ecological peace; the second means peace in society, between human beings, communities, nations and peoples; the third means shanti within myself, spiritual peace. Ecological peace, social peace and spiritual peace – for the Hindus, environment embraces all three.
Until now we have spoken of the Hindu ideal. The present reality in India is unfortunately far from this. Modern Hindu society has become a very split society. Over the last two hundred years there has been an highly organised campaign to undermine the traditional values. This started with the Charter Act of 1813. Lord Macauley said in the British parliament that it was necessary to introduce British education in India at all levels in order to create a whole class of people who would be Indian in body, but English in taste and thought. He said that Indian literature – the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata – were primitive and added up to nothing. They could be put on one small shelf and that was all India had. His purpose for educating Indians was that if the British wanted to rule India they would have to do so through the Indians. Therefore massive amounts of money were spent to create a complete conditioning of the Indian mind.
English is still the language of education in India. Almost all the universities, colleges and schools are conducted in English. The most influential newspapers for the last two hundred years, such as the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Hindu Statesman – weeklies, monthlies and dailies – are published in English. Furthermore, Macauley had wanted not only to introduce English education in India but to bring all the rich and influential people of India to England to be educated, turning them into Englishmen. Nehru, who was Prime Minister for thirteen years after independence, was himself in Macauley’s tradition, having been educated at Oxford. He thought the only progress for India was to compete with the West by industrialisation and having everything Western.
As a result of this planned onslaught India is now a divided society. If you go into the family homes in the lesser cities, such as Bangalore or Madras and smaller towns such as Allahabhad, Benares, Lucknow or Jaipur you will see educated Indians working in the offices, factories, businesses and so on in a more or less western, modern industrialised style; but when they go home they will put on their dhoti and have puja at their home shrine. In their homes, particularly among the women, their Hindu culture is still intact. It can also be found in the temples, of which there are still hundreds and thousands, and new ones being built all the time. They don’t want to leave it because emotionally they are attached to it – in their heart of hearts they know this is the secure womb, the place where they can feel happy and safe. But they suffer from an inferiority complex, because all the newspapers and modern books and all the industrialised world are telling them this is backward! They feel shy to admit that they have Indian culture and that they have their own tradition. So they will come out to the office in their suit and tie, even in the boiling heat of the summer. They will wear woollen three-piece suits – inside they are sweating – because unless they have these suits they will not be respected. This is the tragedy of India in the modern times.
This predominance of western culture, however, will probably be short-lived. The culture of the industrial world has no soul. It has no substance. It is a paper tiger, a balloon – one prick and it will burst. What that one prick is going to be we cannot know, but the industrial way of life and materialistic mode of education is not sustainable. Nor are there the natural resources, or more significantly the social and spiritual resources, to sustain it. It is all external. Modern industrial culture is very glamorous with its cinemas, televisions, supermarkets and airports and its tremendous military power. But inside it is hollow. On the other hand, the Hindu way of life and Hindu philosophy may look very modest from the outside, but inside it is very rich and solid and has thousands of years of maturity. It is not going to disappear very easily.
It is a very sad thing that as a result of western influence the government of India is bent on achieving economic growth and high living standards at the expense of the quality of life and traditional values. Indian industrialists are building big dams, big industries, big roads and big airports; there is a tremendous amount of pollution and resources are being depleted; population and demands are growing; greed is growing; poverty is increasing; there are more poor now in India than there were at the time of independence. In the name of reducing poverty and hunger we are increasing them. Progress and development are actually causing hunger. If India could again practice yajna, dhana and tapas poverty could be cured.
Hinduism is a holistic religion. It is a way of life rather than a religion or a set of beliefs. It includes economic life, sexual life, political life – everything is part of Hindu religion. ‘Religion’ is a Western word, and so is ‘Hindu’. A correct description is ‘sanatan dharma’. Sanatan means eternal, and dharma means the true state. The dharma of fire is to burn; the dharma of water is to quench thirst. So ‘sanatan dharma’ means to find the true, everlasting state of being, the eternal path. Hindus (we call them Hindus, but we mean the Indian people) are searching for the dharma of the soul, the meaning of life. That is the quest.
The Isa Upanishad says it all. Nature is sacred, all life is sacred, the whole earth is sacred. That is the Hindu contribution. Western industrial life has become desacrilised. The only sanctity left is human life. We have to push the frontier beyond human and include the whole earth. Earth is our mother, earth is goddess, earth is Kali, earth is Parvati, earth is Sita, Earthmother – and she is the home of God.