Monday, May 30, 2011



“Swamiji, I fear for the tigers. They are on the brink of extinction. Such a magnificent creature, yet people don't seem to care, busily building lives that will seal its doom. But even more than the tigers, I fear for the earth. Climate change is going to wipe out so many species, and civilization itself is at risk. We are changing the atmosphere, creating another earth than the one that has provided our home.”

Swami Premanand listened with his familiar look of intelligent attention. He is the living link to my wife Geeta's lineage of Himalayan teachers, a swami beloved by our entire family. I searched his face for the sympathy that I so often found when relating a personal problem. Then he said abruptly, “And I fear the sky will turn pink.” He laughed, and that was that.

Stunned, I didn't know what to say. It was morning, and the household of our Bangalore hosts was waking. He had devotees to attend to, a talk that evening. I just sat there, wanting to extend the conversation, to hear his stories about tigers – he always had a story about everything. And yes, to defend my life focus, doing what I could to preserve a livable earth. But there were no landing places to carry this conversation forward. Now, several months later, I want to try again, in the form of an open letter.

You may recall the conversation we had in Bangalore in February. I brought up my fear for the tigers, on the brink of extinction, and for the earth itself, with human activity creating carbon emissions that are rapidly changing the world's climate (I didn't mention last year's floods in Pakistan, with areas affected in your adoped Himalaya as well). You listened to my concerns, answering, “And I fear the sky will turn pink.”

Swamiji, we all are beset by various fears, some more rational than others. Yes, I understand what you were saying. Our fears, both rational and fancied, have nothing to do with Brahman, the very foundation of the apparent world. They have everything to do with Maya, the world as various forms of illusion: dream, thought, matter in its sundry forms and patterns.

You told Geeta that you have climbed the Mountain very far, not to the top, but close, and that you can see others traveling various paths to the summit. Well, Swamiji, I must be climbing on the other side of the mountain, perhaps very near the base. I love this earth, and I love the possibilities given with a human birth. For me, such a birth necessitates the challenge of living in a way that sustains the earth herself as a context for life and the continuing challenges and joys of humans and other beings living within her web. As you know, this is the main reason I don't often see you, for I am concerned about the carbon emissions associated with air travel.

Coming to your land where she still has a pawhold, I love the tiger, beset as she is by encroaching human development and, especially in the remote mountains north of you, poachers. The tiger, if it is an illusion, is a particularly beautifully designed one. My son Jesse, whom you know, said that seeing a tiger his last day at Jim Corbett Park was the most profound experience of his life. Like Jesse, I feel that this world would be much poorer if they were to vanish forever.

Is it foolish to have a sense of beauty? To judge a creature as magnificent, and to have awe before it? My own understanding is that everything, including Maya, is fashioned by God, and that is also the understanding of the English poet William Blake, who wrote this poem:

Tyger! Tyger!, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears
and water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

As for the sky turning pink, your mockingly fanciful “fear,” this leads us to whether or not science is a special case, a special form of inquiry, alongside the other examples in Vedanta's exposition hall of illusions. Postmodern theory often lumps science with all other forms of knowledge, calling it the “myth of science.” According to this view, all forms of knowledge are simply asserting their own particular story of how the world came to be and how it works. None of them has any privileged position, any stronger truth claim.

Swamiji, my first “conversion” was to Plato and his theory of Forms. Vedanta teaches that Brahman, the unnameable, is the only reality. Plato's vision is that the only reality is the eternal form of things, and that our changeable world is but a play of shadows cast by the Forms, flickering on the walls of a cave. Resting on this view of things, I studied the theory of symbolic forms. According to this view, each of the disciplines has a particular form, a set of criteria, for looking at the world: history, art, myth and religion, science. Science has a particularly powerful lens upon the world, for it is bound by a stringent set of rules of inquiry, comprising the scientific method. Science requires that a hypothesis be predictive and the results replicable over many instances. Even then, it never asserts that it has found “Truth,” but, when a given hypothesis gains enough predictive and replicable power, it gains the privileged title “theory.” This is where climate science is now, its models displaying a frighteningly uncanny ability to predict with ever-increasing accuracy the kinds of unusual weather events that come with a changing climate.

This is not, dear teacher, a matter of individual fancied fears, but the working of a powerful set of tools, utilized by a global set of trained experts backed up by 25,000 data sets from all imaginable settings. What we are seeing is the work of the laws of physics and chemistry, displayed throughout this remarkable living earth system, driven by human activity on a scale that amounts to an assault on the stable weather patterns of the Holocene. As a Christian minister said on his blog in response to those who would deny climate change (a very powerful group in this country), “I believe in the laws of physics.” These laws operate independently of whether or not we believe in the “myth of science.”

When the colonial Quaker statesman William Penn earnestly inquired whether he should cease wearing his sword, a sign of his social class, our prophet George Fox answered, “Wear thy sword as long as thou canst.” Swamiji, science, the laws of physics, is the sword I still hold. And I find it significant that our dear friend and environmental champion Sunderlal Bahuguna, whom you know, argues that the union of science and Vedanta is the chief hope of this poor world.

Last night at dinner with friends, I related the topic of this post. The response was illuminating. One friend, a medical person with Buddhist training who accepts the findings of climate science, seized instead upon the form of the emotion, fear. He pointed out that fear was not a good motivator, and that perhaps you were not denying the science at all, simply mocking my fear – as well as affirming the Vedantic perspective on the illusion of material form.

This of course places the entire conversation in a new light, leading to stronger forms of motivation to combat climate change. Going back over this post, I see love, a sense of beauty, and awe instinctively creeping into my defense of the tiger. Awakening the kind of awe which Blake displays in his poem, which brings with it gratitude, love, as well as the most profound sense of godly fear, could truly transform the human presence on this planet.

As for my worries about creation and what we humans are wreaking upon it, I have posted before – answered by yet another swami. Clearly I still have much to learn.

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