Divine Nature:
Practical Application of Vedic Ethical Principles in Resolving the Environmental Crisis

Presented at Synthesis of Science and Religion, a conference sponsored by the Bhaktivedanta Institute,  in Calcutta, India, January 9-12, 1997

by Michael A. Cremo,
Research Associate in the History and Philosophy of Science
Bhaktivedanta Institute, 9701 Venice Blvd. #5, Los Angeles, CA 90034, USA
phone (310) 837-5283 fax (310) 837-1056
e-mail 105406.257@compuserve.com

Many thoughtful people who have looked at the world's environmental crisis, which is closely linked to issues of consumption, have concluded it is a ultimately a spiritual crisis that demands a spiritual solution. Part of the problem lies with our modern scientific cosmology, which is mechanistic and reductionistic. There is little place in modern science for the soul and God. Modern science concentrates on matter and its transformations, leading to an ethic of extravagant consumption. . But Vedic philosophy concentrates on consciousness and its transformations. This leads to an ethic of frugality that emphasizes the cultivation of consciousness over the exploitation of matter. The Vedic teachings give people powerful tools for achieving high levels of nonmaterial satisfaction. This leads to a lessening of demands for consumption, and this can lead to a reduction in the ever-increasing global processes of industrialization, which fuels the environmental crisis. The Vedic ethic of ahimsa or nonviolence favors  a meatless diet, which itself would improve many environmental problems, ranging from acid rain to ground water contamination. A world living according to Vedic ecological principles would be a world of villages, towns, and small cities, with most economic necessities produced and consumed locally in a sustainable fashion. It would be a world of simple living and high thinking. The efforts of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to implement various elements of Vedic ecological concepts, especially in its 40 rural communities on five continents, are reviewed.   

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If there is to be a synthesis of science and religion, there must be a real desire and need for cooperation. And one area in which the need for cooperation between science and religion is most deeply felt is that of concern for the environment.

In 1995, I attended a conference on population, consumption, and the environment, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Boston Theological Institute.  Coming together at the conference were scientists, politicians, environmental activists, and religionists. I was invited as author of the book Divine Nature: A Spiritual Perspective on the Environmental Crisis,  which had drawn favorable comment from many, including two former environment ministers for the Indian government.  Divine Nature looks at the environmental crisis from the standpoint of the Vedic teachings of India.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference on population, consumption, and the environment was Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior for the United States government.  He told of growing up in the town of Flagstaff, Arizona, from which can be seen a large mountain. The mountain inspired in Babbitt a sense of something wonderful, something godlike, in nature. Raised in the Catholic faith, Babbitt asked a priest about the mountain, hoping to gain some clue as to its spiritual significance. But he received no satisfactory answer, perhaps because his priest was used to thinking of God as remote from nature. Later, Babbitt approached a friend his own age. This friend, who happened to be a native American of the Hopi tribe, took Babbitt up to the mountain and explained to him its sacred nature. And from this Babbitt said he developed a sense of God's presence in nature--to a degree that had not been possible for him previously.

Of course, when I heard this, I was reminded of the Bhagavad-gita, wherein Lord Krishna says, "Of immovable things I am the Himalayas,  of flowing rivers I am the Ganges,  of seasons I am the flower-bearing spring."  Such expressions of God's immanence  in nature are found throughout the Gita and other Indian spiritual texts.

Babbitt went on to say that he understood overconsumption was the underlying cause of most environmental problems. There was a general consensus at the conference that the real issue was not overpopulation in the developing world, but overconsumption, particularly in the developed countries and increasingly in the developing countries. Babbitt said that as a politician he could not present to the people a program that would really solve the environmental problem. It would require too much sacrifice from the voters, so much that they would vote against anyone or any party that told them what would really be necessary.

Secretary Babbitt then turned to the religionists present and said only they could bring about the large -scale changes of values needed to reverse the process of environmental degradation.

Also speaking at the conference was Dr. Henry Kendall, professor of physics at MIT and president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Kendall said that science can point out the dimensions of the environmental problem, but it cannot solve the problem. Science, he says, has no silver bullet, no technological fix for the environmental crisis. Like Secretary Babbitt, he recognized overconsumption as the cause of environmental degradation, and like Secretary Babbitt he appealed to religion as the only force in the world capable of generating the changes in values needed to restrain humanity's destructive urge to overproduce and overconsume.

This is not the first time such suggestions have been made. In 1990, at the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, held in Moscow, 32 scientists signed a joint declaration appealing to the world's religions to use their immense influence to preserve the environment.  The scientists declared that humanity was committing "Crimes against Creation." They also said, "Effforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred."

These statements are somewhat ironic, for it is science itself, or, should I say, a particular brand of science,  that is largely responsible for eliminating the sacred from our vision of the universe.

When I use the word science, I mean science as governed by a certain set of metaphysical assumptions. Today's science is governed by a set of metaphysical assumptions that eliminates the sacred from our vision of the universe, if by sacred we mean things connected with a personal God and distinct individual souls.  It is quite possible, however,  to have a science governed by a set of metaphysical assumptions that would incorporate a genuine vision of the sacred.

But let's return to our consideration of the Moscow statement on the environment, in which leading scientists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould spoke of crimes against creation. This is rather surprising language. Today, science is generally quite hostile to the word "creation." It is interesting, however, how science and religion tend to adopt each other's terminology when it suits them, often redefining the terms in the process. One of the tasks before us is to find a common language for science and religion, and use it with integrity for constructive dialogue.

For science, governed by its present materialistic assumptions, nature is simply an object to be dominated, controlled, and exploited. And it is science itself that has provided us with the not only the motive but the instruments for such domination, control, and exploitation. Of course, I am speaking of technology. Let's consider the automobile. It is certainly a convenience, but it has its downside. It is one of the main contributors to pollution of the atmosphere, and in the United States alone about 50,000 people a year are killed in automobile accidents. For comparison's sake, we can consider that in the entire 8 years of the American military involvement in Vietnam, 50,000 American soldiers were killed. The same number of Americans are killed each year on their own highways.

The connection between a materialistic conception of the universe and a materialistic way of life was noted thousands of years ago in the Bhagavad-gita. The Gita describes  materialist philosophers thus: "They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control."  And what is the practical outcome for people who live in society's dominated by this worldview, which denies the fundamental reality of God and the soul? The Gita says, "They believe that to gratify the senses is the prime necessity of human civilization. Thus until the end of life their anxiety is immeasurable."  Such people, says the Gita, are "bound by a network of hundreds of thousands of desires."  And is this not our situation today? Are we not bombarded daily with messages from radio, television, newspapers, magazines, films, and computers, all attempting to entangle us further in hundreds and thousands of desires that can only be satisfied by consuming various products manufactured by our burgeoning industries? The Gita warns us that people like ourselves will "engage in unbeneficial, horrible acts, mean to destroy the world." And are we not gradually destroying our world, polluting its air and water and land, and driving hundreds of species into extinction?

This presents humanity with an ethical dilemma. Put simply, ethics is a process for determining what is good, and how to make choices that will establish and preserve what is good. Given the assumptions of modern materialistic science, it is very difficult to construct an ethic for preserving the environment or saving endangered species. According to currently dominant views, our planet, indeed our very universe, is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance fluctuation of the quantum mechanical vacuum. Given this assumption it is very difficult to say that any particular state of our planet's environment is inherently good. Ultimately, there is no reason to say that our earth, with its teeming life forms, is any better than Jupiter or Uranus, which according to modern astronomy are frozen lifeless planets, with atmospheres composed of elements we would regard as poisonous. Or looking at the history of our own planet, there is no reason to say that our present state of the environment is any better than that of the early earth, which, according to modern geoscience, was a lifeless rock, with a thin reducing atmosphere hostile to today's life forms.

So if we cannot say, on the basis of modern scientific assumptions, that any particular state of the environment is intrinsically good, and thus worthy of preservation,  then perhaps we can approach the matter in another way. We can look at nature, at the environment, as an instrumental good, or source of derivative good. In other words, nature is something that yields things of value to living things. Generally speaking we adopt an anthropocentric view, and consider nature to be instrumental to the happiness of our own human species. But according to the asssumptions of modern evolutionary science, our human species is the accidental product of millions of random genetic mutations. So there is nothing special about the human species and its needs. Of course, we might take a larger view and appeal to nature as an instrumental good for an entire ecosystem, comprised of many species. But again, we have the same problem. Why is today's ecosystem any better than the ecosystem that existed during the Precambrian, when there was no life at all on land, and in the oceans only jellyfish and crustaceans.

Another way to proceed is to regard the environment as a constitutive good. An acquaintance of mine, Jack Weir, a professor of philosophy at Morehead State University, in Kentucky has presented an argument along these lines.  Put briefly, given the evolutionary assumptions of modern science, we are what we are largely because of our environment. According to this view, we are in a sense constituted by our environmental surroundings. If our environmental surroundings were different, we would not be able to stay as we are. But here again we run into a problem. Given the evolutionary assumptions of modern science, what is so special about our current status as humans? Why should it, and the environment that constitutes it, be considered worthy of preservation. Why shouldn't we continue on our present course of overconsumption and environmental destruction. Let natural selection continue to operate, as it has in the past. Let old species perish and let new one's come into existence. Or let them all perish. Given that life itself is an accident of chemical combination in the earth's early oceans, it is difficult to say why there is any particular preference for a planet with life or without life.

Jack Weir backed up his claim that nature was a constitutive good with appeals to "scientific holism and epistemic coherency." But he admitted that "other appeals could be made, such as to stories and myths, religious traditions, and metaphysical beliefs." Of course, one could also appeal to a different science, founded upon a different set of metaphysical assumptions and perhaps arriving at different conclusions about the origin of life and the universe.

If we look at this history of science, from the time of Newton until the present, we find that scientists have accumulated quite a large body of evidence suggesting there is a vital force operating in living things, a force operating beyond the laws of physics and chemistry as currently understood. All around the world, we find great interest in alternative systems of medicine, such as the Ayur Veda, which are based on the understanding of this vital force, or forces. At the UCLA medical school there is an institute devoted to integrating the insights of traditional Eastern medical systems with Western medicine. There is also quite an accumulation of evidence suggesting that there is a conscious self that can exist apart from the physical organism. This evidence comes from studies phenomena ranging from out of body experiences to past life memories. Much of this evidence does not easily fit into the materialistic assumptions of modern science, and is therefore regarded with considerable suspicion. But this body of evidence is increasing daily, and it could be incorporated into the framework of a new science operating with an expanded set of metaphysical assumptions. There already are a number of scientific societies attempting this, among them the Scientific and Medical Network in England (with about 1200 scientists and physicians in its membership), the Institute for Noetic Sciences in the United States, the Society for Scientific Exploration, the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine, and others, among them the Bhaktivedanta Institute. Furthermore, as scientists carry their research into the biomolecular machinery within the cell, they encounter structures and systems of irreducible complexity, which leads some of them to once more seriously entertain the idea of intelligent design rather than chance evolution as an explanation. In this regard, I can recommend biochemist Michael Behe's various papers or his recent book Darwin's Black Box.

This past November I spoke to a gathering of physicists at the department of nuclear physics at the ELTE science university in Budapest, Hungary. I shared the podium with Maurice Wilkins, a British Nobel Laureate in physics, whose discoveries helped in the construction of the atomic bomb during the Second World War. The topic was, as here, science and religion. I chose as my topic physics and the paranormal. I proposed that if there was to be any synthesis of science and religion it would have to be on the mysterious ground of reality that lies between them, and undoubtedly their understanding of this mysterious ground of reality would have to be renegotiated.

In terms of physics it might involve a return to an understanding of reality that had a nonmaterial, nonmechanistic component. I pointed out that Newton wrote just as much about alchemy and spiritual topics than he did about his mathematics, physics, and optics, and that for Newton, his physics, alchemy, and writings about mystical topics were all part of one system, from which modern science has abstracted only the part that suits it. The idea of serious investigation into nonmaterial or paranormal components of physical reality is today taboo, but it has not always been so. In the last century, we find Sir William Crookes, Nobel laureate in physics, discoverer of thallium, inventor of the cathode ray tube, and president of the Royal Society, conducting extensive research into the paranormal. Nobel laureate physiologist Charles Richet, of France, who himself conducted extensive research into paranormal phenomena, tells us in his book Thirty Years of Psychical Research that he was sometimes assisted by Pierre and Marie Curie, who shared the Nobel prize in physics for their discoveries in the field of radioactive elements. For example, we find Marie Curie controlling a famous medium, while Pierre Curie measured the movements of objects moving under apparent psychokinetic influence. I am not bringing up these incidents to prove the reality of these effects but to illustrate the openmindedness of these famous experimental physicists, their willingness to investigate a difficult and troubling phenomenon. But isn't that what science, at its best, is supposed to be about?

After I finished my talk in Budapest, I wondered, of course, how it had been received. I was surprised when the head of the physcis department of a major European university approached me and revealed that in his home he had been privately conducting some paranormal experiments. To his extreme surprise, he had achieved some interesting results, and he asked me if I could put him in touch with others in America who were conducting similar investigations.

Now what does all this have to do with the environment, with nature. It has everything to do with it, because if we are going to formulate an environmental ethic, we first should understand what our environment really is. And from the Vedic, and in particular Vaisnava,  standpoint, we would have to say that it is a divine energy, an energy emanating from a transcendent God who is nevetheless immanent in nature, which is itself populated with conscious entities, and structured in a definite way for a definite purpose, namely providing an opportunity for conscious entities to return to their original pure state.  And there is a body of scientific evidence that is consistent with several elements of this view. In other words, religion may be something more than a socially useful set of beliefs that can be harnessed by science to help solve certain problems, such as the environmental crisis. I regard that as a false synthesis of science and religion.
It just may be the case that religion has crucial insights into the nature of reality that can be foundational for a true synthesis of science and religion for the benefit of humankind.

With these foundational assumptions it becomes easier to formulate an environmental ethic. Given that, according to Vaisnava teaching, this world is a reflection of a variegated, and essentially gardenlike, spiritual reality, we could say that there is some intrinsic value in attempting to maintain a state of the environment that most closely matches the original. When children learn to write, they are generally asked to copy letters, and if their attempt resembles the original it is said to be good, if it does not it is said to be bad. In the same way, we can propose that there is some intrinsic goodness to a particular state of environmental affairs.

Furthermore, there are certain Vedic principles that contribute in various ways to a viable environmental ethic. The first of these is athato brahma jijnasa. This is the opening mantra of the Vedanta sutra. It means that the purpose of human life is cultivation of consciousness, including cultivation of the loving relationship between the individual consciousnesss and the supreme consciousness.

I want to interject here that it is not every religious teaching that leads to a viable environmental ethic. There are many manifestations of religion which, like modern materialistic science, encourage the destructive processes of domination, exploitation, and unending consumption. But the Vedic system emphasizes the study and development of consciousness over the study and development of matter. Matter is not ignored, but it is seen in its connection with the supreme consciousness. In any case the principle of brahma jijnasa encourages an ethic of moderation, which contributes to reasonable levels of economic development and consumption that would not place such a great burden on the ecosystem.

The Vedanta sutra also says anandamayo 'bhyasat. We are meant for happiness, and by cultivating consciousness by proper means we can attain nonmaterial satisfaction. And this also sustains an ethic of moderation. The Gita says param drstva nivartate. When you get the higher taste of developed spiritual consciousness you automatically refrain from excessive material gratification. A proper balance is achieved.

The Vedic principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, also has its application. Nonviolence can be understood in many ways. For example, to encourage people to devote their lives to unrestrained material production and consumption can be considered a kind of violence against the human spirit, and I think we just have to look around us to see the effects of this violence. If we look at Americans at Christmas time crowding into their shiny malls, and instead of heeding the Vedic teaching athato brahma jijnasa devoting themselves to the teaching of athato shop until you drop, or power shopping, or whatever, I think we see a kind of violence. When we see the young Chinese workers who are crowded into dormitories around the factories that provide most of the Christmas goods found in the American malls,  we might also sense that violence to the human spirit.

The principle of ahimsa can also be applied to the earth itself. We have recently heard of the Gaia principle, the idea that the earth is in some sense an organism.  This principle has long been recognized in Vedic philosophy,  and we should try not to commit violence to our planet, by unncessarily poisoning her air, land, and water.

And nonviolence also applies to other living things. Accepting the Vedic teaching of ahimsa we will not hunt species to extinction. I will also point out that the killing of animals for food, especially animals raised in factory farms and killed in huge mechanized slaughterhouses,  is one of the most environmentally destructive practices in the world today. It is wasteful of precious natural resources. It poisons the land and water.

It can thus be seen that Vedic philosophy provides numerous supports for an ethic of environmental preservation. Similar support can be derived from the teachings of other great religious traditions of the world. But putting this wisdom into practice is difficult. In many areas of ethical concern, we can adopt an objective stance. If we are talking about child molestation, for example, we can feel secure that not many of us are guilty of such a thing, and we can quite comfortably discuss the ethical implications of such behavior, and what steps might be taken to control it without seeming to be hypocrites. But when we speak of the environmental crisis we find that we are all directly implicated. And it is difficult to speak about environmental ethics without seeming to be hypocritical. And this must engender in us a sense of humility, and also a sense that even small steps toward the real solution, which must be a spiritual solution, are to be welcomed and appreciated.

Alan Durning, a senior researcher at the World Watch Institute, wrote, "It would be hopelessy naive to believe that entire populations will suddenly experience a moral awakening, renouncing greed, envy, and avarice. The best that can be hoped for is a gradual widening of the circle of those practicing voluntary simplicity."

In this regard, I want to briefly mention that Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada during his life established several intentional rural communities for the specific purpose of demonstrating a life of such voluntary simplicity. Since his departure from this world in 1977, the number of such communities has increased to 40 on five continents, in locations ranging from the Atlantic rain forest region of Brazil to steppes of Russia.

After I spoke to the physicists in Budapest, I had a chance to visit one of these communities. I have to confess I was rather astonished to find such a rural community founded on Vedic principles in the plains of southwestern Hungary. The center of the community was a somewhat modernistic temple, but when I inquired I learned that it had been constructed using rammed earth walls and other traditional techniques. No electricity was used in the temple or anywhere else in the community. Along the temple walls I saw brass lamps, which burned oil pressed from locally grown rape seeds. It was a rather cold day in November, and I saw the building was heated with superefficient woodburning stoves, using wood sustainably harvested from a 50 acre plot of forest owned by the community. I was then offered a vegetarian meal, which featured locally grown vegetables,  chapatis made from wheat grown and ground in the community, and cheese from the community's cows. I learned that oxen are being trained to do farm work and transport. The people I met did not seem in any way deprived.

I told some of them, "You're doing the right thing." And isn't that what environmental ethics is all about, not just talking about the right thing, but doing it.

To summarize, from the standpoint of Vedic principles, I would say the following elements are necessary for a complete solution to the environmental crisis. (1) a science that recognizes distinct conscious selves, emanating from an original conscious self, as fundamental entities. (2) a religion that goes beyond dogma and ritual to provide actual sources of nonmaterial satisfaction by practice of meditation, yoga, etc. (3) respect for all living things, seeing them as conscious selves like us. (4) an ecofriendly vegetarian diet (5) an economic system founded on villages and small cities, emphasizing local production and self sufficiency. Anything short of this simply will not give the desired result.


 The conference Consumption, Population, and the Environment was held November 9-11 at the Campion Retreat Center outside Boston
 Michael A. Cremo and Mukunda Goswami (1995) Divine Nature, A Spiritual Perspective on the Environmental Crisis. Los Angeles, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
 On May 5, 1995, Kamal Nath, then Minister of Environment and Forests, wrote: "At a time when the world's developing countries are tending to let industrial progress take over their economies, oblivious to environmental destruction, Divine Nature comes as a welcome breath of relief. The authors have persuasively argued that a return to the original value of humanity's deep spiritual kinship with all living things is the key to achieving pervasive environmental consciousness." And on June 16, 1995, Maneka Gandhi, a former Minister of Environment and Forests, wrote: "This book should be read as a management plan for the economy, especially by politicians and business managers who, having gotten us into the mess we are in by promoting cultural and eating patterns that are destructive, in the mistaken belief that money can be made through devastation, could now truly understand how to repair the earth in a way that all of us can live, not merely exist."
 The Interior department is in charge of the national park system, and oversees the environmental resource management of large areas of goverment-owned land. The account of his statements is taken from my notes on his speech.
 Bhagavad-gita 10.25. The translations quoted in this paper are from His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, complete edition, revised and enlarged, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Los Angeles, 1989.
 Bhagavad-gita 10.31
 Bhagavad-gita 10.35. After listing numerous manifestations of His presence in nature, Krishna goes on to say in Bhagavad-gita 10.41: "Know that all opulent, beautiful, and glorious creations

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