[Excerpted from a lecture given on April 5, 1989 at the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society (Adyar), Madras, India. A somewhat different version was published in The Theosophist, October 1989]
The concept of ecology is widely known today, but not everyone knows precisely what it means. First, an ecologist studies the relationship between animals and the so-called nonliving environment, which may include the structure and chemical components of soil, water, and atmosphere. But all these are material relationships: about eating and being eaten, procreation and destruction. I was trained as an ecologist and went to South America to study the savannas of Surinam. Alone on the savanna and in the forest, I realized that science today teaches us a lot about classification and nutrient cycles, but nothing about nature as a living experience or about life itself. When he wants to study a plant, the scientist first picks it, kills it, dries it, and then compares this dehydrated body with the information in his books. Drive life out in order to study life, how is that possible?
Ecologists as a rule are more concerned for the environment. They see the destruction of tropical forests, pollution of air and water, acid rain, and many other problems and decide to do something about them. They form action groups and societies to protect nature. These protest against many forms of human behavior and produce educational materials to alert the public — and the sleeping experts — to the precariousness of the situation. A large number of people in all fields spend all their available time for the betterment of plant, animal, and human life, often as unpaid volunteers. From taking part in many meetings I know that they feel connected in an invisible network that covers the whole earth.
Most of them, however, see only the material side of nature. They think of the atmosphere in terms of chemicals, unaware that there is also a mental atmosphere, and that mental pollution causes the actions that lead to environmental pollution and destruction, as well as to other problems of mankind. There is, however, a growing group of people who call themselves eco-philosophers, who see all manifestations of life as one interpenetrating and cooperating wholeness: we cannot harm any part of nature without harming the whole.
A biological theory developed in the last ten years or so is known as the Gaia hypothesis. Gaia is the Greek goddess Earth. The man who designed this hypothesis, James Lovelock, is a classical scientist, a chemist who worked many years for NASA and a large oil company. Doing research on certain artificial chemicals in the atmosphere which have an influence on the ozone layer, he found that related chemicals were produced also by algae in the sea. What does that little underwater plant know about the ozone layer which protects life on land? Further research and thinking revealed many examples of balancing factors on Earth which are as stable as is our blood pressure or body temperature. But we are living beings in whom the soul presides over the body. Many of Lovelock's readers drew an obvious conclusion: the Earth also is a living being, with a soul and intelligent organization. For the scientific world this may be a signal breakthrough in thinking about our planet and all that is on it. It is of utmost importance for the world's survival that scientific thinkers become aware of aspects of nature more subtle than matter alone, and that consciousness and intelligence in some form be recognized as omnipresent in the universe.
Touching briefly on the fundamental theosophical teachings in relation to ecology, first there is the hierarchical structure of the universe, man, and all forms of life in general, all of which are intimately related. We have thus the kingdoms of nature: science recognizes only the plant, animal, and human kingdoms, and generally includes man in the animal kingdom; the rest is considered nonliving matter. Theosophy identifies several kingdoms of living beings both below the plant kingdom and above the human kingdom and acknowledges no dead matter — even the tiniest atom is endowed with life. Below the plant kingdom is the mineral kingdom and below that three elemental kingdoms which are unknown to Western science because they are invisible. Above the human kingdom is the kingdom of the gods and demigods, as far beyond man in evolution as man is beyond the animals, and because they too are invisible, they are unrecognized by science. Yet they are most important for us because they represent our future, the purpose of our evolution, and our present higher nature — largely dormant in us, but fully awakened in them. The gods are compassionate and if the time is right they may descend to the human kingdom and teach us. Such are known in Sanskrit as avataras, "they who descend."
Those who follow the impulses of the higher mind which has opened itself for wisdom, and who have complete control over their lower nature are the kind of humans we can all become if we develop our noble qualities. Above them are the gods, the wisest and most responsible beings in our ecosystem. Thus the outward kingdoms of nature and the inner constitution of man are intimately connected. If we treat the animal kingdom within us in harmony with the higher laws of nature we also help the outward animal kingdom. If we think lofty thoughts we are helping our fellow human beings, even if our thoughts never reach our lips. If we live nobly and listen to the voice of the silence in the heart of our heart we are helping the high purpose of the gods.
It follows that if we really care for ecology and want to help nature we must not only be in command of our physical habits, but also of our desires, our mind, and become attuned to the gods. If the scientific and environmental ecologists would grasp something of the spiritual, genuinely intuitional aspect of human as well as outward nature, this would be a tremendous leap forward. Humanity would then no longer kill its younger brothers and sisters wantonly for food or fun, or cut trees for economic gain alone, but enjoy their beauty and revere them as divine manifestations and teachers of the laws and habits of nature.
In any ecosystem — a forest or a lake — everything is interconnected and every aspect contains in more or less developed form all other aspects. Our world is not only an ecosystem of physical bodies, but an ecosystem of thoughts. In ecology we also study the cycles and rhythms of nature. We see cycles everywhere: day and night, the seasons, the movements of celestial bodies and atoms. For the North American Indians the circle is the most sacred of all symbols, for it represents the Great Spirit in both its unmanifest and its manifest aspects, as well as brotherhood, oneness, and unity. To emphasize the sacredness of this symbol some tribes place their tepees in a circle.
Modern scientists also recognize many cycles in nature, but not as exemplifying a universal law. In their view evolution is a linear process from dead matter to primitive life, to plant, animal, man, and finally, perhaps, to self-destruction. With the American Indians we say: we all came from the Great Spirit, our Father, and to the Great Spirit we all will return; while for many scientists every individual life is a one-time, unique occurrence. It begins with the seed of man which reaches, more or less by chance, the ovum of a woman; then birth, growth, development, and eventually death, the absolute end and failure of life. No wonder there are so many desperate human beings in the world who choose crime, suicide, or the use of destructive drugs if present life is only suffering and after that nothing.
Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, American Indians, and ancient Greeks and Egyptians all taught reimbodiment — a better word than reincarnation which means coming into flesh and thus applies only to animals and humans. Reimbodiment is a universal process: not only man and animals but everything in nature, including stars, planets, atoms, and gods goes through cycles of involution into matter, then evolution out of matter into ever more spiritual expressions. The highest spiritual essence of every individual creature as well as of nature as a whole evolves the material forms from itself that it embodies in as its vehicles of expression.
When the nadir of the evolutionary life cycle is reached, the direction swings upwards toward the spiritual, so that ultimately all merge again into their monadic essence: then we shall have returned to our Father and Grandfather Great Spirit. At the same time all individual conscious beings, which means everything in the universe, have been spiritualized by the divine essence that had involved itself in and with them. Compare this outlook with the dark clouds that hang over minds who see the force behind evolution as merely the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest — in other words, utter selfishness. According to theosophy the force behind evolution is compassion, utter unselfishness. All lives therefore are interconnected by and enwrapped in one infinite network of compassion, where the spiritual sends its radiance forth to enlighten those less evolved. This invisible network is the most noble and stimulating aspect of the spiritual ecosystem.
In ecology we also speak about interaction, that every event taking place in an ecosystem affects other components and therefore the whole. The ecosystem is a dynamic, ever-changing pattern of interactions. Scientists recognize this on the physical level, but it is the human mind as a part of the spiritual ecosystem which has the widest impact. If we learn to control our mind in constant remembrance of our responsibility towards all creatures, we are doing the best we can for nature. It has been stated that because of the close link between our inner and outward nature, the so-called cruelties within the animal kingdom would largely decrease in proportion as our human passions of cruelty and selfishness decrease.
Another very important idea, less well known than those of karma, reimbodiment, and evolution, is called by the Sanskrit name svabhava, which means "self-becoming": the development from within outwards of the fundamental characteristic of a particular species or being. This is very important if one wants to understand the variety in nature. We are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of species of animals and plants, varieties of minerals and so on; within the human kingdom we see in the thousands of faces different minds, different specializations. For example, can we say that one species of bird is better than another? No, each has its own svabhava, its own essential character, and the same degree of perfection in its field. All exists within Brahman, the One. Why then are there so many different expressions of the divine, such a tremendous variety of species on earth? Why should we protect that variety? Would it not be more economical to cover the whole earth with food crops and pine or eucalyptus trees? Some government and private institutions want to cut down the rich natural forests and replace them with plantations of a few tree species that have economic value.
To consider that important question we need to give serious attention to the theosophic view that the total constitution of every single expression of Brahman, of Divinity, is built of the same seven cosmic elements, each of which is again subdivided into seven, and these subdivided again. So endless combinations are possible in which one form of expression has more of this element and less of that; but all elements and subelements are present. Each one of all the millions of souls, in its own unique phase of evolution, finds a vehicle that is appropriate for it in one of the species; if any form is not available because it has been destroyed by man, that soul must seek another, perhaps less appropriate form, possibly causing a severe obstruction to the evolving soul.
The most beautiful aspect of ecology is the ecosystem's inbuilt possibility to know itself. Because mind is inherent in nature, especially developed in man and higher beings, by means of man — the carrier of mind — the world can study itself. In reality there is no difference between ecology and theosophy: both are about the oneness of, and interrelatedness among, conscious beings. In fact nature herself is our greatest teacher. If we turn inward we find in ourselves all that we can see and experience in nature around us. If we listen to the silence within we may experience the inherent harmony within our own composite nature, just as we can feel it in the silence of a forest or when listening to the waves of the wild surf breaking on a rocky coast.
Through study and through steady practice in quietude we learn to know, and indeed become, the subtleties of our own spiritual mind and come to understand more and more the subtleties of nature as a manifestation of cosmic mind. Being intelligent in thinking out physical and functional structures, we find evidence of intelligence far greater than ours in the ways nature is built and works. We see that greed and passion are present in ourselves and others, and that the conflicts both within and around us, are reflected in the animal kingdom and partly in the plants. I think that if we could begin to realize the grandeur of our own inner divine being, our humility and respect towards both inner and outer nature will grow proportionately. Then we will become "ecologists" in the real sense: eco-philosophers living with nature in every aspect of our constitution, taking our rightful place in the system, spiritually and physically, mentally and psychologically and, at the same time, increasing our understanding of the wholeness to which we belong.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)