Perhaps in no other time in history has so much been known by scientists about living nature as nowadays. Thanks to technology, the invention of the microscope and other instruments, and the development of advanced methods of chemical analysis, scientists have been able to describe the variety of forms in the animal and plant kingdoms in great detail and develop an advanced taxonomy. We know much about fungi living in the soil of once impenetrable tropical jungles, of minute insects visiting exclusively flowers that tower above dense forests, rarely blooming. We know of blind creatures living six miles under the surface of the seas, and the chemical and physical processes that take place within the cells of plants and animals.
In the days of the world's great sages, such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, Socrates, or Sankara, little was known about all these scientific details. Paradoxically, the Wise Ones have always taught high ethics and right conduct relating to our fellow beings, yet in this world dominated by Western knowledge and ways of thinking, humankind has been more destructive and cruel and shown less compassion and loving-kindness towards nature than perhaps in any period in known history.
Why is this the case today? Where is the mistake we make in our approach? Why are the forests dying instead of blooming in our presence and why are the animals, our brothers, fleeing from us? We know that behind every action of ours lies our mind, so that rather than fighting the externals of human behavior we must seek the flaw in the mind. In the mind, coupled with desire, karma or action is born, and it is the mind which chooses for good or evil, for selfish satisfaction or unselfish service. This choice will always remain, and far into the future there will be selfish men and women. It is the task of religion to keep the mind attuned to the higher, but regrettably genuine religion has largely withered away in great parts of the world.
Because our minds feed on ideas, we have the responsibility to feed with right ideas the mind that is hungry for the good and the beautiful: give wrong ideas to the world and the world will suffer; give right ideas, and it will flourish in joy. We are living in a very special time when anyone who wishes, in almost any place on the planet, has access to nearly the complete philosophical and religious written heritage of all mankind. Therefore we have the opportunity to seek out the universal and eternal values that form the heart of it. I have distinguished seven fundamental concepts which are of importance in understanding nature and which seem to be more or less recognized the world over. These can have a great positive influence on the human approach towards nature. They are: 1) life and death, or cyclic processes; 2) causality; 3) ecology; 4) the diversity of nature; 5) evolution; 6) spirit and matter; and 7) knowledge of the essence of nature. I will elaborate on three of these: cycles, causality, and evolution.
Circles and cycles are recognized as fundamental: movements within solar systems, seasons, etc. The difference between Western and non-Western thinking seems to be that in the West a number of processes are seen as linear, whereas in other cultures circularity is thought to be universal. In Hinduism, for example, there is the sequence of the four yugas. When humanity has reached the end of the last or kali-yuga, a new cycle will start again with the first or satya-yuga. The Jains see all nonliberated beings going up and down together through an ages-long cycle of joy and sorrow. They speak of an upwards and a downwards half of the great cycle, called utsarpini and avasarpini. In Buddhism there is the Wheel of Birth and Death, often depicted in the well-known mandala in which Yama, god of death, holds the five- or six-spoked wheel in his claws. Within the wheel are depicted the realms of existence: earthly, heavenly, hellish, etc. The wheel is kept turning by greed and anger, both the result of ignorance.
The circle is particularly sacred with the North American Indians. It not only depicts time cycles but is also a symbol of the universe. Because all points on the circumference of a circle are connected, it symbolizes the interconnectedness of all things, and because they are equidistant from the central point, the circle symbolizes brotherhood as the heart of each is the center. This center is Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, which is in its most profound aspect the same as Brahman of the Advaitins of India.
Turning to causality, karma or related concepts are almost universal, though not always regarded in the same way in different cultures. This contrasts with the Western concepts of chance and synchronicity. In India there has been much discussion of causality and the relation between cause and effect, in which all great thinkers of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism have taken part. But the most important aspect now is the relation between moral cause and result. The idea of karma is spreading all over the world from India, the cradle of so much wisdom, but karma is still far from being accepted by scientists.
It is not easy for scientists to accept karma. One has first to accept the unity of consciousness and matter, the fact that the spiritual, mental, and physical are involved in every material event. But once these ideas are accepted, every scientific theory developed from that moment will be in harmony with our highest spiritual understanding. We will naturally try to think and live in harmony with nature instead of misusing her for our own selfish purposes.
With creation and evolution we find a great variety of opinions the world over. Evolution has been one of the basic concepts in Western biology for the last two centuries, as a doctrine of changing forms (and perhaps changing psychology), of which the driving force is the struggle for life or selfish competition without any other goal than being more successful than one's competitor. Dogmatic Christianity rejects evolution altogether and states that God created the world just as it now is. Jainism, too, seems to reject evolution, though changes of forms are explained by their doctrine of karma. But the word evolution really signifies the bringing to expression of what is already present within; not through struggle and competition but by a process of natural growth.
One example of evolution comes from pre-Columbian Guatemala. The Quiche-Mayas who lived in the tropical mountains in south Guatemala wrote down their account in the sixteenth century in a book known as the Popul Vuh. It is one of the few native American written documents to survive the European invaders. The Popul Vuh states, briefly summarized, that in the beginning there was only the sky — no humans, animals, plants, gods, or earth. Under the sky stretched the endless sea, and beneath the surface of the sea were sleeping six gods surrounded by a blue-green light, together called God-7. Their name was Gucumatz, which means the celestial serpent adorned with the blue-green feathers of the bird from the sun.
Then the first thing happened: two of the six gods, who represent the reflective and the active aspect of cosmic mind, started to discuss together how they should create the world. They visualized man, who would become equal in potency with the gods themselves, and then the earth, mountains, rivers, plants, and animals. By their thinking alone these things came into being, but it didn't happen all at once. First they tried together to teach the animals to talk and to remember their divine origin, but they failed. Then they created a first humanity, but their bodies were soft and weak and they could not procreate or talk. So this first humanity was destroyed. A second humanity was created, which was more powerful but did not use its abilities to pray to the gods; therefore it also was destroyed. The book continues to describe the development of the mind and the higher spiritual aspects of man, and finally mankind reaches a state when it is completed. From then on it has to go its long way into the future.
An aspect that is remarkable in this book is that mind arose first in the birth process of the universe. The evolution process was conceived from the beginning and the actual evolution, which is the effect of the mind-activity of the gods, already existed. Thus the effect is not different from the cause, the thinking; evolution is always guided by higher beings, and the divine is always present with — or rather within — all being. The so-called struggle for life exists only on the surface of life, because the existence of free will implies necessarily the choice between selfishness and altruism. It also means that there is a goal for the processes of evolution, namely to consciously remember the divine qualities within oneself. If mankind at large understands that, fear of fatal failure will vanish. Another interesting aspect of the Popul Vuh is that the gods take part in the process. They think, they create, but make imperfect creations which they have to destroy, and then try again. This makes us feel that the gods are our elder brothers, higher than we are but nevertheless imperfect on their own level.
Why are these ideas so important for the world? We can grasp a little of the tremendous impact that they could have on our understanding and attitude with regard to nature if we compare these with some of the assumptions that still largely rule the minds of scientists the world over. Consciously or not, many of us still assume that evolution is linear, that every individual is striving upwards for its own benefit, regardless of others if that suits him, and going in a direction of which he has no idea. He does not know if there will be an end to existence, or if it will continue forever in an unpredictable direction. Because those who think only of linear progress do not expect to return to where they were before, they do not realize that they may one day have to face the rubbish they left behind.
If, for example, the value of the circle as a universal symbol were recognized, the world would see that life is eternal, that so-called life and death are but arcs of the same circle; that every chance missed today may still be had tomorrow, or in a next lifetime; that one is eternally responsible for every action because it affects all beings in the universe, including oneself; that all creatures, some younger and some older than ourselves, are our respected brothers and sisters and should be treated as such. The Darwinian theory of evolution is based on selfish competition and materialistic strife. But when the symbol of the circle is understood, scientists will slowly start to formulate evolutionary theories based on harmony, cooperation, and the recognition of an inner spiritual and compassionate driving force within every aspect of nature. If these and other such ideas penetrate into the mind of humankind at large, the world will change greatly. We will see a deeper purpose in life, and automatically we will live in brotherhood and harmony with nature.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1991; copyright © 1991 Theosophical University Press)