A holistic way of life basedon respect for all life holds the key to our future.Story by Margaret Evans
"Ido not desire kingdom, heaven, paradise or even nirvana.I only desire the end of suffering of all beings uponthis Earth." – Sanskrit verse recited byMahatma Gandhi in his daily prayers.
"We live in an age of anguish."As the opening statement of a book, any book, it commandsattention, particularly as it seems to be more resonantwith truth with each passing day. Yet in this particularbook, "Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualitiesof Life" by Satish Kumar, this confronting phraseserves to identify the commonality that links us all– an anguish that is political, social, ecologicaland spiritual, regardless of where, and how, we liveon the planet. And, in that simple act, it's alreadystarted the healing process.
Once again, I'm struck by how attuned the finestthinkers and holistic healers are to the needs of usmere mortals – they seem to know instinctively,intuitively, what we need at a given time. Eckhart Tolledid it with "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life'sPurpose", then Deepak Chopra followed with "PowerFreedom and Grace" 18 months or so ago, and WayneDyer with "Change your Thoughts – ChangeYour Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao" morerecently.
Yet while these others are household names and somewould suggest they're just doing what they dobest, Satish Kumar has a humility and directness thatspeak directly to the heart and the soul. Indian bybirth and a Jain monk for nine years (the Mahatma wasalso a Jain, a sect whose guiding principle is extremenon violence to honour all living things), Kumar espousesthe philosophy of Ayurveda for its holistic healingof the self and the planet. Steeped in this ancienttradition, Kumar is also well aware of the materialisticand self indulgent ways of the West having lived inWestern Europe for the past 30 years. He is a well knowncommentator, magazine editor and, lately, a presenteron BBC TV of a program that demonstrates his holisticview of nature.
In keeping with Mahatma Gandhi's desire to endthe suffering of all beings, Satish Kumar's intentionin "Spiritual Compass" is to give us "away out of the anguish", a direction to followin all aspects of our lives. The "three qualitiesof life" of which he speaks are the Ayurvedicprinciples of sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. Simply put,the idea of sattva or a sattvic person is "comparableto the Wabi-Sabi of Japan, the Zen of Buddhism, theTao of China, the Sufi way of Islam and the ways ofthe Shakers and the Amish". It seeks wholenessand harmony, or as Kumar frequently suggests, "elegantsimplicity".
The rajasic way as we can probably gather from theroot word raja, is all about drive and energy and arroganceand making the big statement. We are very definitelyliving in an age where the rajasic way rules supreme,says Kumar with the clear firm voice that gives thisbook its very distinctive tone. I suspect not everyonewill like his forthrightness and some will find hiscomments about the apparatus and attitude of the globalenvironmental movement, for instance, something he dismissesas "scientific environmentalism lacking depthand wholeness" and thus rajasic, as too dismissive.Maybe even a little rajasic themselves!
The growing preoccupation with the dire consequencesfor our planet, and all who live on her, from climatechange, rising oil prices, widespread pollution, depletedenergy sources, and, most recently, soaring food priceson the back of less and less space to grow staple graincrops, is leading us somewhere we have to strenuouslyavoid retreating, Kumar suggests. The common threadthrough all is fear, a tamasic quality relating to allthe forces of darkness. It takes us to a place wherewe're better not to venture, says this astuteand compassionate thinker. While fear has its placein the climate debate, in making us act in a meaningfulway to change policies and our own lifestyles, "ifwe allow fear to overwhelm us, to rule us, if fear becomesthe driving force behind our environmentalism, thenwe are likely to be debilitated, disempowered and depressed."This man doesn't mince his words and I suspectno institution is safe from his piercing, but alwaystruth seeking, gaze.
The alternative to fear, is, quite simply, love. Andwhen he espouses this idea, it's easy to findthe Jain monk still beneath the trappings of a successfullife in the West. "Our lives and our actions needto be rooted in love of the Earth and of the naturalworld," he tells us. And for most of us, "caringfor the Earth is a way of life rather than a way ofcrisis management". His deep conviction that wereally can find our way out of this morass and thatthe future is not one of dustbowls and deluges is veryreassuring. But that's only possible, says Kumar,with a total turnaround of the prevailing attitude thatreally it's only humans who matter on this earth.Such rajasic "born to rule" arrogance fliesin the face of an intrinsic understanding that we arebut one small part of nature's whole. I'mreminded of a telling comment by a senior lecturer inthe Theosophical movement reported here in NOVA a yearor so ago that Gaia would still exist in her eternalrhythms long after the human race had disappeared! Itseems even more prescient now.
Satish Kumar tells us that he is frequently asked whetherhe is a pessimist or an optimist and his answer is always"optimist" because pessimism is tamasic,the way of no return. While he agrees with the scientificview that we are currently on the precipice becauseof our slavish devotion to a life fed by unsustainableand destructive fossil fuels, in his clear sighted wayhe believes this makes our choice easier: "Ifwe go any further we will fall into the abyss. So theonly thing we can do now is to take a step back; I callit the 'the point of return'." Interestingly,Sanskrit has a word for this state, pratikraman, andanother, atikraman which means stepping outside ournatural limits. And says Kumar, "Atikraman iswhat happens when we break the universal law."
Applying this knowledge to today's world, weneed to step back from our current attitude of atikramantowards our natural and finite resources and returnto energy derived directly from air, water and sun,the Pratikraman way. Given our Western love affair withthe car (can it really be true that here in Australiafour wheel drives are the fastest growing segment ofthe motor industry?), not to mention all those othercreature comforts we find it impossible to live without,this is no easy task. But Kumar, at least, thinks itis achievable and, once again, he is persuasive. Afterall, this " wasteful, destructive and consumeristtamasic culture" has only been around for 250years or so and "in the context of the evolutionarytimescale 250 years is a very short time. What was createdby humans can be changed by humans." He'sright of course so maybe that optimism is well placedafter all.
It's Satish Kumar's effortless understandingof what it means to be holistic, to have a holisticworldview, that makes "Spiritual Compass"a book I will turn to again and again. A Jain sees theuniverse as a single entity, a uni-verse, as opposedto the dualistic view that prevails in so many ways.
One example is the way we view the land and its use– in a biodynamic, Slow Food culture, there isreverence for the rhythms, integrity and balance ofnature, and the creatures that exist in that ecosystemare permitted their place as well as man and his useful"commodity" animals. But when monoculturesdriven by monopolies – Kumar informs us that fouror five giant multinational corporations now control80 per cent of the international food trade –hold sway this is the tamasic, almost nightmarish, vision"resulting in the breakdown of society and destructionof the natural world." And aren't we seeingthat already in the current escalating global food crisiswhere staple foods are being priced beyond the reachof millions because such foods are in shorter and shortersupply. Not only can't they not afford them, they'rejust not available anymore. The reason? In large part,it's that we have allowed monopolies to replacefood crops with biofuels to feed our insatiable demandfor energy, for cars, for comfort, for a continuanceof the profligate lifestyles we have arrogantly assumedas our right.
Here's where people like Satish Kumar and, beforehim, Mahatma Gandhi, have so much to offer us that isrelevant as we face up to these modern crises. The Mahatmatold each of us: "Be the change you want to seein the world," and his disciple Kumar actuallycomes to our rescue with an 11 point program of "sattivicaction" so that we can "combat the rajasicvalues of consumerism, address the problem of globalwarming and begin to live a joyful life". Someof the more immediately accessible include "livesimply", "consume less", "wastenot", "use no harmful products", "walk","meditate", and "work less".Primarily though, it all starts when we "changeour attitudes" because it's only from aviewpoint of acknowledging the right of other creatures,plants and fellow human beings for that matter to livea full and contented life that we can possibly beginto bring about the change we want to see.
"Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualities of Life"is a book for our times and I can't recommendit enough.
Spiritual Compass: The Three Qualitiesof Life