In these harrowing days of the pandemic, we hear about people fighting a war -- a war against a microscopic virus that threatens to destroy humanity. Every war uses its own set of weapons. Some weapons in fighting this war are obvious -- science, health-care personnel and medical infrastructure. But what will be most significant, if we are to emerge victorious, is a weapon rarely remembered, understood or nurtured: our solidarity.
When the world entered a phase of lockdown, our certainties and absolutes got shattered. The lockdown forced us to pause and retrospect. It brought more birds to our backyards, quieter moments to listen to their song, more time to spend with our families, to read novels, listen to music and also evaluate our own actions. The realization that has emerged from the lockdown is the recognition that the health of the other is required for one’s own health. As famously said, we are not safe, until all are safe. One has to recognize the other even when one maintains social distancing from the other.
This brings us to St. Francis of Assisi who is widely acknowledged as the patron saint of Ecology in the Christian world. He is remembered for his famous poem The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon. This is an example par excellence of the care, compassion and love St. Francis had for all creatures. He helps us to see that Integral Ecology calls for a culture where all creatures and human beings can coexist harmoniously and benefit each other fairly.
Pope Francis was deeply moved by St. Francis’s profound contemplation on nature. Pope Francis had written an encyclical (a letter on the environment or on the care of our common home) titled Laudato Si'. It is a phrase in Umbrian dialect which can be translated as ‘Praised Be.’ Interestingly, the title Laudato Si' happens to be the first line of The Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, where St. Francis has addressed every element of nature as ‘Brother Wind’,’ Sister Water’ or ‘Brother Fire.’ In his encyclical, Pope Francis writes about the loss of biodiversity and encourages us to look back on how St. Francis had built a harmonious bond between humans and nature.
The pontiff answers the needs of the contemporary world by calling us to take protective action and shape an optimistic future for our offsprings. He says, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvement and talent.” In order to save our common home from destruction, we need to recognize God’s existence in all creatures and realize our oneness with this planet. The Eco-spirituality of Laudato Si' asserts that the violation of sanctity in nature is a sin. It teaches us that by protecting the Earth, its flora and fauna, we not only carry out our sacred duty but also protect ourselves.
Among the many spiritual traditions in India, the Chaitanya tradition of Bengal discourses that the practice of ‘jeebe doya’ (compassion for all living beings) helps the soul to progress towards self-realization. When we perceive God in all beings and all beings in God, we become a unit of the whole cosmos. This is possible only when one attains samadarshana or same-sightedness. In external appearance one may differ from the other but in essence each one is a manifestation of the Divine.
According to the Book of Genesis, our true identity is that we are created in the image and likeness of God. In the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna said that only with long years of spiritual practice and meditation can one attain a level of consciousness in which one can see oneself in all beings and all beings in oneself.
The theme of World Environment Day 2021 is ‘Ecosystem Restoration.’ June 5, 2021 is expected to be celebrated on a vast scale focusing on resetting our relationship with nature. Unfortunately, we are living in an era of global ecological breakdown where industrialization and globalization have led to mindless commodification of nature. From resource depletion to pollution overload, the planet is struggling against unprecedented assaults. In the wake of all these phenomena, it is high time to introspect and question ourselves: Are we sufficiently responsible towards the Earth? Or do we expect only the Earth to take care of us?
Let us look at this issue in the context of the Indian Spiritual Tradition. Our ecological heritage is the outcome of man’s communion with nature. While the Western community saw nature as a mechanism to be experimented, the Indian community realized nature as something to be experienced. Since Divinity is an integral part of both Man and Nature, almost all the Indian philosophical systems promote a harmonious and holistic relation between Man and Nature.
The people of Vedic age developed by worshipping nature and glorifying the powers of nature. They believed that the Supreme Being incarnates himself in different species. Therefore, each species was important and sacred to them. Vedic people’s concept of family included not only humans but also cattle and pets. Prithvi Sukta talks elaborately about air, water and soil where the Earth is conceived as a mother representing ecological balance. Living in unity with nature was the life style of our forefathers and they had maintained it through austere living.
The Upanishads teach us that the whole world is permeated by God (isa vasyam idam sarvam). There is no strict separation of the sacred from the profane. Everything should be accepted as good and holy. The Mokshadharmaparva of the Mahabharata says that all living beings have souls and God resides in every soul (sarvabhutastho). The Bhagvad Gita stresses on love for all creatures (sarva bhute hite ratah) and also on the concept of universal welfare (loksangraha).
It is the compartmentalization of materialism and spirituality that has created the current rift between man and nature. The history of Indian culture bears evidence of how the optimum balance between the spiritual and the material was maintained by our ancestors. Actually, there is no want or scarcity in the natural world. There is enough for all. It is the obscene accumulation of material wealth by ‘the few’ at the expense of the needs of ‘the many’ that has struck at the roots of man’s symbiotic association with nature. The concept of material prosperity has become limited to man alone and there lies the problem.
God is the source of all life on Earth. He is the protector and the giver of all good things that we have experienced from the moment of our conception. The only way in which we can repay our debts to God is by regulating our actions with responsibility towards His creation. We can use our God-gifted energies and talents to contribute in the universal welfare of the entire biosphere.
How can we express our gratitude to nature? We can begin with simple, small steps like spending quiet time with nature, taking nature walks to admire the beauty and bounty of nature, appreciating our natural neighbors (like the flowers that bloom in our gardens or the birds that visit our gardens) or even initiating children to talk to nature. In this regard, teachers, parents and relatives can play a creative role in shaping eco-spiritual perspectives in children from their tender years. A conversion of thought, perspective and consciousness is the need of the hour.
The relative scope of humans on this planet is insignificant compared to all other species. Though we require the support of every other species to survive, the truth is that all other species would benefit seven-fold if humans perish. Therefore, we should look up to Mother Nature with awe and reverence. ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ is not just about protecting the environment. It is about relating to the environment with respect and gratitude; it is about belonging to the universal web with compassion and love.
(Zenith William is a Jesuit priest of Calcutta Province)