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What does a fish know of water in which it swims all its life? What does a man know of nature of which he is an integral part? The ancient answer is: he knows and he knows not.

Men through the ages, through popular wisdom, philosophies, religions, and sciences have tried to understand their place in nature, their linkage with the universe. The twenty papers here collected, which are based on the IGNCA seminar on ‘Prakrti’, held at New Delhi, on 5-12 January 1993, offer some thoughts on this profound concern. Being the fifth and the final of the series of seminars concerning the mahabhutas or the five-elements, this volume culminates in a cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary expedient thinking about ‘Man in Nature’. It can be read independently of the four preceding volumes which deal with the ‘Oral Tradition’, the ‘Vedic, Buddhist and Jain Traditions’, the ‘Agamic tradition and the Arts’, and ‘The Nature of Matter’. IGNCA’s main concern in this project (see Foreword) is : (i) to explore the fundamental and universal concepts capable of rejuvenating man’s perception of his primary foundation, and (ii) to create a harmonic understanding and communication through a developed multi-disciplinary vision.

The sole aim in these introductory pages is to present a conceptual overview of technical matters raised at the seminar.

The Views of Modern Science

Modern era, from the beginning of the seventeenth century, has been dominated by a scientific-technical worldview where man is regarded as the central player. With the publication of Isaac Newton’s masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in 1687, the old idea of the universe faded. The Newtonian view of matter as inert substance struck roots in Western thought and culture. Industrial Revolution was its logical and direct consequence. Experimental technological development created a new confidence in man, and Europe eventually became the light and leaven of a new world. The shadow side of this turning was the disintegration of a coherent cosmology and the danger of a catastrophe. With the new machine age the forces of nature were harnessed, the face of the Earth was drastically altered, and the ‘new man’ began to look at himself as the master of nature, the maker of history and the measure of all. By tragic irony science itself came to be controlled by technology. Much faster than expected, the pursuit of science and technology became the most significant of all human affairs, effecting and affecting politics, economics, religion and social life. The machine-mindedness, accompanied by the erosion of a unified vision, resulted in complete demoralization and depersonalization. In this overthrow some men of science see the ‘inadequacies of the human mind’ (see Narlikar) and the mistake of materialism.

Today scientists describe man’s place in the universe in terms of the perfect cosmological principle and the anthropic principle (see Narlikar, also Malik). In essence these principles present a picture of steadily expanding universe in which man the observer has attained a certain level of intelligence in the course of the evolution of life. One important contribution of the cosmological principle is that it has dethroned man from the ‘centre’ of the universe. According to current ideas, all galaxies in the universe have the same status and man in his galaxy is just one of them. Some scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, propose two versions of the anthropic principle, the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle states that it is only in certain regions of the universe that necessary condition for the development of intelligent life, a typical human, exists. According to strong anthropic principle there are other regions of the universe or universes, each with its own initial configuration and its own set of laws, where the conditions would not be right for the development of intelligent beings. However, as Narlikar maintains with characteristic clarity, "It is not sharp enough for believers in the principle who would like to demonstrate that physical parameters are finely tuned to human existence, nor it is convincing enough to persuade sceptics who might attack its speculative nature, because we still know too little about the formation of planets, about the origin and adapatability of life, about the evolution of intelligence, and so on."

The search for extraterrestrial intelligent life can advance only if there is a clarity about what exactly life is. There is no difficulty in recognizing the various forms of life on Earth. But until today the ontological difference between the living and the nonliving has remained unsettled. Since Darwin it is conjectured that origin of life on Earth was simply another step in general evolutionary sequence. Malville, with a spirited wit and sophistication, examines the origin of chemical elements which have biological significance. Giving extraordinary importance to supernova explosions in the formation of Elements that build planets or life, he reconstructs the origin: "The iron which reddens the soil of Earth and Mars and which courses through the veins and arteries of reptiles, fish and mammals originated in an ancient supernova. Slowly but steadily most galaxies acquired the ingredients necessary for life. Our galaxy planets were formed with the stars; other planets also contain mud, fire and perhaps even alien versions of blood." To corroborate his findings in astrophysics, Malville presents the cosmogonies of the America’s intertwined blood, bones and earth which find reference throughout the ruins of Mesoamerica.

The notion of Elements as building blocks of life is widely accepted in science. The transmutation of one form of Element to another is a subject which has illuminated the imagination of a large number of scholars in various fields. Ranganathan provides several examples of illustrious scientists, artists and philoso-phers who have contributed to the fascinating field of interaction of colour with the Elements. C. V. Raman, for instance, was able to relate the perception of colour in some areas of physics and astronomy to a holistic perception which included the application of the quantum theory of light to physiology and human consciousness in its sweep: "Raman’s holistic perception of colour has an epic grandeur which is similar to Niels Bohr’s holistic theory of complementarity and Roger Penrose’s new theory of physics with the phenomenon of consciousness in the new areas of psychology and neurophysiology".

Appropriately, Malik traces the development of this holistic theory from the discipline of science, but goes beyond it to show that holistic perception is a phenomenon of universal consciousness: "The universal principle of organization immanent in all things manifests itself in a cosmic pattern, in which it is particularized in successive wholes, constituting various scales as self-enfoldment. In this way the world comes to consciousness of itself and explicitly realizes its essential nature, in its reflective awareness and interpretive conceptualization by intelligent human beings."

What overtakes scientific thinking today is the problem of life. Although it seems clear that there exists other planets with chemical elements having biological significance, the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe is still remote. However, the notions of ‘cosmic self-organization’, ‘Earth as one living organism’, ‘universal consciousness’, and ‘holistic theory of complementarity’ have gained considerable prominence in contemporary thought.

The Vision of Ancient Sages

Advances in the new physics have affirmed that on matters concerning the universe there is no fundamental difference between the experimental scientists and the mystical sages. Of the post-mechanistic paradigms, for instance, the concept of ‘expanding universe’ agrees with the Upanisadic notion of ‘expanding Brahman’, and the cosmologists claim that the universe has been borrowed from the ‘vacuum’ echoes in the philosophy of ‘sunya (zero) Brahman’. The other theories built around the scientists’ conception of the world such as ‘liberation of matter’, ‘cosmic strings’, ‘galactic seeds’, and the ‘living universe’ can be traced back to the Vedic sages. Adopting this view of the nature of scientific truth, Narlikar has pointed out that "information regarding the origin of the living systems and the universe may find echoes in ancient wisdom". Malville has produced striking evidence of how "overriding insight is the same from astrophysics and the origin myths of cosmogonies".

Taking the thought a little further one may find that in explaining nature and the universe the traditional vision offers a richer and more encompassing worldview. The Sankhya and Vedanta philosphies of purusa-prakrti, for instance, provide a very clear formulation of the natural phenomena of the universe. Wood attempts to interpret nature (prakrti) and consciousness (purusa) in a new way as a philosophical division of experience into objective and subjective parts: "The objective principle of nature is represented by conceptions of divine immanence in the changing manifestations of creation; and the subjective principle of consciousness is represented by conceptions of a transcendent spirit, both as a transcending God in the macrocosm of the external universe, and as an inner or spiritual essence of soul in the microcosm of individual experience".

Given the spiritual context, one might argue that such intellectual division of experience is neither right nor wrong. Mind is inseparable from the matter-dominated body, and nature does not exist independently of the universe. Moreover, an experience identified with the ultimate reality is nothing but that reality where the object and the subject remain undifferentiated. At the level of intellectual awareness of experience (which is not the experience) there is, of course, a distance between the subject and the object. It is this integral vision and experience of prakrti which Khanna tries to present in her paper. To express man’s critical awareness of cosmological kinship there could be no better imagery than of the Earth Mother as supporter, as womb, as sacred totality, and so on.

The physical biology of the universe has been described in the Upanisads in terms of life (jiva) and the self (atman). As Wood puts it, "Traditionally life is considered as the vital breath that animates the activities of nature. In modern terms, life as ‘vital breath’ or ‘breathing spirit’ or ‘aspiration’ or ‘inspiration’ are metaphors for the expression of consciousness in living behavaiour. This expressive activity of life is described by prana which is derived from the word ana, meaning ‘breath’, and the prefix pra meaning ‘prior to’ or ‘continuing on’ or ‘going forth’. The essential principle of life is consciousness, which is the supporting basis and the unchanging cause of the living activities of the body."

To better understand the integral biology, the subtle distinction between jiva and prana has to be made explicit. Filippi does it quite clearly through a meaningful interpretation of the pancabhuta, the five-elements that constitute the body, and the pancakosa, the five-envelops worn by the self. The combination of these two assumes a fundamental significance that are not apparent when considered separately. The basic assumptions are as follows: Life (jiva) is complete in its own components. The body (sthula sarira) , made up of the organic compound of the five-elements, enables the early stage of life (prana) to develop human and other forms of life, and the real being (atman) uses the body as an instrument to modify its own condition or destiny. After death the constitutive elements of the body (corpse) return to the gross level of nature. The five-envelops of cosmic construction are schematically presented: The first, or the highest, in the hierarchy of kosas is anandamayakosa, the beatific envelop, followed by vijnanmayakosa, the intellectual envelop, manomayakosa, the mental envelop, pranamayakosa, the vital envelop, and finally, annamayakosa, the vegetative envelop. This order is reversed at the death and dissolution of a living being . What remains at disintegration is the anandamayakosa of the cosmic person (purusa). This residuum is space (akasa) from which, as the Upanisadic sages have said, all beings emerge and in which all are finally absorbed.

Tulpule brings in medieval Indian mystics concept of ‘spacelessness’ for consideration to describe the ultimate reality. "Spacelessness", he says, "is a void, but not of the nature of an abyss or a bottomless pit, but of the nature of the vast and expansive space itself. The concept of the ultimate as a state of void, unbound and eternal is submerged in the mortal’s desire for immortality."

Lidova’s paper on the Vedic cosomogonic myth of amrtamanthan is significantly linked with this primeval idea of immortality.

One of the central intuitions of the traditional vision consists in seeing the cosmos in its fullness: man as a part of nature, and nature as a substratum of the universe. Within this worldview, the universe (Brahman) has no other structure than its own kosas (matter, mind, intellect, vital breath, and consciousness) which envelop the entire natural world. Clearly, then, the perfect cosmological principle and the anthropic principle in modern science are the negative theories.

The Voice of Popular Wisdom

The views of modern science are the views of man the ‘observer’, the views of ancient sages are the views of man the ‘visionary’, and the views of popular wisdom are the collective views of man the ‘natural being’. But man as species is one single configuration of the cosmic Elements, which is rooted in the unknown and yet knowable in terms of its physical, metaphysical, biological, psychological, material, and spiritual dimensions.

The popular wisdom, to be evolved through the oral and the textual modes of transmission of Cosmic Intelligence, affirms that there is a transcendent order of nature which is inviolable and interlinked with the natural order of culture. Saraswati suggests a speculative model: "Nature is a set of self-originating, self-organizing and self-sustaining forms. Life renders matter the binding abilities, interlocking powers, overlapping characters and a transcendent state. The transcendent order is that (prakrti) which natures nature. The Elements of nature are set into a technical order that causes biosocial types. Like natural forms, the forms of culture are also subject to the fivefold order of origination, binding, interlocking, etc. The ecological man of matter is culturally processed and transformed into a moral person through a transcendental superpsychic process of intellectual cultivation and ritual purification".

There are in this volume a series of simple but profound illustrations from the ‘ecological republic’ where man looks upon nature as a self-existing reality of which he is an inseparable part at all levels. Pandey, who lived for five years among the Zuni, the Hopi and the Navajo of the American Southwest, reflects on the perspective of one such man. He points out the most simple basics of their worldview: "The Zuni fuse man and nature into one more or less harmonious medium. It also shows that stability in human life is derived from the continuity of natural rhythms. Rhythm is implicit in nature, made explicit by the regular performance of rituals and the annual production of crops. It is symbolized by the Zuni calander, determined and maintained by the Sun priest and his associates."

Torress examines the ancient Mesoamerican cosmic vision which considers Fire and Sun as the positive energy of the cosmos. She describes with lucidity how "the personal energy of all the human beings had to be in a constant feeding back to this cosmic energy, which the Mesoamericans translated into a need of the human heart and blood to keep the world going."

Reporting on the Eastern Slavs, particularly the pre-Christian Russians, Kaushal mentions: "Fire, Water and Earth are the fundamental axes of their pantheon. The relationship between the three can never be hierarchical, as life can be generated only when the three come together. The male Fire, or the male dry Seed/Sun/Fire, soaked in the female Waters enters the womb of the Mother Earth and keeps the eternal rhythm of life going."

Sanders’ study of Bushman of Southern Africa shows: "In the worldview of these hunter-gatherers, man constitutes the beginning and end, or rather the cycle of life. Man is the immediate carrier of life but over and above man stand the planets, and then there are rain clouds, water wells, trees, plants and animals, all of which are considered to be predeceased and transformed Bushman."

In their description of the Baka Pygmy in the equatorial Africa, Simo and Nchoji have drawn attention to the fact that "there is no dividing line in Baka life between the physical and the spiritual. They adore Kamba, their supreme god, who is the creator of all things and who exists as an explanation for the Baka’s presence in the forest and for the order of the world arround them".

The voice of popular wisdom is ‘heard’ and ‘seen’ in the artistic manifestations. Shah, himself an artist of repute, presents a case study of tribal Gujarat in western India, making several significant statements: "The theme of the tribal creative expression mostly deals with ‘life’, known and unknown forces. Form evolves automatically through intuition. Almost all their creative manifestations evolve out of their own environment. Their respect for prakrti is like a part of their own selves. Thus art form becomes a living identity, a part of their tribal self, family, village, and that way, the universe-cosmos."

Zekrgoo emphasizes the opposition between the Islamic and the modern views of art: "Central to the Islamic and traditional view is a belief in the oneness of nature and man. Nature and man are of the same origin, and like man, nature is alive and intelligent. One of the many names of Allah is ‘Musawwer’ or the ‘Artist’. Man is considered the greatest work of art created by Allah. Art, in the Islamic tradition, extends beyond nature into the wisdom contained in its depths, depths which can only be reached by the pure in mind and spirit."

What characterizes the popular wisdom is the originality, that is, the faithfulness of the first order. Nature is divinized, even humanized (as in the case of Bushman). The distinction between man and nature is superficial at the behavioural level. At the ideational level a symbolic structure of the universe emerges in terms of male/female polarities (as in the case of Mesoamerica). The transcendent order (implicit in the rhythm of nature) is expressed in the ultimate externalization of life (seen as cosmic energy of the Sun and Fire) and internalization of nature in culture (art and ritual).

The Value of Nature

While the ‘modern’ man may find the traditional vision quaint or amusing on the one hand and smelling superstitious on the other, it is taken seriously by those who have cared to realize the catastrophic implications of technology and the mistake of materialism. The quest for a coherent meaning in natural philosophy, a new paradigm of the universe, and a re-appraisal of traditional thoughts (in which ‘spirit’ is central to the nature of physical reality and matter relegated to mind) has become a greater imperative.

Kumar, explores the new paradigms of the universe to spot that these are not new as they may appear: "The traditional Indian concept of vasudhaivakutumbakam (the whole Earth is one family) came first and then the Gaia hypothesis of the Earth as one interconnected entity. The ideas of Permaculture echo in the American Indian belief that whatever one does is going to affect the seventh generation. The concept of Bioregionalism as decentralized, logically-based economy is what Mahatma Gandhi called swadesi. Creation spirituality (in the sense of the sacred as an essential part of an ecological worldview) has been present in ancient beliefs and practices of the people of India holding all rivers and mountains sacred."

To develop her idea of the sacred as common roots in traditional cultures, Vannucci turns to the relevant concepts of the Vedic ecology: "Rta as the law and order of nature that varies in the space-time continuum; Hiranyagarbha as the golden embryo that makes the auspicious beginning of all; the Vedic hymns dedicated to the frogs revealing a mature concept of the five basic environmental Elements, their mutual interrelationships and their interaction with other Elements, and so on." She brings comparative views of several other traditions to broaden the spectrum of Indian examples.

Man’s second environment is his culture. Wolanski thinks in new ways to explain the interface between nature and culture: "Culture, which sustains the ‘animal’ nature of the humans, is subjected to evolution. Paradoxically it inhibits the biological evolution of the human beings. Many scientists argue that biological evolution of the humans is finished. Adjustment of society to environment is problematic. Over five billion brains of the contemporary humans conceive ideas and transform the world, whereas their bodies require food, clothes, apartments, and still need new products of civilization for a comfortable life. Modernization is a new kind of adaptation. But its values change from positive to negative, and the real values of the same changes can be different, depending on the situation, e.g. environmental conditions and habits."

The ultimate issue in the value of nature is this: Is nature ‘useful’ to man the observer? Scientific theories of Gaia, Permaculture, Biosphere, etc. seem to have originated in fear, caused by such events as ecological disaster, holocaust, depression, and so on. Traditional theories of rta, purusa-prakrti, pancabhuta, and pancakosa have originated in faith, firmed by the claiming and celebration of man’s kinship with nature the vessel of divine power, the ordering principle of culture. For modern man, of course, nature is important in survival and hence the human adaptability to nature has been given a positive value and a practical necessity.

This picture of Prakrti leaves unresolved one sobering difference that concerns human attitude. Modernity is based on the logos of experimental empirical science; tradition, on the contrary, takes a position of faith not for a strategy but as fruit of divine descent. Yet so long as both are abstractions of the ever-inexhaustible mystery, the difference in the appearance and the reality would hardly matter in the pursuit of the ultimate.

Baidyanath Saraswati


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