Notes on Nature in the Gita

© 1998 Daniel Clark

I'll tell you what is to be known. Knowing it, you'll attain immortality. It's the beginningless Supreme Brahman. They say it neither is or is not. Everywhere its hands and feet -everywhere its eyes, heads, faces. Everywhere it hears, and abides, embracing all the world. Shining in the gunas of the senses and without any senses at all -detached, and supporting everything, without gunas and enjoying gunas -inside and outside all creatures, those that move and those that don't, it's too subtle to be understood -close, and placed so far away -undivided, standing in all creatures -also divided, or so it seems -understood as the creatures' maintainer, and devourer, and creator. It's also the light in all lights. It's beyond the darkness, they say. It's knowing, the known, and known by knowing. It stands in the hearts of us all. (spoken by Krishna in the Gita, 13.13 - 13.18)

Vedic literature, written in Sanskrit, forms the basis of the religion popularly known as Hinduism. Among the hundreds -- or thousands -- of texts, three groups stand out as the authoritative revealed scriptures of the Hindus. The first group is the four original Vedas: the Rik, the Sama, the Yajur, and the Atharva Vedas. The second is the many Upanishads, including the Gitopanishad, also called the Bhagavad-gita.

The third is a single book, the Vedanta Sutra or Brahma Sutra, which is a digest of the above two. Among these texts, the most widely read and followed is the Bhagavad-gita. In its pages the warrior Arjuna presents questions to Krishna, who is God. Krishna's answers make up most of the 700 verses. As scholars have pointed out, the Gita emphasizes description over explanation. It's not a systematic theological treatise. It's a conversation between two friends. Krishna speaks personally. He discusses several spiritual paths, not just one. He sometimes appears to contradict himself. (Twice, Arjuna expresses his perplexity at his teacher's paradoxes.) While the Gita places great emphasis on God's transcendence, it also treats in detail the connections between spirit and matter. Because of the manner in which Krishna makes those connections, I suggest that the Gita's religion is a kind of Nature Religion. What kind, then? I'm asking this question primarily to find out more about Krishna. But I'm also aware that in today's world we sorely need a deeper perception of the divinity of nature, in order to save ourselves from our suicidal addiction to machines. Even in that respect, my main motivation is devotional. I feel that simple living increases the probability of high thinking (to adapt Emerson's phrase). If we can disentangle ourselves from our machines and live closer to nature, we'll have a better chance of being closer to ourselves -- and to God. Material nature exercises a positive influence in the development of human spirituality. That's the conviction of those who practice Nature Religion. Does Krishna agree with that view? Maybe not. Krishna calls the material world "a place of suffering where nothing lasts" (8.15). He says people are deluded by the power of the world. And he announces that the goal of life is to leave the material realm and reside in God's spiritual home. So it's obvious that Krishna is no Pantheist. It's also clear that he's no Pagan. Several times in the Gita he decries worship of the Devas, the personal forms of natural forces. And the sensuality typical of Pagans gets no

better treatment. In its stead Krishna advocates stoicism and detachment. What kind of nature religion does the Gita promote? It is Panentheism: God is in nature, and nature is in God. The wonders of the world are manifestations of divine splendor. And the material world itself serves and worships the divine. As we humans come to understand this, we stimulate our own divine nature.

God is not far away from us and present only in commandments. God is present here and now -- in us, and in Nature. Nature is the intermediary between the Self and God.

In the Gita's first verse, the blind King Dhritarashtra asks, "What's happening on the battlefield?" (1.1) The clairvoyant Sanjaya answers that the warrior Arjuna is saying, "I will not fight." (2.9) In response to that, the supreme being Krishna begins a long philosophical lesson to Arjuna with "The self is eternal." (2.12) Krishna finishes his teaching with "Give up all dharmas -- take shelter of me." (18.66) Whereupon Arjuna displays a change of heart: "I will fight." (18.73) Then Sanjaya tells Dhritarashtra, "Your sons are going to lose." (18.78) The King's sons are the enemies of Arjuna and his brothers. Sanjaya tells the King that wherever Krishna and Arjuna are, victory is there too.

The Bhagavad-gita has been studied as a dialog on many things -- religion, morality, psychology, culture, politics, yoga, to name a few. I want to discuss the Gita's insights into Nature. It makes fundamental contributions to Deep Ecology, a radical environmentalist philosophy. I think it might be of some help to us because in the Gita, Nature plays an active role in human spirituality. The religion of the Gita is to a large extent a cosmic mysticism. It does not end up as a cosmic mysticism -- in its conclusion it is closer to the devotional monotheism of Christianity. But it arrives at that conclusion via a cosmic pathway. That angle of approach is one of the Gita's great and unique contributions.

In the Gita, God and Nature are intertwined. We are asked to understand them in relationship. A religious philosophy of this kind can be a powerful force for the environmental movement.

Traditional village India comprehends the natural world in a manner similar to that of the first Americans. Trees, rivers, and stones are worshipped. Sages go to the forests to meditate. God lives in everything. All life forms are conscious souls, parts of God. One should possess only whatever is necessary for simple maintenance. In one popular traditional narrative, Krishna tells the farmers to worship the Earth, not the gods.

The Sanskrit word translated as "nature" is Prakriti. Prakriti includes all the forms that are made up of atoms. It means "matter." But it isn't "dead matter." Prakriti is powerful and active. Yet it has another aspect, too. Pra means "upon" and Kriti means "acted." Prakriti is acted upon by God. It is surrendered to God, a servant of God. Prakriti embodies the principle of service. Nature is always serving God's purpose.

The Gita's 18 chapters can be divided into three equal sections. Chapters 1-6 are concerned with the Self, chapters 7-12 with God, and 13-18 with Nature. Many commentators have wondered why the last six chapters are there, when the 12th seems, to them, to wrap it up. But it's not enough to know about God. We must also know how our lives in the material world can be made pleasing to God. So the first section is about what to think, the next is about what to feel, and the last section is about what to do.

The Gita asks these questions 1. Is the Self inherently active or inactive? 2. Is God personal or impersonal? 3. Is Nature to be used or shunned?

The answers are 1. The Self is inherently active. But it's inactive materially. 2. God is personal. But God manifests an impersonal energy everywhere. 3. Nature is to be used. But we are to shun the use of it for our own gratification.

Nature in the Gita Nature is vast and magnificent. Krishna makes an analysis of the many categories of energy possessed by nature. He describes the awe-inspiring scope of cosmic time cycles. He explains at length how God is present within the creation's wonders. Nature is miserable. Krishna says that from the top to the bottom, nature is a place of pain, where everything that's born has to die. Nature is neutral. The stoic pandit sees all things the same -a dog or a brahmin, clay or gold, suffering or enjoyment. Nature is active. Nature forces everyone to act. (3.5) Every creature is powerless under nature's power. (3.8) Even the knowledgeable act out their nature. (3.33) Nature is the performer of all our actions. (3.27) Action has its source in nature itself. (5.14) Nature worships God. The devas, the personal forms of natural forces, pray to the Lord, the Ishvara. (11.21) God controls nature. The Ishvara uses Maya, nature, to spin the creatures around. God supervises nature's bringing forth of the creation. God is the controller of the creation. Krishna says, "I am the origin and dissolution of every world... everything here is strung on me like pearls on a thread...I am the source of everything." God is nature. "In this one body of mine, now look at the whole universe." "I am time...I am the light of the sun and the moon...I am the strength of the strong...all heat is radiated from me...I am the fragrance of the Earth."

God is not nature. "The modes of nature are in me but I am not in them." There are two natures. One is the not-supreme nature, which is matter. The other is the supreme nature, the living beings or souls. Krishna is situated in his own nature. The mahatmas give themselves over to the divine nature. Offer the lesser nature to the greater nature. "By dedicating their own karma (action) to the one who's the source of all creatures and who pervades everything here, human beings attain perfection." (18.46) The process of offering matter to spirit, called yajna, is the resolution of the opposites that divide the self from God.

Prakriti According to Krishna Creatures proceed according to their own Prakriti. 3.33 Karma is known as the generating force that produces the creatures' various states of being. 8.3 Based on one's own state of being, one is bound to one's own Karma. 18.60 Everyone does Karma. They're forced to do so by the Gunas of Prakriti. 3.5 Goodness, passion, and darkness are the Gunas born of Prakriti. 14.5 These three Gunas give birth to the body. 14.20 There's no one existing on Earth or even among the Devas in the divine regions who is or ever will be liberated from the three Gunas born of Prakriti. 18.40 There's no agent of activity other than the Gunas. 14.19 Under Prakriti's power, this whole multitude of creatures is powerless. 9.8 Ishvara uses Maya to spin all the creatures around as if they're mounted on a machine. 18.61 Action has a source -- in the material nature itself. 5.14

In every way, all actions are performed by Prakriti. Atman does nothing at all. 13.30 Cause, effect, and agency are caused by Prakriti. Thus it is said. Purusha is the cause of the experiences of joy and misery. Thus it is said. 13.21

Since Nature is mentioned so frequently in the Gita, can we find any wisdom there to help us in our present environmental crisis? Is there an "environmental ethic" in the Gita? Krishna says that Nature can be experienced negatively or positively. It's either a sea of troubles to cross over to get to God, or it's an inspiration for our devotion to God. But nowhere in the Gita is there the least hint that humans should "take care of" Nature. Granted, it's probable that in 3000 BCE, the natural environment hadn't been altered significantly. There was no crisis. Their daily experience of Nature was different from ours. But the Gita can help us because it creates no division between humans and other natural creations. Krishna says all bodies and minds are made of matter and all selves (including the selves of animals, plants, and perhaps minerals too) are made of spirit. Nature equals matter. Humans are in it as much as any other creatures. We're not a special creation intended to administrate the others. Most important, people devoted to the Gita's spiritual life don't need to exploit the external world for their pleasure. They get their enjoyment from an inner experience of the self or of God. As a result, they are responsible to the environment as a side effect of their spirituality. Also, in the Gita, Nature principally manifests itself to humans as the human body and its actions. Our ultimate responsibility to Nature is to do as Nature does (even though Krishna never says directly, "Do as Nature does") and put ourselves in God's hands, in which case our actions consist in offering what we do to God.

So, ethics in the Gita means a responsibility to God. By fulfilling that obligation (in the way the Gita recommends) we are being responsible to other humans and to the rest of God's creation.

When I follow the way of life taught in the Gita, I minimize my damage to the rest of Nature. That's because Krishna teaches these principles of behavior: Sense control Austerity Non-attachment to the results of my actions Stoicism Being kind to all creatures Peacefulness Honesty Lack of envy, pride, and greed Forgiveness Nonviolence Vegetarianism

Why is there an environmental crisis? Because humans are misbehaving. Krishna says that ungodly people "contrive horrible, malignant deeds meant to destroy the Jagat (planet, world, universe)." (16.9) In the Gita's third chapter, Arjuna asks why people do evil things. Krishna responds -- it's desire that's "the enemy of the world." And the way to defeat desire is to "first, regulate the senses." Krishna describes such a person: when there's no yearning when Atman and consciousness are controlled when all proprietorship is cast off when Karma is for the body's sake --such activity takes on no harmful reactions (4.21)

The Ecological Spiritualist The Ecological Spiritualist possesses these divine qualities listed in the Gita, 16.1-3:

fearlessness purity of heart determination in seeking knowledge charity self control sacrifice study of scriptures austerity straightforwardness non-disturbance (Ahimsa -- "nonviolence") honesty absence of anger renunciation peacefulness freedom from fault-finding mercy for all creatures lack of greed gentleness modesty steadiness splendor forgiveness fortitude cleanliness no envy no pride

The Gita was spoken in India ca. 3000 BCE. The social structure of that place and time differed from ours in many respects. The proletarians, who made up 90 percent of the population, were salaried employees. Finances were generated from the trade of the farmers, artisans, and merchants. They gave taxes to the monarchs, who redistributed the revenue in the form of charity to government officials, the military, teachers, judges, and priests. Therefore, the leaders of society did not receive salaries. That helped to curb greed in high places, making it more likely that citizens of good character would occupy positions of power. Of course there were obseqious sycophants gathered around the monarchs. But generally the profiteers stayed away from positions of ethical influence. They became merchants. Wealthy capitalists did not set the standard of value, as they do for us today. The

values were set largely by the Brahmins, most of whom were poor. Another feature was the unique legal status of monks. When a man renounced family connections to become a wandering religious, he gave up all legal rights. It was as if he had died. He couldn't sign contracts, had no bank account, and had no claim to any inheritance. He was written off the books. It's no wonder that monks were held in high esteem for their spiritual qualities. They were materially "dead." That custom radically decreased the probability of corruption of standards among the culture's ethical exemplars. However, as interesting as these arrangements may be, there's little chance of their being put into practice in our time. For us, the social imperative is to promote "plain living and high thinking," as Emerson put it. More people must live according to Prakriti's ways, in knowledge of those ways. For our Brahmins, we can look to contemporary spiritual movements that advocate voluntary simplicity, bioregionalism, non-anthropocentric philosophies, minimal environmental impact, renewable energy sources, curtailing the power of corporations, and similar policies.

People can change. People can improve. People are spiritual beings. It's natural to be spiritual.