Ganesh, god of wisdom

Climate collapse is part of a much larger environmental and social turmoil, which requires us to reflect on the values and direction taken by our Western industrial civilization. Hindu ecology, older than Buddhist and Jain ecology, can help give us new epistemological and philosophical foundations to move away from the assumptions of the ecological crisis due to our model of development, production and consumption. We talk about this with Gloria Germani, an ecophilosopher who has always been engaged in dialogue between West and East, a student of philosopher Serge Latouche, Swedish ecologist Helena Norberg Hodge and journalist Tiziano Terzani, of whose thought she is among the foremost experts. She is active in deep ecology movements, the Network for Deep Ecology, Navdanya International and the Association for Happy Degrowth. Since the 2000s she has taken a keen interest in the field of education by attending Steiner schools as a parent and activist, and since 2017 she has been the coordinating officer of the Alice Universal Education School Project for non-dualistic, eco-centric and holistic education. She is a practitioner of Advaita Vedanta (Way of Non-duality), the best known of all the Vedānta schools of Hinduism.

I repeat a question already asked: has Hinduism developed an ecological vision or is it the ecological vision that is an integral part of Hinduism? Can we talk about ecological Hinduism or Hindu ecology?

I think the Asian continent for millennia has been thinking in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections. That is, it has developed what we-with a sectional, “scientific” perspective-call ecology. So it seems very apt for me to talk about “Hindu ecology” and to look to this millennia-old culture for guides for our difficult times. A small clarification: the term Hinduism was invented by the British in the nineteenth century to name a cultural tradition, still very much alive, that had its roots in antiquity. In its essential features, this highly cultured civilization was already developed in the 3rd millennium B.C. or perhaps earlier. Hinduism is a vibrant set of beliefs, not at all dogmatic. To describe it, I prefer to borrow a passage from Titian Terzani that-in my opinion-describes the essence of Hinduism better than hundreds of manuals on the subject: “India, unless you hate it at first impact, induces this sense of exaltation: it makes everyone feel part of creation. In India, one never feels alone, never separated from the rest. And therein lies its appeal. Some millennia ago its sages, the rishis, ‘those who see’ had the insight that life was one. This experience, renewed from generation to generation, is at the core of India’s great contribution to the civilization of humans and the development of their consciousness. Each life, mine and that of a tree, is part of a whole with a thousand forms that is life. In India this thought no longer needs to be thought. It is in the common feeling of people. It is in the air one breathes. ” (1)

When I first set foot in India, now 30 years ago, I felt exactly that. There was no need for any book, for any lecture. The certainty of non-duality was on the streets, among the people, in the inseparability of sublime beauty and ugliness, in the inseparability of life and death, in the impermanence of everything; all life is one.

What are the differences between Hindu and Buddhist ecology?

I do not think there are any major differences between the two forms of ecology: Hindu and Buddhist. We have to remember that the Buddha’s message is grafted in around 2,600 B.C. as a reform of Hinduism but retains, as is natural, its pattern of thought, its essential interpretation of Reality. Many of the concepts remain the same.(2) The conception of time is not linear (as for us) but circular, and present, past and future do not have the value they do for us. Progress is not the purpose of human actions, since everything repeats, and advancement is considered insignificant, like gusts of wind. For both of them, the reality perceived by the senses is not taken as true, it is not the Ultimate Reality; rather, it is maya: illusion, the seductive power that creates the illusion of the solidity of things. For both, there is no separation between what is psychic and what is physical, because-as physics is teaching us today-they are both formed by vibrational energy. Everything both external and internal is not permanent, it is not a substance, but an aggregate of energy that is constantly forming and dissolving, interacting between and with everything else, and never persisting. Hinduism speaks of this ultimate Reality of life as “fullness” (purnam) while Buddhism names it as “emptiness” (sunyata), but this is merely a matter of terminology because both fullness and emptiness elude the logico-linguistic attitude, they do not get encapsulated by words or reasoning. And of this both Hindus and Buddhists are well aware. In fact, this is precisely why they place such importance on meditation, on yoga, as a practice that allows one to go beyond the mind and experience the essence of life. To return to ecology, it is an obvious and very simple consequence. If you understand that everything is One, or-in Buddhist terms-if you really understand the interdependent origin of all things, you cannot but be very respectful and attentive to the ecosystem, to the whole cosmos. Sentient beings, animals, plants, minerals are part of the unicum that is life. There are no differences.

What is meant in Hinduism by “cosmic logic” (Sanathana Dharma)?

Sanathana Dharma is the way the people of India call their culture, Hinduism. It is the law, the eternal order, the truth that abides. Dharma is a word not easily translated. It comes from the Sanskrit root “dhri” which means “sustaining,” or “that which is integral to something” (the dharma of fire is its being hot). So Sanathana Dharma is that which leads to the true essence of the universe and, at the same time, maintains it in it. This being so, it is clear that for Hindu culture there is no anxiety about progress. Philosophy, the “love of wisdom,” is not that succession of ideas, one denying the other, that we are taught in school and university (on Hegel’s instructions), a kind of highway where the last in order stands on the podium of the Most True and the Most Good. Again, I must borrow the words of my teacher Terzani: “In India everyone seems to know this. Philosophy here is not a form of gymnastics, it is not the monopoly of the learned, it is not reserved for academies, for schools. Philosophy in India is part of life, it is the Ariadne’s thread by which to get out of the labyrinth of ignorance. Philosophy is the religion by which Indians count on attaining salvation, which in their case is knowledge. Not “useful” knowledge, that for manipulating, possessing, changing, dominating the world (science has never been their strong point); but rather, as the sacred texts say, “that knowledge which once known, leaves nothing more to be known: self-knowledge.”( 3 )These are not buzzwords, but Terzani very accurately touches on the essence of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, Non-duality, which is the eternal heart, the Sanathana Dharma of Indian culture, as opposed to modern Western thought, which is always science of the useful, utilitarian knowledge. We will come back to this later, for now I would like to emphasize how Gandhi considered himself a Sanathani Hindu, that is, he was completely aligned with this worldview that has permeated India for millennia. His doctrine of nonviolence (both toward enemies and toward Nature) is incomprehensible without this philosophical vision.

To better understand what it consists of, it is necessary to recall the first and most important distinction made by the Hindus: that of the four ends of life.(4) The first end is artha, which means “thing,” but also “the interest,” “the purpose” that always guides human action and, more concretely: the attainment of wealth and the possession of material possessions, prosperity and success. Its scope covers the sphere of economics, politics, and diplomacy. Next to this is the second purpose: kama, love and pleasure, affective need and its satisfaction, the realization of union between two people, sexuality, the power of generation. The third purpose is dharma, which includes all ethical duties considered from the perspective of the common good and is a natural restraint on the first two purposes. Dharma therefore concerns customs, norms of behavior, virtues, justice, mercy, and impartiality. For us in the West, the first three purposes fulfill all that is experienced in the world. But Indian tradition identifies alongside the trivarga (the group of three), a fourth purpose, which stands as a revolution of the other three. It is called moksha: liberation, freedom, but also detachment, realization, rest, happiness. Knowing it, one becomes saccidananda, a whole [consisting] of being, consciousness, bliss, in a state of clear presence outside of time. The whole Indian civilization has this focus: to reach the state where we abandon egotism, the illusory world of matter and possessions, when our deep being expands to merge with the cosmic being. It is important to emphasize for the Western audience, that Indian philosophy is not an abstraction from the world, a detached spirituality in the empyrean, [it is] anything but [that]. Only after realizing and bringing to fruition the first three ends-that is, after fully realizing one’s own affectivity, one’s own projectuality, and fulfilling one’s relational duties to the community and the commons-then, and only then, can one access moksha, true freedom, true happiness.

To help in this arduous and progressive task, the Sanathana Dharma stipulates that one’s life should be marked by four stages or Ashrama. The first stage is Brahmācarya, the stage of the disciple, the one who must learn, wait for and serve his guru; the second is that of the Grihastha, the father or mother of the family, who engages in trivarga and achieves his or her own matrimonial, social and at the same time ethical fulfillment. The third is that of the retreat to the forest to meditate, Vanaprastha, in which the man and woman, once their children are married, abandon all worldly anxieties and retreat to the forest to meditate. Finally there is the renunciate’s stage, Saṃnyāsa, of the individual’s search for ultimate wisdom, to tear away the veil of ignorance that envelops us. The moksha is for the last two stages, not for the first and second.(5)

For many years you have been a follower of Advaita Vedanta, the Way of Non-duality, the culmination of Hindu thought that affirms that all is One. How does the ecological vision fit in?

The Way of Non-duality is the main philosophy of Hinduism, to which all other visions converge, as you precisely said. It is the philosophy of the One, whereby everything, absolutely everything (including our Ego, which has only an ephemeral reality) is part of that one essence which is called Brahman: the sacred power of life. There is no outside and there is no inside, for everything is One. In fact, Hinduism recognizes over three million deities, including many animal forms, but it is not polytheism at all (which it has often been accused of) because that Brahman is identical to the deepest part of your being. Tat twan Asi : “You are that” , repeat the great sentences of the Upanishads, commented upon through the millennia by the masters of Vedanta among whom perhaps the foremost is Sankara, who lived in the 8th century CE. Deep individual consciousness (atman, which is very different from the Ego) is identical with universal consciousness, the sacred power that continuously generates the cosmos. These positions are blasphemy to the Christian view, so much so that many Western mystics such as Eckhart, Tuler or Giordano Bruno were condemned and even burned. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, this view is completely ecological, the environment, animals, fish, plants, minerals, are part of the sacred power and part of one totality.

1 T.Terzani, Un altro giro di Giostra, Longanesi, 2004, p. 153.

2 Si vedano gli importanti saggi di A.Coomaraswamy, in particolare, Induismo e Buddismo, Rusconi, 1987.

3 T.Terzani, Un altro giro di giostra, p.160.

4 H. Zimmer, Filosofie e religioni dell’India, cit., pp. 51 sgg.

5 Sul quattro stadi della vita (ashramadharma), vedi le splendide pagine di H.Zimmer, cit. p. 138-146

Translation of the notes:

1 T.Terzani, another round of the carousel, Longanesi, 2004, p. 153.

2 See the important essays by A.Coomaraswamy, especially, Hinduism and Buddhism, Rusconi, 1987.

3 T.Terzani, another round of the carousel, p.160.

4 H. Zimmer, Philosophies and Religions of India, cit. pp. 51 ff.

5 On the four stages of life (ashramadharma), see the splendid pages of H.Zimmer, cit. p. 138-146