PCDForum Article #3, Release Date September 1, 1993
by Eknath Easwaran
For me it is a central paradox of the twentieth century that despite our
powerful intellectual skills and our ingenious engineering and medical
achievements, we still lack the ability to live wisely. My perspective on this
paradox draws from my experience growing up as a child in a village in the
Indian state of Kerela.
My early perceptions of the world were shaped by the wisdom of my
grandmother who saw in every leaf, flower, animal and star the expression of a
compassionate universe, whose laws were not competition and survival of the
fittest, but cooperation, artistry, and thrift. None of us in our village lived
up to the example my grandmother set, but we all trusted and looked up to her.
In our way of life, our farming, our business and barter, our friendships, we
were guided by her ideal of an individual life rooted in continuous harmony with
life as a whole.
In every aspect, life in our village was close. Our lives had been woven
together through centuries of depending on each other. If my mother wanted a new
pot, she would send for the village potter, whose family had been making pots
for my family for centuries, and he would turn out just what she wanted. If my
cousins needed new jewelry, they would call on the village goldsmith, who would
come and fashion earrings for them right on the veranda of our house, just his
father and grandfather had done. We traveled little, since everything we needed
was right there in the village.
Agriculturally as well, we were self-sufficient. Our crop yields were not
astonishing, but they were substantial, and for centuries our traditional method
of farming, based on the rhythms of nature, natural pest control and natural
fertilizers, had enriched the soil. Following Granny’s example, we tried to
treat every part of nature with love and respect. The earth was our home, she
would have said, but no less was it home to the oxen that pulled our plows or
the elephants that roamed in the forest and worked for us. They had lived with
us as partners whose well-being was inseparable from our own.
Because of the enduring bonds of village life, we had no need for some of
the impersonal institutions that have become essential in industrial society,
like life insurance and social security. Instead we had families and friends who
were ready to help in any circumstance. Within such an atmosphere, there was
little or no crime; in fact, I never even saw a policeman until I went away to
Of course we did not live in an ideal world. In a prosperous village like
ours there was little poverty, but diseases like cholera and smallpox were not
uncommon. It is not that no one was ever hurt, or that people never quarreled or
manipulated each other; but when such things happened, we knew quite clearly
that they were discordant, that they did not fit in with the way life should be.
It was not an ideal world, but it was a world with an ideal.
When I left high school I felt the pull of a different way of life, a world
of high ambitions and extraordinary technical achievements. My university
education in Western literature brought me into contact with great voices who
spoke of an emptiness at the center of life. Similarly the discoveries of modern
physics and biology were generally interpreted as proving that the universe is a
meaningless play of energy and matter onto which we project our desire for
something of lasting value. "Brief and powerless is man’s life" wrote
the influential mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell; "on him and
all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and
evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless course."
To the Western eye, my grandmother’s compassionate universe did not exist; it
was a figment of our village imagination. Each of us is a separate, competing
speck in a meaningless universe.
True, the industrial era had brought us some great material advantages, and
many of its medical and engineering advances had helped relieve suffering, but I
was beginning to sense that there was nothing in the industrial world’s endless
whirl of new products and pleasures that would compensate for the things
receding ever farther into the distance: our hope for a peaceful world; the
knowledge that our children will inherit a healthy earth; the feeling of having
a high purpose; the experience of being a blessing instead of a curse on the
rest of life.
Now it is clear to me that the assumption of an uncaring universe, which has
been presented with authority as the truth, the fruit of centuries of scientific
investigation, is only a hypothesis. The alternative hypothesis was enunciated
twenty-five hundred years ago in the Bhagavad Gita, and can be found at the core
of every one of the worlds’ great religious traditions: beneath the surface
level of conditioned thinking in every one of us there is a single living
spirit. The still small voice whispering to me in the depths of my consciousness
is saying exactly the same thing as the voice whispering to you in your
consciousness. "I want an earth that is healthy, a world at peace, and a
heart filled with love."
The problems of Western industrialism flow from focusing our attention on
too limited a segment of the human experience. Somehow, we have become so
attuned to the sound and sight of competition and greed that we can spot it
anywhere, but we find it hard to recognize things like cooperation or compassion
even when they are awakening in our own hearts. We attribute the limits of a
particular cultural conditioning with the state of the universe and proclaim it
cold and unfeeling.
Village life has much to teach those of us who have been exposed to the
cultural conditioning of industrial society, as do the tropical rainforests,
like the one near the village where I grew up. The world’s rainforests are host
to roughly half of the earth’s plant, insect, and animal species. Through
sixty-five million years of uninterrupted evolution, untouched by the climatic
changes of the ice ages, rain forests have developed a complex system of
interrelationships in which each species depends on the existence and activities
of many others. In these relationships between animals and environment, animals
and plants, animals and other animals, biologists have found abundant evidence
of nature’s compassion.
Everywhere, she exhibits the timing and delicate understanding of an artist,
using endless creativity to provide a home and food for every creature, no
matter how big or small. In the rain forest, as everywhere in nature,
researchers have found that competition "the law of the jungle" is not
nearly so important as the countless processes by which nature avoids
The innate thriftiness of nature, so dramatically revealed in the tropical
rainforest, affirms another lesson from my childhood about the natural
relationship between thrift and real wealth. In terms of the richness and
diversity of life, the rainforest is among the most productive of ecosystems.
Yet the source of this abundance is not found in the quality of rainforest’s
topsoil, which is usually quite poor, but rather in the extraordinary
interaction of millions of different species, as they recycle water, nutrients,
and minerals, and ensure that every resource is preserved and reused endlessly
Our village, as I have said, was prosperous. We lacked nothing, yet we had
little of what most economists today call wealth. Much like the rainforest, the
secret of our prosperity was found in the practice of thrift and cooperative
relationships. A rich topsoil, nourished by centuries of village agriculture;
one hundred inches of rain a year; a dense forest and plentiful coconut groves;
a fresh, pure supply of water, which we drank straight from our wells these were
free and they formed the material resources for our prosperity. As in the
rainforest, we took only what we needed and our wastes were recycled.
The real foundation of our prosperity, though was the deep and enduring
sense of community that enabled us to mark the best use of these resources. On
this foundation, a tradition of excellent craftsmanship had grown up. We had all
the things we needed well-crafted, beautiful things that lasted a long time but
we did not do much "consuming." The economist would not be impressed
by our statistics. In terms of gross national product, we were a nonentity.
Yet as affirmed by both the experience of the rainforest and of the village
in which I grew up, the real wealth of a country is not its rate of consumption,
as measured by its gross national product, but rather by the number of secure,
wise, and generous people it has and by the health of its environment.
To create truly wealthy modern human societies, we need people in every
field who can serve as a bridge between humanity and its highest aspirations. We
need mothers who dream of their children growing up in a compassionate society
and ask: why not? We need scientists, business people, politicians, and
journalists who have the courage to dream of a world where people, animals, and
the environment are more important than profits or national rivalries and ask:
why not? We need ordinary people of every nation and color who dare to look
beneath the mask of cultural conditioning, see something they never believed
they could be, and ask themselves: why not?
Those who tell us that such compassion is contrary to human nature take too
narrow a view. As Gandhi taught us, we do not have to become something we are
not. We need only to learn who and what we really are.
In me, in you in every human being burns a spark of pure compassion: not
physical or even mental, but deeply spiritual. We have the capacity to rebel
deeply and broadly against our conditioning and to build a new personality, a
new world. It is our choice whether to exercise that capacity, but we do have
Eknath Easwaran, founder and director of the Blue Mountain Center of
Meditation, is the author of Meditation and Your Life is Your Message. This
article was excerpted by the PCDForum from The Compassionate Universe: The Power
of the Individual to Health the Environment Nilgiri Press, Box 256, Tomales,
California 94971, U.S.A. phone (707) 878-2369 or (800) 475-2369. US$12.00.