Much of print and electronic media has been devoted to delineate the positive as well as negative effects of modern civilization and the scientific revolution of the previous century. We have endless discussions and debates in our living rooms, schools, colleges, corporate circles, social bodies and the like, about the radical change that is taking place around us. Proponents of scientific progress and super-industrialization claim that the average man’s standard of living has improved dramatically and having sufficient means to satisfy his needs; he is, in general, happier in today’s age. With the policy of economic liberalization and capitalistic expansion being adopted by all major countries of the world, what we are experiencing is a proliferation of choices in practically every aspect of our life. There is also a firm conviction that everyone has in the scientific approach, the underlying assumption being that it is being guided by rational thought and foresight. Our intention at this point is to objectively analyze this assumption and agree upon a conclusive answer to the very pressing question staring us in our collective conscience: Is the power of choice presented by scientific advancement really a boon? And is our progress really guided by a rational thought process and prudent foresight?
To answer the question about choice let us first consider the hierarchy of needs, as the primary function of a choice is to satisfy a need; at a personal, familial, or societal level. Everyone has the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter and having satisfied them thus we have a longing for other higher things. We have an urge to get good education, good status, and a secure source of income. Ultimately the end purpose of all these needs is manifested as engagement (and consequently encagement ) in sensual pleasures and then having satisfied that, occasionally (or never in modern times) a quest for higher truth and purpose. This is just a subset of the hierarchy mentioned in the system of Vedic culture where the human life is divided into four stages, passing through which and adhering to the rules at each stage, each person can satisfy his bodily requirements and gradually become engaged in a quest for the actual meaning of life : “Athato Brahma Jignasa” meaning : “Now that you have this human form of life, you must inquire about the absolute truth”. Thus we see that the ultimate aim of human life according to these ancient texts of timeless wisdom is to develop curiosity about our actual purpose in life, so that we inquire about philosophical truths of our origin, destination and the supreme absolute truth. In order that a person may reach that stage of consciousness, they prescribe regulations (a limit on choices) for the needs that come lower in the hierarchy (food, clothing, lifestyle, sensual pleasure etc) and provide a wide variety of choices for needs that come higher in the hierarchy (Philosophical treatises in the form of Eighteen Upanishads, Four Vedas, the histories of Ramayana, Mahabharata, and ultimately the crown jewel of Vedic philosophy: The Bhagavad Gita), which conclusively and exhaustively describe the subjects about:
- The existence and symptoms of the soul (defined as a minute spark of spiritual energy which is indestructible and continues to be in existence even after the death of material body).
- The supreme absolute truth (the super-soul), the source of everything including us and our universe.
- Our real identity as eternal spiritual beings full of knowledge and happiness but trapped in the temporary and fleeting illusory material energy due to ignorance
- Nature and its laws, our relationship with the supreme absolute truth and nature.
- Laws for creating and governing a spiritually enlightened civilization, and all other fields of human knowledge.
Nobel-prize-winning chemist Albert Szent Gyorgyi remarked, "In my search for the secret of life, I ended up with atoms and electrons, which have no life at all. Somewhere along the line, life ran out through my fingers. So, in my old age, I am now retracing my steps."
Biologist Francis Hitching goes even further, "To put it at its mildest, one may question an evolutionary theory so beset by doubts among even those who teach it? It fails to explain some of the most basic questions of all: how lifeless chemicals came alive?"
So at this point for the sake of argument we can accept this definition of the Soul from the Vedic literatures and continue our march towards the truth. At least we now know from the experience of an eminent scientist that, not believing it in the first place, forced him to retrace his steps in old age and hence we can take a more informed decision. A principle that we can keep in mind is this: The existence of the soul can be substantiated based more on intuitive understanding of consciousness rather than direct perception, because by definition the soul is beyond our limited sense perception. Henceforth the term “Spiritual” will be used in relation to this accepted definition of the Soul from Vedic literature.
Physical Needs >>> Emotional Needs >>> Spiritual Needs
(Basic needs) (Love,Respect,Acceptance) (Answers to questions about God)
From left to right the importance and gravity of these needs increases.
This illustration can be compared to a lever mechanism which puts appropriate stress on different needs according to their importance so that the all important function of human existence is successful. In a nutshell, the entire process is: From the outside(temporary worldly pleasure, material acquisition, illusory sensory pleasure) to the inside (meditation on the soul, withdrawing senses, finding eternal contentment in the self without external aid). Seeing the futility of the inside-out scientific approach, the west is slowly turning to the east for this outside-in spiritual wisdom. Great physicists like Fritjof Capra have established striking parallels between the spiritual insights of the east and the insights provided by modern physics in his book “The Tao of Physics” after spending nearly a decade in researching the philosophies of the east.
A positive side effect of this Vedic lever is that the entire population is engaged in spiritual goals. Hence they reduce their material desires, and automatically learn to live in harmony with nature, being completely free from the exploitative and capitalistic mindset.
As rightly observed by His Holiness Radhanath Swami :
“The basis of all problems of economics, according to the greatest authorities in the subject, is — unlimited people with unlimited desires to enjoy limited resources. “
Thus we see that equipped with an attitude of frugality in the material sphere, spiritual seekers approach Nature only for maintaining a minimum level of bodily comfort, while a major portion of time and effort is put into spiritual propensities (Chanting, meditation, discourses and discussions about spiritual literature, astanga yoga practice which helps in the nine processes of devotional service etc). This subsequently results in knowledge of self-realization and a radiant peaceful health for the seeker along with balanced ecology characterized by peace and harmony. The possibility of conflicts and war is thus minimized and the civilization is evidently enriched in spiritual values having a common goal to strive for (Lord Sri Krishna). We have evidences and historical records of many such periods in our history when rulers governed their kingdoms based on these eternal and unchanging principles and consequently erected virtuous and prosperous empires (For example, the Gupta Empire and Vijayanagara Empire of Krishnadevraya. Their prosperity can be deduced from the fact that merchants and traders sold large quantities of rubies and diamonds openly on the street as they were available in plenty. This attracted people from every nook and corner of the world).
At this point, would it not be apt and rational to conclude that, if the general population is engaged in higher (spiritual) propensities then the lower propensities are taken care of automatically due to the balance with Nature, which in itself is bountiful and resourceful? Choices are a boon if given with the appropriate end in mind (spiritual elevation), for the appropriate needs (needs of the soul rather than the body.)
| || |
It’s a win-win deal for each and every component of the entire ecosystem, comparable to the optimum solution as proposed by the Game theory of the Nobel laureate professor John Nash, as illustrated in matrix above. When all the components in an interconnected and interdependent system choose to voluntarily cooperate, the result is a win-win situation for each one. Finally this creates a self-sustaining, balanced system which very effortlessly maintains its equilibrium over a long period of time. This is the prudent foresight with which the ancient Vedic texts have put forth the timeless principles to govern civilization.
Now compare this with the situation we have around us today.
When top scientific brains in top universities and top managerial brains in large corporations sit in front of their drawing boards, what is driving their thought process? All their intellect, all their energy, all their resources (which most of the time come from our hard-earned money in the form of taxes) are directed in which direction, to what end, for which purpose? Broadly it can be classified under material advancement only (Better missiles, more destructive weapons, greater reserves of oil, more profit, more acquisitions and mergers, greater GDP growth, greater and more sophisticated facilities for physical comfort and sensual pleasures) with little or no consideration for exploring the higher truths about life and the universe. The few enlightened scientists who do inquire into these superior topics are few and far in between (Albert Einstein, Fritjof Capra and some others). And most often their exalted insights into the nature of reality and truth fail to reach or connect to the masses in general, who are grossly engaged in material, and sensual existence. The superior science and philosophy about life is dismissed as an arm-chair philosophy, to be adopted only at the sag end of life. Little do we realize that it is a way of life (called “Tao”, or “the way” in Chinese philosophy or “Adhyatma” or “science of the self” in Vedic tradition) to be practised as much as possible on a daily basis to achieve the highest perfection and everlasting peace. As wisely observed by M.K Gandhi :
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.”
The proliferation of advertising in the form of print and electronic media, especially internet has given further impetus to this imprudent attitude which is completely devoid of rational foresight. Short term goals of excessive physical comfort and sense pleasure have assumed greater importance over long term sustainability and ecological balance. Nearly all messages portrayed in advertisements, movies, TV shows and the like, fuel this propensity for greater physical satisfaction, completely overshadowing our real spiritual needs. The psychological effects of such irresponsible acts have their greatest effect on growing children whose minds are most impressionable. They grow with the same hedonistic and exploitative outlook which measures success purely based on material acquisitions and creates unhealthy competition. Drugs, suicides, violence among the youths: isn’t our whole materialistically centered social set-up responsible for these anomalies directly or indirectly? In this fast-paced mad race towards an unworthy goal, we must stop for a while to ask ourselves and each other some simple but important questions: Where are we all as a people heading? Are the choices presented by modern civilization really as useful as they seem or are made to seem? Are we as rational and thoughtful as we think we are? Isn’t this a lose- lose situation for the entire ecosystem including ourselves if we keep feeding our irrational and unwarranted lower propensities and completely forget our higher goal in life as a human? Which is the correct approach: Hankering after illusory and fleeting happiness outside or turning inside and finding the true eternal treasure of happiness, bliss and knowledge?
We have thrived on materialism for long and seen its effects clearly. May be we all are victims of commitment bias to materialism. Despite experiencing the futility of material enjoyment, we keep committing ourselves to it again and again, chewing what has already been chewed many times over. Maybe now is the time to turn the lever towards spirituality and find the right balance in life!