There was a very disturbing documentary shown on HBO recently: The Eleventh Hour. The documentary was about what we have done to the earth during the last one hundred and fifty years or so, where we have taken her in our greed and thoughtlessness and what we can do to save her and prevent our own extinction as a species. The same as the subject of the recent Copenhagen Summit. The documentary was aired at prime time: the 9.00 pm slot, the time reserved for the best shows. The Eleventh Hour deserved that slot.
I happened to see recently, through the generosity of a friend of my wife, another documentary on the same subject, or more or less the same subject: a documentary called Gaanv Chhodab Nahin – We Shall Not Give Up Our Villages. While the documentary on HBO discussed the whole earth, the focus of this documentary was on the tribal people of India, particularly of Chhota Nagpur, and what is happening to their land. The powerful refrain of the title song repeated throughout the documentary said: Gaanv chhodab nahin, jungle chhodab nahin, maai maati chhodab nahin, ladaai chhodab nahin. We shall not give up our villages, we shall not give up our jungles, we shall not give up our mother earth, and we shall not give our battle.
While in scope of Gaanv Chhodab Nahin is local, in power the documentary is easily superior to the HBO one. In fact if The Eleventh Hour scares you with its truth and forces you to think, this documentary shakes you with its power. You hold your breath and watch Gaanv Chhodab Nahin and you do not want to speak for a long, long time after you have watched it and you don’t want anyone to talk to you for hours either. The questions the documentary asks hit you with the power of a thousand pound sledge hammer. If the message of the documentary is powerful, the visuals are more powerful and the sound track, a hundred times more powerful.
It was weeks ago that I watched the movie, but the questions still haunt me. Here is one, for instance: Were our ancestors fools that they worshipped this earth? The question asked against the visuals of tribals worshipping trees, mountains, rivers and the earth itself forces you to look again at our approach to life.
A small piece of movie dialogue that every Indian – at least every Indian from the North – is familiar with comes to mind. It is from an old film, one of the early films of Amitabh Bachchan. Deewar, I believe.
A scene towards the end of the movie. On the screen are three people: Amitabh, his brother, played by Shashi Kapoor, and their mother. And Amitabh, now rich through money acquired through murder and crime, asks his borther: “Mere paas gaadi hai bangla hai, bank balance hai. Tumhaare paas kyaa hai?” ‘I have a car, I have a bungalow, and I have a bank balance. What do you have?” And Shashi Kapoor, with all the dignity of the common man who has lived a life of integrity can assume, says: “Mere paas maa hain.” “I have Mother.”
That is one statement for which Amitabh has no answer.
We human beings have been on this earth for a long, long time. And we have lived in harmony with the world all this while. The earth, our mother from whom we are born, provided us with everything we needed: food, shelter, clothing, and everything else. For hundreds of thousands of years we lived as her children. And then, all on a sudden – I believe the precise date is that of the industrial revolution – our relationship with her changed. Earth ceased to be our mother, and she became a ‘resource.’ A resource to be exploited, to be consumed. And there was a mad rush to exploit her before others exploited her.
And today – after a short period of about two hundred years – the mineral resources of the earth are fast being depleted, our oil resources are running out, our rivers and oceans are polluted, much of our drinking water is toxic, animal, bird, tree and plant species are disappearing from the face of the earth at an alarming rate never to reappear again, our forests are disappearing, the air we breathe is poisonous over much of the earth, the greenhouse effect is making the snows on our mountains and on the north pole melt, ocean levels are rising, islands all over the world are slowly sinking into the seas and tomorrow much of our continents will follow.
Yes, we have a lot of things today. We have technology and all that technology can provide. We have the internet and the computer, which you and I are using at this moment. We travel now at speeds that were inconceivable to man earlier. We can talk to anyone at any part of the world at any moment – soon every individual on the earth will have his own cell phone. The middle class man today lives in comforts that were beyond the reach of the royalty a hundred years ago. Our food production has gone up by leaps and bounds. We have conquered diseases.
Yes, we have all these things.
But at the price of losing our Mother.
We are now seriously considering migrations into other planets because this earth will soon be inhospitable. We will have to lose our Mother and search for new mothers. And if we go there, to those mothers, with the same attitude towards the world and towards life, we will lose those mothers too at a far greater speed than we are losing this mother.
Mere paas maa hai, said Shashi Kapoor in Deewar. Soon we will not be able to say that.
I am not against gaadi and bangle and bank balance. I am not against wealth. I am not against technology. I am not against the internet and the computer. I am not against fast vehicles and instant communication. I am not against agricultural revolutions and conquest of diseases. I am for them.
But we should be able to achieve these without losing our mother.
Mother plus these – wonderful. Mother minus these – no.
More than five thousand years ago the Mahabharata told us: anRśamsah chared artham. Pursue wealth without cruelty. Pursue wealth without cruelty to people, without cruelty to the environment, without cruelty to mother earth: without cruelty to our animals and birds, without cruelty to our trees and plants, without cruelty to our rivers and mountains.
Perhaps it is still not too late if we listen to the advice of the Mahabharata. Perhaps there is still time.
Eric Von Daniken says that ancient civilizations too had advanced technology. He says the weapons the Mahabharata describes as being used in the epic battle that destroyed our culture in 3138 BC were real weapons and not creations of fantasy.
I would like to believe they were not real but creations of a magnificent poet’s – a rishi’s – imagination. I belief humanity has never had the technology we now have. Perhaps humanity has never had the wealth it has now either.
But humanity has not always been poor.
India, for instance, has remained rich for a long, long time. I am speaking here of millennia. For several millennia, India has remained either the wealthiest or the second wealthiest nation in the world – compared to the west that has been rich only during that last two hundred years or so.
Several estimates speak of India controlling twenty percent of the world’s wealth at the time of the arrival of European powers in India. The United States of America today does not control twenty percent of the world’s wealth.
And we were able to achieve this feat that appears to be almost impossible in harmony with the world, without being cruel to our world. Without threatening the world’s existence.
We could acquire wealth without losing our mother. We could have gaadi, bungla and bank balance and our mother too.
We made this possible because our approach to life and to creation of wealth was based on a principle that the Vedas called ritam. In its essence, the principle of ritam means life in harmony with the flow of the universe.
Our ancient texts give us three metaphors for the ways of producing wealth. The first is the angarika vritti: the firewood-cutter approach, or the charcoal-seller approach.
The firewood-cutter goes to the forest and cuts down trees and brings them down to the market to sell. In his hands, each tree ends up as firewood.
The charcoal seller burns trees down, collects the coal and brings it to the market to sell. For him each tree is nothing more than some amount of coal.
This is precisely what we have been doing for the last few hundred years. Cutting down an entire tree for the charcoal it can provide us.
Take for instance the cases of the native buffalo hunters of the Wild West in America and the European hunters who arrived there later. The Native Americans have been hunting the buffalo for ages, without depleting their number. There were always hundreds of thousands of wild buffalo all around. And then the white Europeans came on the scene. Within an unbelievably short period, the buffalos almost disappeared from the American wilds.
While the Native Americans hunted for food and clothing, and hunted in small numbers, the European hunters saw profit in the buffalos. Their hide was valuable. A valuable commercial good. And they hunted the buffalos down in their thousands for their hide.
Do not be an angarika, says the Mahabharata. Instead, be the malakara, the garland maker.
Maalaakaaropamo raajan bhava maangarikopamah.
It is garland makers that the Native American hunters were. And it is angarikas that the European hunters were.
The garland maker goes to plants and gathers flowers from there. But he never destroys the plants.
This is malakara vritti. The garland-maker approach to the production of wealth.
You take in such a way that you dot deplete your resource.
And yet even this is not ritam, according to the Mahabharata. This is not living in harmony with the flow world. The way of the malakara is wiser than that of the angarika, but even the malakara is not in harmony with the flow of the world, even he is not practicing ritam.
Ritam is when you become the madhukari – the honey bee. Ritam is madhukari vritti – the honey bee approach. Ritam is when you give more than what you take.
What the honey bee takes from each flower is a tiny drop of honey. But what it gives back to the plant is its life itself, making its survival as a species possible, through pollination.
The madhukari takes a drop of honey from the plant and in return, helps the plant life for all times to come. By taking a drop of honey, it sustains the plant, it makes its future possible.
This is ritam.
The Chinmaya Mission has a beautiful pledge, which says, in part, “...producing more than what I consume, giving more than I take...” That is madhukari vritti and that is ritam. And that is what we need today.
During a class discussion in a course in INDIAN ETHOS IN MANAGEMENT that I taught recently at Xavier Institute of Management and Research [XIMR, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai], a question that came up was: to what extent are our corporate houses sincere in their CER activities – Corporate Environmental Responsibilities?
I think that is a question each corporate house should ask of itself. Are the CER activities for the credit points they can fetch or because we believe in them, credit points or no credit points?
Follow the Vedic principle of ritam, and once again, we can have gaadi, bungla and bank balance, and at the same time we can have our mother too.
Man needs both. Man needs his Mother. Man needs gaadi and bungala too.
Ritam is perhaps the most valuable lesson the modern world can learn from the earliest surviving literature of the world.
And we must learn it. For if we do not, we ourselves will not survive.
If for no other reason, we need ritam for our most selfish reasons.
There is a new term we use now: enlightened self interest.
Ritam is enlightened self interest.
Postscript: The Kolkata edition of The Hindustan Times of Today [Feb 15, 2010] contains a piece of news under the title: Sorry Honey, Pesticides Killing Bees. The news says: Our honeybees are disappearing. The blurb reads: A survey has shown that the honey bee population in the country has fallen by 40 percent in the last 25 years. What is killing the honeybees is the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in agriculture.
All major agricultural crops are dependent on honeybees. Apart from other losses, there will be no crops if the honeybees die.
And another piece of news I heard today says that in many places vultures do not eat the carcases of cows. This happens in the case of cows that have been given chemical injections for years so that they yield more milk. The chemicals make the cow’s body so toxic that when they die vultures instinctively shy away from them.
The list, I have no doubt, will be long, if one starts looking at it.
Warning signs to us not to forget ritam. Warning signs that tell us: anRśamsah chared artham – Pursue wealth without cruelty.