Friday, January 07, 2011

Prithvi - Part II - More on Gaia and interconnectedness

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
only after the last river has been poisoned,
only after the last fish has been caught,
only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

                            ---Cree native American prophesy

The more we learn about the earth and its ecosystem, the more we know that we are heading towards doom. The mechanistic materialistic view of earth as a dead source of material that can be exploited to the maximum has cost us our planet as well as the biodiversity.  It is said that when Descartes heard the screaming of a dog on whom his students performed vivisection, he exclaimed "do not mind that. It is just the sound of a machine being taken apart" . I was terribly shocked to hear this anecdote because the image I had of descartes was that of an advanced thinker. In contrast, Native american views of nature displays harmonious thinking. Compare the above incident with a saying from the blackfoot native Indian tribe.

"What is life? It is the flash of the firefly at night
It is the breath of the buffalo in the wintertime
It is the little shadow that runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset"

The present widespread worldview has been heavily impressed upon our psyche on the lines of the materialist thinkers. Hence we don't even realise and recognise that there is a problem. Is there a way out? I would like to present and discuss alternative healthy views of Mother earth that are very much needed in today's world if we want to survive. These views come from various periods of time and various parts of the globe. (This is a continuation of ideas presented in the earlier post on Prithvi- our mother).

Before getting into the details of gaia, we take a short tour of the broad lens that is used to view the earth as a superorganism. The word 'Superorganism' represents an intriguing phenomenon in nature. This creates controversy among scientists and the general masses but is in general defined as 

" any complex thing or system having properties and functions determined not only by the properties and relations of its individual parts, but by the character of the whole that they compose and by the relations of the parts to the whole."

There are many levels of superorganisms that come to my mind from my studies in fields such as biology, philosophy, science fiction. Example of first level of superorganism are beehives, anthills, corals. Individual organisms work together to achieve a goal that is far beyond their imagination. The next thing that I can think of is a human. Humans are finest examples of superorganisms as there are billions of microbes in our body that help in regulating so many different functions in our body. Hence this body is such a congregation. The third is on a planetary level. Isaac Asimov in his foundation novel series talks about a whole planet that acts as a storehouse of information where the least important information is stored on rocks and similar components whereas that which is required immediately are with more sentient beings. The whole system acts like an organism.* The fourth level is also found in Asimov's work and is given a title "galaxia" a superorganism that consists of a whole galaxy. The fifth level(assuming one universe for the moment) is the whole universe as a superorganism. The ideas at the fouth and  fifth levels are next to impossible to be tested anywhere in the near future but is worthwhile to think about. 

* The gaia nature of the earth can also be viewed as a comparison between the human superorganism and the earth as done here.

The whole universe as a superorganism comes from the scriptures of sanathana dharma that talk about the universe being constituted of three things, namely paramatma(god), jeevatma(individual souls) and achit (all insentient matter). The Paramatma is the soul whereas the other two constitute his body. Hence the whole universe, in short is the God-organism. This is something that science will never even think about because of its inherent limitations of not seeing anything beyond five senses.

Gaia in modern times and ancient cultures

The Gaia hypothesis is the first comprehensive scientific expression of the profoundly ancient belief that the planet Earth is a living creature.Formulated by British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock and American Microbiologist Lynn Margulis, the Gaia hypothesis states that the Earth's climate and surface environment are controlled by the plants, animals and microorganisms that inhabit it. That taken as a whole, the planet behaves not as an inanimate sphere of rock and soil, sustained by the automatic and accidental processes of geology, as traditional earth science has long maintained, but more as a biological superorganism-a planetary body-that adjusts and regulates itself.

Geophysiologists warn that if the planet does function like a body, the Earth may have the equivalent of vital organs and vulnerable points. Regions of intense biological activity such as the tropical rain forests and coastal seas, are seen as vital not only to their geographic regions but to the entire global environment, much as the liver or spleen is necessary to the survival of the body as a whole. Once destroyed, these planetary organs can debilitate the entire system, much as an injury to the spine can cripple one's body up through the neck and down to the toes.

Many of us would remember the experience of trying to cram nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, sulphur cycles for our high school examinations. All of these cycles are excellent examples of earth regulation systems. Food chains and food web is another component of this great regulating organism. 

There are a lot of controversies in the scientific community as to how the gaia metaphor affects mainstream social theory and ethics and whether the hypothesis can be satisfactorily 'scientifically' verified. That the Earth does not reproduce is cited as a reason for not accepting it as a living organism in the true sense of the word. However what still remains out of reach for this science  is the definition of a living thing.To save some time here, we can borrow the ancient knowledge of the presence of 'atma' to classify a being as living. Instead of a detailed physical sciences perspective of gaia theory, we see some salient bird's eye view of this theory and some of its philosophical implications.

Lovelock once exclaimed " I think of the Earth as a living organism. The rocks, the air, the oceans and all life are an inseparable system that functions to keep the planet livable. In fact I now believe that life can exist only on a planetary scale. Can't have a planet with sparse life any more than you can have half a cat".

Many individual cultures have this thought in some form or the other. The Ufaina Indians in the columbian Amazon believe in a vital force called fufuka which is present in all living things. The source of this vital force is the sun. From the sun, it reaches the earth and is constantly recycled among plants, animals and human beings. Each group of beings requires a minimum of the vital force in order to live and is seen to be borrowing the energy from the total energy stock. When any being dies, the energy is released and goes back to the stock. Similarly when a living being consumes another, the consumer acquires the energy of the consumed. What is of importance to the Ufaina is that the vital force continues to be recycled from one species to another in such a way that not too much accumulates in any one of them, since this could deprive another of its vital force and upset the natural balance.
We can see that the above idea in principle the same as that veiled by modern science in a cobweb of jargons. The only difference here is that the Ufaina live by their wisdom whereas we, the others are insensitive as a race.

In the Vedic culture 

The vedic hymns are the most ancient and sublime words that present a worldview of essential interconnectedness of the whole cosmos. What to speak of the earth. The whole of Rig veda creates an atmosphere where appreciation of nature and her bounties are part and parcel of the experience. These should not be taken to be hymns glorifying personified natural elements as maliciously done by the western Indologists. The hymns act at several different planes of consciousness. They represent the subtle elements and also the gross elements at various levels of realisations. The Prithvi suktam in Atharva veda is a fine example of imagery, poetry, nature worship, environmental consciousness, cooperation among living beings and above all a sense of oneness- a cosmic web in which each of us is a part.

The entire hymn of 63 verses is exceedingly important. Persons who are conversant with the modern tenets of ecology can fully appreciate this hymn. It does not view earth as a lifeless inanimate object as the modern physical scientist does. It begins with the idea that earth is supported by not mere gravitational forces, but by Truth, consecration  and askesis (tapas).Earth can be made a happy abode for humans only when they live by satya and rita, Truth and Right. Earth spreads out for us and makes us prosperous. (12.1.12)refers to the self-cleansing nature of earth.(12.1.8)states that Earth in the beginning was sea salila upon the ocean arņava; then the supreme intelligence manishi created the subtle structures mayāĥ characterising the human beings and other beings, and inanimate matter. The rişhi thinks of himself as the son of earth and parjanya as his father (12.1.12).Each living being from the blue lotus to the human being on earth is uniquely supported by a gandha, odour of earth.

Mother earth appeared in her personal form in various periods of Indian history running for millions of years. We all know about the Varaha avataram of Lord Sriman Narayana where he saved Bhudevi from Hiranyaksha. However, the point to be noted here is that Bhudevi is not a personification of the visible globe alone but also of all the regions of the earth that are beyond our perception(ie, the 8 khandas other than bharatha khanda and 6 dweepams included)

Once, She was annoyed by the tyrannic, adharmic reign of King Vena and withdrew her resources thus resulting in a severe drought. Later on, his son Prithu ascended the throne and ruled as a just king. Still, She did not restore the earlier fertility. This annoyed King Prithu who chased Bhuma devi who had assumed the form of a cow. Later after some persuasion, She recognized the virtues of the current ruler and gave away her wealth to all the people. (In Greek Mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest, who also controlled the seasons and hence was capable of destroying all life on earth . Life came to a standstill as the depressed Demeter once searched for her daughter who had been taken to the underworld. This story also echoes the idea of Mother Earth reacting to the happenings in the society).

Bhuma devi is considered by some to be an iconic, metonymic personification of earth in Hinduism. I think the word 'personification' itself invokes the idea of an artificial imagination of a non-existing personality. However, this kind of artificial force is not found in ancient Indian works. Bhudevi is just one among us. She is as real as any one of us. Sita Devi calls out to her to take her away from this manushya lokam so that she could end all her sufferings. Bhumadevi also responds to the yearning and takes her to nagalokam.

Some embedded notions of Ecology are found in the Indian culture. The 'Kolam' is often thought of as a decoration in front of a house but on deeper inquiry we come to know that it is a way to exercise the memory of the debt felt to the Earth goddess for her forbearance towards us despite all sorts of pain-inflicting activities by us like digging, spitting etc. We can observe that a Bharatanaatyam dancer touches the ground and pays respect to Mother Earth before beginning her performance. This is once again to plead her to be patient when the dancer stamps on her all along.
In Bhu Stuti(A hymn to Mother Earth) by Swami Vedanta Desika, we find that Bhudevi is not only Goddess Earth but the one who gives us all natural wealth. She is in charge of life anywhere in any universe. Above all, She is the spiritual instructor who teaches Prapatti to aspiring mumukshus(those desiring liberation from the birth cycle).

There is a vedic verse which is repeated often without knowledge of the meaning. This is a good example of the all pervasiveness and oneness of  vedic thought

tacchamyo-rAvrNeemahe | gAtum yagnyAya |
gAtum yagnyapataye | daivee: svastirastu na: |
svasti mAnushebhya: | oordhvam jigAtu bheSHajam |
sham no astu dvipade | sham chatushpade |
om shAnti: shAnti: shAnti: ||

We seek that which gives us peace from sorrows, present and future. We seek growth for the rite of sacrifice and growth for patron of the rite, the yajamAna.The grace of the Gods be unto us.Well being to all mankind. May plants, like medicinal herbs flourish and grow upwards. Good come unto us from creatures that go on two feet and good from those that go on four feet.

Om! Peace!Peace!Peace

Some Native american quotes on mother earth and nature

"...all things share the same breath- the beast, the tree, the man....the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports "  -- Chief Seatlle

" I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings are but rather how well its people relate to their environment and their fellow man"-  Sun bear of Chippewa tribe

A Ojibwa (native American) prayer to the soul of nature

Oh great spirit , whose voice i hear in the winds,
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
Hear me, for I am small and weak,
I need your strength and wisdom
Let me walk in beauty and my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made
and my ears sharp to hear your voice,
Make me wise, so that I may understand the things that you have taught my people
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and every rock
I seek strength not to be stronger than my brother
but to fight my greatest enemy - myself
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes
So, when life fades, as the fading sunset,
my Spirit may come to you without shame.

When studying the views of ancient and some modern cultures regarding earth and nature in general, we can feel the sharp contrast in the basic ideals. An Earth that is alive versus the one that is devoid of life has underscored the lifestyle of the masses according to the vicissitudes of time.

The West's heliocentric revolution in scientific understanding displaced humans from their fancied central position in the eyes of god(Note that most of the eastern philosophies never subscribed to such self-centered views) and the structure of the universe. The Gaian revolution(ie, the modern resurgence of the idea) will displace us from our fancied position as the superior species, uniquely in charge of the planet. Will our powerful egos resist the Gaian conception for this reason? Or are we sufficiently mature as a species to accept our position and responsibility as one part of a larger organism?

It is crucial to the question of whether or not we adopt this revolutionary concept to keep in mind that scientific concepts and the theories generated from them are no longer judged in terms of chimeral 'truth' but of usefulness. By usefulness, we mean conducive to human survival. In fact , as stated before, our self-centered views and practices threaten our very survival as a species. In that respect, a concept of ourselves as part of the life of earth, coupled with scientific knowledge of its geophysiology might prove useful in bringing about a reorganizing of our social structures and conduct, so that we rediscover our balance within Gaia and thereby insure our survival.

Scientists often cringe at any attempt to answer questions through alternative methods. They are narrow-minded enough to exclude interesting intuitive ideas like intelligent design. Hence, it is no surprise that there were many oppositions to Gaia theory for fear of the rebirth of the 'Goddess' in popular imagination.

Any amount of rational discourse will be insufficient to prove that the more-than-human world has atleast an equal status to that of human beings and to the works of the best human creative genius. Each of us need to spend time with the 'animate earth ' out there to realise that 'every speck of matter is sacred simply because it exists'.

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