India today seems to be in a fevered rush to embrace uninhibited consumerism and mindless materialism. Evidence of this is all around us – in the lifestyles we aspire to, what we value in our lives, and the ideals we pass on to our children.
I wouldn’t say spiritual values have been lost entirely. But there are signs of erosion, most evident in the loss of balance between the four aspects of life – dharma (ethical living), artha (wealth creation), kama (pursuit of pleasure), and moksha (liberation spirituality). Each had its place in the matrix of life, which is no longer the case, with artha assuming precedence over everything else.
A spiritual-cultural blueprint for the ‘good life’ exists in India, one that is in accordance with nature’s values of co-operation rather than competition, nurture rather than consumption, of taking only that which is needed and nothing more. We need to remember it today, not only because it makes spiritual sense in terms of cutting out the ‘noise’ of grasping, but because the earth cannot continue to sustain lifestyles that burden its resources.
‘Eco-literacy’ has a deeper meaning than merely information about the earth’s ecology. Scientist and philosopher Fritjof Capra defines it as “forming of networks, sharing resources, cycling matter continuously, using solar energy to drive the ecological cycles, developing diversity to assure resilience, forming networks nesting within networks, and so on”. In this complex, non-linear web of life, in which everything is interdependent and matter moves in cycles, no single variable can be maximised. In fact, maximising a single variable is defined by scientists as the ecological understanding of stress.
Our pre-globalisation way of life, still alive in parts of the country, had much of this holistic wisdom woven into it. Informed by the principles of integration, frugality and balanced living, it was an eco-literate lifestyle where all constituent variables were optimised, not maximised. According to it, the ‘good life’ was a balanced, mindful, meaningful, healthy life.
Individual wellbeing was assured through an ayurvedic cuisine that linked properties of food, seasonal variations and methods of cooking with individual constitutions, and yogic disciplines regulated physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Principles of frugality required not wasting, and reusing rather than throwing away.
The emphasis was on balancing, not maximising, the variables of one’s life. Santosh dhan (‘wealth of contentment’) was cherished over material wealth, explicated in this couplet by Kabir, ‘Sai utna dijiye, ja mein kutumb samaye, / Main bhi bhookha na rahoon, sadhu na bhookha jaye.’ (Lord, give me only as much as is needed to feed my family, / May I not go hungry, and neither the sadhu who comes to my door.)
We may not be able to replicate this lifestyle exactly as it once was, in a pre-industrial, agrarian society. What we can do is not forget this ancient wisdom, and rethink and re-imagine it in our contexts. A new blueprint is needed to meet the needs of our times, and it must have woven into it this valuable understanding of life.