The practice of chintan requires a return to the symbolic representation and peacefulness of nature in human life. Chintan is a type of return, a sojourn into transcendence, to the Other, through the realization of the inherent divinity and immanence of nature and of the human condition in relation to the rest of existence. This vision is common to both Indian and Western “deep” environmental perspectives and is similar to the philosophy of deep ecology.9
Chintan develops an emotional thread related to a self and self with other focus within spiritual practice and awareness creation. Four aspects of the interrelationship between atma-chintan (contemplation on self) and prakriti-chintan (contemplation on nature) are:
- Self awareness
- Other awareness
- Nature awareness
- Societal (external) awareness.
These four are a summary in English of the four awarenesses or consciousnesses, which Sevakji and I developed in Lata Bhavan. From a scriptural perspective, these four levels of awareness can be labelled
- Krishna consciousness,
- Radha (or love) consciousness,
- Vrindavan consciousness, and
- Vraj consciousness
The relationship intersecting scriptural injunctions, Vrindavan conservation, and the practice of chintan gives insight into natural environmental change in the town and elsewhere and individual and group based reasons for this breakdown between the human, nature, and self. Based on his and his wife’s initial research in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which was refined during my lengthy stays in Sevakji’s ashram in the 2000s, the need for a resolution and synthesis involving these four levels of our existence became obvious.
Our claim is that awareness of nature and our placement within ecology as not only custodians but integral chintan creatures pervades all of our dealings in life. And this is embodied in Krishna’s living and practical role as a transcendent environmentalist.
Vrindavan consciousness or Nature awareness is the state where we realize our connectivity, dependence, and role in the natural and cultural world and within the greater cosmic setup. In this domain it was Radha and Krishna as the dual cosmic entity and contradiction—yugal bhava—who expressed these blissful events in the sacred and secluded groves of the resplendent forest of Vrindavan. In seclusion, Radha and Krishna and their playmates enjoyed the forest splendor—van-vaibhava—and abundance of nature so much so that nature would be pleased and would continue to give. In fact, the more in consonance with nature Radha, Krishna, and their friends were, the more nature would give, more than they could ever receive. Their example shows us how we can live in consonance with ourselves, with our intimate partner, and close friends and thus enjoy the bounty of enjoyment in life that is only offered in and by living in close proximity to nature.
It is with an amalgamation of Vrindavan consciousness and Vraj consciousness or societal awareness, the awareness that we are living our lives in human society surrounded by customs, accepted behaviors, and norms that Radha and Krishna’s example really makes its impact as a yardstick for natural and societally balanced human behavior. That is, concentric behavior.
When we know ourselves, can group intimately with our partner and close friends, be natural and at peace with nature, then and only then can we lead a life that is balanced with the outer human world that is by nature generally egocentric. This is dubbed Vraj consciousness because it is in Krishna’s worldly pastimes in Vraj, the surrounding areas around Vrindavan, that he came into His own revealing his inner strength and self-mastery of the evolved being that He was. This is the culmination of these four aspects of cosmic worship as presented by modern environmental ideals in Vrindavan.
In this template the focus is on the human, the spectator in the game of life in the natural and bucolic setting consisting of the five elements of nature plus time in Indian cosmology—prithvi, jal, vayu, tej, akaash, kaal—the spectators being a societally yet self-aware onlooker being conscious of the cosmic drama as a play of spirit—Brahman—the Divine Center.
Is the actual Vrindavan necessary?
The focus of this polemical piece has been on an explication of the specific environmental case study of Lata Bhavan as it relates to greater environmental concerns in Vrindavan. I have argued that the ideals practiced and realized in Shri Sevak Sharan Ji’s ashram Lata Bhavan have not only an applicability to the greater Vrindavan environment but to ecological projects worldwide.
Although the empirical and practical research has focused entirely on an examination of Sevakji’s ashram and the role it plays as a case study of human-nature-divine interaction, the implications of this work extend well beyond the geography of this property, the town boundaries of Vrindavan, and even India. As long as the equation of Vrindavan = Nature + Divinity is adhered to, and that the sanctity of nature is maintained in any particular environment, that place can have the same spiritual vibration and environmental reverence as that which is required in the VEC of Vrindavan and elsewhere. With the awareness, clarity of purpose, and realizing the natural environment and its manifestations in and of culture are imbued with sanctity and divinity, the lessons of Radha and Krishna in Vrindavan are applicable and attainable anywhere. So Vrindavan can be anywhere and everywhere can be Vrindavan providing the awareness and intent of human cultures are such that nature is held in the highest esteem.
What then for the actual pilgrimage town of Vrindavan? While this place of pilgrimage will undoubtedly continue to house pilgrims and the many devotional groups that converge year after year, my experience leads me to the position that I do not believe the state of the environment will improve substantially in the coming decades. Based on my observations of more than 17 years since first visiting Vrindavan, I have not seen many of the initiatives dedicated to improving the physical state of the environment lead to much success.
By success I mean that the town could be considered in a clean and ordered state with the management of the physical environment, e.g., garbage collection, planning, infrastructure, housing, and retail development, in a well kept, maintained, and dependable state. The conditions of and surrounding the main temple compounds and ashrams are less than ecologically ideal and are commonly in a disordered and dirty state.
From a purely physical point of view, Vrindavan is one of the most putrid and filthy places I have ever visited. Because it is the temples that are the principal pilgrimage and commercial drawcards, much of the environmental and conservation focus has been on the Parikrama Marg and the temple areas themselves. In brief, the town is not the most natural setting for an idyllic, modern playground of what-where RadhaKrishna leela could or may take place in.
As a former long-term resident of Vrindavan, I have in many ways “given up” ever seeing a palpable re-representation or enactment of the stories and narrations present in the scriptural injunctions and emblematic presentations of the pastimes of Sri-Sri Radha-Krishna into actualized happenings in the town. Because of this experience cum-subjectively claimed fact, I believe that the tenets of the Vrindavan ecological concept should now travel well beyond the confines of the gheras (temple compounds) and the shastras (scriptures) of the medieval town and become the potential basis upon which further studies into religion and ecology can progress and persist.
This is the proselytizing associated with a sectarianized posing of Vrindavan environmentalism onto what I hope would be taken as a God-less and institution-less environmentalism. The actual Vrindavan is necessary, but only if seen with the right eyes and ears, an evolved pashyanti-vak.
It is not my claim nor was it my task to proffer that if everyone followed or practiced some or several of the practical sadhana-based aspects that have arisen out of experiments in Vrindavan that the town itself would necessarily become a template for what can be considered “holistic life science,” a label Sevakji and I used in describing our take on Vrindavan environmentalism in the early-mid 2000s. My claim has been that the sadhana practice and theory of environmentalism which have come out of many years of chintan and contemplation in Vrindavan are replicable and can be extrapolated.
Vrindavan environmentalism offers an occasion where science, religion, ecology, and human possibilities merge in a proposed idealized way, a manifestation of possibilities where the trinity of soil, soul, and society is maintained, upheld, and even worshipped.
I telephoned Shri Hitkinkar Sevak Sharan Ji on 5 January 2015. It was more than a year since we had spoken. His voice was frail, a little listless, though he did perk up on discussing matters relating to Vrindavan and the environment, his life’s work. In Hindi and an altered and slow variety of English I questioned how he was, how his garden—Lata Bhavan—was, and whether anyone was looking after him. He told me he was mainly bedridden, the garden was not in a healthy state, and that there were people coming and going but no one staying. He said, “Thakurji mere paas hai” (“my deity—Paryavaran Bihari, the ‘environmental Krishna’—is here with me”). Sevakji’s wife died in October 2011, a few months after I last visited Vrindavan in July 2011. As I had said to him several times before, I gave my word to Sevakji that our research about the Vrindavan environment would not be lost; I will publish it. This essay is part of my chronicling of our work. I invite other scholars and interested devotees of all denominations into a dialogue based on the ecological lessons practiced and learned in Vrindavan.
- For more details on the philosophy of deep ecology see Warwick Fox. Approaching Deep Ecology: A Response to Richard Sylvan’s Critique of Deep Ecology. Centre for Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, 1986, and Arne Næss. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy (translated by D. Rothenberg). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
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