What is the spiritual relationship with divinity and Nature, and where does man figure in it?
In Sanatana Dharma, the creation and the Creator are not two. It is the Creator who has become the creation. As the Upanishads tell us, isavasyam idam sarvam—all this is pervaded with God. God is all-pervasive.
God pervades the rivers, the forests, the hills, the oceans, the birds and other animals. God is also in our fellow man and in ourselves. So, the relationship between God and Nature, and man is one of eternal oneness.
How can this be leveraged to help the ecosystem?
Our scriptures and the ancient seers have taught us to see everything in creation with love and reverence. We totally ignored their advice and began to exploit Nature to fulfil our selfish desires and greed.
In the old days, there was no specific need for “environmental protection” and “green initiatives” because protecting Nature was part of worshipping God.
It was part of life itself. More than remembering “God,” people used to love and serve Nature and society.
When you see God in and through the creation, how can you pollute a river or indiscriminately chop down a forest? This attitude must be reawakened in society.
Until not so long ago, people lived in tune with Nature. If out of necessity they had to cut down a tree, they would first look for an auspicious day to do so.
Before felling it, they would worship it. They would even apologise, saying, “Dear tree, please forgive me for what I am about to do. It’s only out of necessity that I am cutting you down.” Moreover, they would make a point of planting 10 new trees for every tree they had to cut down.
Previously, children were taught such values at an early age. Damayanti Amma [Amma’s birth mother] would always correct me, whenever I did something irreverential that would harm Nature.
Values, when instilled by elders, give children tremendous strength and they stay with them throughout their life.
Even if there was an old, torn piece of newspaper on the ground and Damayanti Amma saw one of us step on it, she would scold us and tell us to stop, touch it with our hand and ask for forgiveness. She taught us to see it as an embodiment of Saraswati Devi [the Goddess of Knowledge].
If we can learn to respect inanimate objects, we will gradually develop love and compassion towards trees, vines, birds, animals, the life in oceans, rivers, mountains and all the rest of Nature.
What’s Amma’s vision of saving the world from an eco-catastrophe?
The only thing that can save us is values. Parents must instil compassion and respect for Nature in their children from birth itself.
Once, while travelling through north India for the darshan programmes, we stopped at a pilgrim centre. There was a banyan tree under which a mahatma had attained enlightenment thousands of years ago. Hundreds of his devotees were there, circumambulating the tree in reverence.
When the wind would blow the dry leaves from the tree, they would rush forward to collect them. When someone got a leaf, he would press it to his heart with devotion and carefully put it away to take back home.
Seeing their devotion, my eyes filled with tears because if only people could see every tree as divine like that sacred banyan, how much better the condition of our world would be. In truth, this would be enough.
What is behind the degradation of Nature? Is it greed or ignorance, or both? How do we fight it?
For some, it is ignorance. For example, the Math has built more than 12,000 toilets in Kerala. We also contributed Rs 100 crore to the Swachh Bharat campaign to help the government build toilets in poor villages along the Ganga.
In many places there, what was needed more than anything was education. They did not know that open defecation was harming the environment and causing diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea, etc. We had people to explain these and other things to them.
Now they are changing. The most damage is caused by factory dumping—much more than by these innocent people. Here we can’t say it is ignorance. Usually it is greed.
Nature’s fury is everywhere now. How do we placate it and restore the balance?
There are many things we can do. We need to plant saplings and nurture them. We need to grow small gardens where we can.
People should carpool and use less plastic. We should try as much as possible to avoid harmful pesticides and grow things organically. We need to recycle.
We are doing all these things and more in the ashram. Amma has many good children who are dedicating themselves to these activities. Amma is also teaching the devotees to meditate with prayers for the restoration of Nature’s harmony.
How do we bring the participation of youth in protecting Nature?
What the youth need are role models. If they have people to look up to who are concerned with the environment, they will follow in that direction.
Love for Mother Nature and good environmental practices such as not wasting and recycling must be taught and demonstrated at home.
We go to great pains to ensure our children get the best education possible. We push them to become engineers or doctors because we want to secure a good future for them. But in order for them to survive, they need clean air and water. So, if we want to protect their future, it is more important to instil in them respect for Nature.
For example, several years ago our ashram started a new tradition on Vishu. As per custom, on this day elders give children pocket money. We decided to start giving away saplings and encouraged elders to give them away on Vishu as well.
The goal is not only to grow more trees, but also to infuse love for Nature in the upcoming generation. We even told the youngest ones that before school, they should say goodbye to their sapling, water it and give it a kiss.
When they return home from school, they should do the same. These children see the plant as it is—a living entity. Some have even shared with me stories that their plants have told them. Children raised like this will treat trees with love and respect.
Over the years at our various centres throughout the world, we have planted more than one million trees. Much of this has been done by youngsters.
India’s traditional ecosystem has many plants and herbs with healing and rejuvenating qualities. How to make them part of the mainstream curriculum?
How did Chinese medicine become so popular? This is because, any student from any part of the world who goes there to study medicine will have to do a course on Chinese medicine. They made this part of their medical curriculum. Perhaps, we can also think in that line. Let us see if we can incorporate some courses in Ayurveda as part of our medical studies.
The Japanese have meditation spaces and forest-healing practices with government support. How can man’s communion with Nature be restored in India?
Bharatam is the home of spirituality. We have no shortage of wisdom. Living in harmony with Nature was so a fundamental part of our culture.
The rishis and our forefathers have set a shining example for us to follow. So, what is it that is preventing us from re-establishing that desperately needed harmony?
It is our ego and our ignorance regarding just how precious of a treasure Nature is. Thus, the first step is to recognise this treasure. After that, everything else will fall into place.
Kerala has undergone massive degradation in forest land and also agriculture. How can we go back to a time when man and Nature nourished each other?
Whether it is Kerala or other parts of the world, universal values are the same. So, practice respect and love for Nature.