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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 42, October 3, 2009

Deep Transpersonal Ecology: Gandhian Connection

Monday 5 October 2009, by C M Bhandari


As history unfolds a trend is clearly visible that beyond a critical point simple patchwork solutions to some of our basic problems do not work. The only course then is either to accept the fate accompli or seek a holistic purposeful approach. The wisdom to see things in correct proportion and perspective has often been shown by few men and women of vision. The need to re-examine issues of sensitive nature in the right perspective, and use, as and when necessary, the elements of available wisdom has to be emphasised over and over again adding new elements into the scheme of things. Ecological degradation has been a much-talked-about subject. However, even at the theoretical level a realistic and meaningful plan of action has not been spelt out. This would require an out-of-the-box thinking and beyond the ordinary determination. The present essay marks an attempt in that direction.

Part I

Essence of life’s truths,

Constant churning of facts

Analysis-cum-synthesis as tools,

He, who can draw

A map of the world, and

Hang it on the distant horizon,

A scientist he is, par excellence,

A true worker, a visionary,

And, a true revolutionary.

G.M. Muktibodh

(translation from Hindi by the author)

Nature’s Clockwork

A lot has been described and discussed over the decades on issues pertaining to our environment and our role in its degradation. It is also likely that some of the changes ensuing from these degradations would be irreversible bringing the whole process of life and its evolution to a halt. We have so much of faith in our intellectual capabilities that no amount of evidence and no efforts are going to be enough to dissuade us from changing the lifestyle or even a part of it to make an appreciable impact on the course of events. May be this, to some extent, is an exaggerated version of the ground situation. Yet even if a small percentage of such a concern is close to reality, there is every justification in pursuing the line of thought we propose to take.

Our concern about our environment is of relatively recent origin. For millions of years life existed on the planet evolving from simpler to complex forms, and in variety unimaginable. The survival struggle of man along with that of other life forms continued and continues even now. For most of this period man lived a nomadic life changing places constantly in search of food and security. The agricultural revolution a few thousand years ago brought the first major change in man’s lifestyle. A settled life gave him more leisurely time and he could now use his thinking power to greater use. This triggered the onset of the so-called cultural transformation. Man could now use verbal communication more effectively and languages evolved. With an increased and efficient language based communication (with himself and with others) things moved at an accelerated pace culminating in the development of various art forms. Life had now a purpose, it was no longer a problem of mere survival. Man could now think and that he did in abundance. His mind as an embodiment of his developed brain could help him explore, influence and exploit his surroundings. The hunter-gatherer of earlier era had now become an owner-consumer. He now owned land, cattle, and even slaves using them to his advantage.

Along with everything else a value system evolved with some common features of ethics in all societies although there were variations in finer details. Man could now distance himself from the rest of living beings. Humankind was now different from the rest in being able to walk straight, think, communicate and effectively use his knowledge in changing the environment to his advantage. The process of humanisation had its own merits and demerits.

During the span of several thousand years and up to the seventeenth century man did make only a minor impact on the landscape of the planet. During eighteenth century the planetary surface started changing slowly but surely. There were fields where crops were grown, there were structures made of wood, bricks and concrete. And there were cities where hundreds of thousands of such structures could be seen together. However, these changes were still not enough to harm the environment of the planet. The second big revolution in the cultural journey of man—the industrial revolution—ushered an era of rapid technological growth. Machines of various denominations came into existence and gradually industriali-sation took roots initially in Europe, later spreading to other continents.

Once again, after the agricultural revolution, man’s life style was changing. This revolution was marked by emphasis on energy production and utilisation.

With the growth of science and technology many of the killer diseases were now manageable. Increased life expectancy and gradually increasing expectations started putting pressure on natural resources. For billions of years the planet sustained the evolutionary process culminating in the emergence of smartest (?) of its creations. It is worthwhile to look into possible causes that have brought the ecological concerns to the fore. Life evolved under certain conditions—abundance of energy, right magnitudes of gravitation, light, air pressure and temperature. Why life after all ? No one knows for sure. How did life come into being ? We have only partial answers. These are important questions whose answers we are not going to seek or even attempt in the present essay. Our primary concern here is to seek an understanding of the mechanism that will help us in saving the world from the looming disaster, a possible scenario when the very basis of life could be threatened. The eco-system that has sustained life till now is likely to suffer irreparably and irreversibly. Ecology primarily deals with the degradation in our environment; the degradation that may threaten or is in the process of threatening out the very existence of life.

The environment which was responsible for the evolutionary process culminating in various life forms including mankind was being threatened by its own creation.

Why did nature create something that has the power to destroy its own creator? There are no answers. However, with the clear emerging signals regarding degradation of environment a debate has started over the efforts to control the damage. Some corrective measures need to be taken to check any further degradation.

That is a welcome thought, yet a shallow one, as the concern is merely for ourselves—we, who pride ourselves to be most important of all creation. Can we not think of the survival of all creation excluding nothing, from the gigantic whale to the tiny insects in innumerable shapes and sizes?

Need for Deeper Concern

Taking an objective view including that of ourselves leads to a scenario where all life is respected, where nothing is to be rejected except for the minimal role in sustaining and maintaining existence itself. That could be referred to as deep ecology. The phrase was coined by Arne Naess1 which refers to deeper ecological wisdom than is usually understood. That is what generally stands for the term. However, in the present essay we are going to use the term in two different contexts—physical and psychological. Our existence—supposedly a healthy one—has to be embedded in an equally healthy environment, and a healthy mind surrounded and embedded in a sea of healthy minds.

The Realisation

Along with the degradation of the environment other changes are also emerging gradually. Rapid industrialisation gradually led to power struggle. The evolutionary process also evolved the human brain and its functioning. Man’s intellectual capabilities are amazing, but perhaps psychologically he is still in the primitive stage. (J. Krishnamurti) He can create technology and tools to manipulate almost everything except his own inner world. Moreover, the world is not being managed by a few wise men and women with a vision for the mankind or even beyond. It is being manipulated and managed by power-hungry politicians, profit-seeking industrialists and others with their own vested interests.

In any case the positive thing is that the debate has now started in full swing over the methods and means to check any further degradation of our only ecosystem. In this context the following points may form the issues under consideration in any future debate:

• The process of modernisation and industrialisation cannot be reversed. There is no question of returning to the ancient ways. The best we could do is to preserve the best from all traditions and all ages.

• There can be efforts from non-government as also government agencies to put some sort of checks on rampant consumerism. As Gandhi used to put it, Nature has enough for our need, but not for our greed. The wisdom of deciding the boundary line between need and greed has to emerge. Gandhi did not merely preach, he tried to live accordingly presenting possible alternatives. Several small groups the world over have been known to practice somewhat similar ideals.

• Free marketing with no controls, too much exposure of the human mind (in particular the young ones to almost everything) could not go on indefinitely. It has to be realised that there is a phase lag between the psychological and intellectual capabilities of man. Decisions in this regard need to be taken with care and wisdom. This may be a difficult proposition, but the efforts must begin.

• Extreme exposure to media and all kind of visual saga should not be allowed to go on indefinitely. The environment or ecology of mind is seriously affected by such exposures.

• We must learn to differentiate between a truly liberal free society and an anarchic society based solely on profit, consumerism and competition. We have to build a model society where modernisation can coexist with conservation—to a considerable extent, if not one hundred per cent.

A Utopia

Alduous Huxley, in his famous utopian novel “Island”,2 presents a possible scenario for a future society. The novel presents a possible framework for the co-existence of modernisation and conservation. There is an emphasis on science but a control on technology, an emphasis on content rather than on form. An outsider from our world by some accident reaches the ‘island’, and gradually discovers a new way of life. What he witnesses there is a truly advanced society without too much of emphasis on undesirable technology. People move on bicycles, and there is a clear cut approach to differentiate between need and greed. Schools presented an altogether different look. In a primary school he (the outsider) finds children singing and dancing having fun contrary to the pattern generally being followed in our present-day civilised society. Hospitals too have an unusual look where alternate systems of medicine are practised. At times hypnotism too is practised to alleviate pain. In short, the purpose is to use our understanding of science towards improving life’s quality.

However, it is not going to be easy, it will be virtually impossible to convince others to voluntarily accept some drastic change in life style. There are several reasons for this. Some of them are:

• The present lifestyle has put a minimum requirement level on all kinds of consumer items. Food is at the top. Housing, clothing, medicine, all other household items from refrigerator to television and various electronic goods—all are required for modern living. In the present-day world efficient mode of transport is also essential. With the exposure to media everyone has the ambition to acquire all these.

• Energy requirements are closely linked with the items listed above. Conventional energy resources are under pressure. With the depletion of the conventional resources and with increasing population as also increasing per capita requirement the pressure on resources is going to increase and there are no shortcuts to manage the same.

• With the flourishing market economy there is no satisfactory answer to simple questions pertaining to self-control on consumption levels. This is particularly so as there is a large population in countries like China and India who are as yet consuming at a very low level.

Global versus Local

There are many things that can be taken at the international level. In such matters, such as global warming, we may decide to take some small steps on our own, and wait till the international community responds positively. However, there are many problems which are area-specific and country-specific. It will be desirable to have a look at the India-specific problems.

• Population density is one of the largest in the world; this is so not only in comparison to the USA or Russia, but even China has a lower population density.

• India being a democracy having diverse cultures, castes and groups, any scheme is difficult to implement.

• Vote-bank politics determines the course of events much more than logic and reasoning.

• There is no possibility of achieving a zero population growth rate in the next twenty years or so.

• A mad rush for a high standard of living, a total lack of planned urbanisation, an unimagined exposure to consumerism and a huge scarcity of resources add to the crisis. Unlike some of the Western societies we do not have a state that cares, non-government agencies that sincerely work in helping those in need.

• We pride ourselves as being the largest democracy in the world. Any significant change in policies that conflicts with the immediate needs and aspirations of the people is likely to be slow to come.

Part II

Man is nothing in comparison with the infinite and everything in comparison with the infinitesimal, a mean point between everything and nothing.

—Blaise Pascal

A New Beginning

We must make a beginning. Some serious homework needs to be done by the intelligentsia which is expected to rise to the occasion. A more comprehensive and integrated approach will be necessary, and for this we have to link the happenings in the physical environment to that of the mental. Our physical as well as psychological behaviours are the product of the environment as these have evolved over a considerable period of time. Both our bodies and our minds are embedded in environment and it is imperative that the ecology of both the first kind (the physical or conventional) and the second (mental or psychological) need to be considered simultaneously. The model of the possible future society3 should be in our minds, without a model there can only be patchwork solutions which are always inadequate. A model may not be fully realisable, yet it is better to have one than having none. A model which takes into account the symbiotic relationship between mind and environment can be presented. What is being suggested is that any model would be difficult to implement and if implemented could achieve only partial success unless ecology at two levels is considered:

(a) Ecology pertaining to the physical environment in which all life is embedded. We may refer to it as the “Ecology of the First kind”.

(b) the environment in which any individual mind finds itself in, this includes (in addition to the physical environment) other aspects such as the value system, social values, political climate, media exposure of all kinds. We refer to it as the “Ecology of the Second kind”.

In Part I we have discussed some aspects of the ecology of the first kind. It is time to analyse and reflect on the other. In his futuristic book Future Shock,4 the author (Alvin Toffler) almost four decades ago presented the scenario of the coming world society. One of the things that he referred to was an exposure to “over-choice.” To a young mind looking forward to his future trajectory there may be a variety of choice as regards career, hobbies, food, dresses, entertainment and information. The dilemma could be what to choose and how to. Toffler’s futuristic speculations were no doubt reasonably correct. In the present essay I wish to further extend the theme. The choice is there between innumerable alternatives as regards career, as regards information, profession or entertainment. Yet there is evidently a serious lack of mental space. It is a situation in which the mind is overcrowded with things, concepts, relationships and connections.

Abundance of choice and lack of space characterise the present era which could rightly be called the era of information technology.

With the cultural transformation a change of lifestyle was unavoidable; two major changes following the agricultural revolution and the industrial one saw the emergence of large cities where man lived in crowded localities cramped in narrow spaces. It will be of interest to analyse the changes that occurred in man’s attitude, as also in the pattern of bahaviour following the changes in his lifestyle. The hunter-gatherer of yesteryears was now a city dweller.

Among many other things one of the changes brought about by the new lifestyle was the beginning of an impersonal society. The city dweller no longer knew people in a personal, intimate way. Desmond Morris puts the situation so elegantly:

as a species we were not biologically equipped to cope with a mass of strangers masquerading as members of our tribe. It was something we had to learn to do, but it was not easy…. We are still fighting against it in all kinds of hidden ways - and some that are not so hidden.

The present-day city dweller finds himself in a zoo-like environment and his behaviour begins to indicate this.5

Among the many things directly affected by the changes referred to is education. This is just the beginning of his problems. With the great burden of conventional education in modern societies another kind of scarcity of space (in addition to the physical) makes its presence felt. None will doubt the importance of modern education and the need to acquire knowledge but to make extra effort to fill the child’s minds with all kinds of information at a rapid and competitive pace is hardly desirable. The long-term effect of this is not only undesirable but is fraught with unpredictable consequences. This kind and pace of information-stacking significantly reduces a playful child’s mental space. There remains hardly anything to explore, to be curious about, to gain the pleasure of discovering things for oneself. In some Western nations these facts are to some extent taken into consideration in planning the early education of the child. In most of the Third World nations these points are not only not taken into consideration, each passing year brings more advanced syllabus and burden. At the tender age of five a child carries a school bag weighing almost three-fourths of his own weight. Even after coming back from school he and his parents carry the burden of homework, whereas real homework needs to be done by the intelligentsia in general, policy-planners and the media. In India most children of middle class families (they form a sizeable city population) suffer from claustrophobia of both the kinds—the physical and the mental—with severely reduced physical and mental spaces. This is true not only for the child, the adults too suffer from the malady. A mind full of symbols and past associations (according to J. Krishnamurti) is the conceptual mind—it has little space left for any direct spontaneous experience of the world.6

A New Synthesis

The problem has been defined and the next move of finding a reasonable solution has to be sought. This is likely to be one of the most complex of all problems man has to face. Scientific study generally works on the method of analysis, of breaking the system under investigation into smaller structures into bits and pieces. Life and living systems often deal with synthesis where bits and pieces combine to evolve a complex structure with a complex process. And we have to remember that the total in such complex systems is always more than the sum of its parts. That extra thing may contain the ‘essence’ which tends to be ignored even in many scientific studies of complex systems. There are various techniques to partially include elements of that extra thing. It is that extra thing we are addressing to while talking of the eco-concerns of the first and second kind simultaneously.

The Whole in a Hole

The changes we have talked about in lifestyle cannot be completely reversed. The forces unleashed by science and technology could not be put in a cold storage. These forces are leading to changes in not only our physical environment, but equally significant are the changes in our attitudes and responses to various stimuli. Better put, we can say that the entire ecosystem is affected—the physical as also the psychological. Both are influencing each other in an intricate way. Any possible solution to the problem must be able to handle both eco-systems effectively. The whole then needs to be looked at through the hole of a microscope for a closer view and through a binocular for a distant one. Or in other words, the ‘whole’ has to be rescued from the present position where it has fallen in a mini-‘hole’ of our narrow self-interests.

This exercise is not being done for the first time. Others have done it before, and many others will do it in the near future. There are many who in their limited domains have been not only thinking but practising the eco-concerns for both kinds even though a different terminology may have been used for this purpose. One among such individuals was Gandhi who understood and practised the wholeness by consciously dreaming of a society which his own countrymen could not appreciate, and many who did, found it too idealistic for implementation. In spite of this he kept on dreaming of ‘village republics’ with green pastures. His opposition to industrialisation even in a country like India (where it was needed most) reflected his concern for the ‘whole’—the world out there and the world within. Implicit in his vision of village republics was a society that practised non-violence in the deepest sense, a view that envisaged nature at par with man. The ecological problems arise mainly due to violence against nature. Gandhi’s vision was nothing but an ecological perspective par-excellence.

It will not be out of place to look into the whole from another hole, this time from the point of view of psychology. Let us talk of Wilber’s spectrum psychology which is an essence of so many doctrines and concepts learnt over a vast span of time. According to Ken Wilber, the entire psychic activity of an individual is composed of three basic domains which he refers to as (a) the ego level, (b) the biosocial level, and (c) the existential level. The ego level refers to that domain of psyche which primarily deals with the self and interests of the self including one’s survival. This is an inherent feature and is there as a by-product of evolution. The second level deals with a child’s relationships with the family, friends and the larger social network. The two levels (ego level and biosocial level) to a large extent determine and define a personality. With growing age the third level, the existential level, gradually manifests itself. This level refers to several existential problems and conflicts, such as life-death dualism, pleasure-pain, love-hatred and similar conflicting situations. In a grown-up person the three levels generally define almost the entire psyche. Most of us live our lives within the domains of the three levels with the existential problems along with others disturbing us at times by keeping us entangled in the web of life and living.

Wilber then feels that the existential and other problems do not find a satisfactory resolution for most of us. There are no easy solutions for the psychic conflicts, specially those pertaining to the existential level. These problems can only be tackled by enlarging the domain of the fourth level of psyche which he refers to as the transpersonal level. Here he gets the clue from age-old traditions and experiences of the wise men from all traditions. The problems of psyche can be resolved only when we try to transcend our own selves. The centre of all thought is then not the self, it has gone beyond self. This, according to age-old traditions, is the best answer to the problems of existential nature.

Deeper ecological concerns are just the beginning of activity within the transpersonal domain.

In Conclusion

The present eco-concern is necessitated by certain compulsions. The main concern of man, the prime actor (as he thinks himself to be), has been his own survival threatened by the looming eco-crisis. This is a negative approach to ecology whereas Gandhi’s concern was positive. It envisaged an equal role for all including nature. Many others have since taken up the challenge in one way or the other. Efforts by individuals like Arne Naess, Gandhi and Schumacher helped in taking these ideas to a wider audience all over the globe. The need to evolve a technology with a human face was emphasised. These concerns should arise not out of a threat perception to ourselves but out of a deep connectivity with the environment:

I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with joy

A notion and a spirit, that impels,

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

—William Wordsworth

An Acceptance

• The very first step to move in the right direction (although extremely slowly, but surely) will be to accept that the eco-crisis is present at both levels: in the physical existence as also in the world within.

• Notions such as Ahimsa in its widest implications have to be taken up in designing the technology with a human face.

• Notions such as appropriate technology and soft energy have to be accepted and propagated. If necessary these ideas can form part of school curriculum.

• Uncontrolled use of media in providing undesirable exposure to the human mind needs to be discouraged.

• Deeper eco-concerns could find an echo in the transpersonal domain of psyche.

For several millenia the hunter-gatherer existed on the planet as an intricate part of the eco-system almost at par with other species. For a few enturies the producer-consumer distanced itself from the rest exploiting the resouces that sustained it. The time has come when the consumer-producer gives room to the protecter-caretaker.

It is going to be difficult but not impossible. The micro-electronic revolution gives us hope that a technology which requires so little power can be so effective. The task will be possible only if our eco-concerns are deeper and coupled with psy-ecology. It appears that Gandhi’s vision of village republics was an eco-vision, and included both kinds of ecological concerns. Any vision including that of Gandhi need not be followed verbatim. Based on the ground realities and socio-economic environment locally acceptable models of eco-movements could be experimented with.

I strongly feel that a new subject could be introduced at the graduate level. It may be given any name: deep ecology, psy-echology or Gandhian ecology. The syllabus may include elements from traditional ecology, psychology, philosophy and some useful features from sciences. Certain topics such as biological evolution and history of cultural transformation can find a suitable place in the scheme of things. The course should not remain purely theoretical, a lot of field work could be introduced which may have direct relevance to the concept. The field work undertaken should be related to the local conditions and problems therein.

Who needs graduates with good deep ecological background? Of what use they can be to an employer? Perhaps none. Or perhaps the ecological perspective related programmes of a government could take their services. Such difficulties will definitely crop up. However, in spite of this an experiment on similar lines is worth trying.


1. Arne Naess, “The shallow and the deep, Long-range ecology movement”, Inquiry 16:95-100 (1973).

2. Alduous Huxley, The Island, Harper and Row Publishers (1962).

3. John Mitchell, “The ideal worldview”, in Schumacher Lectures, (ed.) Satish Kumar, Blond and Briggs (1980).

4. Alvin Toffler, The Future Shock, Bantam Books (1970).

5. Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo, Triad Panther Books (1979).

6. A.D. Dhopeswarkar, J. Krishnamurti and Mind in Revolution, Chetna Books, Bombay (1971).

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