THE AGAMIC TRADITION AND THE ARTS
in Determining Cultural Ecology
determines Cultural Ecology" 1
most ancient or 'traditional' societies a deep respect for the elemental
forces in which human beings found themselves immersed is evident form the
cultural histories, rites and artifacts that have been passed down to us
here in the late twentieth century.
Native Americans held all
of nature as sacred, a transmitter of knowledge, their cultural rites
fostered a sensitive respect for the elements in nature. As one of the
world's oldest surviving traditional societies, North American indigenous
peoples consider themselves as part of the environment in which they live
rather than as superior agents put on earth with divine right to conquer
The oriental cultures of the Asian Northeast, developed a spiritual interdependence with the elemental forces through the philosophy of Dao which emphasized harmony in opposites and the constant transformation of the solid and moving forces. Early European societies expressed their relationships to the elements through the gnostic cults predating the Christain era, with alchemical fascinations which continued to express themselves up to the present time in images of androgyne, uniting of opposite forces, and through sympathetic magic rituals.
Perhaps no other society
has developed the human interdependence with nature to such a refined and
elaborate degree than the cultures of the Indian sub-continent where the
relationship with the elemental forces is portrayed on every level of
human and cultural expression through the vision as held in the tradition
of the Mah¡bh£tas.
Now at this time, in the history of humankind, all the cultures of the planet are faced with the same dangerous dilemma of a serious disregard for the natural order of the elements upon which existence is dependent. The very bases of the traditional five elemental forces, the Mah¡bh£t¡ni, have been undermined. The rapid degradation of the natural environment have been irrevocably disturbed with mass scale deforestation, desertification, chemical and nuclear pollution. The worlds, oceans and rivers are increasingly poisoned. Global warning, with encroaching drought, is threatening large areas of habitable lands. The windswept affects of pollution and radiation spreading from one corner of the planet are affecting all others while the very ether itself is being radically rearranged as is becoming evident in the ozone holes. At the same time large oxygen producing areas are dangerously being deforested.
It has become essential to collectively develop a respectful understanding for the world in which we find ourselves. To de this we can learn much from the ancient societies who had developed cultural attitudes and practices which were in relative harmony with the elemental forces of both nature and human nature.
Perhaps it is equally the
first time in history that the various cultures have access to each
other's traditions and histories to be able to develop a healthy respect
through understanding, If not an interdependent transcultural foundation
for a harmonious relationship with the earth and its beings. Still today
the greatest danger to human survival is human-kind itself. Without
checking human greed and intolerance no amount of environmentally friendly
actions will ensure a future for the family of man. In this light cultural
sensitivity, with understanding, play the most essential role in
transforming and maintaining a harmonious relationship with out physical,
social and spiritual environment. The culture of a people is itself the
most fundamental environment, "Aesthetics
determines cultural ecology".
Indian cultures have in
the past developed refined, comprehensive, relationships to the elemental
forces which can provide valuable insight for developing a modern 'cultural
ecology' that is in harmony with the forces of nature along with the
physical and physiological needs of the human community. An appreciation
of the nature of the elements, as transmitted in the conception of the Mah¡bh£tas, has in the past been diverse and effective over long
period of history of the sub-continent's dynasties, spiritual traditions
and diverse communities in harmonizing man's relationship with the
environment in which he found himself. The Indian sub-continent
flourished, supporting the world largest populations and diversity of
culture in a co-existent balance with nature. It was not until the full
effects of the British Raj and massive industrialization that the attitude
towards the effects on the natural environment become self-centred.
The detailed analyses of this history and practice in light of contemporary social, ecological and human needs reveals many dimensions that provide ample evidence of the depth and complexity that is required in a functional cultural vision successfully to integrate human and environmental harmony. In the space of this short commentary the writer will briefly try to indicate but a few of the many possibilities for detailed application in this research. As the dimension of the current global interdependent ecological disintegration is equally vast and complex, the need for such study, and all the more, effective practice, is paramount.
dissemination of the philosophic, spiritual and attitudinal perspectives
necessary to effect a holistic relationship between all aspects of "being-qua-existenz"
has continuously proven the most effective way of unifying the maximum
segment of any society with nature. This is essential for the well-being
of all aspects of a human environment. Political systems, that function on
a fifty-one per cent of the
popular demand, which is the current practice of partiamentary
representation, or rule economic productivity or military force, often
with far less than even half the voting polulation's support, have proven
woefully ineffective in providing a functional human ecological balance.
The very fact that culture is currently regarded by most governments,
world bank, and international development agencies as an additional frill
or luxury of a society rather than an integral necessity is itself one of
he primary misconceptions hindering both local communications and the
global instigation man's needs, but not for anybody's greed" 3.
To provide adequately for all and curb the greed of even a few requires at
least a ninety per cent participation in the shared resolve which only a
creatively functioning cultural unity can provide, no matter what
political, social and religious system is in practice.
During the intense period
of interdisciplinary philosophic, spiritual and cultural development, from
the fifth to eight centuries A.D., as was afforded by the establishment of
large Buddhist universities, such as N¡land¡ Mah¡vih¡ra, the five
elemental forces were iconographically presented in their configurational
complexity as a ma¸·ala
means a concentration of energy or a circle, la means to take up and hold.
The experience of being in the phenomenal world of elemental forces has
meaning, being itself as the ground. Therefore, the energy of the forces
is the ground or foundation of meaningfulness. The ma¸·ala
of the Mah¡bh£tas expresses
the meaningfulness of being as experienced and expressed through the
elemental forces. Ma also means beautiful and la beautified. Rendered
literally, this term refers to a total sphere, globular and wholly
encircled. The centre is the primordial awareness of being itself
surrounded by a circle of elemental forces. Thus being is enhanced,
beautified by the awareness of understanding and appreciation of the
nature of the elements. Being is equally dependent upon, and an expression
of the elements. Both together form the whole, as expressed by the image
of the five directional ma¸·ala
principal, with four cardinal points arranged around being, either
expressing the cognitive awareness of being. If this central awareness is
solidified into an ecological projection of a self, in control of the
elements, the whole process is affected. The elements become tainted by
the independent self-centred projection, becoming poisonous conflicting
emotions, ignorance, attachment, greed and envy. By transforming the
centre from an ego-centred perception into an interdependent relationship
configuration, the poisons are purified into experienced creativity of a
harmonious interaction of forces.
perception of the phenomenal world made up of the Mah¡bh£tas initiates the possibility for the development of a
thematically directed consciousness within which the thematizing
perception assumes the dominant role and becomes, in a certain sense, a
centre around which all other cognitive operations are arranged. Whether
such imaging is directed toward the external, internal,
or arcane features of this being conscious, it occurs in an
undivided wholeness whose
complexity is included in the five elements of the five directional ma¸·ala
of the Mah¡bh£tas the whole ensemble constituting
the amazing unity and continuity of what we call a conscious
individual. The divisiveness between the phenomenal world and its
perception, as organized with respect to the experiencing individual, are
united in a configurational whole which allows the individual to function
in a holistic frame of mind, both being part of the whole and individually
responsible for its manifestation.
comparison with European philosophic traditions Socratic notions made up
the world of separate identifiable substances, which become the building
blocks of "reality',
linguistically termed nouns. Human beings also assuming the position of a
noun with a separate identity, against all experiential evidence to the
contrary, created the heterogeneous relationship to nature which
increasingly is the source of the disintegration of both the natural and
social environments. In the Mahabh£ta
perception of all phenomena, men, women, and their thematic ideation, are
part of the holistic process which is entirely interdependent. Each aspect
affects the whole. The external world of elements is dependent upon the
physical properties, the perception of an experiencing individual, and the
social cultural context which all must be in harmonious balance with the
elements to sustain effective interdependence.
if we take the organizational structure of the mahabh£tas ma¸·ala as a model for developing an ecologically
sound cultural system, we must consider it in all its complexity including
the (a) external, (b) internal, and (c) arcane or primordial features of
being conscious to assure an undivided wholeness whose complexity we can
outline as follows. The directions are quaternary of (a) externally earthy
solid, watery cohesion, fiery combustion and stormy motility, (b0 what is
internally the perceptible, feeling, ideation, and actualizing, and (c)
what is arcanely dullness, addiction, and envy, all temporally abiding as
cognitive fields constituting the four directions. The triad of
irritation, horizon, and thematically directed consciousness constitute
the centre, because it abides as reflective perception which is inherent
as the nature of the human mind, and that which put in front of the mind
reflects, known in Buddhist Vajray¡na terminology as mirror-like pristine cognition. All of
these form configurations surpassing the imagination, actually abiding
externally as the five elemental forces which can be referred to as the
five femininities and internally as the five psychophysical groupings
which are then the five masculinities, and arcanely as the five poisons
which when transformed are the five pristine cognitions.
human relationship to the five elements is not simple, nor
straightforward, as outlined very briefly here in this simplistic overview
of the Mahabh£ta ma¸·ala.
However even the most elementary examination of these principles reveals
deep insight into the complexity of the relationship
Indeed if we consider the primordial poisons or misconceptions, arising out of ignoring the subtleties of human interdependence with the phenomenal world, and, the underlying mental states of irritation giving rise to closing down of one's protective ignoring awareness, the effects of one's actions result in the environment. For example the earth element when perceived as that which goes on, no matter what you do to it, exemplifies the attitude of dullness. Dullness operates internally to ignore or close off that which is perceptible. The transformation by turning this earthy attitude of dullness is achieved by a vibrant paying attention, which notices the constant affects and interdependent changes with every interaction with the phenomenal world. The earth is not a solid unresponsive lump but a vibrant relationship of elements.
The globally embedded arrogance, which makes possible the overt delusion, inflation of ego operations, that man is independent of nature, is represented by the water element, internally constituted as feeling and, externally, watery cohesion, which allows multinational and personal greed to become the modus operandi without noticing the consequences. The fire element represents addiction, which becomes a craving for and attachment to that which has been singled out, and obsessive inordinate possessiveness reinforced by ego operations internally constituted as ideation and, externally, fiery combustion. The air element expresses and embedded envy which is a reluctance to accept how things are developing into the urge to meddle, internally as actualizing of innate tendencies and, externally, stormy motility. The above reads like our current state of world affairs and gives a working picture of the causes and effects of the ecological disaster we are collectively faced with. The process of becoming attuned to the ma¸·ala of the five elemental forces is in itself a way to begin to transform the negative aspects into positive or functional cooperative interdependences.
ma¸·ala is not based on ideas of imagination but the actual physics
and psychophysical nature of human interaction which is embodied in
physical structure. A transformation always indicates first an awareness
of the actual situation to be transformed. The very fact that we now talk
about the global environment, which during the last two centuries of
global industrialization we have somehow managed to ignore in the blind
view of "progress', shows how far the world's cultural systems have
gone astray. We can no longer point the finger at one group or in one
direction for in the globally interdependent ecology there is no east or
west, nor south or north. The industrialization and human addiction to
greed has become a world-wide phenomena. What we can, and must do, if we
are to survive as a species, is develop a culture based on an and must do
an awareness of the actual of our physical and psycho-physical situation.
A deep study into the ma¸·ala
principles contained in the Mahabh£ta will provide profound insights to this all-pervasive
nature of things as they are.
A quote from the Miss General Idea File,
Morris/Trasov Archives, Image Bank Directory,
A term adopted by Herbert V. Guenther, in "Mystery',
Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1984. In brief this term encapsules
the entirety of living existenz as defined by Guenther, "By its
very nature Being, in its totality,
tends to structure itself in and as the unifying continuity
which most decisively determines the uniquely experiential character
of being human. The unifying continuity which determines experience as
such as we can call existenz". Being qua-existenz indicates that
this continuity is always suffused by the highly energized process of
3 As quote on Lino cut of " Bapuji, 12.4.1930' by Nandlal Bose. Gandhi Book House, Rajghat Colony, New Delhi.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi