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Mah¡bh£ta in Determining Cultural Ecology

Bryan Mulvihill 

"Aesthetics determines Cultural Ecology" 1

In 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 and control.

          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.

          The cultural dissemination of the philosophic, spiritual and attitudinal perspectives necessary to effect a holistic relationship between all aspects of "being-qua-existenz" 2 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 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Briefly, 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.

The 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.

        The Mahabh£ta 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.

However, study alone is only the beginning. To be effective we need to bring the awareness and sensitivity of these basic underlying principles to the forefront of the human community which will require a dynamic and energetic re-looking at the process and necessity of a cultural ecology. To begin this enormous task it will require national and international network of the cultural communities getting to know one another and collectively exploring the ecological imbalances and finding effective ways to transform the human relationship to our mother earth. India with its enormous human potential and deep historical understanding, as amply displayed in the Mahabh£ta vision, will have to play a leading role in this process.   

1  A quote from the Miss General Idea File, Morris/Trasov Archives, Image Bank Directory,  Vancouver,   1965.

2  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 Being.

3  As quote on Lino cut of  " Bapuji, 12.4.1930' by Nandlal Bose. Gandhi Book  House, Rajghat Colony, New Delhi.

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