INTRODUCTION: THE BANYAN SEED
There was once a cobbler who lived a simple and honest life. He was a poor man and had to work hard to support his wife and children, but whatever little extra he had he devoted to the worship of Vishnu, the lord of creation. He lived beside a huge banyan tree. Like all banyan trees its central trunk was massive, surrounded by smaller trunks which hung down from the branches to put out fresh roots. The tree was very old and was just like a small forest. One day, as he worked in the shade of the banyan tree, the great teacher Narada came to visit him. Narada is famous among all Hindus as the personal messenger and friend of Vishnu. He is able to see Vishnu whenever he wants, but he spends most of his time travelling throughout the universe, visiting Vishnu's devotees and instructing them. The cobbler was very happy to receive so honoured a guest. After welcoming him with proper respect he ventured to ask if he had recently seen Vishnu.
"Yes," replied Narada, "I have just been with Him and He has sent me to see you."
The cobbler was amazed to hear that Vishnu had sent Narada to him. No one important ever came to see him - he was only a shoemaker. What possible interest could Vishnu have in him? After some time his curiosity overcame his shyness. "Why did Vishnu want you to see me?"
"He thought you might have some questions."
"Questions?" The cobbler was taken unawares. Narada himself had come to answer his questions! Of course, he did have questions from time to time, but now, with this unique opportunity, his mind went blank! In confusion he racked his brain for something to ask. Suddenly he thought of one. It wasn't very profound, but at least it was a question. "What was Vishnu doing when you saw Him?"
Now Vishnu knew that the cobbler, although simple-hearted, was really a very special person, and He knew what would happen when Narada suddenly appeared in front of him. Because he knows everything, he knew the cobbler would ask this exact question. Wanting to teach Narada a lesson, he had already told him what his answer should be.
"He was threading an elephant through the eye of a needle," Narada replied mysteriously.
"Threading an elephant through the eye of a needle?" the cobbler was surprised. He hadn't expected that Vishnu would be doing this. "Well, one thing's for sure," he laughed, "Only Vishnu could do that!"
"Surely you don't believe me," smiled Narada, amused at the cobbler's simplicity. He had given this answer merely to test the cobbler and didn't expect him to believe it. "I don't think even Vishnu could really do that - it's impossible."
"Why can't Vishnu do that?" responded the cobbler, a little taken aback at Narada's lack of faith. "Nothing's impossible for Vishnu. This world is full of His miracles. He makes the sun rise each day. He makes the wind blow. He makes the rivers run and the trees and flowers grow."
The cobbler warmed to his subject. "Look at this," he went on as he bent to the ground and picked up a seed from beneath the banyan tree, "Inside this seed is a banyan tree as big as the one above us. It's just waiting to come out. If Vishnu can squeeze a whole banyan tree into such a tiny seed, surely he can thread an elephant through the eye of a needle!"
Hearing the wisdom of the cobbler's words Narada had to admit that what he said was true. He realised that this man was not the simpleton he had taken him for but was very wise because he could see in everything the hand of God.
The cobbler had the sense of wonder at his environment, which we in this age of science and technology have lost. He could still be surprised at what he saw and see the miracles. The common everyday things of this world, like the banyan tree seed, are things which we take for granted and do not stop to wonder at. We don't see that really they are miracles. Although we could explain to the cobbler in modern scientific terms how a seed produces a tree, we would still not understand what he understood, namely the divine presence within the tree and its seed. No matter how believable an explanation science can give for the workings of nature it will always be incomplete because it cannot explain the reason and purpose behind it. It may tell us HOW but it cannot tell us WHY.
The world is like a beautiful painting or a musical symphony. We might know how the colours are mixed on the canvas or how the musical instruments are played in the orchestra, but that does not help us to appreciate the beauty of the picture or the music that is produced, or the inner meaning which the artist or composer has given it. It is this inner meaning which the cobbler was able to see. All of life, from the universe itself down to the individual trees and seeds and the very earth beneath his feet, is full of the divine purpose of God, the artist and creator behind it.
Unless we can understand this divine purpose which lies behind the world, we will not know how to live in it properly, or how to use it. Science has greatly advanced in the last two hundred years, making it possible to manipulate nature in ways that were previously impossible. This has brought many benefits such as medicines and comforts of life, but it has also created many dangers. If we don't know what the world is meant for, if we don't know how to use it properly, we can do immense harm with the power that modern science has given us. Therefore the Hindu scriptures have advised that knowledge of matter, namely science, must be coupled with knowledge of spirit if it is to be of benefit to humanity.
A man once bought an ornate antique birdcage to decorate his home. He carefully restored it, cleaning and polishing it all day. Inside the cage was a bird, but he took no notice of that, not even bothering to feed it. When he proudly displayed his birdcage to his friends, they were shocked to see that despite the beauty of the cage the poor bird inside was dying of hunger. Western culture has effectively built a very elaborate cage in which the human spirit is now languishing, imprisoned by its own material excesses. Despite its sophistication, this civilization has failed to see the inner meaning of life, and the bird in the cage is dying.
In the great cycle of the Mahabharata, the epic history of old India, spiritual teachings are set in the classic tradition of the teacher showing wisdom to the disciple. At the heart of the epic is the Bhagavad Gita, the 'Song of God', in which Krishna teaches his warrior friend Arjuna, who is presented with an awful dilemma: whether to fight in battle against his own relatives and dear friends, or to allow the forces of evil to overrun his kingdom. Taking this as a metaphor, Arjuna finds himself He says to Krishna, "I'm confused; I'm frightened; I don't know what to do or who I can trust. Please advise me."
Arjuna's position has obvious parallels with today's overwhelming environmental and social problems. Like Arjuna, we find ourselves in a position of danger where confusion obscures our path and our duty is not clear. We have created a civilization of great complexity in which our economic and social needs are intricately woven into a global web of cause and effect over which we have less and less control. The whole edifice, being based upon the principle of trying to replace the natural order with an artificial one aimed at satisfying material desires, is highly insecure. We are trying to solve our problems by making constant adjustments to the balance of life, without any clear knowledge of what the consequences may be. We stumble on without knowing where we are going.
The further we progress along this path, the deeper our disillusion becomes. In a survey of public opinion in Britain conducted by the Daily Telegraph in August 1991, 42% of people asked said that they would be prepared to give up all the benefits of modern science and technology in order to have a natural way of life in a world that is free from pollution. We think that we are making progress, but our progress is like that of the deer in the desert, who chases after a mirage. The poor animal runs deeper and deeper into the desert until it can go no further. Led on by its burning thirst, trapped by its blindness and misjudgment, it eventually lies down to die in the wilderness.
Western civilization needs to rediscover the balance and harmony which it has lost. We must take advantage of the fact that we are now a global community and are no longer limited to learning from only one tradition. There are many sources of wisdom left to us all over the world. The West has much to learn from the wisdom traditions of India. Having exposed most of the rest of the world to our own traditions, and having largely abandoned them ourselves, we now need to learn from others; to put aside our swords and guns, our computers and microscopes, our cars and televisions, and have the courage and the vision to journey in new territory where these seemingly indispensable aids may be of little value.
Reincarnation is a good example of a teaching which has been largely ignored by Western civilization, despite the fact that it has always existed in one form or another in the unofficial religions of our countries. It is important because it stresses the equality of all life forms and their transience too. It does not support the human-centered culture of the West which permits human society to terrorise the animal kingdom and dominate the cycles of nature for its own convenience. Nor does it support the empire-building mania of the European societies, who wanted to possess as much of the world as they could, believing that they only had one life in which to do it all. It is these attitudes that have encouraged us in our present path of industrial and technological war upon nature and the world.
Re-incarnation and other knowledge of the spirit is taught by the Vedas, the sacred books of the Hindus. They contain the collected wisdom of the Vedic culture, the world's oldest living civilization, which in modern times has come to be known as Hinduism. They teach about the meaning and purpose of the world through philosophy and stories from Vedic history. Like Narada's answer to the cobbler's question, many of the stories in the Vedas may be hard to understand or believe, especially for us in the twentieth century, but the Hindu would say that they are closer to the real truth than the most scientific descriptions of life that we read in our textbooks of physics, medicine or psychology.
The Vedas tell the story of a five year-old child named Dhruva, who went to the forest to seek Vishnu. He was advised to practice penances and meditation. So, standing on one leg he slowed his breathing down to the point where he was barely inhaling or exhaling. After four months he managed to stop breathing completely and remained with his mind fixed on the form of Vishnu, suspended between the inward and outward breath. At this point he became at one with the universe and his foot seemed to press down on the earth with unbearable weight. The devas of the heavens - the sun, the moon and all the elements - began to feel as if they too could not breathe. They were suffocating because of the intense self-control of Dhruva who had somehow syncronised his own breathing with that of the total universe.
To save the devas, Vishnu appeared before Dhruva and blessed him. Then Dhruva relaxed his meditation and the universe was released from his grip. In recognition of his strength and determination, Vishnu gave Dhruva the pole star as his kingdom. Ever since then, in memory of the time when Dhruva brought the whole universe under his influence, the heavens have revolved around his star.
This story demonstrates the profound relationship between every living being and the universe itself - all beings, even devas, are linked in a complete whole of interdependence where each of their actions effects everyone else. Only Vishnu, the supreme, lies apart. Although all existence ultimately depends upon Vishnu, and although Vishnu is present even within the atom, Vishnu is simultaneously far, far beyond the limits of physical existence.
Dhruva's meditation took place in the forest, where Hindus have found so much inspiration. Modern society, having left the forest far behind, needs to see the divine purpose of Vishnu that pervades all life. In its search for technological advancement it is sowing seeds of destruction, seeds which can destroy the beauty and harmony of this world for a long time to come. At this crucial time the stories and teachings in this book are offered from the Vedas and their followers. Like the cobbler's seed they illustrate truths about the natural world which are highly relevant to today's problems. They are seeds of truth whose lessons must be shared.