Whose World?

The following is an excerpt from Seyyed Hossien Nasr’s Noranda lecture delivered in Montreal, 1967:

In a world exhibition whose theme is “Man and His World,” “La Terre des Hommes,” and which is devoted to a display of the different aspects of man’s life and activities, it is perhaps not futile to pause for a moment and pose the question who is this man to whom the world is said to belong, the world or the “earth” that he has conquered yet is on the verge of destroying at the very moment when his conquest seems most complete. Modern man feels at home on earth, or rather would like to feel at home completely in this world, in contrast to the traditional Christian man or men of other civilizations who nearly always felt as a traveler in this world and a stranger upon the earth, which they considered as but a temporary abode. Yet even modern man cannot totally evade or forget his inner yearning for the abode beyond, his urge for the transcendent, or remain oblivious to the fact that the more he tries to become a completely terrestrial being, a creature of this earth, the more does the earth seem to crumble from under his feet and the more does he seem to fall out of harmony with the earthly environment. It is a paradox that the more man has tried to become “natural” during the postmedieval period, the more has he lost harmony and contact with nature to the extent of endangering his own existence within it.

Let us not forget that today the predominant axis of man’s knowledge of things, his science, is earthly and terrestrial. Modern man learned the laws of the physics of the earth from celestial physics and astronomy. The laws of motion of Newton were based on the laws of planetary motion established by a Pythagorian Kepler who significantly enough spoke of these laws, specially the third law, in a work entitled Harmonia Mundi. And once these heavenly laws were relegated to the level of terrestrial physics, this physics itself became the model of other forms of knowledge. Today it is this “earthly” physics that seeks to understand the constitution of the “heavens” and therefore to obliterate the meaning of heaven, at least physically. Today all of modern man’s science is “terrestrial,” yet he cannot obliterate the metaphysical and symbolic significance of “heaven,” of the “celestial” whose imprint he bears deep within himself. And so when man no longer makes spiritual flights or ascensions into the heavens in the manner of a Dante, he has the mystique to fly with a capsule into planetary space-in the same way that when he no longer climbs spiritual mountains, he tries to desecrate and debase physical mountains by “conquering” them. Or when the majority of men no longer practice those authentic spiritual disciplines that make the veritable vision of the transcendent world possible, they use mescalin and LSD with the hope of gaining such a vision without undertaking the necessary travail, self-negation. and discipline. Although outwardly now a complete creature of the earth and its master, and no longer the “half angel-half man” of traditional Christianity, this urge is deeply engraved in the very texture of man’s existence and manifests itself in one way or another, sometimes even violently, when the natural and normal means are not open to it.

Man feels himself as the possessor of all things, as the unquestionable conqueror and master of all of nature as if he had created it himself. But this sense of possession and power is only too often combined with a remarkable lack of responsibility and realization of the right to life of other creatures. Man’s domination is too often a prostitution of nature rather than its legitimate use. The voice of conservationists is raised here and there but is usually drowned in the much louder voice that in the name of human welfare wants to make man’s mastery over the earth total and complete. irrespective of what this may mean for the earth itself and its creatures. It is here that one is faced with the tragic situation in which the very assertion of the unlimited rights and power of man over the earth makes man’s life on earth ever more difficult and dangerous, leading in a direction that if pursued further might mean the very termination of both this domination and man’s very life. One is reminded of the Koranic verses: “But the Devil whispered to him, saying: 0 Adam! Shall I show thee the tree of immortality and power that wasteth not away?” (20: 120, Pickthall translation), referring to a Faustian power that not only appears not to waste away but is always posing the danger of destroying him who would wield that power. Being no longer the custodian of the earth, and yet wielding power, man is in the danger of losing his mastery over it as well. It seems that man cannot really live peacefully on earth and be just an earthly creature. The loss of the transcendent dimension has made terrestrial life itself precarious.

Could one but conclude that a secular humanism of the type first cultivated during the Renaissance is basically contradictory and fallacious? That is, one cannot speak of man and defend his dignity and right independent of the “divine image” that has made him man and bestowed upon him both dignity and freedom. Otherwise, humanism is only a halfway house from the theomorphic conception of man to the infrahuman into which man is being dragged today through many of his own inventions and creations. He who wishes to speak about man better concern himself about the whole of man or not speak at all. And he who wishes to speak about man and his world must of necessity first consider who is man and in reality whose world one is speaking about. Without penetrating into these questions and discovering the appropriate answers the hope for a harmonious relation between man and his world is dim indeed, and so many pictures of the further and more complete conquest of nature in the future become nothing but a chimera and dream, for within man lie forces that no “earthly” science, even if it is extended to the Pleiades, can ever understand or unravel or control.

Modern science may enable man to know how he is constituted chemically or biologically or where he is in galactic space. But this form of science cannot tell man who he is, where he was before his earthly existence, and where he will be after it. It cannot reveal to man where he stands in what has been called existential space, in the hierarchy of universal existence. It therefore cannot provide for man “orientation,” for to orient man’s life means to know where he comes from, where he is to go, and most of all who he is.

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13 Responses to Whose World?

  1. Wonderful article! I especially liked this point:

    The loss of the transcendent dimension has made terrestrial life itself precarious.

    There is great wisdom and insight in this observation and in recognizing the necessity of transcendence in a successful terrestrial existence, a point all too often missed in today’s fever of scientific/industrial conquest of nature.

  2. I have been looking for a place to post some comments regarding God and Nature as they are seen in various traditions. This article seems like a good fit.
    In many of the ‘natural’ religions we have the male and distant father God (known as the ‘sky father’ all over the world http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_father )as well as the female and close at hand mother Goddess, or mother Earth.
    The Abrahamic religions minimize the value and importance of the Goddess in spiritual life, concentrating exclusively on the worship of the male aspect of the Divine. The Advaita school of thought has a similar approach. When I look at our Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition I can’t help but wonder that the Goddess has been moved far away from us into the sky, where She is just as distant and unapproachable as God Himself. Some acharyas even tell us that we are not to sing Her direct names as part of our every day devotional practice, even as She is present in the Hare Krsna mantra (Srila Prabhupada says: “The word Hara is a form of addressing the energy of the Lord”).
    We do not even remotely try to see Radha in the world around us, in nature or earth. She has been sublimated and removed into the sky realm of our Divine Father. Thus, despite all the claims to the contrary, our Gaudiya tradition seems more like yet another form of male God worship, where nature and the world around us have nothing to do with spiritual life.

    • Durga is a name for Radha. Nature is not unrelated to her, as she is the fountainhead of all sakti and nature is a manifestation of sakti–a maidservant of Radha. And in the form of nature she is also to be venerated. Granted nature is not her complete manifestation, but to say that she is completely removed from the world seems to ignore the bigger picture in which she is immanent as well as transcendent.

      And Radha is also Bhaktidevi, giving herself to the world of jivas.

      • Thank you for finding time to respond to this, Maharaja. This is something that has been on my mind for some time, and I do realize that such thoughts are not really part of our tradition.
        So… to go all the way on a limb… 😉
        When Krsna leaves Vrindavana, Radha stays behind, absorbed in Her mood of ‘natural’ love. She does not follow Him to Mathura or Dvaraka, where Krsna is more like the male God of the Abrahamic religions. She does not go there to be His queen, to take place ‘in the Sky’, far away from what is a most natural way of life – not just for Her, but for all of us. To me that is also a larger metaphor, where our veneration expressed towards nature should be just as important as our veneration towards Krsna, as the seed giving father God figure. That is something I spoke about in connection with our discussion regarding protection of the environment and Hinduism. It simply is not there (seeing and protecting Nature as a worshipable Deity), or at best it is given a minor lip service. Hindus offer arotiks to their holy rivers while dumping raw sewage and wholesale industrial pollution into them, without as much as a second thought.
        Yes, at best devotees see only Durga in Mother Nature – a harsh and cruel mistress that is more to be feared than loved. I do know our philosophy, and I do understand what it says, but somehow it rings untrue in this regard. I feel that the ‘earthly’ dimension of spirituality has been neglected in our tradition. We are worshiping the God and Goddess in the Sky, and both are far away from us, hidden behind various veils and layers of servants. That is what I perceive as the practical mood of our tradition. I do not see this mood as perfection of the natural ancient beliefs, but as yet another form of escapism and negation of the earthly aspect of our life that is (or should be) just as spiritual.

    • Shyamananda das

      Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur said that we worship Krsna because Radharani likes him.

  3. I’m with Kula Pavana on this one. The issue of accessibility of the Deity by a spiritual practicioner in our tradition is a bit problematic to me. In the patriarchal traditions God is a remote being who is seperated from this world. In the tradition where the female aspect of deity is more important, the deity is more accessible – either in the nature or on the emotional, psychological level. The Goddess is all accomodating, motherly figure, easly to access, who accepts the spiritual sparks as they are. So on the first sight our tradition seems to be more of the “Goddess type”; as Gaudiyas we focuse more on Radharani, but on the practical side she seems to be as remote as the “male” God, and as the result, our spiritual practice focuses on the austerity and the personal endevour (instead of “letting go” and opening to the Grace).
    I would love to read Guru Maharaja’s insights on this issue. And anyone else’s too!:)

    • our spiritual practice focuses on the austerity and the personal endevour (instead of “letting go” and opening to the Grace).

      How does chanting like a child calling out to its mother, to use Prabhupada’s example, “focuse on austerity and personal endeavor instead of letting go and opening to Grace?”

    • <blockquote In the patriarchal traditions God is a remote being who is seperated from this world. In the tradition where the female aspect of deity is more important, the deity is more accessible – either in the nature or on the emotional, psychological level. The Goddess is all accomodating, motherly figure, easly to access, who accepts the spiritual sparks as they are.

      Here’s my two cents.

      1.) The Deity being accessible in nature.

      Mahaprabhu saw his beloved Deity everywhere in nature. In his vision, the ordinary hills became Govardhana, rivers the Yamuna, and the grass and the trees became venerable teachers of humility and tolerance. And even when the world appeared empty and hollow in his separation of Krishna, even that emptiness was pointing him towards Krishna, revealing something of his relationship with the Deity.

      So even if to our vision the Godhead seems far and distant — and one feels like one has been abandoned into the world by a remote Deity — that, too, can teach us something about the Deity and our relationship to the Absolute. Instead of blaming the Deity — perhaps we should look within and ask, Do I have the eyes to see him/her? Have I looked at the world deeply enough? Is God the one being “remote” or have I distanced myself from him/her? Even Jesus teaches that “one who searches, will find”. One who looks deeply enough, will see.

      2. The Deity being accessible on the emotional/psychological level.

      Radha-Krishna are highly accessible to us in two ways: through Sri Guru and Sri Nama. Sri Guru is Krishna’s kripa-avatara; God’s mercy and compassion descending to our current reality. The Guru is Radha-Krishna coming to us in a human form, perfectly tailored to our specific needs. The Guru will relate to us on the emotional/psychological level, while of course taking us far beyond. If you have ever wondered if Radha-Krishna cares about you? Loves you? Look at your Guru — there’s your answer.

      In Gaudiya tradition much emphasis is put on the Name of God. The dharma that Mahaprabhu taught us has often been called “the Nama-dharma.” I cannot think of a more accessible and merciful Deity than the one that we have in Nama-Prabhu. There is absolutely no rules, no regulations, no restrictions on approaching the Deity in his form as Sound.

      In this form, Radha-Krishna are putting themselves inside our mouths, dancing on our tongues (can’t think of a more intimate place than the mouth — you don’t let just anyone in there! 😉 Nama-Prabhu IS a Deity who is all-accomodating, easy-to-access, and meets us “the spiritual sparks” as you put it, just as we are.

      But the Name is so merciful that although s/he meets us “as we are”, we are not left as we are. Nama-Prabhu is taking the role of a sweeper inside our hearts and we are forever transformed. The Name does practically all the hard work for us. All we have to do, is let him/her in — open ourselves to Grace.

      “Just call my name, and I’ll be there.” This is how accessible the Deity is for the followers of Mahaprabhu 🙂

      • You raise good points, Tadiya.

        I would like to add that we should also locate Gaudiya Vaisnavism within the greater context of Hinduism. Radha, unlike other Hindu goddesses, is more identified with the prospect of the jiva in bhakti than with nature. While Gaudiya Vaisnavas identify with her, this need not be at the cost of appreciating nature, which is identified with her partial self. All of the Hindu sensibilities with regard to the natural world should be present in one who seeks to enter more deeply into her mystery. Understanding Radha involves understanding Durga. And understanding Durga, as it is with all persons, is best accomplished through love.

      • But the Name is so merciful that although s/he meets us “as we are”, we are not left as we are.

        This reminds of a nice quote I heard once: God loves us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.

        Erich Fromm talked about how motherly love is unconditional and there is nothing you have to or can do to achieve it, while fatherly love has to be deserved. If these two are in place we will feel good about ourselves yet be inspired to improve. Krsna mata, krsna pita, krsna dhana pran.

  4. Wow, Tadiya, that’s an answer! I like it very much.

  5. Philosophically speaking, Gaudiya Vaisnavism understands God to be as much in the world (immanent) as he is beyond it (transcendent). Krsna mentions this in the 9th chapter of the Gita (9.4-5). Later in the 10th chapter he speaks first about his transcendence in the Gita’s for essential verses and then for the balance of the chapter about his immanence. For those concerned about how to locate him in terms of his immanence and find in him an Earth grounded God orientation to spiritual life, this lecture may be helpful:


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