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I was asked about whether Nature is ‘spiritual’ and about Nature’s ‘spiritual influence’. The reality is that Nature is not spiritual, it is in essence material since it is comprised of matter or the material energy. However, it can contribute to a sense of peacefulness in us and serve as a catalyst to arouse an interest in things that are spiritual.
In this talk we explore the subject and draw on some wonderful Vedic verses as follows:
Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [all material manifestations including the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both. – Bhagavad-gītā 2.16
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego–all together these eight comprise My separated material energies. – Bhagavad-gītā 7.4
Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe. – Bhagavad-gītā 7.5
Ignorance consists of considering that which is temporary as eternal, the impure as pure, misery as happiness and the non-self (the body or mind) as the real self. – Yoga Sūtra 2.5
O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode become conditioned by a sense of happiness and knowledge. – Bhagavad-gītā 14.6
The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this the embodied living entity is bound to material fruitive actions. – Bhagavad-gītā 14.7
O son of Bharata, know that the mode of darkness, born of ignorance, is the delusion of all embodied living entities. The results of this mode are madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul. – Bhagavad-gītā 14.8
O son of Bharata, the mode of goodness conditions one to happiness; passion conditions one to fruitive action; and ignorance, covering one’s knowledge, binds one to madness. – Bhagavad-gītā 14.9
From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develop foolishness, madness and illusion. – Bhagavad-gītā 14.17
The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. Thus he meets with good and evil among various species. – Bhagavad-gītā 13.22
Due to this external energy, the living entity, although transcendental to the three modes of material nature, thinks of himself as a material product and thus undergoes the reactions of material miseries. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.7.5
In this way the conditioned soul living within the body forgets his self-interest because he identifies himself with the body. Because the body is material, his natural tendency is to be attracted by the varieties of the material world. Thus the living entity suffers the miseries of material existence. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 7.13.28
Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya
Well, tonight I’m going to address a question that I had. Somebody reached out to me, saying that they had heard that—in the past they had heard me reference the fact that nature is not actually spiritual; and they somewhat objected to that, based upon their connection with nature, and felt that it was spiritual, or had a spiritual content to it. People often feel that by—and I’ll use the word associating— associating, or being in a very natural environment, they feel that they are being immersed in a spiritual experience. So what I’d like to do is to try to make it very clear what it is that I was referencing in relation to nature not being spiritual.
So firstly, there’s a real need to have a clear definition of what spiritual is. What makes something spiritual? And right there, if we say, “What makes something spiritual?” it’s actually the wrong way to put it. We should be asking, “What is spiritual? What is spirit and it’s opposite?” if we can refer to it as an opposite. “What is matter?” or “What is material?”
Two of the important characteristics of that which is spirit, or spiritual, is the characteristic of it being eternal; and the second one is that it will not be subject to any change. I mean, just with those two things you’ll be able to begin to clearly make out what is material and what is spiritual. That which is material, or the material energy, on the other hand, has the characteristics of temporariness and of, quite often, constant change, but definitely, change. It transforms. It changes. So just by looking at these two things, the—whether something is eternal or temporary, and whether it’s subject to change or whether it remains constant, the same, constantly the same, can make it so a person can already begin to understand and appreciate.
In the Bhagavad-gita in the 2nd chapter there is a verse, the 16th sloka, that deals with this.
The Bhagavad gita is actually a very interesting work to study, and I would invite you to take a look at, on my website, and I have a Youtube channel called Bhagavad-gita Chalisa where we study 40 verses from the Bhagavad-gita. I’m just over halfway through doing this, and releasing a few things every week, two or three talks every week.
And in the Bhagavad-gita we had this situation where a great warrior prince, who was on a battlefield and about to engage in battle, became suddenly startled to see that it was really people that were very dear to him. He had great affection for his grandfather, whom he regarded as a spiritual superior and teacher, a great saintly person, who was on the other side of the battlefield, in the other army. And there was his own martial teacher, Duryodhana, who was a great personality. He said, in addressing Sri Krishna, he said there were people here worthy of my worship; and confronted with the situation he became overwhelmed, utterly lost his composure and mentally broke down in a highly emotional state, refusing to fight. But he turned to Krishna and ask Him for direction.
So one of the things that Sri Krishna began doing was, one, to bring his attention to the eternality of the soul, and how these bodies that you are connected to and have relationships, are not the actual people, that for the soul there is never death, there is never destruction. And in the course of explaining and speaking in some detail about this Krishna spoke the following verse. He said,
“Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the non-existent [meaning all material manifestations including the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [meaning the soul, or that which is spiritual] there is no change. [Thus] they have concluded by studying the nature of both.”
The Sanskrit in this verse is very interesting. The term which Srila Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has translated as “of that which is non-existent” it is asat. Sat literally means that which is eternal, and it speaks to that which is purely spiritual, whereas when you put the “a” sound in front of it, asat, asatah, it means just the opposite, that which is not eternal, that which is temporary, and because of its temporary, changing and fleeting nature it is not considered real existence in the highest sense. It is something that is just passing. It will fade and wither and be gone, and something else will take its place; and so it can be referred to as that which is non-existent, because it does not have the characteristic of being eternal and not subject to change. And so this way of looking at things is a very ancient way of looking at and being able to distinguish between that which is purely spiritual and that which is material.
Later on, in the seventh chapter of the same Bhagavad-gita, there were two verses now where Sri Krishna really expounds on this truth by saying that, in this world there are only two categories of energy. One category of energy is the material energy, which is divided into different components and different parts, but nonetheless one energy. And the second type of energy is all of the spiritual beings, which are eternal.
And so He says—And in the yoga system they had a really amazing way of analysing and categorising material. The material energy, they considered that there were five principal elements, and this is a much bigger concept than the idea of an element in chemistry. It was much broader, and it involved a deeper understanding of the characteristics of material energy. So the first verse I’ll reference (it’s chapter 7, verse 4), it states:
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, the mind, intelligence and the false ego, all together these eight comprise My separated material energies.”
So this is actually quite a big subject, and I’m not going to go into any detail with it here, but within these eight energies there were another 10 and another 5—15 additional divisions of energies, but all of them were within what was considered these eight principle energies. Then in the next verse He says,
“Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.”
So this is a very amazing idea, that the living beings, without their presence you would not have the way planet earth is. If you removed all life so that—I mean it’s so amazing, that because of the presence of the life particle, which projects a life force into whatever body it takes on, and that body now has characteristics and is behaving in a way that is contrary to the laws of nature, the laws of thermodynamics in particular—Well, at least one of the laws, which is that highly complex structures, when—like a body, whether it’s a tree, whether it’s a human being, whether it’s a dog, a horse, whatever, when the life leaves that body that body immediately begins to break down into its most simple elements. This complexity of the structure occurs because of the presence of this life force, which is coming from the soul itself. And so in that sense, if we think of any natural setting, there is this stunning spiritual energy that is present, which is allowing it to now appear in the way that we see it; and if all these plants and insects and birds and animals died it would now become an utter wasteland.
So it says here that this superior energy, “which are all the living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe”—this is a really profound idea. But when we take that into consideration to what we read earlier, then we totally have to embrace this reality, that part of the embodied condition—the human condition, is not a spiritual condition. It is the embodiment of an eternal spiritual being in a temporary covering—and part of that embodiment experience is to become overwhelmed and deeply in illusion, the illusion of this idea that this body that I have on is me, this is who I am, which is utterly false, utterly false.
And what we see is the materially entangled living beings live their entire lifetime on a false premise. And at the end of this journey with this body, when it can no longer be a—when it’s no longer habitable and death occurs, when the living being leaves, that body is rendered back to dust. All gone. Everything gone. And so, in many yoga texts they will refer to this, not in a harsh and a judgmental way, but in a compassionate and sad way, that the living beings in this condition are existing in a state of ignorance, a lack of awareness, a lack of enlightenment, as to their eternal spiritual nature.
The Yoga Sutra—Patanjali says in the 2nd pada, in the 5th shloka that, “Ignorance consists of considering that which is temporary as eternal.” This is utterly confusing these two energies together, misidentifying the eternal and thinking that it is the temporary thing, the external body, that is eternal; and it’s not. And proof that we are thinking this way is how shocking death is to us, when somebody close to us dies. And even a year or two later when there is some sudden deep memory of this, a person can be utterly shaken, and lose their composure and weep. Because we desire to be eternal, and the idea of death, of things coming to an end we find to be utterly shocking.
In this conditioned state, part of being bound up by the material energy, we become subject to the influence of a very incredibly powerful yet subtle energy that has three parts to it. This is called the triguna, the three qualities, or the three modes of material nature. These are invisible forces that permeate the entire material creation and produce different forms of activity, different forms of desire, different forms of attraction, and that spur different types of activity.
So these three gunas, the first is called the mode of goodness, the sattva guna; the second is called the mode of passion, or raja guna; and the third is the mode of ignorance or of darkness. This is called tama guna. I need to just lay this out to you, and you’ll understand in a few minutes where this is all going, and it’s deeply connected to the question about whether nature is spiritual.
And again I’ll quote from the Bhagavad-gita. This is from the 14th chapter:
“Material nature consists of three modes, goodness, passion and ignorance. When the eternal living entity comes in contact with nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, he becomes conditioned by these modes.”
This word conditioned is a really heavy term, where it’s like we become trained. It’s just like these guys that have these sled dogs in Alaska. They race them. They’ve got one race that’s like a thousand miles. It takes days and days, and you have these long, tethered line of dogs, about 16 dogs. And the dogs are trained so that just by the voice of the person that’s mushing the animals they will go left, they will go right, they will slow down, they will go ahead, they will speed up. There’s no reigns, but just by voice. And so just as the dog becomes trained—In India you see all these snake charmers. They’re an interesting bunch, at least the older crew when I when I was over there as a monk in my younger years. They would train the snake to do so many different things. Or you can see the way the elephant trainer, the mahout, trains the elephant to do so many things, and the animal becomes conditioned, so that when an order is given it immediately responds. And sometimes the order is just a hand movement or a facial movement, and the animal knows what it is meant to do and immediately responds. So this is a tiny example of how the spiritual being becomes deeply conditioned by the influence of these material modes.
So when the living being is conditioned by these modes, each of the three modes, or combinations of them, produce different types of characteristics. And I thought I would just read a few of these to you because it’s really fascinating. The 14th chapter of the Bhagavad-gita deals with these three modes of material nature, the three gunas, in great detail.
So beginning from the 6th chapter: It says, Krishna saying—speaking with Arjuna:
“O sinless one, the mode of goodness, being purer than the others, is illuminating, and it frees one from all sinful reactions. Those situated in that mode become conditioned by a sense of happiness and of knowledge. The mode of passion is born of unlimited desires and longings, O son of Kunti, and because of this the embodied living being is bound to material fruitive actions.”
Fruitive actions means when a person engages in work and endeavour, simply desiring, intensely desiring, certain results or outcomes. So we see with the mode of goodness a person tends to be more peaceful and enlightened and knowledgeable, whereas a characteristic of the mode of passion as one becomes very–they’re filled with unlimited desires, always wanting, and longings, unlimited longings, which inspire them to engage in work.
“O son of Bharata, know that the mode of darkness born of ignorance, is the delusion of all embodied living entities. The results of this mode are madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.”
So if we look in our life at people that we know, or we may have met, or seen, or encountered, you’ll see that there are category of people that are drawn to more peaceful and non-chaotic life, and are more into beautiful things and nature, and very ethereal and beautiful music. And then you have people that are more aggravated, and agitated, and passionate, and striving for things, and wanting to do things, and are loud, and chaotic, and just really bouncing off the walls. And then you have the third category which would be epitomized by the couch potato at one end of this spectrum, and the hopeless drug addict or alcoholic on the other end, whose life is utterly wasted and spent endlessly seeking to be intoxicated and not very engaged with the world.
So then jumping on a few verses He said,
“O son of Bharata, the mode of goodness conditions one to happiness; passion conditions one to fruitive action; and ignorance, covering one’s knowledge, binds one to madness.”
“From the mode of goodness, real knowledge develops; from the mode of passion, greed develops; and from the mode of ignorance develops foolishness, madness and illusion.”
So according to how someone is predominantly influenced by one of these modes–and I’ll just add to it that our association, the nature of the activities that we engage in, the nature of the food that we eat, all of these things contribute to reinforce the influence of one or more of these modes upon us. And you’ll see that people that are in a very pronounced way sort of influenced by one of the three modes, not so much a mixture, but maybe one of the three, they become drawn to different types of habitat, places of living.
The people that are more influenced by the mode of goodness tend to want to be surrounded by peacefulness and beauty and, almost always, more natural surroundings. Those in the modes of passion, they gravitate towards cities, loud music, bright lights, constant agitation, and stimulation. Those in the modes of ignorance, you will see that they often live in squalor, and darkness, and filth, and it’s just a very sad and almost hopeless situation.
I’ll just read another couple of verses. I had another one from the Bhagavad-gita:
“The living entity in material nature thus follows the ways of life, enjoying the three modes of nature. This is due to his association with that material nature. [And] thus he meets with good and evil among various species.”
And then from the Bhagavata Purana
“Due to this external energy, the living entity, although transcendental to the three modes of material nature, thinks of himself as a material product and thus undergoes the reactions of material miseries.”
“[And] in this way the… soul living within the body forgets his self-interest because he identifies himself with the body. [And] because the body is material, his natural tendency is to be attracted by the varieties of the material world. [And] thus the living entity suffers the miseries of material existence.”
So this describes how this powerful force, the triguna, the three modes of nature, permeate the entire material creation, regardless of what species one may be inhabiting. We are all eternal, spiritual beings but we can inhabit any body, any type of body, in an infinite variety of species; and we’re always seeking to enjoy but unfortunately frequently encountering unhappiness, distress, and suffering.
So one of the characteristics of people that have some influence of the mode of goodness, they will be more likely drawn to nature and natural settings than people that are more in the mode of passion, and definitely people in the mode of ignorance are not drawn to natural settings. What happens is that when a person puts themselves in that kind of an environment, they expose themselves to nature, and they already have an influence of the mode of goodness affecting their body and mind, then by being in the proximity of something that is natural and beautiful we become increasingly more peaceful, and more often than not drawn towards that which is actually spiritual.
But I have to state that this condition, the mode of goodness, is not truly a spiritual condition. But it is probably one of the most ideal platforms to take to real spiritual life. And so an attraction to nature is an indication a person could potentially be drawn to an actual spiritual practice, to spiritual life, to spiritual enlightenment. But nature in and of itself is not inherently spiritual.
If we examine nature, put it under the magnifying glass or the microscope, you will see that material nature is filled with violence and fear. I look out my window in the morning, and we have all of these birds hopping around on the lawn, but what are they doing? They’re looking for the worms, and as soon as they see some movement they’re right on there, dragging that worm out of the ground. That guy just trying to do his trip and live his life, he’s suddenly yanked out of there and swallowed whole. The birds themselves are highly skittish. They’re always fearful that they’re going to be attacked, because that’s the nature of their life. If we get down into the grass and look at the ants and all the insects there it is a world full of tremendous violence and fearfulness.
If we objectively look at the nature of trees—I mean really, can you imagine what it’s like to be stuck in the body of a tree? It’s described in the different yogic texts that if a person lives a life where they are very drawn into intoxication (this means getting drunk to the point of passing out and just spending all your time just drinking and being in a semi-comatose state, or taking intoxicants, just being stoned all the time), and a person dies in that state of consciousness, it’s described that they will actually take these lower forms of life. They will take birth there in their next incarnation as trees in these lower species. It is considered in that condition the living being is almost utterly covered by what’s called the mode of ignorance, and is barely aware of what’s going on around it and unable to hardly respond. Somebody can come up and break a branch off a tree, or different kinds of insects can build nests or homes in it. You can have black ants or termites beginning to eat away at part of the tree, and the tree can hardly resist. The most it can do is produce some sap and try to defend itself that way. But this is actually considered a lower and unfortunate life form.
And even though you go into a forest where all these living beings are very much trapped in the modes of ignorance, the effect that they have on us, just this natural surrounding, is the influence of the mode of goodness. And a big reason for this is because we become drawn away from that which agitates us and produces unlimited desire and hankering. So it’s quite extraordinary that even though trees and plants are considered living entities that are covered by the mode of ignorance they can produce a peaceful effect on human beings, on human life. They can produce the influence of the mode of goodness.
So when a person becomes absorbed in a very natural surrounding, it’s not like you’re being bombarded there by advertisements to go get some pizza or a burger or something, or somebody’s blasting you with alcohol ads or sexual enticement, or—You’re there kind of removed from all that agitation that comes with other forms of living. And so it is a better environment to practice spiritual life.
So nature itself is not spiritual, and being attracted to nature doesn’t make you spiritual. But it does clearly show that you are drawn to and you have an attraction for that which is in the mode of goodness, that which is peaceful, and it indicates that you are on a platform, or a position, that makes it more easy for you to undertake the spiritual journey.
Okay? So I hope I’ve explained it. Yeah, there’s quite a lot, and it’s important to understand. If we really want to experience and live a spiritual life then it really is necessary to cultivate a clear understanding. So of course, the significant part of that process is meditation, meditation on these transcendental sounds. So I invite you to join me. I’ll begin with the Haribol Nitai-Gaur mantra.