Lecture, May 23, 2003, International Theosophical Centre, Besant Hall, Naarden, The Netherlands
The State of our Society
Let me express first of all the great joy that I am experiencing in being back here in Naarden after many years, and to see so many familiar faces and old friends.I am thankful to the Theosophical Society here for inviting me and giving me this opportunity to be here today.
What I would like to do in this seminar,with you,is to take a very practical and pragmatic view of the actual state of our human society globally, across the whole world; consider what we have accomplished in the last century, what problems we are facing now, and whether we need to go on in the same direction, or we need to change direction. If we need to change direction,then how can we accomplish that, how should we proceed? That is the broad aim of this seminar.
Many of the topics that we will touch are those that we have already read about or heard discussed before. But I think it is always worthwhile to try and take a fresh look at any situation. That is how we grow in our understanding and that also brings the possibility of something new taking place in our mind.So I request a certain patience on your behalf if many things which I point out sound rather elementary.
If I consider what human society was like at the beginning of the 20th century and compare that with how it is now, it is clear that it has changed outwardly more than it changed in thousands of years before this century. We had problems of famine and plague, we had poor transportation, and we had almost no possibilities of global communication. We did not have the modern methods of agriculture, and through a modern system of education and research, we have developed all that. We have developed the health system and we have created experts in many fields who have been able to solve many of the problems that we faced at the beginning of the 20th century.We can be rightly proud of the progress that we have achieved through the generation of new knowledge in all fields, and especially in science and technology.But while that is true, it is not sensible for us to only dwell on the laurels of what we have achieved in the past, but also look at the problems we are facing now, globally.If I consider that, and dwell on the question of what are the major challenges that are facing modern society, I would like to enumerate the following that come to my mind.
First and foremost it seems to me that we human beings are still very badly divided. We belong to groups--- national groups, religious groups, linguistic groups, political groups, racial groups, caste groups and so on. This is one of the major problems which has persisted with us over thousands of years.There are very few human beings that feel they belong to the whole earth and who feel for all the life that is there on this earth.Our problems are now of a global nature, but our mind is not global. Economy has become global, science and technology are global, and the environmental issues we are facing are global,communication and transportation have shrunk the world into what is now called a global village,but our mind has still remained parochial.This is because each human being is born in a particular family, in a particular country, in a particular culture, which includes a particular religion,and he identifies with these and feels one with those people who belong to his culture, his family, and his nation. He cares for the welfare of this group, but he feels separate from other such groups in the world. Each group feels they are in competition with another group and because they care mainly for their own welfare, they are willing to exploit other groups, and they look upon other groups as a threat to their security and their existence.All the wars that we see around us, the terrorist activity, the caste riots, the religious rioting,the racial rioting, and much of the conflict and violence we experience in our society today can be traced back to this division of human beings into groups of various kinds.
This is not a new problem; it has been there for thousands of years. Primitive man was fighting for his tribe,and modern man is still fighting,only those tribal groups have been replaced by national groups or religious groups.We are still at war with each other. Our history is a history of wars, so we must ask ourselves: how is that going to change? Why has that not changed? Do we need more wars, more experience, in order to learn that war does not solve any problems? Or is it some deep, psychological factor within us, that is responsible for what is taking place.We have not really freed ourselves of this division, we have accepted it. We have only tried to create a United Nations to outwardly solve the problem when it gets to acute, but inwardly,in our cosciousness this division continues.We unable to deeply resolve this problem.
After every world war, there have been decisions and resolutions that we will not get into another world war again, and organisations have been set up to prevent more wars from taking place.But war-like situations keep erupting continually, and these organisations have to try and make some sort of peace between the warring nations. But the problem does not go away. So there is some deeper causation that is taking place and unless we eliminate that causation, we will only be dealing with the outer symptoms.
A second major problem I see facing our society is caused by the power that has been made available by the progress in science and technology. As I pointed out, human beings were divided into groups and having this problem of mutual hatred and violence a thousand years ago also, but we did not then have this kind of power to destroy each other. So the question is, if with our modern system of education, and the so-called progress we have made in knowledge,if we have now come upon tremendous power,including nuclear power, then the world becomes a more and more dangerous place if we are still divided and hating each other.Because we are now capable of a much greater outer manifestation of violence ,due to that inner hatred within us.
A third group of problems our society is facing are the environmental catastrophes about which we are reading in the newspapers every day. I mean things like the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, desertification and soil erosion, nuclear fall-outs and other forms of pollution, all of which are a by-product of the industrial civilisation that we have set up, which in turn has come out of the progress in science and technology. I do not want to dwell on the details of these problems because we are all familiar with these; they appear in our newspapers every day. I want to ask the deeper question of the source from which these problems evolve. If we look to the source, we will find that for millions of years, man lived as a part of nature and he felt a certain affection, a certain respect for, not only all living things, but all of nature including trees, mountains and rivers. He had the feeling that they were somehow sacred.But over the last few hundred years the industrial society has changed our outlook towards nature. We now feel we are masters of nature; that nature is a resource meant for economic development. When you couple that with the national competition for getting the largest share of that resource for oneself, then you see that each country is vying with another to be the first at exploiting the resources that nature offers. Therefore, this competitive spirit and the industrialisation have completely transformed our relationship with nature.
Even a country like the U.S., which is perhaps the most prosperous nation on earth, is not willing to sign the agreement for protecting our environment because they are still greedy about the benefits of trade and the prosperity which can be obtained from the depletion of nature.So this problem of ecological imbalance and environmental catastrophes is not going to go away only with outer controls. We need to look at the way we are viewing nature and relating with nature. Unless we have a transformation there, in our relationship with nature, I am very doubtful that through outer controls we will be able to solve these problems. At least we need to consider whether we can.After all, natural resources are limited,but human greed is unlimited. So either we manage the natural resources, or we must learn to manage the greed within us. And this we have to decide, what is limited and what is unlimited.
A fourth set of problems, which I see arises from the fact that, many of the governments, especially in third world countries are still dictatorships. It has been our experiences in the past century that the greatest crimes have occurred under dictatorships. The holocaust occurred under a dictatorship and we now hear that the amount of cruelty that was perpetrated in Russia in the time of Stalin was even greater than the amount of cruelty perpetrated under Hitler in Germany because in dictatorships you can successfully hide what you are doing. The press is not free and information is not obtainable.Not that there is no cruelty in democratic societies, or that democracy will automatically eradicate cruelty, but certainly it is a protection against extreme cruelties on a mass scale. But democracy is not simply a matter of having the freedom to vote for a political leader once every four or five years, or freedom of the press, freedom to trade, and so on. We need to come upon the whole spirit of democracy.When I say that democracy is necessary for our society, I do not mean only the outer form of democracy, which we have in many of our countries today, but also the spirit of democracy. The spirit of democracy is the spirit of humility. It is the spirit of working co-operatively with mutual respect for each other. It is essentially saying that no one of us really knows what is the best way to organise society.So let us sit down and confer with each other and discuss what is the right way.Through this discussion, we will educate ourselves about the issues that are involved. And when we have so educated ourselves, then we will decide on a course of action,either by majority or by consensus and then try out that course of action experimentally. If it does not work, we will sit down and confer again to decide and change direction. So it implies a spirit of mutual respect,a spirit of experimentation,of humility.
I am afraid even in those countries, which claim to be democracies the spirit of democracy is often missing. Because when you use money power and political power to influence votes or buy votes or when you try to sabotage the efforts of the other political party to build a nation, then you are functioning undemocratically, you are not functioning in the democratic spirit.
So what we have is not a cultured democracy. What we have is an uncultured democracy, superficial, democracy only in form, not in spirit. That is why we see so much of violence and cruelty and corruption in so-called democracies also.This problem will not go away by simply having the outer form of democracy,it requires that the democratic spirit be a part of each individual. A dictator is not a problem only when he is the head of a government but also when he is the head of a family, when he is head of a business, when he is head of a university. So we need to bring about an inner change from the dictatorial approach to life, to one of the democratic kind.We must ask ourselves whether it is sufficient to make an outer change and create the form of democracy, or we need to also bring about this inner change. Our problems will resolve only when we bring about also the spirit of democracy.
A fifth problem that I see facing our society is the breakdown in the institution of family and the co-operation between man and woman. The divorce rates in the more economically advanced societies have risen beyond 50 %. They are saying that more marriages are breaking up now than new marriages are taking place. Now, the institution of marriage was set up by the human society because that seemed to be the best way to discharge our responsibility towards the younger generation. Nobody has found a better way of discharging that responsibility than bringing up a child in a home with two parents who have produced that child. So the breakdown of the family is not simply a question of sexual freedom but it deeply affects this fundamental requirement of our responsibility towards rearing the children in society. And if we do not resolve this problem, then we will find that the younger generation will have more violence and more insecurity because they grow up in an insecure atmosphere.We must deeply explore this question of why there is this breakdown in co-operation between man and woman. I am not advocating the old system where the man is dominating the woman, which has brought about its own ruin. Friendship based on equality is the only friendship otherwise it is a form of slavery that one is talking about and cruelty is inherent in it.So not to maintain the tenets of marriage at the expense of domination. The question is whether we can remain co-operative with each other and live with each other with affection, with equality and with true friendship and discharge our responsibilities towards our children.
Last,but not the least is the problem of a certain inertia in society,which causes it to replicate itself ,making it so very difficult to end any problem completely.For instance someone introduced the caste system into Indian society some 5000 years ago.We do not know what form it had then but it has become a most pericious and discriminatory menace in society today in the form in which it is being practised today. Despite all the laws to eradicate it and the effort of the government to provide an atmosphere of equality, it just does not go away. The prejudice just continues from one generation to the next like an infection.It is the same in all other human societies. The jews tell their children that arabs are their enemies and the arab children are told jews are their enemies. So the old people die but their prejudices continue in the minds of the young. So how is that division to ever end? Unless we create an inquiring mind which questions what it has been told by the elders and does not blindly conform to it, I am afraid no radical change is possible. This means education must not create a conforming mind but an inquiring mind aware that it is caught in prejudices and wanting to free itself through a quest for truth and justice. I am afraid we are not doing that in society anywhere in the world. Education has become a means of spreading our particular brand of illusion rather than the quest for truth.
So, if we are facing all these problems in society today can we really claim to be intelligent human beings? Or, have we defined intelligence unintelligently to mean merely the skillful use of thought in a particular direction? Is wisdom,which is the understanding of ourselves not necessary for intelligence? Also we must ask if the problems I have just mentioned will go away through through more progress of the kind we are having? Do we really need still faster computers, still faster airplanes still faster ways of communication? Or are we going in that direction just out of inertia because that is what we have learnt to do? If that is true then are we very different from emperor Nero who we laugh at because he was fiddling while Rome was burning? Are we also not fiddling with our computers while our society is on fire facing all these catastrophic problems of our own creation?
It is these questions we will deliberate upon in this seminar, with a mind that is both scientific and religious at the same time.Scientific in the sense of being factual, unsentimental, precise, not accepting authority, demanding evidence, positing the truth as the unknown and relying on observation and inquiry to discover it; and religious in the sense of having a certain quality of affection, respect and beauty, valuing love, compassion and justice, aware of the limitations of knowledge and reason and seeking to understand life holistically, to discover what is really sacred.