Last week, we added the 7 billionth member to the human race.
As children we spent many Sundays at discourses at the Ramakrishna Mission. Our parents were devotees of the Mission and felt that an exposure to Vedanta was an important part of our upbringing. Many of these discourses were rather abstract and difficult to grasp, but one lecture by Swami Ranganathananda, was fascinating. He started by explaining the meaning of namaste. “When we fold our hands to greet one another,” he said, “what we are doing is paying tribute to the divine soul in that person”. He then went on to explain the karmic theory of evolution, and said that the soul of every living creature evolved in stages, as part of the quest, to be one with the Divine. Humans, he said, represented the highest stage of evolution.
This led to a whole series of questions in my mind : eg what happened if you did terrible things in this life – could you regress backwards ? Was there a pecking order – did one drop to being an elephant or a dog or straight to being a cockroach ? And if it took thousands of lifetimes to evolve to being human, why was the population of humans suddenly increasing so rapidly ? If the number of souls in the Universe was constant,then were some species getting extinct at the same rate at which we were adding to the human race ? In short where were all these extra souls coming from, or why were they evolving so rapidly into humans, just in the 20 th century ?
The math of all of this somehow did not add up, and as I shared my doubts after the lecture, someone kindly suggested that maybe souls from another planet were reincarnating on earth ! Though this sparked a lifelong interest in science fiction and astronomy, the question of course remained unanswered.
Looking at the Worldometer population clock ticking furiously away, I was a bit startled to see that over 356,000 babies are currently being born each day. And this brought back the old question as to where all these highly evolved souls were coming from ?
A possible answer suggested itself as I listened to Chandi Prasad Bhatt, father of the Chipko movement.
Last week, on the very same day that 7 billionth human soul joined our race, we hosted the RBS Earth Heroes Award. The award honors ordinary Indians, who are doing an extraordinary job, to protect and preserve our environment, ecosystems and wildlife. Mr Bhatt was the winner of this year’s RBS Earth Hero Award.
He started his acceptance speech by folding his hands in a greeting of namaste to all of us in the audience. In an eloquent tribute to the magnificent Himalayas which are his home, he shared his belief that this was the abode of the Gods – Devasthan. He described their beauty and their significance for the water and food security of millions of people in the Indian sub-continent. And he shared how in his lifetime, he has seen the glaciers recede, and weather patterns change, and his fears of what this would lead to. The next day, in a smaller group, he shared the wonderful story of the Chipko movement. He painted a vivid picture of the women of the villages of the Alaknanda valley and Rudraprayag who clung to the trees rather than let them be cut down. “This was not an environmental movement” he said, “our women believe they have a spiritual connection with our trees.”
As we listened to this humble and amazing man, it was clear that he really saw the spark of the divine in every living being. Through his eyes, like the women of his village, I too came to believe that every tree has a soul.
And so perhaps, those are the roots of our karmic evolution and the source of all our souls …and if so then trees are really meant for hugging not for cutting down.