1700 years — from the Council of Nicaea to the forests of India, Part Two
Continued from Part One
Again, this is not essentially a theological discussion, but rather it is a look at how a question of belief was used to gain power – to usurp power and to use it to turn aside an original, spiritual intent. It set a pathway for hundreds of years of history that were to follow – not just for the west, but ultimately for the whole world.
The Council of Nicaea established the doctrine that Jesus Christ is in fact God. Now one would naturally suppose that this would be a good deal for the followers of Jesus. But there is a school of thought that says that it turned out to be just the opposite—a really unfortunate thing. Now, instead of being able to feel an immediate connection with the magical, mystical Jesus, a being of love and compassion, there was no direct connection at all. Instead, from that time onwards, one had to go through a priest, and only the priest could have a spiritual connection with God – nobody else could.
Now there are priests in most religions, and many of them are very kind, good, gentle people. Some of them have upheld the strengths of societies for thousands of years. Nothing here is meant to detract from that – or to disparage in any way the many thousands of brave Christian saints and martyrs, who were genuinely heroic and sincere in their faith.
But there is a difference between the positive use of power and oppressive dominance. And the western world was heading down a path that would lead to the latter.
We all know that order is necessary in the universe. Without it the trains, the buses, and even the planets would all run into each other.
There is order too in the natural ways of animals. When a mother hen guides her chicks along the path, she may give a stern knock or two to a wayward one who keeps wandering off—because they need to stay together to be safe and to find food. She is the mom, and she organizes which way the family is going. She is clearly in charge, and her use of power is positive; it keeps everybody safe.
This natural order of things is entirely opposite to the kind of dominance that the chicken farmer exercises. He fattens up the chicks, not for the chicks’ benefit, but to get them ready for the chopping block. He too is in control, but there’s a big difference. His is not a nurturing control, but is the control of exploitation.
The Council of Nicaea, in determining what one should believe and how one should practice one’s faith, set a precedence of dominance that endured for centuries, and that ultimately helped set the course for how the modern world relates to many things, including the environment.
It started out harmlessly enough. But, in the view of many, it took out all the mystery and magic of the original Jesus; it set up rules, organized, codified, and generally put everything firmly and irreversibly into the physical realm, under the control of the bishops. For the Church as an institution, there was no more seeking the Kingdom of Heaven – only a consolidation of earthly power.
Catholicism, or official Christianity as it was for centuries, is by no means unique in following this trajectory — but it does provide an excellent example of how to destroy the life of the spirit. The fourth century AD has long been recognized by some as a pivotal moment when one could say that the life of faith fell out of heaven and down to earth. It set the followers of the gentle Christ off on a path of dominance.
Over the centuries the impulse to maintain firm control led to greater and greater violence. Heresies had to be suppressed, as did witches, infidels, and mostly just about anybody who didn’t fit into the right mold.
After massacring an estimated 60,000 citizens of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, succeeding crusades followed a similar pattern, including crusades in southern France in the thirteenth century against the Cathar heresy, in which tens of thousands of French citizens were massacred.
The Inquisition followed, in which people were burned at the stake – witches, scientists, heretics. In England people were burned at the stake for translating the Bible into common English. Translating the Bible into the common language was a no-no because it undermined the power of the Church as the sole intermediary between God and man.
This sort of thing never happened in India. For one thing no one was burned at the stake. For the most part, the tradition of ahimsa has always been followed, and is still strongly in place today. The saints and heroes of India practiced austerities; they fasted, they may have starved themselves. But the eastern spiritual tradition does not advocate dominance, suppression, or the massacre of heretics and dissenters.
Instead, in the land of Hinduism, everyone pretty much tries to get along. Varying and entirely opposing schools of philosophy co-exist and respect each other. There is a presence of kindness.
India has not been entirely immune though from this cult of dominance that has spread across the earth. One of the primary targets of this pursuit of dominance is the natural world. The natural world is about life. Dominance is about death, and because it is about death, it is a danger to all living things – the animals, the birds, the people, the air, the oceans, and the forests.
Going back to history again for a moment — along the way, with the advance of “civilization”, the New World was “discovered” (though it had been there all along). An untouched continent, where 600 million bison roamed across vast planes. Within one hundred years, only 600 of these magnificent animals remained. This was the advance of a wave of death. This kind of wholesale destruction of nature and the animals never happened in India.
The forests in India, and at one time all over the earth, are sacred forests, filled with spirits, beings and presences, as well as the sacred birds, animals, trees and plants. They are holy places. But to the invasive spirit of modern “development”, they are no such thing – only an opportunity to take what is on or under the earth – trees, plants, coal, oil, minerals, all is to be taken. And the implied question that is posed is, “What good is a forest if it cannot be useful?”
For those with these intentions, there is no perception whatever of sacredness, and even worse, one has a sense that it is not just that the forests are being destroyed in the name of greed, but that even if there were no products to be taken from them, that they would be destroyed anyway – precisely because they represent the wild, the sacred, the holy, that which is not controlled by man, that which belongs only to the Gods.
One is reminded of the ten-headed demon Ravana, who killed the monkeys of the forest who so heroically fought on the side of Rama. They were miraculously brought back to life by Brahma. The demon waged war against the monkeys because they were sacred creatures who were emblematic of the forests.
This war is not over, and the forces that seek the destruction of the natural world and all that is sacred are alive and well. Standing up to defend the innocent, the sacred, and all the living world is what is required – and clear sight about what is actually occurring in our world today.
Restoring the sacred groves, the sacred forests, and inspiring the young, and all people, to view the natural world with reverence — and refusing to abandon the forests to the forces that seek to destroy them — is one of the most worthwhile things that one can do in life.
Top photo: Public domain / Illustration by Edmund Dulac for the Japanese fairy tale “Urashima Taro / A fisherman rescues a turtle and visits a magical underwater world.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / A magical horse, an offering to the spirit Ayyanaar at the sacred grove Puthupet.
Third photo: Sharon St. Joan /A girl collecting fallen dead branches for firewood at Puthupet.
Fourth photo: Sharon St Joan /Very ancient trees at Puthupet.