Rediscovering the Better Angels of our nature in Ancient Wisdom

Varad Patankar
4 min readJul 9, 2021

The earth is 4.6 billion years old. If we scale that to 46 years, we have been here for 4 hours. The industrial revolution began a minute ago and we have already destroyed 46 % of the forests. We have woven the tragedy of rising temperatures & vanishing species in our narratives. The majority of the people in the developed and industrial world understand the basics of climate change. But our actions hardly reflect the magnitude of the problem. At times, I myself give convenience & pleasure a priority over an environmentally friendly course of action. Now I can’t speak for all. But on average, it won’t be incorrect to assume that knowledge about climate change has hardly led to a drastic change in the lifestyle of humans.

I myself get awed by the cold, experimental approach of scientific enquiry. How old wisdom from ancient cultures and religions is being replaced by scientific thinking is typically seen as progress. But has it changed our behavior enough? We are still the selfish consumerists who live in their small microcosm irreverent to other life.

As poster-children of the scientific era, our attitude towards surviving ancient cultures is biased. We see them as backward and ignorant because they failed to become like us. Aghoris in India, Shamans in the Amazon, Lamas in Tibet. We of course pay our veneration towards them once in a while. But our respect ends the moment we come back into our world. How many of you wouldn’t mind a Shaman holding some administrative position in the government? Hell, I won’t support that! And my line of thinking (that I assume would be quite common) would be “How can he/she have a say in how we govern the world. His/ her place is in the mountains, not cities.” And that reflects the condescending attitude we have towards such people.

It is fun to look down on the myths that these older cultures propagate. Puranas talk about a Kal Yug, a time dominated by hatred, avarice & corruption. How apocryphally melodramatic! Shamans believe that trees are gods. How unscientific! Aren’t trees just fractals of atoms arranged in a particular way to ensure survival & reproduction? But we forget that the very myths that pervaded our ancient cultures made them respect their boundaries. In a philosophical sense, it doesn’t matter whether their understanding of nature was correct. What matters is how that knowledge made those people think about nature.

“The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. This is the challenge, to look at the world from a different perspective.”

David Suzuki

We believe that while we, the modern people have been striving and working hard to improve our understanding of the universe, these ancient people have been intellectually stagnant. This very superiority complex prevents us from assimilating their views into our consciousness. Their beliefs are not a failure at being the modern man. They are unique answers to the fundamental question of what it means to be a human and being alive.

And what are we doing? Scientific know-how is converted into technology which we are using to solve our problems? And what are our problems? Increasing life expectancy by a few years? Getting food and cabs delivered to our doorsteps? Getting better suggestions on Netflix? Barring a small proportion, much of science is used to solve very minor problems of ours. Truth be told, I myself indulge in such pleasures and I am no one to chastise others. But this needs to change. Don’t get me wrong! I am not suggesting that we go back to the Stone Age and start living like hunter-gatherers. What I am saying is unless knowledge gives someone the right perspective, it is futile.

Externally I am sure we will come up with many solutions to climate change- renewable energy, colonization of Mars, Geo-engineering, more stringent regulations- to name a few. For a real change, however, our perspective about life itself needs to change.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

In our family, what do we do when we run into trouble? We seek the wisdom of elders. These ancient cultures some of which have survived for more than 2000 years are the metaphorical elders to the 21 st-century citizen. We need not adopt all the rituals. But past wisdom needs to be saved from the ideological war that we are waging on it.

At this moment, an estimated 50 % of the 7000 languages in the world are on the verge of extinction. Our regional languages are being discarded because speaking English is considered to be elegant and cool. Not just languages, indigenous music is under threat. Mythological stories, rich with sublime wisdom, are getting lost. These are all instruments through which knowledge is transmitted across generations. Like ours, there are thousands of such old cultures reeling against cultural onslaught. And we need to ensure that they are conserved.

This does not mean that we start living as per old cultural norms. What we need are these multiple perspectives about how we inhabit this planet and the cosmos. The situation seems grim, but these ancient spiritual perspectives are a testament to the fact that we are indeed capable of change. Our ancestors could live sustainably and so can we! Perhaps in their wisdom and whispers, lies the keystone to the better angels of our nature.

Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on July 9, 2021.

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Varad Patankar

Chemical Engineer from UDCT Mumbai, presently pursuing an MBA from the Indian School of Business.