Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wisdom of Tagore

by Satish Kumar is Editor-in-Chief at Resurgence

Tagore’s many songs and stories inspired courage and commitment to act and transform human consciousness and can do the same today. He practised art not for art’s sake, not even as a way of self-expression, least of all just for entertainment. His art was an offering to elucidate the deep meaning of life and to heal the soul. As a master of his craft, Tagore combined the purity of poetry with a purpose for living. He not only healed the sorrow and suffering which he had experienced due to death, depression and disappointment in his own life but he worked too to heal the wounds of injustice and inequality within Indian society.

For Tagore there was no point in writing if it did not lift the human spirit and restore human dignity. Like an alchemist, he turned his base emotions of anger, irritation and rage into the gold of poetry, and through his inspiring songs he transformed social inertia into hope and action. He urged us to rise above our petty identity of race, colour, religion and nation and to identify with our common humanity. He travelled tirelessly from America to Russia, from China to Argentina, proclaiming the oneness of humanity and the paramount importance of freedom, justice and peace. He inspired millions of his countrymen and women to renounce their narrow self-interest and throw away their caste prejudices in order to embrace equality, solidarity and morality. He shunned self-indulgence and worked tirelessly as a healer of social divisions. In particular he tried to heal the split between science and spirituality.

Tagore articulated perennial wisdom and timeless values in word and in action, while seeking truth through science and reason. One of his greatest insights was to affirm that there really is no rift or conflict between reason and religion. He questioned the wisdom of restricting ourselves to one discipline or another – either to reason or religion – when we can enjoy the benefits of both. That is why he was in dialogue with the physicists Heisenberg and Einstein, whilst continuing to study the Upanishads. For Tagore science and spirituality were two sides of the same coin.

He worked for the outer development of human communities through improved agriculture, good schools, comfortable economic conditions, and a better standard of life, but at the same time he emphasised inner development through the renewal of the spirit, caring for the soul, nourishing the heart and nurturing the imagination.

In Tagore’s vision, growth in science, technology and material wellbeing should go hand in hand with spiritual growth. One without the other is like walking on one leg. This balanced and holistic worldview is needed now more than ever, as it is a prerequisite for a sustainable and resilient future for us and for coming generations. Pure reason and pure materialism are as doomed as the pursuit of purely personal salvation. The worldview of Tagore is seeing the unity of reason and religion, spirit and matter and letting them dance together. This is the big vision where science complements spirituality, art complements ecology and freedom complements equality.

We are all related

by Rabindranath Tagore

The ‘Unity of Life’ underpins the diversity of all existence, wrote Rabindranath Tagore.

The thoughts and sentiments I express in my writings have their philosophical foundation, but I lack the training of the professional philosopher. In India, philosophy infects the very atmosphere we breathe.

Quite unconsciously, I shape all my thoughts and my life on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. I can therefore only discuss with you what I consider to be the central idea in our own religion.

The idea is that truth implies unity, a unity expressed through many and varied manifestations, a unity which, when we are able to realise it, gives us freedom. To a man ignorant of a foreign language, the literature contained in it appears to be a stupendous jumble of words, and the speech mere sounds that confuse the mind. When he learns and understands the language, he is freed from the bondage of his ignorance.

Likewise, a path is a meaningless division on a farm unless we understand that, although at first glance it divides, in reality it connects the farm with our neighbour.

When we regard our self as the sole and final end, we separate the self from the great life of the world. As soon as we admit that the self must establish a harmonious relationship with the all, then for the first time, we realise what the word ‘freedom’ means.

Until a poem reveals to us that unity of perfection that permeates the words and the grammar and transcends them, we find no joy in it. The world is like that poem: it is constituted of facts that may themselves constitute new discoveries to the explorer and illustrate new laws to the scientist, but never their significance – a significance which can only be comprehended through our spiritual vision.

Because this truth of perfect interrelation goes far beyond mere facts or the contents of the poem, it carries us instantly across them, making us free, like the beauty of a rose that takes no time in leading our minds beyond the innumerable physical facts of that flower to its ineffable harmony.

We have, in the Upanishads, the great saying

Only he knows the truth

who realises himself in all beings

and all other beings in himself

Let us try to understand this saying, for in understanding it we shall come to a truth which, as I said, lies at the basis of all we call civilisation. An individual who succeeds in dissociating himself from his fellows may imagine that thereby he attains real freedom. But we know from our experience in history that this is not a fact, and that where people live under the compulsion of fear of their neighbours, they cannot attain their full humanity.

Only those who can cultivate a feeling of sympathy with others, of understanding and of cooperation, achieve that relationship which is a great deal more than the numerical fact of their all being on this Earth together. Civilisation, itself the fruit of inter-communication, and of escape from the dungeons of obscurity, is producer of the arts, of literature, of religion and of ethics, all of which can embody external values.

They will never emerge from that kind of crowd which only represents an unrelated or imperfectly related number of people. The best and highest type of society is one that is forever active in trying to solve the problem of mutual relationship. Only thereby can wider areas of freedom for its members be acquired.

For humanity, the perfect relationship is one of love. This truth has itself been the foundation of the teaching of the Buddha. According to him, we can only reach our freedom through cultivating a mutual sympathy. To gain this freedom we need to liberate ourselves from the fetters of self and from all those passions that tend to be exclusive. It is this liberating principle that we must apply to an imprisoned world.

What we call ‘progress’ does not necessarily conform with this ideal. With a purely material progress the greed for things tends to become a passion, thereby promoting unbridled competition and conflict. A reign of ugliness spreads like a callus over the whole world.

A mere addition to the height of skyscrapers or to the velocity of speed can lead only to a savage orgy of boasting and exaggeration. Along this road, the human spirit will be vanquished by the demon of senseless accumulation, and will remain the perpetual victim of a moral slavery.

From a talk Tagore gave in Argentina in 1924.

Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, author and artist.

Forests and Freedom

Forests were central to Tagore’s works, just as they have been for India’s creative expression through centuries, writes Vandana Shiva.

by Vandana Shiva

Tagore started Santiniketan as a Tapovan – a forest school – both to take inspiration from Nature and to create an Indian Renaissance.

He wrote, in An Eastern University: “The unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of those disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.”

Tagore encouraged his secretary, Leonard Elmhirst, to start a Santiniketan-like school in England. This is how The Dartington Hall Trust was established, from which grew Schumacher College, the first green college in the West. And back in India, Navdanya’s Bija Vidyapeeth was started by Satish Kumar and me as a sister institution of Schumacher College. All these institutions are thus connected, through the inspiration of Tagore, to the ancient culture of the forest.

These learning centres are teaching freedom and Earth Democracy in times of multiple crises intensified by globalisation. Today, just as in Tagore’s time, we need to turn to the forest for lessons in freedom.

As Tagore wrote in The Religion of the Forest, the ideal of perfection preached by the forest dwellers of ancient India runs through the heart of our classical literature and still influences our minds. The forests are sources of water and the storehouse of a biodiversity that can teach us the lessons of democracy; of leaving space for others whilst drawing sustenance from the common web of life.

In his essay Tapovan (‘Forest of Purity’), Tagore writes: “Indian civilisation has been distinctive in locating its source of regeneration, material and intellectual, in the forest, not the city. India’s best ideas have come where man was in communion with trees and rivers and lakes, away from the crowds. The peace of the forest has helped the intellectual evolution of man. The culture of the forest has fuelled the culture of Indian society. The culture that has arisen from the forest has been influenced by the diverse processes of renewal of life, which are always at play in the forest, varying from species to species, from season to season, in sight and sound and smell. The unifying principle of life in diversity, of democratic pluralism, thus became the principle of Indian civilisation.”

It is this ‘unity in diversity’ that is the basis of both ecological sustainability and democracy. Diversity without unity becomes the source of conflict and contest. Uniformity without diversity becomes the ground for external control. This is true of both Nature and culture. The forest is a unity in its diversity, and we are united with Nature through our relationship with the forest.

In Tagore’s writings, the forest was not just the source of knowledge and freedom: it was the source of beauty and joy, of art and aesthetics, of harmony and perfection. It symbolised the universe. In The Religion of the Forest, the poet says that our attitude of mind “guides our attempts to establish relations with the universe either by conquest or by union, either through the cultivation of power or through that of sympathy”.

The forest teaches us union and compassion.

For Tagore, our relationship with the forest and Nature is a relationship that allows us to experience our humanity. He writes: “In all our dramas…Nature stands on her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions.” It is this permanence, this peace, this joy of living, not by conquest and domination, but by coexistence and cooperation, that is at the heart of a forest culture.

The forest also teaches us ‘enoughness’: as the principle of equity, enjoying the gifts of Nature without exploitation and accumulation. In The Religion of the Forest Tagore quotes from the ancient texts written in the forest: “Know all that moves in this moving world as enveloped by God; and find enjoyment through renunciation, not through greed of possession.”

No species in a forest appropriates the share of another species. Every species sustains itself in cooperation with others. This is Earth Democracy.

The end of consumerism and accumulation is the beginning of the joy of living. That is why the Indigenous people of contemporary India are resisting leaving their forest homes and abandoning their forest culture. The conflict between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, violence and harmony that Tagore wrote about continues today. And it is the forest that can show us the way beyond this conflict by reconnecting to Nature and finding sources for our freedom.

Harmony in diversity is the nature of the forest, whereas monotonous sameness is the nature of industrialism based on a mechanical worldview. This is what Tagore saw as the difference between the West and India: “The civilisation of the West has in it the spirit of the machine which must move; and to that blind movement human lives are offered as fuel.”

Globalisation has created a civilisation that is based on power and greed and the spirit of the machine worldwide. A civilisation based on power and greed is a civilisation based on violence. In The Spirit of Freedom, Tagore warned: “The people who have sacrificed their souls to the passion of profit-making and the drunkenness of power are constantly pursued by phantoms of panic and suspicion, and therefore they are ruthless…They become morally incapable of allowing freedom to others.”

Greed and accumulation must lead to slavery. He went on to observe: “My experience in the West, where I have realised the immense power of money and of organised propaganda – working everywhere behind screens of camouflage, creating an atmosphere of distrust, timidity and antipathy – has impressed me deeply with the truth that real freedom is of the mind and spirit; it can never come to us from outside. He only has freedom who ideally loves freedom himself and is glad to extend

it to others…he who distrusts freedom in others loses his moral right to it.”

Today the rule of money and greed dominates our society, economy and politics. The culture of conquest is invading our tribal lands and forests through the mining of iron ore, bauxite and coal. Every forest area has become a war zone. Every tribe in India is defined as a ‘Maoist’ by a militarised corporate state appropriating the land and natural resources of the tribals. And every defender of the rights of the forest and forest dwellers is being treated as a criminal.

If India is to survive ecologically and politically, if India is to stay democratic, if each Indian citizen is to be guaranteed a livelihood, we need to give up the road of conquest and destruction and take the road of union and conservation; we need to cultivate peace and compassion instead of power and violence. We need to turn, once again, to the forest as our perennial teacher of peace and freedom, of diversity and democracy. This will be the greatest tribute to Tagore. India needs to do more than pay lip service to this great visionary. We need to follow his ideals.

Vandana Shiva is the author of Earth Democracy and Soil, Not Oil.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

100 Ideas for Creating a More Peaceful World

Creating world peace takes many forms, but surely it begins with individuals. It continues to be the most significant challenge of humankind and requires the efforts of each of us. Here are 100 ideas for creating a more peaceful world.
  1. Be generous with your smiles.
  2. Commit daily acts of kindness.
  3. Respect the Earth.
  4. Walk in a forest.
  5. Plant a tree.
  6. Contemplate a mountain.
  7. Don't pollute.
  8. Live simply.
  9. Skip a meal each week, and send $5.00 to an organization helping the hungry.
  10. Erase a border in your mind.
  11. Teach peace to children.
  12. Read Chief Seattle's Letter to the President.
  13. Be honest.
  14. Demand honesty from your government.
  15. Think about consequences.
  16. Commit yourself to nonviolence.
  17. Support nonviolent solutions to global problems.
  18. Speak up for a healthy planet.
  19. Demand reductions in military expenditures.
  20. Be fair.
  21. Pledge allegiance to the Earth and to its varied life forms.
  22. Think for yourself.
  23. Ask questions.
  24. Recognize your unique potential.
  25. Join an organization working for peace.
  26. Be less materialistic.
  27. Be more loving.
  28. Support an Arms Trade Code of Conduct.
  29. Oppose all weapons of mass destruction.
  30. Sign the Abolition 2000 International Petition.
  31. Work for an international ban on land mines.
  32. Use your special talents for a more harmonious world.
  33. Don't eat animals.
  34. Help the poor.
  35. Fight against militarism.
  36. Study the lives of peace heroes.
  37. Help create a community peace park or garden.
  38. Commemorate the International Day of Peace in your community (the third Tuesday in September).
  39. Help strengthen the United Nations.
  40. Support the creation of an International Criminal Court hold individual leaders accountable for crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.
  41. Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and demand that your government live by it.
  42. Be aware of the rights of future generations.
  43. Sign the Cousteau Society Bill of Rights for Future Generations.
  44. Make decisions as though all life truly matters. It does!
  45. Join an action alert network.
  46. Make your voice heard by speaking out for peace.
  47. Laugh more.
  48. Play with a child.
  49. Support health, education and the arts over more weapons.
  50. Help educate the next generation to be compassionate and responsible.
  51. Accept personal responsibility for creating a better world.
  52. Sing.
  53. Write a poem.
  54. Organize a church service on the theme of peace.
  55. Learn about another culture.
  56. Help someone.
  57. Support the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
  58. Climb a mountain.
  59. Clear your mind.
  60. Breathe deeply.
  61. Sip tea.
  62. Express your views to government officials.
  63. Fight for the environment.
  64. Celebrate Earth Day.
  65. Think like an astronaut, recognizing that we have only one Earth.
  66. Be constructive.
  67. Ring a bell for peace.
  68. Plant seeds of peace. Work in a garden.
  69. Change a potential enemy into a friend.
  70. Watch the movie Amazing Grace and Chuck.
  71. Share.
  72. Be more peaceful.
  73. Send a note of appreciation.
  74. Tell your friends how much they matter.
  75. Say "I love you" more.
  76. Don't tolerate prejudice.
  77. Demand more from your elected officials.
  78. Walk by the ocean, a river, or a lake.
  79. Recognize that all humans have the right to life.
  80. Respect the dignity of each person.
  81. Be a leader in the struggle for human decency.
  82. Watch the movie King of Hearts.
  83. Send sunflowers to world leaders, and call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
  84. Oppose technologies that harm the environment.
  85. Lose an argument to a loved one.
  86. Read Hiroshima by John Hersey.
  87. Walk softly on the Earth.
  88. Appreciate the power of the sun.
  89. Speak out for global disarmament.
  90. Support a stronger world order.
  91. Teach nonviolence by example.
  92. Remember that "No man is an Island."
  93. Spend time in nature.
  94. Boycott war toys.
  95. Be thankful for the miracle of life.
  96. Read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
  97. Remind your leaders that peace matters.
  98. Oppose violence in television programming for children.
  99. Listen to Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
  100. Celebrate peace.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Walkable Streets can Boost the Economy

by This Big City

 If you think about your favourite streets, the ones where you like to hang out and meet up with friends: the chances are that these types of street are walkable.  Well it turns out that walkable streets are not only fun and exciting places to be, they are also incredibly profitable.
Research commissioned by the TfL Urban Design team has found that making a street more walkable can add up to £30,000 to the average property price in that street.  In one case study, they found that over £9.5million had been added to local property prices by improving a street with:
  • widened pavements;
  • extra trees;
  • improved lighting;
  • new wayfinding signs.
The Shared Space street at New Road, Brighton is very walkable
Shoppers like walkability
As well as house prices, the study also found a financial link between street walkability and shop rental values.  This in turn reflects on the amount of money each shop could expect to make from being on that particular street.  This may help to explain the current ‘gold-rush’ of large supermarket chains building small grocery stores in walkable urban areas.
What is more, it seems that retailers aren’t just benefiting from walkable streets, they are willing to pay for improvements if it means more cash profits.  In a ‘willingness to pay’ survey of 400 high street retailers in London, they found that retailers were willing to make a one-off payment to improve their street if it increased profitability.
This adds to the growing body of evidence that shoppers like walkability.  For instance, another study found that by pedestrianising a street you can increase shop footfall by between 20-40%.  In London people who walk to a town centre spend over 40% more than those arriving by car and over 55% more than those travelling by tube.
Money talks
Its hard facts like these that can really make business-people and politicians sit up and take notice.  Perhaps what is more encouraging is that these figures seem to be the tip of the iceberg.  The initial TfL study only focussed upon property prices and just considered the four street design elements that added the most value.  But there are many other benefits such as health and carbon that can also be monetised and added to the equation.
In fact this is exactly what the Urban Design team at TfL have done.  By adding evidence on social, environmental and health benefits they have recently produced a ‘Valuing Urban Realm Toolkit’.  The toolkit enables town planners and urban designers to perform cost-benefit analysis of potential street improvements and make a business case for the changes.
At a time when everyone is looking to grow our economy, lets hope that this exciting new evidence is enough to convince government and business to build walkable streets that make every part of our lives richer.
Images courtesy of Misterzeee and Dominic’s Pics on flickr

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breaking Free From Consumerist Chains

‘Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends…. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.’ ~Henry David Thoreau
Post written by Leo Babauta.
We are not consumers. We are people.
We are not living lives meant to earn money in order to support a shopping habit, or a large home and two cars, or lives of luxury eating and entertainment.
We are not living to support the corporations. And yet, if you were to take an objective, outsider look at our society, it would seem that we are.
We spend our childhoods — precious years that are far too fleeting — in schools geared to give us the best chance at getting a job. We then graduate and are highly pressured to go to college (getting into large debt in the process) so we can have the best chance at getting a good paying job. Then we claw at each other for the coveted but limited good paying jobs, and the winners are rewarded with big homes and SUVs and nice clothes (and lots of debt to go with all that). The losers are stuck in menial jobs they hate, envious of others they see on TV with luxury lives, eating cheap fast food and consigned to shopping at bargain outlets.
Either way, we find our path as consumers. And everything is solved by consumption — when we’re stressed, we shop. When we want to be entertained, we buy the entertainment. We buy our food in packages, we fix our failing health by buying exercise clothes and equipment. We fix our debt by buying personal finance books and taking out a second mortgage.
Our lives are beholden to our shopping habits. We are slaves to corporations, doing work we loathe for stuff we don’t need.
What if we could break out of it?

What’s the alternative?

The funny thing is, there are millions of alternatives. But we’ve been so trained to believe there is only one way, that we can barely imagine something different.
What would life be like without advertising, shopping malls, online shopping, working for large corporations, wearing large logos all over our clothing, having Apple logos over every device we own, watching movies and television shows developed by large corporations and made for the masses?
It would be quieter, maybe, with more free time. Without having to buy so much, we would work less. What a revolutionary concept! And yet it is: developments in technology have not resulted in less work, but more (a must read: Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness).
It would be more focused on people instead of stuff. It would be healthier, as we would (likely) move more, get outdoors more, eat less fast food and more real food.
That’s all idealizing, of course, but it’s an alternative I could see happening. We’d have to break free of the consumerist mindset first.

Steps to Freedom

We must first become more aware of what has been done to our minds. When we watch an ad on TV, in a movie, on the web, what urges does this bring up in us? Why are we watching the ad in the first place? Can we avoid it?
Watch less TV. Avoid malls and shopping. Block ads on the web (and yes, I’ve heard the arguments about stealing money from content producers, and I’m not convinced — I make money without ads).
Buy less. When you have urges to buy, consider whether it’s a true need or just a desire. Learn to be content with life as it is, rather than wanting to buy things to make it better.
If there’s something you truly need, consider borrowing it, or making it yourself, or finding it used. If you buy it new, try to buy it from a real person rather than a corporation — a small businessperson or craftsperson. It might be more expensive but cheap turns out to be the most costly of all.
Get creative. Find free forms of entertainment. Form a cooperative of creatives and workers rather than a corporation. Pool resources, form libraries for everything.
Learn to build things and sew things and cook and grow. It’s ancient technology, but it still works. It’s simple and it’s all we need.
Eschew the values of the corporations, of consumption and desire.
Become free. You deserve it.
‘There must be more to life than having everything!’ ~Maurice Sendak

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Understanding Sprawl: A Citizen's Guide

Understanding Sprawl: A Citizen's Guide cover
Understanding Sprawl is a guide for decision-makers and citizens who want to create a healthy, affordable and sustainable urban future. It is not an architectural blueprint but an exploration of the forces that shape cities and what people can do about them. It probes the history of city and suburban development, which is critical for understanding current urban patterns. It reviews the nature of the city and outlines the social and economic costs incurred by recent development.
Most Canadians do not personally build the houses, streets, schools, parks or water lines that make cities possible. However, an informed citizenry can set the rules for building sustainable cities and help make the plans that determine how we get to work, school and shopping; how much time we spend in cars, trains or on foot; where the open spaces are; and the quality of the air we breathe. Many people feel uneasy about the way our cities are developing, but as citizens of a democracy, we should not feel helpless. Population growth and greater wealth do not have to be based on an environment of parking lots, traffic and pollution. Instead we need to create 21st century cities that are liveable, prosperous and in harmony with nature.
Understanding Sprawl: a Citizen's Guide is part of Driven to Action: Stopping Sprawl in Your Community, a community organizer's toolkit aimed at empowering local residents. This guide complements a collection of five pamphlets that can help citizens protect their communities from sprawling development.

Driven to Action: Stopping Sprawl in Your Community

Driven to Action - Getting started cover

Driven to Action: a Citizen's Toolkit

This is one of five 4-page pamphlets contained in Driven to Action: Stopping Sprawl in Your Community, a community organizer's toolkit aimed at empowering local residents.
This pamphlet explains how to be an effective lobbyist. It provides direction for any activist who wants to meet with politicians and get the most out of their meetings. Moreover, it suggests how to support your campaign with public action. In addition, it includes resources for tracking your results.

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