Garden and Spirituality

Dr. Andrew Veda

Image Courtesy: Hayden Golden

To live is to design our life. To live amidst plants is to design our garden. Just as our life is shaped by interaction with Beings, living and non-living, so is a garden shaped. The design of the gardener is discernible in the garden (which is a forest over which the gardener has but partial control). Similarly, our design is discernible in our identity, which is Life over which we have but partial control. No matter what the relationship is between the gardener and the garden, the imprint of the gardener is left on the plants and similarly, the plants, on the gardener.

It is not just the gardener but also the viewer who makes the garden. A garden, whose gardener is missing for years, might have grown into a ‘jungle’ but if the gardener claims that that look in the garden was what had been intended, then one would have to reluctantly acquiesce to the idea of the gardener’s Design. The viewer can observe the design of the gardener in the way light falls on the leaves in the morning and how its intensity is greater at noon and lighter in the evening. If one were to sit and observe a leaf from a distance, the light playing with the other leaves and the shade created and the breeze (Air) which makes it move, the temperature difference (Fire), dew and the evaporation of dew (Water), interaction with animals and insects and if it falls from the tree, the land where it falls (Land) and how it is rolled about by the wind and if one stays after the setting of the Sun, one can see the leaf or try to see it with the light of the moon (Space), then one would have realized the interconnectedness of Life. The more one observes a garden, the more one is aware of the relationships (other than that of the gardener’s) acting on it.

It is easy to relate to a spider web on a branch as part of the tree. It is harder to acknowledge that humans occupy a comparable space (as the spider in the tree) in the landscape. All human interaction should also be seen with reference to the landscape (to take into account all the relationships). The Tamil Sangam poetry collection (around 1st and 2nd century BCE.) , Kuruntokai is an excellent example of this as the landscape is given the primary importance. It is true that it is difficult to have a complete understanding of all the relationships or even to know the full extent of a relationship. But to be constantly aware of the larger setting (the landscape) is a step in the right direction as our behaviour will automatically change. It will adapt itself and behave in a manner that acknowledges all relationships.

Larger than Earth, deeper than Space

Inscrutable is my love, like Ocean’s face;

Nursing Kurinci’s black stalks, the bees

Comb in the hills with rich honey’s breeze;

Yes, this man from the hills my love does grace!

(Kuruntokai 3, by Thēvakulathār, translated by the author).

It is evident from this poem that to the heroine, her lover is inseparable from his landscape. She identifies him with his landscape. Even though the heroine says her love is larger than Land, Space and Water, she places her lover and herself within the landscape and not larger than the landscape. Abstract love is said to be larger than the landscape (and not Ego and Identity which are also abstract). Unlike now, when humans do not concern themselves with the landscape at all. The awareness that both of them are part of the landscape and that their identity comes from their relationship to it is found throughout Kuruntokai. If identities (formed with reference to the landscape and all relationships) are constantly in the forefront of awareness, it is harder to behave as if no such relationship exists. For example, even cutting a tree would require the acknowledgement of the destruction of so many relationships (birds, insects, animals).

If two long-lost brothers meet and do not identify each other, then they would not feel, think and act as they would have if they had identified each other. Even though there exists a fraternal relationship, till it has been perceived, such a relationship is non-existent. A relationship needs at least one observer to spring into life. Everybody has a relationship with the Pañcabhūta (Air, Water, Fire, Land and Space) and with all other Beings (living and non-living) but as long as they are ignorant of it, they would continue to feel, think and act as if such a relationship did not exist. I think of Spirituality as “a state of awareness of relationships”. Only a gardener, ignorant of other influences acting on the garden, would try to control everything about the growth of the plants, or indeed, all life in the garden. A spiritual gardener (one who is aware of the relationships) would try to work with those relationships when designing the garden. The simplest example would be planting at the right season. Similarly, only a person who is ignorant of other influences would seek to control all the influences on their life. The more spiritual a person is, the less they would obsess over the amount of control they have.

Jesus also advocates that we should not obsess over the amount of control we have as can be seen in Luke 12:27–30 “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… …And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind”. The more we seek to control the influences acting on us, the less ‘beautiful’ we are. The lilies in the field clearly did not have a gardener controlling the influences on them. Whereas King Solomon did. The more spiritual we are, that is to say, the more aware we are of relationships, the more inclined we would be to choose to work with external influences (people, plants, birds, Air etc. In short, all Beings) than to oppose them endlessly and be in a state of perpetual conflict. What better way to start being aware of all the relationships than by observing a garden and realizing how all beings are interconnected? The awareness of relationships between all Beings would create a loving bond which would create a loving, caring, compassionate and an equal society.

About the Author:

Andrew Veda is a Junior Research Fellow, VIT Chennai. His main areas of interest are Verse forms, Aesthetics and Deconstruction. He is currently involved in the translation of Kuṟuntokai, a Sangam Tamil poetry collection.



Bulletin of the Chennai Jesuit Province

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