There is this well known Biblical (Genesis) legend about the tree of knowledge whose fruits were forbidden to Adam and Eve by God. Tempted by the snake, Adam and Eve consume the fruit and are banished from the Garden of Eden.
This story carries with it the serious question as to why God would forbid man access to knowledge and those who do not accept the Christian faith have taken several shots at it (search the internet!). Was God an advocate of ignorance regarding good and evil?
I will try to approach this legend from the viewpoint of a Vedānta, so as to render it meaningful.
The fruit of knowledge has to be intellectual or rational knowledge. Right-wrong, good-evil, etc. constitute conceptual frameworks in which the world is divided into by the intellect for the purpose of reasoning and making sense. Apparently, most animals and other forms of life have no such clear conception. As long as one does not lead one’s life solely through the prism of these concepts, it is almost like heaven and there is peace. One does not find a brooding deer or a chronically depressed duck or even a monkey lost in thought about its future.
Thinking occurs at an unprecedented and unique level in humans. Our strength of conceptual thought is unparalleled in the known forms of life. While this provides us a higher relative intelligence, it is also the end of heaven.
When the human mind forms the conception of what is good and what is bad, when it understands death and suffering, it develops deep anxiety. The anxious mind is the farthest from heaven. The mind suffers untold misery for imaginary problems. A lot of our suffering is caused simply by the state of our minds than due to outside problems.
Even outside problems, leaving aside natural disasters, are caused due to the human mind acting in anxiety. Anxiety leads to fear, and fear creates the sense of separation. Separation pits oneself against the rest of the world and lays the seeds of conflict. Survival has to be ensured at any cost. The short term rewards over-weigh long term well-being.
What else can explain the violence committed by man against man without feeling? What else can explain the unhealthy hunger for power, success and money? Today, extreme poverty lives as neighbor-next-door to extreme prosperity. There is a blindness in the accumulation of power and riches, a blindness that refuses to notice the suffering endured by all of life. This blindness will lead to the extinction of life on earth through the path of maximum pain.
The minds that are consumed by this blindness are not foolish. If they were dull, we can all take it easy. However, the human intellect is powerful. It discovers brilliant reasons and invents sophisticated devices for causing harm. The latest technology is generally available for warfare or for one or the other form of money making (not wealth creation, not value addition, just money making). Today, when our intelligence is unparalleled, so are our fears and our insecurities. The world is in a state of turmoil.
In the parlance of Vedānta, this form of pure intellectualism that fuels greed and creates anxiety is not considered real knowledge at all. It is respected only to a certain degree. During the peak of Vedānta in ancient India, the rich and wealthy did not consider themselves fulfilled in terms of their understanding even after immense professional success. They sought the knowledge that liberates the human from pettiness, from the bondage of necessity in this existence. The knowledge that liberates is the knowledge that erases the lines between oneself and others. It is the knowledge of unity and harmony.
Until life reached the status of the human, specifically the thinking human, life on earth proceeded with no concept of good or bad. Life blossomed and also suffered, but it suffered without having to also suffer the suffering. Once humans attained the knowledge that produces anxiety, it became important to keep its consequences under check. It is precisely due to this that we need the knowledge of harmony that removes anxiety and broadens our perspective. Arriving at this stage through intellectual thought is dangerous for what intellectualism builds through its sheer brilliance, it is capable of destroying too. Every violent mob has its reasons. Can we not discover theories for hate?
We will get nowhere digging in the shallow pit of the human. Humanity is not just the noble side of man. A human does not become an animal when he tortures a fellow human for having a different opinion. No animal has ever been found torturing a member of its own species for such flimsy reasons. No tiger burnt its own kind at the stake or subjected its rival to slow death with the intention of maximizing pain. When humans commit such horrifying acts of violence, they are not being a beast, they are being patently human. Just that.
Therefore, the goal of Vedānta is to allow the human to transcend oneself, to go beyond the human impulse and find community with the universe. The medicine of the religion of Vedānta is not humanity but spirituality. It does not want us to utterly disregard the world or ignore all concepts. The goal is to reconcile this inevitable human condition with the knowledge of unity and harmony. Specifically, the Vaiṣnava understanding of Vedānta does not demand complete asceticism or a march to the forest. It calls for action but one in which the human intellect is subordinated to a greater, harmonizing principle – the Brahman. Śrīmad-Bhagavad-Gītā teaches that detachment does not imply inaction. The call is for enlightened action.
I have a feeling that most religions did get this point. However, they seem to have grossly lost grasp of what it means to subordinate the human condition to the divine. Instead of transcending the human condition and attaining divinity, preachers and followers alike decided that it was alright to do anything as long as it is done in the name of God. Instead of uplifting the human condition to the state of divinity, they – in all good faith, of course – administered a lethal blow to any such redemption by subordinating the institution and message of the divine to the whims and troubles of the human mind. The divine became a glorified excuse for human transgressions.
It is time to change. It is easy because each of us need change only one person: oneself. Given our current condition, it is imperative that this is urgently necessary when survival instincts have dulled the human mind and let lusty greed rule.
Folks! We face a curious point in history when humanity stands to be defeated in one of two ways: by its utter destruction at the hands of spiritual blindness or by its transcendence to a state that can only be called magical in comparison to what is today.
Unfortunately, there is no other choice.