Here in suburban New Jersey, next to a glassy corporate office, sits a Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. Curious, I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. Instead of chairs or benches I found a bright, marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, circling them several times or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.
Along the walls was a frieze of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I walked beneath these words about detachment:
He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.
He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety—is dear to Me….
He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.
He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.
I left the temple soothed by the place and by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.
In my backyard later, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that centeredness that rises above dualities?
I’m not sure. The backyard is a calm place, but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” Birds search constantly for food and for each other. The trees and bushes and grass, though less agitated, are hardly “content with anything.” They wilt in a drought and burst with life when the environment is kind. They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?
He would probably observe that plants and animals follow their in-born programs with no distracting superstructure of plans, preferences, or judgments. He would probably say that, except for humans and some animals, other living things may struggle and even kill but they don’t hate, they may shy from danger but they aren’t riven by anxiety, they may react differently to cold and heat but only at the basic physiological level.
So perhaps in the backyard I am looking at an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused. Can the human non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.