Here in suburban New Jersey, next to a glassy corporate office, sits an almost-new Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. I had never stepped inside it until the other day when I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. I expected chairs or benches but found instead a bright, marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers of all ages strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, sometimes circling them several times, or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.
Along the walls was a frieze of quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I was drawn the most to Krishna’s 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 the people and especially by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.
In my backyard that afternoon, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. As science has unraveled the survival strategies of plants and animals, has it uncovered—in any way, in any form—a version of the Hindu-like indifference to circumstance, a practice of detachment? Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that calm centeredness that rises above dualities?
I’m not sure. I’m watching the life in the backyard. It’s a calm place but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” The birds are busy moving around looking for food and for each other, always high-energy and nervous. The trees and bushes and grass seem to respond with patience to snow and rain, cold and heat alike. But maybe they are simply enduring their own cravings and fears at their own slow speed.
On the face of it, nature seems to demonstrate just the opposite of Krishna’s ideal: plants and animals don’t hold steady at all in the face of hostile or friendly events. They die sooner when attacked by drought or disease and they multiply like crazy when the environment is kind. From one perspective, they are no lesson at all in being “content with anything.” They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?
On the other hand, from a different point of view, plants and animals may indeed meet Krishna’s ideal of benign detachment, at least part way. They go about following their genetic program without any individual superstructures of plans, preferences, or judgments. Except for humans and some animals, they 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. Perhaps looking out in the backyard I am seeing an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused.
Can the non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.