Category Archives: Ethics

The rabbi and the cobbler: Meeting our moral responsibilities within a wordly web of relations


Indra's netSource of the image :


Excerpt from Indra ’ s Net and the Midas Touch, Living Sustainably in a Connected World, Leslie Paul Thiele, The MIT Press, 2011

On the web of life, every act has effects and side effects, including the act of by standing. Frances Moore Lappé writes:

Since interdependence isn’t a nice wish, it is what is , there can be no single action, isolated and contained. All actions create ripples — not just downward through hierarchical flows but outward globally through webs of connectedness. And we never know what those ripples might be. Beneath our awareness, perhaps, we are coming to realize that our acts do matter, all of them, everywhere, all the time. . . . Every choice we make sends out ripples, even if we ’ re not consciously choosing. So the choice we have is not whether, but only how, we change the world.

Practical wisdom prompts us to address the question, “ And then what? ” before taking any action. At the same time, it marshals the moral courage to act. Acting responsibly in the face of uncertainty is the ethical challenge. We are all world changers. The question is whether we can become wise, just, and loving ones.

A story about an old Jewish rabbi nicely underlines the challenges in meeting our moral responsibilities within a worldly web of relations. A usually temperate and kind-hearted cobbler had libeled his neighbor, a grocer. He spread gossip that painted the merchant in a very unflattering way. The cobbler came to regret his unkind words but could not bring himself to face his victim, so he sought counsel from the village rabbi, who lived up the hill. The rabbi heard the cobbler’s story and sensed his remorse. “Take a pillow from your bedroom,” the rabbi said. “Go to your rooftop, rip the pillow apart, and throw the feathers into the wind. Then come back to see me in three days. ” The man was befuddled by the advice, but dutifully returned to his house, climbed to his roof pillow in hand, and carried out the strange request.

Three days later, he walked back up the hill to see the revered teacher. “I did exactly as you suggested, Rabbi” the cobbler reported. “Is all forgiven now?” “Not quite,” said the rabbi. “Go now and gather all the feathers, and bring them to me.” The cobbler was aghast. “That is impossible,” he remonstrated. “They have been scattered to the four winds. There is no telling where they might be by now. ” The rabbi looked at him sternly yet kindly. “ Indeed,” he said. “And so it is with your unkind words. They can never be retrieved, and who knows what evil they continue to do. Now go and make amends to the grocer. ”

The rabbi was practically wise and a builder of community. Every action, both virtuous and vicious, enters a web of relationships. Its effects ripple out in every direction. As daunting as this moral reality may be, it is also empowering. The beneficial effects of our virtuous endeavors also may resound indefinitely. For better and worse, our deeds constitute our legacy to life. The ethics of interdependence celebrates this fate and challenges us to make every act count.


TED Talk: The neurons that shaped civilization, VS Ramachandran

Another fascinating TED video from the neuroscientist VS Ramachandran about some particular neurons in the human brain called mirror neurons, which he jokingly calls ‘Gandhi’, ‘Dalai Lama’ neurons or empathy neurons. According to VS Ramachandran, these mirror neurons might hold some keys to understand better seemingly unconnected subjects such as imitation and emulation, empathy, self-awareness and the ‘big bang in human evolution’ which took place some 40,000 years ago.

…the mirror neuron system underlies the interface allowing you to rethink about issues like consciousness, representation of self, what separates you from other human beings, what allows you to empathize with other human beings, and also even things like the emergence of culture and civilization, which is unique to human beings. From TED talk, The neurons that shaped civilization, VS Ramachandran

To know more, two articles from VS Ramachandran available in Edge

1. The neurology of self-awareness, Article in Edge [1.8.07]

2. Mirror neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution, Article in Edge [6.1.2000]

Interdependence : On becoming a contributor

The fact is that we live in an interdependent world. We take so much from different people so we have a responsibility to give and become contributors, not just consumers.

How we can contribute depends also upon our unique place in the scheme of things and our scope of influence.

Everybody’s contribution is important, no matter how small it is, as it is shown by a short story which is taking place in an Indian village and which is told at the end of the video. If we play our part, big things can be accomplished…

With all our warm thanks to our friends Elodie and Dino, who shot this video in Rishikesh in September 2008 on the banks of Ganga, during one intensive retreat.

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The vision of Upanishads explained through the form of Shiva as a Teacher (Daksinamurti)

This is the presentation I made at National Museum in Bangkok on 19th November 2009 and which is available on Slide Share. To view it full screen, click on the ‘full’ icon at the bottom of the video screen.

I chose to speak during this talk about various representations of Lord Shiva as a teacher (Daksinamurti). Why this choice? Because it conveys in a condensed and visual manner the entire philosophy and vision of Upanishads. Thus it makes us have access and understand the Indian psyche and culture, as it is lived throughout the ages, from the ancient times to today. Also, Daksinamurti as a teacher brings into the picture the teaching element, which is missing in the well known figure of Shiva as a Dancer. Indeed the relationship between teacher and student is a key to understand Hinduism as it was and is lived today, since it is essentially a teaching tradition.

The Upanishads start by our sense of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, limitation at various levels since as human beings, we are confronted to the vastness, powerfulness, unpredictability and complexity of the universe. Our helplessness and thirst for meaning is represented by the Banyan tree as the background. The banyan tree stands for an endless life of becoming with secondary roots perpetuating further this human predicament. Its roots are getting more and more entrenched, making us unable to find any lasting satisfaction in life. What we want is to find our way out of this thick forest and put an end for good to this sense of limitation.

The palm leaves in the left hand represent the sacred texts (Upanishads) which are capable of giving us knowledge of the reality of ourselves and the universe. They reveal to us that the conclusion about myself, that I am limited, is wrong and comes from the ignorance of my real nature. In their vision I am already free from any limitation. Teaching is done for me to discover this fact. Nature of the individual, the universe and its cause are inquired into very systematically with the help of an evolved methodology of teaching, handled by a teacher. The student who desires to put an end to his sense of inadequacy and limitation chooses to expose himself to the words of a teacher, reflect upon them with the help of reasoning and contemplate upon their meaning.

The gesture of knowledge (cin mudra) expresses the content of the teaching : ‘you are that’, you are the limitlessness you have been endlessly seeking through all your pursuits. It reveals the identity between you, the individual (index finger) and that, the cause of the universe (thumb). Just like wave and ocean when they are equated are found to be essentially nothing but water, all that is here is one limitless being, and that you are.

However, my experiences seem to suggest that I am distinct from everything else and hence I am small. If each name and form in the universe that I see is different from me and from each other, then there can not be oneness and I can not be limitless. Again, the representation of Daksinamurti shows how these apparent differences in names and forms resolve into one as Daksinamurti (the cause of the universe) is containing the whole universe. According to the Vedic model, this universe, with all its varied forms and characteristics, is in fact made of five elements— space, air, fire, water and earth. Space is represented by a drum, in his right hand, which encloses empty space. Next air is represented by the ‘bandana’ holding Daksinamurti’s hair in place against the wind. In his left hand, the torch represents fire. Water is shown by sacred river Ganges, in the form of a Goddess, on Daksinamurti’s head. Earth is represented by the material of which Daksinamurti is made.

Further, the universe consists also of the sun, moon and stars. Sun (all luminous bodies) and moon (all planets) which are seen above the head of Daksinamurti are also not-separate from the cause. Then there are people, who are the disciples of Daksinamurti, sitting at the base of sculpture.

Finally, Daksinamurti wears a male earring in the right ear and a female earring in the left ear. This is a way to suggest that the cause of the universe is both maker and material, the intelligent and the material cause. Both female and male implies also he/she/it is neither male nor female.

The vision indicated here is that the whole universe including me, —the one who is looking at the world, with all its galaxies, planets, stars and all things unknown to me,  is not separate from its cause. In other words, ‘all that is here, is one Isvara [all knowledge and power]‘ (Isha Upanishad). Manifested in the various forms of the universe, it pervades, permeates, sustains and supports the whole universe. All different names and forms in universe are in fact not separate from Isvara (the cause). Just like in Ocean, all the different waves are not separate from the cause (Ocean).

The teaching goes one step further, by resolving the equation ‘you are that’ shown in the gesture of knowledge. The truth of ocean is water, that is why truth of every wave which is part of ocean is also water. With this analogy, we can understand how truth of cause of the universe is one limitless being. And the truth of every form which is part of universe (including me, the individual) is also one and limitless being. There is only one limitless being, and that you are.

Three other elements in the form of Daksinamurti (rosary of beads, bull and dwarf) represent the areas in which we have to grow, some of the various ways to become prepared for this knowledge and see it intimately. The bull stands for dharma, justice and virtue. To be able to assimilate and understand this vision, I have to be in harmony with the ethical universal order and live a life of values, compassion, giving, non violence. The dwarf who is shown under the right foot is Apasmara holding a sharp knife that can tear off our being. It stands for the ego who is trying to preserve its reality. It can also be seen as the unconscious which keeps on interfering in our life and which needs to be processed and neutralized. Mala of beads which usually evokes religious disciplines indicates a life of relating to Isvara (the cause), to what is, to be alive to the grand order which is manifest in the form of various orders such as the physical, biological, psychological, epistemological orders, etc.

To conclude, the form of Daksinamurti presents us in a very complete manner the human quest of freedom from limitation and inadequacy. It points towards the essence of the teaching of Upanishads : there is an essential non-difference, an identity between the individual and the cause of the universe, Isvara. Both the individual and the cause of the universe being essentially one limitless being. Finally it reveals the ways to achieve this knowledge and gain the absolute freedom (moksa) through exposing ourselves to the teaching of the texts, inquiring into their meaning, leading an ethical life, relating to the total and mastering our body and mind.

TED Talk : The profound journey of compassion

A TED talk on compassion by our teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati

A transcript of the talk can be found at the same link. Do not hesitate to share your comments on this video and your views on what compassion is for you !

You can see more videos on the theme of the Charter for Compassion at and the Charter for Compassion website at

How can we speak about sustainability without speaking about the Sustainer?

An interesting article on spiritual ecology you can read at this link, from Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, sheikh in the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadidiyya Sufi Order .

I particularly like the following excerpts which emphasize the importance of also addressing the ecological crisis  at a root level, through a radical shift of consciousness. It can be accomplished by becoming alive to the presence of the sacred through out our planet and changing fundamentally how we relate to it, with the help of ‘the wisdom of our ancestors’ or various spiritual traditions.

We have to step out of our dream of separation, the insularity with which we have imprisoned ourselves, and acknowledge that we are a part of a multidimensional living spiritual being we call the world.

We may praise and pray to a God in heaven, but we do not understand how to welcome the divine into our lives. How can we heal and transform the world without the living presence of its Creator?

Spiritual ecology means reawakening our awareness of what is sacred in all of creation, and knowing that only if we work together with the divine in all of its manifestations can we hope to redeem what we have desecrated and destroyed through our greed and arrogance. It means to reclaim the wisdom of our ancestors who knew the sacred interconnections of life and the divine forces within it. Once again we have to relearn how to relate to the divine, how to bring an awareness of the many facets of divine oneness into our lives and prayers and meditations.

Be the change you want to see in this world – Mahatma Gandhi

In celebration of India’s 60th year of independence in 2008, the Times of India launched a search for a new generation of political leaders for a new India, men and women with another vision and ability to empower the country. A Lead India video contest was also launched and among the results is this two-minute video, “Tree”.
The message goes well beyond the frontiers of India…

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