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The Conquest of Nature (and What We’ve Lost)

Posted on Mar 13, 2013
ajari (CC BY 2.0)

By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

As with the carriage and dray horses, so also with the majority of mankind’s farmyard associates and nonhuman acquaintances. Out of sight and out of mind, the chicken, the pig, and the cow lost their licenses to teach. The modern industrial society emerging into the twentieth century transformed them into products and commodities, swept up in the tide of economic and scientific progress otherwise known as the conquest of nature.

Animals acquired the identities issued to them by man, became labels marketed by a frozen-food or meat-packing company, retaining only those portions of their value that fit the formula of research tool or cultural symbol—circus or zoo exhibit, corporate logo or Hollywood cartoon, active ingredient in farm-fresh salmon or genetically modified beef.

It was 10 years after my meeting with the Australian koala that I was first introduced to an animal in a state of nature—a gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus, golden fur, black face, fond of fruit and flowers). It was about two feet tall, very quick on its feet, one of 60 or 70 monkeys of various species wandering around the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the shore of the Ganges River, 128 miles north of New Delhi.

The Maharishi at the time (February 1968) was at the high-water mark of his fame as a guru, his science of Transcendental Meditation having captured the celebrity markets in Los Angeles, New York, and London, and that winter he was teaching the lesson of the yellow marigold to a select company of disciples, among them the four Beatles, who had made the journey from the decadent, materialist West in search of enlightened well-being in the spiritual East. The ashram was set in a forest of teak and sheesham trees at the base of the Himalayan escarpment, and again on assignment from the American press, I’d been advised by the editor of the Saturday Evening Post to listen for the voice of the cosmos under the roof of the world.


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During my nearly three weeks on the ashram I learned nothing about the Beatles that wasn’t known to their fans, from the Maharishi little more than the fact that at the fifth level of realization, “Everything becomes hilarious.” But from the monkey I learned that it was somebody else—not a pet or a little friend to all the world, not an allegory, a movie actor, or a laboratory experiment. Two days after my arrival I noticed it standing in a tree opposite the door to the small outbuilding (one room, whitewashed stone, no window) in which I’d been granted accommodation near the ashram’s lower gate. Another two days, and it was always there whenever I was coming or going, and it occurred to me that it was I who was being observed by the monkey, not the monkey who was being observed by me.

On the morning of the fifth day, I presented it with a slice of bread, late in the afternoon with half an orange. It accepted both offerings as a matter of course; no sign of acknowledgment, much less of appreciation or affection. My sense of its attitude was that I’d been slow to pick up on the custom of the country, and later that same evening one of the Maharishi’s principal subordinates, a saffron-robed monk by the name of Raghvendra, validated my impression as not wrong. In India, he said, the gray langur was sacred. Properly known as the Hanuman langur—Hanuman being the name of the Hindu monkey god of healing and worship—it was revered for its willingness to accompany sadhus on pilgrimages, and therefore enjoyed almost as many privileges as the cow, free to ransack food stalls, at liberty to plunder grain shops.

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