By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
“Infatuated by promises of a hi-tech paradise, people don’t even think about the spiritual purpose of life, erroneously considering it unscientific and outdated.”
We live in the age of technology. We commute by automobiles and airplanes and communicate by emails and mobile phones. The media and the Internet provide us the latest information from all over the world. Movies filled with hi-tech special effects entertain us. Central heating and air conditioning keep us comfortable despite the weather. The list goes on. Technology has transformed almost every aspect of our lives. Despite some concern about the pollution and environmental problems that technology produces, most people feel that technology has benefited us immensely.
Where Is Technology Taking Us?
The razzle-dazzle of comforts, luxuries, and hi-tech gadgets make it appear that technology has led to progress in human society. But has our quality of life improved?
In the past, people would leave the doors of their homes open without fear. Now, despite locks, bolts, chains, and alarms, we’re afraid. Is that progress?
We’re proud of our posh houses, fast cars, smooth roads, and skyscraper offices, but we can’t sleep without a pill. Can a society be considered progressed if it makes its people struggle to get the simple and essential pleasure of sleeping, a pleasure that the “primitive” villager gets effortlessly?
The technological worldview, being materialistic, gives rise to selfishness, competition, and exploitation. Despite the show of romantic love, we can’t trust our own spouses, what to speak of parents and children or bosses and colleagues. Do alienated, suspicious people compose a progressive society?
Mechanized factories can never offer as much employment as the farms of the past. So a large number of people have to suffer or fear unemployment. For subsistence some of the unemployed turn to begging, others to crime. And overall the modernized industrial environment is so agitating to the mind that self-destructive addictions become the only solace for many people. Are crime, addiction, and unemployment signs of progress?
Technology provides comforts, but a high-speed, high-stress technology-centered lifestyle takes away the peace of mind necessary to enjoy the comforts. A software engineer has AC in his office, but still he sweats-not because of heat, but because of tension. Technology makes us comfortably miserable.
Medical technology may have wiped out a few diseases and offers cures to more. But far more people need medical attention today than in the past because of unhealthy, congested city living, sedentary lifestyles, and polluted air, water, and food. This is evident from the ever-increasing number of clinics, hospitals, and medicine shops. Moreover, many of the sophisticated medical treatments, unlike the traditional herbal cures, are prohibitively expensive.
Most people today can hardly imagine life without television, movies, and myriad other forms of hi-tech entertainment. And they pity their ancestors who did not have all this enjoyment. But people in the past knew how to find joy in the simple things of life, like sharing and caring in joint families, observing and learning from nature, and hearing and chanting the names and glories of God. Consequently they did not find life boring. By our infatuation with technology, we have divorced ourselves from simple, natural pleasures. And so, despite our much-touted entertainment, we still find ourselves constantly bored. The entertainment industry may use sophisticated technology, but is the dependence on entertainment-and the serious inner emptiness it reveals-a sign of progress?
Technology intoxicates us with the feeling of being the controller. Just by pressing a switch, we can make huge machines perform complex actions. Just by clicking a keyboard, we can summon information from any part of the world. By constantly working with machines, we become habituated to controlling them and expect everything and everyone to be similarly controlled. When people refuse to be controlled like machines, we end up with all sorts of conflicts, ranging from domestic cold wars to marital ruptures, from quarrels to murders. And when things don’t go the way we want them to, we end up suffering from a wide range of mental problems, including stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Technology, Ancient and Modern
We have been led to believe that we possess the most advanced technology in the history of our planet. But the pyramids of Egypt, the Stonehenge monoliths of the UK, and the non-rusting iron pillars of India are some telltale products of an ancient technology amazingly superior to ours. In fact, the Vedic texts describe even more intriguing technologies. Vimanas (pollution-free airplanes), brahmashtras (precise and powerful missiles activated by mystical sound incantations), and astonishingly potent and swift healing techniques involving medicinal herbs, empowered mantras, and Ayurvedic surgeries are a few examples. The Vedic attitude is not opposed to technology per se. But it cautions us about infatuation with material technology, which leads to neglecting or forgetting the spiritual goal of life.
Imagine a doctor who prescribes only a painkiller to a seriously sick patient. The patient is happy because he gets relief. The doctor is happy because he gets his fees. Unfortunately, the patient’s pain is not cured, but covered. Soon it will recur and worsen.
All of us are like the patient. From the moment of birth we have a death sentence on our heads. Time forces us to helplessly grow old, get diseased, and die. Our journey through life is not only doomed but also distressful. Miseries from our own bodies and minds (fever, indigestion, stress, depression), miseries from other living beings (mosquitoes, competitors, superiors, relatives), and miseries from nature (extreme heat or cold, floods, earthquakes) periodically torment us throughout our life.
The Vedic texts explain the cause and cure of our suffering. We are spiritual beings entrapped in material bodies. We belong not to this temporary and miserable material world but to an eternal and blissful spiritual realm, where we live forever in loving harmony with God. Because of our desire to enjoy independent of God, we are placed in this world, an arena for experimentation and rectification. We transmigrate through different species of life, searching for pleasure by experimenting with matter in various ways, but getting only misery and death. In the human species, we receive advanced intelligence to recognize our unfortunate predicament. For intelligent humans, the Vedic texts offer a systematic program of spirituality that enables them to re-harmonize with and return back to eternal life with God.
This spiritual program is based on recognizing our intermediate position in the cosmic hierarchy. As spiritual sparks we are superior to matter but subordinate to God, who is the controller of both matter and spirit. In our natural harmonious state in the spiritual world, we live in loving harmony with God and have nothing to do with matter. And when we are in the material world, the Vedic scriptures recommend that we focus on devotion and service to God. They advise us to take care of the body only as much as is required for it to serve as an efficient vehicle for our service to God and our spiritual journey back to him. This life of simple living and high thinking will permanently free us from our present entanglement in material miseries and help us to easily and swiftly re-achieve our rightful eternal happiness. Thus spirituality offers the real cure for our suffering. In this program for spiritual reclamation, material technologies are used mainly to assist in achieving the ultimate goal of life.
In our modern times, human intelligence has been used primarily to develop materially, especially technologically. Technology pleases our senses, inflates our ego, and makes us feel comfortable and proud. But technology provides entertainment, not peace; comforts, not happiness; medicines, not health; cosmetics, not youth; life support systems, not life. Technology is like the painkiller that covers, but doesn’t cure, our suffering in material existence. Worse still, it creates an illusory sense of well being, which makes people feel that a spiritual solution is unnecessary. Instead of simple living and high thinking, people start simply living and hardly thinking. Infatuated by promises of a hi-tech paradise, people don’t even think about the spiritual purpose of life, erroneously considering it unscientific and outdated. Thus technology steals our opportunity to attain eternal life and condemns us to stay on and suffer in this world of birth and death.
Therefore the basic difference between ancient technology and modern technology is that the former helped people achieve the goal of life, while the latter helps people forget the goal of life. Srila Prabhupada explains the regrettable direction of modern technological advancement: Intelligence meant for solving all problems permanently is misused to convert a castor-oil lamp into an electric lamp.
Spiritualizing Modern Technology
A question may therefore arise, “Do we have to give up technology and return to village life?”
We don’t have to give up technology, but we do have to give up the illusion that technology can make us happy. If we are diseased, we don’t have to give up the painkiller, only the illusion that the painkiller can cure our disease. We have to adopt the cure of spirituality for attaining real happiness.
And since technology pervades our modern world, we can use the Vedic principle of yukta-vairagya, devotional renunciation: Without being attached to material things for personal enjoyment, use them for the service of God.
Here’s an analogy to explain the application of this principle with respect to technology. Suppose a gang of thieves have robbed a bank and are fleeing in a speeding car. What should the policemen do? Stick to the speed limit and let the thieves escape? Or break the speed limit, drive faster than the thieves, arrest them, and retrieve the stolen money?
Today’s high technology promotes atheism, hedonism, materialism, and consumerism, thus stealing people’s wealth of spiritual knowledge. Therefore it is incumbent upon all genuine spiritual scientists to use the same technology to spread knowledge of spirituality and harmonious living and help people reclaim their wealth of spiritual wisdom and happiness. The following examples show how the principle of yukta-vairagya enables us spiritualize modern technology:
ISKCON is building splendid temples equipped with state-of-the-art animatronics, robotics, and multimedia theaters to kindle interest in the message of the Bhagavad-gita.
At many of ISKCON’s major festivals, to inspire devotion to God sophisticated laser shows offer breathtaking glimpses of beautiful deities worshiped all over the world.
ISKCON is offering children a positive alternative of spiritually oriented toys, games, and movies that engender virtue and nobility, instead of the violence and sensuality of vice-producing media images.
ISKCON’s teachers give presentations using slides shows, VCDs, and other state-of-the-art technology. Even the article you are reading is an example of the yukta-vairagya principle in action.
This spiritual use of technology is attracting millions of people to the service of God, thereby helping them find inner fulfillment and achieve their right to eternal life and happiness.
But much more remains to be done. The indiscriminate adoption of technology has landed our planet in a mess. For our modern times Srila Prabhupada envisioned an East-West synthesis: spreading Indian spiritual wisdom with Western material technology. The technologically advanced West has to recognize its lack of spiritual vision. And the financially crippled India has to shed its deeply ingrained inferiority complex and recognize its wealth of spiritual knowledge. If the people of India and the West acknowledge their respective endowments and deficiencies, they can help bring about an international spiritual revival. In our sadly misled modern world, this may be the only hope to usher in a new era of harmony and happiness.