“Obedience makes us submissive
to all persons on earth,
nor just to humankind
but to all animals
and wild beasts, too,
that they may do as they please with us
as far as God so permits them.”
~ St Francis of Assisi
In 1990, I visited the Corbett National Park, one of the largest and most famous wildlife sanctuaries in India. My dream: to see a wild tiger. When the bus that took me there had crossed the entrance of the park, and while I was already scanning the jungle in an irrational hope, a burst of flamboyant colors vanished into the canopy. It was a peacock! I had already seen hundreds of peacocks in India, on the outskirts of towns and villages, but this peacock was not one of them. He had vibrant colors, and a vitality that testified to the precariousness of his life. This bird could end up in the claws of a tiger, and that made all the difference. Starting my journey to Corbett with the sight of a beautiful wild peacock was auspicious. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better beginning.
Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Corbett became in 1936 the first National Park in India. Its name comes from a British soldier and hunter, Jim Corbett, who lived there at the beginning of the last century, and whom the villagers held in high regard. He became famous for killing twelve man eating tigers and leopards who had been responsible for the death of nearly one thousand five hundred people in the region. Convinced, however, that “a tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage”, he gave up hunting and devoted the rest of his life to the protection of wildlife, becoming a naturalist, photographer, and best-selling author.
There is always a feeling of thrill and wonder when I enter a forest, a freedom and happiness when walking in wilderness, and an intimacy, above all an intimacy. I often wondered why. Why does nature bring that? Nature is the temple of ‘what is’, and the place that has the smallest interference from man’s thoughts and self-imposed travails. The presence of nature draws us to the presence of consciousness within, for they have qualities that are close, qualities like spaciousness, surrender, innocence or intimacy. I have been exposed to nature as a child. From two to eight years old, I lived close to a forest. All my memories of this time, as well as my interests, my mental inclinations and my apprehension of life stemmed from these long hours spent in nature, the expectations of spotting a wild animal. And if I should find anything, in my early years, that ignited my future love and interest for the spiritual journey, that again would be it. But maybe that is better said poetically:
“There was the beautiful forest behind, a child’s education
The wonderful herds of deers, the flying hare, and invisible boars
So many encounters with snakes, and the visits of the new fawn
There was the many puzzling insects, the watching of the ants
And the attempts repeated to catch the lizard’s tail
Dear animals, dear wilderness, the childhood’s companion!
There was the climbing on the trees, the crawling on the forest bed
The fish spotted in the passing waters, the sound of it all
The smell after the rain, among the glistening, dropping leaves
The affront of the nettles, when reaching for the snail
And the discovery of the new spring fungi, a rare delicacy
Dear animals, dear wilderness, the childhood’s companion!”
The tourist village of Dhikala is located on a large grassy plateau in the heart of Corbett National Park. This is where the elephant tours leave, that will perhaps allow visitors to see the precious animal. It enjoys a splendid view on the plain below, where the river Ramganga flows, and from where the whispers and rumbling of the wild can be heard. India has long had a culture and tradition of respect for nature. The ancient literature reflects a unitary conception of the universe in which animate and inanimate objects move, filled with the same spiritual power. The hymns of the Vedas are full of veneration for Mother Earth, trees, plants, animals, mountains, and it was considered a sacred duty of every Hindu to venerate and protect them. Mahatma Gandhi once observed: “I bow my head in reverence to our ancestors for their sense of the beautiful in nature and for their foresight in investing beautiful manifestations of Nature with a religious significance.”
The soft Indian night was now falling on Dhikala, as I was breathing in the cool air and reflecting on India’s inborn closeness to nature. We were warned that the elephants that are kept here for the rides, just behind our hostel, had been restless for a couple of nights, due to the presence of their wild congeners in the area. I took a long appreciative breath and shivered with happiness, anticipating my tomorrow morning rendezvous with Indian wilderness.
India is still a land of wild animals that inspired Kipling his famous ‘Jungle Book’. Since time immemorial, elephants, bears, wolves, panthers, monkeys, pythons, vultures and of course the royal tiger, the dreaded ‘Shere Khan’, have inhabited the beautiful forests of this country. The tiger has its best chance of survival in India. In addition to sheltering seventy percent of the tigers in the world, the country has always had a privileged relationship with its prestigious feline, choosing it as its national animal. The tiger was represented on seals during the Indus Civilization, 4500 years ago; and in Hinduism, the formidable goddess Durga, who symbolizes the struggle against darkness and ignorance, is always depicted riding a tiger or a lion. Through his beauty, his strength, and his courage, the tiger has, throughout Indian history, been feared and revered, traditionally perceived as the guardian of the jungle, its protector.
On this day of 1990, I was finally given the opportunity to confront my dream with reality. From the Dhikala Plateau, elephants on an excursion must descend along a steep path in the jungle to reach the grassy plain below. Comfortably settled on one of them, I was amazed at how well they moved, fascinated at how gently and quietly they made their way through a vegetation so dense that it seemed impassable. Everything here indicated the presence of animals: treaded grass, odors, excrements, all the sounds of the jungle. We arrived to the plain and crossed the river with ease. Without the benevolent help of the elephant that the mahout guided gently in the midst of tall grass, we could not visit these wild and dangerous areas. What an amazement and delight! There was in me an indicible joy, and my heart was pouncing with a happiness that made me awake to every little thing around me.
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then let all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord.”
~ Psalms 96:11-13a
It was wonderful! At one moment, the three elephants, with five people on each, were happily strolling on a patch of wild inoffensive cannabis nearly two meters tall, which provoked some laughters among the group. Suddenly, an excitement seized the little world around me. I began to feverishly search the area that was shown to me, and after a moment, like an apparition, a tiger stood out in the distance. In an instant, his majestic head, rimmed with fur, literally occupied the whole space. He was watching us carefully, quietly lying in a stream, at a distance of about two hundred meters. What happened next was only of trivial importance, considering this first and unforgettable contact. The mahouts pressed the elephants and tried to approach the feline. The latter, being disturbed, left towards the wrong side, right where we were heading. Hidden in the high grass, no one could see him, except the elephants who felt his presence and were trumpeting. The tiger then went back to the bed of the river, and we could see him quite closely. The cat finally climbed on the opposite bank, turning his head one more time to give us a last disdainful glance.
We should have stopped there, at this moment when we saw him for the first time, like a distant and magnificent lord. The rest: the excitement of the pursuit, to see him a little closer, all this had a different taste. Why this futile and childish desire to see more? The tiger knows how to say hello. Before we had this first contact, I remember how pregnant was the feeling of joy and oneness with nature all around. And when the tiger presented himself, we were equal, like two friends, respectful of each other. He was a distant and yet very present host. As Francis Lucille once wrote, and I think it is something to remember and apply in all circumstances: “I think that the best way to behave towards animals is to assume they are realized beings. And the same applies to human beings. If you approach beings, based upon this assumption, they will open their hearts to you; they will become, and they will be, the way you see them, the way you compel them to be. They will show their true colors.”
The tiger couldn’t have been more present, and close, than during this first unforgettable glance. We were melting into each other. Chasing him to get closer was stupid. Although we saw him quite near, he couldn’t have been more distant. The jungle is a soul inhabited by itself, or if we want to be picky, inhabited by many souls. And we humans are one of them. If we disturb, or more so hurt a tiger or any other animal, in any way, we are by extension hurting ourselves. The soul is hurt. We have the responsibility to not be the harassing one, the threatening one. When we disturb the jungle, the peace is affected and replaced by our little ‘we’, our demands, which are nothing else but our repeated escapes from suffering or our drawing near some form of distraction or satisfaction. If we are willing to let go of this separate, demanding self, it is all here: the beauty, the peace, the happiness — and the animal is ready to share it with us, to bath in it with us.
“He speaks to the swallows
and converses with the wolves.
He enters into union with the rocks
and organises conferences with the trees.
He talks with the whole universe,
for in love, everything
has the power of speech.
Everything is endowed
~ Christian Bobin
(of Francis of Assisi)
On the way back to Dhikala, gently rocked on the elephant’s back, I reflected on this precious teaching moment. How close we are to be one and loving with the animal. And how close we are to fall back on a behaviour that is separate, disrespectful, towards our friends on earth. It is all a matter of having the right understanding, on looking from the true perspective. St Augustine once said: “Love, and do whatever you want!’ This is the extent of the trust you can enjoy when you act from truth. And this is true freedom. The animal has it, I bet. I always thought that what we condescendingly name ’instinct’ in the animal, is in fact pure intelligence and oneness, keeping in mind the limited nature of each species’ mind and body. And we humans would be well advised not to name ourselves ’intelligent’ too quickly, and search to acquire some form of instinct in our lives. An instinct that would be nothing else than the natural expression of pure being, of true love. “One must be blind deaf and dumb” said philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer two hundred years ago, “not to see that the animal is in essence absolutely the same thing that we are, and that the difference lies merely in the accident, the intellect, and not in the substance. […] The eternal being which, as it lives in us, also lives in every animal should be recognised as such, and as such treated with care and consideration.”
Two days later, while leaving the park, a few of us were exchanging impressions in the bus. A woman said that while coming back from the watchtower, on the very safe grounds of Dhikala, she just passed near a tiger that was resting there. It was some chocking news, that reminded us of the danger always present in these areas. I reconsidered the question, as to why we so much love being in nature. We go to wilderness for the same reasons we have parks in big cities or pets in our homes. We go to wilderness for the same reasons we, as a child, could remain hours watching ants. We want to feel the unity and absolute intimacy of nature, of life. We go to wilderness for the awe, the beauty, the silence — have you noticed the silence every time you spot a wild animal? There, we are having a hint of the unsubstantial nature of experience. We are bathing in our own self, and tasting its profound, loving nature. In Rupert Spira’s words: “At the deepest level all minds are connected because they are all precipitated within the same field of infinite consciousness, and the varying degrees of connectedness that we feel with one another or with animals, objects and nature are the degrees to which our minds are transparent to this shared medium. Love is the word we use when we feel this shared medium with other people and animals.” As we passed the entrance of the park, returning to the world of man, I whispered these words in silence: Dear animals! Dear wilderness! Dear loving presence!
Text by Alain Joly
Painting by Eric Wilson (‘Tiger study in pastels’)
“Eric Wilson is one of Great Britain’s leading wildlife artists, a multi-award winner whose paintings are now widely collected throughout the world. The world wide appeal of Eric’s work is not only the craftsmanship of his paintings, but the fact that he has spent a lifetime studying these animals in the wild, from Polar Bears in the frozen north, Gorillas in Zaïre, to Tigers in Nepal. Éric paints wildlife from his own direct experience.”
– Eric Wilson’s Website
Read ‘the music of everything’, an article by nature conservationist Suprabha Seshan…
– ‘The Very Lowly: A Meditation on Francis of Assisi’ – by Christian Bobin – (New Seeds)
– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira – (Non-Duality Press)
– Inde sauvage (from my French website about India)
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