One Hindu’s Environmental Pilgrimage from Triveni Ghat to Tampa to the Future
By Hari Venkatachalam
Triveni Ghat is where I first saw the Ganga.
I had always preferred the Indian name Ganga to the term Ganges, a word that arrived in English after having been stumbled on and twisted by Greek and Latin tongues. Unlike “Ganges,” the word Ganga spills from one’s lips sweetly, reminiscent of that divine flow. The vowel ending leaves the speaker with his jaw dropped in the same sense of wonderment that had inspired poets and sculptors to describe the river like a beautiful, benevolent, and bountiful goddess.
When I first stepped up to the banks of the Ganga, I realized how rare of an encounter this was. While the river valleys around the Ganga are one of the most densely populated regions in the world, with a population of around 400 million people, for most Hindus a trip to see this sacred river is an elusive wish. For my ancestors, living in the foothills of the Western Ghats in southern India, the over 1300-mile pilgrimage would have been an arduous journey, akin to that of a poor farmer on the outskirts of ancient Rome travelling to see the Holy Land, except without the benefit of boats. Generations of my ancestors had probably chanted Ganga’s sacred name and named their daughters in her honor without their eyes ever having graced her banks. Now, here I was, traveling from an even further Tampa, Florida, nonchalantly and with no fanfare approaching her on a Thursday afternoon, fulfilling hundreds of my forefathers’ and foremothers’ yearnings.
As I gingerly stepped my toe into the water, the cold shot up my spine. The Ganga was swollen from torrential, tree-crushing rains in the mountains and was silt-laden from deadly mudslides. By the second step down the ghat, I could feel the fierce strength of the river’s pull. I glanced around me at the other devotees, noting that everyone carefully bathed on just the first few steps, avoiding the deeper waters that would in a moment sweep a bathing pilgrim down the river to their untimely demise. My heart swirled with terror and adoration like the whirlpools on the river’s surface as I watched everyone worship with fearful reverence.
This idea of fearful reverence of nature was a theme with which I was raised. As C.S. Lewis introduced the Jesus-Aslan character, in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” one of the characters fearfully asks if the lion is “safe.” “Safe?” the other character scoffs, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Hindus have a similar figure in Narasimha, the angry half-lion form of Lord Vishnu who destroyed the tyrant Hiranyakashipu. The texts abound with stories of Narasimha’s wrath and the fear that was struck into the hearts of his devotees. Like these characters, the Ganga, with her turbulent waters, is also a force of good, but is to be treated with guarded veneration.
I found myself face-to-face with another form of nature’s fury this past week in the form of Hurricane Irma. My neighbors and friends found themselves rushing away from the gulf coastline of Florida, securing their homes, and gathering supplies to prepare for the storm’s destruction. Voices in the media and on the streets questioned the storm’s purpose: “Is this divine retribution? Is this nature’s answer to Global Warming?” Perhaps the latter, but this storm was first and foremost only one thing: a manifestation of nature in all its terrible, yet bewitching glory.
Hindus have been called upon since time immemorial to live harmoniously with the terrifying forces of Mother Nature, but over the years this message has been lost in layers of religious ritualism and modern consumerism. Only several hundred yards from the banks of the Ganga, where devotees worshipped and raised the waterfront to the status of hallowed soil, plastic bags and trash collect in pools of rain water along alleyway edges. Garbage is regularly dropped absent-mindedly by pilgrims on their way to their prayers. If one stops to ask a person why they act with such disregard for the environment, they just shrug with impotence, “What can one person do? Everyone does it.”
But Hindus can do something. Hindus represent the largest sub-national religious group in the world with over 1 billion adherents in India, far surpassing the quarter-billion Christian Americans or Muslim Indonesians. They are a powerful social and economic force here in the United States, and we don’t need to scratch that far below the surface of our traditions to uncover the throbbing green veins of environmentalism.
The whispering call to honor nature is behind many of our rituals. It is drawn in the designs of decorative ground rice, or Kolams, we decorate our thresholds to feed the ants. It is spoken in the instructions to leave rice for crows on the anniversaries or our beloved ones’ deaths. It is in the reprimands of our parents when we crushed little bugs, for even in those miniscule living things there is a Jivaa, or a divine inner force. It is in the trees, water, soil, and air we hold sacred and consider to be the limbs of the divine reaching out to us here in the material plane.
Nature for us is a visible and concrete symbol of a divinity that hides in the unknowable, dark place of pure consciousness. “You stand behind a veil! You are where my eyes cannot see you,” the poet C. Rajagopalachari penned in his Tamil composition Kurai Ondrum Illai praising the divine. “But what complaint have I, when you stand, Venkatesa, in stone, to answer my prayers.” Not only in stone, but in all the elements of nature, the divine stands to protect and provide. It is truly a venerable message, not far from Pocahontas’s “Colors of the Wind.”
But that voice is being stifled in the waves of polluted water, buried in the heaps of trashed earth, smothered in the billowing poisoned air, and burned in the warming temperatures of our planet. We no longer approach nature with god-fearing humility or devotion. It is arrogance, greed, and disdain that color our practices that corrupt nature.
As Hurricane Irma bore down on my home state, these were my reflections. To be sure, controlling environmental damage and reversing global warming will not end hurricanes. It may not even dampen their strength, even though rising ocean temperatures feed the power of hurricanes. Nature will always be deadly. Whether it is the Ganga’s might that can drown bathing pilgrims or the fiery explosions of volcanoes, no matter what changes we make to our lifestyles, Mother Nature will never be a domesticated animal that acts according to our biding. We will never be completely safe from natural disasters.
Who said anything about nature being safe? Course it isn’t safe. It’s good. And it’s our duty on this planet to respect that dangerous, but benevolent, power.
So we Hindus now stand at the crossroads with a decision to make. We can continue along the path of destruction and face even worse disasters due to human impact to our environment. Or we can realize our collective political and social power, tap into the environmentalist stream that ebbs and flows through our ancient culture, and invest it in policies and concrete actions that reverse our environmentally damaging actions. We have to make a decision on how we Hindus want to interact with our planet.
It IS a decision, not a compulsion. As Krishna says in the conclusion of the Bhagavad Gita, “Think about this knowledge I have taught you fully, the most secret of secrets, and then you can do as you wish.” It is within our ability, but not mandated, to return to that state of reverential piety towards nature. That journey to a place and state of mind where we are in harmony with Mother Nature, albeit in an inferior position, is a difficult and long path, with more hurdles than a trip to the River Ganga from the Western Ghats of southern India or from Tampa. But in my heart, my faith inspires me to say that it is the right path to take. Therefore, for the sake of the Ganga and Hurricane Irma, for the sake of those who will suffer other future environmental disasters, and for the sake of all of Nature with its might and beauty, I ask:
Will you join me on that pilgrimage?
Hari Venkatachalam is a Master of Public Health candidate at the University of South Florida and a Hindu activist focused on social justice, environmental change, and LGBT rights issues based in the Tampa, Florida metropolitan area. Hari is a member of Sadhana: Coalition or Progressive Hindus.