As we celebrate Earth Day, I am reminded of a story from the Hindu epic, Mahabharat, that has always touched me. Five just princes were banished from their kingdom and forced to dwell in the forest for many years. One of the princes, Bhima, in an attempt to release his anger at this injustice, walked out of his tent with an axe and began chopping away at nearby trees. Blinded by his rage, Bhima was unable to see the impact of his actions until Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, gently placed an arm on Bhima’s shoulder to stop him.
“Brother Bhima, what are you doing?” Krishna asked kindly.
Bhima explained his anger, not only at the princes’ predicament, but also at his inability to rectify it.
“But why are you taking your anger out on these helpless trees?” Krishna asked. “Are they the cause of your angst? Did these trees take your kingdom from you? Or was it the birds whose homes you just destroyed? They can’t even defend themselves against you.”
Bhima, ashamed, looked down and dropped the axe.
Krishna put his arm around Bhima, lead him back to the tent, and said, “Remember, we must only take from Nature that which is a necessity. If human beings today forget this principle and begin to abuse their power over Nature, future generations of humanity will pay the price.”
These poignant words, uttered thousands of years ago, are very much applicable in our world today as we see the effects of our actions against nature. While we strive to reduce our carbon footprint in countless ways, save the rainforests, and protect endangered species, sometimes it’s the smaller actions which have disproportionate impacts.
Just yesterday, the New York Times published a piece about the Hindu community in Queens that has been placing sacred offerings to God in Jamaica Bay in their effort to replicate rituals conducted on the banks of the sacred Ganges River in India. To the dismay of the park rangers, many of these offerings – such as saris, coins, and murthis – become lodged in the bay, harming the delicate balance of wildlife there. The rangers have been reaching out to the community to inform of them of the environmental harm that is taking place due to the offerings, and it appears that many in the community are taking corrective measures.
Unfortunately, there are still those who disagree and believe the offering must be placed in the water in order to receive God’s blessing. But if a sari strangles the living sea grass or if a bird chokes on a coin or flower, is that really an offering to God? “Oh God, I offer you this silver coin for your blessing…but please excuse the fact that a bird may choke on it?”
Rituals are an important aspect of Hinduism and should not be discounted. But when they harm the health of Mother Earth, I say modify the ritual, and I’m not the only one. The beauty of Hinduism is that it is a dynamic tradition and allows its adherents to adapt their practices to time and place (as an example, see the new wave in returning to an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi, one of the biggest Hindu festivals in Maharastra).
I’m sure the millions of Hindus who recite the following prayer every morning would agree.
Samudra Vasane Devi,
Parvata Stana Mandale.
Pada Sparsham Kshamasva Me
O Mother Earth! Draped by the oceans, adorned with mountains and jungles
The consort of Lord Vishnu, I bow to you
Forgive me for stepping upon you with my feet