Watching the horrific devastation in Uttarakhand, I was reminded of my visit to Badrinath and Kedarnath some twenty-five or so years ago. There was nowhere the kind and scale of construction that seemed to have sprung up of late, and the numbers of pilgrims were in hundreds, not thousands. An understanding of the manmade aspect of the tragedy is growing, of how rampant destruction of forests and the Himalayan ecosystem in and around the pilgrimage spots might have magnified the impact of the natural disaster.
That this should happen at sacred sites associated with a religion and a way of life that has an eco-spiritual perspective inbuilt in so many of its traditions is cause for concern. It is a warning that in following the form of ritualised religion, we might have forgotten its spirit. That we might still worship a river or a mountain with flowers and incense, but have become blind to the impact our presence there is having on those very objects of our veneration. That we might chant mantras extolling the elements, but think nothing of polluting them with waste, plastic and toxic fumes. That we might be relating with religion as another consumable material, without bothering to understand its deeper underpinnings.
When we lived closer to nature, and not in the urban concrete jungles of today, perhaps it was easier to evoke and feel a respectful awe for natural phenomena. A river was not just a river. She was a mega-mother, a goddess, who nurtured centuries of civilisation along her banks. She not only fed us but also received our ashes when we died, as a portal of transmigration. She was not to be messed with but propitiated. Most importantly, she was not an object to be consumed for our comfort.
In the hills of Uttarakhand, for centuries people have worshipped mountains, trees, boulders, glades and knolls as abodes of spirits, some benevolent, others malevolent. Some kinds of trees would never be cut, and if they needed to, the act would be preceded by days of pujas to ask its permission. When I see the mindless destruction of forests and nature that the age of science and reason has brought with it, I wonder if in this regard we weren’t better off with superstitions that declared some acts of natural destruction taboo. Even if it played on people’s fears of vengeful spirits, at least it helped preserve the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.
Perhaps this monumental tragedy will inspire us to consider a re-sacralisation of our connection with nature. To consider the Ganga, the Himalayas, their flora and fauna, and our surroundings wherever we are, as sacred and alive entities, not just myths or idols to be worshipped in temples, or consumables to be exploited for our needs. Perhaps this will be the call to return to our natural selves, and re-visualise the ecological divinity that exists all around us.