Ganga Talao: from Symbolism to Ecofriendliness

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In keeping with the modern facilities and communications that now exist, the organizers as well as the pilgrims could contribute to make future Maha Shivaratris a truly ecofriendly experience for everyone

In order to appreciate properly the notable events in the Hindu calendar, such as Maha Shivaratri, it is important to grasp certain basic concepts and ideas that are to be found in the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of the Hindus.

This begins with understanding the creation cycle: Brahman is the source of and is inherent within creation, which comprises the living and non-living. Invisible, changeless and infinite, Brahman is in a potential, inactive state, and thus unmanifest, as the Unique Truth of all that is or exists – designated, in other traditions, by terms such as Absolute or Ultimate Reality, God, Lord, Supreme or Supreme Being.

Brahman, through the power of maya or mayashakti becomes manifest or active as Ishwara, bringing forth the universe that undergoes change which takes place in space and time. Thus is initiated a cycle comprising three successive stages: creation, preservation, destruction, and this concurs with our human experience. For example, a tree begins as a small seed, becomes a sapling, grows bigger into a mature tree and then comes to an end, that is, it dies or is destroyed, leaving seeds which renew the cycle afresh.

Ishwara as creator is known as Brahma, as preserver Vishnu, and as destroyer Shiva. Together they are referred to as Trimurti, that is the three facets or aspects of Ishwara. One must appreciate that Ishwara-Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva are not separate, but are the manifestations of the One Brahman who have been designated by distinct names based on their specific roles in the universe. A simple analogy would be a person who is father to his children, husband to his wife, brother to his siblings, but he is one and the same person, known by different appellations depending on which role he is identified with in a specific context.

Hindu Perspective on existence: Correspondence with offerings

Going further in this Hindu model, creation is seen as consisting of five panchmahabhutas or elements (not, though, in the sense the term is used in chemistry), which are Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. A correspondence has been established between the elements and the five sensations, and each element is as well symbolised by an item used in the performance of the puja. This is set out below schematically as follows:

Space (Akasha)       – Sound – Flowers (pushpa)

Air (Vayu)                  – Touch – Incense (dhupa)

Fire (Agni)                 – Vision (Form) – Light (deepa)

Water (Apah)            – Taste – Fruits, food (naivedya)

Earth (Prithvi)           – Smell – Sandalwood paste (gandha)

It may be noted that we use some other items too in puja, such as a ghanta or bell, the pleasant sound of which spreads out and represents Space, but also gives rise to vibrations that enhance the spiritual atmosphere. Camphor, besides giving light that symbolises knowledge, burns down completely without leaving any residue; this represents the cleansing of our mind of all vasanas or impressions so as to be rendered pure (like Lord Shiva’s in meditation), prepared to receive the highest spiritual teachings. For specific pujas, we use specific items, such as the coconut used during Maha Shivaratri: the sweet water inside is a metaphor for the nectarine Highest Knowledge, Paravidya.

Why do we ‘offer’?

For the same reason that when we receive a gift, we express our thanks in gratitude to the giver. And here it is about the gift of life, and of the things created that are needed to sustain or maintain this life for a certain duration. Although we know that whatever we are offering has come to us from Ishwara, we still ‘offer’ in the same spirit that a child ‘offers’ a birthday gift to his parents using their own money. Will the parents refuse or make fun of the child? Never, they will gracefully accept it and even thank the child. So too Ishwara ‘accepts’ these offerings, and, as a result, we feel happy too. Further, making these offerings is an act of humility on our part, signifying that nothing really belongs to us.

And that is why too, after these items have been ‘offered’ to and received Ishwara’s kripa (grace), they become prasad which we take back and distribute (the fruits and food) to others, who too receive the kripa.

At the same time, in making these offerings, we are acknowledging the five elements that make up creation by symbolically representing them with the items shown above, which, it must be underlined, are all natural. An additional point about offering of fruit is that it symbolises the results or fruits of our actions which we humbly accept in return as Ishwara’s prasad as pointed out above.

In the same vein, we are recognising that as human beings, we are as one with all of creation, since we are made of the same five elements. This realisation of our connectedness with the larger whole, of our being an integral part of it, and of our mutual interdependence leads to an expanded awarenesss of both our place and that of everything else in the universe: that everything and everyone has got a rightful place in it.

And hence Ecofriendliness

On Friday last I accompanied a young couple with their two children to Ganga Talao: they were leaving to settle in Australia the next evening, and wanted to take darshana at the sacred lake before their departure. After the puja, they collected the items they had used and took them away, leaving the place clean. This they have been doing every time they have gone to Ganga Talao and performed a puja, a habit which they have therefore transmitted to their children.

Earlier they too used to leave everything there, but after I had explained to them the symbolism detailed above, they changed their habit. They realized that the prasad is meant to be distributed among themselves (family and friends), and the rest (betel leaves, coconut shells, etc.,) returned to nature. Usually they are disposed of in flowing water, eventually to be become part of the creation cycle.

If the pundits and acharyas spread this understanding during their satsangs, all those going to Ganga Talao – or any of the sacred places for that matter – would do as that couple have been doing: collect their items and take them back. And this should not happen only on Maha Shivaratri – they must do it any time they go there during the year, and children would thus be inculcated this habit that would be ingrained in them by the time they themselves have family and start going to Ganga Talao.

Since it is never too late to start, pilgrims to Ganga Talao in the coming week could act accordingly. It is noteworthy that leaders of sociocultural associations have already launched such an appeal, as well as actively taking part in cleaning up Ganga Talao (Swacch Ganga), which we hope will be widely heard and put into practice.

Two other issues deserve to be revisited: one is what I would qualify as noise pollution. In their zeal and enthusiasm, the several sansthas present at Ganga Talao play music too loudly, and thus drown each other out. For a start this year, they could lower their decibels to a level enough to be heard by pilgrims visiting their stalls, a measure that would lessen the cacophony that has been the case so far. For the future, a concerted reflection by the stakeholders should come up with a common solution.

The same reasoning applies also to those who come in groups in vehicles equipped with music systems, which need not be pitched to the highest levels: the chants definitely sound better when played more softly.

The second issue relates to the cooking of food at the Ganga Talao site itself, with all that that implies in terms of supplies and then disposal of waste. Given the facilities available nowadays and the number of volunteer groups that every year are to be found there, the latter consisting of many youngsters, it should be possible to do the cooking away from the site (say, in the vast area situated at the junction of the road leading to Ganga Talao) and transport it as takeaways for distribution to the pilgrims at Ganga Talao, many of whom coming from far away understandably take rest there.

With these simple changes in the organisation and logistics, in keeping with the modern facilities and communications that now exist, the organizers as well as the pilgrims could contribute to make future Maha Shivaratris a truly ecofriendly experience for everyone.

Aum Namashivayah.


* Published in print edition on 14 February 2020

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