SMF at Ganga Talao: What a shame!

‘Minds are like parachutes: they function best when open’

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

 Isn’t it a national shame that the authorities have had to take a decision to post 24/7 patrols by the Special Mobile Force at Ganga Talao so as to protect this sacred patrimoine (heritage site) from the kind of incident that happened there some weeks back? It was an occurrence that was deemed by every Mauritian except the perpetrators consuming alcohol, etc., as showing disrespect to the sacred site, which hosts a week-long pilgrimage by Hindus on the occasion of the celebration of Maha Shivaratri every year. It is public knowledge that this is the largest religious pilgrimage that takes place in the island, and sees the participation of devotees from abroad as well, and also includes non-Hindus.

Doesn’t that episode and the forced consequent presence of the SMF there diminish our vaunted image as a country of peaceful coexistence, one of the major reasons why tourists are attracted to the island? Now that we are opening the borders again, surely this chain of events is nothing to be proud about, as it mars our reputation, which is already suffering from being tagged as having autocratic tendencies. Now we have to face the additional blemish of religious intolerance.

We should reflect on how we have descended so low as to openly and defiantly display such disrespect to both a religion, and to a sacred environment which has been a place of communion with the divine and pristine nature from the time of the closing years of the 19th century when the lake was first discovered by Pandit Jhummun Gossagne following a dream that he had. This itself is the stuff of legend, and every country treasures its legends, for they form part of the narrative which gives meaning to the life of a nation. Imagine going to visit the pyramids in Egypt without bothering to know about the profound story of how they came to be – something which is still being uncovered by dedicated seekers after the truth behind them.

Much as we want to keep religion out of politics and vice-versa, unfortunately we ourselves become culpable parties and obstruct this separation when our actions threaten the peace and harmony of the country. At this point, there is no alternative but to have recourse to the government, that is the political process, which steps in, justifiably invoking national security. No government would miss such an opportunity to exert further control of the polity, in the process gaining laurels vis-à-vis its vote-bank and even at the national level, for showing prompt concern and efficiency in maintaining law and order. The perennial debate about more or less government then becomes a sterile one – ironically because of the devious and inconsiderate act of one or several citizens.

This is what happens when one acts without thinking, or out of misconceptions, prejudice and hate.

The onus therefore falls on civil society to discipline and correct its members by educating and inculcating in them the value of the respect and dignity of others. Unfortunately, we have not heard anything from the Conseil des religions on this matter. After all, this is surely an issue which ought to have been of direct concern to it? Because its declared role is to foster interfaith dialogue and to promote the understanding of each other’s religion, and this was no doubt a golden opportunity for the Conseil to come out very forcefully: to first condemn such desecration (and also of murtis misunderstood as inert idols), canvass in favour of the law to take its course, and pre-empt any such misdemeanor in future by mounting a campaign to spread peace and mutual respect. It is still not too late, isn’t it? What would potential tourists and the outside world think about the country’s Conseil de religions which fails to take a stand when an incident threatens to disrupt the religious harmony it is mandated to defend?

But beyond religion there is an even more important existential dimension that comes up in this discussion, one that has acquired immense traction as we fight climate change by trying to save, preserve and protect our environment. Every bit, every corner of it is important for the survival of Mother Earth, who births and nurtures us, and takes us back into her womb at the end of our lifespan.

Everywhere across the globe there is this growing awareness of our profound connect with Nature, with her sacred spaces that bear the memory and associated sentiments of people who have over time treated them as part of their collective being, a whole and a vibrant wholeness wherein each and everyone has a place, and both complement and complete each other.

Anyone who goes to Ganga Talao with an open mind and a heart receptive to the awesomeness and beauty of nature cannot be unmoved by the splendour of the setting. The physical silence outside instantly merges into the inner silence of one’s being. Contemplation sets in. As the moments succeed, coalesce and dissolve in time, the eyes begin to close by themselves as the silence sinks deeper and deeper. When they open again, after frozen time, one awakens afresh to the enveloping greenery, the soft ripples on the lake’s surface, and the azure canopy above decorated with fluffy snow-like clouds. And anyone who has been lucky enough to be present there when mist has descended will wish that it would last forever! Such is the magic, the enchanting magic of Ganga Talao.

It is the same magic that one feels in the hushed atmosphere that engulfs the south rim of the Grand Canyon at dusk, as the sun is setting far across the abyss and the descending darkness softly displaces the play of the soft hues left by the dimming golden orb. Or when walking among the tall sequoia trees, the tallest on Earth, in the Mariposa grove of the Sierra Nevada. And undoubtedly too at designated spots of such similar magnificence on all continents.

From the dawn of humanity, humans have felt this deep communion with their planet, and this is nicely captured in an article in The Conversation of July 8, 2021by Rob N. Williams Archaeologist & PhD Candidate, University of Sydney, titled: ‘Will your grandchildren have the chance to visit Australia’s sacred trees? Only if our sick indifference to Aboriginal heritage is cured’.

He goes on to explainhow ‘this year’s NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) theme “Heal Country” asks all Australians to take stock of the ongoing threat and desecration of Indigenous heritage — including sacred, cultural trees. This heritage not only holds value for Indigenous Australians, but for all Australians as a cornerstone of our national identity.’

And how “Aboriginal ontology captures the relationship between all worldly and spiritual phenomena, and relationship to Country.Aboriginal people view the landscape and all things within it not as inanimate places or objects, but as sentient landscapes and entities with agency and metaphysical properties.

‘Sacred trees are pivotal points in a nexus of interpersonal relationships between person-animal-plant, in person-person kinship, in identity and connection to place. They hold our ancestor stories; they are a direct link to our old people.Trees transcend simple economics and sit at the centre of the sacred — they are sentinels in ceremony, birthing and burials.’

Further, ‘The common thread in Indigenous tree use is its sustainable practice. Rarely would a tree be felled purely for economic gain because its inherent value is realised for spiritual and broader ecosystem health.’

He goes on to write about the even more insidious of ‘the threat of public indifference. It’s a sickness that has spread through our nation’s institutions and political systems. This sickness shows a lack of respect for Indigenous culture and our humanity. Its symptoms take the form of ongoing desecration of our heritage.’

Concluding that ‘We must ask ourselves some tough questions’ (as in his title), he asks further,‘Will your grandchildren have the same opportunity to visit and sit with sacred trees on Country — to listen to them, to speak to them and to appreciate them?’

And rightly emphasises: ‘This is not just an Indigenous issue, or only about Indigenous struggle. Indigenous heritage is an asset all Australians can enjoy, celebrate, and advocate for greater protection and sustainable management. Once gone, it can never be replaced.’

If we apply this clear reasoning to the sacred landscape of Ganga Talao, we should all realise that it is not a place where one goes to gratify one’s senses and exhibit baser instincts. Instead, it is one where there is a call from the divine to transcend them and to open our minds to the light of the spirit, and elevate ourselves beyond the mundane that pulls downwards.

The choice is ours. As Dr Abdul Kalam, former President of India, said, ‘We live in an age of guided missiles and misguided minds.’ Why not prefer that our minds be guided by and towards the light? The sooner this happens, the quicker the SMF can return to its barracks, and we thus regain our island’s reputation.

* Published in print edition on 20 July 2021

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