“Do you have any garbage?” I walked from each corner of the beach asking the same question. One woman said, “It’s important to say it’s not garbage, and yes, I have some things to throw away here.” She placed a flag with a picture of a Hindu goddess into the bag.
There it was. The conflict of Jamaica Bay, unfolding before my eyes.
On April 22nd, 2011 over one-hundred and twenty volunteers from Hindu mandirs across New York including the Shri Trimurti Bhavan located in Ozone Park, Shiva Mandir located in East Elmhurst, and Bhavanee Maa Mandir located in Brooklyn, came out to clean up Jamaica Bay in celebration of Earth Day and also to eliminate the misconception that Hinduism promotes an unhealthy environment.
According to Dr. Dhanpaul Narine, the founding leader of the clean-up campaign, over the past five years there has been a noticeable build up of Hindu ritual offerings. The offerings include: flowers, saris, aluminum foil pans, coconuts, flags, and pictures of Hindu deities.
This build up has not only received the attention of the Indo-Caribbean community, but also the attention of major media networks including The New York Times, CNN, and televised coverage on NY1 and NBC.
On the scene of the Jamaica Bay clean-up you could sense some volunteers’ regret while picking up objects that were once part of pujas and rituals of Hindu meaning. It was difficult and confusing for some youths to actually consider placing Hindu offerings into a garbage bag.
On the other hand, there was also a feeling of rescuing items of ritual importance from washing up on the bay’s rough shoreline. However, volunteers soon began to separate themselves from the feeling of uncovering religious items to a feeling of environmental activism.
It was a delicate difference in belief whether the items should actually still be considered ritual offerings or garbage. Some volunteers identified with the items as religious and sacred items.
On the other hand, others did view them as garbage promoting hazards to environmental health. But the difference in belief did not affect the mission to clean up. In just about an hour the non-biodegradable remnants of Hindu practices were cleaned and the Hindu promotion of a healthy and pure bay was accomplished for Earth Day.
The issue marks a particular journey for the Indo-Caribbean community. This journey signifies the culture clash between other diverse communities and practicing Hindus at Jamaica Bay. Many park rangers including Kathy Krause, have recognized the significant efforts of many Hindu mandirs to clean up and share the space.
However, there has been concern to find a designated area for practicing Hindus to perform their rituals. This has been a matter of slower deliberation as Dr. Narine noted, “We started dialogue with the Parks people toward finding a designated area to place the offerings but they had to look at the legalities of the arrangement and amend the legislation.”
Many believe the issue at Jamaica Bay is one that calls for activists, action, and reform. However, Jamaica Bay is not only seen as a Hindu sacred river but also a wildlife refuge to numerous species.
What captures the attention of so many community members, religious leaders, and media networks is the difficulty in changing religious practices upon arriving to a new nation.
Kamini Doobay, a recent graduate from Barnard College of Columbia University, was compelled by the issue of Jamaica Bay and conducted a documentary on Hinduism and water titled “Paani.” According to Doobay, “Rivers from the Essequibo to the Orinoco and to the Jamaica Bay in New York have become the recipient of a multitude of offerings made by Indo-Caribbean Hindus.”
Indo-Caribbean Hindus migrated from areas of Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname and originated from India, home to the sacred Ganges River. To Hindus, the Ganges River represents Mother Ganga, the goddess of purity. Religious rituals are performed at the waters to ensure acceptance of offerings.
The true controversy is whether Hindus should compromise all waterway practices to fit a new environment. Should Hindus stop placing all ritual offerings or just non-biodegradable items? There should be no need to compromise a practice if it poses no threat to the environment.
The clash between communities at Jamaica Bay gives way to a misunderstanding of religious offerings seen as garbage even if they are biodegradable. It is relevant to note, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” Despite different surroundings, Hindus should continue to maintain their religious understanding and traditions, but practice in a way that fits the model, cleanliness is next to Godliness.