Friday, June 29, 2007

To Hug A Tree

Everyone enjoys travelling and so do I. I prefer travelling alone. It gives ample space for myself and makes me more sensitive to things around me. When you are travelling alone, you are more approachable for a conversation by a fellow traveler and you tend to entertain it unless you have a really interesting book to read or atleast until you put your head phones on. Occasionally, the conversation might turn interesting and would go on until either of those involved gets tired of chatting. Some of the most interesting conversations that i could recall have been with fellow passengers on trips. The topics that float in these conversations are usually varied from the mundane 'erratic weather' or 'War of Terror!' to really delicious ones like "The Jamaican way of cooking salted dry fish (KARUVAADU in tamil)"
(If not from the Jamaican woman, I would have continued to think that 'salted dry fish' is a south indian delicacy. She said, "Jamaicans love it with egg plant.")

The most memorable conversation of recent times was the one during my trip to salt lake city. The conversation sensitised me to one of the most interesting aspects of Hindu deities that I was not really conscious of until then.

It was a two and half hour trip to Denver from Raleigh. I introduced myself to my co-passenger on board. He then introduced himself as Mr. $$ski. He was a second generation polish immigrant. He appeared to be in his late 50's. He was a geologist by profession and has been extremely successful in his career. He was returning home from a conference in Raleigh. His recent interests have however been in Photography, Direction and Editing videos. He claimed himself to be a part of a fraternity that protects old trees from felling. He is also pursuing a degree in Art and has been actively involved in a research on the goddesses of the world. He had some prior knowledge about Hindu deities.

After a brief talk on the purpose of our trips and our professions, He asked me if I was an Indian and Hindu. He then asked me to explain as to why Hindus have so many deities and asked my views on polytheism practised by a hindu. This was one of the most difficult questions that I had ever been asked. After a long awkward pause, I answered him that I was still in the process of understanding my religion and
my interpretation of Hindu faith may not be the most accurate one. I then continued upon his request saying, "Inspite of the fact that Hindus worship many gods and goddesses, our faith is actually monotheistic". He was confused and asked me as to how do I claim that Hinduism is monotheism. I replied, "The core concept of Hindusim is Advaitha (not-two) which means that there is a single universal consciousness that encompassess everything that we see and feel. One attains salvation when he completely identifies his individual self (Jeevatma) with the Supremeself (Paramatma). The process of attaining salvation is the goal of a Hindu. Infact, the essence of all holy scriptures, upanishads is conveyed in brief maxims (a.k.a. Maha wakyas) such as "Aham Brahmasmi" which means I am Brahman. "

He was still not convinced by my reply and wondered as to why we worship many gods when the essence of all the scriptures states that Everyone is God. I then elaborated that these deities are just tokens or symbols, each of which personifies certain aspect of the supreme self. Moreover, it is very difficult for a kid or folks in their initial stages of spirituality to completely understand concepts like "You are god" or "Thou art that" as they are very abstract. These stataments might or will nurture arrogance in their young minds, curbing their discipline and convey wrong messages.

The symbols or idols help the young ones to physically realise the presence of a higher power. Festicals and rituals in temples sensitise the people of the presence of higher consciousness. The religion Hinduism actually begins with the worship of idols and does not end with rituals and festivals. One having attained the stage of realisation of a supreme self is expected to raise above these mere tokens. He is expected to work hard and understand his true self, constantly train his mind over the course of his entire life. Thus becoming a Hindu is a life long unceasing process. This is precisely the goals of Hinduism according to my current level of understanding. Please do not get carried away by idol worship or worship of multiple deities as it is mere symbolism"

I don't really remember what else I said to him, but this is precisely the meassage that I conveyed him. He seemed to have been slightly convinced and he then took out a book of potraits of goddesses of various cultures from his bag. It had the pictures of Lakshmi and Kamakshi along with other Greek, Egyptian and Roman goddesses. He quickly pointed out that each of these indian deities hold a herb or a flower in their hands. He asked me if Hindus are very conscious of preserving trees and plants as most of their deities are depicted holding plants and flowers. I was a bit startled as I never felt that way whenever I see these deities.

I have been going around temples and circum ambulating holy shrines for the past two decades. It never occurred to me that these deities might symbolically indicate the importance of trees and plants. I hesistantly told him " We Hindus do worship Neem, Peepal trees but I am not sure if Hinduism has been successful in creating a sense of preserving trees in India. I am sure that there are many Hindus who would prefer to cut down trees if there is some monetary benefit attached to it.However, India has been the home of several movements that advocate the imporance of trees like Chipko movement led by Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna. I don't think religion had any role to play in these movements."

(A anectode related to my reference of chipko movement:
I was happy that I recalled this movement during the conversation which most of the indians are unaware of. I participated in an oratorical contest when I was in eight standard. The topic was wildlife conservation and was held on world environment day. I and my friend Sriram participated in it and we had practised the speech together for over a month. He used to say his version to me and I would recite my version to him. He had used quotes by Sunderlal Bahuguna in his speech and I always wanted to include them in mine but didn't for obvious reasons. Anyway, He finally won the contest and I had lost it. Though I regreted then for not winning the contest, I am happy that the experience has helped me to recall the name of the movement and its founder until this day. Thanks to Sriram too. Talking about chipko movement to MR. $$ski made me feel great. )

I then continued " Few Hindu Deities are associated with diseases and their cure. The herbs that these deities hold might cure the diseases associated with them (Eg. Amman with neem). Crops like paddy and sugarcane are a source of food and income to
the farmers and so the deity in the picture (Kamakshi) is shown holding them. May be, the depiction of these deities holding herbs in general
indicate the importance of plants and trees but until now I never saw it that way. The sight of any deity just instills devotion and reminds me the presence of the greater self"

This conversation went on and on. We then discussed about worship of animals, nature, rivers, sun, Moon and even discussed phallic symbol (Lingam) at great length. We then discussed the sculptures in india that were potrayed in the book.
We discussed the differences that came about in sculpting goddesses during the moghuls when compared to the ones made in early first century.

It was a really wonderful experience. It gave me an opportunity to propagate my faith and added a new dimension to my worship of deities. Nowadays, the sight of these portraits invokes a sense of environmental awareness in my mind. This was the revelation at the end of my discussion with this stranger.

I also learn't a new word from him that rings in my mind since then - "TREE HUGGER". He called himself a tree hugger. After returning home, as I typed in TREE HUGGER in wikipedia, I was surprised and proud to see its place of origin.