Hindus clean up Rockaway sanctuary after water rites

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Although Queens residents of all stripes are guilty of littering or dumping in Jamaica Bay, Hindu religious rites get some blame for some of the more visible debris. The Hindu rite of Ganga Pooja involves making an offering into a body of water as a way of cleansing one’s sins.

Unfortunately, not all of these materials used in the offerings are biodegradable. Fabric outfits, plastic idols (murthis), aluminum pans and Styrofoam wash up on the beaches and nature preserves along Rockaway’s coastline. On Aug. 31, a group of conservation-minded Hindus, in conjunction with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, decided to pitch in by cleaning up the Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Rockaway.

The religious basis for the practice of Ganga Pooja is in the Bhagavad Purana, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts. The pooja (rite) usually involves a ceremony in the home or temple and all items used in the ceremony must be disposed in a body of water. In India, the Ganges River is one of the more famed spots for Ganga Pooja. The ultimate goal of cleansing one’s sin through this rite is moksha — in Buddhism, nirvana — which is the ultimate liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism are based on the belief that life inherently involves suffering and thus securing release from this cycle is the ultimate spiritual goal.

Sadhana: A Coalition of Progressive Hindus is an advocacy group based around the city that tries to advocate a socially conscious, progressive agenda, focusing on inserting tolerance, inclusiveness, non-violence (ahimsa) and faith in action (sadhana) into Hindu and interfaith discourse. As such, activities such as beach cleanups promote awareness of the moral imperative to care for the environment and promote greener practices in worship.

In response to the problem of debris at local beaches, Sadhana launched an environmental initiative known as Project Prithvi.

As Sadhana founding member Aminta Kilawan explained, Project Prithvi “aims to protect both tradition and the environment in a way that benefits society at large.”

Kilawan further noted that the Hindu notion of non-violence extends to all living things, including the environment.

Efforts to establish a designated site for religious rites has been met with silence from the city Parks Department, and Kilawan said that “in the past, city parks officials have been quick to close off the beach, post signs and even issue fines to put a stop to any water offerings.”

She pointed out that this leads Hindus to dispose of the materials secretly in Jamaica Bay, which is close to Richmond Hill and Ozone Park.

Kilawan suggests that the best solution to accommodate religious communities would be to allow temples or organizations such as Sadhana to adopt a beach site, which would enable these groups to keep stewardship over that area.

Other measures involve a switch to murthis made of clay or sand, which Kilawan said “would only be possible with the support of local Hindu leaders and their respective congregations.”

Traditionally, the clay murthis would melt away in the water. The current murthis made of plastic inevitably break and shatter when disposed, which pollutes the bay and disrespects the religious icon.

Sadhana next plans to do a beach cleanup in conjunction with the American Littoral Society, near the Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge in Jamaica Bay off Cross Bay Boulevard Sept. 21 at 10 a.m.

Vijay Sookai, a student at Townsend Harris High School, served as the link between the two groups and has worked on Sadhana’s Project Prithvi for more than a year. Those who wish to get involved can contact Kilawan at [email protected]. Kilawan will be serving as the beach captain for that effort and the group plans to tally pooja-related debris.