Photo by Jeffrey Bary
To New Yorkers, the Jamaica Bay is hardly seen as sacred, but for the growing Hindu community in Richmond Hill, Queens, the body of water in the Gateway National Recreation Area has become a stand-in Ganges River for ceremonial offerings. Over the past ten years, as the Hindu population has grown, so has the amount of ritual debris in the bay. Park rangers have found everything from coconuts and saris to coins and food floating on the water. But unlike the Ganges River, which flows freely, the Jamaica Bay has an enclosed shore, and the debris stays in the water or washes ashore as litter, which has caused a clash between the Hindu community and the park. Today, leaders from the groups joined together for the “Leave No Trace” campaign, a community effort to clean the waters of Jamaica Bay, hoping to spread awareness about ecological preservation and education.
“We call it the Ganges,” one pilgrim, Madan Padarat, said in a New York Times article. “She takes away your sickness, your pain, your suffering.”
Park rangers however aren’t very happy with the situation. While trying to remain respectful of the different religious beliefs and customs, the park rangers have had to repeatedly remind the community of park rules, which of course, prohibit anyone from leaving debris in the waters. Although many in the Hindu community have willingly obliged, many Hindu immigrants just arriving to country and unaware of the rules, have continued to make offerings. Others are just stubborn and refuse to listen. Park rangers were forced to become stricter, putting up signs, closing the parking lot at night, and threatening to fine worshipers $75. None of it has worked.
After noticing dozens of offerings floating on shore, former park ranger John Zuzworsky began to reach out to the community, learning about their customs and observing religious rituals. The offerings were being done out of respect for the Mother Ganga, the goddess of the Earth, and is the Hindu way of ensuring the goddess’s blessing.
“A lot of the Hindu traditions are based in respecting the earth, and we were a national park,” said Zuzworsky to the New York Times. “I thought there was a real connection.”
Zuzworsky is now part of an effort to reach out to Hindu temples to discuss the ecology of Jamaica Bay. He has stressed that “saris could strangle the sea grass, flowers could choke the birds, and fruit could disrupt the food chain.” Many Hindus have recognized this, and the community has banded together to help keep the ecosystem clean around the area. Temple priests have also suggested alternative ways to make the offerings, such as dipping the items seven times and taking them home. Many still aren’t satisfied. Some Hindus believe that the offerings are not fully accepted unless the items flow down the river.
Despite the various cultural differences and points of view, one thing is certain: Both the rangers and the Hindu community share a respect for nature and a desire to preserve the environment, showing that the need to address environmental issues transcends cultural boundaries.
Via New York Times