A WESTERNER’S PERSPECTIVE ON CARING FOR MOTHER INDIA
Many people now understand that humanity is in a precarious position in relation to the Earth’s environment. Pollution has become a fact of modern life and our awareness of it has yet to solve the problems it has already created, much less the ones anticipated for the future. Beginning a little over 100 years ago the so-called 1st world countries began to produce, use and dump chemicals into the ground, water and air that are toxic to a wide range of plant and animal life. Today we see the negative impact of these acts on many fronts. Many believe that the widespread epidemic of cancer in both humans and animals occurring today is one of the very large “side-effects” that has come out of these 100 years of polluting the Earth. The disappearance or extinction of many species of animal and plant life across the globe is another.
Many different chemicals have been produced and dumped over the past 100 years. The production of some has stopped and been replaced by others. Typically, as the toxicity of one chemical becomes too great to be ignored it is gradually phased out and replaced by another chemical that would eventually suffer the same fate. This process, unfortunately, takes a long time. Because so many physical comforts of modern life are dependent on the production, use and disposal of these toxins the process of phasing any one of them out of widespread use is most often very slow in developing.
People don’t want to be inconvenienced just because a certain number of species of Amazonian birds have become extinct due to the production of a particularly useful product and corporations don’t want to stop using a cheap but toxic chemical in the production of a best-selling gadget even if it is a cause of babies being born prematurely in Mexico where their gadget is assembled.
Many scientists agree that a great amount of poisoning of the Earth’s soil, water and air resources has already occurred. Many of them also say that pollution will only increase as the so-called “3rd world” countries begin to purchase and manufacture these chemically dependent modern gadgets. Because the population numbers in these countries are quite a bit greater there is the risk of a much greater amount of pollution being produced, especially before these countries have a chance to develop infrastructure that can deal with this waste on some level at least.
Plastic garbage in India is a perfect example of this. In days past Indian people burned their garbage without problems. Now plastic is a greater and greater percentage of that garbage and the burning of plastic produces disease-causing toxic gases that are released into the atmosphere. So the old habit of burning garbage has become a problem because the type of garbage has changed faster than the method of disposing the garbage has. For how many more years will Indians burn their plastic-filled garbage piles before the government can implement garbage collection and garbage burial infrastructure that would allow the plastic to be disposed of in a relatively harmless way?
For materially oriented people these pollution issues are a cause for alarm as clean, healthy resources become scarce and toxin-caused disease escalates– all of which could result in a huge degradation of the quality of life for people the world over. Scientists in Europe understand how the pollution habits of India will eventually affect life in Europe and vice versa.
For spiritually oriented people, especially like those under the divine guidance of Amma, living at her ashram in India, Amritapuri, these conditions create an abundance of opportunity to act responsibly with a positive attitude that is grounded in a faith for God’s inherent goodness and the effectiveness of compassionate action. Knowing that God’s grace falls upon those who take up the challenge of selfless service, we at Amritapuri can continue to respond to the current global crises and anticipate future ones.
For Amma’s devotees who live in India, a particularly intense set of opportunities to act correctly in relation to pollution and natural resources exists because India is one of the fastest growing nations both in terms of population and in terms of wealth. The conservation habits that develop right now in India as it grows will have a huge impact on the future of the global environment not to mention on the future health of the great land of India itself.
Many of us at Amritapuri come from countries where life is more “modern” than at the ashram. We are also aware that the comforts of life that come with this “modernity” often depend heavily on pollution-producing industry. So many of us are facing the choice of whether to bring those “modern” habits and products with us to India in greater amounts each year and to incorporate them into life at the ashram. This is a dilemma. Making choices in this way creates opportunities to look closely at the impact that our behavior might have in terms of the future of India and the environment of the Earth as a whole.
The use of “modern” cleaning products at the ashram are one of many examples that illustrate the debate and discussion about pollution that is urgently needed now. In the west there is a broad range of cleaning products available. Some are cheap, some expensive, some weak, some very strong and some are biodegradable and some are heavily destructive of plant and animal life. Many of our countries of origin are currently using very destructive cleaning products on a wide scale without much concern for their environmental impact. In many of our home countries the power behind the saying that “cleanliness is next to godliness” has overridden concerns for the life of other plants and animals who might also be trying to live in the neighborhood.
Growing up on Long Island, New York, I witnessed the effects that such cleaning products have on a beautiful healthy natural environment. As a young boy I would swim and fish in the local ponds, lakes and bays which were filled with clear water that was teeming with life. Back then, at-home washing machines were very expensive and so, very rare inside the homes of the area. As I grew up, however, this changed dramatically with the wave of “modern” home appliances, until every home had a washing machine of its own. In a very short time after these machines were available, most homes acquired one and the detergents that they used had a huge environmental impact.
The very same bodies of water that I had treasured so highly as a young boy became polluted by the high amounts of phosphorus and other chemicals used in laundry detergent soap. Over the span of five to ten years the water became filled with a brown algae that loved those chemicals, many forms of aquatic life disappeared, and you couldn’t see to the bottom of a lake in depths greater than 30 cm. People stopped swimming.
Today in India, even here at Amritapuri, a drastic increase in pollution could similarly occur on many fronts as the use of toxic chemical using gadgets and appliances increases in response to the desire to “improve life conditions.” An increase in the use of bleach is only one of many possible examples and one that is particularly relevant for us at Amritapuri due to the predominance of white clothes.
How will we as a community face increasing pressure to use more bleach in order to make cleaning our clothes easier and easier, especially as bleach becomes cheaper and more available? It is only a matter of time before the younger generations of India call into question all of the “old” ways of life that use natural non-toxic tools that seem overly laborious, time consuming and even “dirty” to youngsters who are exposed to western behavior through television and movies.
Amma has shared how it wasn’t long ago that everyone ate on banana leaves. How and why did that change? Was it due to the example that visiting Westerners brought? Or was it to make westerners feel comfortable? If so, what price should the future of India be made to pay for the comfort of tourists? Could westerners have anticipated these issue and set different examples by maintaining traditional ways of life even though they may have challenged the expectations of many westerners? These are questions worth examining as guidelines for future decisions.
Bleach is a particularly poignant issue for us at the ashram now for many reasons. It is very handy for cleaning white clothes but also it is very effective on toilets, sinks and even dishes. From a western perspective bleach is a very easy and secure (and increasingly cheap) answer to questions of bacterial contamination. Having worked in the western kitchen I am aware of how strong the emotions get involved when we talk about maintaining kitchen cleanliness so that digestive disorders are minimized. I have observed that, without really knowing the causes, the western kitchen feels pressure to be “cleaner” whenever any westerner gets sick and complains. The food is the first and usual suspect. How long will it take for that pressure to make bleach a common and abundant part of the routine kitchen and even dish cleaning? Is this not an issue we should consider now, with an eye on acting responsibly in regards to the overall pollution of India?
The issue is not only about the pollution of the ashram environment but also concerns the example the ashram sets for the rest of India. If the ashram uses bleach to accomplish a wide range of jobs how can we blame the rest of the billion Indians for eventually doing so as well? And if large amounts of bleach introduced into the water tables of India cause widespread death and disease in plant, animal and bird life will future generations at the ashram not have just cause to look back on us and feel ashamed?
Another example of a toxic pollutant increasing in usage in India and at the ashram, Amritapuri, is the modern class of solvents called VOC’s (volatile organic chemicals). These are very powerful cleaners/lubricators found in WD-40, paints, paint thinners and other construction and automotive materials. These solvents are labeled as highly toxic and carcinogenic in even small amounts. As the automotive and construction industries grow and “modernize” (that is, use more western products that make things “easier”) these solvents are certain to show up in greater and greater amounts. These solvents have tremendously long lives as deadly chemicals so even one person cleaning their motorcycle at Amritapuri with WD-40 can have a huge and long lasting impact on the water supply here. And only the most expensive filtration systems can remove these chemicals from ground water.
Again, the issue for us at Amritapuri might be, what stance can we take right now, in anticipation of the future, in order to be a model for behavior for all of India? Can we oppose the use of these chemicals in a positive way by supporting the ways of life that have been in place here for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years and that don’t require such chemicals? Can we keep life here at Amritapuri along “old school” Indian lines for the sake of the children? For what we do now, we do as westerners representing a lifestyle that is influencing every corner of the globe. Our actions will surely have an impact on the future of India.
Amma has referred to the efforts of her devotees as small streams that come together to form a mighty river. She affirms that every effort no matter how small has an effect and that we should have courage and confidence to make a difference to do the right thing no matter how small we might feel in the face of the big picture. It is easy to get depressed and give up when looking at pollution today and the future of our planet but we may be more powerful to make an impact than we believe. Our power to make a difference is greater because Amma’s activities reach so many continents and are visible to so many people and people often look to the ashram at Amritapuri as representations of Amma.
Being a devotee of Amma means we will be heard, we will be seen, by so many. Many of us have had the experience of being treated with great respect around the world while on tour with Amma. Don’t we have a responsibility to use this respect to model behavior that is in the highest good and even forgo our personal comfort issues if necessary? Isn’t there a great opportunity right now to try and make India’s future bright and healthy by practicing low-impact living and conservation of natural resources?