Cleanliness and godliness

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Devotees making the final approach to the temple, following initiation

Saturday 26 January 2013. The streets and park beneath Sri Balathandayuthapani hilltop temple in Georgetown, Penang, throb with activity, drums and amplified mantras. I and nine other volunteers, brought together under eco-activist banner Sampah Masyarakat, brainchild of Shyam Priyah, unfold from a hired van after the four hour drive up from Kuala Lumpur. Our first concern is the parked car we accidentally scratched manoeuvring around the dark car park. The second is that the overnight tent we were promised is nowhere to be seen. And the third is how close our camping spot is to the already overflowing portable toilet block. I wonder if I have made a mistake coming here. Perhaps the others are also wondering. Shyam is asking if anyone has any Panadol. She’s running a slight fever.

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My mood worsens in the face of further little setbacks. We have one torch between us. The poles of the dome tent are broken. We give up on Shyam’s beach tent: someone can use it as a ground sheet. We decide the smaller members of the group should sleep in the van, the longer ones will have to take their chances in the park. It’s half two in the morning and we have to be up at six. We have volunteered to help clean up the trash generated by the festival.

For a few hours, I drift in and out of the music belting from the temple, which blends with the boom and clatter of drums and chants as group after group of devotees arrive at the foot of the 513 steps that climb to where they lay their kavadi offerings to the deity Murugan, spear-carrying vanquisher of Asuras, after hours of walking. I am too exhausted to crawl out the tent and watch, content to imagine timeless scenes. An explosion of India in Penang.

Dawn comes slowly. The groups dwindle, and with them the drums, but the temple music carries on, interrupted only by loudspeaker announcements. Practical information, probably, but in formal Tamil everything sounds like a mythic transmission.

Thaipusam is the annual Hindu festival commemorating the penance of Murugan, the vel (spear) carrying deity created by Siva from his own Shakti power in order to battle the Asuras. As with many Vedic accounts, tracing the story of Murugan/Karthika/Skanda/ Subrahmanya is somewhat complex. Brother of Ganesa, in India he is also known as Thamizh Kadavul, the God of the Tamils.

There is nothing much for breakfast. One of the volunteers – an Iraqi engineering student – has bought sugary muffins. In fact, we’re too tired to eat. A cup of tea would have been nice though. We raise our banner between two trees. It takes some figuring out how to tie the four eyeholes securely with only one piece of rope.

Thanks to another team operating a food waste reprocessing scheme, we are invited into what seems to be the police hut, right in the middle of the action. The banner is repositioned. Now it’s on the fence, beside the official Welcome to Penang Thaipusam sign, unmissable by anyone on their way to the temple. People are looking, wondering who we are. A Tamil man joins us spontaneously. Shyam’s sister and her husband arrive. The latter is in deep conversation with a man who later turns out to be a member of Special Branch. Questions were asked as to whether we were a political outfit. No, we’re just here to pick up the trash.

After a briefing from Shyam – separate paper and plastic from food waste; raise awareness; represent – we head out into the morning sun. The crowd is thickening by the minute. The gutters along the festival streets are choked with plastic bottles, styrofoam food containers, plastic bags and paper cups originating from a Nestle stall vowing to provide 1 Million cups for Thaipusam. Shyam wades into the queue with a biodegradable bin bag.

Reactions from the crowd to volunteers clearing up rubbish were interesting. Mostly people got the simple message. If you throw your rubbish on the ground, someone else has to pick it up. There were also dirty looks. Religion and politics coinciding to conjure an element of threat. Who are these outsiders at the festival of the God of the Tamils? Two members of our group carried placards: “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Would you throw rubbish on the floor at home? Then why on the street?” Perhaps there were those in the crowd who felt morally high-grounded.

The “cleanliness…” message was certainly apt in the vacant lot near the beginning of the festival parade. Here families gathered, chanting vel, vel while devotees received initiations, blessings, steel spears pierced through their cheeks, steel rings hooked into their backs, from which ropes and weights were hung. Then picked their way among mounds of rubbish – milk cartons, coconut shells, bunches of bananas – to carry their burdens to the temple. Many people walked barefoot.

I can understand the Tamil Indian point of view, as it was eloquently explained by one man. Thaipusam is a hindu Indian festival in a muslim country where Indian (and Chinese) civil rights are not yet equal to those of Malay Malaysians. Apart from Shyam, and the man who joined us on the day, the volunteers were neither Indian Malaysian nor hindu. There is something of a fault line here. A hairline crack in the peaceful diversity Malaysia has managed to sustain – with remarkably few interruptions – since the country’s inception. Hence the interest of Special Branch.

We volunteers were interested in masses of people gathering for some single focus – as they do at other festivals, at pop concerts, sports events and so on – and behaving irresponsibly towards their immediate environment. As much as they are temporary crises, such gatherings are opportunities for raising awareness, where even a token effort gets noticed by many. In today’s age of imminent, irreversible human ecological impact, no activity can be condoned – or sustained – that does not take this sword of damocles into account. At one level it’s a no brainer. Mountains of trash on the ground, someone has to pick it up. If deeper questions are asked, it’s no bad thing.

Indeed what has happened to spirituality if a spiritual task is undertaken – preparation of an offering, say, or an initiation – and afterwards the stuff is heaved into the nearest river? What if a family make their annual pilgrimage to the temple – or the mosque or church or whatever spiritual locus – and eat takeaway food in the temple grounds or the park outside or the beach on the way home and stuff their styrofoam containers into the bole of the nearest tree?

We are talking of course of the compartmentalisation of spirituality. A box is drawn around behaviours deemed to be spiritual – the done thing. Outside it, Spiritual is set to off. We can despoil the park, defraud our fellow man, beat our wife. The box – the shell, if you prefer – limits Spirit, which is instantly and obviously suspect. With spirit boxed, with the genie back in the bottle, we are prone to some dangerous confusions. Religion and culture. Religion and politics. Religion and race. We can say that religion itself is a confusion.

All religions trace their roots back to the words and actions of an individual. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. Thousands of years later, the actions are only words. Perhaps even minutes later actions are only words. Some of those words still carry great power. But some carry a different sort of power. Divine words are powerful tools. Tempting to use them, manage them, adjust them. Inevitable that something is missed, something withers. We are dealing with husks – husks refitted with something else. Religion has been hijacked.

And with a few twists and turns, collecting trash from the bole of a tree becomes a threat.

There is a way out of this mess. I take my hat off to Shyam and other activists (in one sense many of them, in another they are still so few) who go out of their way to raise awareness. And of course there are plenty of people – at religious festivals and football matches alike – who understand that stuffing your takeaway packaging into the bole of a tree is bad behaviour. But there are still plenty who don’t.

The prevailing mindset is that the environment is some sort of innate surface, a bottomless pit from which nice things like food and diamonds magically appear, and into which not nice things can be stuffed and forgotten about. If the prevailing mindset thinks about the environment at all. The prevailing mindset is one severed from the environment, from Nature. The prevailing mindset has been hijacked.

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Shyam and team preparing for action

The way out of the mess is simply to reconnect. To rejoin the conversation with Nature. In a way, it’s a very simple thing. And when we do it we realise that Nature has been talking to us all along. The transmission never loses power because it is constant. You may have noticed words like ‘shamanism’ elsewhere on this site. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps you are skeptical. Perhaps you think I am secretly referring to some sort of drug, or making a walk in the park and a breath of fresh air into something complicated.

In any case, simply consider this: everything in our bodies – our skin, hair, eyes, nails, even blood – comes from plants or from animals who eat plants, or in some cases from animals that eat other animals that eat plants. You get the idea. Everything. Tea, coffee, sugar and biscuits. Petrol. We can say that it is we humans that have, over the ages, perfected agriculture and industry that we can extract – take – what we need, what we want. Sure, we’ve been ingenious. So ingenious that we are scraping the bottom of the bottomless pit. We can drill the arctic for oil and turn rainforest into golf courses, blow up the Atlantic Ocean and race speedboats on it the next day.

Are we ingenious enough for this little thought experiment: What if all those good things – tea, coffee, biscuits – are given?

I had forgotten my tiredness, and any irritation over tent poles a few minutes into the work. It was satisfying work, which is reward in itself, but look at this: Interesting that Penang Thaipusam culminates on Jalan Waterfall. The Sampah Masyarakat volunteers ended up at a waterfall outside town, where we bathed in sun and sparkling clean water. Freely given, and most lovingly and gratefully received. That is the spirit of the conversation with Nature. Indeed, that is the conversation with Spirit.

Acknowledgements

Sampah Masyarakat

Shyam Priah, My Khatulistiwa 


 

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