When Coronavirus first began to explode in India, I panicked for the people of the Himalayas, the villagers occupying hundreds of villages in the sacred mountains above Rishikesh, where I have been blessed to live for the past 24 years.
Over the course of trips to the sacred temples of Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath as well as on visits to Uttarakashi, Rudra Prayag, and other Himalayan holy areas, I’ve witnessed the villagers’ exquisitely simple lifestyles, small one-room homes with adjacent fields for feeding their families and maybe even selling a bit in a local market.
Every few minutes on the road, our car passes a woman, or more typically a group of three or four women, with many kilograms of tree branches tied to their heads to cook the evening meal. If COVID-19 spread to these villages, would anyone even survive? The people are typically uneducated, without access to technology. Many places are still accessible only by foot. How would proper guidelines reach them? How would the government and medical community be able to enforce social distancing and proper handwashing in places where soap itself is a luxury and no one has ever seen a bottle of Purell? Should anyone contract the virus, it would surely spread rampantly, like a Himalayan wildfire without medical infrastructure to treat or contain it.
By God’s grace and with the outstanding efforts of the government—from central to state to district—the Himalayan villages are still COVID-free, and my fear turned to joy when one of the men who works at the ashram told me about his village’s response to Coronavirus. “No one leaves their homes,” he said. “No one even goes to their neighbor’s house. Everyone is afraid. No outsider is allowed into the village and even no items are permitted. If anything comes in, there is a school where all items are having to be left for several days so they can be sure to be safe. They’ve sealed off the village and are not letting anyone in from outside.”
Wow, I thought. Good for them. They may be uneducated villagers, but they’ve responded to the crisis with far more wisdom than millions of people back in my home country of America, who are flouting the threat and insisting that to die of COVID (and to murder as they spread it) is somehow their constitutional right.
As I’ve watched COVID spread through India, I have been amazed, quite honestly, at the obedience of nearly 1.3 billion people to stay home. Sure, there are exceptions, the notable ones fill our papers, but their exception to the rule is what makes them news.
By and large, the way this country has come together across partisan lines, across borders of caste and creed to protect themselves, their families, and their communities, even in the face of inevitable economic hardship, has been outstanding. I am deeply impressed and pleasantly surprised by the people of the country I now call home.
I always actually marveled at what I perceived to be Indians’ lack of concern for their health and safety and even for their lives. Bus drivers who seem more like Kamikaze pilots barrel down windy Himalayan roads, perched precariously hundreds of feet above the rushing waters of Mother Ganga. Their indifferent recklessness threatens to knock every car, and themselves, off the edge. Motorcycles driven by young men without helmets whiz by our car, swerving into lanes of oncoming traffic. Don’t these people care about their lives at all? I have found myself wondering.
COVID-19 has shown that yes, for the most part, Indians do care about their lives, and even those who are at the most risk of economic hardship are prepared to do what would have seemed absolutely unimaginable a few months ago—stay home, not work, cancel weddings, seal off their village, not even go to the neighbor’s for chai and pakoras.
While the virus and its global impact is undeniably a horrendous tragedy, this awareness about the tenacity of Indians to protect themselves has filled me with optimism.
Wow, they do care. Wow, they really do want to stay healthy and alive. Wow, they really are prepared to sacrifice an immediate urge or instinct for the long-term goal. I am thrilled to see this.
Now, though, it is essential to harness that commitment. COVID-19 eventually will peak and then dissipate. By God’s grace that will happen sooner rather than later. I am neither an epidemiologist nor clairvoyant, but I do know that eventually we will be, mostly, COVID-free.
However, in the celebration of opening our doors, we must not let go of our tenacious hold on our health, safety, and life. The greatest threat to our life, even today, is definitely not COVID-19. Last year, millions of people in India died from air pollution. Millions more died from water pollution. Millions. COVID-19 has not yet taken even 1,000 lives in this country due to our collective commitment.
Hundreds of millions of Indians are home practicing pranayama to prevent the respiratory distress that accompanies COVID-19. Can we harness a bit of that enthusiasm and ardor to not only keep Coronavirus at bay, but to keep the insidious threat of air pollution at bay? If, collectively, we are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of hours per day doing pranayama to keep our lungs healthy, can we agree to put that time and energy into unhooking our vision of development from the toxic fossil fuel industry? Can we put that time and energy into insisting upon renewal energy resources?
As we sacrifice our pleasure in shopping or meeting with friends to stay home and take care of our health, can we sacrifice some of our dependence upon fossil fuels and shift to a solar-powered society?
Here in Rishikesh, Mother Ganga is always clean. We are, by Her grace, upstream enough that the municipal waste, fecal sludge, agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, and industrial waste, which pours into her waters to the tune of approximately six billion litres a day, don’t have much of an impact. However, prior to COVID-19, Rishikesh was the last place where one could even consider taking achaman (an ancient purification ritual) without the bhakti ki shakti of Meerabai that turned even poison into nectar.
Now, exquisite photos, viral videos, and international news articles are coming out about how clean Mother Ganga is. Notice the direct, linear relationship between the closing of industry and the health of our river. However, people are still pooping and farmers are still growing food. So, presumably the sewage and agricultural runoff have remained approximately the same. It is only the industries which have been shut down, and look at the difference!
The air in India’s industrial cities is breathable after God knows how long. The average air quality index in Delhi has dropped by a whopping 50 percent.
On Earth Day last week, scientists, activists, and environmentalists across the world plastered the internet with articles detailing the ways that Mother Earth has been healing, globally, in just a few short weeks of lockdown.
To me, as I meditate upon Mother Earth, I realize that She, much like any exasperated mother, after trying for decades to discipline us into changing our ways, had no choice other than to silently shout “Sit down, shut up, and go to your rooms until you’ve learned your lesson!” COVID-19 is that silent shout of Mother Earth. It has sent us to our rooms, metaphorically for some and literally for others, without any dinner, and we are forced to sit down and shut up until we learn our lesson.
Can we learn it? Can we maintain our commitment to life and health?
On Earth Day, we hosted an interfaith summit of world-renowned faith leaders of all the major religions and heads of the world’s largest interfaith organizations, along with the United Nations, WSSCC, and other partners. The leaders unanimously called for a New Normal. “We are not looking forward to going back to normal. The old normal is what caused this in the first place,” one leader echoed after the next.
In a few months or years, we will be free from COVID-19. But then it will simply be another bacteria, a superbug, waiting to pounce. Then it will be lack of water. The UN estimates that by 2040 the world will only have half the water it needs. India is on track to be there by 2030. Then it will be climate change. There is a long queue, sans any social distancing, of threats lining up to wreak havoc upon us.
We cannot go back to normal. We must go forward to a new normal.
In a beautiful irony, that new normal is not actually new to India. It is certainly new to the myopic vision of development in which factories spewing toxins into the air are seen as “growth.” But it is not new to the traditional culture of India, what we call Bharatiya Sanskriti, a culture rooted in philosophies of oneness, giving, service, selflessness, and simplicity. It is a culture rooted in teachings of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, the world is one family, and Isha vasyam idam sarvam, everything in the universe is pervaded by the Divine. All is holy. All is sacred.
Bharatiya Sanskriti is a culture that prays to and for Mother Earth, the air, the atmosphere, and all beings. It is a culture whose mantras are based in all-ness, oneness, connection, indivisibility, and the sacredness of Mother Earth. It is a culture where, prior to saying our prayers before meals, we offer a few grains of rice and few drops of water outside our plate to feed any bird who might be passing by.
It is a culture rooted in filling your Self rather than your shelf. Tragically today, development has become synonymous with filling our shelves. My guru, Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, always emphasizes, “Don’t focus so much on filling your shelf. Focus on the fullness of your Self.” In the rush to consume and consume, to fill shelf after shelf, we have lost both our connection to our Self and also to Mother Earth.
In our puja why do we offer the five elements to God? Why would one offer a flower, water, fire, to the Divine? What does God want with a flower or water? The sages who transcribed the scriptures and the teachings were infinitely wise. The flower, the water, the waving of air—this is not for God. God isn’t hot and needing a fan. It is for us, to remind us over and over again every time we sit down to pray that, oh, the flowers are sacred. We offer them to God. The water is sacred. We offer it to God. The air is sacred, we offer it to God.
Mahatma Gandhi summed up much of the sanskriti beautifully when he said, “What’s the point of that fast speed which has no direction?” Modernity, development, technology, progress, “vikas” gives us speed, but our culture gives us direction. When Vivekanandaji prophetically urged a resurgence of India, it is this culture to which he referred, and that resurgence is even more critical today.
As our lockdown opens, let us move with intelligence and clarity into the open world. Let us not be like children in a candy shop, in such a rush to gobble up that which was previously forbidden that we end up in bed with a stomachache or worse.
As we gingerly open the doors of our homes and societies, here are a few suggestions to ensure that these days of lockdown were not wasted, but that we really internalize the message and the lesson this virus has offered us:
1. Remember how easy it is to live simply.
When the shops are all closed and Amazon isn’t delivering, we have all managed to survive. Remember this when the shops reopen and Amazon is back with a bang. Ask yourself 10 times whether you really need something before buying it. Everything you buy in a store was produced somewhere, and the waste of that production flows into our soil, water, and air.
2. Remember how easy it is to stay home.
Whenever the urge is there to grab the car or jump on a plane and go somewhere, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Do you really need to go? Can the job be done by telephone or internet or Zoom? Every time you drive your car, it pumps waste into the air, choking you, your children, and your community.
3. Go organic.
One of the greatest polluters of our water supply is agricultural fertilizers and chemicals. These toxins (many of which have been banned by the United States and European Union for decades as known carcinogens) are responsible for illness and death of both the farmers and the consumers. Yes, organic is a bit more expensive now—but it’s cheaper than hospital bills. And as the demand for organic increases, so will the supply, and then the price will drop.
4. Do yoga, meditate, pray, keep your spiritual practice strong.
First of all these, are great immune system boosters, keeping you healthy and strong. Second, as we are more and more grounded spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, we are less likely to feel the need to gobble up the world in order to feel emotionally okay. So we can then begin to live in Earth-friendly ways.
5. Go vegetarian and even vegan.
There are no known cases of COVID-19 in any vegetables, fruits, or grains. The virus, like SARS, bird flu, swine flu, and so many other deadly viruses, entered humans through animals in a meat market. You won’t catch a virus, even bird flu, by a bird flying over your head or building a nest in your backyard. But you very well may catch it through the industry that raises, kills, dismembers, and packages chickens into what too many consider food.
Not only is the meat industry at the heart of the COVID crisis, it is also at the heart of climate change (according to the UN, it’s the single greatest contributor to climate change) and environmental destruction. It’s also deeply linked to global hunger. Tens of thousands of children die every day of hunger while we produce enough grain to feed 10 billion people. If the stories of people suffering and dying of COVID wrench your heart, what about the tens of thousands of children who die of starvation every day?
6. Remember we are connected, one humanity.
The days of being able to live in the illusion of separation are over. That which happens in a meat market in central China has rippled out into every corner of every city of the world. A few thousand people gathering for a religious event in Delhi ripples out into thousands of cases in hundreds of districts of the nation.
We can no longer pretend we live in a vacuum. It means each of us is responsible, not only for our own lives, but for the ripple impact of our choices and decisions and lifestyles. It is time to truly re-remember Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam.