Jamaica Bay is more than 7,000 miles away from the Ganges River in India, the body of water that is sacred to Hindus, but for those who practice the ancient faith in Queens, the estuary is the perfect substitute.
According to Hindu tradition, the goddess Ganga is the personification of the Ganges River, and the faithful often perform rituals called puja — in which offerings are given to the goddess — on its banks.
For the tens of thousands of Hindus living in Queens and the surrounding area, the sacred sites of India, where the third-largest religion in the world was born, are too far away — including the Ganges. So how do devotees of a religion that relies on a river thousands of miles away compensate?
For the past several decades, Hindus living in the area, notably among the Indo-Caribbean community in South Queens, have offered their sacrifices to Ganga on the shores of Jamaica Bay.
The rituals feature offerings that usually include flowers, fruits and coconuts. Hindus will offer the unused or leftover items back to Ganga to return them to the earth. But sometimes, non-natural items are offered, including articles of clothing, plates and other objects that are often seen as nothing more than litter polluting the bay, which has struggled to come back from decades of neglect.
“The first sign that this was a problem was several years ago when police found a decapitated goat in the bay, and then later a decapitated chicken,” said Pandit Chunelall Narine, head guru at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan temple in Ozone Park.
Though mutilated animals are not common in these rituals, those discoveries cast a light on the practices performed by one of the more recent-to-arrive immigrant communities. They also threatened to inflame the underlying ethnic tensions between the new Hindu arrivals and the long-established, mostly white, residents near the bay who struggled to understand — and in some cases were outright antagonistic — to Hindu customs and traditions.
But for environmentalists, for whom the ecology of the bay is vital, the problem threatened to roll back decades of progress.
“It’s a problem for the bay, especially when plastic items used in the rituals end up at restoration sites,” said Dan Mundy Jr. of Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers. “There is an effort underway in that community to reclaim some of those items and that’s great.”
Shri Trimurti Bhavan played host to a panel discussion Sunday in which Hindu leaders and representatives from Gateway National Recreation Area pondered how the puja can still go on without damaging the ecology of the bay.
The event was triggered by a short film made by Dan Hendrick, the producer of a more encompassing film about Jamaica Bay due out next year. In his “The Divine Waters of Jamaica Bay,” which was shown at Sunday’s event, Hendrick profiles the puja and the issues surrounding it.
“The goal here is to open up barriers,” Hendrick said.
Sunday’s panel included Hendrick, Narine, Queens medical Student Kamini Doobay, who is pushing for more environmentally-conscience puja rituals both at Jamaica Bay and around the world, including in the Ganges River; Charles Markis, a park ranger at Gateway; and Mat McDermott, a writer involved with The Bhumi Project, a Hindu environmental organization.
“[Puja] is a beautiful practice if it is done properly; it’s not being pagan or barbaric,” said Doobay, 25, who coined the term “eco-Hindusim” to describe her push. She noted that by offering items that are not biodegradable, like clothing and plates, it was only damaging what they revere.
“The Ganges is also very dirty,” she said. “What we are doing is we, ourselves, are defiling the mother.”
Narine noted that his temple and others in the area have sponsored cleanups at the bay, but more has to be done to keep the problem from getting worse.
This is a relatively new problem for the world’s oldest surviving religion, Doobay noted, as modern items that are not biodegradable have replaced natural ones of the past.
“When the offerings were first made, they didn’t have aluminum foil, so we can use that as an excuse,” she said, in reference to one of the things that has been offered in the water at puja. She supported the idea of banning some items, like clothing and plastics.
But Mundy said even biodegradable items, like coconut shells, can be a problem en masse and those items are often floated using plastic or other non-natural material.
“Too much is not a good thing,” he said. “And sometimes stuff they use to float it out there becomes a problem.”
McDermott further emphasized that banning such items wouldn’t change the importance of the ritual.
“Nothing can take away the holiness of the Ganga,” he said. “What we can do is make it cleaner through our actions.”
The panel discussion went over a number of ideas and issues associated with puja, including the practice of disposing of a deceased person’s ashes in water, as is done in the Ganges.
They agreed disposing ashes wouldn’t be too much of an issue because they are natural, but wanted a clarification of city law on the matter.
The group also discussed the possibility of creating a specific space for religious rituals to be held, but Markis was concerned that such a move would leave Hindus segregated.
Noting that some other faiths have similar traditions — including some Jews who dispose of bread in the bay — Markis said he wanted to find a compromise that allowed Hindus to continue to use the bay in an environmentally friendly way.
“We don’t want to single out any one group,” he said. “We don’t want you to stop going to the water and doing this.”