In October 2016, I had a curious experience about the attitude of Indians towards environment, religion and festivals. On the evening of Dussehra, a group of 5 kids, the eldest not more than 9 years old, came rushing into the local park while I was exercising. They were very excited. One of them was carrying a figure; a crude figure of what had to be their depiction of Ravana.
To those of you who don’t know, let me provide some context. Every year, around this time in Oct, the festival of Dussehra is celebrated in India. It is a festival drawn from the Hindu mythology of Ramayana. Ram is supposed to have defeated the demon king Ravana on this day. Since then till now, this day is celebrated as Dussera to signify the victory of good over evil.
Signifying this victory, a statue/doll of Ravana (of varying sizes) are burnt all over India. It is a representation of burning away all the evil in our lives and starting life afresh. Those kids, were clearly going to do the same. There was just one problem that I saw.
The doll they had made was of cardboard and thermocol.
They lit the figure and watched it burn. As it burnt, they began to inch away from it shouting, “There’s smoke! It smells!” Sadly, they did not realize the significance of what they were saying. These were kids from economically disadvantaged background, they may not have taken school very seriously; yet they were able to sense that their burning was causing some sort of disturbance in their surrounding air. As the last of the figure burnt, the joy on their faces returned and they rushed out of the park to continue with whatever caught their fancy. They left behind ashes, smoke and me, deep in thought.
“What evil are we burning away by adding pollutants into our atmosphere?” I wondered.
This was just a minuscule example from the numerous figures that would have burnt all across India from Mysore (where the biggest figure is burnt) to Delhi (where this little episode happened). In all, you cannot imagine the amount of pollution this “purifying” exercise would have caused.
If there is one evil we must burn, it is ignorance. And, the evil of humainty committing slow suicide.
This “trend” of burning Ravana is not tied to the celebration of this festival from it’s roots. Not at all! It is relatively very new, it caught the fancy of the larger public and now a whole industry is set up to meet the huge demands of dolls to burn at this time of the year.
This is not the first and this is certainly not the last article that will be written about the pollution caused by celebrating these Indian festivals. In a fortnight, we will celebrate Diwali. In between huge sales from Amazon, ridiculous offers from every eatery in town, and the circulation of a “picture from NASA” showing India on Diwali, millions of crackers are going to be detonated for absolutely pointless reasons. Will crackers be banned? I highly doubt it. Not when a massive industry runs behind the production of crackers, on which the livelihoods of half a million Indians rest. The Delhi government has mandated the use of “green crackers” (whatever that is supposed to mean) to be used this Diwali, which is supposed to release 30% fewer pollutants in the air.
Religion is a very, very powerful tool. It can stimulate masses like nothing else can. If we are to truly fight for environmental protection, maybe we need this facet of society on our side. Look back at that experience of mine; kids from 5-9 years old do not know the dire implications of burning cardboard and thermocol, but they know the festival of Dussera and why it is celebrated.
Could we spread the message of environmentalism through religion, and could it work in India today?