Plastic Bhakti

By Vrindapati Dasa - 26.2 2018

In writing this article, I am sure that I am going to offend a few people… no, actually, quite a lot of people. However, it is mandatory for these points to be taken in consideration. It has been proposed on numerous occasions, yet an entire organisation body fails to implement, what to speak of acknowledge, what so many people within this movement, fundamentally, feel so strongly about. It is an outrageous crime to holy places, spiritual life, culture, and is costing the environment. Then, we wonder why we suffer so many reactions of bad karma. There are very few initiatives that are environmentally friendly, but it is either expensive or just not enforced enough. This article seeks to encourage devotees to problem solve the entire movement, into a space, where viable solutions are sought out, causing minimal damage to business, sale, marketing and of course, spiritual life. In addition, this crucial change we cannot ignore, it needs to be passed as law in my opinion. People may think that there are other things more important than this, but I argue that this is incredibly important as a topic, albeit the examples that I present are seemingly trivial.

As a spiritual movement we are supposedly, providing a healthy and environmentally alternative for the world, by encouraging a vegetarian lifestyle. We suggest that our lifestyle is in the mode of goodness, which is a necessary platform for spiritual advancement. All the while we are encouraging a lifestyle, which is karma free and as close to nature as practically possible. Yet, we are, hypocritically, providing a pseudo façade, by buying, marketing and selling paraphernalia for our devotional life, which is particularly harmful for the environment. All which is justified by the theory of practicality under the title of “yukta vairagya”, or utility whilst executing renunciation. These lies will not take us back to Godhead, neither will the non-recyclable broken clicker, that ends up in the sea, grant anyone freedom from the cycle of birth and death. I am ashamed to be a part of this hypocrisy myself. People look to our devotional culture as an alternative to the damaging culture of materialism, and we present our philosophy of Ahimsa Food, as being a key principle to raise consciousness, reduce our carbon and karmic footprint, to bring peace. Then we offer them our special weapon on a plastic plate. This is cheating, irrespective of the good intentions.

Unfortunately, this may be a great interruption in fundraising and businesses. However, substitutes are available, and the good news is, the eco-friendly alternatives are in fashion. This is not only about finding substitutes, but it is also about a careful consideration in what we produce, market, sell and buy, in the name of spiritual life. A transformation of consciousness needs to take place at the inception of this chain, to ensure that only the best ethical and eco-friendly materials are used, whilst ensuring that what we have is also the best we can offer to Krishna. Only when this ethos becomes a priority will this break the bad habit of unethical, unwarranted items in our spiritual stores, temples and life overall. In addition, they should also be sourced and sold in a fair and reasonable cost.

The issue is that we do not need bumper stickers that say “Gouranga”, plastic badges, plastic Krishna key rings, but rather, it is better to invest in something that is least damaging to the environment. These productions are often created outside of our institution, but have been marketed internally, both intentionally and inadvertently creating a demand for mass production, resulting in variations of the same novelties to become the norm. These items are often neither culturally or scripturally supported.

I am sure that our previous spiritual teachers didn’t need plastic cubes encapsulating deity images on the dashboard, where did this culture come from? What happens when the plastic key ring breaks? What happens when the encapsulated image fades away and the chunk of plastic remains? It cannot be recycled. If you must have them, why not consider wooden items or papier-mâché? It is also noticeable that poly-resin materials, which are mixed with plastic adhesives, are not biodegradable. Once they break, they cannot be returned to nature as the scriptures recommend. Stone deities that break can be immersed into rivers, the current of water naturally return stone back into pebbles that support the riverbed. It is also traditional that clay, sand and all the other items, that deities are authorised materials to be made from, are organic and harmless to the environment. Similarly, all devotional paraphernalia that is used to worship the deity is usually not far from the organic world, even if it is designed to have longevity. Glass, plastic, poly-resin and synthetic materials are not authorised by any scripture, neither can they be considered fit to install. Regardless of whether they are used for decoration or worship, the mass production of deities has increased, standards have been compromised and this has caused a big problem for the environment. Once the deities can no longer be worshipped or wanted, they end up disrespected and left sneakily in a temple somewhere, in hope that the problem would become someone else’s.

Whilst on the topic of deities, it is also not authorised to worship hollow deities. Once an incident took place where a poly-resin deity of Srila Prabhupada broke and it was discovered that the deity was hollow. They deity was taken to the Ganges and immersed, since the damage was beyond repair. In the back of the devotees’ mind, they wondered if the damaged particles were environmentally safe. The truth is… why did such a deity need to be made, when it could have been carved from wood or metal? People concern themselves with the longevity of the deity, but Lord Jagannatha is made from wood and is subsequently changed every 12 years, and only if there is a lot of deterioration on the deity. The trees are also managed so that there is not mass deforestation. Another consideration is, following the demise of the devotee, who will take care of the deities? Who will take responsibility of the standards? In view of this, is it better to have fewer deities, or just one maybe? and have a manageable, yet higher standard of worship? According to the Shilpa Shastra, deities worshipped in the home should be no bigger than 6 inches in height, should be made with proper proportions and detail. Vastu Shatra states that the altar in the home should not have a dome over the top of it. Metal deities have been cheaply produced in India, without proper finishing and proportions, and being marketed. This needs to stop. A quality control is necessary to ensure that devotees are not purchasing items that are a) not supported by scripture b) harmful for the environment c) bought without the proper consideration of how the item is to be respected.

An argument can be made that it is the love between devotee and Krishna that is more important, than the details surrounding details of deity and paraphernalia production. Yes, this is true, but if there is genuine love for the Krishna, then there should be love for other living entities, the environment and deep compassion. It is a love that doesn’t cause damage to the earth and living entities.

Alternatives to deity jewellery can be semi-precious stones; they have a long life, are pure and aesthetically pleasing. Plastic is not necessary anymore. Plastic was encouraged one time because there was a fear of theft of real jewellery. Semi precious stones are inexpensive and have better energies. Plastic jewellery is especially a problem when it gets old and unusable – Maha Prasad or Tadiya management is necessary, because often people are clueless of what to do with them. As for devotee beads, our chanting and neck beads should be threaded with strong cotton and not plastic threads.

Our bags should be reusable – made from cloth or recycled paper. Please refuse plastic bags. Our temples/businesses need not sell items that are unsuitable for spiritual practice, like plastic holograms of Radha Krishna, fridge magnets and similar things, nor do we really need them. Consider giving business to artist who can create genuine pieces of art, carvings, ayurvedic remedies, toxic-free incense, alternative toiletries, semi-precious jewellery for the deities, embroidered deity clothes with semi-precious work, rather than plastic, real chanting beads, recycled notebooks, yoga paraphernalia, ethical clothing, handicrafts, dry fruits, photos, drawings, traditional deity paraphernalia of good quality, deities that are of correct proportions and detail, ethical brands, veggie goods and so on.

We also may or may not realise, that our demands of paraphernalia and selection of spiritual items has a huge global impact, especially with producers in the Holy Dhams. If we demand more plastic and cheap materials, the more these will be manufactured. These manufacturing processes have hidden effects on the landscape. Chemicals and waste is ejected into the environment, especially in Sri Vrindavan Dham. Agreed, we are not the only people who buy from them, but we are contributing to it. This mass marketing in Vrindavan is a direct response to the demands that are being made from the average person, from all around the world. For businesspersons, it is a merely a business, and not much thought about the welfare of the environment is taken into consideration. Our conscious decisions to buy can have a tremendous impact on the outcome of the future of the Holy Dham. If we develop the culture of being organic, to match the true organic culture of devotional life, then we can save the environment. Worship was even more organic by the Gopis, who make flower garlands, cook, carry clay water pots, and collect natural materials for the gorgeous worship of the Divine Couple. (Written intentionally in present tense – since these pastimes are eternal).

There needs to be reconsideration on how we manage our environment and especially how much paraphernalia we are collecting. A careful selection needs to take place when we create a store of paraphernalia, ensuring that our customers, namely devotees, guests and prospective devotees, are being cultivated in the mode of goodness. Our gifts and purchases should be ethical, favourable for spiritual life and simultaneously retain its aesthetic appeal. This can only be achieved if there is a standard. Devotees coming up with innovative ideas and inventions for outreach, teaching and preaching, should also take into consideration on how plasticised the ideas are. Then they can confidently declare a movement that is about “simple living and high thinking”.

Buying and selling products of so-called spiritual items has apparently become a scheme for making money. It is sometimes necessary for devotees and temples to collect funds via this method. Moreover, some paraphernalia is important for devotional practice and creating a sanctified space. However, I interject here and reiterate that this should not be at the expense of destroying the planet. It is becoming a novel criterion for things to be eco-friendly and ethical, in the material culture. It is almost entirely possible in this age to make our temples, businesses, and deity paraphernalia more GREEN. It is favourable for spiritual life and you may agree, purer. The revolution needs to happen with devotees and temples. Do not make a demand for plastic mantra boxes, clickers, trinkets and cheap souvenirs, have some class! Use a proper meditation beads. If you need a to-go kit, why not try using a 27 bead mala in your pocket or wrist (at least this is justified by scripture in the Hari Bhakti Vilasa, where this mala is called a kanista/sumarni), or you could wear a small 108 beads around your neck in addition to your neck beads (at least this is justified by scripture like Nectar of devotion, where devotees should wear Tulasi around the neck and chest) – Better still what happened to the good old meditation bead bag that is designed to go everywhere with you. Amazing! no? Better than a non-eco-friendly counter (stop buying them – it is only inattentive chanting being promoted).

The worst thing about this discussion is that there will be many people that agree with the need to take more action, however, the tendency is to forget. Especially, when we are so excited to be in Loi Bazzar and everything around us is so desirable, or when you are lost for gift ideas and you pick up whatever is coated in plastic. We need to understand, that plastic is the enemy. In view of this, since you have made it to the end of the article, your homework is to make a vow – it is indirectly connected to the first regulative principle that the environment belongs to Krishna. We must respect this environment and reconsider our paraphernalia so that it is practical and not causing damage to animals, the environment, or the Holy Dham. Recognise that there is elegance to simplicity. It is okay to say no to items, even as gifts, because are not truly favourable for spiritual life. Your homework is to find alternative solutions to make your home, temple, workplace, and spiritual life eco-friendly as possible without becoming fanatical but genuine and frugal. Scripture supports this point wholeheartedly.

In closing words, there are some people who genuinely can be commended for their conscious practice and awareness of this issue. There can be a bigger initiative on the part of our centres, temples, and individual devotees, worldwide, to reform our “bad habits” that we accrued, in contrast to motto of leading a life which is supposedly, better at respecting Krishna’s environment. If you do not believe me go to Vrindavan and see what state it is in, it is a stark reality and we need to act, as of immediate effect. Please share this.

Vrindapati Dasa