In New York City’s Waters: Holiness or Pollution?

On Jamaica Bay, Hindus perform visarjan, the practice of setting objects afloat on water. To them, the objects are offerings; to others, they’re pollution

In New York City’s Waters: Holiness or Pollution?
Hindus take part in a religious procession on the occasion of Ganesh Visarjan in Ahmedabad, India, on Sept. 2, 2022. (Saurabh Sirohiya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Walking under the North Channel Bridge in New York City, Maureen Regan strolls along the shore of Jamaica Bay picking up saris, banners, flags, bamboo sticks, coconut shells and coins.

To the casual observer, these items are indistinguishable from trash floating in Jamaica Bay. To Regan, they are religious offerings left by Hindus who see this Manhattan-sized estuary as a stand-in for the Ganges River.

Regan, a Hindu herself, has shoulder-length black hair and a wide smile. She was born in Guyana and is now one of 300,000 Indo-Americans living in Queens. In the neighborhood’s waterways, they perform visarjan, the traditional Hindu practice of setting sacred objects afloat on the water. For them, it is an age-old act of devotion. For some non-Hindus, it is an act of pollution.

Though this has been a point of contention for many years, it cannot be denied that Jamaica Bay is already polluted. An area once teeming with oysters, fish and migratory birds is in danger. The salt marshes and freshwater ponds are shrinking each year and the once-thriving shellfishing industry is now banned because of health concerns. Despite studies and long-term plans from state and federal agencies, there is still debate about the source of pollution. Possible causes include rising sea levels and nitrogen runoff from the four sewage treatment plants in the area.

The ecosystem’s deterioration has not gone unnoticed. According to Steve Englebright, chair of the New York State Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, Herbert Johnson was the first to deal with this issue when he was appointed manager of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the National Park Service (NPS), in 1952.

For Englebright, this ongoing process is a source of optimism. “When I started my study back in the 1970s,” he said, “the bay’s ecological unraveling was well underway. That was stopped and the bay is recovering, and [now] we have new waves of immigrants [added] to the melting pot of New York City.”

Today, environmental concerns sometimes veil intolerance toward migrants as the source of climate challenges. The skepticism and discrimination Hindus continue to face in association with the bay is worrying for Englebright.

“We should not use science to what amounts to a prejudicial act,” he said. “That’s contrary to environmental justice; we should be very cautious about that.”

The contribution of Hindu ritual objects is minor compared with other factors polluting Jamaica Bay. However, these items can be traced back to individual actions. In theory, this should make this behavior easy to change. In practice, it is an arduous task.

Jeffery D. Long, a professor of Asian religions and author of the book “Hinduism in America,” explains that these rituals stem from the role of water in Hinduism.

For Hindus, the Ganges River is both the goddess Ganga and a symbol of purification. The water of the Ganges is essential in the Uttar Pradesh region of northern India, through which the river flows. Even before Hinduism became a global religion, Long said, people who had never seen the Ganges were using their local waterways to perform similar rituals inside India.

As Long explained, coming into proximity to water is done to affirm the union between that body of water, wherever it might be, with the Ganges. Spiritually, these two bodies of water are identical. The water is not sacred itself. Rather, it is “the relationship between the practitioner and the ideal that the river represents.”

Worshipers give a variety of offerings to the waterways, sometimes for weekly rituals and unique festivals. At other times, it is to replace old murtis — the statues of idols — with newer objects. The proper way to dispose of murtis is not to throw them in the trash but to give them to the waters of the Ganges. However, unlike the Ganges, which carries the offerings out to sea, the water of Jamaica Bay stays in Jamaica Bay. Any coconuts, prayer flags or saris remain in the same body of water into which they were placed.

The Hindu population in Queens County serves as a unique microcosm of India in the United States. According to the 2020 census, Hindu Americans make up just over 1% of the U.S. population. Queens, however, is 13% Hindu. There are 15 temples within a two-block radius in Richmond Hill alone, in an area known as Little Jamaica.

It is difficult to make generalizations about Hinduism, the world’s third-largest religion with roughly 1.35 billion believers. There are many different ways to worship even a single deity, so much so that they are considered separate sects. But within these sects, there is fluidity among temples of different traditions. In areas with high concentrations, such as Little Jamaica, members of one temple are welcomed in other temples.

Forty years ago, Regan came to New York from Guyana seeking economic opportunities. One of her first priorities for integration into her new community was to join a Hindu congregation. It was at her New York temple that the “pandit” (temple priest) taught her to launch the objects she used during religious rituals into the waterways.

Growing up, Regan’s family did not have the means to replace religious offerings, so they would reuse them instead. She began to offer “puja” (a small ceremony of worship) on the water’s edge in north Queens as her American husband kept an eye out for any authorities who might see her practice as dumping trash.

The prayers filled her with guilt — she realized that the practice and her values were in opposition. “What’s the point in me practicing religion [that way] if it doesn’t sit well with me and if I’m always feeling like something’s not right?” she asked herself.

Regan decided to adjust the ways she practiced her rituals. First, she stopped leaving any plastic or aluminum in the water, choosing to leave flowers and fruit instead. Then, she began to burn all the non-recyclable elements of worship in her garden, using biodegradable ones as fertilizer.

Over the years, she learned about the fragile marsh ecosystem. When her manufacturing job for the fashion industry led her to India to look for fabric, she discovered that the dyes she bought there also ended up in the water. As might be expected in the country with the most significant Hindu community globally, religious trash there is on a much grander scale. This pollution has led to relentless advocacy from various groups, culminating in the Indian government’s passing legislation to limit the practice.

The NPS, which administers much of the bay and the adjoining marshes, noticed this problem 20 years ago. In addition to the offerings affecting species in the bay, Don Riepe, the local director at the American Littoral Society and a former park ranger, said it is also an aesthetic problem.

“People like to go fishing or kayaking,” he said. “And nobody wants to come to a shoreline [and] see all that debris there.”

As a park ranger, he approached people performing puja and said there was a cordial relationship. He explained his position and they could explain theirs, yet there was a sense of unease with his being a white American.

In 2007, the NPS reached out to Hindu priests, urging them to address the issue. One insisted the rituals were only complete once the offerings were made to the water. In an effort to respect their beliefs, the community opted for organized beach cleanups rather than take preemptive action.

Four years later, Rohan Narine, 37, and his wife, Aminta Kilawan-Narine, 39, created the Hindu community organization Sadhana to solve the problem at its source.

According to Kilawan-Narine, before the outreach by the NPS, the Hindu community organized beach cleanups, but typically only once or twice a year. After the NPS contacted the priests, conversations started about ways to perform rituals and the beach cleanups became more popular — almost like a ritual in their own right.

Looking for a cause to focus the organization on, the couple identified the main point of friction: Jamaica Bay, located at the tip of Long Island and considered part of Brooklyn and Queens, both boroughs of New York City. Kilawan-Narine said it was a way to claim their attachment to the bay. “Because I’m in this community, sometimes our people, Black and brown people, are perceived as the other,” she said.

In 2014, Narine was hired as a summer employee by the NPS. He made the cleanups monthly and there has been progress on the amount picked up. Sometimes tense moments occur as they are cleaning and meet people worshiping.

The average age of Hindus in the U.S. is 36, making them among the youngest religious populations. This means theirs is not a community of calcified tradition, like other religious communities with an older demographic. In Jamaica Bay, the activism of the young Hindu community has played a key role in reducing pollution.

However, Kilawan-Narine said the traumatic history of Indo-Caribbean migration makes it hard to shift people’s rituals. “We don’t speak the language anymore, but we still kept the culture,” she said. “So [who has the right] to tell somebody, ‘Oh, don’t do that!’ Who am I to tell anybody, ‘Don’t worship that way,’ right?”

They break the tension by saluting them with a religious greeting like “namaste.” They share the same Guyanese Hindu background and suggest they take back things that harm the environment. “That would be the greatest gift of all, the greatest worship,” Kilawan-Narine explained.

“It’s very jarring and almost cathartic. They see what we’re doing. And a switch flips in their mind. And they say, ‘[dumping trash is not] something I’m going to do. I am better than that,’ and they take all or most back with them,” Narine said.

Kilawan-Narine saw her cousin and his wife making such an offering. She talked to them about how the bay washed the offerings back into the sand and the risks they bring to the wildlife. A month later, they all volunteered for the cleanup. “You have to have that kind of awkward conversation,” she said.

Hindu worship ceremonies themselves are not the problem. “Originally, the offerings were little wooden sticks and things,” said Kilawan-Narine. The objects were also dyed using natural materials like turmeric. “Because of mass production and everything that happened after the Industrial Revolution, these [offerings] are not organic, so we have to be careful.”

Kilawan-Narine and Narine had planned to set up a street cart and sell biodegradable statues, but it is not as simple as advocating for “natural products.”

“The Park Service says they don’t want nonnative materials because nonnative materials will bring nonnative animals. They said everything has to be kept local to the bay,” said Narine. He has the mold for a statue ready but hasn’t found the right material.

They then thought of making a statue out of food after reading about a Manhattan store selling a chocolate Virgin Mary. “But that’s almost sacrilegious, and you don’t want to be seen eating Lord Shiva or something like that,” Narine said.

Using fish food could also be a risky gamble, said Kilawan-Narine, as it could wreck the ecosystem’s balance by overfeeding fish, for example.

Kilawan-Narine said long-term sustainable solutions are needed for these important rituals, both spiritually and materially. “There needs to be innovations that change what it looks like to perform worship in the Hindu community that is good for the Earth in the long term.”

However the practices of the Hindu community change to reduce pollution, there is another aspect to the cultural conflict.

Kilawan-Narine and Narine encountered it when an older white man approached them during a cleanup.

“Hey! We’re on the coconut crew!” the man shouted. “Come on, let’s go clean the coconuts.” Kilawan-Narine and Narine stared at the man, who smiled, grabbed a plastic bag, and followed the rest of the volunteers onto the sandy beach, where he kept referring to the Hindu volunteers as “coconuts,” the very same items he was picking from the beach and unceremoniously throwing into the bag.

The man was having a great time, Narine reflected later. “He was really funny about it. But it wasn’t funny to us. And it created a very weird environment.” According to her, the man was comfortable enough to tell even more racist jokes, including about Black people.

Regan wants to move away from cleanups toward more education on the impact of putting foreign objects in the water. “I do clean up [trash] but I’m not an advocate for it because that is not the answer,” she said. “It’s like putting your finger in a hole on the seawall. Education and outreach are the keys to change.”

Regan started working for the NPS community outreach at Jamaica Bay in January 2020. Since then, she has worked to build her credibility through data collection. “Before, the services didn’t have any data to talk to that community.”

Through Zoom, Regan organized meetings where Hindu leaders talked about the use of water in religious practices. She also posted what she found at the bay, sharing it with religious organizations.

Most recently, she has also created an installation, a cage-like structure by the water in which she places the offerings she collects during her cleanups. Some see it as a smart compromise. The bay is shielded from these ritual offerings made of materials that could harm it, but they are still close to the water and not mixed with the trash. Others feel saddened by this solution.

But Regan is undeterred. “I am asked all the time why I leave six-figure jobs to take on these challenges,” she said, referring to her nonprofit career after leaving a corporate job in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the city and particularly the Jamaica Bay area, her nonprofit gave food to victims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she also delivered food to those in need.

“Try it some time — just taking a break and looking at the problem from a different point of view can bring about fresh ideas that sitting in an office can never do.”

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