Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Husbands and Trees

In India, when boys and girls get engaged, their horoscopes are read by the family “priest” to see if they’re compatible. But astrological compatibility extends far beyond whether they’re suited for one another and the astrologers are searching for the wider significance.

“When this girl marries into our family,” the bridegroom’s parents ask the priest, “will she bring us luck? Will she bring us wealth, or cast a shadow over our home, perhaps shortening our lives or bringing us bad health?”

If the girl’s horoscope reveals a hint of such possibilities the priests shake their heads and inform the prospective in-laws of the bad news, telling them that they have chosen a monglick girl to be their son’s wife.

Happily for the monglick girl, there is a solution to this fate, she is not doomed to the fate of a frustrated spinster, a fate over which she has no control. All she has to do is marry someone else, and then her ill-fortune will be transferred to that husband. Then, purified, she can marry her intended bridegroom secure that she is bringing only good luck to her new family.

The trick, of course, is finding a man who is noble enough to marry the unfortunate girl first, absorb all the ill-fated destiny, and then release her, cleansed, into the arms of another man. For a monglick, as you might expect, this often proves difficult.

But not impossible.

Travellers to India, especially those who visit the forest villages, occaisionally see trees with withered flower garlands hanging from their branches.

Not mere decoration, these garlands denote the presence of a husband. Yes, the trees serve as husbands, and in a marriage ceremony as elaborate as between human beings the monglick girl garlands the tree, identifying it as her husband – to transfer her ill-destiny to the tree, thereby cleansing herself of the misfortune of her fate.

To anyone's knowledge, the trees do not object.

* * * * * * * *

The use of trees to receive evil is an idea apparently as old as India itself. The Arthava Veda, written a thousand years before Jesus, contains the prayer . . .

The sin, the pollution
Whatever we have done with evil
With your leaves we wipe it off.

At our Chenrezig Project meetings we use trees as a metaphor for non-judgmental thoughts, or equanimity, it is an example we have fun with and we smile as we use the phrase “See people as trees.”

So, it is not just fun, but deeply touching to be in a culture where trees are historically so revered.

I’ve read that the great Indian philosophical academies were all held in groves of trees --- an acknowledgment that the forest, self-sufficient, endlessly regenerative, combined in itself the diversity and harmony which is the aspiration of Indian spirtual belief. It is not a coincidence that the great body of India’s knowledge – the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, etc. as well as the medical studies of the Ayurveda all came out of the forests.

Indian cities have at their center a grove of trees from which the city streets emnate outward like branches. I have heard of one tree, in the center of a hectic traffic circle in Bombay, that bears a Christian cross, a ledge on which a Koran is placed and read as well as an image of the Indian deity Shiva.

It's also not by chance that the Buddha and Mahavira, the founders of Buddhism and Jainism, two of India’s great religions, should both have attained enlightenment not ina temple or in a city square but while meditating under a tree.

I've heard that throughout the country trees are worshipped as incarnations of the goddess Meenakshi. Stories are told that Shiva once appeared to a sage sitting under a mango tree, mango trees have been considered sacred since.

And just yesterday a group of friends and I hiked up the mountain from where we're staying, our destination is a small colony of stone mediation huts, populated by old Tibetan monks and lamas, cozily nestled in the calm, peaceful tranquility of the deep forest.

Is it any wonder that the tree is sacred to India? Or that forests are considered to be places of pilgrimage as holy as any temple?

* * * * * *

So, with all this adoration, all this history, all this sigificance, it seems beyond belief that Indians could have permitted half the trees of India to be cut down by the administrators of the British Empire to make way for railways and mines, and then themselves cut down half of the remaining trees in the past 50 years.

What has happened, and is happening to the subcontinent’s forest cover is shocking.

Riding the train from Behar to Delhi one travels through miles and miles of what were once forests and are now fields. It is beautiful in it's way, and very "India" with the goats and water buffalos and squatters and mud huts, but it is also very sad.

Of the thousands of miles of dense jungle that covered the great range of the Nepal Himalaya, virtually none of it is left. And logging and stone-quarrying have destroyed the forest cover of the Indian Himalaya with equal devastation.

As a result, the monsoon rains, which are life or death to the subcontinent, have each year resulted in increased incidents of flood and homelessness. And as glaciers retreat and topsoil washes away and waters evaporte because there is nothing to retain them, more devastation occurs.

In India intensity overwhelms, and, simply put, this country like so many others has replaced a deeply-felt veneration of the tree with a feverish consumption of the tree. It's been going on for a years, a short time actually in this ancient country. But now it is out of control, and it is no longer able to connect cause with effect.

There is a movement here called Chipko, which means “to cling” and throughout the Himalayaa villagers and conservationalists, students and ordinary people are attempoting to halt India’s deforestation by clinging to trees marked for felling by commercial contractors. They are also planting trees, fighting to replace the forests of fast growing trees, like the eucalyptus and pine, intended for the wood pulp industry, which provides NOTHING to the soil or the people who live off the soil. They hope to repopulate the forests with the great slow-growing trees on which so much of India’s ecological balance depend.

It’s all ironic. India has traditionally prided herself on being “Karma Bhoomi” – the Land of Experience – dismissing other countries as the lands of the consumer.

But if Indians persist in slaughtering their remaining trees, they will decimate more than just forests, and potential “husbands.”

In many ways, so sadly, they will have crossed the line of which they have no choice but to admit they really are no different than the rest of us.

(with thanks to Gita Mehta for information used above.)