Sadhana Hosts "Jamaica Bay Lives!"

Film Screening At The Shri Trimurti Bhavan Mandir in Ozone Park, Queens 

By Rohan Narine

On June 22nd, the Sadhana Coalition, in partnership with the National Parks Service, Dan Hendrick, and Kamini Doobay, hosted the preview of Jamaica Bay Lives, a documentary film shown at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan, a Mandir in Ozone Park, Queens.  Mr. Hendrick, the Vice President for External Affairs at the New York League of Conservation Voters and a graduate of Columbia University, met Ms. Doobay four years ago.  He heard about Jamaica Bay’s growing local Hindu population, known for utilizing the Bay to perform Ganga Puja (removing inauspiciousness by honoring Mother Ganga).  Ms. Doobay, a graduate of Barnard College who currently attends the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is a Hindu who has performed Ganga Puja at Jamaica Bay since she was a child. 

Their meeting culminated in the preview screening of Mr. Hendrick’s documentary at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan, the first of its kind solely about Jamaica Bay.  Ms. Doobay is featured in the documentary visiting Jamaica Bay at dawn, then explaining and later performing Ganga Puja.  The screening, attended by approximately 50 people of both Hindu and non-Hindu background, was split into two segments: a preview of the film followed by a panel discussion to attempt to find pragmatic solutions to the challenges faced at Jamaica Bay.

Jamaica Bay Lives, the brainchild of Dan Hendrick, is a film about the local residents of Jamaica Bay who have formed a strong bond with the Bay amid its turbulence.  Some of that turbulence, whether it’s from the National Parks Service’s culling of non-migrating Canada Geese, to recent plans to expand JFK Airport into the Bay, to Hurricane Sandy’s entrance into the Bay to damage homes in surrounding neighborhoods, continues to add to the mystique of an ecosystem that was once a post-World War 2 dumping ground for refrigerators and dead horses.  Mr. Hendrick, who has documented all of these pressing issues on film, is cognizant of the recent migration of Indo-Caribbean Hindus to the neighborhood.  After the trailer and a film clip showing Ms. Doobay performing Ganga Puja was shown, the second half’s panel discussion brought out a dialogue that, like the documentary, was the first of its kind to take place in a Hindu Temple. 

The panel consisted of Priest-in-Charge of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan Pandit Chunelall Narine, Environmentalist and Bhumi Project Advisor Mat McDermott, Kamini Doobay, National Parks Service (NPS) Interpretative Specialist Charles Markis, and Dan Hendrick.  The panel was assembled to address the growing number of complaints by locals over the past decade that view the Ganga Puja (where Hindus most often times leave fruits, bamboo stalks, and even foil pans) as a nuisance, and in direct violation of the NPS “leave no trace” policy.  Local Hindus, on the other hand, counter by saying that to prevent them from conducting Ganga Puja is in violation of their first amendment right.  This conflict, and its unclear solution, is at the heart of what Mr. Hendrick’s documentary hopes to achieve.  He says, “One of the things I’d like to say is that this is a conversation that is still going on.  The goal of the film is ultimately this:  To spark a dialogue.  While filming the pujas, a lot of onlookers saw it and had questions, some were upset, or angry, and these are people who are just like you, they care about nature.”  Ms. Doobay had this to say regarding her worship:

“It’s not so much about leaving behind the fruits and the flowers per se, it’s more about our love and appreciation for nature.  Hindus realize that all of God’s creations are here for us to protect.  However, over the past decade, we have been leaving non-biodegradable items at the beach, and this is negligence on our part.  See, in the time of Lord Ram, when he performed Ganga Puja, there was no such thing as aluminum foil – everything was biodegradable.  The million dollar question is:  What do we do with the offerings?  However, what we should also be thinking about is:  What do we do after that?” 

Charles Markis, who is knowledgeable about Hinduism and Ganga Puja, stood up and spoke without a microphone.  He left a strong message explaining the larger scope of what is taking place at the Bay:                     

“I heard that there was going to be an exhibit of the different types of statues collected a Jamaica Bay.  I say that if we are going to do an exhibit about Jamaica Bay, we would have to start at the very beginning.  We would have to talk about Floyd Bennett Field, and we would have to include the monofilament fishing line left in great numbers from the fishing nets and fishing lines that come along, and then we would have to show the pictures that were made in 1972 when the National Parks Service created the Gateway National Recreation Area who were pulling out refrigerators, car chassis, and used tires from the Bay.  Now for the people who lived in this area during that time, you will remember those days.  So, we would have to tell the whole story with what is really happening with Jamaica Bay.  With that said, I could not single out one single user as being a guilty party.  I did not want to point a finger to anybody in that way.  This is something we all have to realize.  The real issue I think is:  What do we do with all of this stuff?  We want to know how we can accommodate you, so we can make Jamaica Bay a better place.” 

On another side of the spectrum, and equally important to the solution, is Pandit Chunelall Narine.  He explained the religious significance of Ganga Puja, and elucidated the importance of why it must continue.  He says:

 “There’s a line in our scriptures, “Just as we worship the saintly people, we also worship the mountains, the earth, and rivers.” See, there is only one human mentioned, and the other three - the mountains, the earth, and the rivers, are just as saintly as the saintly person.  I think we need to educate our fellow Hindu brothers and sisters about what should be left in the water and what should not be left when performing Puja to Mother Ganga.  That said I believe that we should not discontinue our puja, it is a part of our Dharma and must continue.  It is our belief that when we worship Mother Ganga, she gives back to us.  For example, when we perform Ganga Puja, rainfall is produced out of that worship, especially to areas of the Earth where it is most needed.  See, when you worship the Earth, the Earth feeds us.  That is why we perform Prithvi Puja.  The Earth clothes us, the Earth shelters us, the Earth also receives us when we exit the world, and for these reasons the Earth is mother, and it is why we literally worship the Earth.”

Mat McDermott, an environmentalist and a certified yoga instructor, brought into the discussion the Indian perspective, and what’s being done there, especially in areas dependent on the River Ganges.  He says:

“Some things may make the water ugly, but don’t defile the water in a long term way.  In India, the head of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, started a campaign to clean the Ganges.  He said, “Nothing can take away from the holiness of the Ganges, but we can make it ugly by our actions.”  So, what we can do at Jamaica Bay is to exercise a bit of mindfulness and ask ourselves, where is this going?  Where is it coming from?  If I leave this in the water, how long is it going to take for it to go away?  If this is something that is never going to go away, why am I putting it in here?”

Mr. Hendrick continued the dialogue, steering the discussion towards education for future generations of residents who should begin the process towards a mutual respect for different local customs.  “Today is just the start of a journey for the film, but also the start of a kernel for a whole education program.  We are not dictating solutions; we are just conveying the issue.  We want people to come together and have a discussion around it.  We’re hoping to especially engage young people.  We have plans to show this at Richmond Hill High School and a few other local schools where we will come in a show this and to get people out to the Bay and get them involved in the nature projects there.  We want to lower the barriers to dialogue.” 

Dr. Dhanpaul Narine, the Public Relations Officer for The Federation of Hindu Mandirs, an umbrella organization for Hindu Temples located in Jamaica, Queens, questions the unintended after-effects of the beach cleanups.  He asks, “What does Sadhana do with the crates of Murti’s that they collect at the beach?”  After the exhibit, are they cleaned and returned?  Or are they sent to Mandirs?  Is that the intention of the devotee who left them?”  Contrary to this, when bamboo flags get fish caught in them, and die because of it, is that the intention of the devotee?” 

During the question and answer segment, an audience member queried if the statues used during the Ganga Puja needed to be three-dimensional.  Pandit Chunelall said that they didn’t need to be, which gave rise to an interesting idea from the audience member.  She said, “Can it be flat, and two-dimensional, like a wafer, which is biodegradable?”  Both Pandit Chunelall and Charles Markis agreed that using a two-dimensional biodegradable picture of the divine was a tangible step in the right direction. 

Jamaica Bay has solved a similar challenge before.  In 2011, members of the Chinese Buddhist community began visiting the Bay to perform the fangsheng ceremony.  This practice involves cleaning one’s karma by buying live animals and releasing them into the water.  Their animals of choice were frogs and red ear slider turtles.  Unfortunately, many of them would die simply because it was not their natural habitat.  It turned out that releasing those animals into the wild was both detrimental to the animal as well as its surroundings.  The solution came when Dr. Russel Burke of Hofstra University began studying the spike in turtle and frog eggs, and later liaised with the Buddhist practitioners.  He suggested they release diamondback terrapins and birds instead, who were better suited to the environment.  Today, plans are in the works for Buddhist temples to adopt a wildlife center to support the growth of the animals that they release into the wild.     

Diane Dittrick, Co-Director of the Environmental Science Laboratory at Barnard College, attended the event.  Shortly before its conclusion, she left her thoughts.  “Throughout time, what we learned and what we have come to learn is changing.  We have an obligation to continue learning about our culture, our religious practices, even secular practices, and to tweak our practices to accommodate our new learning.”