Bundled up in coats protecting them from the still-cold spring, the volunteers – young and old, from Queens and throughout the city – spread out across the beach at Jamaica Bay Sunday afternoon, picking up items scattered across the sand that, to those who left them there as religious offerings, represented beauty and prosperity and renewal. Once lovingly handled by worshipers on the South Queens coastline, colorful statues of such Hindu gods and goddesses as Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Ganesha line the sand in a less perfect form than they once were – their plastic shoulders chipped, their painted facades water-worn.
Spending a couple hours on the shore where many Hindus – especially those from nearby Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, and South Park – go to pray, the volunteers comb the beach for items that worshipers take to Jamaica Bay because it has become an adoptive Ganges River – the spot in India where the water is perceived as sacred and where people will take religious items to be blessed. But, because Jamaica Bay has become such a draw, the coastline has also become increasingly littered with religious items that were put in the water but wash back onto the shore, alarming area park workers and environmentalists who worry what the non-biodegradable goods doing to an ecosystem home to many species of wildlife.
“We like to put offerings in the water, but, when this practice began in the olden days, those offerings were biodegradable – flowers and fruits; it wasn’t the styrofoam and bottles of today,” said Sunita Viswanath, a co-founder of the all-volunteer group called Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.
That is why Viswanath and the group’s two other co-founders, Aminta Kilawan and Rohan Narine, launched, along with the U.S. National Park Service, a monthly cleanup program, which began Sunday, at Jamaica Bay. Known as “Project Prithvi,” the initiative continues the work that others in the Hindu community have done to pick up the religious items from the shoreline. Additionally, as part of Sadhana’s work, the co-founders said they are going to different Hindu temples to speak to religious leaders and worshipers about the importance of respecting the environment – a message they said has been well received because it is so core to the beliefs of Hinduism.
“When we show community members the damaged, broken idols that we have collected at the beach, that really gets a reaction,” Viswanath said. “They stop in their tracks and say, ‘Wow, we shouldn’t be doing that.’”