Faith & Ecology: A Primer for Practitioners and Pundits

An Invitation to the Sacred
by Dave Grace -- July 13th, 2015

I am visiting India to learn of its sacred groves and to follow their contours as boundary markers in various contexts which are transforming age-old institutions with the familiar tools of fossil fuel, roads, electricity, and industrial production.

My first destination, Mangar village, is home to the sacred grove called Mangar Bani. This village was only connected to electricity sources about a decade ago, yet is located within ~10 km to a huge metropolis.

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Mangar village is of the Aravali Hills, the oldest mountain range in the world, in Haryana, National Capital Region, India. The National Capital Region (NCR) includes three cities which grip the Aravalis: Delhi is perched right atop the Aravalis and is situated to Mangar’s north. Gurgaon and Faridabad fold around these hills like wings from the Northwest and Northeast respectively.

Delhi is the capital of the soon to be most populous country globally and is the second largest city in its own right at around 11 million. Delhi has saturated its space and its expansion is seen in the rapid development zones of Gurgaon and Faridabad. Here five star hotels and slums are signposts of city building while sleeping homeless or roadside beggars are the entrials of urban poverty.

Development, in the sense of industrialization, has its fair primers here: a host of deadly diseases, early mortality, and inequtiy in caste. Today’s Prime Minister, Norendra Modi, boasts of a rags to riches story and trumpets an industrial paradigm to lift the poor from poverty, and he is quite popular.

Let’s return to the task at hand.

I have questions for this place where urbanization and the sacred grove meet so glaringly. What does the sacred grove communicate at such a time as this in a place where Gods dwell and a community gathers in commitment to worship and protection?

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It is a simple story that urban expansion causes land-use changes involving deforestation in forest ecosystems. Also, urbanization’s detrimental effects on sacred groves are widely evident. However, what can we learn about the city from this place? In the midst of contact, contest, and change, perhaps here we can see the city and sacred grove anew.

We know the urban ecosystem is of its own kind. The processing of inputs and outputs in such a system have a different character than other ecosystems. We see increases in monetary flows and cultural exchange. There seems to be a general increase in encounters with the other per unit area of space: more places of work, worship, education, and living. While the internet has brought aspects of urbanity into the hands of rural people through mobile devices, electricity is a relative novelty and connectivity is not a given in rural areas. Space is important here still. The urban is still faced as an outside actor pushing in.

In Mangar village encounters with the urban involve benign effects such as changes of clothes, happy effects such as improvement of transportation, or more regrettable consequences such as increases in disease or inequality.

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It is urgent to find resolution between spaces of limitless construction and absolute limitation so that disruption and harm is not the prevailing story over peace and well being. The sacred in this sacred grove, a place of prohibited extraction punishable by bodily or psychological harm, makes a claim against destructive urban encroachment. It is here where a line has been drawn.

Just recently, 6/9/15, the chief minister of Haryana announced Mangar Bani to be a no construction zone and enacted a 500m buffer zone around its perimeter, providing formal protection onto this longstanding informal protected area.

This is a big step toward the conservation of this sacred grove in the face of heavy development pressure. Yet, urbanization is multivalent and pervasive. Poor regulatory enforcement still calls for strong local protection.

Such protection is key for on the ground monitoring as well as long-range conservation. It is important to ask then if urban expansion and encroachment corrode the character and strength of local institutions. In this case, does the sacred grove lose religio-cultural capacity as a community conserved area and take a turn toward the symbolic from what seems to be an at least one-thousand year praxis of protection? What is the effect of change in livelihoods that is driven by proximity to urban centers?

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Given that the city seems to restructure matter with clockwork efficiency and cement strength, it seems likely that Mangar Village will become even more well acquainted with the city. From my experience in Mangar Village, I can see that an active discussion is now urgent between the city and the village. This discussion has been urgent since the rise of the city. Now, once again, a growing urban populace must take note of its activities, and highly industrialized nations must account for their urban context.

To do so is an invitation to encounter the sacred.

7 Comments

  1. Tawnee
    Jul 15, 2015

    I’ve been appreciating your posts from India, Dave… thanks for sharing! Did you get a feel when you were in Mangar if people from the city ventured out to Mangar Bani — as a sort of pilgrimage, almost? Or does the average urban dweller remain mostly removed from what the more rural communities have deemed sacred?

    In other news, if I was ever reincarnated as a cow, I would hands down want it to be in India.

    • Dave Grace
      Dave Grace
      Jul 15, 2015

      Hi Tawnee, thanks a lot for your kind comment.

      Yes, people do come from the city, and from what I can tell it is becoming a more popular place of worship for people outside the village– both from the city and surrounding villages/towns. People also come from the city more as tourist types, as well. I’m assuming part of this increase in outside visitation, especially on the tourist side, is because the Bani has received media attention for its conservation (which is how I was referred to it). I can’t really comment on the pilgrimage aspect, but that seems accurate. As far as new devotees from the wider area, I heard this is partly because of some villagers lifting the profile of the Bani by holding large celebrations in association with Hindu holidays and inviting celebrities/politicians. I heard there are many celebrations that take place in Mangar Bani– the biggest of which being Krishna’s Birthday. I have heard that the amount of food prepared is huge… and all is donated of course. That being said, it is my impression that most or many people in Delhi/Gurgaon/Faridabad have never heard of Mangar Village or Mangar Bani. Many people in the city are also unfamiliar with sacred groves. I’ve seen a survey on general awareness of sacred groves… but I forgot the details.

      In a related comment to reincarnation, a high school boy made an impressionable comment to me while guiding me to someone’s house when I requested the help of his group. As we were walking, he said something like we don’t know how much bad or good karma we accumulate, so it is good to do good works whenever the opportunity arises to wipe the slate clean (my summation). He was joking some but sincere as well.

      In other news, I hope you are not reincarnated as a cow into a beef-eating village !!! Even if this happens, your life will probably be more sociable than the US cows.

      P.S. please post some preparatory material for your future planning!

  2. Tawnee
    Jul 15, 2015

    Thanks for your awesome response, Dave! I wondered if tourism was having any impact on the site as well — both positive and negative — so that helped shed some light. Smart villagers, raising the Bani’s profile with people in power (sometimes with the allure of free food :).

    Oh man, I didn’t know there were beef-eating pockets in India. I guess there’s really no good place to be born a cow except a vegan-run animal sanctuary!

    Haha, I will when I actually start accumulating preparatory material. Right now I’m fully focused on recovery. The rest will unfold in good time (and hopefully with good karma)!

  3. Tawnee
    Jul 15, 2015

    In different but related news, apparently July 14 was #CowAppreciationDay (hosted by Chick-Fil-A). Thank you Facebook newsfeed for that scintillatingly educational tidbit.

    • Dave Grace
      Jul 18, 2015

      Good to hear that you are in recovery mode. I will look forward to those further updates!

      Chik-Fil-A is good for Tongue and Chik humor…. Also, just googled beef tongue, and found the images to be interesting.

      • Tawnee
        Jul 20, 2015

        Ahaha, punny. And that sounds risky. I shudder to even look!

  4. Owen
    Jul 21, 2015

    Beautiful project my friend! Glad to hear that all is well and a perspective of Sacred Grove importance is spoken loud for all to hear. Your work with faith/ecology has taken you far, and the sky is the limit in all your work!

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