02/17/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2013

To The Ashes, To The Soil, I Gladly Return

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This "lapsed Catholic"/retired Hindu monk/bhakti-yogi/radical seminarian gladly received ashes on his forehead at the culmination of our annual Ash Wednesday retreat at Union Theological Seminary. Although I am going through the spiritual irony and cosmic comedy of coming to a Christian seminary and realizing that I no longer belong to Christianity, my resonance with receiving ashes, with hearing the stern yet liberating reminder that "from ashes I have come, and to ashes I will return", that I am, in one sense, just "dust in the wind", hits many of the same notes in my spiritual sense of identity as my experience in receiving communion in our Chapel services. On the unique ground that I stand on, I include to an extent the traditional Christian understandings of these rituals, understandings that I was raised in and accepted as a child without much actual knowledge as to the meaning behind them. Yet as my spiritual sense of self grows (hopefully into some sense of steady and sincere adulthood at some point) I am compelled to see different angles of vision not only from my Hindu faith but also from my concerns as an ecological citizen of this planet.

I appreciated the dirtiness of our Ash Wednesday retreat, and by dirtiness I mean the reminder that the soil, the ground, and the earth that is the very foundation of our bodily existence is something that we must not lose touch with. I was very glad to have that contact with the soil, in its symbolic marking upon my forehead, and as it crumbled and smudged on my head at the meditation station at our retreat where we could hold the dirt and ashes in our hands.

Having and holding that soil was a solid moment of prayer, aspiration, and reflection for my hopes that my development as an ecologically literate person will include the chance this summer to intern/volunteer with communities growing food in a just and sustainable way. Beyond that, to have the chance to answer my calling to be part of these communities after I leave Union, to participate in their natural revolution, their paradigm shift which will reconnect me and perhaps many of us, if we so choose, to the roots and soil, to the natural ecology, which is our primary mode of sustenance and inspiration, a mode we have grievously set aside in the last few centuries of our industrial/technological experiment in our civilization.

This reconnection to our roots is not just concerned with the sources of the elements that give us our ability to survive, thrive, and enjoy our bodily life, but it is a deeply spiritual concept. In the roots and in the soil is the spirit we are looking for, the relationship to the Divine that tends to be largely obscured in the way we live today. As living beings, we are yearning to reconnect to the soil and to these roots, even if we are not so conscious of this yearning. I am grateful that in my practice as a Hindu, in the tradition of bhakti-yoga, has given me a sense of this yearning in my own self. The term yoga itself means to reconnect to the Divine within and without us, and more and more I see that our ecological concern must become a yoga of ecology. If we are truly to reconnect, as much as we possibly can to the natural support that surrounds us, we must see our ecology, our household, in a spiritual context with a spiritual foundation.

The Hindu tradition is rich with connections to the soil that provide us with reminders and re-connections to the presence of the Divine. There is a congruous similarity to the Christian ceremony of ashes in the Hindu custom of applying tilaka to one's body. Many of us are familiar with the different kinds of markings we see on Hindu practitioners, these different markings acting as ways for members of the dynamic diaspora of the Hindu spiritual culture to mark their different allegiances and devotions to different aspects and divine personalities in the tradition. In the bhakti-yoga tradition, when we are to enter a temple or any other spiritually important place, we mark our bodies with the symbols of the Vaisnava sect (worshipers of Vishnu) on 12 different places on our bodies.

Our friends at ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Mauritius tell us:

"Tilak is worn for both sanctification and protection. When one wears tilak, he is reminded that his body is a temple and should be respected as such. Both body and mind should be kept clean. It also reminds others who see the person wearing tilak of Krishna. There are many different understandings of what the shape of the tilak represents for Vaishnavas, but generally ISKCON devotees accept that the U-shaped mark represents the heel of Lord Krishna, and the oval part represents a Tulasi leaf (sacred basil).

Tilak is made of clay from any sacred place, usually the banks of a sacred river. Gaudiya Vaishnavas usually use cream-coloured clay from a sacred lake near Dwarka, India, called gopi-chandan."

A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who transplanted the bhakti-yoga tradition to the Western world in his missionary work in the 1960s, encouraged some of his young students to create sustainable communities based on the ideals of traditional Hindu village communities. Swami's celebrated saying, which for him was an inspiration from a similar saying from Mahatma Gandhi, was "Simple Living and High Thinking." The understanding behind this statement was that a lifestyle based on a simple and sustainable connection with the soil, with the ground, with the source of our basic necessities, would free our minds from the clap-trap, whiz-bang, and bleep-bloop of modern life which gets largely in the way of our efforts at self-realization, at finding a happiness that is based in the eternal reality of our spirit and our loving relationship with God.

Vandana Shiva, in her essay "Homeless in the Global Village" from her excellent collection of essays titled Ecofeminism, done in conjunction with Maria Mies, echoes this clarity of the very spirituality of the soil. She writes:

"For communities who derive their sustenance from the soil it is not merely a physical property situated in Cartesian space, for them, the soil is the source of all meaning. As an Australian aborigine said, 'My land is my backbone. My land is my foundation.' Soil and society, the earth and its people are intimately interconnected. In tribal and peasant societies, cultural and religious identity derive from the soil, which is perceived not as a mere 'factor of production' but as the very soul of society. Soil has embodied the ecological and spiritual home for most cultures. It is the womb not only for the reproduction of biological life but also of cultural and spiritual life; it epitomizes all the sources of sustenance and is 'home' in the deepest sense."

The sacred clay or ashes on my forehead, and the sacred soil I pray to have encrusted in my fingernails after a long, honest day's work in the nurture of the fields, air, and sun are indeed intimately connected. As the shape of our civilization changes, as we try to adjust to the changes we have brought upon the climate, as we accept the firm reminders from Mother Earth that our industrial/technical dream has run away from itself, we are going to be drawn back to the dirt that is our life, a dirt we have forgotten, that we have tried to scrub away. In a way, to go forward, somehow into a new paradigm of civilization, we will look back towards the natural and indigenous traditions, the ideas, both material and spiritual, which have shaped us, and we will find what we need to survive and endure.

The rituals of holy days like Ash Wednesday can remind us that back to the ashes, back to the soil, we gladly return.