Reweaving Shiva’s Robes

Arunachala : The Spiritual Center of the world

Arunachala : The Spiritual Center of the world

Lord Siva said: What cannot be acquired without great pains – the true import of Vedanta (Self-Realization) – can be attained by anyone who looks at (this hill). from where it is visible or even mentally thinks of it from afar.

— Arunachala Mahatmyam (Skanda Purana)

Arunachala, a mountain in the State of Tamil Nadu, is one of the most sacred sites in India. In the Hindu tradition, the story is told that their supreme deity, Shiva, manifested as a column of light stretching from infinity to infinity. He was so bright that the others gods complained that they were being dazzled beyond endurance.

In his compassion, Shiva took on a new form as this mountain, Arunachala, and more than 1000 years ago a vast temple was built at its base. Many believe that walking the 11 km around Arunachala is the fastest way to enlightenment and pilgrims by the millions have thronged there since time immemorial.

The Temple is the centre of life spiritually, culturally and physically.

In the long line of illustrious sages who have taken up abode in caves on Arunachala was Ramana Maharshi, one of the most celebrated Hindu mystics of the 20th century who died in 1950.

In 1987, the Rainforest Information Centre received a letter from one of the nuns in Ramana’s ashram telling us that when Ramana had arrived at the mountain as a young man, it had been clothed in a mighty jungle and even tigers could be met walking along its flanks. But now, nothing remained but thorns and goats, couldn’t we please do something to help restore the mountain?

The initial reaction of deep ecologist John Seed was to compose a letter, saying sorry, but our hands are full protecting our own rainforests. But he decided this he could not send. Instead he helped her set up an NGO The Annamalai Reforestation Society and raised funding for this work including two substantial grants from the Australian Government Aid agency. Two volunteers from Australia spent more than seven years helping to re-clothe the sacred mountain.

One of those volunteers was John Button who had already had several years experience of reforesting depleted soils in Australia.

The conditions on the hillsides were not good. When the monsoon rains hit, mudslides would pour down the slopes sweeping away everything in their path. To protect the young saplings, open stone walls were built around each and every sapling. A micro-climate was created which also helped to protect from the blistering hot winds. The work was labour intensive involving hundreds of volunteers.

After some years, the authorities from the main temple invited the tree planters to move their tree nursery inside the temple walls and allowed the use of their precious waters. Consequently, this initiated the regeneration of the temple gardens, growing flowers for their ceremonies as well as hundreds of thousands of native tree seedlings each year. Local authorities liked the beauty of the Temple Gardens and when requested, were given thousands of seedlings from the nursery for the regeneration of the gardens of other South Indian temples.

When John Seed returned to Arunachala in 2009, he was heartened to find that more than ten new NGO’s had sprung up around the base of the mountain. These inspired groups have constructed native tree nurseries and are engaged in tree planting, environmental education, fire prevention and fire fighting. He was able to walk in the cool shade of the trees the project had planted for over 20 years ago.

Planting trees changes the environment. Not only the natural environment but also the spiritual environment. The idea had been born and taken root that Shiva could be worshipped by reweaving his ecological robes.

Was Reweaving Shiva’s Robes a sacred task? This was a question John Seed asked himself. He decided the person to ask was Shiva. He climbed the mountain, sat and meditated and sought a sign. He received a sign in the form of a troupe of monkeys.

John Seed is the founder and director of the Rainforest Information Centre.

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