Abandoned gods: Discarding religious waste with care

Proper disposal of religious waste is crucial for the environment and helps raise awareness about the waste we generate.

The peepal (Ficus Religiosa) and banyan (Ficus Benghalensis) trees, both members of the Moraceae family, often have raised platforms around them for people to sit and rest under their cool shade. These trees are commonly found near temples and lakes. Believers sometimes place their religious waste under these trees. These include posters, paintings, idols of gods, pictures of ancestors, religious scriptures, clothes that have been used for prayer rituals, disused lamps etc.

I spoke to my friend Ashwini who has some knowledge of the scriptures. She chanted a shloka in response to my question.

mūlato brahmarūpāya madhyato viṣṇurūpiṇe .
agrataḥ śivarūpāya vṛkṣarājāya te namaḥ ..

The shloka basically offers salutations to the Vruksharaja (king of trees). Peepal and banyan trees hold great significance for Hindus. It is believed that the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) reside in the trees, with the roots, trunk and branches/leaves representing Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. People also worship it during other festivals such as Vata Purnima.

However, when the scriptures were written, it can be safely assumed that people had very little to abandon. Even if they did have items to abandon, they were likely biodegradable or made of clay.

Why is it a problem today?

Times have changed since then. Religious waste items now mostly contain non-biodegradable material. Moreover, these items are often packed in several layers of plastic before they are placed under the trees. These items carry a mix of elements as below:

  • Pictures (gods and ancestors): Wooden frames, polystyrene frames, paper, plastic, nails, cardboard, picture frame mats (matboard), glass, metal, clay etc.
  • Idols: Clay, metal, wood, stone, plaster of paris, glass, plastic, poly-resin etc.
  • Lamps: Clay, metals etc.
  • Scriptures: Paper, cardboard, stapler pins, thread etc.

A tender coconut vendor, whose stall is under the shade of these trees, has put the abandoned photos to good use. Fed up of people also using the place for urination and dumping waste at night, he has placed and tied pictures of gods all over the place to discourage these activities. He says that this problem has greatly reduced since putting the pictures to good use.

Religious photos and other items placed under a tree
Religious photos and items under a tree. Pic: Rakhi Anil

Read more: Gifts with lasting impact: Adopt a sustainable approach to celebrations

Constitutional duties

The Indian Constitution under Part IV A Article 51A outlines the following on Fundamental Duties of citizens. It shall be the duty of every citizen of India:

  • To protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures; to develop scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform; to safeguard public property and to abjure violence.

By dumping our non-biodegradable waste under trees, we are not only spoiling the environment and showing disaffection for other living beings but also demonstrating little regard for our commons, which belong equally to all citizens.

Our Constitution also considers it a duty of every citizen to develop a scientific temper. It wants us to develop an attitude of logical and rational thinking, which will help us make informed decisions and act accordingly. Dumping our religious waste under trees definitely does not adhere to tenets of scientific temper.

Firstly, citizens should not be dumping their personal items under trees. Secondly, such dumping not only causes public nuisance but also degradation of public spaces. Broken glass pieces and rusted nails can cause injuries as well.

Read more: Bengaluru’s daily waste production soared from 200 to 6,000 tonnes over two decades

Problems in collection and disposal

G Nagaraj, aka Plog Raja, who organises regular plogs (plogging is the act of jogging/walking and picking litter along the way) across the city, says: “We find a lot of religious waste discarded under peepal/banyan trees, especially around lakes and temples, which sometimes are in good condition. This is very disheartening, firstly because of littering and secondly, buying stuff and throwing it away while it is still in good condition. Even if they have to discard the items, it is best to send it for proper recycling. BBMP staff is also not very keen on picking up this waste as it is religious in nature, also they have their hands full with other work on the streets”.

Discarded religious items under a tree
Discarded religious items under a tree. Pic: Rakhi Anil

Be mindful of your waste generation

Temples in and around the area can put up boards discouraging people from dumping their religious waste under the trees, near lakes and temples.

Plog Raja also suggests that the best solution is not to generate the waste in the first place by reducing purchase of such items. “In case such things get damaged, ideally segregate and then hand over to the waste collection vehicles.” He adds that citizens may have sentimental issues with handing over pictures of gods to the waste collection vehicle even after segregation. In such cases, he suggests that the picture of the God (if it is paper) can be added to your home composting bin or buried in the soil.

Realising the need for disposal of items of religious significance, Rotary Club, RT Nagar, has joined hands with Sri Kamakshi Aarsha Samskriti and started a movement to mindfully dispose of items such as puja articles, photos and idols of gods.

Since January this year, they have organised multiple Udvasana Poojas, which make these items non-religious in nature and hence can be resold, dismantled, sorted and recycled or disposed of responsibly. So far, they have conducted four poojas, disposing of approximately 10 tonnes of such articles responsibly.

Way forward

Citizens need to ask themselves some basic questions about religious items/waste:

  1. Why do I need to discard these items?
  2. Do I really need new pictures of gods when I already have so many at home?
  3. Should I gift pictures/idols of gods to others? (as they may already have enough)
  4. Is there a better method to dispose of these, such as dismantle and recycle?
  5. If I leave the items under a tree, there may be high chances of animals urinating/defecating on these. Would I like my religious items to be treated thus?
  6. Can I preserve these as family heirlooms to pass down through generations?

The best way to manage waste is not creating it in the first place. Let us be mindful of our religious sentiments and try to develop a scientific temper towards the waste we generate.

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