Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ. So goes the mahāvyāhṛti, the opening incantation recited before the Gāyatrī Mantra to pay homage to the interconnectedness of the earth (bhūr), the atmosphere (bhuvaḥ), and the heavens (svaḥ), a process reflected in the human body. Though we had been reciting this mantra for years in our yoga sessions in Santa Monica, California, and though I knew the literal translation of each of the words, I never really connected to the mahāvyāhṛti as intimately as I did one evening while drinking tea with my friend Karthik Dhandapani and Dr. Christopher Chapple at a roadside chai shop in Tamil Nadu.
Yogis on pilgrimage, we had been traveling between South India’s five element temples for about a week or so for field research. The five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space hold a special place in almost all of South Asia’s philosophical systems, serving as an ontological foundation, so to speak, for all that exists. Everything we experience, including our bodies and the world around us, is comprised of some proportion of these five elements, all of which remain in a constant state of cyclic, interactive, flux. India’s element temples pay homage to this never-ending process, and the mahāvyāhṛti succinctly encapsulates it in four short utterances.
Just a few days before our tea experience, we had stopped for our other favorite hot afternoon refreshment, coconut water, at a roadside vendor who somehow managed to carry twice the weight of his motorcycle in coconuts and was happy to sell us as many as we could drink. These vendors are quite easy to spot as one drives through South India, as they are often surrounded by a pile of cracked coconut shells, nature’s disposable cups out of which customers enjoy sipping refreshing juice. As we downed two or three coconuts each, I stared at the pile of rotting husks and thought to myself, “bhūr!” (earth!). I also noticed that these husks were decomposing near the base of several coconut trees whose trunks and fronds, beckoned by the sun’s fire, projected into the sky above us. “bhuvaḥ… svaḥ!,” (atmosphere… heavens!) I thought. For a blissful moment, the earth, the sky, and the heavens all seemed to be perfectly aligned. I quietly pondered these images as we made our way onward.
Later that evening we were in need of an energy boost, and what better than a psychoactive shot of chai? As the sun set behind us, I enjoyed some tea with my friends at a road side chai stand, another staple in South India, and as we were getting ready to head back to our car, I desperately searched for a trashcan to throw away my plastic chai cup. One of the gentlemen with whom we had been enjoying our tea quickly gestured for me to toss it on the road where, I noticed, hundreds of other plastic cups were confusedly spinning around in the evening wind, trying to find their proper place within our previously mentioned ontological configuration. I scratched my head and silently thought to myself, “Oṃ bhūr, bhuvaḥ… svaḥ?” And thus my love for the relationship between religion and ecology was born.
(Christopher Miller is a PhD student in UC Davis’s Graduate Group in the Study of Religion. Chris is interested in modern yoga as well as the interface of religion and ecology. Christopher was the past recipient of the UC Davis Provost’s Fellowship in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences as well as the Doshi Bridgebuilder Grant for his research and work with Tamil Nadu’s surfing communities.)