Much of our lives lack the rich culture of ritual that I think would help us repair the relationships we have with our own bodies and with the earth. The Rg Veda is one of the oldest collection of hymns from India. In them, I find a playful and introspective expression of desires and fears that, at first, did not seem to me to hold much wisdom for a modern contemplative. But lately, I have been noticing how the speakers communicate to or about the earth, and how their lives seem centered around trying to take a part in creation. Mostly, these hymns are stories and supplications for rain, cows, victory in battle, and a long life. But there is a deep understanding of the power and divinity in the universe that is the very earth-based wisdom that our humanity-in- crisis needs. If the Qur’an is God calling for humanity to be grateful, the Rg Veda is a model of a humanity that could be nothing else.
I love one incantation, for instance, found in the tenth mandala, that seems to be from a compounding physician, praying to the healing herbs that might make her client well again. I imagine her alone, in a greenhouse pharmacy, on a damp late afternoon, fingering stems and leaves before crushing them with her mortar and pestle to make a bespoke tincture that holds a cure. She knows the plants intimately, and works as if she is on holy ground:
The tawny plants were born in the ancient times, three ages before the gods; now I will meditate upon their hundred and seven forms. [. . .] You who have a hundred ways of working, make this man whole for me. [. . .] The plants have driven whatever wound was in the body. When I take these plants in my hand, yearning for the victory prize, the life of the disease vanishes as if before a hunter grasping at his life. [. . .] Do not harm the woman who digs you up, nor him for whom I dig you up; let all our two-footed and four-footed creatures be without sickness. [. . .] Plant, you are supreme.
(I made the physician a woman. Let’s just go with it.)
Would it not be incredible if our own physicians said some sort of spell before administering our medications to us? Or if we had some sort of incantation we said when we were in the kitchen, cooking for ourselves and others? Food is medicine. I wonder if any of you in your kitchens are the medicine women for yourself and friends or families. I like how the physician knows that there are a hundred ways her plant can heal. I like how she speaks simultaneously in the present and future past, and how she sees the plants as being more ancient than gods. How she quells any hint of presumptuousness and so also asks that it not harm. I’m also relieved the analogous animal escaped from the hunter, this time.
The idea that food is earth and earth is medicinal is reiterated in another hymn in the tenth mandala about water. It recites,
Waters, you are the ones who bring us the life force. Help us to find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy. [. . .] For our well-being let the goddesses be an aid to us, the waters be for us to drink. Let them cause well-being and health to flow over us. [. . .] the waters are the ones I beg for a cure. Soma has told me that within the waters are all cures and Agni who is salutary to all. Waters, yield your cure as an armor for my body, so that I may see the sun for a long time. Waters, carry far away all of this that has gone bad in me, [. . .] I have sought the waters today; we have joined with their sap.
This honoring of water acknowledges how it can nourish, how it can aid our health and even be a cure. I like the idea of water washing “what has gone bad in me,” not just the occasional poor food choice, but, because I have anxiety, the kind that crops up out of nowhere and feels like a thin, warm lava stream of panic running down the center of my chest, grasping my breath. Can I imagine water slowly cleansing me of that as well?
How well do we honor our waters from the earth? The Flint, Michigan water crisis comes to mind. The tainted drinking water, as we know, was a result of “cost-cutting measures.” For a community of people 41.2% below the poverty line, officials provided water from a source that was historically already understood to be of low quality, already concerned to be too affected by sewage spills and industrial waste, already known to be corrosive. But they did it anyway. When fecal bacteria were detected, residents were just told to boil their water and more chlorine was dumped in. Then more chlorine. And more. Finally, there was so much chlorine, it started to corrode engine parts and it was “no longer” admitted as safe. What did we do to so destroy this river, and what has humanity become that we would put each other in jeopardy like this?
Heading back to India, the Ganges river, supposing to have healing and sacred qualities, is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, having pollutants 3000 times more than the levels deemed “safe” by the World Health Organization.
Our well-being, our medicines come from the earth. I think the stark paucity of rituals, incantations, spells, and hymns to the earth in modern, everyday human life and at the government levels is connected to our unsafe practices with our waters and the earth. How can we bring them back? What are your rituals of well-being that honor the earth?
LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.